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 situation of our time
Surrounds us like a baffling crime
– W. H. Auden, New Year Letter (January 1, 1940)
I cannot regret that the year 2019 is almost over. It has been a year of far too much strife and just plain meanness in my country, and of the harshest realities for so many people in too many places all over the planet. The global Climate Crisis continues to escalate, but is still denied by so many of the very people who are in the best positions to do something about it. But while I hope I am being unduly pessimistic, what I see coming in 2020 is only more of the same.
So of course I turn to poetry, both for inspiration and for expression of my contradictory feelings. To begin, words from a great poet, but not from one of his poems:
“And now let us believe in a long year that is given to us, new, untouched, full of things that have never been, full of work that has never been done, full of tasks, claims, and demands; and let us see that we learn to take it without letting fall too much of what it has to bestow upon those who demand of it necessary, serious, and great things.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke, in a letter to his wife Clara Westhoff,
dated January 1, 1907
So much of our lives are about beginnings and endings. Jane Kenyon had more than her share of them.
Taking Down the Tree
by Jane Kenyon
“Give me some light!” cries Hamlet’s
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. “Light! Light!” cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it’s dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.
The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother’s childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.
With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcases increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.
By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it’s darkness
we’re having, let it be extravagant.
“Taking Down the Tree” from Let Evening Come, © 1990 by Jane Kenyon –
Jane Kenyon (1947-1995) made a long journey in a short life. Before she died from leukemia a month and a day before her 48th birthday, Kenyon published four volumes of poetry, and a volume of translations of the poems of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. While at the University of Michigan, student Jane Kenyon had met professor and poet Donald Hall. In 1972, they married, he for the second time, she for the first – there was a 19-year difference in their ages. A couple of years later, they spent what was supposed to be a working summer vacation on Hall’s grandparents’ Eagle Pond Farm in New Hampshire, but his grandmother, who was in a nursing home, died while they were there. They bought the farm from her heirs, and moved in permanently. Kenyon fought a recurring battle with depression even before she became ill. She was diagnosed with leukemia, and a bone-marrow transplant failed. Kenyon was editing Otherwise: New and Selected Poems until just before her final days. The editing was finished later by her husband, and Otherwise was published posthumously.
Naomi Shibab Nye clears out the old year to make way for the new, and looks at what she left unfinished.
Burning the Old Year
by Naomi Shihab Nye
Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.
So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.
Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.
Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.
“Burning the Old Year” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems, © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye – Far Corner Books
Naomi Shihab Nye (1952 -) was born in St.Louis, Missouri. Daughter of a father who came to America as a Palestinian refugee, and a born-in-America mother. “I grew up in St. Louis in a tiny house full of large music – Mahalia Jackson and Marian Anderson singing majestically on the stereo, my German-American mother fingering ‘The Lost Chord’ on the piano as golden light sank through trees, my Palestinian father trilling in Arabic in the shower each dawn.” During her teens, Shihab Nye lived in Ramallah in Palestine, the Old City in Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas, where she later received her BA in English and world religions from Trinity University.
Richard Hoffman makes a personal calendar — with his own take on the new year.
by Richard Hoffman
All my undone actions wander
naked across the calendar,
a band of skinny hunter-gatherers,
blown snow scattered here and there,
stumbling toward a future
folded in the New Year I secure
with a pushpin: January’s picture
a painting from the 17th century,
a still life: Skull and mirror,
spilled coin purse and a flower.
“December 31st” from Emblem, © 2011 by Richard Hoffman – Barrow Street Press
Richard Hoffman (1949 – ) is the author of the poetry collections Without Paradise: Poems, and Gold Star Road, which won the Sheila Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club. He is also the author of the memoir Half the House, and a collection of short fiction, Interference & Other Stories. A writer-in-residence at Emerson College in Boston, Hoffman also teaches for the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast low-residency MFA program.
W.S. Merwin combined often the mystical with the natural world, as he does here.
