Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Interpretation of Poetry

The Wind took up the Northern Things | Covid-19

Emily Dickinson’s poem rings eerily true, given the current pandemic. How will we pick up our pieces? What, if anything, will we have learned about ourselves? And how many of us will be present and accounted for?

Winds of change overtake us every day. Natural and unnatural disasters intrude. Emily Dickinson invites us to take a closer look. My comments follow.

The Wind took up the Northern Things
And piled them in the south –
Then gave the East unto the West
And opening his mouth

The four Divisions of the Earth
Did make as to devour
While everything to corners slunk
Behind the awful power –

The Wind – unto his Chambers went
And nature ventured out –
Her subjects scattered into place
Her systems ranged about

Again the smoke from Dwellings rose
The Day abroad was heard –
How intimate, a Tempest past
The Transport of the Bird –

c. 1868

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

The calm before a storm is nothing compared to the calm after a storm. Wind, dust, earthquakes, locusts, famine, fire, floods. Devastating, destructive, unpredictable. Then it’s over. Deadly silent. Until nature ventures out, surveys the damage and begins reclaiming her rhythms, colors, textures and stunning beauty.

There’s nothing romantic about the destructive forces of nature. No one who has survived their fury can forget the terror. Or the people, animals, natural resources and futures gone or changed forever.

Nonetheless, I hear Emily inviting us to consider the other side of the storm. What happens following unpredictable upheaval? What happens when everything is different and nothing can be taken for granted?

Healing and rebirth don’t happen overnight. Nature will take its time just as it always has. We can count on her subjects and systems doing their thing, even though everything will be different, changed in some way.

As for us, life changes immediately in the aftermath of major upheaval. Belongings and people we took for granted or undervalued yesterday are suddenly precious. Whether missing or found against all odds, each person and each item becomes the subject of conversation, tears and thoughts shared around fireplaces. Personal and intimate.

This everyday hearth fire, unlike a firestorm, warms our hearts. We’re not alone. A bird sings. Was it blown here by the storm? I don’t know. Still, its simple song says I’m not forgotten, even though my small world just got turned upside down.

I hear in Emily’s poem an invitation to think about the value of human life as well as the value of our planet. Both seem under siege right now. Not just by politicians or corporations, but by people such as you and I. I don’t have answers. I do, however, have hope that we’ll wake up before it’s too late.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 26 June 2017, reposted 22 April 2020
Photo of recent storm damage in the South found at washingtonpost.com

Heavy | Mary Oliver

Here’s a lovely, if difficult poem from Mary Oliver. It’s about death. It’s also about learning to be a survivor. I’m posting the poem as a tribute to Diane (Sister #3), born on this day, Easter Sunday 1949 (leap year). Diane died in February 2006 after living more than ten years with ALS. My comments follow.

Heavy

That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer,
and I did not die.
Surely God
had His hand in this,

as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,

was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it—
books, bricks, grief—
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

Have you heard
the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?

How I linger to admire, admire, admire
The things of this world
That are kind, and maybe

also troubled—
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
a love
to which there is no reply?

© 2006 by Mary Oliver
Thirst, pp.53-54
Published by Beacon Press

Dying isn’t for the weak; neither is surviving. Not as victims of cruel fate or the current pandemic.

In the end, we often don’t have any choice but to live with what we’ve been given. True, we might prefer to die. But Mary challenges us to welcome grief and the opportunity to let it shape our lives for the better, without destroying them.

I also hear Mary inviting us to give ourselves time. Enough time to be surprised at ourselves when laughter and joy sneak in unannounced.

In her case, Mary unexpectedly discovers herself seeing nature differently. Not just as shows of beauty, but as survivors. Like us, the roses and sea geese also live out their love of life in the midst of harsh winds or steep waves.

What could be more invitational and healing that that? Not as a pill we take, but a possibility we choose to embrace.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 17 April 2020
Roses in the Wind painted by Anne Costello
Found at saatchiart.com

The Beautiful, Striped Sparrow | Mary Oliver

Here’s a thought-provoking poem from Mary Oliver about loneliness. My comments follow.

