Quinceañera

Quinceneara

April is the month dedicated to poetry here in the United States. On the last day of this month long celebration of verse, I am sharing my thoughts on a poem penned by Judith Ortiz Cofer that caught my attention.

Quinceañera is a poem about the coming of age ceremony of a girl who turns 15. It’s one of the most important rites of passage in a young girl’s life in Latin communities and has its roots in both indigenous and European Christian traditions. It’s supposed to be a special ceremony to mark the transition from girlhood to womanhood and to present the fifteen year old to the community and thereby increase her prospects for marriage. Quinceañera literally means a fifteen year old girl in Spanish. In recent times the celebration has become as ostentatious and ornate as a wedding featuring long guest lists, photo shoots, lavish decorations and sometimes even a mariachi band. Although it’s a momentous occasion looked forward to by many girls, the tone of Cofer’s poem is dark and depressing accentuating the fact that it’s also a time fraught with anxieties and awkwardness for the growing girl.

Judith Ortiz Cofer was a Latina writer who in her poems and essays wrote about the Puerto Rican immigrant experience in the US mainland. She herself straddled two worlds: that of Puerto Rico where she was born and returned frequently to spend extended time at her grandmother’s house and the states of New Jersey and Georgia where she lived in the US. The movement to and fro between two cultural spaces shapes her work. In her memoir, The Cruel Country, she describes how her mother hated becoming a quinceañera “… which in those days meant announcing your status as a potential wife-nothing like the social extravaganzas of today’s young Latinas, but a serious passage into adulthood. My mother said that when she turned fifteen, she began her training in domestic functions such as childcare and cooking, which didn’t interest her, and she was not allowed to play ball again.” In another of her memoirs, Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood , in which this poem is featured, Cofer writes that to her grandmother, she was as a quinceañera ,”a fifteen year old trainee for the demands of marriage”.

Quinceañera

My dolls have been put away like dead
children in a chest I will carry
with me when I marry.
I reach under my skirt to feel
a satin slip bought for this day. It is soft
as the inside of my thighs. My hair
has been nailed back with my mother’s
black hairpins to my skull. Her hands
stretched my eyes open as she twisted
braids into a tight circle at the nape
of my neck. I am to wash my own clothes
and sheets from this day on, as if
the fluids of my body were poison, as if
the little trickle of blood I believe
travels from my heart to the world were
shameful. Is not the blood of saints and
men in battle beautiful? Do Christ’s hands
not bleed into your eyes from His cross?
At night I hear myself growing and wake
to find my hands drifting of their own will
to soothe skin stretched tight
over my bones,
I am wound like the guts of a clock,
waiting for each hour to release me.

The poem is written in free verse in the first person and starts with the image of death, a jarring contrast to the picture of dolls that represent early life. We know that the poem is about a fifteen year old thanks to the title. The speaker/narrator is probably going to take her dolls with her to her marital home in the future and pass them down one day to her own children. The Last Doll or La Ultima Muneca is one of the symbolic traditions of the quinceañera ceremony. The quinceañera gives her last doll to a younger sister or cousin or saves it to pass down to her own children. In some cultures, the doll is tossed over the girl’s shoulder to young girls who have not yet turned fifteen, much like a bride flings her bouquet to young maidens. The ceremony then represents the death of her childhood.

There are many other images of death evoked in the poem with the words “skull”, “poison”, “blood” and “battle”. The satin slip shows that she will be wearing a fancy dress for the rich celebration over the slip or that she will now start needing a slip and will have to dress modestly. The poet resorts to poetic devices like simile and alliteration in spite of the choppy construction. The breaks in lines and stanzas may be a device to show the confusion and frenzy in the mind of the girl.

We have more harsh images of death with the words “skull “and “nails”. Her mother seems to handle her with firmness and hurts her while braiding her hair. The words “twisted” and” tight” suggest constriction. Maybe she is oblivious to the girl’s needs or she wants to send her the message that life will be hard.

Her black hairpins could be a sign of mourning . Ironically the ceremony is supposedly a joyous occasion but she is also lamenting the loss of childhood and dreading the arrival of womanhood with responsibilities.

