Monthly Archives: February 2017

Hombre: Reading Response for Mike Lala and Rachel Hall

I arrived early at the Gregory Alliar Museum for Mike Lala’s poetry reading and took a moment to wander quietly from painting to painting through the gallery as the audience filtered in. One painting in particular interested me, a simple rectangle frame with the image of a Mexican farmer bent over a field as he labored with a hoe. He wore jeans and green bowler, and his face was hidden. The plackard read Hombre Cultivando la Tierra, 1995 and that the painting was a promised gift to Polly and Mark Addison who, it seemed to me, were quite patient in waiting these 22 years for their art.

“I am on perpetual loan,” Hombre told me as we moved on through the gallery. “I go from museum to museum, staying a few weeks here before moving on to a new gallery.”

“You must be familiar with events like these?” I inquired.

“Yes. Art is my life, after all. I work very hard at it, day and night.”

I explained to Hombre that this evening we would be hearing a poetry reading from a New York poet named Mike Lala, as well as an opening reading from Rachel Hall, a professor of English who is also based in New York. Hombre was eager to join me and so we took our seats near the front row.

Rachel read from her book of collected and connected short stories titled Heirlooms, and though we were unable to catch the title of the specific story, it centered on a young woman living in France near the beginning of World War 2. Rachel read smoothly and clearly, no doubt a skill she learned from her years as a professor as Hombre commented, however, we soon found ourselves growing bored of the story.

“I’m not sure I understand what the point of this is,” Hombre whispered.

“I believe she’s trying to tell us about that feeling of uncertainty immediately before the war but through the lens of her first pregnancy and her family.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps this is what your English department would like you to say about this reading?” Hombre countered.

“To be honest, I’m not sure what the expectation is.”

“I think the expectation should be to honestly talk about how you feel.”

We listened patiently as Rachel’s story continued and we learned our character lost the child, that her neighbors read books about farming (and how unusual that was to them!), and that the bed sheets smelt stale which was probably some allusion to her marriage or sex in general being repugnant to her. We learned about all the material things in this character’s life: so many possessions, so many things to be tied down with: the pleats of a skirt, foods of all kind, and a fancy stroller, la poussette as it was always referred to in French, which was highly coveted.

She described barley as being “versatile” and I heard Hombre chuckle causing his green canvas hat to shake.

“I do not see the point to that story,” He said as Rachel stepped away and Mike Lala was being introduced. “It was very sad, but very non-specific. Nothing happened, there was no tension or drama, and though the writing was technically proficient, it all leads up to a lot of nothing.”

“I have very little,” Hombre continued. “I do not own the land and my labor is for the benefit of a wealthy landowner, much as it has been for thousands of years all over the world. And the work is very hard and I am hunched over at it all day. But I do not complain because what else will I do? I know how to till the earth, I know when to plant the seeds, and I know when to harvest. Who else will do this? And besides, I love it. Sometimes there is no harvest, sometimes the crops wither or are flooded and I worry I might starve. It is a hard life to dig all day, but there is truth and beauty in it, too.”

“And you didn’t see that in this story?”

“I saw a story that would get a passing grade from a university professor because it is crafted the way university professors require their stories to be crafted. I see this a lot in my travels. A lot of people show up to hear something they want to hear but they do not want to be honestly challenged. They do not want a real farmer who smells of sweat and earth and whose hands are raw from gripping a hoe in the sweaty sun, they do not want what is real, they want what is safe, what is nostalgic, they want what looks like art, but not real art. They want something to hang on the wall, something to advance their university career so they can graduate more people like them.”

Though I could not see Hombre’s face I could sense he did not have much hope for the evening’s main attraction, Mike Lala and so he sat with his head bowed, his face perpetually hidden.

Mike was a very good reader, and he had a smooth, yet breathless style to each of his poems. Often he would be out of breath and have to pause and gather in a fresh lung to continue. His poems were complicated, taking advantage of Google translate to create new poems from the original ancient Roman poet’s, Catullus with new, modern meanings in an attempt to compare but also contrast our two decadent and corrupted societies. Having seen his poems on the page he seemed interested in the form and physical structure of poetry, and I mentioned this to Hombre.

“I’m afraid this is not much better,” Hombre admitted after the final reading. “Our poet is too concerned with appearances and the material possessions of the world. In his final poem I was worried his breathless list of all those useless material things he saw on Elizabeth Street might actually suffocate him. Our poet has inherited Audre Lorde’s diamond from coal but now wears it like gaudy jewelry. What does it matter to want all these things, all these possessions? What is the point of all this experimentation of poetry if it only leads to so much naval-gazing and selfishness?”

As the audience dispersed I walked Hombre back to his frame. Hombre took his place bent over the hoe over the cracked earth of the Mexican prairie.

“Art is not for galleries,” Hombre said. “Art should be life, art should be struggle, art should be work and sweat and confrontation. Art does not need to be approved by a university chair and given awards by other university chairs in the hopes of creating more university chairs. Art is supposed to make us think and act! Art is the exercise of critical thinking for us to take into the world to change the world.”

“So you did not think what we heard here tonight was art?”

“I think our speakers believed it was art because that’s what they’ve been told is art. But the true way of art was lost tonight. If Seamus’ father could walk out of his potato field, or Blake could put down the sick roses he tends to, or if Gwendolyn could leave that empty house Sadie left her and see what has become of their efforts, I think they would despair. Art should work towards something, not just be a centerpiece for the wine drinking classes.”

“What should I write about this evening, Hombre?” I asked.

“Write the truth. Say you had a pleasant evening but that you found it lacking in anything real.”

“I don’t want to be rude, and I don’t want to be “that guy” in my English department who is always causing trouble by being overly critical of his colleagues hard work.”

“Than perhaps you might consider becoming a farmer?” He answered and then returned to his duties.

As I exited the gallery I wished Hombre good luck on his travels, an artist – a worker – forever on the road and never safe at home to just hang on a wall.

Hombre Cultivando la Tierra, 1995, Tony Ortega

Wilfred Owen: Anthem of Doomed Youth

Much of this poem is focused specifically on sound, the sounds of war. We have “monstrous anger of the gun” with machine being a connotative meaning of the word “monstrous” which is immediately followed by “anger of the guns”, an almost mechanical, repetition of syllables to evoke that very sound of the machine guns. And even in the opening line above this, we get a hint of this terrible sound in “cattle” as in rattle, and this juxtaposed with the image of bells, a sound we imagine as peaceful, and holy, but also as well as being literally tied around the neck of cattle. In this was he evokes the sounds of the guns, the sounds of peace (in the bells), and even the dog tags of the soldiers (“cattle” who are branded with a serial number, and wear a sort of bell around their neck).

To further inundate us with the cacophony of terrible, mechanical sound, we get more relentless gunfire (in this way we just can’t escape it) with “stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle”. Not only do we get the repetition, but there is a metallic quality to the a vowels in “rapid” and “rattle”. We can feel the metallic bite of these syllables.

And the final line of this rhyming pair (we’ve had “cattle” in line 1, “rattle” in line 3, “guns” in line 2, and finally “orisons” in line 4: 1-3, 2-4) we get orisons, an archaic word no longer used in modern English, that compliments the word “patter” in that there is a futility here (“patter” and “petering” out), but also in how it twists the word prayer into the desire of the guns to kill, as well as relate this to how long man has lived with warfare (it has an ancient quality to it).

This twisting of the word prayer is repeated in the word “mockeries” which also has an archaic meaning, a ludicrously futile action. This word sums up not only the futility of prayer in such a terrible situation, but also evokes the futility of the actions of the living. The famous image of men going over the top only to be mowed down by machine guns comes from WW1. Whole armies were lost due to outdated military practises (the French still wore brightly colored and feathered Hussar uniforms!) that hadn’t caught up to this new mechanized warfare. And so using these archaic words helps forces us to confront a situation we are unfamiliar with (for the reader a word they are unfamiliar with, and for the soldier a battle they are unprepared for).

And again we get the repeated “prayers” and “bells” but it’s negated with the first word in the line, “No”. There are no prayers, there is no hope, there will be no peace.

The next two lines are, in my opinion, the most brilliant use of language and imagery I’ve yet encountered in a poem. First he personifies these terrible sounds with the word “voice” and reinforces this with “choirs”. He evokes the image of mourners (which recalls the bells, too) with “mourning” but from this image of sadness in relation to the death of a loved one he conflates the two to give us a new image of the choirs being that of death itself. This is the sound of death, not just the sound of those who are left behind (which we get to later in the poem). Again he reinforces this image with “shrill” which evokes the actual sound the shells made as they wailed (he uses “wailing”) through the sky, and then follows with “demented” which actually sounds like the shell hitting the ground and maybe bouncing around before exploding – and death comes at the end here with the “-ed” of “demented” which rhymes with dead. And again, more repetition, this time with “choirs” to evoke the huge numbers these shells were being launched at their victims.

Finally the last line of the first stanza adds a musical quality to this terrible chorus. He uses “bugle”, that sad, lonely instrument played at military funerals, but also itself evocative of the sound of falling artillery shells. And the word “calling” is used effectively to represent the lonely bugle sounding from “sad shires” We imagine the bugler standing over the dead as those who are back home cry for the fallen.

Once again we get an archaic use of a common word, this time with “speed” (to make successful). Coupled with “candles” we get the image of mourning, perhaps a candlelight vigil for the dead, but also it’s a very old image that exists not of the time of WW1 (electric light had already been invented – this was a modern, mechanical war, after all) but of something out of time (the archaic uses of words), holy (church “bells”), and traditional (not modern). Futility then is repeated by inference here with the candles not really being able to speed on the dead since there is no candle that can do the job here.

Yet what Owen does next is extraordinary. He takes that image of the candle and literally reflects it in the “eyes”. He evoking the light of life itself still burning in those who live but snuffed out in those whom have been killed. And he even is able to show us tears by using “holy glimmers”, as in shimmers, “Shall shine” which are wet “sh” sounds. We can see the candle flame flickering in the wet eyes of mourners and in the eyes of the next crop of young men (“cattle”) who will be called up to die futily.

He has also dropped the rhyming scheme of the first stanza for something far more complicated. “candles” nearly rhymes with “hands of” (in “hands of boys”) – it’s almost synesthetic in how he puts the sound and the visual of the candles being held in our imagination. “eyes” is rhymed with “goodbyes” – both last lines in lines 2 and 3. He couples “pallor” with “pall” (which he rhymes with “all” in line 1), this being the paleness of the mourners as being pallbearers. And we get the final rhyme of “minds” and “blinds” which evokes the blind madness, the unthinking nonsense of war. And all this mixed up rhyming conveys the barbed wire confusion of war.

Owen also evokes a funeral with “Their flowers”, but he is using their two ways, as a determiner (their) and an adverb, “there” – There flowers, as in there they are, or here are flowers – for the dead. But these flowers also mask the smell of death and the “patient minds” are literally the dying patients and the “girls’” are the nurses who watched them die. And so he takes what at first looks like a hopeful image and turns it around into another death image.

And so he closes the poem – literally closes it – with the drawing of the blinds, an image of a soldier dying and closing his eyes for the last time. The eyes (and the mind) are blinds that close when we die (notice the rhyming). And he even plays with the “mourning” from the first stanza with “dusk” of the final = morning and evening, life and death, beginnings and endings.  Even the way the words “drawing down of blinds” sounds like it’s winding down, like a mechanical object that is ceasing to function.

Such a brilliant poem!

Audre Lorde: Coal

This is the sort of poetry I love best: cultural poetry, be it African American, First Nation’s, Chinese American, anything that lets me learn about someone much different than myself.

I almost missed the “I” in the very first line – I thought it was the Roman numeral I as like in poems such as T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes”. And I think this I being so easily missed is important, not just because we get the connection between “Coal” and “I”, as in blackness (I googled Lorde expecting her to be black after just reading the title and realizing I missed the “I”, and I was glad I was right), but because it’s so easily missed, easily forgotten or lost, like a diamond far underground: “from the earth’s inside”.

Coal also carries another connotation that is only implied here and that is in its usefulness as a source of energy. This poem has great power in it, and she does capture this with “know of flame” from the diamond. And so we get multiple meanings here between the the light being captured in this diamond (and captured is a good word here because we get slave imagery later – “like stapled wagers”), but it also speaks to potential – a potential we almost missed at the very beginning “I”. So by contrasting the “total black” coal with the “open” diamond we get a complicated image of an unknown potential (coal), and the beautiful (diamond).

But these are not just physical things (carbon forming underground into whatever) but she describes these as words with multiple meanings, many of them painful. “Knot of flame” is followed by “colored”, which on the surface it is – I think of the Cormac McCarthy image at the end of No Country For Old Men with the horn of fire being the only visible thing as it is being carried in the darkness – but also the word “colored” as a derogatory word for a black person. And again we get a complicated mixing of meanings here because she begins with “I / is the total black, being spoken”, in that she is speaking as the black, but others are speaking for her as “the colored”. How can something be black and colored at the same time? Well, coal and a diamond can depending on time and pressure.

And we get a release of pressure – anger, even – when she presents the image of a diamond breaking glass “singing out within the passing crash of sun”, we can hear and see the glass shattering, but it’s not just noise, it’s singing. Singing is beautiful (and evokes African American gospel and traditional music), and it’s the opposite of someone calling her “colored”. Which also is like a breaking of glass, a violent image of black people being terrorized – and it evokes the Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”) in Germany in 1938, so we get a broader connection to violence and terrorism towards an oppressed people.

