As I wrote to friends to whom I sent this poem this morning, if one is constantly vocal and expressive of one’s great misery over someone, chances are that one is mostly healed already, as the severely injured don’t usually mourn aloud. Anyway, here’s my latest mournful love poem:
Me in my little, tight, hurting world
And you, somewhere in the great world
Are both objects
Of the same grammarless sentence,
A sentence passed by what passes for fate,
A cruel joke made by a sentinel over people’s
A cunning lout with hair sprouting from his ears
A subordinate who need not fear the distant
authority he represents,
His particular jest those people who try
To maintain some dignity in the face of
what confounds them
And makes them look silly or confused.
My partiality for you,
Your need to withdraw
He sneers at, picks that monstrous organ
In the middle of his face
And wipes the proceeds on his trouser bottom,
Not even having the grace to envy us
What is drama to him?
What irony? what compositional strategies?
He just guffaws at all these as words,
And says, “Not worth my time.”
Our tale doesn’t need to compose nicely
To suit him,
He’s the sort to watch a bug, fascinated,
For a minute or two,
Then, when it is trying loop-de-loops
Just in reach of his hand,
Performing, writing its name across the stars
As a miracle of nature,
He lifts his big, fat thumb
And squashes it flat
Against the table in front of him,
Indifferent to artistry.
But back to us, and our responsibilities:
I loved you, and it was all I could do,
For you were so worthy to be loved.
You could not love me the same,
And so gave it up as a bad job,
A trick with smoke and mirrors,
Something I had imagined
Or cooked up to fool the fates.
Enter our surly lieutenant,
And here I am back to him,
As if we had had no hand
In it at all.
Could it be, is he devious enough
To have brought us together in the first place?
Is he even sufficiently attentive
To the jokes he plays
To extend his feeble concentration
To the experiment
Of placing us together?
Whatever the case,
I still think of you, and wonder
Whether you are looping-the-loop
Daring to face him down
Perhaps by flying out of his range,
Your wings lighter
For having lost the burden of me.
I sit, quiet and still,
Or all wound up in knots,
Escaping attention for the moment
By my lack of motion.
He is evidently confident
That I am already dead,
And so all I have
Is my little, tight, hurting world,
And you in my thoughts,
Somewhere in the great world out there.
©by Victoria L. Bennett, 8/14/18
Occasionally, I make an attempt at a philosophical/rhetorical poem, though sad to say, it’s difficult to make it a truly “poetic” poem at the same time, at least for me. But I hope, at least, that what this poem loses in meter, or rhyme, or word play (though there are a few paradoxes here and there), it gains in comprehensive, overall clarity in covering the subject. I think the subject of purity is still a riddle for most of us, since we leave the safe confines of total ignorance and innocence from the moment we are born and steadily accumulating impressions and knowledge. At any rate, here is an attempt to comment on the subject of purity from an adult’s perspective, after the fact:
The Blank Slate
Scholars, people of learning
Have spilled oceans of ink
Have typed, have dictated,
Have processed, have created
About the tabula rasa.
Yet none were so innocent
As to simply shrug
Or keep silent.
And none of their words
Were so guilty
As to tell the real truth.
Purity, of a sort,
Is like their ignorance.
Purity’s feet stink
Because an honest person sweats;
Purity cries out
Because an injured person
Purity is like that.
Purity stares at you, uncertain
What you mean
And waiting for you to explain.
Purity is like that.
Purity, like yin or yang
Has an element of knowledge in it
Some slight awareness of the other
Or else how would you know
What to compare it to?
Gets tripped up easily
By its opposite,
Maybe knowing there’s something
But not sure of what, how, or why.
It is too unschooled.
Purity is like that.
Purity and existence are at odds most often–
Just as Sartre claimed we all have dirty hands,
And “existence precedes essence,”
So we always have to ask ourselves,
“What price purity?”
If someone is pure, who made them so?
Who kept them in the dark
About starving hordes, and ticks,
What makes them so special,
That they are allowed to be ignorant
Of what hurts?
Yet, we are still wistful
For the days when we too were somewhat blank,
Even if guilty by birth.
Purity, in sum,
Is something that,
Whether we ever had it or not–
We had in our mind’s most fervent imagination
From the first time we were asked,
“Who did this?”
And we were able genuinely to answer,
Yes, purity is like that.
©by Victoria L. Bennett, 8/10/18
Oh, if only it were always summer! But then, perhaps if it were, we wouldn’t appreciate it, so goes the temperate zone dweller’s argument. The last winter (winter 2017-18) was so severe here in the American Northeast, however, and lasted so long into Spring that one shivers in advance, even at the end of July, especially when we’re already having (and have never stopped having) storms and rain and yucky skies. Right now, though, I can afford to be a bit blasé, perhaps, at least enough to write a poem on the topic which is not totally despairing. It does perhaps have one of those human contradictions in it that we often run across when listening to people discussing the weather. Here goes:
The Comfort of Dread
It’s almost the end of summer,
There is only one month left,
I’m dreading already the winter,
And the cold weather’s mighty, strong heft.
The ice, and the snow, and the chilblains,
(What are chilblains?)
What one used to have
When the frozen air got on one’s knuckles,
And one couldn’t afford a fine salve.
Yes, I dread even antique disasters,
Such as visited people of yore,
When the wind whistled ’round the high turrets
And the snow blew in under the door.
It’s useless to tell me I’m modern,
And I live in apartmented bliss,
After all, these things are so comparative,
And someone lives better than this.
Oh, it’s almost the end of warm greetings,
From one’s family and lovers and friends,
For on cold days they’re bundled and shivering,
And they all complain so without end.
Why, oh why, can’t there be a fine climate
Where we can determine the air,
Where the heat and AC are like indoors,
And follow us everywhere?
But I guess I wouldn’t be happy
Not to live through the change and to bitch,
So the temperate zone, chill or hotter,
Is where I will serve out my hitch.
©by Victoria L. Bennett, 7/29/18
Yet another poem on the commonplace of “the vanity of human wishes”–“The Department of Crossed Wires”
Perhaps you have heard an English instructor or professor use the expression “commonplace” in referring to an idea or topic for a poem. This is not a casual usage of the term “commonplace,” such as occurs when we are speaking of the notions used in casual conversation with our friends; instead, it is an actual technical term in English and literary studies, referring to a topic or subject written on traditionally many, many times by different writers and poets, each of whom has his or her own “take” on it. The particular commonplace known as “the vanity of human wishes” is in fact the subject of a poem by Samuel Johnson by the same title, “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” which in turn was based upon Juvenal’s Tenth Satire.
Not to be too grand, but I’ve come up with a little, less austere and more playful variety of a poem on the commonplace of “the vanity of human wishes.” It’s called “The Department of Crossed Wires.” One word of warning about a possible caveat–a beta reader pointed out that in stanza five, the impression is produced that a cow was conceived and brought to birth by a man, a double impossibility. My response to that is that the main intent was to suggest the ridiculousness of what fate sometimes deals us out, such as having a farmer needing to get rid of his three-legged cow to another farmer. But I willingly accept the other possible interpretation as well, being as it’s the sort of story which usually turns up in cheap tabloids such as The National Enquirer, wherein stories as fantastic as the one suggested regularly appear. I still recall a story about a cross between a rabbit and a cat being born, a story that I allowed my bemused glance to fall across while on a train once, picking up someone else’s discarded reading material. Anyway, here we go:
The Department of Crossed Wires
Somewhere in the universe
There is that special department,
That lone mountain,
That strange star
Of crossed wires.
There reside a little old man
And a little old woman
By his side,
Busy with so many things,
So many, many things,
That they constantly
Cross the wires
Of human wishes and desires.
It’s not their intention
To be difficult,
Rather, they are more offended
And frustrated themselves
By their shortcomings
Than anyone else, they think,
For it disturbs their few moments
I love you, but you don’t love me,
She wants to go to college,
But her folks want her to work
right away, and show earning potential.
He is married to a woman who doesn’t
value him, while his son still looks up to him
And he fears
That it won’t be long now before
His son weeps for him, and shares his tears.
“Tsk!Tsk!” says the little old man, then,
Relinquishing his model of himself in his mind,
“Damn it all to hell!” he exclaims,
“Why won’t these things come right!”
“Dear, if you have to swear, then do it
On your own time, for we’re behind now,”
The little old woman preaches,
Meanwhile wondering how
To find a farmer who will take
A three-legged cow
Which she couldn’t prevent from being born
To a man in Lucknow.
They have to believe, the little old man and woman,
That even they, somewhere, have an arbiter
Of their destinies,
A Fate for them, the minor Fates,
Something to blame, someone to believe in,
Even a godling to hate.
Or is it all circular?
Does the lowest worm, deep in the ground,
In the circuits of its digestive system,
Determine the why and how
Of what will become of the crossed-up
Little man and woman
And the ruminant from Lucknow?
©by Victoria L. Bennett, 7/28/18
Sometimes, it’s fun to unearth an old-fashioned poetry book, one which has a lot of good poems, vital and essential and award-winning poems, but which in addition has a number of more average attempts to charm or woo our interests. And among these more average poems, there are always a number of poems, even by major authors, which “point a moral and adorn a tale,” to quote a phrase. They are collected as a form of offering comfort in addition to presuming to give guidance, because many people find reassurance in the mere fact that someone else thinks it possible to give guidance at all, with our poets (and poetasters, sometimes) becoming our spiritual parents, teachers, leaders. So, with appreciation for all those poems I was forced to read in childhood by my teachers, poems which were usually of this ilk, and which reinforced their ideas with rhymes and other poetic devices, I offer this poem of my own, which came along as most poems do, mysteriously to some degree, deliberately to some degree:
Aggregates Little pebbles gathered up Make a mighty mountain Little waters borne together Gush a fulsome fountain Little kisses, little hugs Raise our expectations Little lies and little slights Douse our speculations. Little moments, little days Bear us slowly deathward Little glories, little rays Show our sun at westward. Little hopes and little fears Sum up our claim on heaven Little sins and little graces Weigh our scales down even. When we must, we add things up As well as we are able So let us live by careful sums Here ends my counting fable.
©6/21/18 by Victoria Leigh Bennett
For months now, people have been mentioning to me a book called The Secret Life of Bees, so dutifully, I’ve put the book on one of my library websites and am waiting for it to get off a waiting list. In the meantime, however, and due to various promptings from my feline companion, Lucie-Minou, a ravishing calico torbie young lady who will be 4 years old on July 2, I’ve been speculating that perhaps there needs to be a (yet another, yes) book about cats which details and examines issues including their innermost secret thoughts, longings, urges, and etc., as far as these can be determined by a mere human audience. Always taking into account, of course, that cats are natural performers, not like dogs, rollicking clowns, but sleek, Oscar-winning stars of the show.
But let’s get first things first, you say. What’s a calico torbie? A calico torbie is a three-way cross between a calico (black, white, and orange), a tabby (in this case gray and brown) and a tortoiseshell (markings like a tortoiseshell, in various cat colors). And Lucie-Minou says, “Now that you’ve satisfied your profoundly repugnant concern about the colors of my fur, let’s get on with it!”
What do Lucie-Minou and Fluffy and Pom-pom and Sylvester and Hector and Gilgamesh and Chloe and Bella all think about while peering forth out of sometimes narrowed eyes at the world? When hiding under the edge of the bed with two feet peeking out, what personal history of grandeur makes them assume that humans will be able to resist touching the two little feet, or tickling the little back where it lies curled? When Lucie-Minou leaves the bedroom at night after I tell her “Goodnight, sweet kitty,” (hoping of course that she’ll curl up at my shoulder and stay), does she simply go into the other bedroom and sleep on the pile of clean, unsorted laundry, where I’ve found her when I seek late at night, or is she secretly planning a coup, involving her Fancy Feast Broths, or perhaps the space on the couch that is in contest between her and my guests?
I know, of course, that she recalls her own past life (and that of her ancestors) as royalty in ancient Egypt, and any time I forget and tickle her tum, she puts up with it for a bit and then gives me the not entirely civilized reminder of a paw on my hand with a claw just barely extended. But what, what, what, is she thinking while she suns herself by the living room window, or is she merely sunbathing as we all do after a long, hard winter?And what is the mystery about her and the opera?
About her and the opera, you say? What do you mean? Well, it’s like this. Every night of the week, our local classical radio station broadcasts the music of all sorts of classical composers, as it does all day, for that matter. When Lucie-Minou and I are ready for bed, I take a book or my crochet and turn in, and put the radio on. And she jumps up on the bed and both purrs and kneads her claws in the covers as the music plays. She will stay until I turn the music off most times. But woe and betide! On the two weekend nights, the station plays opera, and Lucie-Minou, in her apparent abhorrence or disdain (which is it?) for the human voice as an instrument leaps off the bed and goes to sit alone in the living room for the evening. I’ve learned (or been trained) to cut off the radio or not even turn it on those nights in order to keep her with me. So far so good, she is indifferent to opera. She has a right to her choice.