In the afternoons,
in the almost empty fields,
I hum the hymns
I used to sing

in church.
They could not tame me,
so they would not keep me,
alas,

and how that feels,
the weight of it,
I will not tell
any of you,

not ever.
Still, as they promised,
God, once he is in your heart,
is everywhere—

so even here
among the weeds
and the brisk trees.
How long does it take

to hum a hymn? Strolling
one or two acres
of the sweetness
of the world,

not counting
a lapse, now and again,
of sheer emptiness.
Once a deer

stood quietly at my side.
And sometimes the wind
has touched my cheek
like a spirit.

Am I lonely?
The beautiful, striped sparrow,
serenely, on the tallest weed in his kingdom,
also sings without words.

© 2006 by Mary Oliver
Thirst, pp.29-30
Published by Beacon Press

I don’t mind being alone. I do mind the loneliness that sometimes comes with this pandemic. Instead of “almost empty fields” to roam, I have a smallish neighborhood full of children, parents, and senior citizens. Quite wonderful, actually.

It’s a short walk from our house to temporarily quiet spaces. The soccer field and playground area behind the elementary school is almost deserted. As is the church parking lot and cemetery directly across the street.

Then there’s our small, beautiful village park full of large old trees. The little kid playground and big kid tennis courts have been closed for now. But the softball/soccer field is wide open. A few families are out with their children and/or dogs burning off energy. And best of all, the trees and shrubs are sending out new growth and bright blossoms.

I’ve not had a deer stand “quietly at my side.” Still, I’ve felt the wind and bits of rain on my face, and heard the music of robins, woodpeckers and Carolina wrens welcoming spring. All topped off by relatively quiet air space, with a small trickle of commercial flights passing over to land at the Philly airport.

Wishing you a not-so-lonely Monday!
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 13 April 2020
Photo of Baird’s Sparrow found at birdsoftheworld.org

I wonder if when Years have piled | Emily Dickinson

Here’s an older post that’s relevant to our current situation. When the pandemic is over, what will we do with all that Grief and Pain?

I don’t wear a crucifix around my neck, yet I find myself in the company of those who, like Emily Dickinson, can’t escape Grief. It doesn’t matter how many years have lapsed. My comments follow her poem.

I wonder if when Years have piled –
Some Thousands – on the Harm –
That hurt them early – such a lapse
Could give them any Balm –

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve –
Enlightened to a larger Pain –
In Contrast with the Love –

The Grieved – are many – I am told –
There is the various Cause –
Death – is but one –and comes but once –
And only nails the eyes –

There’s Grief of Want – and Grief of Cold –
A sort they call “Despair’ –
There’s Banishment from native Eyes –
In sight of Native Air –

And though I may not guess the kind –
Correctly – yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary –

To note the fashions – of the Cross –
And how they’re mostly worn –
Still fascinated to presume
That Some – are like My Own –

c. 1862

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

Emily begins by wondering whether Harm that has Years “piled on” it might be like a Balm. Perhaps like piling ice or heat on an injury? Some would say time heals all wounds.

Does it? Perhaps the passing of Time simply multiplies the Pain of this Harm. Especially in contrast to Love lost, withheld or betrayed.

Emily does a brief roll call of various kinds of Grief. She names Death first, yet doesn’t dwell on it since once it arrives, it simply “nails the eyes” shut. She may have in mind the person who dies, not the survivors.

She then points to other forms of Grief. They’re examples of the barely recognized yet obvious Grief humans carry every day. She names Grief of Want, of Cold, and of Despair. This is the kind of Grief that doesn’t nail the eyes shut. It’s the Grief of being invisible, shunned, ignored, banished from sight in full view of others. Not allowed to breathe air that supposedly belongs to everyone. Native Air that makes one a ‘real’ person.

In the last two stanzas, Emily imagines Grief as a crucifix, a fashion item. Something like a personal Calvary. She observes an assortment of styles and ways of wearing them.

