Maria Lactans- The Nursing Madonna

The Virgin Nursing The Child-Pompeo Batoni- Circa 1760- 1780

I recently came across a raw and powerful poem on the internet which describes Mary’s experience of breastfeeding the Infant Jesus to illustrate how women are unfairly excluded from the pulpit. The poem was penned by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler who belongs to the evangelical group ‘Churches of Christ’ which prevents women from occupying positions of authority in the church and even from actively participating in worship services. The poem went viral as it struck a chord with many women all over the world. And I am one of those women:

A Christmas Poem
by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler

sometimes I wonder
if Mary breastfed Jesus.
if she cried out when he bit her
or if she sobbed when he would not latch.

and sometimes I wonder
if this is all too vulgar
to ask in a church
full of men
without milk stains on their shirts
or coconut oil on their breasts
preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.

but then i think of feeding Jesus,
birthing Jesus,
the expulsion of blood
and smell of sweat,
the salt of a mother’s tears
onto the soft head of the Salt of the Earth,
feeling lonely
and tired
hungry
annoyed
overwhelmed
loving

and i think,
if the vulgarity of birth is not
honestly preached
by men who carry power but not burden,
who carry privilege but not labor,
who carry authority but not submission,
then it should not be preached at all.

because the real scandal of the Birth of God
lies in the cracked nipples of a
14 year old
and not in the sermons of ministers
who say women
are too delicate
to lead.

The poem illustrates the absurdity of preventing women from occupying the pulpit. A woman is barred from priesthood because of her biology but it is her biology that makes her experience more meaningful and personal. A woman who had the visceral and moving experience of giving birth to the Lord would surely understand what faith is all about. And Mary, who experiences the discomfort and fatigue of childbirth and nursing, represents all women. Although Kaitlin Shetler describes an experience with a particular church, the exclusion of women from positions of religious authority is an issue that crosses over denominations and religions.

Women cannot be ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. Women’s ordination is a controversial issue in Buddhist communities too. There is also a misogynistic belief that a woman is polluting because of her body. Menstrual taboos of Hinduism result in male only religious spaces and male specific religious duties. Traditionally, it is only a male priest who has had the right to conduct weddings and religious functions. Often the only reason cited is that there is no precedent and that it is divinely ordained. But the truth of the matter is that these are man made restrictions which have distorted the original teachings of all the major religions and reflect the oppressive structures of patriarchy. Many Hindu women are challenging the traditional notions of priesthood and some have begun officiating at ceremonies. Muslim women have also been fighting for the right to be appointed as imams. We have a growing number of women of all faiths who refuse to be held back from the full expression of their spirituality and are fighting for gender equity in religious matters.

I was struck by the description of the nursing Madonna in the poem. It made me wonder why we hardly see images of Mary breastfeeding in art and that led me to conduct some research on the topic. After all, those were days before formula use and we would not have survived as a species without this natural function. I discovered that the motif of Maria Lactans or the Nursing Madonna was predominant in religious iconography in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

The Virgin Nursing the Child with St. John the Baptist in Adoration- Giampietrino- Circa 1500-20
Madonna Litta- Disputed attribution to Leonardo da Vinci, possibly the work of one of his pupils- 1490

Mother Mary was even associated with lactation miracles. There is a belief that the floor of the Milk Grotto, a chapel in Bethlehem, changed its color to white when a drop of Mary’s milk fell on it. The shrine is visited to this day by women trying to conceive and new mothers who wish to increase the quantity of their milk. There is a lot of artwork dedicated to the lactation of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century Cistercian monk and abbott. Legend has it that Mary squirted breastmilk into his mouth to reveal herself as the mother of mankind and to either cure him of an eye infection or to grant him spiritual wisdom, depending on the variant of the story. There was nothing scandalous about exposing a breast till the 18th century but later on as the breast became more and more sexualized, people became squeamish about it and the image of the lactating virgin fell out of fashion.

Miraculous Lactation of Saint Bernard by Alonso Cano, 1650

Christmas is essentially a story about birth and the bond between a mother and child. Kaitlin Shetler, in this poem, humanizes the divine Virgin Mary who is doing what millions of women have been doing since time immemorial. I felt a connection with Mary and with all women across the world in the simple yet sacred acts of birthing and nurturing. We are part of this ancient sisterhood spanning millennia. And there is a primal priestess in every woman, buried under centuries of oppression, who needs to rightfully reclaim her place.

Galaktotrophousa by Master Ioannis, 1778

All pictures are from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain.

Autumn Song (My translation of Verlaine’s Chanson D’Automne)

I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth to experience autumn. So embedded is the season in the local psyche that over time I have become an autumn person. Not only do I revel in the glorious hues of changing foliage and savor the textures, sounds and smells of the season, I also experience the melancholy that goes with the time of the year. I slow down to contemplate and see my own fate and the fate of everyone else around me in the transience of leaves. Autumn is after all the season of melancholia and introspection, a mood captured so poignantly by poets.

As I was walking in the woods around my home in southern New Hampshire the other day, I noticed a pile of dead leaves. It was late autumn and the leaves were a sodden mess, withered, bleached of color, and in a state of decay, considerably different from the vibrant palette on the tree tops just a few weeks ago. I was face to face with my mortality as I picked up a ‘feuille morte’ and thought instinctively of the poem “Chanson d’automne” or ”Autumn Song” by Paul Verlaine, one of the leading French poets associated with the Symbolist movement.

I had first studied ” Chanson d’automne” in college and I can still recite it by heart. I had always loved the poem but now with the passing of the years the symbolism resonates more than ever and living in New England makes me understand autumn better. The poem is included in Verlaine’s first collection, Poèmes saturniens, published in 1866 and is part of the “Paysages tristes” or ” Sad landscapes” section of the collection. One interesting fact about this poem is that the BBC used a song recording of it to send secret messages to the French Resistance about the timing of the forthcoming invasion of Normandy during World War 2.

