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Poetry


“Dr. Sigmund Freud Discovers the Sea Shell” by Archibald MacLeish

When he moved to Paris in the 1920s, Archibald MacLeish (1892 – 1982) ran with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, and I have every suspicion that his God-wrestling Pulitzer-winning legacy will make a cultural resurgence soon enough; here’s hoping.

Despite first appearances, the following poem doesn’t just pit science against faith. Rather, it emphasizes the persistence of the unknown versus the known and the unmeasurable versus the measurable. As with much of MacLeish’s work, it’s designed to affect us emotionally, not just intellectually.

Eugenia-Loli6

Eugenia Loli

Dr. Sigmund Freud Discovers the Sea Shell
by Archibald MacLeish

Science, that simple saint, cannot be bothered
Figuring what anything is for:
Enough for her devotions that things are
And can be contemplated soon as gathered.

She knows how every living thing was fathered,
She calculates the climate of each star,
She counts the fish at sea, but cannot care
Why any one of them exists, fish, fire or feathered.

Why should she? Her religion is to tell
By rote her rosary of perfect answers.
Metaphysics she can leave to man:
She never wakes at night in heaven or hell

Staring at darkness. In her holy cell
There is no darkness ever: the pure candle
Burns, the beads drop briskly from her hand.

Who dares to offer Her the curled sea shell!
She will not touch it!—knows the world she sees
Is all the world there is! Her faith is perfect!

And still he offers the sea shell . . .

What surf
Of what far sea upon what unknown ground
Troubles forever with that asking sound?
What surge is this whose question never ceases?

Original Sin on the Sussex Coast – John Betjeman

sonoframbowNow on this out of season afternoon
Day schools which cater for the sort of boy
Whose parents go by Pullman once a month
To do a show in town, pour out their young
Into the sharply red October light.
Here where The Drive and Buckhurst Road converge
I watch the rival gangs and am myself
A schoolboy once again in shivering shorts.
I see the dust of sherbet on the chin
Of Andrew Knox well-dress’d, well-born, well-fed,
Even at nine a perfect gentleman,
Willie Buchanan waiting at his side {—}
Another Scot, eruptions on his skin.
I hear Jack Drayton whistling from the fence
Which hides the copper domes of {“} Cooch Behar {“}.
That was the signal. So there’s no escape.
A race for Willow Way and jump the hedge
Behind the Granville Bowling Club? Too late.
They’ll catch me coming out in Seapink Lane.
Across the Garden of Remembrance? No,
That would be blasphemy and bring bad luck.
Well then, I’m for it. Andrew’s at me first,
He pinions me in that especial grip
His brother learned in Kob‰ from a Jap
{(}No chance for me against the Japanese{)}.
Willie arrives and winds me with a punch
Plum in the tummy, grips the other arm.

11-22-63-16{“} You’re to be booted. Hold him steady, chaps! {“}
A wait for taking aim. Oh trees and sky!
Then crack against the column of my spine,
Blackness and breathlessness and sick with pain
I stumble on the asphalt. Off they go
Away, away, thank God, and out of sight
So that I lie quite still and climb to sense
Too out of breath and strength to make a sound.
Now over Polegate vastly sets the sun;
Dark rise the Downs from darker looking elms,
And out of Southern railway trains to tea
Run happy boys down various Station Roads,
Satchels of homework jogging on their backs,
So trivial and so healthy in the shade
Of these enormous Downs. And when they’re home,
When the Post-Toasties mixed with Golden Shred
Make for the kiddies such a scrumptious feast,
Does Mum, the Persil-user, still believe
That there’s no Devil and that youth is bliss?
As certain as the sun behind the Downs
And quite as plain to see, the Devil walks.

