by Nona Blyth Cloud
While Memorial Day has become the unofficial start of summer for Americans, the actual start of the season is the Summer Solstice, which this year begins at 6:34 p.m. EDT on Monday, June 20.
I’ve decided to celebrate a little early because this beginning, the longest day of the year, is also the brink of Earth’s long tilt back toward Winter, a reminder that the days of sun and roses are fleeting.
Finding poems about June and the Summer Solstice isn’t hard, but finding good ones is not easy. June rhymes with too many things, and there’s a trainload of June-Moon-Spoon-Tune stuff out there. And most of the poems, whether about the month or the day, tend to be pretty and flowery, but all too easily forgotten.
I like Garrison Keillor’s criteria: “Stickiness, memorability, is one sign of a good poem. You hear it and a day later some of it is still there in the brainpan.”
These first two poems focus on a different aspect of summer — insects. In this Mary Oliver poem, it’s a grasshopper, along with her thoughts about Life, the Universe and Everything:
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Lynda Hull remembers Florida’s mosquitoes and cicadas, the unraveling of love, and her mixed memories of her parents.
Insect Life of Florida
In those days I thought their endless thrum
was the great wheel that turned the days, the nights.
In the throats of hibiscus and oleander
I’d see them clustered yellow, blue, their shells
enameled hard as the sky before the rain.
All that summer, my second, from city
to city my young father drove the black coupe
through humid mornings I’d wake to like fever
parceled between luggage and sample goods.
Afternoons, showers drummed the roof,
my parents silent for hours. Even then I knew
something of love was cruel, was distant.
Mother leaned over the seat to me, the orchid
Father’d pinned in her hair shriveled
to a purple fist. A necklace of shells
coiled her throat, moving a little as she
murmured of alligators that float the rivers
able to swallow a child whole, of mosquitoes
Okeefenokee, where Father held my hand
and pointed to an egret’s flight unfolding
white above swamp reeds that sang with insects
until I was lost, until I was part
of the singing, their thousand wings gauze
on my body, tattooing my skin.
Father rocked me later by the water,
the motel balcony, singing calypso
with the Jamaican radio. The lyrics
a net over the sea, its lesson
of desire and repetition. Lizards flashed
over his shoes, over the rail
where the citronella burned merging our
shadows — Father’s face floating over mine
in the black changing sound
of night, the enormous Florida night,
metallic with cicadas, musical
and dangerous as the human heart.
Stacie Cassarino considers what makes love work, and how it can fail, as she explores a meadow on Summer Solstice.
I wanted to see where beauty comes from
without you in the world, hauling my heart
across sixty acres of northeast meadow,
my pockets filling with flowers.
Then I remembered,
it’s you I miss in the brightness
and body of every living name:
rattlebox, yarrow, wild vetch.
You are the green wonder of June,
root and quasar, the thirst for salt.
When I finally understand that people fail
at love, what is left but cinquefoil, thistle,
the paper wings of the dragonfly
aeroplaning the soul with a sudden blue hilarity?
If I get the story right, desire is continuous,
equatorial. There is still so much
I want to know: what you believe
can never be removed from us,
what you dreamed on Walnut Street
in the unanswerable dark of your childhood,
learning pleasure on your own.
Tell me our story: are we impetuous,
are we kind to each other, do we surrender
to what the mind cannot think past?
Where is the evidence I will learn
to be good at loving?
The black dog orbits the horseshoe pond
for treefrogs in their plangent emergencies.
There are violet hills,
there is the covenant of duskbirds.
The moon comes over the mountain
like a big peach, and I want to tell you
what I couldn’t say the night we rushed
North, how I love the seriousness of your fingers
and the way you go into yourself,
calling my half-name like a secret.
I stand between taproot and treespire.
Here is the compass rose
to help me live through this.
Here are twelve ways of knowing
what blooms even in the blindness
of such longing. Yellow oxeye,
viper’s bugloss with its set of pink arms
pleading do not forget me.
We hunger for eloquence.
We measure the isopleths.
I am visiting my life with reckless plenitude.
The air is fragrant with tiny strawberries.
Fireflies turn on their electric wills:
an effulgence. Let me come back
whole, let me remember how to touch you
before it is too late.
For John Koethe, sunlight on summer leaves triggers this memory of a summer romance as ephemeral as a mayfly.
It’s like living in a light bulb, with the leaves
Like filaments and the sky a shell of thin, transparent glass
Enclosing the late heaven of a summer day, a canopy
Of incandescent blue above the dappled sunlight golden on the grass.
I took the train back from Poughkeepsie to New York
And in the Port Authority, there at the Suburban Transit window,
She asked, “Is this the bus to Princeton?”—which it was.
“Do you know Geoffrey Love?” I said I did. She had the blondest hair,
Which fell across her shoulders, and a dress of almost phosphorescent blue.
She liked Ayn Rand. We went down to the Village for a drink,
Where I contrived to miss the last bus to New Jersey, and at 3 a.m. we
Walked around and found a cheap hotel I hadn’t enough money for
And fooled around on its dilapidated couch. An early morning bus
(She’d come to see her brother), dinner plans and missed connections
And a message on his door about the Jersey shore. Next day
A summer dormitory room, my roommates gone: “Are you,” she asked,
“A hedonist?” I guessed so. Then she had to catch her plane.
Sally—Sally Roche. She called that night from Florida,
And then I never heard from her again. I wonder where she is now,
Who she is now. That was thirty-seven years ago.
And I’m too old to be surprised again. The days are open,
Life conceals no depths, no mysteries, the sky is everywhere,
The leaves are all ablaze with light, the blond light
Of a summer afternoon that made me think again of Sally’s hair.
And finally, as a long summer’s day slips into twilight, Sara Teasdale listens to the birds, hoping for a song of her own.
Dusk in June
Evening, and all the birds
In a chorus of shimmering sound
Are easing their hearts of joy
For miles around.
The air is blue and sweet,
The few first stars are white,–-
Oh let me like the birds
Sing before night.
Without some shadow, the sunlight would not seem so brilliant, so take a little time to celebrate the longer days of summer.
Mary Oliver (1935- ) won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1984) for American Primitive,
and the National Book Award (1992) for New and Selected Poems.
Lynda Hull (1954-1994) received the Carl Sandburg Award (1991) for her book Star Ledger, and an NEA Literature Fellowship in Poetry (1989).
Stacie Cassarino (1975- ) won the
Joan Leiman Jacobson Poetry Prize (2005), and the
Lamda Literary Award (2010) for Zero at the Bone.
John Koethe (1945- )
the first Poet Laureate of Milwaukee (2000),
was also granted fellowships from the Guggenheim
Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts.
Sara Teasdale (1884 – 1933), won the first prize for poetry
awarded through the Pulitzer Prize Board of Advisories (1918), later named the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, for her book Love Songs.
- “The Summer Day” from House of Light, © 1990 by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press —
- “Insect Life of Florida” from Collected Poems, © 2006 by the Estate of Lynda Hull, Graywolf Press —
- “Summer Solstice” from Zero at the Bone, © 2009 by Stacie Cassarino. New Issues Press — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/53598
- “Sally’s Hair” from Sally’s Hair: Poems, © 2007 by John Koethe, Harper Perennial —
- “Dusk in June” from The Collected Poems, © 1996 by Buccaneer Books —
- Zia Sun Symbol
- Female grasshopper
- Egret in reeds
- Full moon over mountains
- Woman’s long hair in sunlight
- Birds gathered at twilight
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud