Readings and Re-Readings, 2017
by Mark Rich
After writing this sonnet in mid-June, I saw it could take a through-all-seasons title: "Frost in the Rain." I may have it in finished form, now:
There sat out in the rain those all: at least
the blurb avers the poems are complete
in that one volume. I am no aesthete
concerning paperbacks, when they hold yeast
for daily bread; and this one I had taken
with me gardening on days before;
over its loosened page-leafs would I pour,
between tasks. Open, it sat, less forsaken
than forgotten, out that Sunday late
while I, abed, still heard Frost sing of flowers,
grass, and trees. Then Monday's early hours
brought wet leaves to eyes closed with dream's weight.
So I closed poems rippled by rain showers
leaf-press tight. Not that Frost lines go straight.
If you consider that a leaf-press is a tool to help memory, preserving spring or autumn leaves past their living vibrancy, then you understand the closing lines as not only factual, even if I tell you that at the time the facts in the incident compelled the poem; they gave the impetus that set the sounds into motion. I see this myself, now, almost exactly six months after waking with the thought arising in me of my forgetfulness, to be followed by the idea of the leaf press.
Sounds rolling into motion roll differently than Toad's "poetry of motion" in The Wind in the Willows. By reading Robert Frost, though, I was venturing a little into the Wide World that lies beyond the Wild Wood -- while, I hope, still burrowing into the homey comforts genially possessed and guarded by Mole and Rat. I was venturing toward a larger commonality with a will, or at least with a will greater than the whimsyish will that took me away from the true child and toward the illusory adult. I wonder if Kenneth Grahame ever ceased to be the true child, in some chamber in his heart, after he moved into the Wide World. I wonder this because if you ever have lost the true child then you will find that Grahame can make you cry. If, that is, you have saved some tears through the years.
In reading Ursula Le Guin not long ago I sensed a correspondence in this: "As a boy, Ogion like all boys thought it would be a very pleasant game to take by art-magic whatever shape one liked ... But as a wizard he had learned the price of the game, which is the peril of losing one's self, playing away the truth. The longer a man stays in a form not his own, the greater this peril." If Le Guin is on-mark then the loss begins with the child even as a child; and with this Mark she must be on, to take the example of the very book which holds this thought. For when young I could read The Left Hand of Darkness and talk a bit about it with the one friend who also read it. Left Hand as I recall had a non-objective or non-realist book-club cover. With my mind's eye I see a Richard Powers evocation in wispy forms, maybe because his wisps, tangles, and Giacometti forms told me that a book might be worth reading. Le Guin's Earthsea novels, which I saw at bookshops -- my older sister Beth may even have had copies -- had covers with grayly fanciful evocations suggesting magic and sporting dragons. They reflected an intentionally youthful aesthetic somehow different from, say, the self-consciously stylized paintings and framing designs on the Modern Fantasy series from Ballantine Books, whose covers I could and did open, in the 1970s. The Earthsea covers told me that those books were not for me. I was too old, you see. My teen years found me with a lopsided arrogance already -- not quite as severe as that of Le Guin's character Ged -- as though I had lacked the time to finish growing to be a child.
I went lopsided even at that time into Frost's poems -- being little different from most readers in the later Twentieth, in that regard. Yet a note in Frost remained one that I could ear, even so; and just as the note to be heard in Le Guin has brought me to begin her "juveniles" (I am, after all, old enough now to read Kenneth Grahame), the note in Frost led me two years ago to delve with a will into his works as a whole. Oddly, I have yet to finish even a first reading of the book I left out to be rained upon, due to the habit I worked to develop of memorizing his poems, with the hope that some would find a place in permanent memory. I suspected that I would continue failing to understand Frost if not myself living with his poems in memory; and my gardening sessions, despite neighbors' habits and addictions involving power machines, brought me to recognize his symbolist nature and his consistency in language, accent, and symbol. Nearly knowing -- I remain at that point, of nearly knowing -- his first book, of 1913, I became quite curious about his way of thinking. Fortuitously, in a package of family books that my mother sent, a fat volume of Frost's poetry and prose appeared. As with many objects of childhood I have no recollection that it was there on some shelf -- although its eye-dulling cover makes me wonder how even now I could notice so large an invisible thing.
I have just finished my second, more careful reading of that book's prose portion. What I find there might have been invisible to me as a child, too -- even though I was reading about poetry already, by my junior-high years, no doubt from the pleasures to be had in going about lopsided. In one late prose introduction, in any case, Frost wrote of assembling his first book -- whose title of a sudden now has luminance: A Boy's Will. "The interest, the pastime," he wrote, "was to learn if there had been any divinity shaping my ends and I had been building better than I knew." In other pieces it becomes evident that he seized on this "pastime" well after feeling he had lost a most important part of his being. He felt he had lost the poet in himself.