” Chanson d’automne” also happens to be one of the most translated poems of all time. Although it is written in simple French, it is difficult to translate it in English as it is a musical poem. “ De la musique avant toute chose’’ or ” Music before everything else” was after all Verlaine’s mantra and to retain the musicality of the poem along with conveying its melancholy is of utmost importance when rendering it from French into another language. But it is also such a brief and simple poem that it is best to keep the translation almost literal. You can see that translating the poem is no mean task. A lot of the translations extant stray too far from the meaning of the original in order to make the poem lyrical but I didn’t want to dilute the impact made by the French poem. I have tried my best to reconcile the two. So here is the original followed by my humble attempt at translation:

Chanson d’Automne

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon cœur
D’une langueur
Monotone.

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure;

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

Autumn Song

The long sobs 
Of autumn violins
Make my heart throb
With chagrin
And a monotonous
Languor.

All choked up 
And pale, when
The hour sounds,
I remember with a sigh
Days long gone
And I cry.

And I let myself go
With the ill winds that blow
Which carry me
Hither, thither
Similar
To a dead leaf. 

( Translated by Jayshree – Literary Gitane) *

My translation is pretty literal but I have made some accommodations to recreate the plodding rhythm of the original which follows the effect of a violin playing slowly with the use of stylistic techniques like rhymes, internal rhymes, alliteration and consonance. I could have translated ‘blessent mon coeur’ as ‘hurt my heart’ but I thought rhyming the word ‘violin’ with a word like ‘chagrin’ along with the use of the rhymes ‘long’, ‘sob’ and ‘throb’ would convey the effect of the pulsating sound of a heart beat and the rhythmic sound of a violin that I was looking for to accentuate the monotony and the melancholy of the lines. Similarly in the second verse I added ‘with a sigh’ to rhyme with ‘cry’ and the words ‘long gone’ to create the musicality with the internal rhyme and consonance. Throughout my translation, I have attempted the techniques of consonance and assonance to make the experience of the poem more auditory. In the concluding lines I was playing with ‘to and fro’ to rhyme with ‘blow’ but settled on ‘hither thither’ as I thought these two consonant sounds would best replace the words “Deçà, delà”.

This poem beautifully illustrates how an interior landscape corresponds with the exterior one. It employs the metaphor of autumn to bemoan a past that is irretrievably lost. It is interesting how it starts with the first person but by the end of the poem, the poet/ speaker becomes a dead object, one with the dead leaf, one with the season. “Autumn Dirge” would have been a more apt title to this poem, in my opinion, than “Autumn Song” but perhaps the poet either wished to be ironical or simply to emphasize the paradox of the sorrow triggered by the desolation of the season along with the calm of resignation and acceptance.

I hope you enjoyed the poem and my translation. 🙂

  • Translation cannot be used without the permission of the author- Copyright- Literary Gitane

Night Mail

A Still From The 1936 Documentary Film “Night Mail”.

The postal service has been in the news lately in the US, embroiled in political controversy. The discussion made me reminisce about the good old days when the dull post office building was imbued with enchantment and adventure with the comings and goings of letters from near and far and from near and dear ones. I thought of a delightful poem entitled Night Mail written by W.H. Auden in 1936 for a British documentary film of the same name which follows the LMS ( The London, Midland and Scottish Railway) mail train from London to Scotland. The poem is especially charming to me as it combines my love of trains and of letters, evoking the romance and nostalgia of a bygone era.

This is the night mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner, the girl next door.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.

Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.
Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
Stare from bushes at her blank-faced coaches.
Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;
They slumber on with paws across.
In the farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes.

Dawn freshens, Her climb is done.
Down towards Glasgow she descends,
Towards the steam tugs yelping down a glade of cranes
Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces
Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.
All Scotland waits for her:
In dark glens, beside pale-green lochs
Men long for news.

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from girl and boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or to visit relations,
And applications for situations,
And timid lovers’ declarations,
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled on the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Notes from overseas to the Hebrides
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, the adoring,
The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.

Thousands are still asleep,
Dreaming of terrifying monsters
Or of friendly tea beside the band in Cranston’s or Crawford’s
Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
But shall wake soon and long for letters,
And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

This simple rhyming poem describes the journey of The Night Mail train as it leaves London and crosses the border into Scotland. It passes through the countryside of cotton fields, rocky lands and steep slopes almost merging into the landscape, for even the birds and sheep dogs have become used to its presence. From the countryside, it reaches the industrial world of Glasgow ” Towards the steam tugs yelping down a glade of cranes / Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces / Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.”. It stands for punctuality and efficiency reaching its destination on time. It carries all sorts of letters from all over the world for all sorts of people who are still asleep, and whether they are having happy dreams or horrid nightmares, they will wake up with the joyous anticipation of receiving news.

I immediately notice that the train is personified as a woman and referred to as ‘she’, emphasizing its emotional impact. I am also struck by the hypnotic rhythm of the poem. Auden paid special attention to the meter to mimic the movement of a train as it moves down the tracks. The pace is steady, builds up to match the acceleration of the train and eventually slows down as it approaches stations. The repetition of words throughout the poem gives the effect of the monotonous chugging along of the train. As the pace picks up, the rhymes become quick and become internal rhymes ( “Letters of thanks, letters from banks.. Letters of joy from girl and boy” ).

The poet has made inventive use of poetic devices like alliteration, enjambment and anaphora. There are many alliterations and in one instance, the poet has employed a poetic technique called ‘sibilance’ as there is a hissing or sibilant quality to the alliteration ( “Shovelling white steam over her shoulder /Snorting noisily as she passes”). The use of ‘enjambment’ or the continuation of a line to another without a punctuation mark ( “In dark glens, beside pale-green lochs / Men long for news.”) helps to achieve a fast pace to emulate the ascent of the racing locomotive as the reader moves on to the next line without pause. ‘Anaphora’ or the repetition of a word at the beginning of successive lines ( “Letters”, ”And”, “Towards” “The” and “Asleep” ) is an effective rhetorical device to emphasize a repetitive and mechanical action.

