"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, April 28, 2013

Broken and Beautiful

Complete Modern Home No. 115
Sears, Roebuck & Company ~ 1908 - 1940
Similar to so many homes right here in my Indiana Neighborhood!
Including the one I lived in years ago as a student in South Bend.


When my cousin Maggie sent me the following photograph, I couldn't help thinking of "The House With Nobody In It" by Joyce Kilmer. Maggie's caption perfectly condenses the sentiment of the poem:

Broken & Beautiful
"Whenever I see abandoned houses I wonder about the family that used to live there. The excitement when the house was first built, the children who ran through those rooms, the meals that were served and shared. The happiness and even the pain. Oh, if walls could talk!"

~ Maggie Mesneak Wick* ~

The House with Nobody In It

Whenever I walk to Suffern along the Erie track
I go by a poor old farmhouse with its shingles broken and black.
I suppose I've passed it a hundred times, but I always stop for a minute
And look at the house, the tragic house, the house with nobody in it.

I never have seen a haunted house, but I hear there are such things;
That they hold the talk of spirits, their mirth and sorrowings.
I know this house isn't haunted, and I wish it were, I do;
For it wouldn't be so lonely if it had a ghost or two.

This house on the road to Suffern needs a dozen panes of glass,
And somebody ought to weed the walk and take a scythe to the grass.
It needs new paint and shingles, and the vines should be trimmed and tied;
But what it needs the most of all is some people living inside.

If I had a lot of money and all my debts were paid
I'd put a gang of men to work with brush and saw and spade.
I'd buy that place and fix it up the way it used to be
And I'd find some people who wanted a home and give it to them free.

Now, a new house standing empty, with staring window and door,
Looks idle, perhaps, and foolish, like a hat on its block in the store.
But there's nothing mournful about it; it cannot be sad and lone
For the lack of something within it that it has never known.

But a house that has done what a house should do, a house that has sheltered life,
That has put its loving wooden arms around a man and his wife,
A house that has echoed a baby's laugh and held up his stumbling feet,
Is the saddest sight, when it's left alone, that ever your eyes could meet.

So whenever I go to Suffern along the Erie track
I never go by the empty house without stopping and looking back,
Yet it hurts me to look at the crumbling roof and the shutters fallen apart,
For I can't help thinking the poor old house is a house with a broken heart.

by American poet Joyce Kilmer(1886-1918)
best known for the occasionally parodied poem, "Trees"


Many desolate, heart - breaking paintings and photographs
have been paired with Kilmer's poem.
Click here to see more.


I'm also reminded of a couple of songs

1. "You're Beautiful Just As You Are,"
sung by Oscar the Grouch
in one of Ben and Sam's favorite childhood videos:
Don't Eat the Pictures:

"Broken and beautiful, fractured and rare
Missing pieces that used to be there . . .

Broken and beautiful, cracked but okay
Can't imagine who'd throw you away . . ."


2. And Janis Ian's classic, "Memories"
(mentioned elsewhere on this blog):

"There are memories within the walls and tapestries . . . "


Lastly (and also mentioned a few times before) is Philip Larkin's abbreviated sonnet; for surely this poem cries out for a final quatrain, but, no, that's all there is, no fitting conclusion, no closure, no fond farewell, just the "poor old house . . . with a broken heart," the "shot . . . long fallen wide":

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft
And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

The Bereft Music Room With Nobody In It: Too Sad to Explain

Photography by Aaron B. Carriker


*For more insights from my Cousin Extraordinaire,
Maggie Mesneak Wick:
Empty Nest
The Still Small Voice of Heaven
Here Comes Peter Cottontail, Or Not

Next Fortnightly Post
Tuesday, May 14th

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

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Sunday, April 14, 2013

La Cucaracha


~ A Favorite Game of Childhood ~


First they came for the Socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Catholic.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Paraphrased from the lectures of
Lutheran minister Martin Niemöller (1892-1984),
spoke against Hitler and was imprisoned
who in concentration camps from 1937 - 42

Whenever I hear these lines from Niemöller, I am reminded of the following poems by Muriel Rukeyser. And I was reminded of them again this weekend in connection with the hugely popular Purdue Bug Bowl -- a giant science / fun fair, held every spring, where they are more than decent to cockroaches, and insects are king!

What Do We See?
When they’re decent about women, they’re frightful about children,
When they’re decent about children, they’re rotten about artists,
When they’re decent about artists, they’re vicious about whores,
What do we see? What do we not see?

When they’re kind to whores, they’re death on communists,
When they respect communists, they’re foul to bastards,
When they’re human to bastards, they mock at hysterectomy-
What do we see? What do we not see?

When they’re decent about surgery, they bomb the Vietnamese,
When they’re decent to Vietnamese, they’re frightful to police,
When they’re human to police, they rough up lesbians,
What do we see? What do we not see?

When they’re decent to old women, they kick homosexuals,
When they’re good to homosexuals, they can’t stand drug people,
When they’re calm about drug people, they hate all Germans,
What do we see? What do we not see?

Cadenza for the reader

When they’re decent to Jews, they dread the blacks,
When they know blacks, there’s always something : roaches
And the future and children and all potential. Can’t stand themselves
Will we never see? Will we ever know?

by Muriel Rukeyser
from Breaking Open, 1973

In "What Do We See," Rukeyser is willing to count everyone in. Her pattern of inclusiveness extends to all the groups she can think of who are regularly subject to oppression and exclusion. In an ideal world, no group or individual would suffer discrimination for her being or her beliefs; yet the poet is realistic, realizing that even if in theory everyone is accepted, in practice this is almost never so. If we bring ourselves at last to take all human beings on their own terms, we'll balk at something else.

Cockroach, Periplaneta americana

Pushing the limits of tolerance, Rukeyser concludes with an invitation to consider the cockroach. Could we go that far? Can we overcome the words we were taught to sing as children:

La Cucaracha, La Cucaracha!
Me, I love you not at all!

To be fair, the roach is merely another living creature, trying to do its job on the planet, just as we are trying to do ours. In much the same context, Rukeyser expands upon the roach image in a later poem, "St. Roach," testing the reader's ability to empathize with the outgroup, the other. The poem begins with a lament for closemindedness:

St. Roach
For that I never knew you, I only learned to dread you,
for that I never touched you, they told me you are filth,
they showed me by every action to despise your kind;
for that I saw my people making war on you,
I could not tell you apart, one from another,
for that in childhood I lived in places clear of you,
for that all the people I knew met you by
crushing you, stamping you to death, they poured boiling
water on you, they flushed you down,
for that I could not tell one from another
only that you were dark, fast on your feet, and slender.
Not like me.
For that I did not know your poems
And that I do not know any of your sayings
And that I cannot speak or read your language
And that I do not sing your songs
And that I do not teach our children
to eat your food
or know your poems
or sing your songs
But that we say you are filthing our food
But that we know you not at all.

Yesterday I looked at one of you for the first time.
You were lighter than the others in color, that was
neither good nor bad.

I was really looking for the first time.
You seemed troubled and witty.

Today I touched one of you for the first time.
You were startled, you ran, you fled away
Fast as a dancer, light, strange and lovely to the touch.
I reach, I touch, I begin to know you.

by Muriel Rukeyser
from The Gates, 1976 (McGraw-Hill)

Any discussion of the poetic cockroach must include at least a nod to poor Gregor Samsa who is certainly troubled but beyond all wit. Rejected by all who know him, he is a victim of the disregard and loathing that Rukeyser describes. Untouchable.

On the witty side is Archy, the clever typing (all lower case) cockroach (and his friend Mehitabel the cat) created by humorist Don Marquis. Perhaps not as well known today, Archy was everyone's favorite cockroach when I was growing up:

He was literary:

" . . . the main question is
whether the stuff is
literature or not"


"when the pendant moon in the leafless tree
clings and sways like a golden bat
i sing its light and my love for thee
. . . us for the life romantic"


" . . . there is always some
little thing that is too
big for us every
goliath has his david and so on ad finitum


"procrastination is the
art of keeping
up with yesterday"


"to hell with anything unrefined
has always been my motto"


" . . . the lyric and imperial
believe that everything is for
you until you discover
that you are for it"


"I find it possible to forgive
the universe
i meet it in a give and take spirit
although i do wish
that it would consult me at times"


" . . . i hate one of these
grinning skipping smirking
senseless optimists worse
than i do a cynic or a

and just:

" . . . i would not consider
it honorable in me as a
righteous cockroach to crawl into a
near sighted man s soup . . . "

Archy and Mehitabel

A troop of clever cockroaches, perhaps not as wise as Archy but equally entertaining, appear in T. S. Eliot's Book of Practical Cats. The Old Gumbie Cat takes it upon herself to domesticate the roaches and put them to use around the house:

Postcard by dosankodebbie

These cartoonish cockroaches are fun, but it is Rukeyser's "St. Roach" and "What Do We See" that really ask if we are capable of overcoming prejudice and modifying our behavior. Can we open our hearts to the cockroach and grant it the title of "Saint"? A tall order, but something to think about.

What do we see?
What do we not see?
Will we never see?
Will we ever know?

In closing, thanks to Eileen Sheryl Hammer who said,
"We love Muriel, who understands what our world is made of!"

Previous References to Muriel Rukeyser
on this blog:
Icarus, Who Really Fell
Lot's Wife, Who Gave Her Life For a Single Glance
and coming next time: When the Iris Blows Blue

and on my daily blog The Quotidian Kit
All the Little Animals
Another Good Poem by Muriel Rukeyser
The Wrong Answer

Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, April 28th

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

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading