Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Interpretation of Poetry

Within my Garden, rides a Bird

Here’s a fun riddle-like poem from Emily Dickinson, followed by my note to Emily. Today is the anniversary of my sister Diane’s birthday. She lived with ALS for ten years before dying in 2006. Diane was 61 years old. One of her greatest joys was watching hummers feast in her back yard garden. A garden created in her mind, and in reality by her family and friends. A magical place where anything could happen.

Within my Garden, rides a Bird
Upon a single Wheel –
Whose spokes a dizzy Music make
As ‘twere a travelling Mill –

He never stops, but slackens
Above the Ripest Rose –
Partakes without alighting
And praises as he goes,

Till every spice is tasted –
And then his Fairy Gig
Reels in remoter atmospheres –
And I rejoin my Dog,

And He and I, perplex us
If positive, ‘twere we –
Or bore the Garden in the Brain
This Curiosity –

But He, the best Logician,
Refers my clumsy eye –
To just vibrating Blossoms!
An Exquisite Reply!

c. 1862

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

Dearest Emily,

What a fun riddle! Of course the answer is obvious, at least to your Dog. What isn’t so obvious is how your nimble mind creates miniature stage productions from fleeting, everyday realities.

I don’t remember one single occasion when a tiny hummer elicited in my mind’s eye a complete and detailed account of what was going on before my wide-open eyes—all in the space of 5 seconds max.

I see a gorgeous hummingbird. You see an entire stage production played out impromptu on the canvases of your Garden and your fertile imagination.

Actually, spectacular is too weak for whatever is happening in your imagination. And then there’s your super-observant Dog who figures it all out!

I fear we’re losing our capacity to see things with lively imagination. Not just in the natural world, but on the streets of our towns and cities. And in each other.

What might happen if we could be inquisitive young children again? Or get caught up in the wonder of other human beings, or the keen observational skills of our pets?

Just a note to let you know how much I enjoyed your poem. Happy Wednesday to you from me, your erratic pen pal and sometime follower.

Elouise

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 17 April 2019
Hummingbird and Roses artwork found at pinterest.com

How loud the storm sounds | Emily Brontë

For weeks, this short poem by Emily Brontë has haunted me. With a small handful of simple words Emily evokes feelings of grief and shock that come from unexpected death. My comments follow.

How loud the storm sounds round the Hall!
From arch to arch from door to door
Pillar and roof and granite wall
Rock like a cradle in its roar

That Elm tree by the haunted well
Greets no returning summer skies
Down with a rush the giant fell
And stretched athwart the path it lies

Hardly had passed the funeral train
So long delayed by wind and snow
And how they’ll reach the house again
Tomorrow’s dawn perhaps will show

From selected poems of Emily Brontë
Published in Everyman’s Library by Alfred A. Knopf, 1996

Perhaps it seems strange to talk about unexpected death, especially during a powerful storm that shakes foundations and roars as it gathers speed.

Yet of all the things that might have fallen, it was “That Elm tree by the haunted well.” A giant. A fixture in the landscape.

In addition, it fell across not just any path, but the path between house and Hall. That would be the Brontë house (church parsonage), and the church Hall where father Brontë served as a parson.

The house stands at the opposite end of a path leading to the church Hall. Besides getting to the church for services, it was also the pathway down which deceased members of the Brontë family were carried to be laid to rest in the family vault.

Emily refers to a funeral, already delayed by wind and snow. It’s finally taking place in the church Hall. Whose funeral? Emily doesn’t say.

Suddenly a furious storm erupts, and “That Elm tree by the haunted well” comes crashing down across the path. It seems the only solution is to stay in the church Hall until tomorrow. Perhaps by then we’ll be able to find a way back to the house.

So what does this poem suggest? Perhaps the giant Elm’s sudden death refers to a person whose life touches everyone. This could be a family member, such as Emily’s mother, or one of Emily’s siblings. We might also ask whether it’s possible to return the house as it was.

The poem describes the way we often experience death. It leaves us feeling lost and uncertain. Without a compass, or a clear map for how we’ll proceed from here.