We have what I believe to be slave imagery here with “… words like stapled wagers / in a perforated book-buy and sign and tear apart”. On one level the words are just stand-ins for something else – like placing a bet – but this buying and selling of words relates to the buying and selling of people, too. “the stub remains” is a loaded image too because it makes me think of physical violence done to people – not just physical, like a forced amputation, but also emotional in that there is little left – but it also seems to convey an idea Flaubert wrote about in Madame Bovary when he talked about language being: “Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.” There is an inadequacy to language to fully express a whole person, to fully express the “total black”. This stub is all that remains, a sad reminder of a person.

Violence is repeated again, and again I feel she is connecting to the Jews with “and ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge” – these little remains / reminders of actual human beings who were victimized and killed and this is all that is left of them, like stubs. But she carries the image much further because she is also talking about not being able to speak, “Some words lived in my throat”. We get mouth imagery here, a damaged mouth in pain that can’t express itself (the teeth have been pulled) and so again there is an inadequacy to words but also an oppressive force that will not allow the words to be spoken, either. And by this I mean who, is pulling these teeth? Who holds the book of wagers?

But as she has done all through this poem, we get the other side, too. Some words she can’t but help to say, they “explode through my lips”, and are “seeking like gypsies over my tongue”. There is a joyousness here, a release, a dancing (the gypsies – a marginalized group, too), yet these words have consequences and might not always turn out well for her “Some words / bedevil me”.

Mary TallMountain: The Last Wolf

The very first image of the poem is this “last wolf” (repeated immediately after the title, “The Last Wolf”), so we know right away this is a very important image. Our “last wolf” is a metaphor for nature, it is the only living thing in our poem (other than our poet herself), but we understand this metaphor indirectly. The wolf “hurried”, it is “baying”, it is “loping”, we hear it “whine”, it “snuffle[s]”, its eyes “burned” and its eyebrows “quivered”. All this vitality is set against a landscape that is “ruined”, “smashed”, “useless”, and is full of “clutter and rubble”. And so we never need to be told the wolf is nature, we intuit this through the contrast of the wolf’s energy set against an inert and blasted landscape.

Yet the symbol more complicated, too. The wolf is very much like a God so the wolf isn’t just a simple symbol here, it is a real thing, too that the poet interacts with in her home “I watched / he trotted across the floor”. This intertwining of symbol and the concrete helps us understand better how First Nation’s peoples might see the world – a world where Gods can live among us.

“the last wolf hurried toward me”, is a nervous way to start a poem. The first word, “the” is not capitalized and while I’m not sure we’re starting in medias res, it does feel as if our poet was interrupted from doing something else (perhaps dying; see below) when all of a sudden this “last wolf” began hurrying towards her. And this was my clue something was wrong, something bad happened and there is an urgency here.

“through the ruined city” is not typically where we think of wolves running. We already know just by the author’s name that this is a First Nation’s poet with (what we assume) a First Nation’s sensibility and theme, so the unease continues from the first line with this setting being out of (the expected) place. Yet what does a “ruined city” mean? Evoked for me was something akin to Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road where some sort of apocalypse has occurred, where modern civilization has collapsed.

This image of apocalypse (post-apocalyptic) is built up with the words “smashed”, “ruined”, and “useless” but she also adds the implication that there once was energy here by describing the city as a “warren”, as if the people there had all lived cramped in like a billion breeding rabbits. Funny enough, what does a wolf like to eat? A rabbit will do! So now the “last wolf” is like a harbinger, or even the apocalypse or death personified. This made me wonder if this was a death poem for our poet, where perhaps the wolf was like the black figure with a sickle come to take MaryTallMountain away? We eventually learn she had been “in my narrow bed looking west, waiting”. She’s not sitting on the bed, she’s laying in it almost corpse-like, waiting perhaps for the wolf to take her away.

Death is further implied with my favorite image in the poem, “the few ruby-crowned highrises”. I get such a sense of doom from this image as if the buildings are all on fire, but it also hints at the setting sun as it lights just the tips of the buildings one final time. And the setting sun is a straightforward image for things ending.

And death has been hard at work here. The “lighted elevators useless” feels as if everyone left in a hurry – why else would the lights still be on? But I also made the connection between the elevator shafts and the rabbits (from “warrens”). Elevators move up and down, and rabbits breed all day long, so I drew a sexual metaphor here (the up and down movement of sex), but now one of emptiness, where the going up and down has ceased. Life, including the ability to make life is gone.

We get another image of life having left in a hurry since the stop lights are still functioning, and it’s a chaotic image, “flickering red and green”, stopping and going all at once and all mixed up, but also I felt there was a power struggle here between the signs and the wolf. This wolf who has been in motion the whole time is not going to be stopped by a mere traffic sign, so it conjures the image of the traffic light trying – perhaps even begging – to get the wolf to stop. However nature can’t be stopped by man’s signs and pleadings, and so it’s all confused nonsense to the wolf.

And here is where I feel we start to get some answers when we get to the line “baying his way eastward”, a very synesthetic image blending sound and movement. The wolf is speeding not towards the sun, but seems to be heralding news of the ending of the universe. The sun sets in the west and this land is where the wolf is running from. At once I thought of a wolf as a dog whom I’ve thrown a stick to and he’s returning it to me, but also I thought of how the universe might end with the whole universe collapsing back in on itself – everything that had existed out ahead of us is being compressed back in towards us.

There is a shift in the intimacy of the location with the third stanza (“I heard his voice ascending the hill”) – we know the wolf is almost to its destination and that there will be resolution soon, like a dog returning home. This wolf feels very domesticated and not wild anymore with his “whine”, and him snuffling at the door. The wild, nervous movement from the beginning is gone and the wolf is somehow older, and calmer, as if it’s no longer a wolf-God, but more of a companion to sit with our poet as death comes, “he laid his long gray muzzle / on the spare white spread”. “Gray”, and “white” are colors we might associate with old age.

And we get a constricted image here, “in my narrow bed looking west, waiting”. This feels cramped, isolated, lonely, and sad. I thought of an old lady in a nursing home waiting for death to take her, or at least for someone to come visit her and remind her of her youth, of a wildness of years ago, of her vitality, of her long life, a life and energy she once had that is now reflected in the wolf’s burning “yellow” eyes.

Finally we get a very enigmatic ending. The dog has brought a message to our poet, but what is this message. “What have they done” that she knows of? Is it that civilization has reached so far that there is no longer a place for wild things, like wolves (and her younger self), anymore? Or has the world ended in an apocalypse and our poet and the wolf wait till the inevitable end to come? Or perhaps it’s a dream and all the people have been taken off in a rapture leaving the last wild things to reunite at the last moment before they were to expire or be forgotten? Or perhaps it is only our poet who is dying and that all the material things of the world are no longer consequential to her and that they might as well all be rubble. All that matters is her kinship with a “last wolf”, her own last wolf.

Dorothy Parker: One Perfect Rose

I love the nod of sarcasm here, “A single flow’r he sent me, since we me”. This “since we met” is, what I believe to be her saying “that’s all he gave me, just one piddly rose.” Already we get a sense of her wanting something more for herself and from her “he”. In just a few words she does what Raymond Carver does in Cathedral with his “This blind man,” (emphasis mine) – we get an immediate look into the writer’s character, their state of mind, their attitude.

This is reinforced with “All tenderly” in the second line. There’s something of an attitude here by putting “all” in front of it, and what “all” evokes contrasts nicely with “tenderly” since “all” isn’t a very tender word to describe something.

The third line makes me think her “he” just bought this rose because it’s still wet and she’s not fooled by his lack of real effort in giving her something of real meaning, but it could also be taken earnestly in that it is, in fact, a perfect rose, but she’s just not interested in it. Who cares if it’s perfect? What does it matter to her if it’s perfect? Is it going to change how she feels about anything?

“Floweret” continues this ironic tone because the rose is now just a tiny flower, it’s small and (while tender), it’s pretty much useless in it’s power to sway our poet’s feelings. “One “little flower” ain’t gonna swing my hips any harder, honey!” I imagine her saying, sassily.

Line 6 is a bit more difficult because it feels layered in meaning, like a rose petal. She uses the word “leaves” not just in the literal sense of a plant’s leaves, but I kept thinking she is alluding to her leaving him, as if “he” knows she is “leaving” based on her attitude up to this point. He’s a day late and a dollar (limousine) short on this serenade, and all he has is his “heart enclose” (enclosed) which we’ve already seen compared to a little, fragile flower that she’s not very impressed with. In the end he’s not very imaginative in his display of love “Love long has taken for his amulet” this rose, perfect as it may be.

And we end with the payoff of her exasperation, “Why is it no one ever sent me yet”, to show us how she longs for something better than a flower, but then we get another twist in that she wants a “limousine” which is an odd choice. Culture almost certainly sees limousines differently now than when she wrote this, but by imagining the author also having a stunted imagination for what love should entail (he a flower, she a fancy car), it could be said nothing is a substitute for love itself. No gift or display is as good as the real thing and we are all missing the mark everyday by just showing love and not actually loving.