She has to start doing her own laundry and other chores. The blood symbolizes the onset of menstruation, a sudden and dramatic moment in a girl’s life. She has to start washing her stained clothes furtively as this natural biological process is viewed with shame. Menstrual taboos exist in many cultures around the world with a notion of impurity attached to menstruation. Her world shrinks but it also expands at the same time as the rite of passage of menarche places new expectations on her from her family and from society at large.

Why is the blood of dying men and Christ considered sacred but not the life giving blood of women? There is so much hypocrisy in our patriarchal culture surrounding menstrual blood. The rhetorical questions and the repetition of the words ”as if” reinforce her anguish.

She is growing rapidly and is aware of the changes in her body which bring about a sexual awakening too, reinforced by the alliteration “soothe stretched skin”. The simile “wound like the guts of a clock” shows that she is anxious and needs a release, both a physical and an emotional one.

The poem suggests that being on the threshold of adulthood is not necessarily the best time in a woman’s life. Traditionally the fifteen year old was presented to society as eligible for marriage and trained for the duties and demands of family life. Needless to say, the custom is outdated and losing its relevance and being celebrated instead as a lavish birthday bash.

Have you participated in a memorable rite of passage ceremony in your life? How meaningful was it to you and how did you feel about the transition and being the center of attention? Interestingly, rituals marking the initiation of menstruation have existed in many cultures since time immemorial. My grandmother like Cofer’s “Mama” was a traditional woman who religiously followed all customs. I had a similar ceremony when I was a teenager. I was dressed as a bride and almost died of embarrassment when relatives came up to me and congratulated me on becoming a woman. Maybe that’s why this poem struck a chord. Or rather a nerve.

 

Classic Love Poems For Valentine’s Day

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Love runs the entire gamut of emotions from a febrile infatuation and a fervent passion to a quiet and loving companionship. To celebrate Valentine’s Day, I have selected ten classic love poems written in the English language to share on my blog. I’ve chosen well-known poems and excerpts of poems that you’ve probably read in your English classes in high school or college. Isn’t there something comforting about reading familiar poems? You could even send them to your sweetie. Not everyone has the gift of gab and even if you’re eloquent, love can leave you tongue-tied. I hope one of these romantic poems will make your partner swoon.

Who can forget the experience of falling in love for the first time? John Clare’s poem, “First Love”describes the electrifying effect of love at first sight. The poet/speaker is so awestruck by the beauty of a woman that it leaves him physically weak and drained. Here’s the beginning of the poem:

I ne’er was struck before that hour
With love so sudden and so sweet,
Her face it bloomed like a sweet flower
And stole my heart away complete.
My face turned pale as deadly pale,
My legs refused to walk away,
And when she looked, what could I ail?
My life and all seemed turned to clay.

 First Love, John Clare

And then follows the relentless pursuit of the beloved. The poet Robert Browning evokes the thrill of the chase in the beginning lines of “Life in a Love”. Robert Browning was successful in the pursuit of his beloved Elizabeth Barrett with whom he began a secret courtship, exchanged hundreds of love letters and eventually eloped. Their love story is one of the most romantic ones in literary history.

Escape me?
Never—
Beloved!
While I am I, and you are you,
So long as the world contains us both,
Me the loving and you the loth,
While the one eludes, must the other pursue.

Life in a Love, Robert Browning

There’s no joy as fulfilling as reciprocated love. Elizabeth Barrett Browning returned Robert Browning’s affection wholly and truly. In one of the most famous sonnets ever written and also one of my personal favorites, she expresses the depth and intensity of her love for her soon to be husband.The poem depicts an ideal love that’s powerful, all-encompassing, pure, passionate and enduring and that even transcends death.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Sonnets from the Portuguese 43, Elizabeth Barrett Browning 

When you are in love, you throw caution to the wind as you sail through unchartered territory. It’s not clear whether the speaker is male or female in the erotic poem “Wild Nights-Wild Nights!” by Emily Dickinson. It’s probably a male speaker based on the last line. Nevertheless, he or she expresses the desire to spend wild nights of unrestrained passion with the beloved. Enough said!

Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
In thee!

Wild Nights-Wild Nights! (269), Emily Dickinson

Alas, equal affection is not always possible. Sometimes one person is more invested in the relationship than the other. But to love is worthy in itself, even if unrequited.

