love song for galway kinnell

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

gkinnellWhen Shakespeare wrote in his Sonnet 18 that loveliness lives on in the immortal lines of the poet, I think he was writing about Galway Kinnell, the American poet who died Wednesday of this week at the age of 87.  As a passionate reader, Kinnell is one of those writers I longed to sit under trees with.  To sit under a tree on a summer afternoon, listening to him talk or tell stories.  To notice perhaps his gentle eyes tracing the flight of birds overhead or his strong wrinkled and freckled hands trembling a little as they smooth down the grass along the edge of our blanket.  I’d tell him how I never could get the man I keep to like the name Maud, how I can’t stop dreaming about hair sprouting in the moonlight, how haunted I am by the wind crying across stones.  The wages of dying is love, he’d say.  We’d read from a book I’ve brought, his Selected Poems.  And we’d start with the first poem “Two Seasons” and read straight through sunset to the last poem, “Flying Home.”  Mine is a 1982 paperback, black with creased corners and pencil-marked pages.  Would he linger at all over my notes, I doubt.  In the margin on page 129 nothing stays the same    impermanence   A faded blue post-it note on page 115 The last blackbird lights up his gold wings: farewell

When a beautiful soul departs the earth there’s always that sad reminder of our own mortality, but when we share pieces of ourselves with others, when we extend our hands and utter words, when we write them down, especially, a part of us lives on.

 

Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens,
and those who lead many to righteousness,
like the stars for ever and ever.

~ Daniel 12:3


 

Two Seasons (1946)

I

The stars were wild that summer evening
As on the low lake shore stood you and I
And every time I caught your flashing eye
Or heard your voice discourse on anything
It seemed a star went burning down the sky.

I looked into your heart that dying summer
And found your silent woman’s heart grown wild
Whereupon you turned to me and smiled
Saying you felt afraid but that you were
Weary of being mute and undefiled

II

I spoke to you that last winter morning
Watching the wind smoke snow across the ice
Told of how the beauty of your spirit, flesh,
And smile had made day break at night and spring
Burst beauty in the wasting winter’s place.

You did not answer when I spoke, but stood
As if that wistful part of you, your sorrow,
Were blown about in fitful winds below;
Your eyes replied your worn heart wished it could
Again be white and silent as the snow.

 

Flying Home (1980)
1

It is good for strangers
of few nights to love each other
(as she and I did, eighteen years ago,
strangers of a single night)
and merge in natural rapture—
though it isn’t exactly each other
but through each other some
force in existence they don’t acknowledge
yet propitiate, no matter where,
in the least faithful of beds,
and by the quick dopplering of horns
of trucks plunging down Delancey,
and next to the iron rumblings
of outlived technology, subways up for air,
which blunder past every ten minutes
and botch the TV screen in the next apartment,
where the man in his beer
has to get up from his chair over and over
to soothe the bewildered jerking
things dance with internally,
and under the dead-light of neon,
and among the mating of cockroaches,
and like the mating of cockroaches,
who were etched before the daybreak
of the gods with compulsions to repeat
that drive them, too, to union
by starlight, without will or choice.

It is also good—and harder—
for lovers who live many years together
to feel their way toward
the one they know completely
and don’t ever quite know,
and to be with each other
and to increase what light may shine
in their ashes and let it go out
toward the other, and to need
the whole presence of the other
so badly that the two together
wrench their souls from the future
in which each mostly wanders alone

and in this familiar strange room,
for this night which lives
amid daily life past and to come
and lights it, find they hold,
perhaps shimmering a little,
or perhaps almost spectral, only the loved
other in their arms.

2

Flying home, looking about
in this swollen airplane, every seat
of it squashed full with one of us,
it occurs to me I might be the luckiest
in this planeload of the species;
for earlier,
in the airport men’s room, seeing
the middle-aged men my age,
as they washed their hands after touching
their penises—when it might have been more in accord
with the lost order to wash first, then touch—
peer into the mirror
and then stand back, as if asking, who is this?
I could only think
that one looks relieved to be getting away,
that one dreads going where he goes;
while as for me, at the very same moment
I feel regret at leaving
and happiness to be flying home.