As you can see, this is a poem that begs to be read aloud. In fact Auden is believed to have written it with the aid of a stopwatch for the film Night Mail. The poem was set to music by Benjamin Britten and was narrated towards the end of the film by John Grierson in a distinctive and almost modern rapper style rendition. These talented men endowed the prosaic documentary about the functioning of the railways with a unique poetic charm. Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmciuKsBOi0

In today’s world of digital communication, letter writing seems like an old fashioned practice. I don’t think there is any ping that could compare to the tactile sensation of writing on pretty stationery with a delicate fountain pen and sticking the stamp with your saliva to the envelope. There are so many other joys that go along with epistolary delights– penmanship and philately to name two. But the moment that brings the most happiness is the anticipation of receiving a letter whether followed by elation or disappointment at the news- a fat or thin envelope from a college, a letter of congratulations or rejection, a billet- doux from your beloved or a break up letter, the announcement of a new arrival or a condolence letter. At the end of the day, whether it is a text message on a smartphone or a letter that arrives by mail, it is all about tapping into the human need for connection. “For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?”


Crocus Focus

Crocus
Crocuses in my garden!

I am finally greeted with the first splash of color in the garden! When I stepped out today, out of the blue ( or rather purple), I saw violet and lavender crocuses waking up from their slumber, stretching their delicate heads out through patches of dry grass and moss, slush and fallen pine needles, and turning their faces upwards to the sky. These cheerful blooms are always the first ones to lead the spring parade of flowers.

Somewhat serendipitously I came across an uplifting poem about crocuses. I am happy to share it with you as it is timely not only because it is spring and the first day of National Poetry Month in the US, but also because it could easily apply to our current situation of social distancing and isolation in these gloomy times.

The poem was penned by Hannah Flagg Gould, a late 18th and early 19th century American poet. She was a prolific poet from Newburyport, MA but never gained much recognition as her other New England contemporary, Emily Dickinson. Like the latter, she led a quiet secluded life and never married. Her mother had died when she was a child and she spent most of her youth caring for her father who was a Revolutionary war veteran.

Her friends collected the poems she contributed to periodicals and published them as Poems in 1832. Inspired by the success of the collection, she went on to pen several more volumes of poetry. Her poems, simple and gentle in expression, and infused with a deep spiritual sensibility, deal with a wide range of themes ranging from American history, religion and war, to poems for children and poems about nature.

The Crocus’s Soliloquy

Down in my solitude under the snow,
Where nothing cheering can reach me;
Here, without light to see how to grow,
I’ll trust to nature to teach me.

I will not despair–nor be idle, nor frown,
Locked in so gloomy a dwelling;
My leaves shall run up, and my roots shall run down,
While the bud in my bosom is swelling.

Soon as the frost will get out of my bed,
From this cold dungeon to free me,
I will peer up with my little bright head,
And all will be joyful to see me.

Then from my heart will young petals diverge,
As rays of the sun from their focus;
I from the darkness of earth shall emerge,
A happy and beautiful Crocus!

Many, perhaps, from so simple a flower,
This little lesson may borrow,
Patient today, through its gloomiest hour,
We come out the brighter tomorrow.

~ Hannah F. Gould

Crocus2
Crocuses blooming in the garden right now!

The crocus is one of the first to spring to life from the bare and barren earth signaling the end of winter and ushering in a new season. There are always a few flowers that don’t make it in the spring; some trees that die and some birds that don’t return home. Nature is filled with uncertainty but the rhythm and recurring patterns continue and keep us going. We can learn a lot about rebirth and renewal from the cycles of nature.

It is fascinating how every verse of this simple 19th century poem resonates with our current reality. I hope we never lose hope and have faith that the trying times we are going through with the global pandemic will be behind us soon even as we lose some of our citizens. Hocus pocus, may we be like the crocus! May we emerge unscathed on the morrow from the darkness of the earth with patience and tenacity like these bright little blooms!

Hannah Gould’s most popular poem is ” A Name in the Sand”, but, unfortunately, it has been erroneously attributed to other people. I hope there is a revival of interest in this poet and that she is lifted out of obscurity. She deserves to come back to life like the crocus she so beautifully describes!

 

 

Love Song

antique-violin

Today I celebrate Valentine’s day on the blog with a ‘soulful’ poem written by Rainer Maria Rilke, the early 20th century Bohemian-Austrian poet and mystic. His poetry speaks deeply to me, as it undoubtedly does to countless other people. I remember that when I first read a collection of his poems, I bookmarked almost every page as I found something there that tugged at me. His poems have the ability to startle and leave you with the enormous feeling of relief that here is someone who ‘gets’ you.

Love Song

by Rainer Maria Rilke

How can I keep my soul in me, so that
it doesn’t touch your soul? How can I raise
it high enough, past you, to other things?
I would like to shelter it, among remote
lost objects, in some dark and silent place
that doesn’t resonate when your depths resound.
Yet everything that touches us, me and you,
takes us together like a violin’s bow,
which draws one voice out of two separate strings.
Upon what instrument are we two spanned?
And what musician holds us in his hand?
Oh sweetest song.
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Here’s the original in German:
Liebeslied

Wie soll ich meine Seele halten, daß
sie nicht an deine rührt? Wie soll ich sie
hinheben über dich zu andern Dingen?
Ach gerne möcht ich sie bei irgendwas
Verlorenem im Dunkel unterbringen
an einer fremden stillen Stelle, die
nicht weiterschwingt, wenn deine Tiefen schwingen.
Doch alles, was uns anrührt, dich und mich,
nimmt uns zusammen wie ein Bogenstrich,
der aus zwei Saiten eine Stimme zieht.
Auf welches Instrument sind wir gespannt?
Und welcher Spieler hat uns in der Hand?
O süßes Lied!