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

The More Loving One, W.H. Auden

Another beautiful poem that deals with unrequited love and regret is “When you are old and grey” by W. B. Yeats, based on a sonnet written by Pierre de Ronsard. It is believed that Yeats penned the poem for Maud Gonne, the love of his life. The speaker is a spurned man who addresses his former love ( or ex in modern parlance) and explains how he loved her to the depths of his soul even when her beauty started fading with age. The lines”But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, And loved the sorrows of your changing face..”are undoubtedly among the most romantic verses ever written, at least according to me. He hopes that one day when she reminisces about her life, she will regret that she chose not to be with the person who loved her unconditionally.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

When You are Old, W.B.Yeats

Even if the sentiments are reciprocated, the timing was not right or you may have been too shy to acknowledge your feelings for each other, or maybe you discovered too late that you like each other. You are only left wondering ‘what if’ with an immense feeling of regret. This succinct poem by Sara Teasdale conveys the wistfulness evoked by a haunting kiss that never was:

Strephon kissed me in the spring,
Robin in the fall,
But Colin only looked at me
And never kissed at all.

Strephon’s kiss was lost in jest,
Robin’s lost in play,
But the kiss in Colin’s eyes
Haunts me night and day.

The Look, Sara Teasdale

What bliss it is to feel loved and cherished by your soul mate! “To My Dear And Loving Husband” is a sweet and tender expression of married love written by Anne Bradstreet, one of the earliest settlers in Massachusetts in the 17th century. The speaker praises her husband who completes her. In fact, they complete each other and become one. She values his love more than earthly riches and is confident that their love will continue beyond the earthly realm in heaven. 

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me ye women if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,
That when we live no more we may live ever.

To My Dear and Loving Husband, Anne Bradstreet

Love changes its form with the passage of time but never goes away. The intense passion of the first few years may decrease in a long term relationship but it is replaced by a caring and comforting companionship. The poem “Decade” was written by Amy Lowell to commemorate the ten year relationship with her same sex partner, Ada Russell. However there is no gender specified by the speaker in the poem when describing the transition from the early days of heady passion to a deep emotional bond. 

When you came, you were like red wine and honey, 
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness. 
Now you are like morning bread, 
Smooth and pleasant. 
I hardly taste you at all for I know your savour, 
But I am completely nourished. 

Decade, Amy Lowell

Not everyone’s story ends happily ever after. Sometimes the world conspires to keep young people in love apart. But true love can never be destroyed, not even by death as portrayed in this haunting poem about the everlasting love of Edgar Allan Poe for Annabel Lee. I get goosebumps each and every time I read the ending of this poem about the young star-crossed lovers.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love 
   Of those who were older than we— 
   Of many far wiser than we— 
And neither the angels in Heaven above 
   Nor the demons down under the sea 
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul 
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; 

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams 
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; 
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes 
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; 
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side 
   Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride, 
   In her sepulchre there by the sea— 
   In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Annabel Lee, Edgar Allan Poe

I hope these romantic poems put you in an amorous mood for Valentine’s Day. If there are any poems you like that are not included in my list, please add them in your comments. If you are in love, or have ever been in love or hope to be in love someday… Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

 

Witch-Wife

witch_sea

It is that time of the year when we think of supernatural creatures-goblins, witches, vampires, demons, werewolves. Perhaps the most fascinating of them all is the witch. When we picture a witch, we are most likely to conjure up an image of an old hag with crooked teeth and a hook nose dressed in a black cape and pointed hat, flying on a broom. But the witch who comes to my mind is not an evil or sinister creature. She is a sorceress too but a magical and mystical creature who is also alluringly feminine. She is the witch-wife.

Witch-Wife

She is neither pink nor pale,
And she will never be all mine;
She learned her hands in a fairy-tale,
And her mouth on a valentine.

She has more hair than she needs;
In the sun ‘tis a woe to me!
And her voice is a string of colored beads,
Or steps leading into the sea.

She loves me all that she can,
And her ways to my ways resign;
But she was not made for any man,
And she will never be all mine.

The Witch-Wife is a poem written by Edna St. Vincent Millay, the celebrated American poet and playwright who received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923. At first glance, it is a simple and straightforward rhyming poem. We are intrigued at once by the dichotomy of the title. A witch and a wife are diametrically opposite beings. The wife is a married woman who takes care of her home and hearth and is grounded in her domestic duties. She is tied to matrimony and thereby automatically restrained while a witch is a wild and magical creature who knows how to fly and cast spells.

