Saturday, May 23, 2020

Interval

"Days are where we live."  "For the days are long -- /From the first milk van/To the last shout in the night,/An eternity."  In the end, our life is a tangled skein of days.  From this welter, what can we retrieve, what remains with us?  Not days, but a handful of isolated, charmed moments.

The moments return, unaccountably, unbidden, in brilliant clarity. The days and years drop away.  Ah, yes.  So that was my life.  You may have known this at the time.  If so, you are fortunate.  Or you may come to know it only as a heart-catching pang of recognition -- distant, long-lost, but better late than never.

                                The Ash Grove

Half of the grove stood dead, and those that yet lived made
Little more than the dead ones made of shade.
If they led to a house, long before they had seen its fall:
But they welcomed me; I was glad without cause and delayed.

Scarce a hundred paces under the trees was the interval --
Paces each sweeter than sweetest miles -- but nothing at all,
Not even the spirits of memory and fear with restless wing,
Could climb down in to molest me over the wall

That I passed through at either end without noticing.
And now an ash grove far from those hills can bring
The same tranquillity in which I wander a ghost
With a ghostly gladness, as if I heard a girl sing

The song of the Ash Grove soft as love uncrossed,
And then in a crowd or in distance it were lost,
But the moment unveiled something unwilling to die
And I had what most I desired, without search or desert or cost.

Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems (edited by Edna Longley) (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

Duncan Grant (1885-1978), "Girl at the Piano" (1940)


"The way leads on . . . The road leads on."  "Does the road wind up-hill all the way?/Yes, to the very end."  Life is a journey.  We've heard that often.  Yet it is a few brief intervals of lucent stillness that ultimately stay with us.  "Scarce a hundred paces under the trees was the interval."  Evanescent.  But enough.  An aspect of eternity.

                            On the Road

Our roof was grapes and the broad hands of the vine
as we two drank in the vine-chinky shade
of harvest France;
and wherever the white road led we could not care,
it had brought us there
to the arbour built on a valley side where time,
if time any more existed, was that river
of so profound a current, it at once
both flowed and stayed.

We two.  And nothing in the whole world was lacking.
It is later one realizes.  I forget
the exact year or what we said.  But the place
for a lifetime glows with noon.  There are the rustic
table and the benches set; beyond the river
forests as soft as fallen clouds, and in
our wine and eyes I remember other noons.
It is a lot to say, nothing was lacking;
river, sun and leaves, and I am making
words to say 'grapes' and 'her skin.'

Bernard Spencer, With Luck Lasting (Hodder and Stoughton 1963).

Duncan Grant, "The Doorway" (1929)

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Mystery

As I have mentioned here before, I often give myself this piece of advice as I begin my daily walk:  Stop thinking.  Pay attention.  I fail miserably each time, of course.  But the World always finds new and beautiful ways to gently shake us by the shoulders and whisper: "Wake up, pilgrim."  It is coy and persistent.  It demands nothing of us, but it is not going away.

Thus, on a recent afternoon, as I strolled in a daydream, I suddenly awoke to the sound of birdsong from all quarters of the earth and sky. An unrehearsed chorus of anonymous and solitary singers in a green and blue World, each of them singular and irreplaceable.

The notes they sang were "synonyms for joy," certainly.  But, coming from everywhere, in all their variations, unceasing yet uninsistent, the notes were something else as well.  Later that evening, this came to mind:  "One feels the life of that which gives life as it is."

                           The Wood

I walked a nut-wood's gloom.  And overhead
A pigeon's wing beat on the hidden boughs,
And shrews upon shy tunnelling woke thin
Late winter leaves with trickling sound.  Across
My narrow path I saw the carrier ants
Burdened with little pieces of bright straw.
These things I heard and saw, with senses fine
For all the little traffic of the wood,
While everywhere, above me, underfoot,
And haunting every avenue of leaves,
Was mystery, unresting, taciturn.
           .         .         .         .         .
And haunting the lucidities of life
That are my daily beauty, moves a theme,
Beating along my undiscovered mind.

John Drinkwater, Loyalties (Sidgwick & Jackson 1919).  The ellipses appear in the original.

Alfred Thornton (1863-1939)
"Hill Farm, Painswick, Gloucestershire"

"One feels the life of that which gives life as it is."  After I returned home from my walk, I noticed birds singing in the back garden.  They sang until the last pale light in the sky faded away.

     All the long day --
Yet not long enough for the skylark,
     Singing, singing.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 195.

