Thursday’s Poem 4/30/09

April 30, 2009

I am ending this daily poem marathon with *gasp* song lyrics. I’m not going to try to defend these as valid poetry. However you want to classify this, I think anyone with literary sensibilities can appreciate the merits this has beyond the average modern lyric.

“The Word of God”
sung by Kathy Mar ~ lyrics by Cat Faber

From desert, cliff and mountaintop we trace the wide design
strikeslip fault and overthrust and syn- and anti-cline
We gaze upon creation where erosion makes it known
And count the countless eons in the banding of the stone.

Hard long vanished creatures and their tracks and shells are found
Where Truth has left its sketches on the slate beneath the ground
The patient stone can speak if we can listen when it talks –
Humans wrote the Bible, God wrote the rocks.

There are those who name the stars, who watch the sky by night –
Seeking out the darkest place to better see the light.
Long ago when torture broke the remnant of his will –
Galileo recanted but the earth is moving still.

High above the mountain tops where only distance bars
The Truth has left its footprints in the dust between the stars.
We may watch and study or may shudder and deny –
Humans wrote the Bible, God wrote the sky.

By stem and root and branch we trace, by feather, fang and fur
How the living things that are descend from things that were.
The moss, the kelp, the zebra-fish, the very mites and flies –
Tiny humble wordless things, how shall they tell us lies?

We are kin to beasts, no other answer can we bring.-
The Truth has left its fingerprints on every living thing.
Remember when you have to choose between them in the strife –
Humans wrote the Bible, God wrote life.

And we who listen to the sky or walk the dusty grade
Or break the very atoms down to see how they are made
Or study cells or living things, seek Truth with open hand –
The profoundest act of worship is to try to understand.

Deep in flower and in flesh, in sky and soil and seed
The Truth has left its living word for anyone to read –
So turn and look where ere you think the Truth will be unfurled.
Humans wrote the Bible, God wrote the world.

Unlike many song lyrics, this is just as beautiful to read as to hear.

Faber has done an impressive job of approaching scientific endeavor with the aesthetics of a poet and the nature-love of a Pagan. Though I don’t believe in God, the sentiment still rings true: the universe is divine enough on its own without venerating the dogmas and creeds of human beings.

This flows so well; despite the longer lines, the rhythm keeps even and the length doesn’t demand more than a long breath; the rhyming is one of the few examples of modern rhyme that doesn’t sound cliche or forced.

She touches on three main branches of science: geology, astronomy, and biology. While doing so, she entangles the intangible “Truth” with the tangible physical world. I, too, live in a world where Truth sketches on the slate. I, too, look to the darkest places to better see the light. I, too, believe that the profoundest act of worship is to try to understand. (The 3 lines I reference are my favorites; so much said with so few words.) This lyric helps me understand my connection to the rest of the universe better, while at the same time able to appreciate the mystery in it.


Wednesday’s Poem 4/29/09

April 29, 2009

James Wright – “A Blessing”

Just off the Highway to Rochester, Minnesota
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

This is a powerful and eloquent telling of a brief encounter: 2 humans and 2 young horses. Wright is able to make it so much more.

The tenderness with which the speaker describes the animals – their love for each other, their friendliness toward their human visitors – is driven home by images such as the metaphor: “They bow shyly as wet swans.” And: “Her mane falls wild on her forehead, / And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear / That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.”

He makes proclamations to good effect: “They love each other. / There is no loneliness like theirs.” We need no equivocations, qualifications, or explanations. On the other hand, that these two ideas – love and loneliness – are paired together makes me wonder. Is he speaking of the loneliness that comes with being the only 2 animals in their world that are like each other? (This being the reason they love each other so much. Perhaps all love is like this; we fall in love with the only other creature like ourselves in the world – at least the closest thing we know of at the time.)

Finally, those last lines…stepping out of the body, breaking into blossom…an uplifting sentiment fulfilled by lines whose blessings grow with each syllable and with each reading.