There are two distinct parts to this poem. In the first part, the speaker/ poet expresses his fear of falling in love. He is afraid of the closeness to the person he loves. To love is to be raw and vulnerable. To love is to take the risk of getting hurt or rejected. You expose your naked emotional self as you re-open wounds from the past. There is no love without loss. Love and pain go hand in hand. Love is not calm waters but the dizzying heights and crashing lows of waves in the ocean. And that is why he wants to shelter his soul “among remote lost objects, in some dark and silent place” far away from the beloved.

The word ‘yet’ expresses the futile attempt to resist the beloved and links the first part to the second. If you love, you wear your heart on your sleeve. He is irresistibly drawn to the love of his life. Falling in love is inevitable. He cannot hold his emotions in check even if he wants to.

The second part describes the perfect union of souls. The two souls in love are part of an identical energy force; their vibrational frequency is the same. They are no longer disparate and disembodied beings but have merged together and are completely in tune with each other. The concept of soul mates which seems like a modern invention, in fact, harkens back to antiquity. In Plato’s Symposium, the philosopher Aristophanes discusses the concept of mirror souls. Zeus, the King of Gods, split androgynous human beings into two separate parts, male and female, and they spend their whole lives in pursuit of their other halves so that they could become whole again: “Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature.”

The two lovers are like two separate violin strings on a violin that vibrates with one sound. They come together to create music. Their oneness emanates from a deep love and understanding. The musical metaphor reminds me of a similar train of thought in Kahlil Gibran’s meditation on love and marriage in The Prophet: ” Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music… “
Two human beings in love can come together to create one whole relationship and still maintain their distinct individuality and not lose sight of their own unique purpose in life.

There is a fatalistic tone to the poem as it alludes to a force greater than the two of them that brings them together in union. Maybe their love was written in the stars. Is the musician God and the instrument upon which they are spanned the Universe or Fate itself? Man and woman come together as one to have a common spiritual communion with God. Their love is transcendent as both entwined souls surrender themselves in exultation into the hands of Divinity. Soul mates are your spiritual catalysts too and there is a sacredness to the union.

In the first part of the poem, the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘You’ ( ‘ich’ and ‘dich’ in German) are used to convey the separateness.  After the speaker utters ”yet” you have the words ‘us’, ‘me and you’, ‘together ‘and ‘we two’ ( ‘uns’, ‘dich und mich’, ‘zusammen’ and ‘ wir’ in German) to emphasize the fusion of the souls. The poem begins and ends with questions. The frenzied questions about how to protect his heart from love are followed by the description of the bliss of union and more questions revealing the incertitude about their destiny and culminating in the rapturous but resigned sigh that he lets out: “Oh sweetest song!”

This beautiful poem about soul mates touched me to the depths of my soul. Hope you enjoyed it too!

Annabel Lee- Amor Vincit Omnia

 

 

 

Anabel
A beautiful and atmospheric representation of Annabel Lee! Image from paintingvalley.com

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered over many a quaint and curious volume of Halloween lore, I thought about the beautiful Annabel Lee buried by the shore. I don’t know why but tragedies of young love pull at my heartstrings. They appeal to so many of my romantic sensibilities- the innocence and purity of first love, the forbidden element, the cruel and hostile world, the all consuming and obsessive passion and finding happiness only through death in another realm. Perhaps the tale of youngsters in the throes of love taps into something deep and primal within us and has a universal appeal as it delineates the conflict between an individual’s interior desires and the exterior familial and societal constraints. Or maybe the tales of the star-crossed Tristan and Iseult, Pyramus and Thisbe or Romeo and Juliet exalt a rare and lofty kind of love that many people wish they could only experience!

Another tale of ill-fated love that has stood the test of time is Poe’s haunting Annabel Lee, published in 1849. The speaker laments the death of his young beloved, Annabel Lee:

Annabel Lee

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love-
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me-
Yes!- that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

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 the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea. 

Poe’s wife Virginia is assumed to be the inspiration behind Annabel Lee but does it really matter whom it was intended for? This romantic elegy of an obsessive and all-encompassing love is timeless and universal. It gives me the goosebumps every time I read it and never fails to awaken in me a mood of yearning and melancholy.

Stanza 1- The poem starts out as a fairytale with the words ‘many and many a year ago’, ‘a kingdom by the sea’, ‘maiden’ and the name of the eponymous princess like character, Annabel Lee. The words ‘whom you may know by’ establish an intimacy between the speaker and the reader and convey the legendary status of the tale. The speaker speaks of Annabel’s love and devotion to him. Everything seems idyllic. He is in a perfect setting during a beautiful time of his life enjoying reciprocal love.

Stanza 2- They were childhood sweethearts. The repetition of the words ‘child’ and ‘love’ and the refrain ‘kingdom by the sea’ create a harmonious and pleasing effect. The word ‘love’ is too trite and lackluster to describe the deep feelings they have for each other. The poem that started out as a fairytale suddenly takes a dark and morbid turn when he says the ‘winged seraphs’ or angels were jealous of him and of his love. Is it because simple mortals could experience such profound love? He has a different perspective on angels who are normally thought of as gentle beings who guard over you.

Stanza 3- We realize that we have been lulled into a false sense of security and that this is turning out to be a terrifying and eerie story. What is the ‘wind’ that takes Annabel’s life? Did she catch a cold and contract pneumonia or a similar illness? Or is the wind a metaphor for something more sinister? Was she betrothed to another, kidnapped, raped or murdered? Lines 17 through 20 describe her funeral and the reference to her highborn kinsmen indicate that she was perhaps of aristocratic birth and enjoyed a better social status than the speaker and that could very well have been the reason that their relationship was doomed.