Alfred Thornton, "The Upper Severn"

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Beneficence

A path I often follow takes me past a row of six willows.  They stand at the edge of a wide meadow which slopes down to the bluffs above Puget Sound.  I suspect the trees were planted sometime in the previous century, when what is now a city park was an army post.  I have wondered whether they were placed there by someone far away from home who longed for the willows of their past.  I have thought about the thousands of soldiers who transited through the post during World War II on their way to the Pacific.  A willow is a redolent thing.

Over the last month, their leaves have gone from yellow-green to green-yellow to full green.  As I walked beside them on a windy day earlier this week, their boughs tossed and swayed with the deep sound of summer.  As I came to the final willow in the row, a single green leaf floated down in front of me.

A random occurrence.  Just one of those things.

               Shinto

When sorrow lays us low
for a second we are saved
by humble windfalls
of mindfulness or memory:
the taste of a fruit, the taste of water,
that face given back to us by a dream,
the first jasmine of November,
the endless yearning of the compass,
a book we thought was lost,
the throb of a hexameter,
the slight key that opens a house to us,
the smell of a library, or of sandalwood,
the former name of a street,
the colors of a map,
an unforeseen etymology,
the smoothness of a filed fingernail,
the date we were looking for,
the twelve dark bell-strokes, tolling as we count,
a sudden physical pain.

Eight million Shinto deities
travel secretly throughout the earth.
Those modest gods touch us --
touch us and move on.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Hoyt Rogers), in Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999).

Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935), "Flower Meadow in the North" (1905)

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Here

What most human beings want is a little peace and quiet, don't you think?  Although we may be caught up in unwonted Events at the present time, the cultivation of "A Quiet Normal Life" goes on. Marcus Aurelius is correct: "The things themselves reach not to the soul, but stand without, still and motionless.  All your perturbation comes from inward opinions about them."  Meditations, Book IV, Section 3 (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, 1742). This is a roundabout way of telling you, dear readers, that it is once again time (begging your forbearance) to revisit my "April poem" (companion to my May, August, and November poems):

                    Wet Evening in April

The birds sang in the wet trees
And as I listened to them it was a hundred years from now
And I was dead and someone else was listening to them.
But I was glad I had recorded for him the melancholy.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (edited by Antoinette Quinn) (Penguin 2004).

Most Aprils when I return to "Wet Evening in April" the weather in this part of the world is in harmony with the setting and the mood of the poem.  Thus, on more than one occasion I have read the poem on a rainy evening as birds converse in the trees before they settle down for the night.  But this April has been gratuitously brilliant, and on my walk this afternoon I passed through a "bee-loud glade," and the trees in all directions whispered: "Begin afresh, afresh, afresh."  I'm afraid I cannot muster any melancholy.  Yet the poem is as beautiful as ever.  We never know who we will be, or where we will find ourselves, when we revisit a poem, do we?

Robert Fowler (1853-1926), "Knaresborough"

The Events come and go, and take us or leave us.  But Patrick Kavanagh and Marcus Aurelius intimate that there is more to each of us than meets the eye.  The Events are not us.  Philippe Jaccottet brings this to our attention as well: "The imperceptible movement of an invisible soul and the enormous sun."  Philippe Jaccottet, notebook entry (October, 1967), in Seedtime: Notebooks, 1954-79 (translated by Tess Lewis) (Seagull Books 2013), page 159.  And this:

"Attachment to the self renders life more opaque.  One moment of complete forgetting and all the screens, one behind the other, become transparent so that you can perceive clarity to its very depths, as far as the eye can see; and at the same time everything becomes weightless.  Thus does the soul truly become a bird."

Philippe Jaccottet, notebook entry (May, 1954), Ibid, page 1.

In each moment, the Events are absent, meaningless.  There is more afoot in the World.

     The spring rain:
Between the trees is seen
     A path to the sea.

Otsuji (1881-1920) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 104.

William Mouncey (1852-1901), "Kirkcudbright Harbour"

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Events

Odd, the feeling of appearing to be at the whim of Events.  Surprising, disconcerting, interesting, and by turns a great deal else.  One's thoughts range from "Am I going to perish in the plague?" to "What if I run out of toilet paper?"  Not to minimize the situation in which we find ourselves, but those two queries (or ones of a similar nature and import) could have been posed a year ago -- or at any time between the present moment and the moment when each of us emerged out of the darkness into the bright World.

Well, then, here we are.  The Events have arrived.  Or perhaps they have been with us all along.  What shall we do?  Think back.  Hasn't that always been the pertinent question?

