These wild solitudes

Another of my long silences. This one denotes a winter of discontent, a hibernation from which I am just now emerging; I write this sitting in some afternoon sun, on one of the milder days we’ve had. My malaise was in part a result of morning sickness (I’m expecting another baby in the summer) and in part a reaction to the coldest winter we’ve had in thirty years. (I used to enjoy the cold; now I’m just cold.) My retreat was also prompted by a gnawing despair about the world. Whichever way you look, fears, failures, horrors, hypocrisies. The worsening of everything.

I withdrew into the shallows. I ate and slept and did my chores, read nothing of substance, heard the buzz of news but not the older songs of the earth. Outdoors was cold and dark, so I stayed indoors, where it was still cold, and just as dark.

Now, though, my sickness has passed, and the sun is shining. The cold is far from finished but there are buds on the trees, blossoms on some of the more prodigious cherries. The world is, if anything, more frightening, but I am less afraid. I begin to think the shallows were not the place to hide. They offered me nothing. They made life thinner. Another time, I’ll brave the cold, and try to live deeply in spite of my lassitude and the world’s alarms. 

Once, in the doctor’s waiting room, I managed to choose poetry over news, and I was rewarded with another American romantic I didn’t know—William Cullen Bryant. Here are a few lines of his “Winter Piece” that spoke to my languor and showed me how, in the bleakest landscape, I might find light.

The time has been that these wild solitudes,
Yet beautiful as wild, were trod by me
Oftener than now; and when the ills of life
Had chafed my spirit—when the unsteady pulse
Beat with strange flutterings—I would wander forth
And seek the woods. The sunshine on my path
Was to me a friend.
                                                 …When shrieked
The bleak November winds, and smote the woods,
And the brown fields were herbless, and the shades,
That met above the merry rivulet,
Were spoiled, I sought, I loved them still; they seemed
Like old companions in adversity.
Still there was beauty in my walks…
But Winter has yet brighter scenes—he boasts
Splendors beyond what gorgeous Summer knows;
Or Autumn with his many fruits, and woods
All flushed with many hues. Come when the rains
Have glazed the snow and clothed the trees with ice,
While the slant of sun of February pours
Into the bowers a flood of light. Approach!
The incrusted surface shall upbear thy steps,
And the broad arching portals of the grove
Welcome thy entering. Look! the massy trunks
Are cased in pure crystal; each light spray,
Nodding and tinkling in the breath of heaven,
Is studded with its trembling water-drops,
That glimmer with an amethystine light.
But round the parent-stem the long low boughs
Bend, in a glittering ring, and arbors hide
The glassy floor…
There the blue sky and the white drifting cloud
Look in. Again the wildered fancy dreams
Of spouting fountains, frozen as they rose,
And fixed, with all their branching jets, in air,
And all their sluices sealed. All, all is light;
Light without shade.

Don't you hear the goldenrod whispering goodbye?

On this last day of Autumn, two poems by Mary Oliver. I love her tender, friendly observation of the woods and waters near her home, and her gentle, companionable way of bringing the lovely world to our notice. The first one is called "Song for Autumn." I found a couple of different versions but took this one from Poetry magazine, which I take to be authoritative. Also because in the other versions the pond 'vanishes', but how much more lyrical that it should 'stiffen' with the coming cold. 

Don't you imagine the leaves dream now
     how comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the
     nothingness of the air and the endless
freshets of wind? And don't you think
     the trees, especially those with
mossy hollows, are beginning to look for

the birds that will come - six, a dozen - to sleep
     inside their bodies? And don't you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
     the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow? The pond
     stiffens and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
     its long blue shadows. The wind wags
its many tails. And in the evening
     the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way. 

The second is "Fall Song." It is less fanciful, more conventional as an autumn poem, having a  melancholy undertow and a sense of longing, but it is by no means derivative. It has strikingly original images, like the 'black subterranean castle of unobservable mysteries'. For a poet whose strength is observation, the 'unobservable mysteries' are in part what pull her towards the more melancholy view, yet her final vision is bright with illumination, as true as anything in verse.

Another year gone, leaving everywhere
its rich spiced residues: vines, leaves,

the uneaten fruits crumbling damply
in the shadows, unmattering back

from the particular island
of this summer, this NOW, that now is nowhere

except underfoot, moldering
in that black subterranean castle

of unobservable mysteries - roots and sealed seeds
and the wanderings of water. This

I try to remember when time's measure
painfully chafes, for instance when autumn

flares out at the last, boisterous and like us longing
to stay - how everything lives, shifting

from one bright vision to another, forever
in these momentary pastures.

Now we are they who weep

Our Master lies asleep and is at rest:
     His Heart has ceased to bleed, His Eye to weep:
The sun ashamed has dropt down in the west:
     Our Master lies asleep.


     Now we are they who weep, and trembling keep
Vigil, with wrung heart in a sighing breast,
     While slow time creeps, and slow the shadows creep.

Renew Thy youth, as eagle from the nest;
     O Master, who hast sown, arise to reap: – 
No cock-crow yet, no flush on eastern crest: 
     Our Master lies asleep.

(Christina Rossetti)

This bread I break

This bread I break was once the oat,
This wine upon a foreign tree
Plunged in its fruit;
Man in the day or wind at night
Laid the crops low, broke the grape’s joy.

Once in this wine the summer blood
Knocked in the flesh that decked the vine,
Once in this bread
The oat was merry in the wind;
Man broke the sun, pulled the wind down.

This flesh you break, this blood you let
Make desolation in the vein,
Were oat and grape
Born of the sensual root and sap;
My wine you drink, my bread you snap.

(Dylan Thomas)