TCS: A Time Confused and With Few Clear Stars

. . Good Morning!


Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers on Monday mornings.
This is an Open Thread forum, so if you have an off-topic opinion burning
a hole in your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.


The only thing that makes life possible
is permanent, intolerable uncertainty;
not knowing what comes next.

– Ursula K. Le Guin


Today, July 22, is the birthday of two American poets, Emma Lazarus and Stephen Vincent Benét. Lazarus is only remembered now for one poem, The New Colossus, forever enshrined in the base of the Statue of Liberty.  Benét won the 1929 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his long narrative poem John Brown’s Body, but is probably better known in this century for his short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” winner of the O. Henry Award in 1937.

The New Colossus represents the hopeful open spirit of America, the welcome to strangers who will become neighbors and friends, maybe even family. It is a treasured American Myth, which ignores the small-minded, inward-turning and suspicious side of America, which has come to the fore so harshly in today’s reactionary White-America-First-All-Others-Keep-Out hysteria. I have paired it with another of her poems, In Exile, inspired by a letter written by a Russian Jewish refugee farming in Texas, which shows the fulfillment of the dreams of exiles coming to America for a better life.

Emma Lazarus crammed a great deal of writing and volunteer work advocating for Jewish refugees into her short life. She was only 38 years old when she died. The New Colossus, written in 1883 to help raise money for the construction of the pedestal for the statue, was admired at the time, but then quickly forgotten, until it was republished in the New York World when “Liberty Enlightening the World” was finally dedicated in 1886. But it was the three-year campaign beginning in 1901 by her friend Georgina Schuyler that led to a plaque of the poem at last being dedicated on the inner wall of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903.

In sharp contrast, the two poems from Benét speak of the cost of keeping Liberty alive, and the escalating pressures of living in modern America. His grandfather served in the American Civil War, an uncle was in the Spanish-American War, and his father was a colonel in the U.S. Army. Benét was sent to a Military Academy at the age of 10, but he never served in the military. Yet his poem, The Breaking Point, is a chilling description of what has been re-named with each succeeding war, from ”Shell Shock” to the present-day “PTSD.”  Minor Litany is also written quite knowingly about addiction. He was a prolific writer, a judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition and an editor for the Yale University Press, where his efforts helped bring both of them greater prominence and prestige in American Letters. Benét died of a heart attack at the age of 44, in 1943.

Though Emma Lazarus died only eleven years before Stephen Vincent Benét was born, they lived in very different Americas, hers the one before, during and after the Civil War, while his was the America before, between and during World War I and World War II.


The New Colossus

by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

In Exile

by Emma Lazarus

 “Since that day till now our life is one unbroken paradise. We live a true brotherly life. Every evening after supper we take a seat under the mighty oak and sing our songs.”—Extract from a letter of a Russian refugee in Texas.

Twilight is here, soft breezes bow the grass,
Day’s sounds of various toil break slowly off.
The yoke-freed oxen low, the patient ass
Dips his dry nostril in the cool, deep trough.
Up from the prairie the tanned herdsmen pass
With frothy pails, guiding with voices rough
Their udder-lightened kine. Fresh smells of earth,
The rich, black furrows of the glebe send forth.

After the Southern day of heavy toil,
How good to lie, with limbs relaxed, brows bare
To evening’s fan, and watch the smoke-wreaths coil
Up from one’s pipe-stem through the rayless air.
So deem these unused tillers of the soil,
Who stretched beneath the shadowing oak tree, stare
Peacefully on the star-unfolding skies,
And name their life unbroken paradise.

The hounded stag that has escaped the pack,
And pants at ease within a thick-leaved dell;
The unimprisoned bird that finds the track
Through sun-bathed space, to where his fellows dwell;
The martyr, granted respite from the rack,
The death-doomed victim pardoned from his cell,—
Such only know the joy these exiles gain,—
Life’s sharpest rapture is surcease of pain.

Strange faces theirs, where through the Orient sun
Gleams from the eyes and glows athwart the skin.
Grave lines of studious thought and purpose run
From curl-crowned forehead to dark-bearded chin.
And over all the seal is stamped thereon
Of anguish branded by a world of sin,
In fire and blood through ages on their name,
Their seal of glory and the Gentiles’ shame.

Freedom to love the law that Moses brought,
To sing the songs of David, and to think
The thoughts Gabirol to Spinoza taught,
Freedom to dig the common earth, to drink
The universal air—for this they sought
Refuge o’er wave and continent, to link
Egypt with Texas in their mystic chain,
And truth’s perpetual lamp forbid to wane.

Hark! through the quiet evening air, their song
Floats forth with wild sweet rhythm and glad refrain.
They sing the conquest of the spirit strong,
The soul that wrests the victory from pain;
The noble joys of manhood that belong
To comrades and to brothers. In their strain
Rustle of palms and Eastern streams one hears,
And the broad prairie melts in mist of tears


The Breaking Point

by Stephen Vincent Benét

IT WAS not when temptation came,
Swiftly and blastingly as flame,
And seared me white with burning scars;
When I stood up for age-long wars
And held the very Fiend at grips;
When all my mutinous body rose
To range itself beside my foes,
And, like a greyhound in the slips,
The beast that dwells within me roared,
Lunging and straining at his cord. . . .
For all the blusterings of Hell,
It was not then I slipped and fell;
For all the storm, for all the hate,
I kept my soul inviolate.

