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Making ashes out of you and me

What a shame that Ash Wednesday comes but once a year. For many of us, that’s the only opportunity we have to experience what many people consider the lyrical poet Thomas Conry’s masterwork. Let’s take a closer look.

The first lines are something of a ruse, are they not? Listen:

We rise again from ashes,
from the good we’ve failed to do.
We rise again from ashes,
to create ourselves anew.
If all our world is ashes,
then must our lives be true,
an offering of ashes, an offering to you.

We are lulled by the conventional rhyme scheme, ABABABB, into expecting that the theme will be conventional, as well.  The speaker cannily completes the rhyme by using the same word, “ashes,” three times, as if to signal, “Nothing new here, no  particular reason to pay attention.” Even the finial sounds of the words, “ashes,” “do,” “ashes,” “anew,” and once again “ashes,” followed by “true” and “you” — do you hear it?  the “sh” followed by “oo” . . . it almost sounds like the soft, untroubled breath of a sleeper. “Shh . . .ooo.”  Our narrator appears almost to be snoring, does he not? He is deliberately lulling us to sleep.

But a surprise awaits us in the second stanza.

We offer you our failures,
we offer you attempts,
the gifts not fully given,
the dreams not fully dreamt.
Give our stumblings direction,
give our visions wider view,
an offering of ashes, an offering to you.

Gone are the soft sibilants of the previous lines, and instead, we are confronted with deliberately jarring plosives (/b/ /p/ /t/ /d/) in  “Gifts not fully given, / … dreams not fully dreamt.” Not fully, indeed.  The very percussive violence of the sound is a statement:  the speaker has awoken, and he is in distress, perhaps stuttering and spluttering like a confused patient who was supposed to be etherised upon a table, but they ran out of ether. “Give our stumblings direction,” he haltingly pleads – but then subsides again into the inarticulate vagueness, perhaps experiencing a swollen tongue:  “give our visions wider view,” he mouths with a wagging jaw, in an achingly poignant parody of the semi-conscious man struggling to make sense of a world where significance seems always to be verging on the horizon.

Notice that in this second stanza, the rhyme scheme has subtly shifted from the pedestrian ABABABB to the chaotic and freewheeling ABCBDEE. This indicates that the speaker is confused.

The third stanza seems to find the speaker in a contemplative mood, lapsing again into what appears, at first, to be conventional, even clichéd imagery:  rising from ashes, sunshine turning to rain, and so on:

Then rise again from ashes,
let healing come to pain,
though spring has turned to winter,
and sunshine turned to rain.
The rain we’ll use for growing,
and create the world anew
from an offering of ashes, an offering to you.

But what are we to make of those troublesome conjunctions “then” and “though”? They can’t merely be metric placeholders, can they, with no intrinsic significance?  Don’t you believe it. Every syllable in this concise little jewel of a work is freighted with meaning. Some of the meaning is so subtle, it would wither under the strong light of scrutiny, much like a seedling which is brought to light in the springtime which, in an unprecedented meteorological event possible only in poetry, turns to winter, and then is sunny, and then rainy, and then becomes ashes, or possibly used to be ashes. Delicate seedlings just can’t take that kind of abuse; and so it is with conjunctions in the hands of the poet Conry. Exquisite.

And now the tour de force:  the final stanza.  Here we discover at last the full blown expression of the hints and murmuring suggestions sprinkled like so many ashes throughout the rest of the poem.  The speaker proclaims in triumph:

Thanks be to the Father,
who made us like himself.
Thanks be to his Son,
who saved us by his death.
Thanks be to the Spirit
who creates the world anew
from an offering of ashes, an offering to you.

Do you see?  Do you see?  It was the ashes all along. Ashes!

***
This essay originally ran in the National Catholic Register at some point, I forget when
photo credit: mkorsakov Asche via photopin (license)

Dr. Louise Cowan: A Heart that Sees

Although she smiled warmly and spoke gently (and, if I remember rightly, barely cleared five feet in height!), I was somewhat abashed, not only by her chic southern elegance, but by the dark sunglasses she wore at all times. Dr. Louise suffered from a thyroid disorder which left her nearly blind, and after a series of surgeries, her eyeballs protruded and were discolored, and her face was scarred.

Another student went into her office after me. For several reasons, this girl was on the outs with the community in our small school, and she was difficult to live with.  What private sufferings she endured, I don’t know, and never cared to consider at the time. The young woman said that Dr. Louise talked with her for a while, and then took her sunglasses off, exposing the part of her that she hid from most of the world. I don’t know if they talked about literature at all, or just about life, but the girl came out radiating peace. Dr. Louise did not, I believe, acknowledge such a thing as an “outsider.”

Read the rest at the Register.

Poetry-ize your house for the summer

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Behold my triumph in a stealth supplemental classical education!  My nine-year-old son, the one affectionately known as “Rat Boy,” came up to me and said, “I really liked that thing you put up, the one about the cows and everything.”  He meant the great G. M. Hopkins poem “Pied Beauty,” which I had printed out, matted on construction paper, and tacked over his gerbil’s tank without comment.

