I drove through the rolling green hills of the Driftless region of southwest Wisconsin today. The farm fields have sprouted; some are already knee-high with corn or soy beans. The hills are dotted with clusters of trees, grand old solitary oaks and pastures full of grazing cows or horses. The sky was bright blue with a few floaty white clouds. It was a nearly perfect early summer day.
I used to live in that area. I didn’t think I ever took the beauty for granted, but after not seeing it daily for the last five years or so — I was definitely soaking it in today.
I had a hand-drawn map on a piece of paper to guide me. The address didn’t show up on my GPS. In this now-city-girl’s opinion, it was out in the middle of nowhere. Absolutely gorgeous nowhere, though. I had never been to this farm before. The friend who lived there was the friend-of-a-friend with whom I’d have a few coffee chats over the years.
I had also had this woman’s daughter in my children’s choir at one time about 8 years ago or so.
The two friends were waiting for me on a lovely screened in back porch as I drove slowly up the long gravel driveway. I got out of the car, flung my arms wide and declared, “I’m never leaving! This is absolutely beautiful.” (This photo is the view from the screened in back porch).
The woman who lives on this gorgeous farm was diagnosed with an aggressive very rare form of cancer last October. She went from mammogram, to biopsy, to starting chemo in FOUR days. It was urgent. Her prognosis was never good. The doctors thought she wouldn’t make it through October. I saw her today, looking great and full of joy and love — about 9 months after that thought. She is fiercely determined, surrounded by prayer and LOVE.
We had peppermint tea and some delicious veggies, cheese (it IS Wisconsin, after all!), gluten-free crispy crackers, and dark chocolate covered cherries. A lovely tea party for three.
We chatted about family, about our children, about our lives. We talked about her treatment until she declared she’d had enough. We went on to talk about the book she had finished (during chemo!) and about her upcoming book signing. I bought a few for family and friends, and she happily signed them for me.
We talked about balcony people and about basement people. She said, “If you are on the stage performing at the very top of your ability and the balcony is full of people who love you unconditionally, who believe in you, who are your most loyal supporters — who is in the balcony?” I got teary and reached out my hand to Anne, “Anne Donovan.” She grasped my hand. I talked about how Anne has buoyed me through the years and not only me, but my children. Without fail, without reservation, without shyness. She is on our side. Always. No question. Ever. I’m incredibly blessed to have a balcony packed full of wonderful friends and family and colleagues.
Then she asked, “Who is in the basement? Who second guesses you? Questions your words, your motives, your actions?” Well, I could name a few people. But thankfully very few.
This woman inspired me. She gave me comfort and support today; she declared my life had already touched many lives for the better and predicted I would be continuing on that path. She hugged me tightly and she knew I was thinking I might not ever see her again. She saw my tears. She prophesied that I will be open to more joy and love than I can imagine. All three of us hugged and at least two of us were tearing up.
The book I’ve been reading, published by Alfred A. Knopf, is from the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series. Poems I quote below come from the first section of the Dickinson Poems book: The Poet’s Art.
The poems that have stuck in my mind now deal with words — the struggle of putting images into words, of finding the exact words to describe a feeling or emotion, of how to convey “Truth” in words, and the all-too-common problem of writer’s block (having no words at all!).
I was not an English Major in college, but I do love words and poetry. I enjoy thinking about the ideas and meanings, and I enjoy thinking about how the poetry is related to my life and experiences.
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Here she seems to be saying “Sure, tell the truth, but do it carefully.” Tell it slant. Beat around the bush a bit. Ease into it. Then Emily zaps us with her last two lines: Truth’s “superb surprise” must be told gently — “dazzle gradually” — or we will all be blinded by it.
To see the Summer Sky
Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie –
True Poems flee –
I get this feeling whenever I see a gorgeous sunset, an amazing natural vista, or get overwhelmed by anything beautiful. I wish I could paint. I wish I could capture the view in a photograph. I wish I could describe it with words. I think Emily is saying that poetry, even the best of it, can not truly capture the essence of what it one may be attempting to describe. True Poems flee and are impossible to contain in words and books.
I would not paint — a picture —
I’d rather be the One
Its bright impossibility
To dwell — delicious — on —
And wonder how the fingers feel
Whose rare — celestial — stir
Evokes so sweet a Torment —
Such sumptuous — Despair —
I would not talk, like Cornets —
I’d rather be the One
Raised softly to the Ceilings —
And out, and easy on —
Through Villages of Ether —
Myself endued Balloon
By but a lip of Metal —
The pier to my Pontoon —
Nor would I be a Poet —
It’s finer — own the Ear —
Enamored — impotent — content —
The License to revere,
A privilege so awful
What would the Dower be,
Had I the Art to stun myself
With Bolts of Melody!