As you start reading the poem, you notice other contrasts. She is neither pink nor pale. She is neither robust and healthy like the average wife nor wan with a deathly pallor like a witch. She belongs neither to the world of the living nor to the world of the dead. And she never will be all mine. This line is quite ominous in tone as we know at the outset that this woman whom the speaker is talking of will be unattainable and outside his reach. The poem is written by a woman and describes a woman but the speaker is most likely a man and probably the husband. The word ‘all’ implies that she could belong to him to some extent but not belong to him completely or wholly. Otherwise he simply would have said that ‘she never will be mine’. The words ‘neither’, ‘never’ and ‘nor’ are negations used to emphasize the elusiveness of the woman. She learned her hands in a fairy-tale, And her mouth on a valentine. She is not a practical woman. Maybe she was taught or raised to be practical but everything she does or says-the hands -on knowledge and wisdom that she has acquired is all colored with her idealism. She is flighty (she is a witch after all ) and lives in a parallel universe different from the reality that her husband occupies. It is a realm of romance and imagination to which he has no access or which he simply does not comprehend. The lady seems to straddle these two worlds all at once.

She has more hair than she needs; In the sun ‘tis a woe to me. She has long, lustrous locks but why does her hair cause great distress to him in the sun? Is it because the sunlight reveals her witch-like hair? Maybe her voluminous hair is matted or tangled or does it show another aspect of her mien or another side of her nature? And her voice is a string of colored beads, Or steps leading into the sea. We have the lovely metaphor of her soft and gentle voice similar to a string of colored beads. Her voice makes her real, alive and of this world. But this line is immediately followed by another alliterative metaphor accentuating the fact that although her voice seems real and charming, it can ensnare you. Her voice is akin to steps leading into the sea which imply drowning or death. Her voice is of this world and of the other world. The colored beads remind us of an incantation or spell. She is like the legendary siren-part woman and part bird who lures men to their death by her seductive singing. The witch- wife like the siren is part wife and part witch- a beautiful  woman but also an enchantress, a beguiling seductress who uses her feminine wiles to entrap men.

She loves me all that she can; And her ways to my ways resign; These two lines momentarily give us the impression that she is the ideal woman in spite of the fact that the speaker has already stressed on her intangibility and elusiveness. She loves him “all that she can” could mean that she loves him to the best of her ability. She is a compliant woman who submits to him willingly. But she was not made for any man, And she never will be all mine. This is the let down after the build up of the previous line when she seems like perfection incarnate to a man. However, it is not really an anti-climax as he has already indicated in the beginning that “she never will be all mine.” The word “never” reinforces the fact that there is no possibility of her belonging to him totally.  The line “But she was not made for any man..” could indicate that she was not made for any sort of ordinary man but for a special kind of man. Or could it mean that she was made for a woman?

It was no secret that Edna Vincent St. Millay, known as Vincent to her close friends and family, was bisexual and had several affairs with both men and women. She was happily married to her husband, Eugen Boissevain and they had an open marriage. I normally like to separate the poet from the poem but it is hard to overlook Edna St. Millay’s unconventional lifestyle and feminist activism in analyzing her work. We have to remember that even discussing heterosexuality, let alone homosexuality, was a taboo subject in the 1920s and that she was a trailblazer who made possible the writing of many future gay men and women. By evoking polarities in the poem, I wonder if she is also highlighting polarities of human nature and sexuality. The poem is written by a woman about a woman. The witch-wife could be a self-portrait or any one of the women the poet knew in her life or someone from her own imagination. There are so many ways you could read the poem but I still feel strongly that the speaker is a man. But does it matter? The speaker could very well be a woman too. In any event, the witch-wife will never belong completely to any man nor to any woman for she is in control of who she is and in charge of her own sexuality.

Hope your Halloween is as spellbinding as this otherworldly poem! As for me, I am beWITCHed!

You Who Never Arrived

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Every now and then you come across a poem that simply takes your breath away. One such poem that moved me immensely is Rilke’s “You who never arrived”.

