We must see these things without you now.

I am feeling my grief in my body today, with a sour, tentative stomach and weariness on my shoulders and brow. It is very hot, as were the days after my mother and father passed, and there seems something unrelenting about the heat and light, as if one must look at grief straight on, without protection from the glare. Other, smaller losses have been accumulating, too, and comfort not in the place where I would usually reach.

Still, Jon Frankel cooked a good meal last night, and we drank wine and talked of Peggy, and I am always at home at that table.

Here is an elegy that Peggy wrote a while ago, for Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. This line jumps out: We must see these things without you now.

 

Elegy for Wislawa Szymborska

 

Oh daughter of simplicity,

you are now free of fame’s field of gravity.

 

Its force almost silenced you, but

you’re no longer poet with a capital P—

 

clumping across the world’s stage on stilts

like a trained acrobat.

 

You will dance now with angels,

at ease in old shoes from Chelmek.

 

In your hands, ordinary things like laughter

and a hospital room turn golden,

 

while hidden clues to cruelty and oppression

leap from the paintings of Brughel

 

and the glories of ancient Troy.

We must see these things without you now.

 

But will you be content with perfection?

Or like a car left alone, will you chew at its edges—

 

Sure of a flaw—until a thread comes loose

which you can pull and bat around.

 

Perhaps then you’ll be content,

having mussed Perfection up a bit.

 

Advertisements

For Sister

My grief for Peggy is very tender and sweet. Her stroke a year ago made her life so circumscribed that her death felt to me in some way as if she were being freed from the prison of her body. But I miss her throaty laugh, her wit, her solid presence.

Throughout the last year, I have been going through Peggy’s unpublished poems with her blessing, with a eye to developing a manuscript–there are enough for another book already, and I’m not yet done. Peggy had seven brothers and a single older sister who took her in after their mother died when Peggy was 16. She had a lovely picture of her sister on her bedside table. When Peggy was passing, I told her with joy that she would see her beloved mother and sister again soon.  This poem is about Peggy’s sister but also captures a bit of how I feel about Peggy, now.

For Sister

 

I think of her in shades of lavender.

My sister, in purples muted to mauve

by years upon years of afternoon sun

streaming into the house on Caston Street.

 

I think of the room where she sat each day.

Rug and sofa so carefully chosen,

fading finally to those colors which

the Japanese artists call ‘shibui.’

 

Each day, she took fresh flowers to their graves,

those she had unwittingly outlived,

and back home, grieved for their foot-step on the walk,

the clink of coffee cups at four o’clock.

 

I think of her that way in lavender

alone in the old house, in the same town

where she lived her life and where she would die.

Knowing, in the end, what she chose to know.

 

What wouldn’t I give to sit with her now,

holding her hand in the afternoon sun.

Peggy Billings

My dear friend Peggy Billings passed away on Friday, July 19 at the age of 90. I met Peggy 25 years ago, when she took a poetry workshop I offered at the Women’s Community Building, and despite the 40 years between us, it was a true meeting of minds. It was my deep honor to be part of the group of women who supported her in the moments when she made her transition out of this world.

Peggy did so much, wrote so much, made such a difference in the world. Encapsulating her impact is beyond me right now. To begin, I want to bring these words of hers into cyberspace, from the introduction of her book published in 1995, Speaking Out in the Public Space. 

 

“In search of a title for this book, my mind wandered back and forth between the memories of this period [of her leadership in the Methodist Church] and the beliefs I have come to hold about the meaning of Jesus’ public ministry, beliefs that lead me to take responsibility for social justice…Put simply, I believe that Jesus’ public ministry was a sign of the Kingdom of God when creation will be fulfilled, that is, made whole. It points us to the good, to moral values of mutual respect between human beings and all of creation. It points us to ethical responsibilities for the common good, whose realization both fulfills individuals and touches society with what John Wesley called ‘social holiness.’

Following Wesley, I believe that God’s grace is present hallowing the world even when faith is absent. With faith in Jesus Christ, however, we can move on to ‘see perfection’ in this world. although even our modest efforts may fall short. At a minimum, we must insist upon respect, tolerance, and responsibility in relations between individuals, groups, and governments. The space where the personal and political intersect is where we must act.

Sometimes the public space is open and free, and people and governments are inspired to great achievements. Sometimes the space is restricted, when governments are repressive and turn entire nations into prisons. Then, as the Italian novelist Ugo Betti reminds us, we stand ‘on a narrow ledge where there’s scarcely room to place our feet.’

