Monday, July 18, 2005

Poem of the Week 7/18/2005: The Pomegranate

The Pomegranate

The only legend I have ever loved is
the story of a daughter lost in hell.
And found and rescued there.
Love and blackmail are the gist of it.
Ceres and Persephone the names.
And the best thing about the legend is
I can enter it anywhere. And have.
As a child in exile in
a city of fogs and strange consonants,
I read it first and at first I was
an exiled child in the crackling dusk of
the underworld, the stars blighted. Later
I walked out in a summer twilight
searching for my daughter at bed-time.
When she came running I was ready
to make any bargain to keep her.
I carried her back past whitebeams
and wasps and honey-scented buddleias.
But I was Ceres then and I knew
winter was in store for every leaf
on every tree on that road.
Was inescapable for each one we passed.
And for me.
It is winter
and the stars are hidden.
I climb the stairs and stand where I can see
my child asleep beside her teen magazines,
her can of Coke, her plate of uncut fruit.
The pomegranate! How did I forget it?
She could have come home and been safe
and ended the story and all
our heart-broken searching but she reached
out a hand and plucked a pomegranate.
She put out her hand and pulled down
the French sound for apple and the noise of stone and the proof
that even in the place of death,
at the heart of legend, in the midst
of rocks full of unshed tears
ready to be diamonds by the time
the story was told, a child can be
hungry. I could warn her. There is still a chance.
The rain is cold. The road is flint-coloured.
The suburb has cars and cable television.
The veiled stars are above ground.
It is another world. But what else
can a mother give her daughter but such
beautiful rifts in time?
If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift.
The legend will be hers as well as mine. She will enter it. As I have.
She will wake up. She will hold
the papery flushed skin in her hand.
And to her lips. I will say nothing.

Eavan Boland 1994

Good evening Friends and Family! This is one of the first poems I read when I got my Norton Anthology of Poetry, and I loved it so much that I did a research project on Eavan Boland last semester. That means that I have some previous theories about Boland's work, and that this discussion will have some more biographical information than usual, but that does not in the least diminish this poem's power or beauty. I particularly love the last four lines, which are as full of tension and anguish as any lines I have ever read.

A bit of backstory on Boland will be helpful before I dive into this poem. Eavan Boland is a female Irish writer in the second half of the twentieth century. She grew up in England, where she felt as if she never had a country or nation as did the British. Boland deals with problems of representation and marginalization, both in being Irish and being an female Irish poet. Women Irish poets have been dreadfully under-represented in Irish literature for hundreds of years. With the help of such poets as Nuala ni Dhomhnaill (pronounced ni gau-na) and Boland, that trend is slowly changing, but the problem remains dire. An anthology called the Irish Literary Review appeared in 1992 that only incorporated two women poets in nearly one thousand pages of poetry. This fact incenses Boland, who contends that the Irish woman appears in Irish literature only as an emblem. She is either the sturdy washer-woman or the beloved, frail beauty. Boland sees that this (literal) subjugation of women cages real women. Boland is *very* aware of the problems of representation.

It may thus seem strange that she chooses the myth of Ceres and Persephone to illustrate a solution to this problem. After all, myth is perhaps the oldest form of written/aural representation that we have. She, however, states immeadately that this myth is useful because she "can enter it anywhere. And [has]". Boland is Persephone in her youth, learning that the world is not all springtime and flowers, experiencing winter in the form of a lonely English childhood. Throughout Boland's poetry, England appears as "a land of strange consonants," while Ireland is a land of vowels. Just in case you read more of her stuff. Ceres enters the picture when Boland inhabits her as a mother panicking over a lost daughter. Panicking, yes, but still aware that "winter was in store for every leaf... was inescapable for each one we passed/ And for me." In writing this, Boland demonstrates her acceptance that winter will come; despair and grief are inevitable. A character or person who can accept that something bad will happen actually creates room to live and to feel, something a female Irish emblem could never do.

The decision about whether to allow her daughter to eat the pomegranate, thus entering a world of pain and betrayal and fear, becomes the crux of the poem. All a parent wants is for her child to be happy and real, so it could be confusing that Boland chooses to say nothing. However, she would rightfully argue that a life lived in half-feeling, in total ignorance of the real world is worse than a life rife with sadness. Stagnancy is the worst feeling of all, so Boland keeps quiet. By speaking up, she would "defer the grief [and] diminish the gift." The gift is not only a life with a full emotional range, but the gift of being able to enter the myth. Boland keeps the myth itself alive by opening its doors to her daughter. Were she to warn "Persephone," she would have cut off the story's energy. It would simply become a dusty anecdote to be taken down and admired instead of a vivacious and relevant myth. Just as Boland does not want this for any person, so she does not want it for a story or form of representation.