I imagine some are barely obvious; others weigh the bearer down like a heavy wooden cross. Some are flaunted like medals of honor; others hidden beneath bravado or bullying. Yet each is real, whether acknowledged or not.

Emily finds ‘a piercing Comfort’ in her observations. Perhaps she isn’t as alone as she sometimes feels. Perhaps some Crosses are like her own.

When I was growing up, no one told me that grief could be an asset. It was something I would eventually get over. Not a strange gift that could connect me with others.

I don’t want to know everything about each person I meet. I do, however, need to take into account the reality of human grief. There’s nothing so isolating as having one’s grief overlooked or ignored. Or making it a personal problem to solve or get over–as quickly as possible.

Jesus bore our griefs and carried our sorrows. Surely as his followers we can do a bit of this for each other, if not for ourselves.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 12 August 2017
Image found at wallcrossesandmore.com

She sights a Bird — | Emily Dickinson

Here’s a fun Emily Dickinson poem written early in her poetic career. My brief comment follows.

She sights a Bird — she chuckles —
She flattens — then she crawls —
She runs without the look of feet —
Her eyes increase to Balls —

Her Jaws stir — twitching — hungry —
Her Teeth can hardly stand —
She leaps, but Robin leaped the first —
Ah, Pussy, of the Sand,

The Hopes so juicy ripening —
You almost bathed your Tongue —
When Bliss disclosed a hundred Toes —
And fled with every one —

© Emily Dickinson, #507
Found at wikisource.org

Reading this is a hoot. An almost perfect picture of our housecat Smudge (above) stalking a mouse or cricket. I love the part about running “without the look of feet.” To which I might add (having watched Smudge stalk prey), not a single muscle ripples through his furry coat. Not even one toenail clicks on the floor. Not a whimper of excitement gives him away. All antennae are 100% engaged, even though this takes hours, not minutes.

Perhaps the excitement is the chase and stalk. This could be unnerving for an outdoor cat. Regardless, the excitement of the hunt seems as wondrous as actually catching prey. Patience is called for. Many times. Plus persistence.

So here our Pussy of the Sand glides silently in on his prey, already salivating with anticipation and high on adrenalin. Followed by nothing to show for it but Robin’s hundred Toes, all present and accounted for, disappearing into thin air.

Wishing you a Happy Friday!
Elouise and Smudge♥♥

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 20 March 2020
Smudge in Kitchen Window taken by ERFraser, March 2019
Photo of outdoor cat found at i1.wp.com

Sunrise | Mary Oliver

You can
die for it—
an idea,
or the world. People

have done so,
brilliantly,
letting
their small bodies be bound

to the stake,
creating
an unforgettable
fury of light. But

this morning,
climbing the familiar hills
in the familiar
fabric of dawn, I thought

of China,
and India,
and Europe, and I thought
how the sun

blazes
for everyone just
so joyfully
as it rises

under the lashes
of my own eyes, and I thought
I am so many!
What is my name?

What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us? Call it

whatever you want, it is
happiness, it is another one
of the ways to enter
fire.

c. 1992, Mary Oliver
New and Selected Poems, Volume One, pp. 125-126
Published by Beacon Press

Dear Mary,

The deep breath at the end of your poem got me. No, make that the repeated deep breaths you would take for all of us. Not just for yourself.

There’s a dearth of deep breaths these days. Instead we seem to prefer eruptions of hot anger, fury, disbelief and righteous indignation. They’re often carried out via Twitter.

Sadly, there’s plenty to die for these days. Things haven’t advanced that much since you left us. Still, I’m intrigued by your additional way to enter the fray. Instead of offering ourselves up as martyrs, or turning others into martyrs, we might try taking a deep breath and entering the fire by way of ‘fiery’ happiness.

There’s still something to be said for fury. Especially when we’re being deceived by many of our leaders. I fear we have a long way to go, especially here in the USA, before we’re skilled in happiness that knows how to enter the fire.

If you read this anytime soon, we would be honored to have you take some deep breaths for all of us on this planet. I think we need a jump-start on happiness that creates “an unforgettable fury of light.” The other plan, social media burnings at the stake, isn’t working for us, despite the raging fury.