3

As this plane dragging
its track of used ozone half the world long
thrusts some four hundred of us
toward places where actual known people
live and may wait,
we diminish down into our seats,
disappeared into novels of lives clearer than ours,
and yet we do not forget for a moment
the life down there, the doorway each will soon enter:
where I will meet her again
and know her again,
dark radiance with, and then mostly without, the stars.

Very likely she has always understood
what I have slowly learned
and which only now, after being away, almost as far away
as one can get on this globe, almost
as far as thoughts can carry—yet still in her presence,
still surrounded not so much by reminders of her
as by things she had already reminded me of,
shadows of her
cast forward and waiting—can I try to express:

that love is hard,
that while many good things are easy, true love is not,
because love is first of all a power,
its own power,
which continually must make its way forward, from night
into day, from transcending union always forward into difficult
day.
And as the plane descends, it comes to me,
in the space
where tears stream down across the stars,
tears fallen on the actual earth
where their shining is what we call spirit,
that once the lover
recognizes the other, knows for the first time
what is most to be valued in another,
from then on, love is very much like courage,
perhaps it is courage, and even
perhaps
only courage. Squashed
out of old selves, smearing the darkness
of expectation across experience, all of us little
thinkers it brings home having similar thoughts
of landing to the imponderable world,
the transcontinental airliner,
resisting its huge weight down, comes in almost lightly,
to where
with sudden, tiny, white puffs and long, black, rubberish smears
all its tires know the home ground.

originally published in New York Review of Books, July 17, 1980 • Volume 27, Number 12

Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. – See more at: http://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/eternal-life,-nature-of#sthash.lor6ya4c.dpuf
Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. – See more at: http://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/eternal-life,-nature-of#sthash.lor6ya4c.dpuf
Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. – See more at: http://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/eternal-life,-nature-of#sthash.lor6ya4c.dpuf

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i will go singing

Charles Wright was recently named US Poet Laureate, and in a 1989 interview published in The Paris Review, he addressed the contemplative nature of his poetry and offered up some eloquent prayers for the power of language:

[T]he true purpose of poetry [is] a contemplation of the divine . . . .

What we have, and all we will have, is here in the earthly paradise. How to wring music from it, how to squeeze the light out of it, is, as it has always been, the only true question . . . .

Language is the element of definition, the defining and descriptive incantation. It puts the coin between our teeth. It whistles the boat up. It shows us the city of light across the water. Without language there is no poetry, without poetry there’s just talk. Talk is cheap and proves nothing. Poetry is dear and difficult to come by. But it poles us across the river and puts a music in our ears. It moves us to contemplation. And what we contemplate, what we sing our hymns to and offer our prayers to, is what will reincarnate us in the natural world, and what will be our one hope for salvation in the What’sToCome.

This is beautiful stuff, for sure, so I spent a little time with him this morning, and for some reason, you know, it is occurring to me more and more how much time of late I have spent with these autumnal minds melancholic with age and sighing deeply at life.  Isn’t there anyone middle aged out there tap dancing and tossing rose petals in the air?  If you read through some of Wright’s poems readily available online, you’ll see the beauty in his imagery and voice, the contemplative prophetic breeze in his language, but at its core is a forlorn weeping that just depresses me.  In the interview I mentioned above, Wright acknowledges the spiritual tone in his poems but eschews any sense of faith, which of course invites me to put on my best Church Lady voice and say, Well, isn’t that special?  No wonder you want to put your head in the oven.  the-church-lady-snlMuch of what I’ve been reading lately contains these misanthropic characters standing still like they’re stuck in some mish mash Beckett script, crying an endless loop of I want to believe.  I can’t believe.  Wright says,

I think I probably would like to believe. I believe in belief, for instance. And it is the greatest myth going, isn’t it? All those fabulous aspirations and assumptions! I mean, if it were true, what could be better? Everlasting life! I’ll take a hit off that, thank you very much. Just because you don’t believe it doesn’t mean you don’t like to talk about it, or think about it. Besides, I do believe in the efficacy of things unseen. It’s just that I don’t believe in this particular one. And there’s no point in just believing in the trappings, in the manifestations.