Stanza 4- The horror of her death is emphasized again. He repeats what the angels had done in a conversational and intimate tone with the readers. The phrase ‘as all men know’ reiterates that their love was legendary and possibly has a universal element to it. The internal rhymes ‘chilling and killing’ add to the hypnotic effect.

Stanza 5- Their love was more mature and true than those of older and wiser people. Lines 30 through 33 have been compared to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans by the poet and literary translator, Richard Wilbur. St. Paul’s eighth chapter reads: “I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God.” The use of alliterations in this stanza (‘demons, down, dissever..’ ) and the repetitions of the words ‘love’ and ‘soul’ create a euphony or pleasing musicality.

Stanza 6-  The last stanza is my favorite of the poem and makes my hair stand on end every time I read it. Lines 34 through 37 immortalize Annabel Lee with her association with celestial bodies. He dreams of her every night and he feels her bright eyes when he sees the stars. Even if her body has perished, their souls are in love. Their love is eternal. Lines 38 through 41 describe how he lies beside her tomb every night. He calls her his bride making us wonder if their union was consummated. Whether she was actually his bride or not can be left for the readers to imagine. I am inclined to believe that it was wishful thinking on his part. The love they experienced was pure and virginal linking their stories to their predecessors in history and literature. Even death is powerless in the face of true love. Love is immortal and defies death. Or is the speaker in denial and going insane? The line between love and madness gets blurry. Isn’t being in love a form of insanity too?

The Source for the Ending- The grief-stricken man lying by the tomb of his beloved is not an uncommon motif in literature. It is believed that Poe could have been inspired by a local legend of a sailor who kept vigil at the cemetery of a certain Annabel Lee who died of yellow fever in Charleston, South Carolina. In Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris ( The Hunchback of Notre Dame), the skeleton of Quasimodo is found embracing the skeleton in Esmeralda’s tomb. But I would like to go back even farther in time. Poe found inspiration in literature from Middle Eastern texts as can be evidenced from his poems Al- Aaraaf, Israfel and his short story, The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade among others. He drew heavily from translations of the Quran, the Arabian Nights and Sa’di’s Gulistan. I would like to put forth the idea that the poem’s ending can be traced to the legend of Layla and Majnu, a story that found its origins in Bedouin oral tradition and was put down in writing in the 12th century by the Persian poet, Nizami Ganjavi.

Layla and Qays are in love with each other since childhood but not allowed to unite due to tribal rivalries. Layla is married off to another man and the hapless and helpless Qais has become so crazy in love that he is known by the epithet ‘Majnu’ or the one ‘possessed by djinns’. He seeks Layla’s gravesite when he learns of her death, lying there for months and eventually dies there. Their love story can be interpreted as a Sufi allegorical narrative where the crazy Majnu is in love with the idealized image of the beloved. It is a spiritual love that transcends human experience.

I am also enthralled by the lyrical beauty of Annabel Lee. It has a beautiful cadence to it lulling us like the waves of the shore where it is set. Moreover the repetitions ( ‘my darling- my darling’), the refrains ( ‘in this kingdom by the sea’) and the rhymes ( ‘side’ and ‘bride’) and internal rhymes ( ‘beams’ and ‘dreams’) create a hallucinatory effect. I have read this poem so many times I can recite it by heart even without having tried to memorize it. It is timeless and immortal just like the story of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

ⓒ Literary Gitane- All words and ideas expressed are the author’s and cannot be reproduced without permission.

 

 

‘The Bustle in a House’-Visiting the Ghost of Emily Dickinson

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The Homestead- Home of Poet Emily Dickinson. The photo is taken from the driveway of the house.

The best way to pay homage to deceased authors is by reading their work. The second best way is to embark on a literary pilgrimage and situate yourself in the same space where creativity once flowed. I enjoy immersing myself in the world of authors- treading on the sacred ground where their footsteps once tread, establishing instant intimacy with them by stepping into the rooms where they lived, ate, worked and slept and developing inspiration for my own writing. The most humbling realization is that in spite of the fame and success they were ordinary mortals like us caught up in the drudgery of life.

Last month I had the opportunity of visiting Emily Dickinson’s stately home in Amherst, MA. She is a kindred spirit from another era as along with a passion for poetry, I share her interests in baking and gardening and her love of nature. Emily ( Yes, I am on first -name basis with her! ) wrote exquisitely beautiful pithy poems on nature, love, longing, life, death and immortality. Her life was shrouded in mystery as she deliberately sought to be a recluse and hardly left her home. Only a handful of her poems were published during her lifetime. I’m grateful to her sister Lavinia who published the rest of her work comprising of nearly 1800 poems after she left this world. Emily never knew that one day she would be regarded as one of the greatest American poets. Her eccentricities  along with the image of a reclusive poet add to her mystique. Although I’m a frequent visitor of her poetic abode, I couldn’t help feeling a little like an unwelcome guest in the home of the poet who lived in self-imposed solitude.

The Emily Dickinson museum comprises 2 historic houses on a 3 acre property in college town Amherst, MA – The Homestead and The Evergreens. The Homestead house where Emily’s grandparents lived was built in 1813. It is the house where she was born and raised in a upper class Calvinist upbringing and it is the same house where she died. She lived there with her parents and her two siblings. The family temporarily moved to Pleasant Street in Amherst where a pedestrian Mobil station now stands and then moved back to the Homestead in 1855 and converted it to the Italianate style in vogue then with a yellow exterior and green shutters and a cupola on the roof. I was shocked to hear that the house was almost razed to the ground after the last inhabitants passed away but thankfully it was eventually bought by Amherst College and restored to its present state.

The house was a very important space as she spent most of her time there. While touring the property, you notice prints of poems scattered throughout the house and the docent herself recited some of them to us. At every step, I was reminded of my own favorite poems that seemed relevant to the moment and experience.

