Reading: Vacation by William Stafford

William Stafford (1914-1993) was a very prolific American writer who was born in Kansas and died in Oregon. From his many works I selected, with the help of Szeslaw Milosz, a short observation about traveling:

One scene as I bow to pour her coffee:–

____Three Indians in the scouring drouth
____huddle at the grave scooped in the gravel,
____lean to the wind as our train goes by.
____Someone is gone.
____There is dust on everything in Nevada.

I pour the cream.

This was how it feels to travel on the Western frontier, I imagine. Your fiancée sitting opposite to you, hot coffee provided by rail catering (that was incomparably better in those days than it is currently), and gazing from the window at the barbarians, or at ‘the others’ to use that fancy word.

The others are native Americans, who Stafford in his day could call Indians without being put on trial by social justice warriors, and they were burying someone in the droug(h)t. With a few words, he paints the scene and notes that there is ‘dust on everything’, or, everything is already buried, dead or not. The landscape of Nevada is one big fallen tombstone, covered with dust and illegible.

While he was watching the funeral, he must have poured her the coffee, because when he looks inside again he is ready to pour the cream. Pouring hot coffee requires some coordination; doing it while looking at a distant native funeral (what an expression) must require a special ability.

Reading this, I think of the expeditions of Lewis and Clark (an interesting coincidence is that William Stafford taught at Lewis and Clark college).

Reading: Vacation by William Stafford was originally published on Meandering home


Reading: This Is Just To Say by William Carlos Williams

Something light and exhilarating today. William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was a New York poet important voice of modernism and symbolism, who was celebrated by Ginsberg and the Beats for his accessibility. For our growing anthology, I read what is probably the most famous post-it note of American culture:

This is just to say
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I was considering this poem alongside the famous “Red Wheelbarrow” (upon which much depends, glazed in rain, besides the white chickens etc). This one is a bit funnier. So, what is there to say? Ice cold plums for breakfast? Do I have to look up the meaning of the plum in historical symbolism?

The plumeater had planned to spend the night with a woman but left early because of some disappointment. The woman might have been sweet and cold, and hence, inedible, so WCW helped himself and devoured her plums. What turns a man off in a frigid woman can captivate us when it appears as fruit that a man can bite in. Such is my highly subjective masculine reading of this scribble, what’s yours?

Reading: This Is Just To Say by William Carlos Williams was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Winged And Acid Dark by Robert Hass

Robert Hass (b. 1941) is another famous American poet who served as Poet Laureate of that immense country and won a Pulitzer prize. I read one of his poems today that I think is representative. In other words: vintage Hass:

Winged and acid dark
A sentence with “dappled shadow” in it.
Something not sayable
spurting from the morning silence,
secret as a thrush.

The other man, the officer, who brought onions
and wine and sacks of flour,
the major with the swollen knee,
wanted intelligent conversation afterward.
Having no choice, she provided that, too.

Potsdamerplatz, May 1945.

When the first one was through he pried her mouth open.
Bashō told Rensetsu to avoid sensational materials.
If the horror of the world were the truth of the world,
he said, there would be no one to say it
and no one to say it to.
I think he recommended describing the slightly frenzied
swarming of insects near a waterfall.

Pried her mouth open and spit in it.
We pass these things on,
probably, because we are what we can imagine.

Something not sayable in the morning silence.
The mind hungering after likenesses. “Tender sky,” etc.,
curves the swallows trace in air.

Hass observes the limitations of language before giving us an incomprehensive fragment. Who is the other man and what about the supplies, the wounded major wanting conversation, and why did she have no choice? In the next sentence, the entire scene becomes clear. Potsdamerplatz, May 1945. Hitler is dead, his Reich has surrendered. The officer and the man are allied forces, making themselves comfortable on the rubble of Berlin. Wine and conversation, what more does a man need?

What about the prying open of the mouth? Looking for gold crowns? And why the Japanese names? The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings occured on August 6 and 9, 1945. Do the frenzied swarming of the insects near a waterfall refer to the nuclear event? I try to imagine, but I fail to understand why they spit in the woman’s mouth. You?

Hass seems to agree with me. He returns to the sayableness of tender sky and the curves we so easily imagine after swallows. This poem is a smart and gripping way of denoting what is unsayable about the war, and the fact that I might have completely missed what that unsayable thing is, well, that is precisely the point.

Reading: Winged And Acid Dark by Robert Hass was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Anthem for doomed youth by Wilfred Owen

English war poetry from the trenches. After Sassoon I read a poem from the pen of remarkable Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), one great poor soul from the culled generation of World War I:

Anthem for doomed youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
____Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
____Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, —
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
______Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
__Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
______The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
__Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
__And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Did the soldiers of the first world war die as cattle? The metaphor is sometimes invoked for the horrors of the shoah, the lurid invention of manslaughter on an industrial scale, and by animal right activists PETA who like the holocaust to factory farming. To die as cattle: anonymously, murdered by a machinery that lies beyond your imagination. The sound of the angry guns and rifles are all they have for their orisons (hasty prayers). But these don’t compare to real prayers or real bells, or real mourning.

After likening the sound of rattling gunfire with church bells and farewells, Owen goes further and makes the wailing shells a choir (shell shock…) with bugle horns (here is a bugle from world war I). He asks about the candles, but there is no time. He stretches his poetic imagination to give the boys at least the dignity of a funeral service. There are no candles, so they make do with the holy glimmer of goodbyes in their eyes. There are no shrouds, so they use the fading memory of their girls als a pall. And for flowers there’s the tender patience of their pals.

This is one of the most heart wrenching war poems I know. What do you think?

Reading: Anthem for doomed youth by Wilfred Owen was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Résumé by Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) has lead a tempestuous life with several marriages, some suicides attempt and employment by Vanity Fair. One of her collections is called ‘enough rope’ and I can’t supress a sinister feeling. However, she stayed alive and became a productive screenwriter and poet. I sample a very short piece here, because short verse sometimes captures an author best:


Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

There is not much to comment here. Rhythm and rhyme work perfectly and the conclusion smacks of the sort of cynicism we like best, having gone full circle. Yeah, you might as well live. It is the Schopenhauerian attitude to suicide, who was critical of the contradictory active stance to one’s demise. He preferred the eastern wisdom of Nirvana, of the overcoming of the will. Mrs. Parker was to my knowledge not a buddhist but a socialist, who bequeathed her literary estate to dr. Martin Luther King, jr. who died a little later than she did. But perhaps a certain lax and melancholic attitude to life, that ‘you might as well live’ is what befits the spirit of socialism better than wild, consuming ideology?

Reading: Résumé by Dorothy Parker was originally published on Meandering home