You who never arrived
in my arms, Beloved, who were lost
from the start,
I don’t even know what songs
would please you. I have given up trying
to recognize you in the surging wave of
the next moment. All the immense
images in me — the far-off, deeply-felt landscape,
cities, towers, and bridges, and un-
suspected turns in the path,
and those powerful lands that were once
pulsing with the life of the gods–
all rise within me to mean
you, who forever elude me.
You, Beloved, who are all
the gardens I have ever gazed at,
longing. An open window
in a country house– , and you almost
stepped out, pensive, to meet me. Streets that I chanced
upon,–
you had just walked down them and vanished.
And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors
were still dizzy with your presence and, startled, gave back
my too-sudden image. Who knows? Perhaps the same
bird echoed through both of us
yesterday, separate, in the evening…
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Here is the original poem in German:

Du im Voraus
verlorne Geliebte, Nimmergekommene,
nicht weiß ich, welche Töne dir lieb sind.
Nicht mehr versuch ich, dich, wenn das Kommende wogt,
zu erkennen. Alle die großen
Bildern in mir, im Fernen erfahrene Landschaft,
Städte und Türme und Brücken und un-
vermutete Wendung der Wege
und das Gewaltige jener von Göttern
einst durchwachsenen Länder:
steigt zur Bedeutung in mir
deiner, Entgehende, an.
Ach, die Gärten bist du,
ach, ich sah sie mit solcher
Hoffnung. Ein offenes Fenster
im Landhaus—, und du tratest beinahe
mir nachdenklich heran. Gassen fand ich,—
du warst sie gerade gegangen,
und die spiegel manchmal der Läden der Händler
waren noch schwindlich von dir und gaben erschrocken
mein zu plötzliches Bild.—Wer weiß, ob derselbe
Vogel nicht hinklang durch uns
gestern, einzeln, im Abend?
Rainer Maria Rilke

Have you ever wondered if there is a person in the world just right for you whom you haven’t met yet? Your paths haven’t crossed though you have come close to encountering each other. You may be on the verge of meeting each other, moving in close proximity, but never quite set eyes on each other. The speaker is addressing an elusive beloved, a soul mate who would be perfect, who seems to be hovering around him but yet remains distant, elusive, unreachable and out of his grasp. The sense of almost meeting but missing each other creates an air of suspense and mystery and gives an otherworldly and haunting quality to the poem.

The poem is written in free verse with no rhyme scheme matching the speaker’s disparate thoughts. The informal “du” is used as opposed to the formal “Sie” in German conveying a tone of familiarity and intimacy whereas “Sie” would convey distance. This subtlety is lost in translation as in English we employ a generic “you” no matter what our relationship is to the person addressed. From the first stanza itself, a sense of melancholy pervades the poem. The beloved is “lost from the start” implying that there is no promise of union. He is emphasizing the profound loneliness of human beings in search of their ideal yet unattainable soul mate. The words “never”, “lost from the start”, “I don’t even know”, “given up trying” and “forever elude me” reinforce his sense of despair and hopelessness. The speaker resorts to hyperbole to convey the importance of the beloved in his life. The epithets “immense”, “deeply-felt and “powerful” indicate her looming presence or rather absence in his life. She who represents lands and landscape “pulsing with the life of gods” is alive within him and has a strong presence but yet she is an inconceivable being, intangible, an abstract idea that forever eludes him. Is he speaking of an unrequited love? Or could it be that he has an idea of who the perfect person is for him but no one in reality measures up to his image of the person. Has he made up the person?

The second stanza is more interesting as there are traces of hope compared to the pessimism of the first stanza with the image of the open window and the question “Who knows?” The open window and the streets and shops frequented by both of them give us the feeling that the beloved is tantalizingly close. She is lurking around the corner and may step out any moment to surprise him. The personification of the mirrors makes us wonder if the beloved is looking back at him too. “ The mirrors were still dizzy with your presence and, startled, gave back my too-sudden image.” It is possible that what he is seeking is reflected back to him and exists within him be it his Muse, a creative source or something larger than life, his God or the Divine within. Many of the motifs and metaphors used by Rilke bring to mind the symbolism found in mystic poetry especially in Sufi literary traditions. The garden is a place of contemplation and meditation. It is also a primal place, an earthly paradise. I am reminded of Rumi’s lines:

I am a bird of the heavenly garden,
I belong not to the earthly sphere.
They have made for two or three days,
A cage of my body.

