“You cannot live and keep free of briars”

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The Ivy Crown
-William Carlos Williams
The whole process is a lie,
        unless,
            crowned by excess,
It break forcefully,
        one way or another,
            from its confinement—
or find a deeper well.
        Antony and Cleopatra
            were right;
they have shown
        the way. I love you
            or I do not live
at all.

Daffodil time
         is past. This is
              summer, summer!
the heart says,
         and not even the full of it.
              No doubts
are permitted—
         though they will come
              and may
before our time
         overwhelm us.
              We are only mortal
but being mortal
         can defy our fate.
              We may
by an outside chance
         even win! We do not
              look to see
jonquils and violets
         come again
              but there are,
still,
         the roses!

Romance has no part in it.
         The business of love is
              cruelty which,
by our wills,
         we transform
              to live together.
It has its seasons,
         for and against,
              whatever the heart
fumbles in the dark
         to assert
              toward the end of May.
Just as the nature of briars
         is to tear flesh,
              I have proceeded
through them.
         Keep
              the briars out,
they say.
         You cannot live
              and keep free of
briars.

Children pick flowers.
         Let them.
              Though having them
in hand
         they have no further use for them
              but leave them crumpled
at the curb's edge.

At our age the imagination
         across the sorry facts
              lifts us
to make roses
         stand before thorns.
              Sure
love is cruel
         and selfish
              and totally obtuse—
at least, blinded by the light,
         young love is.
              But we are older,
I to love
         and you to be loved,
              we have,
no matter how,
         by our wills survived
              to keep
the jeweled prize
         always
              at our finger tips.
We will it so
         and so it is
              past all accident.

Past All Accident – Older Love and Weirdos

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“Antony and Cleopatra
were right;
they have shown
the way. I love you
or I do not live
at all.”*

One of my early conversations with my love, my firewall – an all-night affair that turned to the obscurity of poetry’s meaning in the early hours of a winter morning – focused on William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”. Me being the amateur poetry connoisseur, I talked with him about how difficult it was for high school kids to be forced to read and analyze poetry. I shared the tales of how the most literal guy I knew (a guy named Frank) was forced to perform analysis on this Williams classic. Granted, I love poetry, but I failed to see the genius of that particular Williams piece. I can spend time now discussing it, even if it is only to argue for or against the (artistic) value of this poem, but at 16 or 17, the William Carlos Williams oeuvre was fairly meaningless and easy to dismiss.

That’s the beauty of poetry, in any case. Something that has no meaning or feels totally pretentious at one point upon initial reading may take on a whole new meaning later when seen through the filter of life experience. Sometimes poetry sinks in. I find that certain lines stick with me and then fit so perfectly as descriptive postscripts to life’s experiences. Poets are poets for a reason – they can almost magically capture something succinctly – ineffable feelings and thoughts. Thus, although I might want to express whatever it is I think or feel, a poet (or songwriter) has undoubtedly done it before me and better.

That said, I still don’t love the wheelbarrow poem, but I have long been in love with Williams’s poem “The Ivy Crown” – its meaning (or my interpretation of it) becomes more impressive to me all the time (impressive in the sense that it leaves impressions). It too has taken on variable and deeper meanings for me as I get older. It captures for me the cynicism I have always felt about the idea of love and romance while not negating it or throwing it out entirely; indeed, at this middle-age mark only finding the somewhat transformative “business of love” actively at this point, the whole theme is rather topical for me.

“Romance has no part in it.
The business of love is
cruelty which,
by our wills,
we transform
to live together.
It has its seasons,
for and against,
whatever the heart
fumbles in the dark
to assert
toward the end of May.
Just as the nature of briars
is to tear flesh,
I have proceeded
through them.
Keep
the briars out,
they say.
You cannot live
and keep free of
briars.”
“At our age the imagination
across the sorry facts
lifts us
to make roses
stand before thorns.
Sure
love is cruel
and selfish
and totally obtuse—
at least, blinded by the light,
young love is.*

“Older love” must be a kind of weird thing. You bring half a lifetime of past experience (some would argue baggage) into each new relationship. I feel like I have very little of the traditional baggage since I was never married, never had kids, no complicated stuff from the past. I have glided through my own personal life as I have glided casually into and out of other people’s lives. I never wanted to be much more than a “guest star” (as on The Love Boat – but I am not Charo) in most people’s lives, so hooking up with married idiots or people who were otherwise unavailable to me in the long term or in some greater capacity than a casual weekend has been my modus operandi.

I discussed with my brother how the weirdness of this creeps into your self-awareness and creates a strange kind of doubt. You may have chosen this lifestyle (as I did) but at some point, you start to feel a distance from humanity, want to be alone more than is really healthy and start to feel out of step with basic norms, and it becomes the status quo. Your own perception of normal. It feels like it will not change, and you don’t expect it to. You become more withdrawn, and as such, you are more invisible – so it is a self-perpetuating cycle. It’s not like there is no chance that you’d meet someone who could love you or even like you a lot – it is just that you can’t if you’re not open to it. The weirder you feel, the more closed you become.

But “older” does not mean there are no surprises, as I have found at various turns. Time and age actually don’t make any difference. It’s a matter of attitude and willingness.

“But we are older,
I to love
and you to be loved,
we have,
no matter how,
by our wills survived
to keep
the jeweled prize
always
at our finger tips.
We will it so
and so it is
past all accident.”*

*Excerpts of “The Ivy Crown” by William Carlos Williams

The Apple Crisp of Guilt and Grief: No Do-Overs

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I was going to make some apple crisp – being in a foreign kitchen (still), I don’t have a lot of tools or ingredients at my disposal. But apple crisp is about the easiest thing a person can make. A non-baker with a few apples, a knife, some butter and oatmeal and a bit of cinnamon and sugar has just about all he or she needs to get a crisp on. (Not unlike “we’re just two adults getting a stew on!”)

But then, someone ate the apples before I could get to the paring and spicing and throwing it all into one pan for the simple delight of apple crisp*. His loss.

Unrelated, as tangents are, referring to someone eating the apples reminds me, unfortunately, of poet William Carlos Williams and one of his most famous works, “This Is Just to Say” – on the surface, it’s about his having eaten the plums someone else was saving for him/herself. Seems more like a casual apology for infidelity and irresistible forbidden fruit. It betrays not one hint of guilt – even reveling in its duplicitous possibilities. But who knows? These things are subjective.

I have already cited William Carlos Williams and his chickens and wheelbarrows once – given our high school dislike for the guy and his work, I never would have imagined citing him at all. Yet here I am. Then I have a newfound appreciation for things that my 16-year-old mind did not fully absorb, feel or trust.

One poet feels no guilt about whatever he does, while another person feels guilt for eating an M&M or an extra helping of macaroni and cheese. One man cheats on his wife and feels nothing but feels guilty for quitting his job without telling the same wife he is otherwise deceiving. Guilt is strange, though – bubbling up like the full spectrum of emotions that we sometimes don’t even imagine we are capable of feeling. For example, I think a lot about how useless jealousy is, and while I don’t believe in it and rarely feel it – and criticize the frenzy of its violence in others – I can sometimes feel what a cruel wind-up toy jealousy is. It pokes at me sometimes but not for the same reasons it pokes others, perhaps.

A close friend who has been in my life for many years wrote to me to wish me a happy new year and shared the news that her husband passed away just before Christmas. One of her greatest takeaways from the experience of this loss was that there are no do-overs. Like a lot of people I have known, her marriage was not necessarily happy, so she had longed for freedom. But once her husband was gone – unexpectedly – she experienced a tremendous amount of guilt intertwined in her grief about not being able to do over all the negative thoughts and words she had expressed over the years. We don’t know, as I have said again and again in the last year, when we will have our last conversation with someone.

I tried to advise her not to be too hard on herself. When people die, we often reflect and are seized by guilt that is enveloped by the haze of grief that clouds the daily reality of our dealings. Daily life engenders and embodies all the resentment, negativity, selfishness, pain, hidden hurts, agendas that make it almost impossible not to succumb to some part of the… grind of daily life. All of those feelings remain intact and valid even when the other person passes on. Forgetting the validity of that will not be a true reflection of the lesson learned. There is, as I told her, another side to the “there are no do-overs” coin. A life’s bitter negativity can be reflected upon, but that same life’s guilt cannot guide it. The immediacy of not having do-overs is that it allows for honesty. These sudden losses can eventually lead to an opportunity for emotional recalibration and a place of balance.