He and his siblings certainly did not want to memorize poems when we were homeschooling!  Boy, did they not want to.   But I’ll be darned if I didn’t  hear my seven-year-old (also known as “Rat Boy.”  What can I say?  They act ratty) muttering, “What the hammer?  What the chain?  In what furnace was thy brain?”  Yes, folks, my boys are reading poetry, and they are enjoying it.

As I’ve mentioned, it’s good to be a decent writer no matter what your profession or vocation; and the best writing comes from people who read a lot, and who have certain ponderous, glorious, melodious phrases steeping in their brains.  It’s good to own these phrases whether we’re consciously thinking of them or not — whether we understand what they mean or not.  So I’m on a poetry rampage these days . . . but a stealthy one.  No nagging, no prodding, no pedantics or pleading.

I just sat down and skimmed through lists of famous poems, picking out my favorites, and printed them out in a large, plain font (it takes forever to write poems out by hand, for some reason).  Then I cut each page down to the size and shape of the poem, rather than leaving them on 8.5×11 paper — I think they look more appealing, less easy to ignore as educational-type stuff, if they’re nonstandard shapes.  Then I matted them on whatever color paper seemed appropriate (again, to make them more decorative and appealing, and less scholarly in appearance), and went around the house tacking them to walls.

I tried to make the placement relevant (“Love (III)” goes under Rublev’s icon of the Trinity; “Dust of Snow” goes next to the window on the side of the house where there are, in fact, crows and trees), but went first for places where I’ve noticed that people tend to hang around staring at the walls already.  Then I didn’t say a word about them, and just waited for the kids to notice.  I think the key was not making a big deal about it — just doing it because I felt like doing it.  No pressure, so they had no motivation to rebel or be difficult.

Here are the poems I hung up, chosen mostly because they’re fairly short and have wonderful sounds and/or images:

The Tyger” William Blake
Still, Citizen Sparrow” Richard Wilbur
Dust of Snow”  Robert Frost
Spring and Fall” G.M. Hopkins
Love (III)” George Herbert

and here are the ones awaiting colorful matting as soon as I remember where I left the construction paper:

“Thirteen Ways of Looking At a  Blackbird” Wallace Stevens
“When I Was One-and-Twenty” (from A Shropshire Lad) A. E. Housman
“Epistemology” Richard Wilbur
“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” William Butler Yeats
“The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower” Dylan Thomas
“maggie and milly and molly and may” e. e. cummings
“The Walrus and the Carpenter” Lewis Carroll
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” Robert Frost
“Mock On,  Mock On, Voltaire, Rousseau” William Blake
“At the Sea-Side” Robert Lewis Stevenson
“Marginalia” Richard Wilbur
I Knew a Woman” Theodore Roethke

I wanted to put “She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways,” but we have a Lucy, whom we do not want to creep out.  Otherwise, I gave my self full permission to just pick stuff that I happen to like for whatever reason, and didn’t feel obligated to choose Important Works Students Ought To Learn.

Oh, it’s so easy!  I’m very happy about this idea, and I don’t see how it could possibly do any harm.  When we stopped homeschooling, I was very glad to have someone else take over all the work, but felt persistently of blue that the curriculum was a little flat.  Now I feel like I’ve snuck vitamins into all their favorite snacks, and their days are bound to be richer.

Lots of people hang up quotes from saints or favorite authors, and I think this is a great idea, too.  But for now, I’m just pushing sounds and images.  Do you do this at your house?  What’s on your walls?

***

This post originally ran at the Register in 2012.

USPS accidentally creates brilliant tribute to the mediocrity of Maya Angleou

maya angelou

Maya Angelou Or Somebody

Maya Angelou  has been dead long enough. As someone who still owes money on my student loan for my BA in literature with a concentration in lyrical poetry, I declare it fine to make fun of her now. Here we go:

On Tuesday, the USPS unveiled a limited-edition stamp intended to honor the late poet Maya Angelou, featuring her beaming smile and a choice quotation to fill the frame. “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer,” reads the stamp, “it sings because it has a song.”

 

The only problem? That’s not a Maya Angelou quote. That particular birdie quote was by someone named Joan Walsh Anglund. It was the 70′s. We were all talking about birds, pretty much all the time. That, and our hair.

Here’s the response from the USPS:

“Had we known about this issue beforehand, we would have used one of [Angelou’s] many other works. … The sentence held great meaning for her and she is publicly identified with its popularity.”

In other words: Meh. Sounds pretty Maya Angelou-ish to me.  I guess it’s a problem, but . . . meh.

And that there is pretty much all you need to know about the poetry of Maya Angelou, the most meh-worthy poet ever to say miscellaneous things about birds and whatnot.

 

***

At the Register: Making Ashes Out of You and Me

This is the best thing I have ever written in my entire life.