I love many things about this poem, but what strikes me the most is how seamlessly Boland melds her story and that of the ancient myth. I distinctly remember being surprised when the pomegranate jumped out of the millennia-old story onto her daughter's plate. One minute everything was clear about who-was-who-when, and the next the tales got all mashed up. But I loved that - it brought both the poem and the Ceres/Persephone legend to life more powerfully than any storybook ever had or could. By living the story and then telling it honestly and painfully, Boland adds to our own emotional range. This is her goal, and it is one which I hope she will continue to puruse.


Monday, July 11, 2005

Poem of the Week 7/11/2005: Punishment


I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front.

It blows her nipples
to amber beads,
it shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.

I can see her drowned
body in the bog,
the weighing stone,
the floating rods and boughs.

Under which at first
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up
oak-bone, brain-firkin:* *small cask

her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring

to store
the memories of love.
Little adultress,
before they punished you

you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat,

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur

of your brain's exposed
and darkened combs,
your muscles' webbing
and all your numbered bones:

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,**
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

Seamus Heaney 1975

* In 1951, the peat-stained body of a young girl who lived in the late first century was recovered from a bog in Windeby, Germany. As P.V. Glob describes her in "The Bog People" (a 1969 book), she "lat naked in the hole in the peat, a bandage over the eyes and a collar round the neck. The band across the eyes was drawn tight and had cut into the neck and the bast of the nose. We may feel sure that it had been used to close her eyees to this world. There was no mark of strangulation on the neck, so it had not been used for that purpose." Her hair "had been shaved off with a razor on the left side of the head.... When the brain was removed the convolutions and folds of the surface could be clearly seen [Glob reproduces a photograph of her brain].... This girl of only fourteen had had an inadequate winter diet.... To keep the young body under, some birch branches and a big stone were laid upon her." According to the Roman historian Tacitus (ca. 56-ca.120), the Germanic peoples punished adulterous women by shaving off their hair and then scourging them out of the village or killing them. IN more recent times, her "betraying sisters" (line 38) have sometimes been shaved, stripped, tarred, and handcuffed by the Irish Republican Army to the railings of Belfast in punishment for keeping company with British soldiers.
**Wrapped or enclosed. A caul is the inner fetal membrane that at birth, when it is unruptured, sometimes covers the infant's head.

Well, I gave everyone a nice, bright poem for the middle of summer....haaaaa... I hope that is alright. However, this is one of my all-time favorite poems by a Nobel Prize winner, Seamus Heaney. As the extremely long footnote indicates, this poem concerns one of the Bog People - thousand plus year old mummies excavated from (and often executed in) the bogs of Europe. My Longman Anthology of British Literature notes, of Heaney, that he found a metaphor for life and suffering in these people. Here are two websites about that - the second is admittedly more gruesome but a much clearer picture... I bet that whoever reads this will go to the site, unable to look away from the train wreck.

That written, I have a confession to make. Heaney is a repeat author, and my first. Until now, I have tried to provide a different poet every week, so this is my first slip-up. I was close to breaking it with Margaret Atwood today, but you all, at least, have not read my Heaney poem as of yet. He was the third Poem of the Week ever, so did not fly out over the internet. "The Otter" was a printed poem, cut out and pasted on black construction paper, then taped to my dorm room door. I highly recommend it... I may send out those old PotW's sometime soon, because they are also some of my all-time favorite poems. So anyway. Expect repeats also by Margaret Atwood and ee cummings.

I picked Heaney (again) today because I wanted to do something great and comfortable for me. That is not to say that there aren't great poets I haven't covered yet (i.e. Keats, Milton, Poe, Browning, Tennyson, Petrarch, Coleridge, Pope, Blake, Pound, Eliot, St. Vincent Millay, Shakespeare!!!), but I love this poem. Ahhh seeing that list is making me rethink picking Heaney, but hey. I typed all of this already. So now I am finished filling your minds with prattle about my own personal battle.

What I love about this poem the most is its empathy, the presence of the narrator, the guilt, the tenderness, and the imagery. Thinking about it now, tenderness is probably one of the two most important components of this poem. This is indeed surprising, as the title itself is Punishment, and the body includes several gruesome ideas. A starving fourteen-year girl killed for adultery is not exactly tender. So the question is, why does it leave one with a deep feeling of tenderness?