It is the choice for good and resistance to evil that fulfills human life, I believe. It is acting for justice and against injustice that gives life ultimate meaning, including the act of remembering those witness who went before us. It is speaking out in the public space, and doing it in time, that makes human society possible at all.”

Molly

It has taken the better part of my 49th year, but I have finally reached the warm comfort of Molly Bloom’s bed. Much ink has been spilled over the years about Molly, her character, and her place in the firmament. I am happy enough to just enjoy her company. I am glad she did not have an iphone! If Molly awoke and started thumbing through her socials, we would never have her musings. It is a brave and pleasant thing, to lie abed thinking about one’s past, present, and future all mixed up. I aspire to this! More lying in bed thinking, that’s my goal for my 50th year. And I shall finally finish this novel!

Listening to Ulysses

Twenty years ago, I tried to read Joyce’s Ulysses, but I was restless and could not keep my mind on it. Now I am listening to it, in the car as I drive around the wintery streets, and find it completely accessible. I think I was reading for meaning and theme, when young, and now I’m happy enough to enjoy it as delightful music, swimming over me, this rich fertile soup of words. Perhaps Ulysses is a book meant to be enjoyed in middle age, with its pleasures of the quotidian. Though the odd young man can get obsessed with it, I’ve noticed. Or maybe I’ve finally developed enough neural pathways to follow the language.

Before this, I listened to Dubliners and when I began Ulysses, I said to Jon Frankel, my god, what happened in between? Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he said (which I read as a young woman, apparently out of order), but more importantly, modernism. To have a writing life in which one’s style and turbidity so greatly densifies over the course of years is truly amazing! Other writers simplify. It was the time. It could have only been written in those lingering moments before the first world war.

I’ve felt that reading Ulysses was an obligation, and I’m not sure I get the badge if I listen. But listening is such a swell indulgence. And I’m only to Bloom’s lunch at the moment, I’ve got reams to go…it may well carry me through spring or beyond…

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the best film I saw in 2018. Last night, Jon Frankel told me it is an elegy, and that it certainly is, for the early 90s in New York when the sun did not shine, for people who sat in bars and talked, for those who cared enough about other people to write books about them, and those who cared enough to read biographies. It’s an elegy for wit, for mischief, and most of all, for letters–on paper, real tokens of energy moving between people. I came of age at the end of the era of letters and spent my college years and early 20s writing them vigorously. Recently I confronted a rotting cardboard box filled with letters covered with black ink sketches by Joel Schlemowitz, collage art letters from Marchette DuBois, arch postcards from Eric LoCastro, Catholic school handwriting missives from my mother, and so on. Letters from those I met and loved in Ireland. I thought about chucking the whole box in the recycling bin–the dust is not good for my lungs–but I softened, and transferred them to an indestructible plastic bin. They will endure, these physical tokens of my friendships and lovers of my early 20s.

I first started using email in 1994, and since then, I have written many a witty and ephemeral missive. I have even started texting, enjoying the flirtatious brevity of the form. But that is all gone, or perhaps somewhere in the cloud but not accessible to me. It’s ok to mourn the lost artifacts. Don’t even get me started on the box of snapshots…

Whitman, as always

Whitman loved democracy, the idea and practice, and celebrated it over and over. The corpses of the Civil War still stank and yet he was enamored of our guiding principles, perhaps ever more because they had been tried so terribly. “Democracy rests finally upon us. I, my brethren, begin it.” I am thinking of this poem today:

 

AS I WALK, SOLITARY, UNATTENDED.

 

1
As I walk, solitary, unattended,
Around me I hear that eclat of the world—politics, produce,
The announcements of recognized things—science,
The approved growth of cities, and the spread of inventions.

 

2
I see the ships, (they will last a few years,)
The vast factories, with their foremen and workmen,
And hear the endorsement of all, and do not object to it.

 

3
But we too announce solid things;
Science, ships, politics, cities, factories, are not nothing —they serve,
They stand for realities—all is as it should be.

 

4
Then my realities;
What else is so real as mine?
Libertad, and the divine average—Freedom to every slave on the face of the earth,
The rapt promises and luminé of seers—the spiritual world—these centuries-lasting songs,
And our visions, the visions of poets, the most solid announcements of any.

 

5
For we support all,
After the rest is done and gone, we remain;
There is no final reliance but upon us;
Democracy rests finally upon us, (I, my brethren, begin it,)
And our visions sweep through eternity.