Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

day 8, National Poetry Month ~

During my master’s, I was besotted with the poet Robert Hayden. I read every one of his poems, all his prose, the critical biography on him, and the few scholarly articles available. I still think he is the most under-appreciated of great American poets.

Hayden’s work had an enormous impact on me. He moved deftly between dialect and difficult image, between history and allusion, between the intimately personal and the disillusioned political. I adored him then, and I still do.

This poem is one of my favourites, ‘A Ballad of Remembrance.’ It speaks deeply to this Buddhist & Unitarian. Of place, of heritage, of the taste of words as rich as chocolate, melting on the tongue.

A bit longer than the other poems I’ve shared to date, it will seduce you if you’ll let it. As Hayden does.

Here’s Robert Hayden’s ‘A Ballad of Remembrance’:

A Ballad of Remembrance

Quadroon mermaids, Afro angels, black saints
balanced upon the switchblades of that air
and sang. Tight streets unfolding to tile eye
like fans of corrosion and elegiac lace
crackled whit their singing: Shadow of time. Shadow of blood.

Shadow, echoed the Zulu king, dangling
from a cluster of balloons. Blood,
whined the gun-metal priestess, floating
over the courtyard where dead men diced.

What will you have? she inquired, the sallow vendeuse
of prepared tarnishes and jokes of nacre and ormolu,
what but those gleamings, oldrose graces,
manners like scented gloves? Contrived ghosts
rapped to metronome clack of lavalieres.

Contrived illuminations riding a threat
of river, masked Negroes wearing chameleon
satins gaudy now as a fortuneteller’s
dream of disaster, lighted the crazy flopping
dance of love and hate among joys, rejections.

Accommodate, muttered the Zulu king,
toad on a throne of glaucous poison jewels.
Love, chimed the saints and the angels and the mermaids.
Hate, shrieked tine gun-metal priestess
from her spiked bellcollar curved like a fleur-de-lis:

As well have a talon as a finger, a muzzle as a mouth,
as well have a hollow as a heart. And she pinwheeled
away in coruscations of laughter, scattering
those others before her like foil stars.

But the dance continued—now among metaphorical
doors, coffee cups floating poised
hysterias, decors of illusion; now among
mazurka dolls offering death’s-heads
of cocaine roses and real violets.

Then you arrived, meditative, ironic,
richly human; and your presence was shore where I rested
released from tile hoodoo of that dance, where I spoke
with my true voice again.

And therefore this is not only a ballad of remembrance
for the down-South arcane city with death
in its jaws like gold teeth and archaic cusswords;
not only a token for the troubled generous friends
held in the fists of that schizoid city like flowers,
but also, Mark Van Doren,
a poem of remembrance, a gift, a souvenir for you.

day 7, National Poetry Month ~

 There’s a tendency to think of poetry as not much fun. Unless you’re a total nerd/ geek/ dork… Or (as I heard said recently in a venue I would never have expected to hear the term) a pointy-head. Re: intellectual. NOT ordinary folks…

It’s not true, of course. Children love poetry, until we ruin it for them. And no, poetry doesn’t have to rhyme. :) But it’s fun when it does — IF it does that difficult task well. And this poem — this author — is one of the best at  poetry, whatever I may think about other elements of his life…

If you’re a cat lover, you may already know this poem in its musical version. If not? Enjoy. Here’s T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Old Gumbie Cat,’ about one of my favourite cats, Jennyanydots:

The Old Gumbie Cat
I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her coat is of the tabby kind, with tiger stripes and leopard spots.
All day she sits upon the stair or on the steps or on the mat;
She sits and sits and sits and sits–and that’s what makes a Gumbie Cat!
But when the day’s hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat’s work is but hardly begun.
And when all the family’s in bed and asleep,
She tucks up her skirts to the basement to creep.
She is deeply concerned with the ways of the mice
Their behaviour’s not good and their manners not nice;
So when she has got them lined up on the matting,
She teachs them music, crocheting and tatting.
I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her equal would be hard to find, she likes the warm and sunny spots.
All day she sits beside the hearth or on the bed or on my hat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits–and that’s what makes a Gumbie Cat!
But when the day’s hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat’s work is but hardly begun.
As she finds that the mice will not ever keep quiet,
She is sure it is due to irregular diet;
And believing that nothing is done without trying,
She sets right to work with her baking and frying.
She makes them a mouse–cake of bread and dried peas,
And a beautiful fry of lean bacon and cheese.
I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
The curtain-cord she likes to wind, and tie it into sailor-knots.
She sits upon the window-sill, or anything that’s smooth and flat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits–and that’s what makes a Gumbie Cat!
But when the day’s hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat’s work is but hardly begun.
She thinks that the cockroaches just need employment
To prevent them from idle and wanton destroyment.
So she’s formed, from that lot of disorderly louts,
A troop of well-disciplined helpful boy-scouts,
With a purpose in life and a good deed to do
And she’s even created a Beetles’ Tattoo.
So for Old Gumbie Cats let us now give three cheers
On whom well-ordered households depend, it appears.

 

 

day 6, National Poetry Month ~

 Elizabeth Bishop is another poet who is easy to love. She makes her art almost invisible, effortless. Like those invisible zippers that hold the pieces together…

This is a poem I return to again & again. It’s a villanelle — an old & demanding form. In Bishop’s hands, it seems like conversation…And it has everything to do w/ beginner’s heart. Change. Loss, attachment ~ it touches on each of these & more.

Here’s Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’:

One Art

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.

day 5, National Poetry Month ~

One of the earliest poems I remember reading that voiced opposition to the war in Việt Nam was Denise Levertov’s ‘What Were They Like?’ I read it years ago at a reading of poets who had influenced the readers. I’m reading it next week at a Poets for Peace reading. 

Perhaps because I grew up in Việt Nam, that war — and subsequent ones, as a result — felt personal to me. Biên Hòa wasn’t the name of a battle to me; it was where we went for Sunday drives in the blue & white Buick. Villages weren’t ‘collateral damage.’ They were the homes of childhood friends, places I visited, playing with pot-bellied pigs and baby ducks. I knew very well what many people of Việt Nam were like, and they never deserved to be carpet bombed…

There were plenty of anti-war songs in the 60s and 70s, but if you were taking poetry — even at the college level — there wasn’t much anti-war poetry. Nothing like the large & impressive reaction to WWI and WWIIi from veterans who suffered the fall-out. So finding Levertov was like hearing an echo of my own horror at terms like ‘collateral damage,’ and the PTSD that back then didn’t even have a name. Just the broken shells of boys I’d known who came back a piece of someone else’s nightmare..,

What I didn’t know was what this poem — and others like it — cost Levertov: the friendship of a friend & mentor. That’s the thing about following our principles, though. There’s often fallout. But just as often (except perhaps less noticed) is how the example of one person can bloom within another. How Levertov’s poem helped me, many years later, find my own voice.

Here’s Levertov’s poignant poem:

What Were They Like?

Did the people of Viet Nam
use lanterns of stone?
Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?
Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
Did they use bone and ivory,
jade and silver, for ornament?
Had they an epic poem?
Did they distinguish between speech and singing?

Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens
stone gardens illumined pleasant ways.
Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,
but after their children were killed
there were no more buds.
Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.
it is not remembered. Remember,
most were peasants; their life
was in rice and bamboo.
When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,
maybe fathers told their sons old tales.
When bombs smashed those mirrors
there was time only to scream.
There is an echo yet
of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight.
Who can say? It is silent now.

 

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