The title is a reference to the poem Sea Fever by John Masefield.
I am currently taking a summer writing class with Beth Kempton online. This piece was written after one of her guided meditations. For those of you who may not know, my father died in 2010 after a seven year battle with brain cancer.
I Must Go Down to the Sea Again
all of us (save him) in a circle on the damp sand I read both sonnets, his favorite and mine (a matched pair) as the sun set. Each of us took out a handful of ashes, and I went last. I had read that sometimes the wind can blow ashes into your face, and though I liked the idea of breathing him in, I wanted to set him free here — this place we loved, our holy place. The water was frigid, but I waded out up to my waist my jeans heavy and clinging, to rinse out the glass jar.
Here you go, Daddy, here you are — how we loved to find starfish, seaglass, rocks with holes — how we loved this place together.
A week later, just before leaving town, we stopped at the beach one last time. At my feet, the tiniest, smoothest rock with a perfect hole right through.
How I’d love to return — someday — swim down deep, sun breaking through the water, and see him sparkling all around me.
O, thou fat-cheeked darling Wet and sticky with milk drips Never have I wanted anything so much Than to watch you grow fat at my breast. How I delight in your soft, rolled thighs How I glory in the curves of your face. When you roll onto your back after nursing Contented sigh, eyes closed And emit an echoing belch I am a Michelin-starred chef At the fanciest restaurant.
I found this poem in a lovely little anthology called A Mind of Winter : Poems for a Snowy Season. Wallace Stevens was an American poet born in Pennsylvania in the late nineteenth century. He worked in the insurance industry and was a husband and father as well as a poet. He lived in New York City and then Hartford, Connecticut, and he died in 1955. You can read more about him here.
The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distance glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
Today is my twenty-sixth birthday, and I wanted a poem that was sweet and light and happy for that reason. I have been a bit out of blogging because I had my wisdom teeth removed last Thursday, and I am still on the mend, but thought this poem was a nice way to say hello again. Sophie Jewett was an American poet who lived in the late nineteeth century and taught English at Wellesley College. You can read more about her at her Poetry Foundation page.
Ruth Stone was a poet and professor of English who was born in Virginia and lived most of her life in Vermont. Her life was marked with great difficulty, in large part due to the suicide of her husband and the struggle of raising their three children alone. She humbly and graciously spoke of her poetry as a force that flowed through her and not as being of her own creation, but rather simply something she tried to write down. Ruth Stone died in 2011. You can read more about her on her Poetry Foundation webpage. This poem is one I posted on my Facebook several years ago in memory of my late father. He was greatly on my mind this past weekend as I ran my first half-marathon, so I am sharing this poem here as well.
All things come to an end;
small calves in Arkansas,
the bend of the muddy river.
Do all things come to an end?
No, they go on forever.
They go on forever, the swamp,
the vine-choked cypress, the oaks
rattling last year’s leaves,
the thump of the rails, the kite
the still white stilted heron.
All things come to an end.
The red clay bank, the spread hawk,
the bodies riding this train,
the stalled struck, pale sunlight, the talk;
the talk goes on forever,
the wide dry field of geese,
a man stopped near his porch
to watch. Release, release;
between cold death and a fever,
send what you will, I will listen.
All things come to an end.
No, they go on forever.
Rainier Maria Rilke is a beloved German-language poet who was born in Prague in 1875 (at that time, Prague was in the Kingdom of Bohemia, within the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and traveled extensively throughout Europe during his life, eventually settling in Switzerland. During his lifetime, he wrote vast amounts of beautiful poetry in both German and French, as well as one novel. A collection of his letters was published in 1926 as Letters to a Young Poet and has become a beloved classic. He died from leukemia at the age of 51 in Montreux, Switzerland. You can read more about Rilke on his Wikipedia page. I first read this poem in The Book of Images, translated by Edward Snow. I have the bilingual edition (a beautiful gift from a beloved friend) because I am a scholar of the beautiful German language, but I will provide you only with the English text here.
