Sunday, February 23, 2014

Poem for a Monday: Faith

A dear friend’s illness, a new book I’ve been reading about Jesus, the weather … for some reason I’ve been on my knees more often of late. 

The book:  Jesus: The Human Face of God is by author/poet/Middlebury College professor Jay Parini, and I picked up a (signed!) copy at the Vermont Book Shop (Robert Frost’s favorite bookstore, in case you didn’t know) mostly because Jay was one of my creative writing teachers 30+ years ago.  I can’t put it down:  if you are at all interested in the historical Jesus as well as a textual analysis/literary approach to Christ’s teachings, this is for you.

Meanwhile, Robert Chute of Poland Spring has written this wonderful poem about faith.  Given where my head and heart have been at, it spoke to me.

By Robert Chute

I’ve never found an arrowhead,
one flinty chip of history.
Young Thoreau, they said, if he walked by
some farmer’s fresh plowed field, could just
stoop down and pick one up. As if
the spirit that had shaped them drew them
up to his attention. Stoney bread crumbs
no birds will eat, these points and flakes
led him from the town into the
saving woods and wilderness, marked
the path to a wildness which might
save us all. His faith led him on
to find what he believed. We find,
he said, what we are prepared to see.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Poem for a Monday: Snow

Winter has finally turned perfect in Maine: mid-twenties each day, snow that lasts and brightens and invites you out to walk in it, toss it, slide across it.  We're getting a little fresh snow today; buckets of it Thursday.

I walk through the snowy fields behind Bowdoin College most days with my dog, so naturally I had to choose a snow poem by Longfellow.  This lovely poem reminds me not of the many playful days I've spent in winter, but of the more somber, albeit beautiful, mood which accompanies a still, snowy day.

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Out of the bosom of the Air,
     Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
     Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
     Silent, and soft, and slow
     Descends the snow.

Even as our cloudy fancies take
     Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
     In the white countenance confession,
          The troubled sky reveals
          The grief it feels.

This is the poem of the air,
     Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair,
     Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
          Now whispered and revealed
          To wood and field.

Friday, February 7, 2014

A Crime Worse Than Being Blonde

The teetering, Tower of Pisa of books on my night table has a new addition.  And it’s landed right on top:

Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch.  It has launched (with a terrific review in the New York Times) at the very same time as my first-ever-Middlemarch-reread-with-the-daughter, and how amazing is that? 

Every decade or so I pull out my old college copy of Middlemarch and hunker down with Dorothea and Dr. Lydgate and the rest of the crew just to check in and see what’s changed.  Because it does.  Not on the page:  in my heart.  My head.  My imagination.  It’s a fairly miraculous thing about this book, the way various characters present themselves depending on one’s age and stage.

What’s been really fun this month is to take the Middlemarch journey with my 20-year old daughter.  She’s in that stage of life and education where you read with a pencil, annotating madly, every sentence potential fodder for a paper.  It took me years to recover from that stage, and I’m happy to report that today I not only read without underlining, but if I get bored I skim.  Yup.  I even skip whole paragraphs.

Not only do I read for fun, but I rent the movie afterwards.  That was the reward we gave ourselves this month, after wading through all that authorial voice:  we watched the BBC Middlemarch with Juliet Aubrey (a perfect Dorothea!) and Rufus Sewell (who knew Will Ladislaw was hot?)

Here were this decade’s surprises:

1. Unlike her mother, who, at 20, wholly identified with the idealistic, yearning Dorothea, my daughter found Dorothea to be completely na├»ve and a bit too superior for her own good. Example: her not-so-subtle put-downs of sister Celia.   (We both agreed it really wasn’t all that unreasonable to want to wear their mother’s jewels.) Instead, the Daughter took the emotional leap straight to the honest, practical Mary Garth.  I did note, however, that as we watched the BBC miniseries, the Daughter was very pleased that the character of Fred Vincy was cute.  It wouldn’t have worked at all to marry Mary off to some pug … or worse, the boring Farebrother.

2. Will Ladislaw and Fred Vincy are … my son and his friends.  Young men full of energy and ideas and absolutely no clear direction and no experience.  Destined to make mistakes and learn from them.  Hopefully, these will be mistakes from which they will recover.  Thirty years ago, I evaluated them as potential partners for my heroines:  now I feel like their mother.

3. Rosamund, the Blonde.  One could argue that the whole of Middlemarch is George Eliot’s attempt to overcome some post-traumatic-stress from an encounter with a blonde.  Why else the hate for poor Rosamund?  Why else make all the admirable female characters brunettes?  Seriously: make a chart comparing hair color to level-of-villainy. 

I have rarely strayed from my initial reading of Rosamund, and always delighted in despising her … but the Daughter had some fresh insights.  She believes Eliot saves her freshest powder for Lydgate (even Bulstrode gets off lighter) because she marries him to Rosamund.  What greater hell?  Thanks to Rosamund he has to abandon his dreams, take a job he despises in Bath, dies young and … get this … she goes off with their four kids and remarries a wealthy older gent. 

Ultimately, in Middlemarch, being blonde is not half as bad as being self-important and sanctimonious.  Poor Lydgate.

According to all the reviews, Rebecca Mead does an excellent job in her “bibliomemoir” (a genre I was completely unaware of until now!) of tracing her own ages and stages with the characters of Middlemarch.  I can’t wait to dig in.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Poem for a Monday

Last week's "Take Heart" poem is by a former classmate and fellow Mainer, Douglas Woodsum.  I remember Doug back-in-the-day, when we were 20-somethings gathered around the long, oval table of our college creative writing seminar.  It's been such a delight to read his wonderful poems through the years since then.

Doug lives, writes and teaches from his home in Smithfield, Maine.  Like last week's Subaru poem, this one could have been lifted from a page out of my own life.

Splitting Wood in Winter
by Douglas Woodsum

You'll need a barn with a big door, the old-
fashioned kind that hangs on wheels, slides open
Down a track. You'll need a bare bulb, the sun
having sunk before your return from work.
You'll need a splitting maul (the ax always
gets stuck), a medieval weapon perfect
for pillaging heat from the heart of hardwood.
You can plug in the portable radio
or just listen to the hush of the swing
then thwack ... or thoonk, the soft clinks or cloonks
of the splits falling from the chopping block
onto the old, thick, scarred floorboards of the barn
You'll need your hands to rip apart pieces
still connected by strips of unsplit wood.
You'll need to load the canvas carrier
thrice, enough to survive the dead of night.
You won't need reminding, "Splitting wood
warms you twice: once chopping it, once burning it."
You'll smile, walking through the cold, back to the house,
your hot breath a harbinger of wood smoke.