But then, what’s so special about the opera “Norma”? For, I have a subscription online to opera, and I decided the other day to play “Norma,” which I had never heard before. Now, Lucie-Minou has many times heard me play the operas during the daytime, when I am in my chair in the living room, where she often likes to sit (at opera-less times) on my lap. But her reaction to the opera has basically been the same as usual: she goes into another room, sulking or not, it’s hard to say. When the beginning strains of “Norma” sounded, however, she just twitched her ears slightly and maintained her position on the carpet, a little ways away. It’s a short opera, only two acts, and as the action hetted up and the singing became more impassioned, she glanced at me curiously, which means with wider eyes than usual, because though cats are constitutionally curious, you can rarely get a self-respecting cat to admit that humans are interesting, or at least not often.
Suddenly, to my great surprise, she launched herself up onto my computer table, and then strolled across my midriff and sat herself down, in between me and the laptop, apparently so that she could see and hear better. She sat there, ears still twitching, for a good half hour, so that I felt like saying “Down in front!” since she was very slightly obscuring my view. Then, when her basic questions were satisfied, such as why a Druid priestess would fall in love with a Roman general, and why they spent so much time mewing at each other instead of chasing back and forth across the scenery, one in pursuit, one fleeing, she got off my lap, but continued to sit by my chair, apparently listening, until the opera was over! When the introductions and interviews came on at the end, she took her leave from the room, and when I went to look for her, she was having a post-performance luncheon at the silver bowl. No clapping for her! So, what provoked this change of heart, and was it only the one opera that she liked? Should I try “The Barber of Seville” again? Or perhaps, with a bit more caterwauling, “Carmen”?
Yes, it’s all still a mystery to me. But I live in hope that someone, someday, will write a book entitled The Private Lives of Cats. Or something like that. shadowoperator
Some serious God-talk for a contrary soul, no holds barred: Anne Lamott’s “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers”
To reveal a truth that puts me in the rearguard (if anywhere at all) in the procession of people who expect things from a mysterious eternal source, not only do I refuse to give that source a conventional name, such as Allah, Yahweh, Christ, Buddha, etc., but I find great difficulty in being thankful. I’m the grumpy child, the child who’s never satisfied, who grouses and complains about everything and wonders why things aren’t different, even though I myself haven’t perhaps done that much to make them different. To others of more thankful vein, it sometimes seems that I believe we all enter the world with a certain amount of currency to spend, and I’m angry because I got shortchanged by the Powers That Be. What Anne Lamott instead insists in her guidebook to prayer, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers is that we’re all born with the same spiritual currency, and we can either shortchange ourselves and others, or recharge our “gift cards” by realizing that life is, in fact, a gift, and that we have the power to increase our appreciation and enjoyment of it, and to get both us and others through some of the rough spots.
When I first started reading her book, I found the trustfulness and the willingness to compromise with God annoying (as if one has a choice about compromising with an eternal principle, but then of course, she seems to think we do, in a sense). She seemed to go from inspiration to inspiration, from eager acceptance of a divine force to a certain easy relationship with it, though she emphasizes throughout the book that these things aren’t true. I had a certain skeptical “Oh yeah, sez you” attitude about it, which wanted to say that it’s just impossible to be so much on “hail-fellow-well-met” terms with some of the really suckassy things that happen, both in the name of God, and in the name of the negative principle (which some call “evil”), and which we’re asked to believe is a sub-province of God’s concern, one which he or she has reasons, mysterious ones, for not controlling better.
I continued to read, however, waiting for the “punchline,” as if someone were telling me a joke or tall tale; there had to be a punchline, a conversion scene, a “I-can-top-everything-I’ve-already-said-with-something-that’ll-knock-your-socks-off.” I was getting near the end of the book and thinking that though less talented writers had sometimes given me something significant in less well-crafted words, that this epitome of the golden phrase had for once disappointed, when I found my passage. This is something that usually happens to people in a prayerful audience when the minister or prayer leader says something that touches home, and then sometimes there’s an invitation to “come on down to the front and worship,” and that part always has infuriated me, and embarrassed me both for myself (my can sunk firmly in my seat, not budging), and for those who drift thankfully and solemnly down to the “front.” In fact, I have only been in that sort of prayer gathering once or twice as a child or adolescent, the church I mainly attended not being so demonstrative, but existing, however thankfully, on a more “I’ll give you a call from my cell phone later” sort of relationship with divinity.
