Monday, November 28, 2005

Poem of the Week 11/28/2005: My Grandmother's Love Letters

My Grandmother's Love Letters

There are no stars to-night
But those of memory.
Yet how much room for memory there is
In the loose girdle of soft rain.

There is even room enough
For the letters of my mother's mother,
Elizabeth,
That have been pressed so long
Into a corner of the roof
That they are brown and soft,
And liable to melt as snow.

Over the greatness of such space
Steps must be gentle.
It is all hung by an invisible white hair.
It trembles as birtch limbs webbing the air.

And I ask myself:

"Are your fingers long enough to play
Old keys that are but echoes:
Is the silence strong enough
To carry back the music to its source
And back to you again
As though to her?"
Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand
Through much of what she would not understand;
And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof
With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.

Hart Crane 1926

Hello Friends and Family - I am sorry that I never finished the last poem of the week; this one may not be completed either, for finals are beginning to bear down. But I will update you all over my Winter Break as to which poems I have finished (there will be many, I hope). Anyway, on to "My Grandmother's Love Letters". The poem is a journey rather than a circle, a process instead of a cross-section of time. This episode tells of a failure to connect with the past, or of a failure to hold on to a person. It deals with dissolution, though not harsh or nihilistic dissolution. Rather, it concerns a sad ending, something just out of reach. Also, I just noticed that the structure of this poem is rather like Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "conversation poems", wherein he begins discussing the surrounding natural world, goes into a thoughtful tangent, and returns to the natural world with a new perspective.

The first three stanzas establish the delicacy of the situation, the necessity to tread softly and carefully around the grandmother's precious memories. The narrator begins with a clean slate of sorts in discussing her surroundings. She contemplates, that "there are no stars" and that the rain gently encloses her. This establishes the privacy and openness needed to look so intimately into the past. (I am choosing a female narrator, but there is no indication one way or the other, so you are free to select whomever you like; I like the idea that these letters are a woman's inheritance, but it does not matter. Pick for yourself.) This kind of blankness, she seems to be saying, effaces the outside world, encouraging interiority. There is safety and gentleness in the image of a "loose girdle", as if the weather will clothe and protect the sensitive inner world.

This natural space, she notes, even provides enough breathing room for something very special, Elizabeth's love letters. Setting the name "Elizabeth" alone in its line emphasizes the grandmother's singularity and importance. One must hold on to the letters to hold on to her, at least while they survive. They are "liable to melt as snow", revealing the delicacy of looking at her grandmother's love letters. The diction here is again soft and careful and quiet. Words like "pressed," "brown," "snow", and indeed "soft" itself reiterate that this is a private intrusion.

The next lines, "over the greatness of such space / steps must be gentle", voices, refrain-like, this same idea. That there is a "greatness" to this space implies both a vastness and an extraordinariness to the past and, even more, to age. The next two lines are almost painfully aware of the grandmother's decrepit state; the "white hair" is an obvious link to old age while the trembling tree limbs connote muscular deterioration. These references to old age add another dimension; this situation is not simply delicate because it is so ephemeral, but perhaps because experience (of any variety) deserves respect.

***Alright - I have to leave you here. So that you have some clue to my thoughts about the somewhat surprising end of this poem, I will sum up the rest of my thoughts on "My Grandmother's Love Letters":

~The first part of the fourth stanza is odd, for it reads like a conversation while it is only one person. This approach reveals the narrator's self-doubt. Perhaps the love letters are too important to attempt to understand. Reading the letters *requires* so much imagination and such deep empathy that to fall short is to melt the letters like snow, to clomp and stamp all over a person's identity and life.
~The end of the poem, then, reflects this defeat. The narrator believes that she (the speaker) cannot let go of enough of herself to fully experience what her grandmother did. She would distort her grandmother's memory.
~Thus the rain, once a protector of the inner self, serenely mocks the narrator's self-ishness, not because the rain is bad, but because the narrator realizes that she cannot take advantage of the open environment.

Okay - pieces of that may change tomorrow, for I am very tired now, so until next update...***

1 comment:

glo said...

it seems like every new poem each week, i feel as if THAT one hits me deeper than all the others...well, i'm feeling the same way about "Grandmother's Love Letters," particularly after seeing family recently...so incredible and such an untrampled a subject yet seems to hold such a familiarity, in the softest hints. I am so looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts. thank you!