The bird stands for the human soul longing for eternal union. This image of the yearning bird singing about its unfulfilled union also brings to mind a text called “The Conference of Birds” which is a long Persian parable in which birds cross seven valleys to find the legendary Simorgh, a mystical Persian bird. Many drop out during the arduous journey. The thirty birds that remain see only their reflection in a lake. The trapped human soul like the bird has to return to its primordial source from which it is separated. The mystic’s yearning for oneness with the Divine is beautifully captured in the lines: “Perhaps the same bird echoed through both of us yesterday, separate, in the evening.”

The spiritual marriage is a leitmotiv in many religious texts the most famous example being the “Song of Songs’ or “The Song of Solomon” of the Old Testament which is interpreted by many scholars to be an allegory of Christ and his bride, the Christian Church, or more broadly speaking of God’s love for humankind. The symbolism of the spiritual marriage is also found in the poetry of the mystics of Hinduism and Sufism where God is the bridegroom and is called ‘mehboob’ or “beloved” and the soul is the mystical bride yearning for the union. In this poem too he addresses the unknown entity as ‘Beloved”. We could say the poem is more like an apostrophe than a monologue as the speaker is addressing an imaginary character, someone who is absent and intangible.

The speaker is still searching and seeking for someone to complete him and make him whole at the end of the poem. The poem describes our universal human condition of loneliness and the quest for the Absolute in such a beautiful and striking way that it leaves us too, startled and dizzy like the mirrors reflecting back our “too-sudden image.”

“The Journey” by Mary Oliver

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The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognised as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Mary Oliver

April is ‘National Poetry Month’ in the United States. For me every month is poetry month and every day is poetry day. I would still like to honor the month-long celebration by sharing and examining a beautiful poem by Mary Oliver that resonates with me deeply. In fact, I cannot imagine it not striking a chord with anyone who reads it. We have all at some point experienced the moment when we have to break free from what our family or community members expect of us to follow our own path and leave our own mark in the world. You have to ignore “the old tug at your ankles”, be it of a controlling relative, a needy friend or a difficult co-worker and continue with your journey to discover who you truly are. The voices of opposition can be loud and overbearing. They can do anything in their power to jeopardize your journey. They can give bad advice or drain your energy by asking you to fix their lives.

It is interesting that the speaker employs the second person ‘you’ in the poem and uses it repeatedly. It is a direct conversation with the reader, informal in tone. The use of the second person also establishes the universality of the poem. It is something everyone can relate to. It also emphasizes in an unequivocal manner that ‘you’ and ‘you’ alone are in charge of your destiny.

The personification of the wind that “pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations” is a powerful device to show what you have to contend with. Inflexible in their views, the people around you may try relentlessly to demoralize you or dissuade you from following your path through manipulation and guilt trips. But you ignore their terrible “melancholy” and do what is right for you. You realize that you do not have to conform to the constraints imposed by society.

The journey is a powerful metaphor. It is a wild night and the road is “full of fallen branches and stones”. It is not going to be a smooth journey. There will be obstacles and dangers on the path but despite what is thrown your way, you have to proceed with determination, courage and confidence to listen to your own inner voice. The poem is written in free verse with no stanza breaks. Many of the lines are short and the sentences are cut off and continued in subsequent lines. The lack of stanzas makes the reader move through the poem at a quick pace. The urgency of the task at hand is reinforced with the continuous flow in the structure. Life moves on without stopping and time waits for no one.

It is only when you leave the old voices behind that the stars reveal themselves to you and a new voice becomes audible. You slowly recognize this voice as your own and embrace it. The use of figurative language is striking and effective. The image of stars burning “through the sheets of clouds” conveys the idea that you were predestined to go on this journey. It was written in the stars that you will find your true calling. Repetitions abound towards the end of the poem to show the commitment to the journey. There is no looking back now. From a confining house you move to the wide universe outside and find your authentic voice.

This poem is a wonderful example of how poetry can be a catalyst for healing and for personal growth. Who needs therapy when poetry is free?

