The rain it rains

I can't stop watching the images of the Queensland floods.  As well as being sad and strange, it's astonishing to see a familiar landscape completely transfigured by water. Many of the photos look serene, but under the surface there has been destruction. After these extraordinary waters recede, there will be much to do.

It's a cliche but it's undeniably true about Australians that we stare down adversity and face devastation on this scale with an unflinching pragmatism. The images of kids paddling while adults shoulder eskies, sofas, dogs and bikes through chest-high water are heartening.

I like this poem “Floods” by Rudyard Kipling because of the truth of its observation: “what is weak will surely go, / And what is strong must prove it so.” Also the hopefulness of the ending. The floods are destructive now, but they do end a twenty-year drought and promise better years to come for our rivers and fields.

The rain it rains without a stay
In the hills above us, in the hills;
And presently the floods break way
Whose strength is in the hills.
The trees they suck from every cloud,
The valley brooks they roar aloud--
Bank-high for the lowlands, lowlands,
Lowlands under the hills!

The first wood down is sere and small,
From the hills, the brishings off the hills;
And then come by the bats and all
We cut last year in the hills;
And then the roots we tried to cleave
But found too tough and had to leave--
Polting through the lowlands, lowlands,
Lowlands under the hills!

The eye shall look, the ear shall hark
To the hills, the doings in the hills,
And rivers mating in the dark
With tokens from the hills.
Now what is weak will surely go,
And what is strong must prove it so.
Stand fast in the lowlands, lowlands,
Lowlands under the hills!

The floods they shall not be afraid--
Nor the hills above 'em, nor the hills--
Of any fence which man has made
Betwixt him and the hills.
The waters shall not reckon twice
For any work of man's device,
But bid it down to the lowlands, lowlands,
Lowlands under the hills!

The floods shall sweep corruption clean--
By the hills, the blessing of the hills--
That more the meadows may be green
New-amended from the hills.
The crops and cattle shall increase,
Nor little children shall not cease--
Go--plough the lowlands, lowlands,
Lowlands under the hills!

A brittle heaven

Enough of Christmas - the new year is upon us, and Christmas is again a year away. I thought this poem by Emily Dickinson was apt for anyone meditating new year's resolutions as I am.  This time of year always fills me with hopes, always convinces me that there is a centre toward which my life will at last converge. Usually lasts till about March.

Each life converges to some centre
Expressed or still;
Exists in every human nature
A goal,

Admitted scarcely to itself, it may be,
Too fair
For credibility's temerity
To dare.

Adored with caution, as a brittle heaven,
To reach
Were hopeless as the rainbow's raiment
To touch,

Yet persevered toward, surer for the distance;
How high
Unto the saints' slow diligence
The sky!

Ungained, it may be, by a life's low venture,
But then,
Eternity enables the endeavoring

All things counter, original, spare, strange

I like this poem “Snow” by Louis Macneice, an Irish contemporary of Auden and Stephen Spender.

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes–
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of your hands–
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

I like the idea that the world is “incorrigibly plural.” Our minds tend to be reductive; we try to manage our experience by draining out the colour and complexity, sifting, sorting, simplifying. But there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. They are more generous than we.

I liked this poem, but I don't think its idea is fully embodied in it - there's no sense in the words and lines themselves of that breathless realisation of things being various. In contrast, Hopkins’ poem “Pied Beauty” is full of the dazzle and irregularity he praises.

GLORY be to God for dappled things— 
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; 
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; 
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; 
  Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;         
    And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim. 
All things counter, original, spare, strange; 
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) 
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; 
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:         
                  Praise him.  

Catch the heart off guard

Looking through previous Nobel literature winners for a poem, I had to go back as far as 1995 to find a winner who was primarily a poet. From Seamus Heaney, I liked this beachy poem “Postscript.” 

And some time make the time to drive out west

Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you'll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

My secret's mine, and I won't tell

Since Autumn is now behind us and Winter is upon is (-2 on the way to work this morning!) here's a gorgeous poem from Christina Rossetti: “Winter My Secret.” See if you can make head or tail of it.

Perhaps some day, who knows?
But not today; it froze, and blows and snows,
And you're too curious: fie!
You want to hear it? well:
Only, my secret's mine, and I won't tell.

Or, after all, perhaps there's none:
Suppose there is no secret after all,
But only just my fun.
Today's a nipping day, a biting day;
In which one wants a shawl,
A veil, a cloak, and other wraps:
I cannot ope to everyone who taps,
And let the draughts come whistling thro' my hall;
Come bounding and surrounding me,
Come buffeting, astounding me,
Nipping and clipping thro' my wraps and all.
I wear my mask for warmth: who ever shows
His nose to Russian snows
To be pecked at by every wind that blows?
You would not peck? I thank you for good will,
Believe, but leave the truth untested still.

Spring's an expansive time: yet I don't trust
March with its peck of dust,
Nor April with its rainbow-crowned brief showers,
Nor even May, whose flowers
One frost may wither thro' the sunless hours.

Perhaps some languid summer day,
When drowsy birds sing less and less,
And golden fruit is ripening to excess,
If there's not too much sun nor too much cloud,
And the warm wind is neither still nor loud,
Perhaps my secret I may say,
Or you may guess.