The poem also invites us to consider each day precious. The end often comes without warning. Especially to those we most love and depend upon. Or to ourselves.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 12 March 2019
Photo found at pinterest.com 

Woman Work | Maya Angelou

In honor of women everywhere who, against all odds, hold life together one day at a time. In this poem, Maya Angelou speaks for women everywhere – country, town, city, suburbs. My brief comments follow.

I’ve got the children to tend
The clothes to mend
The floor to mop
The food to shop
Then the chicken to fry
The baby to dry
I got company to feed
The garden to weed
I’ve got the shirts to press
The tots to dress
The cane to be cut
I gotta clean up this hut
Then see about the sick
And the cotton to pick.

Shine on me, sunshine
Rain on me, rain
Fall softly, dewdrops
And cool my brow again.

Storm, blow me from here
With your fiercest wind
Let me float across the sky
Till I can rest again.

Fall gently, snowflakes
Cover me with white
Cold icy kisses and
Let me rest tonight.
Sun, rain, curving sky

Mountain, oceans, leaf and stone
Star shine, moon glow
Your’re all that I can call my own.

I’ve got to open the shop
Harvest the crop
Clean out the pool
Visit the jail
Get to the school
Teach all the classes
Pick up the mail
Raise food for the masses
I’ve got children to tend
The clothes to mend
I got to
I got to
I got to

Maya Angelou, in Poetry for Young People, p. 19
Published by Sterling Children’s Books in 2013

I resonate with Maya Angelou’s emphasis on the role of nature. Not simply as the truly beautiful and awe-inspiring reality it is, but as solace. A power that takes us out of ourselves. Or better, helps us find our true selves. Not as any human being, but as the one-of-a-kind person each of us was created to be.

True, nature sometimes wreaks horrific havoc. Yet not even Angelou’s “fiercest wind” meets the standard for tornado or tsunami status. Rather, she sees changes of weather as invitations to reconnect with nature. Not to slack off, but to rest in the only thing she can “call my own.”

Finally, did you notice how the poem loops back to the top near the very end?

If you’d like to know more about how we’ve failed worldwide to account for women’s unpaid work, check out this June 2018 article.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 8 March 2019
Photo found at newsdeeply.com in an article on women’s unpaid work

Little Girl Speakings | Maya Angelou

Here’s a poem for children. A taunt song of sorts, best heard when recited out loud, with appropriate emphasis on key words. Perhaps you’ve sung songs like this to yourself many times. My comments follow.

Little Girl Speakings

Ain’t nobody better’n my Daddy,
you keep yo’ quauter,
I ain’t yo’ daughter.
Ain’t nobody better’n my Daddy.

Ain’t nothing prettier’n my dollie,
heard what I said
don’t pat her head,
Ain’t nothing prettier’n my dollie.

No lady cookinger than my Mommy,
smell that pie,
see I don’t lie,
No lady cookinger than my Mommy.

Maya Angelou, in Poetry for Young People: Maya Angelou
Published by Sterling Children’s Books, New York, 2013

quauter–quarter
cookinger–better as a cook

All my childhood I waged a double war. One war was with my father, at home. There I was his ‘problem,’ and he was the man sent by God to correct the problem. Maya Angelou’s poem wouldn’t have worked for this home-grown war.

The second war, however, was with childhood acquaintances and classmates who seemed to think male clergymen were sissies, or at least not ‘real men.’ Unless, of course, they were senior pastors in one of the big churches in the city. In their eyes, my father wasn’t one of the ‘real men.’ I know this because I watched their faces as I tried to explain my father’s situation.

Maya Angelou’s poem can be read as an in-your-face response to people who believe their privileged families and circumstances are better than her own. Note the repeated words ‘nobody,’ ‘nothing,’ and ‘no lady.’ She leaves no room for doubt. She has the best deal in town. They do not.

I can also imagine Angelou writing this poem for young girls surrounded by a better-than-thou, unforgiving world. Her poem is a gift of empirical, emotional truth. It’s for all young girls learning to take care of themselves and their voices, especially when the world wants to ignore and belittle them and their circumstances.