But certainly, thanks in part to the good humor and honesty of Lamott’s spiritual manual, for it is certainly something anyone in the habit of seeking illumination should have a look at, I had that important “ah-ha!” moment near the end. I wasn’t expecting it, though so much of value had gone before (and I was sulky about that, because it meant I couldn’t dismiss the book wholesale). Here, as if she knew me well and knew how many times I have dieted and starved and tried to get my avoirdupois under control, is the passage I ran across, full of simplicity and yet full of her particular brand of jesting about things which we often wince from, when they are dealt with by more solemn or thankless hands:
“You mindlessly go into a 7-Eleven to buy a large Hershey’s bar with almonds, to shovel in, to go into a trance, to mood-alter, but you remember the first prayer, Help, because you so don’t want the shame or the bloat. And out of nowhere in the store, a memory floats into your head of how much, as a child, you loved blackberries, from the brambles at the McKegney’s. So you do the wildest, craziest thing: you change your mind, walk across the street to the health food store, and buy a basket of blackberries, because the answer to your prayer is to remember that you’re not hungry for food. You’re hungry for peace of mind, for a memory. You’re not hungry for cocoa butter. You’re hungry for safety, for a moment when the net of life holds and there is an occasional sense of the world’s benevolent order….So you eat one berry slowly….Wow. That tastes like a very hot summer afternoon when I was about seven and walked barefoot down the dirt road to pick them off the wild blackberry bushes out by the goats….Wow.”
This seems so colloquial that one might almost miss the artistry. And because I’m not a happy camper, I demand a certain level of artistry; I tell myself I deserve it, as a professional reader, but perhaps the truth is also that I sometimes engage in games of one-upmanship with other more fortunate writers, who’ve hit the print page. That is, of course, my privilege, as a trained reader, but it also can blur the distinction between major issues of composition and minor faults or inattentions. In Lamott’s quoted passage above, she not only hits on a huge human issue, the issue of displacement activity, a psychological phenomenon in which one urge or desire to act is replaced with something apparently less intense (in some cases, not this one, less harmful, as when a bird under challenge from another bird will whet its beak on a branch, or attack something inanimate). She gets at the issue of real desires vs. cheap replacements that are no good for us. And, she shifts the narrative from the “you” it starts out in to the “when I was about seven” part as if piercingly aware of the defensiveness people like me have to being rescued by gods. Now, granted, berries are better, but in my ordinary life, “the wildest, craziest thing” I might do is to go into a health food store and buy blackberries. Or at least, it runs a close race with other forms of genuine activity, because I’m likely, being on a reduced budget, to convince myself that berries at a health food store are way more expensive than a candy bar, which is cheap eats for all who dare disregard their health. At any rate, this was my passage, the passage that particularly touched me. It reminded me of all the times my five-year-older aunt and I rode up into the country with my grandfather on his repair truck (he worked for the Coca-Cola Co., and the big supply trucks often overheated or broke down up in the hills where they travelled in the summer). My aunt and I usually found berry bushes, totally wild and unsprayed because they belonged to the earth, not to farmers or growers, and we collected and ate berries to our hearts’ content. Now, my aunt is in a nursing home and will probably continue there, despite the fact that she is not very elderly, because she had a brain bleed about a year ago which decreased her ability to function. Trying to take a page from Anne Lamott’s book, I attempt to place the one experience of her, speaking haltingly to me over the phone, side-by-side in the eternal scales with my youthful experience of gathering berries together, and thanks to Lamott, it’s a bit easier to do, even for someone like me, who feels a little safer on the non-trusting side of life.
So, that’s really all I had to say: Lamott’s book is a lovely book, one that you may fight with as you like, but that may turn out to have something for you too in it, even if you are not profoundly spiritual, as I believe she must be. After all, you don’t have to say “God,” or even “god,” or even “goodness me!” if you don’t want to. All that’s required is a mindful attention to the up currents as well as the down currents, and a resolve to be a better, or at least a more completely whole, person. shadowoperator