All morning in the February light
he has been mending cable,
splicing the pairs of wires together
according to their colors,
white-blue to white-blue
violet-slate to violet-slate,
in the warehouse attic by the river.
When he is finished
the messages will flow along the line:
thank you for the gift,
please come to the baptism,
the bill is now past due:
voices that flicker and gleam back and forth
across the tracer-colored wires.
We live so much of our lives
without telling anyone,
going out before dawn,
working all day by ourselves,
shaking our heads in silence
at the news on the radio.
He thinks of the many signals
flying in the air around him
the syllables fluttering,
saying please love me,
from continent to continent
over the curve of the earth.
What draws me to this poem is the literally hands-on, personal touch in this present-day wireless world. Though I do still see telephone repairmen from time to time, mending cable…in the February light, they are less common now, another sign of our changing world, even with increasing and instantaneous communications.
The poet tells us some of the words that will be carried along those cables – thank you for the gift, / please come to the baptism, / the bill is now past due. These are the simple, essential messages we exchange in our daily interactions, voices that flicker and gleam back and forth. I envision theses voices in a graceful dance within the wires.
When he says We live so much of our lives / without telling anyone, I am conscious of our current isolation, the lack of ordinary, daily exchanges we used to make, the silences we carry. And I’m touched by the notion of the many signals / flying in the air around him as he continues to work his repairs. Then this man reflects so eloquently on the syllables fluttering,(love that!) saying please love me. Isn’t that what we are all longing for, to be loved, whether we speak it aloud or not? What might you hear fluttering in the telephone wires above you today if you listen closely?
A spoon in a cup of tea.
The letters in yellow envelopes,
the way a hand pushed lines
into the soft paper.
A white shirt draped
over the chair.
An open window. The air.
The call of one blackbird.
The silence of the other.
The sounds of the piano notes
as they rest in the treetops.
The road from here to there.
Grief, that floating, lost swan.
Things That Cannot Die
Here we have another one of those apparently simple poems, simple by virtue of its uncluttered language, yet containing much in its fifteen lines. After the title, the poet does not tell us how it is that some things cannot die, instead she gives us straightforward examples of ordinary objects so that we can imagine them for ourselves and perhaps even add our own.
She speaks of everyday items – a spoon, laughter, a white shirt, an open window, letters and the way a hand pushed lines / into the soft paper, which I love for the way it invites the unseen writer as well as the reader. She names the call of a blackbird as well as the silence of the other – again allowing our imaginations to hear that silence. Seasons, piano notes not just heard but as they rest in the treetops – can you not just hear them?
And finally, Grief, that floating, lost swan. Now there is an imagine I will carry with me, that embodied sensation of untethered lostness that can accompany grief. These are the ways she portrays the undying nature of our mortal lives. They are elusive, these named items; they will not last forever, and yet, I sense she is reminding us that there will always be such things to help us notice the precious brevity of life.
What would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each other’s despair into hope? –
You yourself must change it. –
what would it feel like to know
your country was changing? –
You yourself must change it. –
Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it mean to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?
Dreams Before Waking
This is the last stanza of a much longer poem by Adrienne Rich – you can read the whole of it by clicking on the title above but it was this stanza in particular that caught my attention – perhaps because we have been through, are still going through, so much uncertainty and often despair.
By now, I imagine you know how much I love questions in poems and here she offers three to make you reflect. What meaning would you make of living where people were changing each other’s despair into hope? Changing hopelessness into an aspiration that something good may happen. And her answer: You yourself must change it. It is not a passive hope; she matches desire with action.
Her second question, what would it feel like to know / your country was changing? seems particularly relevant in this century, though this was written almost 40 years ago. And again her response: You yourself must change it, must change it even though your life felt arduous / new and unmapped and strange.
But it is the final line which is riveting for me: what would it mean to stand on the first / page of the end of despair? What if we could imagine, whether your loss of hope be personal or global, that you are at the beginning of the end of despair? It’s a question we can only each answer for ourselves. And even if there is no answer right now, it is a question worth holding.
Everywhere, everywhere, snow sifting down,
a world becoming white, no more sounds,
no longer possible to find the heart of the day,
the sun is gone, the sky is nowhere, and of all
I wanted in life – so be it – whatever it is
that brought me here, chance, fortune, whatever
blessing each flake of snow is the hint of, I am
grateful, I bear witness, I hold out my arms,
palms up, I know it is impossible to hold
for long what we love of the world, but look
at me, is it foolish, shameful, arrogant to say this,
see how the snow drifts down, look how happy
Perhaps because we are in the heart of winter, this poem appeals to me. In those opening lines I can both see and feel - snow sifting down, / a world becoming white as the sun and sky disappear in the soundless space, everywhere.
As the poet contemplates all / I wanted in life, and what has brought him to this moment, whatever / blessing each flake of snow is the hint of, I am captivated by the idea that each unique flake of snow holds a blessing - such an abundance! And he is grateful for all this, wants to bear witness as he holds out his arms palms up as one might do to catch falling snowflakes.
But, he tells us, I know it is impossible to hold / for long what we love of the world, that longing we have to hold onto all that we love, knowing we cannot keep it forever. And yet, look / at me; he wants us to know how happy he is as the snow drifts down even if he is foolish, shameful, arrogant to say it.
I can feel my own gratitude as I contemplate the blessings of being in this life, as numerous as all those flakes of snow that may at this very moment be falling in your world (or not). Regardless, can you say: look how happy / I am without feeling arrogant or shameful or foolish, simply thankful?