by Henri Matisse, 1869 - 1954
"I have often asked myself the reason for the sadness
In a world where tears are just a lullaby . . . "
~ Carole King ~
The following poem has been in my notebook of favorites for thirty years now, since my Arkansas days, back when Bill Clinton was governor. I like the combination of grief and evolutionary biology, the mystery of salt water without and within, the existential quest for meaning -- "Not that we know what we're doing here." Yet, despite our sad lack of comprehension -- "We try to do what's right":
Living on the Surface
walked upon the land a little while
and crawled back to the sea
saying something thereby
about all that we live with.
Some of us
have followed him from time to time.
Most of us stay.
Not that we know what we're doing here.
We do it anyway
lugging a small part of the sea around.
It leaks out our eyes.
We swim inside ourselves
but we walk on the land.
What's wrong, we say, what's wrong?
Think how sadness soaks into
the beds we lie on.
Jesus, we've only just got here.
We try to do what's right
but what do we know?
by American poet Miller Williams
Professor of English and Foreign Languages
and Director of the University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville
Naturalist Annie Dillard draws a similar conclusion in her essay "Teaching a Stone to Talk":
“The mountains are great stone bells; they clang together like nuns. Who shushed the stars? There are a thousand million galaxies easily seen in the Palomar reflector; collisions between and among them do, of course, occur. But these collisions are very long and silent slides. Billions of stars sift among each other untouched, too distant even to be moved, heedless as always, hushed. The sea pronounces something, over and over, in a hoarse whisper; I cannot quite make it out. But God knows I have tried” (89, emphasis added).
When I read "The Death of the Everglades" in Looking for America by nuclear historian Richard Rhodes, I was immediately reminded of Williams' poem. Rhodes writes that "Florida with its imperceptible seaweed tilt is deceptive, a beach itself dropping slowly into the water, a ramp on which the smallest creature may generation by generation crawl out onto the land. We came from the sea by degrees teaching our flesh to wrap the sea inside it. It courses through us every day of our lives . . . We never returned. The fish left the sea and returned, most of them. . . . The shark, with his bitter blood, never left the sea. He is old and well adapted" (56). Not like us: "we've only just got here."
With characteristic philosophic whimsy, StoryPeople artist and writer Brian Andreas captures the same sentiments. Why does the sea seem so familiar? Because all of our days we carry it around inside of us, like a story we used to know:
with her foot & pretended no one had seen.
I said. It got to be too noisy with all the airplanes & other stuff, so they flew into the ocean & never came back. Some days, she added, I think about going too.
As Williams points out, the dolphin did try living on the surface for awhile before he settled on the sea, and "Some of us / have followed him from time to time." But for the most part, we struggle along, living on the surface, trying to do what's right.
I am not as familiar with this next poem, which Miller Williams wrote for Bill Clinton, as I am with "Living on the Surface," but I include it here for historical context. I know that Williams has been friends with Clinton since the early 70's when Clinton was also teaching at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
Following Robert Frost, who read "The Gift Outright" for John F. Kennedy in 1961, and fellow Arkansan Maya Angelou, who recited a poem for President Clinton in 1993, Williams was the third poet to recite his work at a presidential inauguration. Elizabeth Alexander, reading at the 2009 Inauguration of Barrack Obama was the fourth.
1997 Inaugural Poem by Miller Williams:
Of History and Hope
We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
We know the sound of all the sounds we brought.
The rich taste of it is on our tongues.
But where are we going to be, and why, and who?
The disenfranchised dead want to know.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.
But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?
With waving hands -- oh, rarely in a row --
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.
Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.
Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child
cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.
We know what we have done and what we have said,
and how we have grown, degree by slow degree,
believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become --
just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.
All this in the hands of children, eyes already set
on a land we never can visit -- it isn't there yet --
but looking through their eyes, we can see
what our long gift to them may come to be.
If we can truly remember, they will not forget.
[© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company]
try listening to this beautiful cover of
"Gentle on my Mind,"
sung by the daughter of Miller Williams,
country rock singer and songwriter,
Rooms by the Sea, 1951by Edward Hopper, 1882–1967
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