In the aftermath, though, it is not surprise that guilt is inextricably wound up with the grief. As my friend sagely wrote, which squeezed my heart and choked me up, “I have waited for this moment for years, not understanding that with freedom comes the knowledge that it is built upon someone’s demise.”

*And for anyone keeping track or feeling a hankering for apple crisp, here’s the basic recipe I would have used:

Here’s what I would have done:

Apple crisp recipe

Apple filling:
1 kilogram of Granny Smith apples (about 6), peeled, cored, and sliced how you prefer
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Streusel/Crust:
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup uncooked oats
1/3 cup flour
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces; use a small bit to grease the baking dish.
Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C. Lightly coat an 8-by-8-inch baking dish with butter.
Mix the apples, sugar, cinnamon in a large bowl and toss to coat. Place the apple mixture in the dish and set aside.
Use the same bowl and mix together the brown sugar, oats, flour until evenly combined. Blend in the butter with your fingertips until small clumps form (two minutes). Sprinkle the topping evenly over the apples and bake until the streusel is crispy and the apples are tender, about one hour. Let cool on a rack at least 30 minutes before serving.

Reading the Riot Act … in poetry time

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“Great minds have sought you — lacking someone else.
You have been second always. Tragical?
No. You preferred it to the usual thing:
One dull man, dulling and uxorious,
One average mind —   with one thought less, each year.”
-Ezra Pound, “Portrait d’Une Femme

I recently used the expression “reading the Riot Act” and then felt compelled to think about it and where this expression came from. How many expressions are we using every day without really having a clear answer as to where they came from? Many months ago, I referred to “Big Brother” watching us, and, if I remember correctly, the colleague to whom I was speaking replied with something about reality TV shows. (I made sure to inform her that Big Brother comes from the must-read book, Orwell‘s 1984, and months later supplied her with a copy, which she devoured and loved.) Actually the same woman and I had a talk the other day in which she described the stereotypical (and yes, it’s totally derogatory) “Shylock”, so I mentioned “Shylock” – and again got to explain the origins of this reference (as well as the reference to the oft-cited demanding one’s pound of flesh). Oh, how much of this language and its complex web of references is attributable to Shakespeare? Okay, not Big Brother, but … the English language is practically sewn together with Shakespearean expressions and imagery.

I never consider myself that literary. I am not the kind of person, in my imagination, who makes literary references (neither the highbrow kind that only certain people will “get” nor the everyday “everyone should know this” kind – lately it seems that the only reference anyone makes that anyone gets is from pop culture rubbish “lit”). Despite this self-evaluation, I tend to find a poem or line from a poem (or at least a song) that fits to every situation. And so much of it ties into memories.

I was thinking for example of a former classmate, Frank. Someone I genuinely liked and respected, but one among several of the high school era people I knew who just decided to go away and live a life disconnected from the past. I gave a lot of thought today to how much he despised being forced to read and analyze poetry in our senior lit class. Symbolism seemed the most ludicrous thing ever. He was profoundly … almost disgusted by William Carlos Williams and the reverence our teachers afforded this guy and his red wheelbarrow and white chickens (not to be confused with the chicken that my current company dubiously had in some of its ads).

We had an assignment in which we were assigned a poet to research, and Frank was given Ezra Pound. (He could have chosen another poet but probably would not have wanted to invest the time to select one.) I distinctly recall Frank claiming that there was a reference in one of Pound’s poems that read: “the monkey screams”. Where did he get this? Perhaps from Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” (“The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.”)

One year in high school we also had to analyze Pound’s “Portrait d’Une Femme” as a part of our (nerd festival, in which I participated willingly and gleefully) academic decathlon competition. At the time the poem held very little meaning for me, but over the years has assumed a bittersweet kind of importance, as I recognize in it bits of myself. Poetry and music both have a way of reaching me (and probably all people) in different ways at different times. This poem seemed so remote when I was young and had no life experience, and then suddenly, these references to being second always and yet preferring it – or the final lines: “In the slow float of differing light and deep,/No! there is nothing! In the whole and all,/Nothing that’s quite your own/Yet this is you.”

It simply cuts – and cuts the right way, however painful the realizations that come with it. I don’t know another way to put it. I know many people find poetry completely unrelatable, but for me, it is alive and takes on new lives each time I read it. Much like these expressions we adopt into our vernacular … and forget how they got there and maybe what they originally meant.