In either case, the hero in this poem isn’t Daddy, Mommy, or even ‘my dollie.’ It’s the young girl who dares to sing this song over and over, no matter the circumstances. Think of it as voice training for the 21st century.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 15 February 2019
Photo of young Maya Angelou found at atlantablackstar.com

Why Mary Oliver’s words matter

A few years ago a friend introduced me to Mary Oliver via one of her books of poetry, Thirst. Spare on words and extravagantly beautiful, her forty-three poems grabbed my heart and my imagination. The collection focuses on her grief after the death of her longtime partner, and her struggle to find words that capture the reality of her faith.

Mary Oliver challenges me in ways similar to Emily Dickinson, with one exception. Oliver’s poetry, also heavy with meaning, is remarkably and painfully direct. In each poem she invites me to enlarge the way I see, experience and respond to what seems everyday and ordinary.

Since her death on January 17, scores of visitors have visited this site looking for posts about Mary Oliver. At the top of the list: It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, a poem about prayer.

In the last week I’ve read and listened to multiple tributes to Mary Oliver. Her poetry is stunning; her challenge to us as human beings is direct and piercing: Wake up, Observe, Report. Not simply about nature, but about this world and its creatures as part of God’s great poem. A reality we ignore to our great loss.

Here’s one of Mary Oliver’s shorter poems. I love the way it makes simple what isn’t always easy.

Musical Notation: 2

Everything is His.
The door, the door jamb.
The wood stacked near the door.
The leaves blown upon the path
that leads to the door.
The trees that are dropping their leaves
the wind that is tripping them this way and that way,
the clouds that are high above them,
the stars that are sleeping now beyond the clouds

and, simply said, all the rest.

When I open the door I am so sure so sure
all this will be there, and it is.
I look around.
I fill my arms with the firewood.
I turn and enter His house, and close His door.

Mary Oliver, from poems in Thirst, p. 38; published by Beacon Press (2006)

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 24 January 2019

A Day! Help! Help! | Take 2

Emily Dickinson’s short poem came to mind this morning. I first commented on it in March 2017, after the 2016 election and January 2017 inauguration of Mr. Trump as POTUS.

Tomorrow we get to vote again, though not for another president. My comments follow in the form of a letter to Mr. Trump.

A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!
Your prayers, oh Passer by!
From such a common ball as this
Might date a Victory!
From marshallings as simple
The flags of nations swang.
Steady – my soul: What issues
Upon thine arrow hang!

c. 1858

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

Dear Mr. Trump,

I am not one of your fans. I am, however, a believer in more than chance happenings.

First, a confession. For months, I’ve been captive to the anti-Trump approach to daily happenings. I didn’t think about you all the time. Nonetheless, following your election and inauguration, my days seemed governed by what you did and what I thought and felt about it. Usually it felt like going from one bad scene to an even worse scene.

Looking  back, I don’t regret thinking all that through, or writing about some of it. In fact, I rather enjoy going back to see my small trail of contributions to what’s been a national preoccupation and discussion. Trying to figure you out.

There isn’t, of course, any figuring that will balance things out nicely. Especially for those whose lives are in disarray thanks to your words and deeds. Plus the words and deeds of others you’ve enabled, if not unleashed.

And so I’ve moved on. I still believe each day contains the possibility of Victory, no matter how tomorrow’s midterm elections turn out. I also imagine Emily Dickinson’s “common ball” as our planet, which I would describe as this grand terrestrial ball. A dance, open to anyone who wants to accept the invitation. There’s only one hitch. Our Creator presides over this dance. Not any human leader, billionaire or organization.

So I’m taking dance lessons again. My neighbors and their pets are teaching me to lighten up. Women and men of color are teaching me to listen deeply to what’s happening. Children of all colors are teaching me to forget about how I look and how old I am. Friends of many years are helping me reconsider my dance partners. I’m tired of the same old rhetoric, the same old hopes for tomorrow, the same old anxiety about whether I’ll be asked to the dance.