But when the fight was fought and won,
And there was Peace as still as Death
On everything beneath the sun.
Just as I started to draw breath,
And yawn, and stretch, and pat myself,
–The grass began to whisper things–
And every tree became an elf,
That grinned and chuckled counselings:
Birds, beasts, one thing alone they said,
Beating and dinning at my head.
I could not fly. I could not shun it.
Slimily twisting, slow and blind,
It crept and crept into my mind.
Whispered and shouted, sneered and laughed,
Screamed out until my brain was daft,
One snaky word, “What if you’d done it?”
And I began to think . . .

Ah, well,
What matter how I slipped and fell?
Or you, you gutter-searcher, say!
Tell where you found me yesterday!

Minor Litany

by Stephen Vincent Benét

This being a time confused and with few clear stars,
Either private ones or public,
Out of its darkness I make a litany
For the lost, for the half-lost, for the desperate,
For all those who suffer, not in the flesh,
I will say their name, but not yet.

. . . . . . This is for those
Who talk to the bearded man in the quiet office,
Sensibly, calmly, explaining just how it was,
And suddenly burst into noisy, quacking tears;
For those who live through the party, wishing for death;
For those who take the sensible country walks,
Wondering if people stare;
For those who try to hook rugs in the big, bright room
And do it badly and are pleased with the praise;
For the night and the fear and the demons of the night;
For the lying back on the couch and the wincing talk.

. . . . . . This is for those
Who work and those who may not,
For those who suddenly come to a locked door,
And the work falls out of their hands;
For those who step off the pavement into hell,
Having not observed the red light and the warning signals
Because they were busy or ignorant or proud.

. . . . . . This is for those
Who are bound in the paper chains
That are stronger than links of iron; this is for those
Who each day heave the papier-mâché rock
Up the huge and burning hill,
And there is no rock and no hill, but they do not know it.

. . . . . . This is for those
Who wait till six for the drink,
Till eleven for the tablet;
And for those who long for the darkness but do not go,
Who walk to the window and see the body falling,
Hear the thud of air in the ears,
And then turn back to the room and sit down again,
None having observed the occurrence but themselves.

Christ, have mercy upon us.
Freud, have mercy upon us.
Life, have mercy upon us.

. . . . . . This is for those
Who painfully haul the dark fish out of the dark,
The child’s nightmare, embalmed in its own pain,
And, after that, get well or do not get well,
But do not forget the sulphur in the mouth
Or the time when the world was different, not for awhile.
And for those also, the veterans
Of another kind of war,
Who say ‘No thanks’ to the cocktails, who say ‘No thanks.
Well, yes, give me Coca-Cola’ with the trained smile,
Those who hid the bottles so cleverly in the trunk,
Who bribed the attendant, who promised to be good,
Who woke in the dirty bed in the unknown town.
They are cured, now, very much cured.
They are tanned and fine. Their eyes are their only scars.

. . . . . . This is for those
With the light white scars on the wrists,
Who remember the smell of gas and the vomiting,
And it meant little and it is a well-known symptom
And they were always careful to phone, before.
Nevertheless, they remember.

. . . . . . This is for those
Who heard the music suddenly get too loud,
Who could not alter their fancy when it came.

Chloral, have mercy upon us.
Amytal, have mercy upon us.
Nembutal, have mercy upon us.

This occurs more or less than it did in the past times.
There are statistics. There are no real statistics.
There is also no heroism. There is merely
Fatigue, pain, great confusion, sometimes recovery.

The name, as you know, is Legion.
What’s your name, friend? Where are you from and how
did you get here?
The name is Legion. It’s Legion in the case history.
Friends, Romans, countrymen,
Mr. and Mrs., legion is the name.


And now, for something completely different, and much more seasonal: William Matthews was born in November, but in this poem he captures July heat in the city, even the polyglot swearing of its inhabitants.

Morningside Heights, July

by William Matthews

Haze. Three student violists boarding
a bus. A clatter of jackhammers.
Granular light. A film of sweat for primer
and the heat for a coat of paint.
A man and a woman on a bench:
she tells him he must be psychic,
for how else could he sense, even before she knew,
that she’d need to call it off? A bicyclist
fumes by with a coach’s whistle clamped
hard between his teeth, shrilling like a teakettle
on the boil. I never meant, she says.
But I thought, he replies. Two cabs almost
collide; someone yells fuck in Farsi.
I’m sorry, she says. The comforts
of loneliness fall in like a bad platoon.
The sky blurs—there’s a storm coming
up or down. A lank cat slinks liquidly
around a corner. How familiar
it feels to feel strange, hollower
than a bassoon. A rill of chill air
in the leaves. A car alarm. Hail.

“Morningside Heights, July” from After All: Last Poems, © 1998 by William Matthews – Houghton Mifflin Company


About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for over 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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