"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Lost & Found

"I've got this little thing I've learned to do just lately . . . When it's so hard I think I shan't go on. I try to make it worse. I make myself think about Berkeley [a friend who died]. Our camp on the river. How good it was. When I'm certain I won't stand it, I go a moment more. Then I know I can bear anything."
(ellipses in original)
Karen Blixen, from the screenplay Out of Africa


One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop (1911 – 1979)
Poet Laureate of the United States, 1949 to 1950
Pulitzer Prize Winner, 1956

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Last Spring, my friend Jan (www.jandonley.com) sent me this poem, sure that I would love it. What a fine poem! It was new to me, I did love it, and how timely! Because what Jan didn't know was that at my house around that time we were all going a little crazy looking for Gerry's watch (misplaced somewhere within the house and still unfound) and three tiny watch / calculator batteries that I had bought and promptly misplaced upon returning home from the store! I had just celebrated the one - week anniversary of the missing batteries by going out and purchasing a new batch, begrudging the wasted time and effort of the first trip, the fruitless search, the second trip. Even so, I was still obsessively determined to waste even more time by continuing my manic search for the originals.

Isn't that always the hard part? All that time down the drain and just not knowing when to stop? Reading Bishop's poem, I have to admire the way that she recommends letting go even of that "hour badly spent." Plus it helped me at the time to consider that the batteries themselves were "filled with the intent / to be lost." What chance did I stand against them?

Reading Bishop's poem reminded me of another that I have known since my earliest teaching days: "No Loser, No Weeper," by Maya Angelou. I used to carry around a low-tech cassette player so that my students could listen to a scratchy recording I had of Angelou reading this poem. The two poems follow a similar pattern, starting with a concrete list of trinkets lost and found, ending with love, the greatest of all loss.

Bishop mentions a watch, keys, time, places, names, houses, cities, rivers, continents -- all lost. Perhaps her reference to such a vast geography is intended as a metaphor for something more intimate, closer to the heart. On the other hand, maybe not; maybe she really did lose all those big things. In the final stanza, she acquiesces bravely to lost love, not entirely convincing the reader that the art of losing is as easy to master as she claims. Not disaster? More likely the opposite is true. She may know how to "Write it!" yet is, in fact, devastated.

Angelou provides a very straightforward list -- a dime, a doll, a watch; and, in the end, her "lover - boy" -- and a straightforward tone to go with it. She hates to lose something and doesn't mind saying so:

No Loser, No Weeper
by Maya Angelou (b 1928)
American Autobiographer, Poet, and Shero
Pulitzer Prize Nominee, 1971

"I hate to lose something,"
then she bent her head
"even a dime, I wish I was dead.
I can't explain it. No more to be said.
Cept I hate to lose something."

"I lost a doll once and cried for a week.
She could open her eyes, and do all but speak.
I believe she was took, by some doll-snatching-sneak
I tell you, I hate to lose something."

"A watch of mine once, got up and walked away.
It had twelve numbers on it and for the time of day.
I'll never forget it and all I can say
Is I really hate to lose something."

"Now if I felt that way bout a watch and a toy,
What you think I feel bout my lover-boy?
I ain't threatening you madam, but he is my evening's joy.
And I mean I really hate to lose something."

A lost watch in both poems? A literary motif? A metaphor for lost time? Or merely one of your more commonly lost items, along with sunglasses and umbrellas? I like the way that Angelou's watch just "got up and walked away," motivated, apparently, by "the intent to be lost" described by Bishop. I pointed out to Gerry that perhaps he could take some comfort in knowing that his predicament was none other than the human condition! Well, he resorted to wearing his second - best watch but was not resigned.

Nor was all lost! Not only did his watch show up; but, a few days later, the missing batteries re-appeared as well. As for the watch, we could all agree that it had last been seen on the kitchen counter, and Sam remembered playing with it while sitting there reading the paper. So it was not a big surprise when the watch turned out to have been on Sam's dresser top the entire time. He must have absentmindedly been twisting it around in his hand, walked up to his room for something, set it down, and completely forgotten about doing so.