I’m already in the dance! Stumbling along, sometimes gifted with a bit of insight, scraping together my courage, and showing up in the grand ballroom of life. You might like to try it yourself, if you dare.

From one voter among millions,
Elouise Renich Fraser

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 5 November 2018

Two Poems from Maya Angelou

For several weeks I’ve been reading Jim Wallis’s bestseller, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Alongside this I’m reading again some of Maya Angelou’s poems. I find them tough, true and invitational. They invite me to see things through the eyes of others.

First, a sing-song poem for children living in Harlem, home to many African Americans, located in northern Manhattan in New York City.

In this first poem I hear seeds of resistance, resilience, pride, and discernment about how things are, and what it takes to stay alive. Try sing-songing it as though you were hopping or singing along with one of the children in the photo above. Can you imagine yourself in his or her feet? Why or why not?

Harlem Hopscotch

One foot down, then hop! It’s hot.
Good things for the one’s that’s got.
Another jump, now to the left,
Everybody for hisself.

In the air, now both feet down.
Since you black, don’t stick around.
Food is gone, the rent is due,
Curse and cry and then jump two.

All the people out of work,
Hold for three, then twist and jerk.
Cross the line, they count you out.
That’s what hopping’s all about.

Both feet flat, the game is done.
They think I lost. I think I won.

Here’s the second poem, also about life in the USA. This time from the perspective of an adult living on the edge. The note says this poem is to be sung. Can you find a tune that would work? Or make up a tune?

Contemporary Announcement

Ring the big bells,
cook the cow,
put on your silver locket.
The landlord is knocking at the door
and I’ve got the rent in my pocket.

Douse the lights,
hold your breath,
take my heart in your hand.
I lost my job two weeks ago
and rent day’s here again.

Both poems are from Maya Angelou, one of the Poetry for Young People series, published by Sterling Children’s Books in 2013; pp 14 and 15.

Here’s to a thoughtful, relaxing, challenging and uplifting weekend!

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 19  October 2018
Photo found at blackthen.com

The morns are meeker than they were

Here’s an Emily Dickinson poem for all children, including you! Plus my note to Emily below.

The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry’s cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.

The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I’ll put a trinket on.

Emily Dickinson: Poetry for Young People, edited by Frances Schoonmaker Bolin, illustrated by Chi Chung. Published by Sterling Publishing Co. (2008)

Dear Emily,

It pains me to say this, but I never thought of you as a trinket kind of girl or woman. But then again, it shouldn’t surprise me. You have a way of seeing beauty and even the entire creation in the smallest bird or flower.

I wonder if you had a trinket box like the one above. It comes from your century, and has a mustardy yellow autumn look about it. To say nothing of those pretty leaves and that bird in the center.

It’s too bad we don’t have photos of your trinkets. I was always told they could make or break a woman’s image. Nothing too big. Nothing too gaudy. Nothing that would call attention to me. As though I were saying, ‘Look at me!’

But your little poem has a different outlook. You want to be part of nature’s annual parade of colors. Or maybe it’s a great production. Or better yet, a grand ball in the ballroom of fields and forests glowing with bright colors.

Whatever it is, it won’t do not to smile back when nature smiles at us. So I’m off to my oldest trinket box to find something to wear today to the ball. I think I’ll look for that topaz birthstone ring my mother gave me when I was a child.

With kind regards,
From grown-up Elouise and baby Marie

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 9 October 2018
Photo of 1800s Trinket Box found at pinterest.com

A Conceit | Maya Angelou

This short poem from Maya Angelou resonates today. Especially in light of undeclared and declared wars raging in the USA and around the globe. Note that a conceit is an image or metaphor as often found in poetry. So use your imagination as you read! Maya Angelou is painting a picture in poetic language. My comments follow.

Give me your hand.

Make room for me
to lead and follow
you
beyond this rage of poetry.

Let others have
the privacy of
touching words
and love of loss
of love.

For me
Give me your hand.

Maya Angelou, in Poetry for Young People
Edited by Edwin Graves Wilson, PhD
Illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue
Published in 2013 by Sterling Children’s Books

In this short poem I hear Maya Angelou saying two things about life and poetry.

