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
Thoughts on synchronicity, Elizabeth Lesser’s book “Broken Open,” and a poem inspired by two near-autodidacts
Recently, I have been feeling out-of-sorts more than usual, and sunk in a sort of spiritual case of the doldrums. So, I figured I needed to return once again to my old habits of reading more, crocheting less (though I’m backed way up with craft projects!), and writing poetry again. As it so chanced, I got Elizabeth Lesser’s book Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow off one of my library websites.
Now, when I read a self-help book, even a more spiritually-inclined one, it’s a rare day. I automatically have my critical claws out for grammar and punctuation and style errors, since many such books are self-forgiving in their copy editing. And as expected, I found a number of mistakes and one nearly unforgiveable error–to an English teacher, anyway–in which T. S. Eliot was quoted or referred to knowledgeably, apparently, but spelled T. S. Elliot. These sorts of things always make me suspicious of the author, because I reason that if their message is so vital and earth-shaking, they could at least eliminate errors and distractions, somewhat in the way that the first steps of any spiritual routine that I am aware of first concentrates on accuracy and repetition of some chant or discipline or physical exercise done correctly, which them later morphs into a higher reality. Maybe Lesser reasoned that she was already on a higher level and so didn’t need to be cautious about her basics, but that didn’t wash with me. The book wasn’t done with me, however.
Sure enough, once I started reading, my old friend synchronicity gave me a visit. As Lesser more or less quotes the prophet of synchronicity (that prophet being Carl Jung), what is not brought to consciousness returns to us as fate. Thus, all the many things I’d been meaning to have another look at popped up at once in the references in her book. There was Jung, Joseph Campbell (yes, the mythologizing Hero With a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell), Rainer Maria Rilke, whom I’d also checked out before opening her book, and various other not-new-but-surprisingly-recurring items. So, I kept reading. It was an uneven book, but helpful and except for what I believe she herself calls a few “hippy-dippy” moments, for which anyone can be forgiven who’s writing about such intangibles as spirit and its manifestations, a restorative read. After reading her, I went back to the two-disc set of DVDs in which Joseph Campbell was interviewed before the end of his life by Bill Moyers. Though their conversation is dense with reference and complicated points in storytelling, it’s an enlightening and provocative set of interviews, and well worth anyone’s time who wants to feel more in tune with humanity in general.
This morning, I was feeling disgruntled again, so I decided to try to put down my thoughts in a poem, and boy, did I! It may not be the best poem in the world, may in fact be thought of by some as very prosaic, but it’s three pages long, and I think encapsulates the experience I’ve recently been having. Though the mystic in the poem is a “she” (as a sort of indirect nod to Lesser, though I wasn’t consciously writing about her), the real figure I was thinking of was a sort of femininized Campbell, a spirit guide. As well, I thought of Kenneth Burke, the great rhetorician of roughly the same time frame as Campbell, who had many illuminating thoughts about the human situation as well, though his most flagrantly spiritual thoughts were protectively couched in terms of how rhetoric functions. These two men were both loosely or closely at different times associated with teaching and universities, but both were often autodidacts in the sheer amount of syncretic learning and thinking they did, on many issues. So, here’s the poem, in all of its perhaps dubious glory. I have to apologize for the length of this post, but without all its parts, I don’t think it would make sense.