Tuesday’s Poem 4/28/09

April 28, 2009

In memory of Pangur Ban

James Dickey – “The Heaven of Animals”

‘The Heaven of Animals’ by James Dickey

Here they are. The soft eyes open.
If they have lived in a wood
It is a wood.
If they have lived on plains it is grass rolling
Under their feet forever.

Having no souls, they have come,
Anyway, beyond their knowing.
Their instincts wholly bloom
And they rise.
The soft eyes open.

To match them, the landscape flowers,
Outdoing, desperately
Outdoing what is required:
The richest wood,
The deepest field.

For some of these, it could not be the place
It is, without blood.
These hunt, as they have done,
But with claws and teeth grown perfect,

More deadly than they can believe.
They stalk more silently,
And crouch on the limbs of trees,
And their descent
Upon the bright backs of their prey

May take years
In a sovereign floating of joy.
And those that are hunted
Know this as their life,
Their reward: to walk

Under such trees in full knowledge
Of what is in glory above them,
And to feel no fear,
But acceptance, compliance.
Fulfilling themselves without pain

At the cycle’s center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.


A number of writers have written about animals in the afterlife – Neruda, for example, believing that his dog would be in a doggy heaven, even though otherwise he refused to believe in a heaven for humans (see “A Dog Has Died”). But I think Dickey has written about it the best; if I really believed animals had an afterlife, I would want it to be the one he describes in this poem.

Despite the fact that he describes the predator and prey aspect as the main feature of this bestial empyrean, there’s something very tender about this. They have soft eyes that open to their realm. Their eternal reward is to enjoy that which they enjoyed on earth; but it is not a fulfillment of greed or ego, simply a perfection of what was – the sharpest claws, the most cunning stealth. Theirs is a less burdensome paradise, uncorrupted by any human notions of grandiosity. There, they just are – “beyond all knowing” – forever. It makes me feel like I’d rather go to animal heaven than people heaven!

Even the prey animals sound like they have it good – I wouldn’t mind walking around without fear, feeling accepted, a part of everything, even if it meant I would be torn apart – so long as I knew I would rise and walk again.

Whether it be the mouse, rabbit, gazelle, leaf, or grass, let us imagine the manna of the heaven of animals nourishing our earthly companions for eternity.

Monday’s Poem 4/27/09

April 28, 2009

William Blake – “The Tyger”

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake is said to have influenced, been inspired by, and reflect the ideas of many things and people, from Gnosticism to the French Revolution. This poem is certainly no exception, considered by some to be the most anthologized poem ever, and even providing the title to an episode of the X-Files.

Hopefully I can say something new about this poem, or say what has already been said a little differently.

The first notable thing, for me, is that questions make up the entirety of this poem. This lends an air of mystery to it. The tiger, already exoticized by its very nature and by the spelling already archaic in Blake’s time, serves as an “other” that the speaker cannot fully comprehend. He wonders whether the same Creator who made the lamb could have made this fierce creature, and what sort of being it could be who could “frame thy fearful symmetry.”

That this is an exploration of the nature of creativity, and the passion and even predatory nature of such, has been discussed before. But it might not be as common to point out that through this poem, Blake achieves a symbiosis of opposites. The physical tiger points to its immortal Creator; in the deadly predator, we find vivacious life; the form is perfect, yet mysterious.

Felines have a feral power that suggests an intelligence and being greater than perhaps human understanding can comprehend. Even in the housecat, tearing at mice and nuzzling in our lap, can we admire their fearful symmetry.

Sunday’s Poem 4/26/09

April 26, 2009

Wislawa Szymborska – “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself”
Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baraczak and Clare Cavanagh

The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn’t know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they’d claim their hands were clean.

A jackal doesn’t understand remorse.
Lions and lice don’t waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they’re right?

Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
in every other way they’re light.

On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.

Although at first glance this may sound like a cutesy poem, it’s quite a bitter and ironic diatribe.

I like that Szymborska can pull off this effect and have it feel so natural. Of course, what she’s essentially saying here is that guilt is something that sets us apart as humans – and, unless we like thinking of ourselves as killers, that it is a positive thing. Remember, the title is “In Praise of….” This goes beyond the necessity of guilt. I can also see this as a condemnation towards people who she felt were too “bestial.”