  • Poetry can be emotionally moving while remaining a private indulgence.
  • This poem asks for more than this. Will you come with me?

Her phrase “beyond this rage of poetry” gives us a clue. This rage isn’t about anger. It’s the raging emotions of literary writing. This includes poems that convey deeply felt, sometimes prophetic emotions.

Maya Angelou’s poem demands more than our feelings, our sentimentality. It invites action. Not simply alone, but also together.

It may sound trite to say we need each other. Of course we do. Yet this poem is about more than that.

On its own, poetry can’t bring about change. It doesn’t matter how persuasively a poem describes our agony or our ecstasy, our losses or our love. What matters most is what we do or don’t do about it.

And so Maya Angelou’s poem offers an alternative to living in the private world of poetry. The alternative moves me into public worlds in which I am not yet present just as I am. Vulnerable, a beginner, falling down and getting up to begin again. Hanging onto Maya Angelou’s hand for dear life. Sometimes leading the way.

This first step doesn’t absolve me of responsibility for the direction we take. Yet if I don’t take Maya Angelou’s hand and follow her lead, I won’t discover what we may need to do next.

My gender, color, family background, or other markers of my so-called ‘identity’ won’t help me solve a problem I don’t yet understand.

Where are we going? We’ll find out together, ‘beyond this rage of poetry.’ Beyond its private intensity and enthusiasm of words.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 3 October 2018
Image found at wikia.com

Emily Brontë – Start not….

Death is on my mind. Especially since I’m in the last chapter of my life—however long or short it may be. The photo above shows the Haworth churchyard as it may have looked in Emily B’s time. Note the flat-stone grave markers, like beds. My comments follow Emily’s poem and a second photo.

Start not upon the minster wall
Sunshine is shed in holy calm
And lonely though my footsteps fall
The saints shall shelter thee from harm

Shrink not if it be summer noon
This shadow should right welcome be
These stairs are steep but landed soon
We’ll rest us long and quietly

What though our path be o’er the dead
They slumber soundly in the tomb
And why should mortals fear to tread
The pathway to their future home?

Emily Brontë, from Brontë Poems, p. 33
Published by Alfred A. Knopf 1996
© 1996 by David Campbell Publishers Ltd.

Emily Brontë was born on 30 July 1818, and died on 19 December 1848, one month after her younger brother Bramwell’s death. She lived most of her adult life in Haworth, Yorkshire, where her father was the parson. The photo above shows the main street in the 1800s. The parsonage and churchyard were near the top of the steep climb uphill. The major things missing from the photo are horses, garbage of all kinds flowing downhill, and the stench.

When I read this poem, I imagine Emily B walking up the steep hill beside me, coaching and encouraging me.

First Stanza
Don’t flinch or turn aside! Don’t be startled when you ‘come upon’ the path leading to the churchyard wall, looming at the end. Don’t swerve with dread, like horses in the heat of battle. Stay calm. Trust you’re in the best of hands. It will warm and brighten your way.

Yes, it’s uncanny and even frightening to hear your own footsteps on the stony path up this particular hill. Just remember all the saints who went this way before you. You can’t see them, but they’re cheering you on, encouraging you to stay the course instead of breaking away as though you could escape harm, pain or death.

Second Stanza
Yes, the noonday sun is blazing hot right now. Don’t try to hide from it. Look up ahead! There’s a shadow that will welcome you sooner, not later. It probably feels steeper now than it did at the beginning. It’s normal to be weary of the uphill grind. Still, your goal is just ahead. It won’t be long now. Then we can rest for a long time in utter quiet.

Third Stanza
It doesn’t matter that this path might have us walking on resting places of the dead. They’re already sleeping soundly beneath the ground in the churchyard. Besides….

…why should mortals fear to tread
The pathway to their future home?

Something like that, I think.

Thanks for visiting and reading, even though the topic isn’t everyone’s favorite.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 17 September 2018
Photos found at kleurrijkbrontesisters.blogspot.com

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