A dialectic of dark and light—and magnolias blossoming like afterthought

Somewhere, deep in a comprehensive exam prep period this semester, hopped upon caffeine and too much sugar and too little sleep and overwhelmed with stress about the upcoming test and the repercussions of failing, a phrase from Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard jumped up and grabbed me by the throat.

I returned to a stand of pines,
                            bone-thin phalanx
flanking the roadside, tangle
                            of understory—a dialectic of dark
and light—and magnolias blossoming
                            like afterthought: each flower
a surrender, white flags draped
                            among the branches.
                                   –“South”  Natasha Trethewey
I was first struck by the ‘dialectic of dark and light’–I was in the middle of both Paradise Lost and The Republic,and had just finished Spring and All,  so I was thinking about conflicts and contrasts and everything that can be summed up in the binary opposites of “dark and light”.
But then.
magnolias blossoming like afterthought. Afterthought. Not perhaps considered as important as the dialectic, but somehow serving as the extra, the excess, that makes the dialectic ok. That makes everything ok. The dialectic of light and dark is structure and repression and rules for behavior and so much restriction and requirements–but life and spring and rebirth and regeneration and magnolias somehow redeem it all.

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My walks in spring are constantly interrupted by my need to record all of the beauty around. I never seem to tire of the flowers–these are a few of my favorites from the past few weeks.

Watch the flocks of wild phlox appear, disappear.

C–who got his undergrad degree at the same university that I’m getting my grad degree– jokes that he sees more of the campus’s flowers now, through my pictures, than he ever did as a student. To which remark I roll my eyes and invariably reply with some idiotic crack about stopping and smelling the roses or seeing the forest for the trees. (oh, so so clever.)  And then I take another picture.

Here’s what has been catching my eye lately:

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My title is from “Talking Back to the Mad World” by Sarah C. Harwell. I think this is what I love so much about these flowers–they are a gift. They are unexpected, I don’t do anything to grow them. I wander by and they are just there–beautiful, someone else’s responsibility, I just enjoy.

I will not tend. Or water,
pull, or yank,
I will not till, uproot,

fill up or spray.

The rain comes.
Or not. Plants: sun-fed,
moon-hopped, dirt-stuck.

Watch as flocks
of wild phlox

appear, disappear. My lazy,
garbagey magic
makes this nothing

I love
the tattered
camisole of
nothing. The world
runs its underbrush
course fed by
the nothings I give it.

Wars are fought.
Blood turns.
Dirt is a wide unruly room.

–Talking Back to the Mad World, Sarah C. Harwell
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New beginnings

It seems a bit unseasonable, but I’ve been thinking more about the New Year than Christmas—likely because I still have much too much to do in the semester to focus on the relaxation and coziness that Christmas means to me. The bracing clear-eyed view of the New Year’s Resolution—seeing and doing what needs to be done– is more what I need to get me through the next few days.

With that in mind, I’ve been thinking and evaluating. I’ve been planning my challenges for 2012—my reading goals, my writing goals, my life goals. I’ve been trying to critique this year, celebrating accomplishments and trying to ease up on the self-flagellation for the areas that I wish had been different. 

The amazing boyfriend gave me Caroline Kennedy’s most recent anthology of poetry, She Walks in Beauty, over the summer, and it’s been by my bedside ever since. I’ve been dipping into it, randomly, when the 2 AM insomnia hits or the morning schedule allows. This morning I came across this excerpt from a letter by Ralph Waldo Emerson to his daughter:

Finish every day and be done with it.
You have done what you could.
Some blindness and absurdities no doubt have crept in;
forget them as soon as you can.

Tomorrow is a new day;
begin it well and serenely
and with too high a spirit to be cumbered with
your old nonsense.

This day is all that is good and fair.
It is too dear, with its hopes and invitations,
to waste a moment on yesterday.

This sums up exactly both what I really fail at, and what I most want to be different. Mistakes, whether missed deadlines, messy kitchens, or overdue books, tend to become part of my mental landscape—menacing reminders of the distance between who I am and who I should be. When approaching a new project, I’m burdened by the memory of the quote that I left hanging in the last paper or the citation I screwed up. (That seems minor. But I’m going into academia—it’s really not minor.) When I check out books from the library, I catalogue how much I’ve had to pay in fines in the past year, and give myself stern lectures about getting my life together. Ditto for when I buy more lettuce than I can eat and end up wasting food. And when I choose pizza over baked chicken again and when I forget about the electric bill. All of these somewhat ridiculous standards of perfection that I require of myself and, inevitably and obviously, so completely fail to satisfy. And all this mental castigation doesn’t really accomplish a damn thing—if it did, I’d be perfect by now. 