To the New Year
by W.S. Merwin
With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning
so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible
“To the New Year” from Present Company, © 2005 by W. S. Merwin – Copper Canyon Press
W. S. Merwin (1927–2019) was an American poet who wrote more than fifty books of poetry and prose, and produced many translations. In the 1980s and 1990s, his writing influence derived from an interest in Buddhist philosophy and deep ecology. Residing in a rural part of Maui, Hawaii, he wrote prolifically and was dedicated to the restoration of the island’s rainforests. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry twice, in 1971 and 2009, National Book Award for Poetry in 2005. He was named as the U.S. Poet Laureate (2010-2011).
In this familiar poem, Tennyson offers his hopes for a better future.
Ring Out, Wild Bells
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
“Ring Out, Wild Bells” from The Complete Works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 2015 – Andesite Press
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) was a British poet, who became the Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland during much of Queen Victoria’s reign and remains one of the most popular British poets. Tennyson seemed to be the embodiment of his age, both to his contemporaries and to modern readers. In his own day he was said to be—with Queen Victoria and Prime Minister William Gladstone—one of the three most famous living British persons. He was born in the depths of Lincolnshire, the 4th son of the 12 children of the rector of Somersby, George Clayton Tennyson, a cultivated but embittered clergyman who took out his disappointment on his wife Elizabeth and his brood of children—on at least one occasion threatening to kill Alfred’s elder brother Frederick. During the first half of his life Alfred thought that he had inherited epilepsy from his father and that it was responsible for the trances into which he occasionally fell until he was well over 40 years old. At a very early age, he began using writing as a way of taking his mind away from his troubles. His first book of poetry was published when he was 17 years old. In 1883, at the age of 74, he was offered a peerage, the first time in history that a man had been given a title for his services to poetry. His last volume of poetry was published just two weeks before his death.
Philip Appleman often enlivens the mundane world with a touch of whimsy, and a gentle irreverence, as he does here.
To the Garbage Collectors in Bloomington, Indiana,
the First Pickup of the New Year
by Philip Appleman
(the way bed is in winter, like an aproned lap,
like furry mittens,
like childhood crouching under tables)
The Ninth Day of Xmas, in the morning black
outside our window: clattering cans, the whir
of a hopper, shouts, a whistle, move on …
I see them in my warm imagination
the way I’ll see them later in the cold,
heaving the huge cans and running
(running!) to the next house on the street.
My vestiges of muscle stir
uneasily in their percale cocoon:
what moves those men out there, what
drives them running to the next house and the next?
Halfway back to dream, I speculate:
The Social Weal? “Let’s make good old
Bloomington a cleaner place
to live in—right, men? Hup, tha!”
Healthy Competition? “Come on, boys,
let’s burn up that route today and beat those dudes
on truck thirteen!”
Enlightened Self-Interest? “Another can,
another dollar—don’t slow down, Mac, I’m puttin’
three kids through Princeton?”
Or something else?
A half hour later, dawn comes edging over
Clark Street: layers of color, laid out like
a flattened rainbow—red, then yellow, green,
and over that the black-and-blue of night
still hanging on. Clark Street maples wave
their silhouettes against the red, and through
the twiggy trees, I see a solid chunk
of garbage truck, and stick-figures of men,
like windup toys, tossing little cans—
All day they’ll go like that, till dark again,
and all day, people fussing at their desks,
at hot stoves, at machines, will jettison
tin cans, bare evergreens, damp Kleenex, all
things that are Caesar’s.
O garbage men,
the New Year greets you like the Old;
after this first run you too may rest
in beds like great warm aproned laps
and know that people everywhere have faith:
putting from them all things of this world,
they confidently bide your second coming.
“To the Garbage Collectors in Bloomington, Indiana, the First Pickup of the New Year” from New and Selected Poems, 1956-1996, © 1996 by Phillip Appleman – University of Arkansas Press
Philip Appleman (1926 – ) American science scholar, a highly regarded Darwin expert, but also a biting social commentator and satiric novelist. Appleman is an outstanding poet who is by turns hilarious, insightful and moving. His many poetry collections include Darwin’s Bestiary (1986), Let There be Light (1991), Karma, Dharma, Pudding & Pie (2009) and Perfidious Proverbs and Other Poems (2013). He has often been honored with awards, including a Pushcart Prize, the Castagnola Award, and the Morley Award from the Poetry Society of America