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Archive for August, 2010

The other night, I stopped by the home of a friend who happened to be making wine for the first time. The craft of the vintner! I thought of Chaucer because that 14th c. poet came from a family of wine-makers … I thought of Jesus who once told a strange parable claiming that we don’t put new wine into old wineskins — which, whatever the metaphor may mean, means more to me now that I have seen new wine being made. I was also meditating on this poem, “In Praise of Dreams,” which I read aloud on this wine-making occasion because one of Wislawa Szymborska’s book of  collected poems in translation was lying on the kitchen counter — thanks to Nick, who brought it with him when he came over to help my friend make his own Merlot.

“In Praise of Dreams”

In my dreams
I paint like Vermeer van Delft.

I speak fluent Greek
and not just with the living.

I drive a car
that does what I want it to.

I am gifted
and write mighty epics.

I hear voices
as clearly as any venerable saint.

My brilliance as a pianist
would stun you.

I fly the way we ought to,
i.e., on my own.

Falling from the roof,
I tumble gently to the grass.

I’ve got no problem
breathing under water.

I can’t complain:
I’ve been able to locate Atlantis.

It’s gratifying that I can always
wake up before dying.

As soon as war breaks out,
I roll over on my other side.

I’m a child of my age,
but I don’t have to be.

A few years ago
I saw two suns.

And the night before last a penguin,
clear as day.

Wislawa Szymborska
View with a Grain of Sand (1996)

I think our dreams, our desires for our life, are much more important than we realize. We often minimize their importance, both to ourselves and to others, and we are afraid that since we see them as unimportant (and because we want them so much but lack faith in them and ourselves), we shouldn’t really try to fulfill them or hope that they will be fulfilled. This is a completely incorrect approach to dreams.

Dreams are important, and they are meant to be fulfilled.

What dreams are crying out inside of us to be acknowledged? We need to ask ourselves this question and see where it leads us. First, I believe, the question takes us inward toward our deepest heart. Then, it takes us out into the world to change it. In the process, we connect to the truth that we bear the image of God in our souls, and we connect profoundly to our Creator on our journey of trust, faith, and dreaming … as we begin to see that the Astonishing One is “making all things new.”

I mention all of this, in part, because it was my friend’s dream to make wine for many years, and he finally did it, despite the expense and the fact any of us can go down to a local grocery store and buy a nice Merlot from Napa or France. He was not deterred. He was making something, creating something, and participating in an artistic process. And look! The effects extended beyond his kitchen into my life and, who knows?, maybe through this story I am sharing into your life as well. If you take courage and pursue your dreams, what joy might this not bring to you and to many other people, much greater joy than you can possibly guess before you begin? Your dream is inside of you, but it’s bigger than you.

Let it be born.

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I.

I dream of you walking at night along the streams
of the country of my birth, warm blooms and the nightsongs
of birds opening around you as you walk.
You are holding in your body the dark seed of my sleep.

II.

This comes after silence. Was it something I said
that bound me to you, some mere promise
or, worse, the fear of loneliness and death?
A man lost in the woods in the dark, I stood
still and said nothing. And then there rose in me,
like the earth’s empowering brew rising
in root and branch, the words of a dream of you
I did not know I had dreamed. I was a wanderer
who feels the solace of his native land
under his feet again and moving in his blood.
I went on, blind and faithful. Where I stepped
my track was there to steady me. It was no abyss
that lay before me, but only the level ground.

III.

Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.

IV.

How many times have I come to you out of my head
with joy, if ever a man was,
for to approach you I have given up the light
and all directions. I come to you
lost, wholly trusting as a man who goes
into the forest unarmed. It is as though I descend
slowly earthward out of the air. I rest in peace
in you, when I arrive at last.

V.

Our bond is no little economy based on the exchange
of my love and work for yours, so much for so much
of an expendable fund. We don’t know what its limits are–
that puts us in the dark. We are more together
than we know, how else could we keep on discovering
we are more together than we thought?
You are the known way leading always to the unknown,
and you are the known place to which the unknown is always
leading me back. More blessed in you than I know,
I possess nothing worthy to give you, nothing
not belittled by my saying that I possess it.
Even an hour of love is a moral predicament, a blessing
a man may be hard up to be worthy of. He can only
accept it, as a plant accepts from all the bounty of the light
enough to live, and then accepts the dark,
passing unencumbered back to the earth, as I
have fallen time and again from the great strength
of my desire, helpless, into your arms.

VI.

What I am learning to give you is my death
to set you free of me, and me from myself
into the dark and the new light. Like the water
of a deep stream, love is always too much. We
did not make it. Though we drink till we burst
we cannot have it all, or want it all.
In its abundance it survives our thirst.
In the evening we come down to the shore
to drink our fill, and sleep, while it
flows through the regions of the dark.
It does not hold us, except we keep returning
to its rich waters thirsty. We enter,
willing to die, into the commonwealth of its joy.

VII.