I dwell in possibility- ( 466)

I dwell in Possibility–
A fairer House than Prose–
More numerous of Windows–
Superior–for Doors–

Of Chambers as the Cedars–
Impregnable of Eye–
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky–

Of Visitors–the fairest–
For Occupation–This–
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise—

Even though she lived sequestered in a house with doors and windows that physically confined her, they were not impenetrable for poetry was her true dwelling which enabled her to give free rein to her limitless imagination and access the expanse of the infinite universe.

The house has been restored to look the way it looked till Dickinson’s death in 1886. Most of the furniture pieces are reproductions with the original pieces owned by Harvard University. The main floor has an exhibit area with a gift shop, a parlor and a study. In the parlor is a replica of the original piano that Emily played and a portrait of

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The iconic and possibly the only existing daguerreotype of the poet taken when she was 16.

the three Dickinson children. You also see a copy of the only daguerreotype that exists of the poet when she was sixteen years old. On this floor you also see the conservatory attached to the house and built especially for Emily to grow native and exotic plants.

The most exciting rooms are on the second floor. Across from the hall is a little poetry room where we had a discussion about Dickinson’s poems with the tour guide. She was a prolific poet who wrote, on average, a poem a day. She wrote them on scraps of papers, on envelopes, newspaper clippings and in letters to friends. She would make copies on sheets of paper and sew them together into booklets or ‘fascicles’ as they are now called. We saw the reproduction of one of the ‘fascicles’ where she wrote alternate words in the margin if she needed to substitute words or phrases in a poem. Often her poems revealed unusual vocabulary and syntax and unconventional use of punctuation in keeping with her rebellious nature. She is especially known for her daring use of dashes.

Finally we entered the hallowed territory- the poet’s small bedroom which has replicas of her bureau and her writing desk and floral wallpaper similar in design to the room of the nineteenth century. Portraits of George Sand and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, both, authors she undoubtedly admired, grace the walls. Apparently many visitors get emotional in this small and serene room. It was a contemplative and moving experience for me too as I stood within the confines of that tiny space which produced a staggering number of poems. This was a room of her own where along with spending many productive hours, she gazed out to the hills and meadows from her window and on occasion lowered baskets of cookies and sweets to children who waited below.

Outside the bedroom in a glass case is the replica of one of the long white dresses she wore which reveals a very slender frame. The fact that she only wore white dresses once she retreated into her solitude adds to the aura of mystery surrounding her. It’s easy to imagine a white phantom moving stealthily through the house.

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The Evergreens- Home of Austin Dickinson.

Next I proceeded to visit ‘The Evergreens’, the second house on the property built in 1856 for Emily’s brother Austin who married Susan Gilbert, Emily’s best friend. Emily took part in parties and musical soirées at this house ‘a hedge away’ when younger but avoided them later when she cut herself off from society. The comings and goings between the two houses made for some fascinating encounters and anecdotes.

This house is interesting both from an architectural standpoint and a historic perspective. Unlike the house next door, the subsequent owners of the property retained the original features and the furniture. Virtually every piece is intact- oil paintings, curios, books, lithographs, carpets, wallpaper and an adorable cradle. The kitchen has retained pots and pans and other equipment from the nineteenth century including call bells for servants. You feel like you’ve stepped back in time. To me the most charming room is the nursery – there are toys on the floor and clothes on the bed made more poignant by the fact that Austin and Susan Dickinson had lost their eight year old son to typhoid.

Emily was plagued with health issues. She was losing vision and was prone to epileptic fits. She could have suffered from a mood disorder which seems to fit with her outbursts of joyous creativity and her poems that suggest both euphoria and despondency. She never married but her personal life has aroused a lot of curiosity. She wrote letters addressed to an unknown ‘Master’ who people speculate could have been any of the following: George Gould, a close friend, Otis Lord, a prominent judge and a family friend, Samuel Bowles, a local newspaper editor, Rev.Charles Wadsworth or even her sister- in law Sue- her friend, the reader and recipient of her poems and a trusted critic to whom she had written intensely passionate letters. There is no way of knowing for sure if she was a lesbian or bisexual although many of her poems have homoerotic overtones.

I stepped into the garden and was quite disappointed. It was early spring and a few crocuses were blooming  here and there. But for a woman who was a botany expert, an avid gardener and a high priestess of nature, the museum could have done a better job preserving it. What a travesty considering the poet burned incense on the altar of nature! She decried organized religion but was immensely spiritual. Nature was her religion as we can see from the parody of the trinitarian formula in this poem:

The Gentian weaves her fringes- ( 47)

The Gentian weaves her fringes-
The maple’s loom is red.
My departing blossoms
Obviate parade.

A brief, but patient illness,
An hour to prepare;
And one, below this morning,
Is where the angels are.

It was a short procession, —
The bobolink was there,
An aged bee addressed us,
And then we knelt in prayer.

We trust that she was willing, —
We ask that we may be.
Summer, sister, seraph,
Let us go with thee!

In the name of the bee,
And of the butterfly,
And of the breeze, amen!

As I was about to leave the property, I was struck by the realization that it is ironical that a woman who shunned fame and eschewed company is now swarmed with visitors.

I’m nobody! Who are you? ( 260)

I’m nobody! Who are you?Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish — you know!

How dreary to be somebody!
How public like a frog
To tell one’s name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

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View of The Homestead from the garden framed by a giant oak tree!

I felt like an intruder invading into this very private woman’s space and thoughts. But then on my way out, I noticed the giant oak tree in her garden which was barely leafing out at the time. I hugged the tree absorbing its vital life force energy with the thought that perhaps Emily had once spread her arms around it too for it is the same oak from her time that still stands tall. I hope by connecting with the natural world so dear to her, I atoned a little for the transgression of trespassing.