So, next year—hell, this month—I’m working on taking Waldo’s advice: forgetting the blunders and absurdities that crept in yesterday, and focusing on the good and fair of today.

I’d embroider that on a sampler, were I a sampler making kind of gal. I just love this.

But I, being poor, have only my dreams

When I brought 84 Charing Cross Road to the librarian’s desk, she picked it up, kind of stroked the cover and exclaimed that she absolutely loved the movie. She then looked me dead in the eye and said “if you like books, you must like this movie.” (I was a little intimidated. I mean, I know I like books… but what if–dear god– I don’t like the movie. My entire self-identity was called into question!) Luckily, the movie is rather wonderful … so all is well. 
Anne Bancroft is Helene Hanff, a writer in search of obscure books that are unavailable in her price range in New York City. Anthony Hopkins is Frank Doel, an antiquitarian bookseller (whose shop is located at the titular address in London) to whom she applies for the books she requires. A decades-long friendship develops between Hanff and Doel… conversations about books and poetry and history and politics ensue, all through the lovely medium of letters and parcels through the post. Anne Bancroft/Helene Hanff says she was told that tourists always find what they are looking for when they go to England: she wants to find the England of English literature–to sit where Elizabeth sat when she refused to enter the tower, to see where John Donne preached….  When I finally get to go to England, I want to wander around musty old bookshops like the one found at 84 Charing Cross Road. 

Helene drinks and smokes constantly and elegantly, is passionate about John Donne and rants about incomplete editions and shoddy translations. Had Jennifer Cavilleri lived longer (and a few decades earlier), she would have been Helene. My kind of woman.
Although it’s not the sob-fest that Love Story is, 84 Charing Cross Road is quite the melancholy story–Helene keeps planning to visit London and her friends at the bookstore, but things keep happening to keep her from traveling. Jennifer Cavilleri taught me E.B. Browning 22: When our two souls stand up erect and strong…, and Helene introduced me to Yeats’s “He wishes for the cloths of heaven”

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Just as the Browning seems such an apt inclusion in Love Story (the perfection of earthly love, the love of soul for soul), the Yeats selection seems a precise capstone to 84 Charing Cross Road. Both Hanff and Doel live in their minds, in worlds of literature, in their dreams… both of long-dead authors and of each other.

But I, being poor, have only my dreams.

How beautiful is that?

It’s all right if we do nothing tonight.

The Ant


The ant moves on his tiny Sephardic feet.
The flute is always glad to repeat the same note.
The ocean rejoices in its dusky mansion.

Often bears are piled up close to each other.
In their world it’s just one hump after another.
It’s like looking at piles of many melons.

You and I have spent so many hours working.
We have paid dearly for the life we have.
It’s all right if we do nothing tonight.

I am so much in love with mournful music
That I don’t bother to look for violinists.
The aging peepers satisfy me for hours.

I love to see the fiddlers tuning up their old fiddles,
And the singer urging the low notes to come.
I saw her trying to keep the dawn from breaking.

You and I have worked hard for the life we have.
But we love to remember the way the soul leaps
Over and over into the lonely heavens.

Lake Barkley, Kentucky, July 2010

I don’t always read the poetry in The Atlantic; the poems are kind of oddly smushed into the rest, so if I skip them while focused on the articles it’s likely that I’ll forget to go back. I’m so glad I caught this poem in last year’s July issue.  The third and sixth stanzas have become talismans, unnecessary, but oh-so-necessary, reminders that regardless of the looming work, sometimes it is more important to spend half an hour watching the squirrels with the dog.

I think this poem is just beautiful– the introductory acceptance of the vastly differing forms of existence, the acknowledgement of the necessity of work, the underlying pride in the jobs well-done, the recognition that work, however well-completed, is not the purpose of life.

It’s all right if we do nothing tonight.

eta: There is so much more here, in this poem, that I haven’t quite grasped–which, I suppose, is the beauty of poetry. There is so much striving in the 5th and 6th stanzas–the singer (inevitably ineffectually) trying to keep the dawn from breaking… but (that pivotal conjunction) we remember (it doesn’t happen now) the way the soul leaps (and keeps returning to earth) to the lonely (love that) heavens. The triumph is qualified, but real: the striving, not the achievement. Matched with the theme of the entire, the necessity of rest, this is such a perfect image of the tension, the necessity of balance, in life. In my (as it is my blog) very humble (well, I’m posting it, so clearly not that humble) opinion.