Of course, he'd been in and out of his room a hundred times since then but just never spied the watch amidst the other dresser-top items. He didn't want to admit his oversight to Gerry, so I came up with the idea to put the watch around our cat Beaumont's neck and call out, "Hey, does anyone recall that old Disney movie about the cat [Thomasina? No, it was That Darn Cat!] who wore a wristwatch for a collar?" As per usual, no one else laughed at my joke, but Beaumont cooperated with my prank, and I thought I was pretty funny. Haha.
[Beaumont: Puss in Box, Shopping For Boots]

More good news! A few days later, I went to the freezer for a package of frozen vegetables (lets say something classy like edamame), and there were the three little batteries! I had simply twisted the plastic grocery bag around the veggies before storing them, without ever noticing that the batteries were in the same bag. At the onset of my extended search, when I realized that I had never unpacked the batteries, I did shake out every single grocery bag -- without ever remembering that one had already been stuck away in the freezer. Ah ha! Who knew?

To conclude this narrative of the ridiculous, just a day or so after I finally went out and replaced the lost batteries, I received the following in a list of "thoughts for the day" from my brother Aaron, who knew nothing about our lost and found issues: "The easiest way to find something lost around the house is to buy a replacement."

It certainly worked for the batteries; and, if Gerry had purchased a new watch, it would have worked in that case too!

Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, April 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Take a look at
my running list of recent reading

Friday, March 12, 2010

Faith Kept Me Back Awhile

The fresco, "Zachariah in the Temple" (1486 - 1490)
by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1486-1490)
Italian Renaissance painter
Detail: Marsilio Ficino, Cristoforo Landino,
Angelo Poliziano, Demetrios Chalkondyles
Location of fresco: The Tornabuoni Chapel
in Santa Maria Novella Church, Florence, Italy

Back when I was an undergrad in a class called Major Trends, I was given the assignment to pick a significant historical event before 1550 and provide examples of its effect on literature up to the present day. I seem to recall taking a stair-step approach, starting with

Italian Renaissance (1400 - 1550)
produced humanist philosopher Marsilio Ficino
(Italian, 1433 - 1499)
who wrote Theologia Platonica (1474)

Fun Fact: Ficino coined the phrase "Platonic Love" [to be misquoted several centuries later by one of my Freshman Comp students as "Plutonic Love"]

Ficino's Neoplatonism influenced Edmund Spenser
(English, 1552 - 1599)
who wrote The Faerie Queene (1590)

Fun Fact: Spenser is believed to have crafted the phrase "neither rhyme nor reason"

Spenser's allegorical poem influenced Nathaniel Hawthorne
(American, 1804 - 64)
who wrote Mosses From an Old Manse (1835)
and Twice-Told Tales (1837)

Fun Fact: Hawthorne named his first child Una, after a character from Spenser's "Faerie Queene"

In "Young Goodman Brown," one of Hawthorne's allegorical tales, Young Goodman Brown leaves his young wife Faith for a visit to the Dark Side. As he hurries away to keep his appointment with Fate, he sees Faith's sad face, framed on either side by the pink ribbons of her cap. He is torn between his faith and the insistent call of cynicism. Arriving late for his assignation, he explains his tardiness, "Faith kept me back awhile."

Throughout the story, Young Goodman Brown's spiritual faith, his faith in goodness and humankind, and the person of his wife Faith become one. Should he leave his "dear Faith" to pursue the Knowledge of Good and Evil? He longs to sleep "in the arms of Faith!" Yet he feels compelled to enter the dark wood where he is startled to hear Faith's voice echoing through the trees. When he finds one of her pink ribbons caught on a branch, he seizes it, crying, "My Faith is gone!"

"But where is Faith?" he asks. It appears that Faith has become as jaded as he, and by the end of the evening their mutual disillusion is complete: " . . . ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived."

When I first read this story in 1977, in a unit of literature concerning the theme of Initiation, I attempted to write a poem on the same topic:

I have finally told you about the dot and the line.

The dot, a hard knot, a hurt fist between my breasts.
The crying fingers clinch in painful safety
all that I have loved and lived with and believed in for so long.

The line, a right margin the length of my body.
A fence allowing no escape for the dot,
guarding, keeping it right beside my heart.

In time,
when with a wiser hand I force the tear-stained fingers open
I will find, preserved in brine, Faith's pink ribbon.

I hadn't thought about this poem for ages, until driving in the car the other day, I caught the words from Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." The lyrics brought to mind the imagery of my old poem -- the dot and the line, the knotted heart and the fist. I couldn't help wondering if the shallow beating heart, the divided mind, and the border line in their song are similar to those I was writing about so long ago:

"On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams . . .

My shadow's the only one that walks beside me
My shallow heart's the only thing that's beating . . .

I'm walking down the line
That divides me somewhere in my mind
On the border line
Of the edge and where I walk alone . . . ."