Sharon Olds: Size and Sheer Will

I immediately thought of a snake shedding its skin: a combination of “fine green” and “paper thin” and “iridescent” with being “split like a sheath” right away makes you feel sort of uncomfortable, which is the point since her son is uncomfortable in his own skin.

“Glossy”, “bulbs”, “Gabriel”, “toes”, and “crocus” are guttural words, like groaning, croaking (frog) helps us hear the sound of his growing pains.

She sets up the image of a plant that comes at the end with “Spring”, but also uses it to further show us that he’s growing, that he’s full of life that can’t help itself, that must grow. And this leads us to the best image in the poem of comparing him to a sprout growing towards a light. I kept thinking of those old PBS Nature videos of time-lapse shots of flower sprouts growing out of the black earth, twisting and writing with unnatural speed.

She ends the poem strangely with a desperation, a drowning, as if his very life depends on growing or else he will die suddenly. This is something only a parent would think about – a kid is too busy trying to older, to grow, whereas she knows that after growth comes decline, that death is inevitable and life is a struggle – it’s Darwinian here, too.

T.R. Hummer: Where You Go When She Sleeps

Hummer is the only author other than Tolstoy who describes dreaming as it really feels like. Tolstoy, in War and Peace, does it numerous times (Book 14, Chapter 10: Petya the night before the battle – before he dies, and Book 11, Chapter 32: Andrei as he imagines Crystal threads hanging over his head that collapse and reform – and he’s dying, too).

In both cases, Hummer and Tolstoy, dreaming is related to death, in fact both involve the death of a boy of roughly the same age (12-ish to 14-ish). And both have an in-between before the dream itself (or death) where what is imagined to totally unreal: Hummer with the metals color that seems to have just come into existence, and Tolstoy with the crystalline threads of air.

Here, though, is far more descriptive. We literally get lost and swallowed up in this image, we drown in the oats, we suffocate, we are pulled under. There is a fullness here, but also, like the oats slipping through our fingers, we can’t quite grasp onto it, there’s nothing solid in this world. Love is like that – it’s real,but we can’t hold it, we can only hold the one we love. And we fall into it, are filled up by it, are in a way killed by it because love is a sort of of the death of the self and the birth of two together.

And he draws an interesting parallel between the father’s tears falling on both their faces (as if the dead boy is still somehow alive, or we can feel the father wishing life back into the boy), and the sense of being so in love with someone that you want to cry. He holds her head just as the father holds his son. And it’s all fleeting because love can end just as life – and both can end suddenly.

He sets this up beautifully with the word “jerk”, it’s an odd word to use here, but it reminds me of those shudders you get when you almost fall asleep then jerk awake. You can feel the dreaming coming on, the body is fighting something, like someone drowning.

There is also a mystery here because her dream is her own, it does not include you. Her love is her own, her life is her own, even if she has placed complete trust in you to fall asleep in your lap.

We then get “falling” and “dragging” and “fell” and “leaning” and then he uses the words “wings” to describe his weak, helpless arms. We’ve fallen with him and we are too weak to climb out.

The end, like death itself, love will not let you go Even if you die, or are separated, it’s still there.  And it’s like a dream, unreal, unique to each person, perhaps even unknowable for someone to explain to you (like a dream), but strong and forever.

Sylvia Plath: Metaphors

I have to admit to being a little slow on this one. 9 = 9 months; she’s pregnant. At first I thought she was just getting fat, which is true – she is growing – but the riddle is what’s growing inside her.

There’s a weird detachment to her pregnancy, too. She very in tune with what’s happening to her body and the strangeness of it all, but not much thought about the child: it’s sort of all about her while this thing is happening to her. I’m not judging, but it is interesting. Maybe that’s her depression talking?

So after a little math it’s pretty clear each line is 9 syllables and there are 9 lines in total so the very 9 months of pregnancy is built into the poem, the poem literally is a metaphor (though also oddly figurative in a way in its physical structure) for pregnancy.

Each line being a different month of pregnancy is its own metaphor for that stage. The first month is the riddle – I’m pregnant? – and I wonder if it was planned. Now since I’ve never been pregnant I can only guess at what she’s feeling each month – month 2 bloated with someone living in her (house), month 3 is sort of an acceptance of her condition (she describes herself as a melon), but the tendrils are interesting, it’s like an abstract Dali painting.