                              History

Sometimes, when walls and occupation seem
A prison merely, a dark barrier
Between me everywhere
And life, or the larger province of the mind,
As dreams confined,
As the trouble of a dream,
I seek to make again a life long gone,
To be
My mind's approach and consolation,
To give it form's lucidity,
Resilient form, as porcelain pieces thrown
In buried China by a wrist unknown,
Or mirrored brigs upon Fowey sea.

Then to my memory comes nothing great
Of purpose, or debate,
Or perfect end,
Pomp, nor love's rapture, nor heroic hours to spend --
But most, and strangely, for long and so much have I seen,
Comes back an afternoon
Of a June
Sunday at Elsfield, that is up on a green
Hill, and there,
Through a little farm parlour door,
A floor
Of red tiles and blue,
And the air
Sweet with the hot June sun cascading through
The vine-leaves under the glass, and a scarlet fume
Of geranium flower, and soft and yellow bloom
Of musk, and stains of scarlet and yellow glass.

Such are the things remain
Quietly, and for ever, in the brain,
And the things that they choose for history-making pass.

John Drinkwater, Loyalties (Sidgwick & Jackson 1919).

Harold Jones (1904-1992), "The Black Door"

In this part of the world, we are walking in the warm sunlight amidst snow showers of pink and white petals -- cherry, plum, and pear. What else can one do?

     Simply trust:
Do not also the petals flutter down,
     Just like that?

Issa (1763-1827) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 363.

Adrian Paul Allinson (1890-1959), "The Cornish April"

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Another April

"But it is a sort of April weather life that we lead in this world.  A little sunshine is generally the prelude to a storm."  Thus wrote William Cowper in a letter dated January 3, 1787.  And now, here we are: another April.  More of the same, don't you think?

Yesterday was the sort of April day described by Cowper.  In the evening, I drove to a neighborhood sushi restaurant to pick up dinner.  (Although restaurants are closed for dining, take out is still permitted, and it makes sense to support family-owned businesses.) Just then the sun was out, but it would soon set beyond Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, both at my back.  The street I took runs straight down a long steep hill, levels out for a few blocks, then runs straight up another steep hill to the east.  From the top of the hill, I could see the cherry trees -- in peak white bloom -- lining both sides of the street that climbs the opposite slope.  The slope, and the houses on it, were covered in sunlight.  A rainbow suddenly appeared above the hill on the other side of the valley.  Descending, I passed blooming cherry trees, and, here and there, tall magnolia trees full of large pink-white blossoms.

Another April.  More of the same.  A paradise.

            A Short Ode

All things then stood before us
        as they were,
Not in comparison,
But each most rare;
The 'tree, of many, one,'
The lock of hair,
The weir in the morning sun,
The hill in the darkening air,
Each in its soleness, then and there,
Created one; that one, creation's care.

Edmund Blunden, A Hong Kong House: Poems 1951-1961 (Collins 1962).

The quotation in line 5 comes from William Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood": "But there's a tree, of many, one,/A single field which I have look'd upon,/Both of them speak of something that is gone."  I presume this reference accounts for Blunden's title (contrasting his ode of ten lines with Wordsworth's of over 200 lines).

Samuel Llewellyn (1858-1941), "Sailing at Blakeney" (c. 1938)

As is my usual practice, I have been doing my best to avoid "news."  I hear about things such as "lockdowns" by word-of-mouth.  But snippets inevitably seep through the interstices, despite my vigilance. For instance, I have recently been seeing and hearing the word "unprecedented" quite often.  "Unprecedented."  Is that so?

As is also my usual practice, I have been reading a poem soon after waking up each morning.  Yesterday morning I read this, a haiku of which I have long been fond:

     A night of stars;
The cherry blossoms are falling
     On the water of the rice seedlings.

Buson (1716-1783) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 170.

I fell asleep last night thinking about stars in a dark sky and cherry blossom petals floating in dark water among rice seedlings.  Today I went out for a walk.  In puddles left by yesterday's rain, I saw blue sky, white clouds, and infinitely intricate tree branches, floating at my feet.  Another April.  Unprecedented.

Christopher Sanders (1905-1991)
"Sunlight Through a Willow Tree at Kew" (c. 1958)

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Light

"Tightly-folded bud."  This is the first line of Philip Larkin's "Born Yesterday," which was written in January of 1954 "for Sally Amis" (Kingsley Amis' daughter) to celebrate her birth.  I thought of the line each afternoon this past week as I walked past the low-hanging branches of trees that are now in bud.  As I write this, two lines by Larkin from "The Trees" (that lovely poem of spring) come to mind: "The trees are coming into leaf/Like something almost being said." Everything changes.  Every thing changes.  Nothing changes.