 

A President and a Poet

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I was taking a leisurely stroll on a late autumn afternoon near Harvard Square when I quite serendipitously stumbled upon a sign that read ‘Longfellow House’. I was standing right in front of the house of one of America’s most celebrated poets whose works I’ve enjoyed since my childhood. I stared in disbelief at the imposing mansion in front of me and decided to take a peek inside. I discovered that it’s a historic home open to the public for tours. The tours are free and are conducted by the National Park Service. The next tour was about to start in fifteen minutes and that’s how I ventured on a literary pilgrimage without seeking it or planning for it in advance. It was a dual pilgrimage for not only was the house the former home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, but also served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Boston siege. In fact ‘Longfellow House- Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site’ had known many notable inhabitants but the two most renowned ones as indicated by the sign were the President and the Poet.

Before entering the house, I lingered for a few minutes in the charming formal garden IMG_1530which is patterned after a Persian rug and has a latticed pergola and a sun dial. The moment I set foot in the eighteenth century house, I was transported to the past. The friendly and knowledgeable tour guide enhanced the experience by sharing inside stories and reciting poems at the most opportune moments. Longfellow was initially a tenant in the house formerly known as Vassall- Craigie House and eventually received it as a wedding present from his father-in-law in 1843 when he married Frances (Fanny) Appleton. The furnishings and artifacts of this elegantly appointed house are not reproductions like you find in many historic homes but real items that the Longfellows used in their daily lives. There are amazing antiques, paintings, ceramics, textiles, busts and decorative screens from North America, Europe and Asia. Many of the items were collected by the Longfellows’ eldest son Charles during his exotic travels to China, Japan and India and some of the paintings and portraits gracing the walls were created by their second son Ernest who was an artist. The house with its manuscripts, letters and a collection of more than 14,000 books in over a dozen languages including the works of Dante, Plutarch and Goethe reflects the vast erudition of Longfellow who was a Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard and fluent in many languages. It was while living in the house that he translated Dante’s “Divine Comedy” into English and also wrote many of his well known poems like “Paul Revere’s Ride”, “The Song of Hiawatha” and “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie.”

The house steeped in history and brimming with poetry will appeal to history buffs as well as to poetry enthusiasts. Though the two eminent men were not contemporaries, the most interesting moments are when their stories entwine. IMG_1543The Longfellows made very few structural changes to the house as they took immense pride in its historical past and its connection to Washington. A marble bust of Washington placed near the staircase in the entry hallway by the couple honors the home’s distinguished history. The cozy study is the same room where Longfellow wrote his poetry and where Washington strategized to drive the British out of Boston. The elegant parlor used by Fanny Longfellow for her social gatherings is the very room where Martha and George Washington hosted a ‘Twelfth Night’ party to celebrate their 17th wedding anniversary. I had two moments that gave me the chills. The first moment was IMG_1548when I stood near the marvelous staircase near the front door and the tour guide told us that we were standing in the very spot through which many famous people had entered the house. In the brief nine months that General Washington lived there before he became the first American President, he entertained visitors such as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Hancock and other revolutionaries. Longfellow, in turn, received Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, Charles Sumner, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Makepeace Thackeray among other luminaries.

The second moment that sent a shudder of excitement down my spine was when I saw the lovely portrait of the Longfellows’ three daughters immortalized by the poet in ‘The Children’s Hour”, a beloved poem that I had memorized and recited during my school days:

I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.

From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.

IMG_1537I could imagine the children running down the stairs “plotting and planning” to take their father by surprise, throwing their arms around him and smothering him with kisses, and, he in turn, promising to keep them enshrined in his heart forever. The house where the Longfellows raised their six children carries within its walls all the memories of an idyllic and blissful family life along with the painful memories of sickness, bouts of mental illness and tragedies like Fanny’s death in a fire accident. A grief-stricken Longfellow wrote “The Cross of Snow” while looking at his wife’s portrait eighteen years after her death:

Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

It’s believed that Fanny Longfellow’s ghost still hovers around the home. Some people who have toured the house claim to have seen a strange apparition of a lady in white in the upstairs bedroom. Longfellow himself expressed this uncanny feeling in his “Haunted Houses”:

All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors.

We meet them at the door-way, on the stair,
Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.

The spirits in the house “as silent as the pictures on the wall” still linger and imbue the property with their otherworldly presence. As I crossed the hallway to leave the house, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that grave Alice and laughing Allegra and Edith with golden hair might descend down the staircase any moment to greet me just as they had their Dad more than a century and a half ago.