I think the irony of Emily wishing not to be a Poet is wonderful! She relates a hint of her struggles with the words “impotent” and “privilege so awful.” Is she wishing to be a musician in the last two lines — “Had I the Art to stun myself With Bolts of Melody!” –? She certainly has the talent to stun us with her words.
She dealt her pretty words like Blades –
How glittering they shone—
And every One unbared a Nerve
Or wantoned with a Bone –
She never deemed – she hurt –
That – is not Steel’s Affair –
A vulgar grimace in the Flesh –
How ill the Creatures bear –
To Ache is human – not polite —
The Film upon the eye
Mortality’s old Custom –
Just locking up – to Die.
This reminds me of the saying: Sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words will never hurt me. I’ve always felt this is UNTRUE! Words DO hurt. They can sometimes hurt for decades. Emily is well aware of the power of words, and this poem makes that abundantly clear.
The Poets light but Lamps —
Themselves — go out —
The Wicks they stimulate —
If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns —
Each Age a Lens
In this poem, I hear Emily saying that a Poet’s job is to light the lamp, say what is in their heart, do the best they can. Then if they have done their job well — the light (of their words, their poems) will continue to illuminate like the sun, for ages and ages, growing and spreading as time goes by. Each generation will refocus and reinterpret the words through their own filter (lens), but if the words are True — they will continue to be True.
A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
This poem (13) relates to the one above (10) quite well. Again, Emily is aware of and reminding us of the power of words. They are not dead, but alive and continue to live long after they are created (spoken or written).
A Word dropped careless on a Page
May stimulate an eye
When folded in perpetual seam
That wrinkled Maker lie
Infection in the sentence breeds
We may inhale Despair
At distances of Centuries
From the Malaria —
Here again, Emily’s topic is the power of words. In this case she warns of the danger of careless words. I don’t think it is an accident that she uses the analogy of an infectious and deadly disease like Malaria to emphasize her point. Words can fester and the after effects (to inhale despair) can rage for centuries. The image is exceptionally vivid, and her message is heard.
Could mortal lip divine
The undeveloped Freight
Of a delivered syllable
‘Twould crumble with the weight.
These few lines convey so much! Emily keeps driving home this point of the power, the heaviness of words. I think she must have struggled extensively with which words to say and which to left unsaid. Did each word feel like a boulder? A boulder she had to push uphill? We can only imagine.
To tell the Beauty would decrease
To state the Spell demean —
There is a syllable-less Sea
Of which it is the sign —
My will endeavors for its word
And fails, but entertains
A Rapture as of Legacies —
Of introspective Mines —
My summary: There are no words! If I could find the words to describe the Beauty, I am afraid the Beauty will lessen. If I were in a place like a calm sea where no words exist, I would still be looking for the right words and still be failing. But I have the Joy of remembering and thinking about the Beauty forever.
Your thoughts don’t have words every day
They come a single time
Like signal esoteric sips
Of the communion Wine
Which while you taste so native seems
So easy so to be
You cannot comprehend its price
Nor its infrequency
My favorite line in this one is the first: “Your thoughts don’t have words every day.” This is SO true! Some days I can’t write anything. I am empty. I have nothing to say. She goes on to infer that words come to us as Grace comes to us through Communion. Both are priceless and (at times) not a common occurence.
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 —
Again the first line grabs me: “I dwell in Possiblity–” As a poet she sees her world differently than most other people. Her job is to spread her narrow Hands wide to gather Paradise. I’m so glad she did! I’m thankful for the glimpses of Truth, of Life, of Infinity, of Paradise that I’m able to glean from her words.
“Writing is a long process of introspection; it is a voyage toward the darkest caverns of consciousness, a long, slow meditation. I write feeling my way in silence, and along the way discover particles of truth, small crystals that fit in the palm of one hand and justify my passage through this world.” Isabel Allende, Paula
“Writing is a process, a journey into memory and the soul.” Isabel Allende
“I seek truth and beauty in the transparency of an autumn leaf, in the perfect form of a seashell on the beach, in the curve of a woman’s back, in the texture of an ancient tree trunk, but also in the elusive forms of reality.” Isabel Allende, Portrait in Sepia
English: Fungi growing on tree bark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
“As I travel through life,
I gather experiences that lie imprinted on the
deepest strata of memory,
and there they ferment,
and sometimes rise to the surface
and sprout like strange plants from other worlds.
What is the fertile humus
of the subconscious composed of?
Why are certain images converted
into recurrent themes
in nightmares or writing?”
The water in a vessel is sparkling; the water in the sea is dark. The small truth has words which are clear; the great truth has great silence. Rabindranath Tagore
Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold. Leo Tolstoy
If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end;
if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin,
and in the end, despair. C. S. Lewis
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning. (Terry Pratchett)
And finally I twist my heart round again, so that the bad is on the outside and the good is on the inside, and keep on trying to find a way of becoming what I would so like to be, and could be, if there weren’t any other people living in the world.
I said what I meant and I meant what I said.