Sunday, January 1, 2017

"Make a vineyard of the curse"

Duke Gardens, Durham, North Carolina
    So now we wait. Twenty days, to see if, or rather how, our fears bear fruition. To step aboard the train that we've all bought a ticket on, destination unknown.  
    I can save you three weeks of uncertainty. We won't know, not Jan. 20, or Feb. 20, or at any given point. There will be the same daily shocks that we're experiencing now, that the thickening cataract of custom won't obscure. 
    Will it be good? Bad? Yes. Of course it will be both, now good, now bad, depending on where you stand and when you ask. And depending on who you are, and how attuned you are. You can focus close and constant, you can track it through latticed fingers.
    We seem to think we can ameliorate the harm by rolling around in it. Maybe. But it hasn't helped much up to now, has it? One thing you can say about Donald Trump, none of this was hidden -- oh, there will be submerged parts revealed: exactly how much he is in bed with the Russians, and such. But even the secret stuff will be expected. You can't be shocked by it. Not anymore.
     There needs to be a way to process this. As always, I find refuge in poetry—"refuge" might be the wrong word. Utility. The comfort of words, of knowing what seems a fresh shock is really just the same old shock, come around the track again.
    I've been reading W.H. Auden's poem "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" a lot in recent weeks. A half a dozen times at least. It's of the season, beginning, "He disappeared in the dead of winter"—Yeats died Jan. 28, 1939, another period of growing unease, of watching the disaster come into focus, form, grow, unavoidable, before our ever startled eyes.
    An airport shows up, as do suburbs, always a little jarring in a poem, where we expect brooks but not sidewalks, glades but not cul de sacs (these modern totems must have been in the poetic air in the 1930s; another poem about the death of a revered figure, Sir John Betjemen's "Death of King George V" written three years earlier, concludes with both: "At the new suburbs stretched beyond the run-way/Where a young man lands hatless from the air.")  
    Auden serves up some wonderful lines. "And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom." Preach it, brother. Yeats, dying, "became his admirers" and "The words of a dead man/Are modified in the guts of the living." 
    If he's lucky.
    The poem makes me remember the debt a poet like Billy Collins owes to Auden. All Collins' anthropomorphized poems, crackling like breakfast cereal, honking like sea otters, are mere homages to lines like "The death of the poet was kept from his poems."
    We are reminded, "poetry makes nothing happen." Technically true. But it does grease the gears of what's happening.
    Especially in the third section, where Auden clicks into horror movie, ring-around-the-rosy cadences, each blunt line rhyming with the next.

    In the nightmare of the dark
    All the dogs of Europe bark,
    And the living nations wait,
    Each sequestered in its hate;

    Intellectual disgrace
    Stares from every human face,
    And the seas of pity lie
    Locked and frozen in each eye.

    Man that sounds familiar. In a country where the doors of freedom were slammed in the face of Syrian children before Donald Trump arrived. Where those 11 million undocumented Mexicans toiled in rightless limbo every single day of the Obama presidency. Always remember, Trump didn't ruin us. We ruined ourselves, and then he showed up, our reward for falling so below our standards, to violate the corpse. 
    Grim, but who can say inappropriate to now? At the risk of reprinting a block of the poem -- I can argue this is commentary, but if the Auden folk feel ill-used, I'll send 'em a check -- the poem ends with comfort that I feel compelled to share:

    Follow poet, follow right
    To the bottom of the night,
    With your unconstraining voice
    Still persuade us to rejoice;
    With the farming of a verse
    Make a vineyard of the curse,
    Sing of human unsuccess
    In a rapture of distress;

    In the desert of the heart
    Let the healing fountain start,
    In the prison of his days
    Teach the free man how to praise.

    "Make a vineyard of the curse." Now that's a plan. Not in the glug-glug-glugging wine aspect, though if you can pull it off, go for it. But in the sense that the vineyard is a lush and joyous place where nature shows off her bounty. "Let the healing fountain start." I can't say what that is, precisely, but I'm ready to bathe in it. Though my hunch is doing so now would be premature, like putting a bandage over a wound you haven't received yet.
    Poetry helps. I can't join those squatting in the dust over Donald Trump, first because he hasn't done anything awful yet, second because life goes on, third because if the choice is to resist him confident or resist him miserable, I choose the former, with an option of shifting into the latter as events warrant. Just as winners are told to win as if they've won before, so those in peril, those in this troubled world as it slides down toward calamity, should keep our heads up, as if we have done this before, because we have, or people very much like us have, our parents and grandparents. They made it through, most of them. So will we.


  1. I favor the third alternative: that Donald Trump will make no difference whatsoever. Hardly likely, but what's sackcloth and ashes for Donald has got to be ambrosia for the rest of us.


  2. You might also take comfort in another fine Auden poem that is, more than anything else, about life going on. The title, "Musee des Beaux Arts," refers to the principal art museum in Brussels where the author had seem a painting by Peter Breughel titled "The Fall of Icarus." Icarus was, of course, the young Cretan, son of Daedalus, whose hubris caused him to fly too close to the sun, with unfortunate consequences.

    It's full of quotable lines, but the general point is made at the beginning.

    "About suffering they were never wrong,
    The Old Masters; how well they understood
    It's human position; how it takes place
    While someone else is eating, or opening a window or just
    dully walking along."

    And the point is driven home concretely by referring to details of the painting.

    "In Breughel's Icarus, for instance; how everything turns away
    Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
    Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
    but for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
    As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
    Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
    Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
    Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."

    Tom Evans

  3. Better we didn't know what was to come...

  4. Gotta wonder whose term will be half-over three years from now. God help America.


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