The leaves are falling, falling as if from far off,
as if in the heavens distant gardens withered;
they fall with gestures that say “no.”
And in the nights the heavy earth falls
from all the stars into aloneness.
We are all falling. This hand is falling.
And look at the others: it is in them all.
And yet there is One who holds this falling
with infinite softness in his hands.
Wilfrid Wilson Gibson was a British poet who lived from 1878 – 1962. He published poems on a variety of subjects, often referencing folk tales or folk songs of Northern England. You can read more about him here. This poem, Flannan Isle, is based on the actual mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse-keepers on Flannan Isle in the year 1900. (The Flannan Isles are a cluster of small islands off the coast of the Scotland.) I discovered this poem in the anthology The Twentieth Century in Poetry, edited by Michael Hulse and Simon Rae. A note : this poem is, of course, a spooky, scary, rhyming story. Therefore it is truly best read aloud. I encourage you to share this poem with someone else — it’s a great Halloween story — or just read it aloud to yourself.
Though three men dwell on Flannan Isle
To keep the lamp alight,
As we steer’d under the lee, we caught
No glimmer through the night!
A passing ship at dawn had brought
The news; and quickly we set sail,
To find out what strange thing might ail
The keepers of the deep-sea light.
The winter day broke blue and bright,
With glancing sun and glancing spray,
As o’er the swell our boat made way,
As gallant as a gull in flight.
But, as we near’d the lonely Isle;
And look’d up at the naked height;
And saw the lighthouse towering white,
With blinded lantern, that all night
Had never shot a spark
Of comfort through the dark,
So ghastly in the cold sunlight
It seem’d, that we were struck the while
With wonder all too dread for words.
And, as into the tiny creek
We stole beneath the hanging crag,
We saw three queer, black, ugly, birds —
Too big, by far, in my belief,
For guillemot or shag —
Like seamen sitting bold upright
Upon a half-tide reef :
But, as we near’d, they plunged from sight,
Without a sound, or spurt of white.
And still too mazed to speak,
We landed; and made fast the boat;
And climb’d the track in single file,
Each wishing he was safe afloat,
On any sea, however far,
So it be far from Flannan Isle:
And still we seem’d to climb, and climb,
As though we’d lost all count of time,
And so must climb for evermore.
Yet, all too soon, we reached the door —
The black, sun-blister’d lighthouse door,
That gaped for us ajar.
As, on the threshold, for a spell,
We paused, we seem’d to breathe the smell
Of limewash and of tar,
Familiar as our daily breath,
As though ’twere some strange scent of death :
And so, yet wondering, side by side,
We stood a moment, still tongue-tied:
And each with black foreboding eyed
The door, ere we should fling it wide,
To leave the sunlight for the gloom:
Till, plucking courage up, at last,
Hard on each other’s heels we pass’d
Into the living-room.
Yet, as we crowded through the door,
We only saw a table, spread
For dinner, meat and cheese and bread;
But all untouch’d; and no one there:
As though, when they sat down to eat,
Ere they could even taste,
Alarm had come; and they in haste
Had risen and left the bread and meat:
For on the table-head a chair
Lay tumbled on the floor.
We listen’d; but we only heard
The feeble chirping of a bird
That starved upon its perch:
And, listening still, without a word,
We set about our hopeless search.
We hunted high, we hunted low,
And soon ransack’d the empty house;
Then o’er the Island, to and fro,
We ranged, to listen and to look
In every cranny, cleft or nook
That might have hid a bird or mouse:
But, though we searched from shore to shore,
We found no sign in any place:
And soon again stood face to face
Before the gaping door:
And stole into the room once more
As frighten’d children steal.
Aye: though we hunted high and low,
And hunted everywhere,
Of the three men’s fate we found no trace
Of any kind in any place,
But a door ajar, and an untouch’d meal,
And an overtoppled chair.