With gratitude and hope,
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 13 March 2020
Photo found at pexels.com

Did Our Best Moment last — | Emily Dickinson

Have you ever had a Best Moment? When did it come, and when did it go? Did it change you? My comments follow

Did Our Best Moment last –
‘Twould supersede the Heaven –
A few – and they by Risk – procure –
So this Sort – are not given –

Except as stimulants – in
Cases of Despair –
Or Stupor – The Reserve –
These Heavenly Moments are –

A Grant of the Divine –
That Certain as it Comes –
Withdraws – and leaves the dazzled Soul
In her unfurnished Rooms

(c. 1862)

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

Have you known Despair from the inside out? Emily doesn’t promise a Best Moment for each of us. She does, however, acknowledge that sometimes we need a Best Moment. Not to hoard, but to encourage us to keep going.

Some may Risk trying to obtain a Heavenly Moment. Perhaps to lock away and show off from time to time.

Instead, Our Best Moment is a rarely given temporary gift, a Grant from the Divine. Not because we ask for it or earned it, but because we’re in danger of falling into Despair. Or, just as heavy, walking around in a Stupor wondering what to say, do or write next.

While each Best Moment is beyond wonderful, it’s also a sign. It appears unbidden. A small Grant of the Divine we didn’t expect to receive. For a Moment it dazzles us, and then withdraws. Leaving us to make do with our everyday unfurnished Rooms.

Emily’s image of our unfurnished Rooms might sound empty and hollow, On the other hand, perhaps our unfurnished Rooms are invitations to furnish them. Just as we furnished the Room that became our temporary Best Moment, a gift that dazzled our Soul.

We aren’t alone in our efforts. What we say and do makes a difference, though we don’t always know or see how it plays out. Still, from time to time, the curtain is drawn back to dazzle and encourage us.

Praying these uneasy times will yield Best Moments that let each of us know we’re not alone, or left to figure things out on our own. No matter what happens next.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 29 February 2020
Image of Victorian Era Kitchen in America found at pinterest.com

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper | Poet and Abolitionist

Thanks to Poem-a-Day for introducing me to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s poetry. And thanks to Black History Month for bringing it to mind. My comments follow.

Aunt Chloe’s Politics

Of course, I don’t know very much
About these politics,
But I think that some who run ’em
Do mighty ugly tricks.

I’ve seen ’em honey-fugle round,
And talk so awful sweet,
That you’d think them full of kindness,
As an egg is full of meat.

Now I don’t believe in looking
Honest people in the face,
And saying when you’re doing wrong,
That “I haven’t sold my race.”

When we want to school our children,
If the money isn’t there,
Whether black or white have took it,
The loss we all must share.

And this buying up each other
Is something worse than mean,
Though I thinks a heap of voting,
I go for voting clean.

First published by Ferguson Brothers in Sketches of Southern Life (1891), now in the public domain
Published online by Poem-a-Day on 23 June 2019, by the Academy of American Poets

“Honey fugle” means to deceive by flattery or sweet talk, to swindle or cheat. Click here to see the full definition.

I love Aunt Chloe’s straightforward language. Rigged voting machines and gerry-mandering didn’t begin yesterday. Nor did pie-in-the sky promises and ‘street money’ handed out to influence our votes. As Aunt Chloe points out, it doesn’t matter what color your skin is if the money isn’t there to fund those lovely promises. Everyone loses, no matter the color of our skin.

Aunt Chloe nailed it decades ago. Her words are presented in a no-nonsense voice that invites us to believe her and do something about it. Maybe it’s as simple as getting off our political bandwagons and taking a look at ourselves.

So….The next time you hear politicians making promises too good to be true, think of a flugel horn (profuse apologies to lovers of flugel horns). It may sound sweet and mellow. Nonetheless, sweet music and stars in our eyes won’t buy groceries, pay for medical bills, or turn manipulation into truth. Instead, the cost will continue falling on all of us.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 19 February 2020
Image found at Wikipedia.org

A Visitor | Mary Oliver

This haunting poem by Mary Oliver comes from a 1986 collection called Dream Work. My comments follow.