               Gift

Some ask the world
        and are diminished
in the receiving
        of it.  You gave me

only this small pool
        that the more I drink
from, the more overflows
        me with sourceless light.

R. S. Thomas, Experimenting with an Amen (Macmillan 1986).

Bertram Priestman (1868-1951)
"The Sun-Veiled Hills of Wharfedale" (1917)

Thousands of buds at the tips of twigs, yet each in its own singularity: delicate and full of intent.  "Tightly-folded bud."  A flower of leaf. Mostly shades of green, though often streaked, speckled, or swirled with browns or yellows or reds.  Suspended beneath the sky, precarious.  But lucent, potent with life.  And, from all around, the singing of robins.

               The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it.  But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it.  I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it.  Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past.  It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

R. S. Thomas, Laboratories of the Spirit (Macmillan 1975).

Francis Armstrong (1849-1920), "Cader Idris, Snowdonia" (1918)

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

A Thought In Passing

The neighborhood dogs are quite pleased with the current state of affairs.  People are working at home.  The schools are closed.  The weather has been lovely.  What better thing for a family to do than take a walk, or frolic in the park?  I have been doing so nearly every afternoon for many years, and I always return home in a state of contentment.

Look at the dogs walking with their families, or chasing a ball in the park:  they seem a bit perplexed by this sudden turn of events; but, dwellers in the moment that they are, they couldn't be happier -- more time with the people they love!  We humans are alone with our thoughts, as ever.  Well, thinking about the plague isn't going to change anything.  Why not go for a walk?  You never know what you may come across as you fare through the World.

               The Mayo Tao

I have abandoned the dream kitchens for a low fire
     and a prescriptive
          literature of the spirit.
A storm snores on the desolate sea.

The nearest shop is four miles away.
     When I walk there
          through the shambles of the morning
for tea and firelighters,
     the mountain paces me
          in a snow-lit silence.

My days are spent in conversation
     with stags and blackbirds;
          at night fox and badger
               gather at my door.

I have stood for hours watching
     a salmon doze
          in the tea-gold dark,
for weeks watching a spider weave
     in a pale light, for months
listening to the sob-story
     of a stone on the road --
          the best, most monotonous
sob-story I have ever heard.

I am an expert on frost crystals
     and the silence of crickets,
a confidant of the stinking shore,
     the stars in the mud.

(There is an immanence in these things
     which drives me, despite
          my scepticism, almost
     to the point of speech --
          like sunlight cleaving
     the lake mist at morning
or when tepid water runs cold at last from the tap.)

I have been working for years
     on a four-line poem
          about the life of a leaf.
I think it may come out right this winter.

Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford University Press 1979).

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "Springtime in Eskdale" (1935)

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Ephemeral

As ever, spring arrives in fits and starts.  On a sunny day, there seems to be no stopping it:  the deep green lawns and fields are bordered with purple, yellow, white, and red.  The next day, a cold wind settles in.  Up in the grey sky, the branches -- budding, but still empty of leaves -- click and clatter, and the thick limbs groan.  A lone goose passes overhead, calling.  Where has its flock gone?  Out on a wide meadow, a group of crows stand in a circle, quarreling.

Yet, as I noted in my previous post, a threshold has been crossed:  the cherry trees have begun to blossom.  You may recall, dear readers, that I am wont to visit A. E. Housman at cherry blossom time.  To wit:  "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now/Is hung with bloom along the bough . . ."  But I have been reading Horace's odes recently, so this year a translation by Housman of one of the odes will take the place of my old standby.

                        Diffugere Nives

The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
     And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
     And altered is the fashion of the earth.

The Nymphs and Graces three put off their fear
     And unapparelled in the woodland play.
The swift hour and the brief prime of the year
     Say to the soul, Thou wast not born for aye.

Thaw follows frost; hard on the heel of spring
     Treads summer sure to die, for hard on hers
Comes autumn, with his apples scattering;
     Then back to wintertide, when nothing stirs.

But oh, whate'er the sky-led seasons mar,
     Moon upon moon rebuilds it with her beams:
Come we where Tullus and where Ancus are,
     And good Aeneas, we are dust and dreams.

Torquatus, if the gods in heaven shall add
     The morrow to the day, what tongue has told?
Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had
     The fingers of no heir will ever hold.