Call Me Aaron Burr, Sir

Call Me Aaron Burr, Sir

During a 1995 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Pat Conroy related a story about his father, Don, that epitomized the patriarch’s delusional view of identity. The two men were discussing why Pat’s mother left Don when the elder Conroy broke down sobbing. Thinking that Don had finally realized the error of the ways, Pat quoted the ensuing conversation to Gross: “‘Dad, do you understand what you did wrong?’ And Dad said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘What is it, Dad? What did you do wrong?’ And my father said, ‘I was too good. I didn’t crack down hard enough. I was…

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“The Ribs and Terrors in the Whale” by Herman Melville

From Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”

The ribs and terrors in the whale,
Arched over me a dismal gloom,
While all God’s sun-lit waves rolled by,
And left me deepening down to doom.

I saw the opening maw of hell,
With endless pains and sorrow there;
Which none but they that feel can tell-
Oh, I was plunging to despair.

In black distress, I called my God,
When I could scarce believe him mine,
He bowed his ear to my complaints-
No more the whale did me confine.

With speed he flew to my relief.
As on a radiant dolphin borne;
Awful, yet bright, as lightening shown
The face of my Deliverer God.

My song forever shall record
That terrible, that joyful hour;
I give the glory to my God,
His all the mercy and the power.

Misunderstanding, Misunderstood: The Sylvia Plath Who Wrote For Children

Misunderstanding, Misunderstood: The Sylvia Plath Who Wrote For Children

At 17, I read The Bell Jar. After grimacing through the suicide attempts, the shock therapy sessions, the nervous breakdowns, and the general darkness, I closed the book, appreciated the work, and then thought, “Damn. This woman was crazy.”

At 21, I thought my life had become The Bell Jar. I felt the same suffocating dread Plath expressed in her characters’ fears of “settling.” I wallowed in my failures, was crippled by indecision, felt misunderstood, tired, and nervous. About everything. Plath was my female masthead, unapologetically vocalizing every one of my rite-of-passage fears with poetic authenticity.

Then, just last week, my English major survey…

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A Prodigal – Elizabeth Bishop

slippin_jimmy_tshirtThe brown enormous odor he lived by
was too close, with its breathing and thick hair,
for him to judge. The floor was rotten; the sty
was plastered halfway up with glass-smooth dung.
Light-lashed, self-righteous, above moving snouts,
the pigs’ eyes followed him, a cheerful stare–
even to the sow that always ate her young–
till, sickening, he leaned to scratch her head.
But sometimes mornings after drinking bouts
(he hid the pints behind the two-by-fours),
the sunrise glazed the barnyard mud with red
the burning puddles seemed to reassure.
And then he thought he almost might endure
his exile yet another year or more.

But evenings the first star came to warn.
The farmer whom he worked for came at dark
to shut the cows and horses in the barn
beneath their overhanging clouds of hay,
with pitchforks, faint forked lightnings, catching light,
safe and companionable as in the Ark.
The pigs stuck out their little feet and snored.
The lantern–like the sun, going away–
laid on the mud a pacing aureole.
Carrying a bucket along a slimy board,
he felt the bats’ uncertain staggering flight,
his shuddering insights, beyond his control,
touching him. But it took him a long time
finally to make up his mind to go home.

Airport – Tony Hoagland

In the airport the fat sunburned people coming back from vacation
look happier than anyone, with their Hawaiian shirts and varicose veins
and faint aroma of suntan lotion.

I look down on them because their happiness is so superficial.
It is an imaginary battle that they win without trying,
by continuing to be themselves–

joking, telling family stories, eating nachos before lunch.
Like it or not, oneself is always the test case for the human condition.

The baby starts out as a luminous jellybean of god
and gradually transforms into a strange, lopsided growth:

a man who will not let himself be touched;
an aging girl who smiles and is angry with the moon.

Underneath the smile is bitterness, and underneath the bitterness is grief,
and underneath the grief is the desire to survive at any cost.

The music on the airport intercom is supposed to make it easier.
That and the Southern accent of the flight announcers,

with their colorful speech impediments of moonshine and molasses.