I won’t go through each line, but the lines “a cow in calf” and “I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,” stand out for me. She doesn’t say a calf in a cow, it’s reversed here so she might be playing on calving (birthing). And the apples are great because I feel like I’ve actually felt her eat that whole bag (in reference to her being hungry and eating strange things perhaps) and they are all tumbling down into her stomach and she is full of these lumpy, round, fruits, with seeds and all.

The final line feels more literal than the other since she may very well have taken the train to the hospital to give birth. In 1973, at least 10 years after this was written my mother took a cab to the hospital so it’s not unreasonable. But there is also the image of a train going in only one direction like her in the canal and a freight train is about to race out of her – there’s an inevitability and a hurry to the last line, no doubt she’s ready to get the riddle out of her.

Wonderful poem!

Beowulf: Beowulf and the Cup of the New Covenant

“Then the lady of the Helmings walked about the hall,

offering the precious, ornamented cup

to old and young alike,” (Beowulf, 89)

In Beowulf, gift giving is an important act. The King gives rings to the people as payment (76, 140), weapons and armor are handed down through families (120), and treasures are rewarded for bravery (100, 121) or to solidify a truce (85). However, these earthly gifts are transitory and will eventually rust (143), whereas the gift of eternal salvation through Christ’s covenant with man is offered repeatedly in the mead halls by the peace-weaving women (124).

Christ’s covenant with man is that of an arbitrator, someone who will fight evil for us and intercede on our behalf before God. No longer does man alone have to bear the burden of upholding ancient laws to achieve God’s salvation, Christ offers us Grace instead. And as part of this deal Christ asks us to have faith in Him alone and to remember this agreement as part of a ritual. In the Book of Matthew, 22:20 (ESV), Christ tells his disciples “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” He asks them (and us) to drink in memory of Him as a symbol of their faith in Him to succeed.

The New Covenant, however, is exactly what is missing from the world of Beowulf. Not only is Christ’s Covenant unknown to these people, they are even ignorant of the ancient laws preceding it. No wonder then that the Danes have angered a terrible creature from the time before even the ancient laws were enacted. How can the Danes be merry in Heorot when they live in ignorance of the God who banished these monsters and giants? (77, 113)

When Beowulf attempts to rid the world of these terrors he is taking the burden of the Dane’s sin upon himself as Christ would for us; he is sacrificing himself. And we should pause here for a moment to reflect how complicated this image is because we have to remember that Hrothgar puts his faith in Beowulf as we would Christ. Hrothgar does not know Christ either, yet he behaves correctly in letting a savior take on the burden of sin for him since he is powerless to do so alone. Our author is not saying Beowulf is Christ, Beowulf eventually loses his earthly treasure (his life) when he puts faith only in himself (145). Beowulf is a false savior, but is not a dishonorable one and thus he was well rewarded in this life for his efforts.

Yet ignorance of Grace is still no excuse because the cup of Grace is offered to everyone, “young and old alike” (89) in the hall of life (Heorot). Hrothgar and his wife, Wealhtheow, understand the meaning of faith and grace, and she as a peace-weaver (124) offers this knowledge to everyone who might have it – she is very Christ-like in this regard. Even when the cup is stolen (130) and hidden away in a barrow, it does not rid the world of our salvation through Grace. Jealous evil in the guise of the dragon might guard this treasure from men, and so much time may pass that this Grace passes from all memory, but it is still there and even a lowly thief, or slave (131) can happen upon it and be rewarded with its gift, “begged [his Lord] for the bond of peace”, “and that unhappy man was granted his prayer”.

Thus the cup we see referred to over and over in the poem (89, 99, 103, 123, 124, 129), is truly the cup of the new Covenant filled with the blood of Christ, the true hero of mankind, according to our poet.

The One Reconciled with the Many

2500 years before modern-day particle physicists, the Ionian philosopher Parmenides, and later the Atomists, followed logical reasoning towards discovering what we currently believe to be the fundamental structure of the universe. In this essay I will show how both schools believed in a universal One that is, in effect, all of reality, how this leads towards a scepticism of our own senses, and how these views differed on the key point of change as we perceive it.

The first, and most alien concept for us to intuit is that of the One. Prior to Parmenides, philosophers and the epic poets explained a world governed either by a pantheon of meddlesome gods, a Boundless that brought order through a vortex motion in the universe, as was the case with Anaximander, or through a system of opposition, such as Heraclitus believed. Parmenides’ breakthrough was in realizing there cannot be a nothing. In previous philosophies there always exists some distance between that which governed (god, boundless, etc.,) and that which was being governed (people, the seasons, etc.,); a sort of chasm in which the controlling force had to reach over in order to influence that which existed in a different sphere. Parmenides, using only rational thought, realized there can be no nothing, no part of the universe that does not exist. Everything is, and that is is the One.