When thou descendest once the shades among,
     The stern assize and equal judgment o'er,
Not thy long lineage nor thy golden tongue,
     No, nor thy righteousness, shall friend thee more.

Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain,
     Diana steads him nothing, he must stay;
And Theseus leaves Pirithoüs in the chain
     The love of comrades cannot take away.

A. E. Housman, in Archie Burnett (editor), The Poems of A. E. Housman (Oxford University Press 1997).  This is the seventh ode of Book IV of the Odes.  "Diffugere nives" are the opening words of Horace's Latin text, and may be translated as "the snow disperses" or "the snow melts."

One can understand why this poem appealed to Housman.  There is a lovely anecdote about Housman and the poem.  The anecdote has appeared here before, but it is worth revisiting.

"During my time at Cambridge, I attended [Housman's] lectures for two years.  At five minutes past 11 he used to walk to the desk, open his manuscript, and begin to read.  At the end of the hour he folded his papers and left the room.  He never looked either at us or at the row of dons in the front.  One morning in May, 1914, when the trees in Cambridge were covered with blossom, he reached in his lecture Ode 7 in Horace's Fourth Book, 'Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis.'  This ode he dissected with the usual display of brilliance, wit, and sarcasm.

"Then for the first time in two years he looked up at us, and in quite a different voice said:  'I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry.'  Our previous experience of Professor Housman would have made us sure that he would regard such a proceeding as beneath contempt.  He read the ode aloud with deep emotion, first in Latin and then in an English translation of his own.  'That,' he said hurriedly, almost like a man betraying a secret, 'I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature,' and walked quickly out of the room.

"A scholar of Trinity (since killed in the War), who walked with me to our next lecture, expressed in undergraduate style our feeling that we had seen something not really meant for us.  'I felt quite uncomfortable,' he said.  'I was afraid the old fellow was going to cry.'"

Mrs. T. W. Pym, Letter to The Times (May 5, 1936), in Richard Gaskin, Horace and Housman (Palgrave Macmillan 2013), page 12.

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "From My Studio" (1959)

The snow has vanished and the cherry blossoms (soon to flutter down in a drift of petals, alas!) have arrived.  But this is never the end of "change and chancefulness" (Thomas Hardy, "The Temporary the All"), is it?  How could it be otherwise?  Why would we expect it to be otherwise?  (With the exception, in my case, of wishing to spend Eternity lying in the grass on a never-ending late summer or early autumn afternoon, looking up into the green-leaved, sun-and-shadow-mottled, wind-swaying boughs of a tree.)

Marcus Aurelius has wise words for us:  "How ridiculous, and like a stranger is he, who is surprised at any thing which happens in life!" (Marcus Aurelius (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor), Meditations, Book XII, Section 13.)  Spring is here.  But not for long.  Anything is possible.

                                Kinsale

The kind of rain we knew is a thing of the past --
deep-delving, dark, deliberate you would say,
browsing on spire and bogland; but today
our sky-blue slates are steaming in the sun,
our yachts tinkling and dancing in the bay
like racehorses.  We contemplate at last
shining windows, a future forbidden to no one.

Derek Mahon, Collected Poems (The Gallery Press 1999).

Derwent Lees (1885-1931), "Aldbourne" (1915)

Recently, the robins have changed their tune.  The flat, matter-of-fact chirping of the short winter days has been replaced by song.  From all directions, from out of the fields and the bushes and the trees, come the voices of the unseen singers.  The music continues into the night.

  Flowers and Moonlight on the Spring River

The evening river is level and motionless --
The spring colours just open to their full.
Suddenly a wave carries the moon away
And the tidal water comes with its freight of stars.

Yang-ti (Seventh Century A.D.) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918), page 92.

Trevor Makinson, "Maryhill Goods Yard"

Friday, February 28, 2020

In An Election Year

In this great and wonderful country of mine, land that I love, we are in the midst of an election year.  This past week the cherry trees (and the plum trees and the pear trees) have begun to blossom.  What is one to do?

             The Valley Wind

Living in retirement beyond the World,
Silently enjoying isolation,
I pull the rope of my door tighter
And bind firmly this cracked jar.
My spirit is tuned to the Spring-season;
At the fall of the year there is autumn in my heart.
Thus imitating cosmic changes
My cottage becomes a Universe.

Lu Yün (Fourth Century A.D.) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, Chinese Poems (George Allen and Unwin 1946), page 89.

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "A City Garden" (1940)