The imagery and diction have a huge part to do with this. Heaney uses unusual images that basically allay the violence. He calls her ribs a "frail rigging" rather than a "bony cage" or something gorier. We get the idea that this is a tiny body, something delicate that requires a delicate image, lest it might break. This occurs even in the first line, when he writes, "I can feel the tug / of the halter at the nape / of her neck." Everything here is not as severe as it could be - the rope is a halter instead of a noose and it tugs, not pulls, on the very intimate, soft nape of her neck. We then learn that she is naked on her front, which is a very vulnerable state. He goes on to include the frail rigging line, which, with the other parts, directly establishes this girl's fragility. It's not just fragility, though, but the delicacy of a sleeping child. For me, the feeling is exactly what I feel when I think of my parents' childhoods or my (full) younger sister's. It's a complicated emotion - love, grief, joy and sadness kind of jumbled up together. If that makes any sense at all, which it very well may not.

The narrator certainly encourages this compassionate view, calling the girl "little," "poor," "barked sapling," "undernourished," and "beautiful." He again allays the violence by saying that he can see "the weighing stone"; this gives us merely the idea of pressure rather than direct violence. Heaney eventually employs apostrophe, addressing the girl directly. After calling her "my poor scapegoat," he seamlessly transitions to the second major piece of this poem: guilt.

The narrator (who I am mixing with Heaney: see my usual explanation for this) recognizes the connection between this two thousand year old tarred adultress and the women tarred and handcuffed to railings. And the sweet way he sees the bog girl allows him to find empathy for the modern women and feel guilty for his silence. He speaks as if he himself tortured these women, casting "stones of silence" and being an "artful voyeur." Then the question arises about whether part of his tender portrait of the girl is to assuage his guilt, or whether his almost-love for her comes from her fragility. Probably a little of both.

At any rate, I think that this poem is a step away from the artful voyeurism, because, in writing it, Heaney is literally no longer a voyeur. A voyeur simply watches, but this man *tells* the story. This point is important, as it reedems the narrator a bit. I recognise his courage in addressing the bog girl and in writing of his own silence. That is what I was talking about far above when I wrote that I like the presence of the narrator. This is a complex, flawed human being admitting something sad about himself and yet trying to reedem it. Perhaps another reason that he writes so sympathetically of this girl is that he feels a connection with her. That is, maybe he wants to treat her the way he wants to be treated. That statement could be a stretch, but maybe not as well. It's up to you.

Then of course there is the idea of revenge and how our society is simply repeating the primitve impulses to throw people into bogs (though we have apparently progressed to throwing bits of bog onto people). In other words, to punish. Perhaps writing the poem is a bit of a punishment for the narrator (or at least a penance) for staying silent about the girl's "betraying sisters." Anyway - we are rapidly approaching midnight in Boulder, CO, so I had better send this off! I hope that you enjoyed this poem as much as I did, and, of course, I welcome any responses. Have a wonderful night!


Monday, July 04, 2005

Poem of the Week 7/4/2005: Star-gazer


Forty-two years ago (to me if to no one else
The number is of some interest) it was a brilliant starry night
And the westward train was empty and had no corridors
So darting from side to side I could catch the unwonted sight
Of those almost intolerably bright
Holes, punched in the sky, which excited me partly because
Of their Latin names and partly because I had read in the textbooks
How very far off they were, it seemed their light
Had left them (some at least) long years before I was.

And this remembering now I mark that what
Light was leaving some of them at least then,
Forty-two years ago, will never arrive
In time for me to catch it, which light when
It does get here may find that there is not
Anyone left alive
To run from side to side in a late night train
Admiring it and adding noughts in vain.

Louis MacNeice 1967

Happy Fourth of July friends and family! I could have chosen a grumpy political poem for this week, but I think that I am going to follow my MLK Jr. day track and add positive thoughts to a national holiday. It is important to know for this poem that MacNeice was born in 1907, so he was eighteen "forty two years ago". It's another celestial poem for me...surprise. There is a lot I could say about this poem, but I want to say how much this poem is resonating with me right now. It distills the excitement and openness of a fresh adulthood without losing sight of its ephemerality. I find it interesting how there are two consciousnesses at work here; that of the young eighteen year old and that of the sixty year old looking back. So I enjoyed seeing myself from that space. The night tonight was completely dark and beautiful, and I wanted to find a poem that felt the same way. Some things to notice: ephermality vs. infinity, unintrusive rhyme, the visual form, the somewhat unsual diction, parentheses, repetition, and the character of MacNeice (who is almost certainly the narrator.) I would keep writing if I was more awake. So I am going to go enjoy the night in a different way: by sleeping. Goodnight!