 

 

An Amethyst Remembrance- Three Dickinson Poems on Love and Loss

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Cover of the first edition of Emily Dickinson’s  “Poems”, published in 1890

In recognition of National Poetry Month which wraps up today, I am celebrating Emily Dickinson, one of America’s most innovative and unique poets. She is known for the economy of her verse, her unconventional use of grammar and punctuation and blatant disregard of poetic conventions.

She is first and foremost a nature poet who through robins, bees and flowers expounds profound truths about love, life, death and immortality. Her concise poems manage to pack the hardest punch. Typically one or two metaphors are enough to convey the message or the emotion. I have chosen to highlight three poems on love and loss explicitly for their novel use of figurative language.

To lose thee — sweeter than to gain
All other hearts I knew.
‘Tis true the drought is destitute,
But then, I had the dew!

The Caspian has its realms of sand,
Its other realm of sea.
Without the sterile perquisite,
No Caspian could be.

This bittersweet poem on pain going hand in hand with pleasure illustrates Tennyson’s famous lines that ” ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Where there is love, there is loss but there is something sweet about the loss too. The speaker is bereft but she was lucky enough to have had something to lose. Being in drought makes her appreciate the dew or the contrasting emotion of elation she once enjoyed.

In this particular poem I was intrigued by the image of the Caspian Sea as a metaphor of life, love and vitality and the dry sand the pain of loneliness and desolation. Marine images feature in many of Dickinson’s poems. In fact there are other poems that allude specifically to the Caspian Sea like this succinct two line poem on submitting to her beloved :

Least Rivers — docile to some sea.
My Caspian — thee. 

The Caspian sea interestingly is not a boundless sea but a landlocked body of water. It  could not exist without its boundaries. Everything has its limits and must end somewhere. The sand marks the end of the sea. Similarly love must end too. Loss is a necessary part of life. Without the sterile desert, there would be no appreciation of the sea. It is fascinating how Dickinson employs a topographical feature to illuminate the workings of the mind.

I held a Jewel in my fingers—
And went to sleep—
The day was warm, and winds were prosy—
I said ”Twill keep’—

I woke—and chid my honest fingers,
The Gem was gone—
And now, an Amethyst remembrance
Is all I own—

The speaker/poet thought her love as rare and exquisite as a jewel would last forever but it was evanescent and only memories remain. She went to sleep lulled by the comfort that she was secure in her relationship but maybe she took it for for granted. She blames herself for when she wakes up her precious treasure has slipped away and what remains with her are her cherished memories. Love is fleeting and is synonymous with loss but there is a vague triumph in the loss. I interpreted “Jewel” to denote love but the jewel could mean life, possessions, dreams or anything we held on to dearly. The nostalgic tone of the poem is accentuated by the use of innumerable dashes which could denote a pause in her thoughts as she strives to recollect her past.

This is one of my favorite Dickinson poems as I love the image of ” an Amethyst remembrance”. An amethyst is a semi-precious stone compared to the precious jewel. So one could argue that what remains is definitely less precious than what one has experienced. But it could be the opposite too. Isn’t it interesting that we don’t have a precise picture of the jewel but the description of the memory is more concrete? Our memories are often idealized versions of a past that was far from perfect. The colorful, lustrous and sparkling picture of the amethyst evoked at the end of the day and perhaps at the sunset of her life suffuses the poem in a violet glow. What a gem of a poem!

We outgrow love like other things
  And put it in the drawer,
Till it an antique fashion shows
  Like costumes grandsires wore.

We outgrow love like other things. What a cynical start to the poem! Love and everything else in life is temporary. Sometimes we hold on to letters and photographs of an ex even if we no longer have any feelings for that person. We don’t want to completely destroy the evidence of the past even if it were painful or even if we are totally indifferent to the person now. We put our feelings in the drawer as we don’t want to deal with them but do we really outgrow love if we are putting it away? There is some lingering affection or sentiment attached if not to the person then at least to the experience or why wouldn’t we just throw it all away?

The object we once desired loses its appeal and charm and becomes an antique that is out of fashion. Again, the use of figurative language is striking. These objects are not necessarily heirlooms that we cherish or that even have a sentimental value but things that get tucked away in a drawer forgotten and possibly never removed ever again “like costumes grandsires wore.”Grandsires” is an archaic word to describe male ancestors. Was love just a short-lived performance? Did we wear love like a costume to be discarded after the act? We want different things in different stages of our lives and what we once prized is now devoid of any value.

Emily Dickinson is my bedside companion. Along with some other cherished books by favorite authors that have found a place on my bedside table, I have an edition of her poems that I turn to for a quick read when I am too tired to read something long or when I am in between books. Dickinson’s poems are just the perfect size for me to savor and to indulge in some introspection. Today is the last day of National Poetry Month. Every day is poetry day and every month is poetry month for me but just like we honor our mothers on Mother’s Day or our significant others on Valentine’s Day though we love them throughout the year, it is wonderful to have a whole month dedicated to poetry appreciation.

 

A Poem For Arbor Day

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April is National Poetry Month in the US. Today is also Arbor Day, a day on which the poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer is recited all over the country during arboreal celebrations. Incidentally, Joyce Kilmer was a man. The first name led me to believe otherwise but on researching the poet I discovered, along with his gender, a lot of details about his life; he died during the fighting in the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918 in World War 1 at the young age of 31. He was an atheist who found faith when his little daughter was afflicted with polio and lost the use of her limbs. He was derided for writing simple and sentimental rhyming poems at a time when ‘avant-garde’ poetry was all the rage. He is best known for ‘Trees”, inspired perhaps by a view of fall foliage from the window of his home in Mahwah, NJ. Surprisingly, even this poem which succinctly captures Nature’s beauty and God’s hand in creation was dismissed as trite by many critics.
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I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

~ Trees, Joyce Kilmer

“Trees” is a short poem in iambic tetrameter with six rhyming couplets that make it flow in a sing-song fashion and make it easy to memorize. The rhyme scheme is aa/bb/cc/dd/ee/aa. The final words of the two lines in each couplet have the same sounds and the words of the last couplet have the same sounds as the first couplet.