Now, I’m not the biggest fan of guilt (having grown up Catholic), but I see Szymborska’s point, and I can’t really argue with the poem (even if I might argue with her over this idea in general). I especially like the line about the killer whale’s heart; like Kundera, she turns lightness into a negative experience.

There are many things we can learn from non-human animals. Sometimes, they can show us where we have gone too far astray from the rest of nature. At others, as here, they can show us what sets us apart as humans – at least, on our good days.

Friday’s Poem 4/24/09

April 25, 2009

Wendell Berry – “The Snake”

At the end of October
I found on the floor of the woods
a small snake whose back
was patterned with the dark
of the dead leaves he lay on.
His body was thickened with a mouse
or small bird. He was cold,
so stuporous with his full belly
and the fall air that he hardly
troubled to flick his tongue.
I held him a long time, thinking
of the perfection of the dark
marking on his back, the death
that swelled him, his living cold.
Now the cold of him stays
in my hand, and I think of him
lying below the frost,
big with a death to nourish him
during a long sleep.

From Openings, 1968.

Unlike Mary Oliver, Berry does not shy away from the bloodier, more destructive aspects of nature, though he has the same awe and admiration of the natural world. Like here, his descriptions are usually concise and evocative. This is a very specific moment and observation. On the one hand, I don’t feel that this poem is shallow. On the other hand, I can’t gleam anything much beyond the surface meaning. Maybe there’s a message about death or the cyclic nature of existence, but I can’t grasp anything beyond the image of the speaker holding the engorged serpent.

One thing that is interestingly pointed out here is the vulnerability that comes with being a predator – the snake’s food has made it vulnerable to a hawk, that might want to eat it, or a man, who might want to be cruel to it just for the fun of it. Luckily, the speaker here simply wants to observe it.

Thursday’s Poem 4/23/09

April 23, 2009

Mary Oliver – “Meeting the Fox”

When I met the fox today – such living
gold in its eyes –
neither of us
moved though only

one of us was instantly taken up with
admiration. Its legs were
braced in their motion
of sudden stop,

its ears were pricked forward
to hear what my language might be,
but I said
nothing, there was no word for the

hope I had that we
could be friends. Behind it
the hillside, then the woods,
then the entire universe.

I stood as still as a rock.
I didn’t know what to do.
Then I thought, oh well,
why not try, and I

held out my hands
in friendship, and instantly,
with a sharp bark, a very
decisive negative,

on its narrow and elegant feet,
back up the hillside
and into that other world
it flew.

I think that for the next few days, I’ll be posting nature-oriented poems.

I have ambivalent feelings about Mary Oliver. On the one hand, her often admiring and vivid descriptions of nature appeal to me. On the other hand, her language and form don’t really impress me. Her choice of line breaks seems arbitrary, and I detect little or no sense of rhythm or sonic motifs. Her poems are more like flash fiction/vignettes in line breaks than poetry.

All that applies to this poem. Still, I like the “living gold” in the fox’s eyes – she has a good sense of selecting evocative detail like that. And I like “its ears were pricked forward / to hear what my language might be”; although sometimes her poems do seem to lack depth, I do think she has moments like this that offer something more than literal description. It is as if the fox’s simple act of being alert to sounds of danger or identification mean something more than that by phrasing it this way; the use of “language” implies some intangible connection between human and fox.

Then she goes on to the failure of language to capture the experience, and the sense of cosmic significance in this trivial meeting by imagining localities being part of larger realms.

And yet, at the end, the fox rejects this idea of connectedness, barking his “decisive negative” at her offer of friendship. And though the speaker imagines them both part of a larger universe, he flees to “that other world.” These things do make me think about nature in more than one way. I agree with many of the criticisms of Oliver’s work from a literary point of view, but I don’t agree that she oversentimentalizes nature. She does have a loving gaze toward it, but I think that, in moments like this, she recognizes the difference between her attitudes about nature and the reality (or the attitudes of non-human beings).