The Only Road in Town (To Kenneth Burke and Joseph Campbell) Wayfarers We all are, The signposts irregular and confused. As children, Proud of new abilities To scan and read, We make fun Of the ancient spellings, Pronounce them in the distorted fashions They seem to suggest, Ignorant we, ignorant-seeming they. Seeming, in fact, is what we know, How things seem to interpret themselves out, Lazy children, letting things go their own ways. We think we split into many myriad paths, I a doctor, you a lawyer, he a merchant, She a mystic, And we all shrug at her especially, For she keeps insisting That there's only one road in town. But when we need, in the middle of the night, It's her words we try to recall, And if we are shameless of our pain, We dial her up, Hold her on the phone for hours, Not thinking about whether or not She too has children, or a garden, Or a husband who's leaving Because he can no longer Stand the mice roaming in the cupboard Which she refuses to kill Because she wants to drive them out gently. We laugh at her when we gather, Sometimes to her face, Which she takes in good part Even while saying "You'll see," And we do see sometimes, Though we are always newly astonished That someone could hold that askew-view Perpetually, instead of only now and then. When we think we need God, We speak about it timidly to her, And usually her only, As if she were a purveyor of pornography Or other specious wares, And we not wanting to be known to be a customer. She doesn't tell us we need God, But only confirms that we have something like a soul, needing water like a plant, Though which plant and body of water She refuses to say, only nourishing us with a taste of it Through her listening and her rare words. Her words too are signs, reminiscent Of the signposts of old, though more intriguing Through being more abbreviated and scant. She lets us be, and it seems so rare and refreshing Just to be let be, to share her sun, To live under the same stars With someone who seems to breathe sun and stars, And breezes and antelopes and gazelles and tigers, All in one. Her rare earth is ours, for a while, And though she can't explain it to us, And doesn't try with phrases and such, We respond like heliotropes and sunflowers To her being, and go away feeling refreshed. There comes the time, though, when we lose her, Whether through our mortal dereliction or her own, And we reach to try to preserve the intangible, To recover the spirit that even those lazy children We once were seemed to recognize in themselves. And when we ask, from our deathbed or hanging solicitously over her in her moment of departure, "Tell us, which road shall the funeral cortège take?" Seeking either her last advice or her last wish, She says but "The only road in town." And we are thrown into tactless confusion, Scrambling to assign a coherent meaning To words that seem much like the signposts of old, Contradictory, sublime, but oxymoronic all the same. It may be then at that moment that she restores us To the common lot, the way of it all, To our not being doctors, or lawyers, or merchants, Or even mystics, but to a being we can rejoin Now that we have completed this leg of our journey, This fine spectacle of a wayfaring, This conundrum of existence, And we are she, and she is we, and then someone departs, Via the only road in town.
©by Victoria Leigh Bennett, 4/28/18
“Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel”–Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself”
As the French playwright and thinker Jean Racine once claimed, “Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.” Horace Walpole echoed the sentiment, but put the two clauses in the reverse order. Whatever the order, the sentiment is one that often applies to the way fiction, not to mention drama, works. The unique thing about the work of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is that it produces both feelings at the same time in those who read it, not the usual sense of tragicomedy, but a studied blankness of effect and affect both at the end of each of her short stories in this book, which bears the subtitle “Love Stories.” And this is not a case in which one can blame the translation, which those who know Russian claim is an adept one (by the translator Anna Summers, who has translated others of Petrushevskaya’s works as well).
I say that there is a “studied blankness of effect and affect both” because there is: the blankness of effect is contained in the continual twist which takes place at the end of each short story, where one is expecting a sense of resolution. There is in each case a sense of nothing really being resolved, but a sense of reality, of truth to real life and to the way thing actually happen, of the oftentimes inconclusive result even of big events in life. Just because so many other fictions proceed by well-worn formulas, this lack of final effect produces its own sense of surprise and shock, and often a rueful chuckle at one’s own expectations. The blankness of affect relates to the marked restraint of feeling in the narrator’s exposition of her characters and their situations: she doesn’t feel sorry for them in the conventional sense, doesn’t play sad little violin solos on her creative instrument, and doesn’t encourage the reader to feel sorry for them either.
And yet, one does feel for these characters, when all is said and done. It’s the author’s own sense of balance and discipline in dealing with the sorrowful facts of these character’s lives, with their strange and funny solutions to their predicaments, with their often unmerited suffering and undeserved rewards, which make this book the book it is. It’s as if the author took a whiny, mournful, disgruntled little series of events, and removed the vital connections of characters’ trajectories up and down in feeling and action, and instead put a laugh here, and a poignant remark there, in places where they weren’t before expected. And she doesn’t pull her punches, or bestow or waste any sympathy on her characters; such sympathy as they deserve, they may or may not get from the other characters (and in a final way from the reader, at the end of each story), but they don’t get it from the narrative voice, which is calm and full of detail and fact, but which only supplies these and insists that the reader come to his or her own conclusions. Yet, from this restrained puppeteering, there is tenderness, coming from who can say where? All one knows when reading is that Petrushevskaya is like a canny and watchful parent, who without apparent doting or pride harshly pushes her progeny forth, in such a way that she cunningly wins that doting for them from the audience, who feels for them that they have such a dragon of a progenitor that they surely deserve to be lauded and made much of by their auditors.