Lines 1 and 2- The speaker starts by saying that a poem doesn’t compare to a tree. Humans can’t create anything as beautiful as God. It is interesting that being a poet himself, Kilmer is modest about his art.

Lines 3 and 4-  The tree depends on Mother Earth for sustenance. Nature is portrayed as a feminine entity who is generous, giving and nurturing. The roots of the tree suck water and nutrients from the earth as a child would milk from its mother’s bosom.

Lines 5 and 6-  The tree extends its limbs in supplication as if it were praying to God. The tree is personified in these lines and throughout the poem with human attributes like hair, arms, a hungry mouth and a bosom.

Lines 7 and 8 –  The tree is a place of refuge for creatures. The tree is the protector whose foliage offers shade and shelter to birds. The relationship of the trees and birds echoes the relationship of the tree and the earth. These lines beautifully highlight the interdependence of living things and the regenerative cycle of nature.

Lines 9 and 10- These lines describing the relationship between snow/ rain and the tree are vivid in sensual imagery. The tree with its bosom and knotted hair has feminine traits just like the earth. In describing nature, the poet resorts to anthropomorphic images which transport us to an emotional and spiritual plane. The tree is first portrayed as a child suckling from its mother and eventually as a young woman who lives intimately with the elements. The tree then could represent a person and God’s ingenuity in creating humans along with nature.

Lines 11 and 12-  The last two lines take us us back to the first stanza perhaps reinforcing the idea of the cyclical pattern of nature. Divine creation surpasses literary creation. The speaker/ poet is humble and there is a tinge of self-deprecation in his humility.

This poem is a hymn to nature’s beauty and bounty. The use of poetic devices like simile, personification, repetition and alliteration imbue it with a musical quality. In fact it has been set to music many times. It is also a poem with a spiritual bent, rich in religious symbolism. In a span of twelve brief lines, the visual and tactile imagery took me into the woods and up to the heavens and back. The poem is charming and striking in its simplicity. Let me not kill it by overanalyzing it. I’ll just end with this thought: I think that I shall never see a poem as pithy and profound as this poem.

Don’t you think the best way to pay tribute to this poet would be by going outdoors and planting a sapling?

 

When Death Comes: In Memory Of Mary Oliver

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The 18th of April is Poem in Your Pocket Day, part of the month-long celebration of National Poetry Month in the United States. The poem I chose to carry in my pocket yesterday was written by Pulitzer Prize -winning poet, Mary Oliver who left our earthly abode two months ago. Her soulful rapport with nature and meditations on the human condition have touched and transformed many lives. To mourn her demise or celebrate her life as the case may be, I fittingly selected a poem on death that teaches us to live. For, after all, aren’t life and death two sides of the same coin?

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

–Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver imparts her wisdom in a gentle way in her poems. This poem is a meditation on mortality or immortality depending on your perspective; it is a mantra on how to live our lives. The speaker resorts to similes and personification to imagine the arrival of death which can take several forms. It can appear as a ravenous bear, as a merciless man with a coin purse, as a dreadful disease or as a huge and chilling mass of ice. Even if death charges at her ruthlessly, she wants to welcome it with curiosity. The “cottage of darkness” is an arresting metaphor as a cottage conjures up an image of a cozy, comfortable and warm place as opposed to death which is cold and frightening. It is interesting that she doesn’t capitalize death. It is just another ordinary and inevitable event in our lives.

The poem is written in free verse without a set rhyme or meter. The twelve stanzas of varying length convey a continuous flow of thoughts. You almost feel like she is having a conversation with you. The liberal use of the comma instead of a period enables us to read the poem without pausing. The use of poetic devices like the ‘enjambment’ or technique of continuing one thought beyond the end of a line to the subsequent line ( lines 11-12 ) and the ‘anaphora’ when a line is repeated at the beginning of a number of lines (“when death comes”) gives the poem an incantatory tone like a prayer chant.

The speaker goes on to question conventional notions of time as linear and finite and considers “eternity as another possibility.” Each life is individual and unique like a flower. Yet all existence is interlinked and the speaker wishes to live with awareness and curiosity and to also live in close communion with nature and the universe. The individual human is a “lion of courage” fearlessly confronting the mysteries of life and the individual human experience is music which moves collectively towards silence or death. The juxtaposition of music and silence is akin to that of life and death.

The speaker wishes to make use of the gift of life she has been offered by embracing the experience fully. She doesn’t choose one or the other but wishes to be married to life both as a bride and a groom- to avail of all the experiences life has to offer. She doesn’t want to just visit the world but inhabit it and immerse in it fully with amazement and wonder. Bridal symbolism to convey the relation between earthly and spiritual love is a recurrent motif in many mystical traditions of the world including Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Sufism where the soul is the bride yearning for union with her divine beloved, the Universe. Mary Oliver was perhaps influenced by these spiritual traditions as in a radio interview she had revealed that she read Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet every single day.

Mary Oliver enjoyed going on long walks to seek solace in nature and to be one with the birds, flowers, forests and rivers- to contemplate tiny miracles whether it was a grasshopper moving her jaws back and forth, poppies swaying in the wind or mushrooms sprouting through the ground. In fact, many of her poems are used in workshops on mindfulness. I channel her sometimes when I go on nature walks, when I slow down to gaze at a dewdrop on a flower, or delight in the antics of a determined squirrel or observe a jewel of a dragonfly flapping its gossamer wings on a branch. I, too, hope that at the end of my life I can say that I was a bride married to amazement and that I didn’t end up simply having visited this world. I leave you, friends, to ponder this question that Mary Oliver asked us in one of her most famous poems:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”