Wright’s “After Reading Tu Fu” (below) is a gorgeous poem with quiet images like “night drifts up like a little boat” and “fireflies are dragging the hush of evening up from the damp grass.”  But underneath these pastoral images is a smothering darkness, as his speaker, at fifty-four, feels there’s nothing left to look forward to.  The last lines: “Into the world’s tumult, into the chaos of every day, / Go quietly, quietly.”  Well, he can climb into that little boat and drift off into the still, dark, deep.  And I will wrap my arms around him and squeeze the sighs out of him.  Ruffle his hair and brush the backs of my fingertips along his cheekbone.  We’ll tear up together, and as my bare foot gives a shove to his little boat, I’ll quote Ram Dass and wave, “We’re all just walking each other home.”  But so help me God, I will go singing.

 


Body and Soul II

The structure of landscape is infinitesimal,
Like the structure of music,
seamless, invisible.
Even the rain has larger sutures.
What holds the landscape together, and what holds music together,
Is faith, it appears–faith of the eye, faith of the ear.
Nothing like that in language,
However, clouds chugging from west to east like blossoms
Blown by the wind.
April, and anything’s possible.

Here is the story of Hsuan Tsang.
A Buddhist monk, he went from Xian to southern India
And back–on horseback, on camel-back, on elephant-back, and on
foot.
Ten thousand miles it took him, from 29 to 645,
Mountains and deserts,
In search of the Truth,
the heart of the heart of Reality,
The Law that would help him escape it,
And all its attendant and inescapable suffering.
And he found it.

These days, I look at things, not through them,
And sit down low, as far away from the sky as I can get.
The reef of the weeping cherry flourishes coral,
The neighbor’s back porch light bulbs glow like anemones.
Squid-eyed Venus floats forth overhead.
This is the half hour, half-light, half-dark,
when everything starts to shine out,
And aphorisms skulk in the trees,
Their wings folded, their heads bowed.

Every true poem is a spark,
and aspires to the condition of the original fire
Arising out of the emptiness.
It is that same emptiness it wants to reignite.
It is that same engendering it wants to be re-engendered by.
Shooting stars.
April’s identical,
celestial, wordless, burning down.
Its light is the light we commune by.
Its destination’s our own, its hope is the hope we live with.

Wang Wei, on the other hand,
Before he was 30 years old bought his famous estate on the Wang River
Just east of the east end of the Southern Mountains,
and lived there,
Off and on, for the rest of his life.
He never travelled the landscape, but stayed inside it,
A part of nature himself, he thought.
And who would say no
To someone so bound up in solitude,
in failure, he thought, and suffering.

Afternoon sky the color of Cream of Wheat, a small
Dollop of butter hazily at the western edge.
Getting too old and lazy to write poems,
I watch the snowfall
From the apple trees.
Landscape, as Wang Wei says, softens the sharp edges of isolation.

 

The Last Supper

I seem to have come to the end of something, but don’t know what,
Full moon blood orange just over the top of the redbud tree.
Maundy Thursday tomorrow,
then Good Friday, then Easter in full drag,
Dogwood blossoms like little crosses
All down the street,
lilies and jonquils bowing their mitred heads.

Perhaps it’s a sentimentality about such fey things,
But I don’t think so. One knows
There is no end to the other world,
no matter where it is.
In the event, a reliquary evening for sure,
The bones in their tiny boxes, rosettes under glass.

Or maybe it’s just the way the snow fell
a couple of days ago,
So white on the white snowdrops.
As our fathers were bold to tell us,
it’s either eat or be eaten.
Spring in its starched bib,
Winter’s cutlery in its hands. Cold grace. Slice and fork.

 

After Reading Tu Fu, I Go Outside to Dwarf Orchard

East of me, west of me, full summer.
How deeper than elsewhere the dusk is in your own yard.
Birds fly back and forth across the lawn
looking for home
As night drifts up like a little boat.

Day after day, I become of less use to myself.
Like this mockingbird,
I flit from one thing to the next.
What do I have to look forward to at fifty-four?
Tomorrow is dark.
Day-after-tomorrow is darker still.

The sky dogs are whimpering.
Fireflies are dragging the hush of evening
up from the damp grass.
Into the world’s tumult, into the chaos of every day,
Go quietly, quietly.

 

All poems by Charles Wright

You might be interested in this NYT Sunday Review article, “Poetry: Who Needs It?” by William Logan.

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