An example which can help us to wrap our brains around the idea of there not being nothing is to examine thought itself in this way: “You cannot think “nothing”. Why not? Because nothing is not, and to think is [as Parmenides explains] to think of what is,” (28). In other words nothing is a definable something and therefore it can no longer meet the definition of nothing. There simply is no nothing.

The atomists, too believed in a One, however they refined this One into a fundamental substance (though this word can be misleading). Democritus, a philosopher living a generation after Parmenides called this atoms. Atoms, like the One are, literally, everything and there is no point in the universe which does not contain them. The word atom literally means “uncuttable” because to do so would mean there is a nothing for them to exist, now cut, inside of which, because of Parmenides, we understand to be impossible. Therefore the universe in all directions and at all points connecting must be made entirely of these atoms.

A strange phenomena now arises because of this line of thinking, and one in which both Parmenides and the atomists attempted to explain. The problem is with our own senses. Parmenides understood the One not just as all of everything, but that it also does not change: it is eternal. Yet we can clearly sense change all around us be it the changing of the seasons, our own ageing, or the positions of the stars in the sky.  

Parmenides explains this problem of appearance and reality by simply saying we are experiencing reality incorrectly, that our senses are just opinions and our observations of reality are only “the opinions of mortals in which there is no true belief,” (30). The Atomists also believed we are incorrectly experiencing reality, however as with their exploration of the One, they too refined Parmenides’ somewhat confounding conclusion.

Though the Atomists were unable to physically examine these atoms, they understood, also solely through logical thought, that these atoms must behave in unique ways. Though the eternal substance of the atom never changes, the way these atoms interact with each other can vary. For example, one atom might be in the shape (again a misleading, but still useful description) of the letter “N”, while another might be in the shape of a “Z”. Many different combinations can arise from differences in these atoms, either through shape, position, or how they are arranged. These differences will then alter our perception of the atoms. In furthering our example, if we were we to try and taste a “N” atom with our tongues which might be made up of countless combinations of “T”, “U”, and “G” atoms, our experience with “N” will vary from tongue to tongue. I might say “N” tastes bitter, while you with your unique combination of tongue atoms might say it tastes sweet.

Because of this unique way in which atoms interact with themselves we are then unable to accurately experience reality – the One – as it is truly is. We sense change when, in fact, there is only the One, or the atom. We experience reality though convention, not how it truly is.

However, a key difference arises between Parmenides and the Atomists when it comes to the “many”. While both schools believe there is only a universal One, Parmenides sees this One as a solid, homogeneous eternity where nothing changes and everything just is. The Atomists, however, attempt to account for what we perceive to be many things. Atoms, these singular bits of eternal “Oneness” are described in the plural, yet how can there be many atoms if there is no nothing to differentiate them? The solution is what Democritus defines as the void.

This void is not nothing, rather the void is a thing itself yet containing no atoms. Though this might seem contradictory it does follow reason since “what-does-not-contain-any-body need not be the same as what-is-not-at-all,” (33). The void is, it just contains no atoms. So while they both still agree there cannot be nothing, what is is refined by the Atomists into things and no-thing.

When the Atomists settled on this refinement of Parmenides’ observations it resolved not only the paradox of the One and the Many, but also the subsequent paradox that if there was only a One there could not even be any movement, as the philosopher Zeno reasoned. When Zeno looked at Parmenides’ arguments he understood via reductio ad absurdum that a man racing after a tortoise cold never catch it since no finite point could be separated from another finite point (a nothing between finite points) for which a runner could pass to eventually overtake the animal. Obviously our own experience shows this is not true since we can clearly outclass even the most spry turtle. Luckily for our runner the Atomists were able to resolve this paradox with the concept of the void.

In conclusion we have seen how Parmenides’ concept of a universal and eternal One was reasoned by understanding that there can be no nothing, and then how this was taken up by the Atomists in the form of atoms existing in a void. We have also seen how through the unique pairings of atoms we are unable to experience reality as it truly is, and that our experience is merely convention and not an accurate observation of reality. We have also seen that, though Parmenides and the Atomists were very similar in their understanding of the universe, the breakthrough for the Atomists was that there could exist a something that contained no-thing: a void. This broke the paradoxes arising from Parmenides and allowed philosophers to reconcile our senses with reality, a reality modern science has shown to closely model the thought experiments of ancient philosophers living roughly 25 centuries ago.