A Visitor

My father, for example,
who was young once
and blue-eyed,
returns
on the darkest of nights
to the porch and knocks
wildly at the door,
and if I answer
I must be prepared
for his waxy face,
for his lower lip
swollen with bitterness.
And so, for a long time,
I did not answer,
but slept fitfully
between his hours of rapping.
But finally there came the night
when I rose out of my sheets
and stumbled down the hall.
The door fell open

and I knew I was saved
and could bear him,
pathetic and hollow,
with even the least of his dreams
frozen inside him,
and the meanness gone.
And I greeted him and asked him
into the house,
and lit the lamp,
and looked into his blank eyes
in which at last
I saw what a child must love,
I saw what love might have done
had we loved in time.

c. 1992, Mary Oliver
New and Selected Poems, Volume One, pp. 116-117
Published by Beacon Press

Mary Oliver left home early in life to get away from an abusive situation. Now, years later, wild knocking in the dark of night reminds her of what she ran away from. If she opens the door, she must confront the man she remembers having a “waxy face” and “a lower lip swollen with bitterness.”

She ignores the pounding on the door. The knocking persists at all hours of the night. And so she “stumbles down the hall,” and the door “falls open.”

In an instant, Mary Oliver knows she has nothing to fear. In fact, it seems she’s surprised to discover her father is “pathetic and hollow.” Even his smallest dreams have frozen, and his meanness has vanished.

She greets him, invites him to come into her house, lights a lamp, looks into his “blank eyes” and sees what was needed when she was a child, plus what might have been “had we loved in time.”

The poem isn’t about Mary Oliver’s father; it’s about Mary. In the end, It affirms her decision to leave home, and acknowledges the high cost she and her father paid. With grief, and without apology.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 12 February 2020
Book cover image found at amazon.com

Everlasting | Mary Oliver

In this poem, Mary Oliver tells us clearly what she wants to accomplish when she writes poems. It’s a high order. Some might say impossible. My brief comments follow.

I want to make poems that say right out, plainly
what I mean, that don’t go looking for the
laces of elaboration, puffed sleeves. I want to
keep close and use often words like
heavy, heart, joy, soon, and to cherish
the question mark and her bold sister

the dash. I want to write with quiet hands. I
want to write while crossing the fields that are
fresh with daisies and everlasting and the
ordinary grass. I want to make poems while thinking of
the bread of heaven and the
cup of astonishment; let them be

songs in which nothing is neglected,
not a hope, not a promise. I want to make poems
that look into the earth and the heavens
and see the unseeable. I want them to honor
both the heart of faith, and the light of the world;
the gladness that says, without any words, everything.

© 2005 by Mary Oliver in New and Selected Poems Volume Two, p. 4
Published by Beacon Press

The lovely photo at the top is deceptive. It omits the everything of those fields Mary Oliver is crossing. In particular, it should include “daisies and everlasting and the ordinary grass.” What is this thing called everlasting? Think invasive pest, cudweed, or more properly, American everlasting. In case you haven’t met up with it yet, here’s the other photo I might have put at the top.

When I read this poem about writing poetry, I hear Mary’s emphasis falling on beauty. Everyday beauty that wants to be seen just as it is, not dressed up. Unfortunately, this includes beauty that doesn’t always strike us as beautiful. We prefer words like ‘invasive’ and devote time to keeping them out of our fields and gardens.

Just as creation includes everything, so Mary Oliver wants her poetry to honor everything, no matter how beautiful or invasive or downright ugly we think it is. Hope and promise, hearts of faith and the light of the world point to the unseeable, never to be underestimated or second-guessed due to our timebound, limited sight.

I wonder whether Mary Oliver knows her poem begs to be preached. She sets a high bar for herself and for us–whether we write poetry or not.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 29 January 2020
Top photo found at pinterest.com; invasive American everlasting photo found at http://www.invasive.org

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