Characters would lose themselves in entirety, seemingly, through the Modern years, only to emerge into a new humanistic state or situation -- a state or situation which, it is revealed, already was there, if concealed by art or artifice. Such is Jim's situation in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Tom Sawyer and Huck can free Jim because Jim already is free. I may have read this novel in high school, since I remember doing so -- but can only think how inadequate that reading must have been, since I know my new reading of it was inconsistently awake. I happened to undertake its enjoyment, by accident, just before picking up Harriet Beecher Stowe's most famous novel, in which the only free character seems to be Uncle Tom, who dies with that freedom intact: for he is free in the sense that Viktor Frankl would discover while in a German deathcamp, less than a century later. Stowe may have had a moment akin to the one I have just encountered in Le Guin, in which her priestess character Alha, immersed in the darkness of a cavern she has come to know and perhaps to love for that very quality, sees that darkness briefly dispelled -- "by glory." Even before I came to see what Stowe was attempting I found the thought growing upon me that Hemingway's judgment that Modern American novels found their source in Huckleberry Finn gives but half of a quite possibly accurate observation, with the other half being Uncle Tom's Cabin, which offers a structure to be embraced by best-seller novelists to follow Stowe entangled with a Christianity that was trying vainly to either fully close or fully open its old, peering Puritan eyes.
A book written earlier, Richard Henry Dana, Jr.,'s Two Years Before the Mast, as a sea-journey gives intimations of Twain's and Stowe's down-river journeys. An astonishing work, I found early this year that it nearly crushes the reader with its combined factuality and humanism. The image of Dana in the ship's hold, in utter darkness, pacing and reciting to himself remembered poems by Cowper, has come to me often. His is the soul imprisoned within a system from which physical escape, as it is for Uncle Tom, is impossible.
At this, a passage comes to mind from Yoshiko Uchida's Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese Family, in which women attempt ruses to find privacy in a hastily constructed, drafty internment camp during World War II -- not for privacy itself, in a situation of tightly packed, displaced humanity, but for the sake of their poetry. In A Flower Does Not Talk, a book I read with pleasure and have kept revisiting, Zenkei Shibayama says that human freedom is creativity. I cannot help but think that Dana's pacing in the darkness, reciting Cowper, was an inner, creative response that, since it appeared in his monumental book, helped improve conditions for others such as he had been, trapped within society's machine, beyond whose hull the Wide World's implacable ocean rolled.
I suppose something in me -- maybe even "that small inquiring something which all animals carry inside them," in Grahame -- is saying that I am stretching for freedom, in mumbling poems, written by my hand or by another's, while out in the garden maintaining a vague order, not to mention growing food. Yet I tend to view it instead as another step in the process I call by the ear-dulling name of returning to basics -- a return to that which already I am, to that which never ceased to be -- as Shibayama might have put it -- within the illusory self that shape-changing left me to seem.
I found time to write this today because it has been snowing, with the snow meaning I am staying off the roof where I had planned to pass some time on remaining tasks. While I hired an Amish roofer, Ben, for this project, so often have I found myself in the position of being a helper that I know enough to finish some of his unfinished tasks -- which, at a time when new snow is falling on new metal, are mercifully few in number. Martha and I have been not without a roof over our heads, these recent years, but rather with a leaking one -- which statement you may take for its expressed or implied meaning, or both. I chose to remedy the situation with Amish help, not knowing that all the attendant tasks besides the support work would keep me at least as busy as the gardening and antiquing had, in the summer -- with the difference that my work on Frost has slowed. When on ladder or sloping roof I focus on a different balance in my life.
One noon, though, on a balmy day in November, in the lower forties, I was sitting with Ben and his excellent occasional helper, Joe. While eating, Ben and I discovered we had both read Huckleberry Finn this year. We talked about it, with Ben relating incidents from the novel and several times saying, "I laughed so hard!" Joe's eyes widened at times, as when I reminded Ben (for we tended to recall different aspects) Tom's getting shot all because of his make-believe exploit at the end. "I laughed so hard!" said Ben again, so that I envied him the true child he possessed despite being able to handle a sixteen-foot sheet of metal while atop our steep, more-than-a-century-old roof. We went on to Tom Sawyer ("I laughed so hard!") and then back to work, with me having some tears to blur matters. Maybe I had been laughing over Twain, there over our picnic fare. And maybe I had been recognizing something, or someone, that or whom I had missed.-- December 11, 2017
Mark Rich had a syllabic sonnet in the spring issue of Poem and has a traditional one in the just-published fall issue, after not having had a poem in Poem for twenty years. His story "And Fountains Flow" appears in Shadows & Reflections, the new Roger Zelazny tribute anthology. With partner-in-life Martha Borchardt and two Scotties-in-life he lives in Cashton, Wisconsin, and gardens, shovels snow, still reads Bach daily, and remains faithfully behind in his book revisions.