I give you what is unbounded, passing from dark to dark,
containing darkness: a night of rain, an early morning.
I give you the life I have let live for the love of you:
a clump of orange-blooming weeds beside the road,
the young orchard waiting in the snow, our own life
that we have planted in the ground, as I
have planted mine in you. I give you my love for all
beautiful and honest women that you gather to yourself
again and again, and satisfy–and this poem,
no more mine than any man’s who has loved a woman.

Wendell Berry
The Country of Marriage (1973)

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“Think of the wren and how little flesh is needed to make a song.” – Galway Kinnell

Yesterday, I found a new bookstore here in Wheaton. I don’t know how old it is, actually, but it was new to me. Naturally, I found it irresistible. It had quite a fine selection of poetry, including one of Galway Kinnell’s volumes, Strong Is Your Hold (A Mariner Book, 2008). Tucked in the back of the book was a CD of all the poems introduced and read aloud by the poet. Last night and this morning, I listened to Galway Kinnell’s voice, and his thoughts, as he recorded them on the CD, and I felt drawn into the world of his soul.

One of Galway Kinnell’s best-known and best loved poems is “After Making Love, We Hear Footsteps,” and I’ve included that poem here on The Poetry Place in a past post. The poem does embody Kinnell’s tenderness toward his family, his hearty awareness of what is material, what is natural, and what is good in the world, and his power to make his readers and listeners resonate with his–and their own–lived experiences. His ethics of grounded awareness are everywhere evident in his poetic work.

Kinnell’s wife is a bird-watcher, and his poems “Feathering,” “Insomniac,” and “Field Notes” in this volume are about her: about  him watching her, being with her, and experiencing the world with her. I love this about Kinnell’s wife, to whom he dedicates this book, and I love the way her awareness of wild birds–of swallows building their nests, of wrens and of common loons, of books like The Human Nature of Birds–has entered into his awareness and caused him to shape words, like a potter shapes clay, into the form and appearance of birds he remembers because he remembers her.

Kinnell himself is clearly a bird-watcher, too, as his poem “Ode and Elegy” makes readers vividly aware. The poem celebrates a hawk, fiercely seizing its prey, and grieves over the jay who died in its grasp. Looking at Kinnell’s poem again now, I am reminded of a jay I spotted under a backyard bench, “lifeless, torn apart, wing unhinged from wing,” last spring. In a way, that bird’s cruel death and broken body gave life to the book that became THE BIRD-WATCHER’S DIARY ENTRIES.

Kinnell’s world looks both above the earth, to the skies and the wheeling swallows, and below it, to a vole mouldering in beetle-rich soil, and, of course, across it, to meditate on the experience of sexual desire and the reality of death–both together, never far from his consciousness in this book. A section of his poem on the fall of the Twin Towers reminds me in its rhythm of Joy Harjo’s poem “She Had Some Horses.” Kinnell’s words intersect painfully with our own memories of September 11th:

Some died while calling home to say they were OK.

Some called the telephone operators and were told to stay put.

Some died after over an hour spent learning they would die.

Some died so abruptly they may have seen death from inside it.

Some burned, their faces caught fire.

Some were asphyxiated.

Some broke windows and leaned into the sunny day.

Some were pushed out from behind by others in flames.

Some let themselves fall, begging gravity to speed them to the ground.

Some leapt hand in hand that their fall down the sky might happen more lightly.

I know many poets, musicians, memoirists, reporters and everyday diary-keepers have written about that day. I wonder if, for future generations, this poem might have more power to evoke an emotional understanding of the trauma than a high school history textbook or a video documentary. I hope so. But I also know that my generation — in America and around the globe — did not understand the significance of the Battle of the Somme or D-Day or Viet Nam, nor even, I think, the Persian Gulf War or the current conflicts in the Middle East. If we did, I can’t help but believe the history of the world might be re-written in an entirely different, more life-giving, death-denying way. Is it too much to think another generation might be able to understand or emotionally enter into the experience of September 11th … if it happened before they were born?

There are other poems in Kinnell’s collection that I enjoy, and many individual words that stand out to me (“hirpled” and “glidder,” “scummaging,” “Laudate Dominum,” “self-pollarded” and “quenelles de brochet”). But the interplay and interpenetration of the written and oral forms of these poems struck me, too. The series of small changes Kinnell made to his lyrics, detectable when listening to the CD and reading the book at the same time (so that I can know clearly the poems exist in two forms, one spoken and recorded, one written and revised) caught my ear and my eye at once.

They will catch yours, too.

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Recently, I opened up my mailbox and found J. Michael Martinez’s book, Heredities, sent to me from the Academy of American Poets. I’ve been reading around in it and enjoying its tender insights. One of my favorite poems in it, “White Song,” is about Martinez’s grandmother and her lilacs … and it made me think of my own abuelita, Ikie Nora Nieto Cordova, who loved purple irises … To read Martinez’s poem and hear the author read it aloud, visit:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/blog/2009/05/weekly-poem-white-song.html

Enjoy!

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