“Where I am going I do not wish to go,” wrote Bertolt Brecht,
but what he meant was that he did not want to be himself.

Yesterday I wished for rain, the cold clear kind that falls from very high,
and when it fell, I felt such joy.

But it’s what I don’t pray for that can rescue me.
Surprise, surprise, only surprise will help me on my way.

A Poem for April Fools’ Day – “The Aristocrat” by G.K. Chesterton

The devil is a gentlemanThe Devil is a gentleman, and asks you down to stay
At his little place at What’sitsname (it isn’t far away).
They say the sport is splendid; there is always something new,
And fairy scenes, and fearful feats that none but he can do;
He can shoot the feathered cherubs if they fly on the estate,
Or fish for Father Neptune with the mermaids for a bait;
He scaled amid the staggering stars that precipice, the sky,
And blew his trumpet above heaven, and got by mastery
The starry crown of God Himself, and shoved it on the shelf;
But the Devil is a gentleman, and doesn’t brag himself.

O blind your eyes and break your heart and hack your hand away,
And lose your love and shave your head; but do not go to stay
At the little place in What’sitsname where folks are rich and clever;
The golden and the goodly house, where things grow worse for ever;
There are things you need not know of, though you live and die in vain,
There are souls more sick of pleasure than you are sick of pain;
There is a game of April Fool that’s played behind its door,
Where the fool remains for ever and the April comes no more,
Where the splendour of the daylight grows drearier than the dark,
And life droops like a vulture that once was such a lark:
And that is the Blue Devil that once was the Blue Bird;
For the Devil is a gentleman, and doesn’t keep his word.

Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day 1608

Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day 1608

This year, Good Friday has fallen on March 25, the day typically reserved in the Church calendar for the feast of  the Annunciation, which celebrates the delivery of the angel Gabriel’s message about the Incarnation of Jesus. This rare and powerfully symbolic occurrence won’t happen again until 2157.

The following is a poem by John Donne, “Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day.”

Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came…

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A (Prose) Poem for Good Friday: “Decency” by Czeslaw Milosz

“When I was, as they say, in harmony with God and the world, I felt I was false, pretending to be somebody else. I recovered my identity when I found myself again in the skin of a sinner and nonbeliever. This repeated itself in my life several times. For, undoubtedly, I liked the image of myself as a decent man, but, immediately after I put that mask on, my conscience whispered that I was deceiving others and myself.

“The notion of sacrum is necessary but impossible without experiencing sin. I am dirty, I am a sinner, I am unworthy, and not even because of my behavior but because of the evil sitting in me. And only when I conceded that it was not for me to reach so high have I felt that I was genuine.”

Footprints in the Sand: The Remix

Footprints in the Sand: The Remix

Growing up, “Footprints in the Sand” was the kind of Christian poetry that everyone agreed to like without question. It was like the WWJD bracelet of literature. By my middle school years it was everywhere. You could get it on a quilt, on a print, and even on actual flip flops. If I’m being really honest with you, I had to read it like 5 times before I understood what the writer was saying. My initial thoughts upon reading it were:

Wait! What happened to my feet?
Wait! Why did Jesus leave?
Wait! Did I just die?

So, after that confusing math game, I…

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Ash Wednesday Morning – Catherine Abbey Hodges

ash wednesday morningFrom her collection Instead of Sadness:

The fat candle in the kitchen window burns down
like a rose spilling open. We light a scrap of paper
from the flame, and with the ashes, a little olive oil,
cross each other’s foreheads. Margo’s in the hospital
again. I stop to see her on my way to school,
go straight from there to class. My students have come
from their night shifts at the nursing home
and Wal-Mart, from Mass, from dropping off the baby
at daycare. They shuffle pages, share staplers.
We look into each other’s faces as they hand me their essays.
Who knows how long we’ve got inside these dusty skins.
We’re burning down together, ashes mingling already.