Even the title of this book is one which bestows that strict tone of restraint on events: the major events of that story, “there once lived a girl who seduced her sister’s husband, and he hanged himself,” are ones which are taken away from the reader who hopes to follow the path of major events. The title instead insists that there is something else of importance, and it is thus that the reader must enter the story and supply the feeling, the startlement, the connections between event and feeling. This is a book which rewards curiosity and investigation well, and which gives the reader sated by ordinary fictional motifs and sallies the charge of a lifetime. I hope you will read it soon, and discover just how original a talent Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is.
This first week of the New Year, while I was sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike me as to what activity I should start with next, a phrase popped into my head: “infinity in a grain of sand.” As is often the case, I found out after looking it up that I didn’t have it quite right: what William Blake actually said was something more like “To see a world in a grain of sand,” followed up by “infinity in an hour.” But since Einstein, it’s apparently been thought that time and space are not distinct, so I stuck with my own title, with a nod to Blake (and Einstein). This was my first poem of the New Year, 2018:
“Infinity in a Grain of Sand”
Love is an old man who sleeps poorly,
And awakens cranky with his wife in the morning.
Love is a young girl who can’t find one shoe,
And her mother calling repeatedly.
Love is a young man working on a truck
For his friend, who probably won’t pay him.
Love is the Earth going ’round,
With the universe still expanding.
Love is a cat who doesn’t have fleas or ticks
Still scratching herself and bathing methodically.
Love is a mother hen, pecking one chick on the head
And flapping her wings, and trying to crow.
Love is a horse rubbing its rump against the rail
And then trumpeting its voice to the donkey
Two stalls down, who answers.
Love is the Earth going ’round
With the universe still expanding.
Love is the mathematical equation
That the teacher writes on the board
Hoping his students will think him profound.
Love is the gravedigger, on a cold day sitting on a frozen mound
To eat his lunch, and drink the soup
From his thermos, which his wife filled.
Love is the conjunction point where all of them meet
Each in his or her own world, not yet complete.
Love is the Earth going ’round,
With the universe still expanding.
©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 1/2/18
Other than love, probably one of the most tried (or trite) and true subjects for poetry is the change of seasons. There are a few new things to say on the topic, however, sadly enough. Here goes:
A Change of Seasons The fall is come And the days are doing what they call "Drawing in." And I too am drawing in, Shutting down and pulling in My seasonal feelers Like a snail's antennae, Because sounds will be different in winter, When they are muted by the snowfall. My aspirations too Are becoming flat characters, Losing their roundedness, No longer speaking of fully realized possibilities But now only signaling outlines of things Which may or may not come. We have no hope of escaping Without leaving the temperate zone, Though meteorologists are already disputing Inches of white, feet of rain, Days' light, Nights' dark, While what will come will come Whether they argue or not. And it's not especially dread that I feel, For I'm used to it by now. The unsettling element is rather That things are now topsy-turvy, And for certain days of autumn, it's summer, For some days of winter, it's autumn or even July, For some days of spring too, it'll be An early and undue warm season, Then back into a retrograde deep freeze on days When we expect the sun to be smiling. We are even getting used to climate change, The adaptability of humans Being apparently our biggest selling point. But perhaps the question is due to Nature, Or the gods, or Fate, or whatever you may happen To believe in, "How hard is it to change?" What else should we be asking, We, who are at least partly to blame For this untoward state of affairs, Given our ability to adapt, Shouldn't we practice Adapting our selfishness and greed, Instead of trying to figure out how To make the earth spin round in the opposite direction? Even now, experts try to figure out how we can control the weather-- Wouldn't it be easier, and more economical, All things considered, To learn to control ourselves? That would be a change of seasons I could really get into.
©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 10/17/17
This isn’t a particularly “poetic” poem; in fact, it more than borders on the prosaic. Nonetheless I wanted to share the point of view. There may be better poems for other days.