And, as we listen’d in the gloom
Of that forsaken living-room —
O chill clutch on our breath —
We thought how ill-chance came to all
Who kept the Flannan Light:
And how the rock had been the death
Of many a likely lad:
How six had come to a sudden end
And three had gone stark mad:
And one whom we’d all known as friend
Had leapt from the lantern one still night,
And fallen dead by the lighthouse wall:
And long we thought
Of the three we sought,
And of what might yet befall.
Like curs a glance has brought to heel,
We listen’d, flinching there:
And look’d, and look’d, on the untouch’d meal
And the overtoppled chair.
We seemed to stand for an endless while,
Though still no word was said,
Three men alive on Flannan Isle,
Who thought on three men dead.
My apologies for the lateness of this post. I have had the good fortune to have houseguests the past two weekends and to have taken on a temporary job for the next three weeks; as I’m adjusting to a much busier schedule I’ve fallen a bit behind in posting.
On October 4th, a poet and English teacher named Lou Barrett passed away at the age of ninety-two. One of Lou’s five children is a dear friend of my parents, and our families grew up together. I was very lucky to know Lou and her husband, Herb, who preceded her in death by several months. When I was seventeen, Lou very kindly allowed me to interview her for a school assignment. I was interested in interviewing her for my assignment because it was (and is) an ambition of mine to become, like her, a published poet. Lou gave generously to the world with her kindness, dedication to social justice, and talent. She will be missed. You can read more about her here.
I have chosen to share her poem “World’s Fair” today.
That morning in ’39
we rode silver tubes
into a perfected future
dialed a state-of-the-art telephone
waved at our images
on a screen.
in Billy Rose’s Aquacade
white arms of mermaids
glided through waters.
to Over the Rainbow The drums of the khaki youth
marched past the arched gate.
in a carnival of peace
swaying arm and arm
the children of nations
sang of One World.
There is no way to speak
of what visited that place
no way to write it on your sleeve.
Dancing beneath lights
we flung flags
into a festooned September night
while a periling wind
drove across Flushing Meadows
bearing names heaver than air
across the fair world.
Robert Nathan was a novelist, screenwriter, and poet who produced over fifty books in his lifetime. He was born just before the turn of the nineteenth century in New York City. He died at ninety-one years of age in Los Angeles, where he resided for much of his adult life. You can read more about him in his New York Times obituary here. This poem is another that I discovered in the marvelous anthology Fifty Years of American Poetry. I shared this poem with my husband, David, early in our friendship, and it has held a special significance for us ever since.
Now Blue October
Now blue October, smoky in the sun,
Must end the long, sweet summer of the heart.
The last brief visit of the birds is done;
They sing the autumn songs before they part.
Listen, how lovely — there’s the thrush we heard
When June was small with roses, and the bending
Blossom of branches covered nest and bird,
Singing the summer in, summer unending —
Give me your hand once more before the night;
See how the meadows darken with the frost,
How fades the green that was the summer’s light.
Beauty is only altered, never lost,
And love, before the cold November rain,
Will make its summer in the heart again.
Jennifer Michael Hecht is a historian, poet, writer, and lecturer. Her first poetry book, The Next Ancient World, was published in 2001 and received several awards. The poem I am sharing today is called September and I first read it in the anthology Poems to Live By in Uncertain Times, edited by Joan Murray. You can learn more about Jennifer Michael Hecht on her website.
Tonight there must be people who are getting what they want.
I let my oars fall into the water.
Good for them. Good for them, getting what they want.
The night is so still that I forget to breathe.
The dark air is getting colder. Birds are leaving.
Tonight there are people getting just what they need.
The air is so still that it seems to stop my heart.
I remember you in a black and white photograph
taken this time of some year. You were leaning against
a half-shed tree, standing in the leaves the tree had lost.
When I finally exhale it takes forever to be over.
Tonight, there are people who are so happy,
that they have forgotten to worry about tomorrow.
Somewhere, people have entirely forgotten about tomorrow.
My hand trails in the water.
I should not have dropped those oars. Such a soft wind.