Ruth Stone was a poet and professor of English who was born in Virginia and lived most of her life in Vermont. Her life was marked with great difficulty, in large part due to the suicide of her husband and the struggle of raising their three children alone. She humbly and graciously spoke of her poetry as a force that flowed through her and not as being of her own creation, but rather simply something she tried to write down. Ruth Stone died in 2011. You can read more about her on her Poetry Foundation webpage. This poem is one I posted on my Facebook several years ago in memory of my late father. He was greatly on my mind this past weekend as I ran my first half-marathon, so I am sharing this poem here as well.
All things come to an end;
small calves in Arkansas,
the bend of the muddy river.
Do all things come to an end?
No, they go on forever.
They go on forever, the swamp,
the vine-choked cypress, the oaks
rattling last year’s leaves,
the thump of the rails, the kite
the still white stilted heron.
All things come to an end.
The red clay bank, the spread hawk,
the bodies riding this train,
the stalled struck, pale sunlight, the talk;
the talk goes on forever,
the wide dry field of geese,
a man stopped near his porch
to watch. Release, release;
between cold death and a fever,
send what you will, I will listen.
All things come to an end.
No, they go on forever.
— Ruth Stone
Wilfrid Wilson Gibson was a British poet who lived from 1878 – 1962. He published poems on a variety of subjects, often referencing folk tales or folk songs of Northern England. You can read more about him here. This poem, Flannan Isle, is based on the actual mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse-keepers on Flannan Isle in the year 1900. (The Flannan Isles are a cluster of small islands off the coast of the Scotland.) I discovered this poem in the anthology The Twentieth Century in Poetry, edited by Michael Hulse and Simon Rae. A note : this poem is, of course, a spooky, scary, rhyming story. Therefore it is truly best read aloud. I encourage you to share this poem with someone else — it’s a great Halloween story — or just read it aloud to yourself.
Though three men dwell on Flannan Isle
To keep the lamp alight,
As we steer’d under the lee, we caught
No glimmer through the night!
A passing ship at dawn had brought
The news; and quickly we set sail,
To find out what strange thing might ail
The keepers of the deep-sea light.
The winter day broke blue and bright,
With glancing sun and glancing spray,
As o’er the swell our boat made way,
As gallant as a gull in flight.
But, as we near’d the lonely Isle;
And look’d up at the naked height;
And saw the lighthouse towering white,
With blinded lantern, that all night
Had never shot a spark
Of comfort through the dark,
So ghastly in the cold sunlight
It seem’d, that we were struck the while
With wonder all too dread for words.
And, as into the tiny creek
We stole beneath the hanging crag,
We saw three queer, black, ugly, birds —
Too big, by far, in my belief,
For guillemot or shag —
Like seamen sitting bold upright
Upon a half-tide reef :
But, as we near’d, they plunged from sight,
Without a sound, or spurt of white.
And still too mazed to speak,
We landed; and made fast the boat;
And climb’d the track in single file,
Each wishing he was safe afloat,
On any sea, however far,
So it be far from Flannan Isle:
And still we seem’d to climb, and climb,
As though we’d lost all count of time,
And so must climb for evermore.
Yet, all too soon, we reached the door —
The black, sun-blister’d lighthouse door,
That gaped for us ajar.
As, on the threshold, for a spell,
We paused, we seem’d to breathe the smell
Of limewash and of tar,
Familiar as our daily breath,
As though ’twere some strange scent of death :
And so, yet wondering, side by side,
We stood a moment, still tongue-tied:
And each with black foreboding eyed
The door, ere we should fling it wide,
To leave the sunlight for the gloom:
Till, plucking courage up, at last,
Hard on each other’s heels we pass’d
Into the living-room.
Yet, as we crowded through the door,
We only saw a table, spread
For dinner, meat and cheese and bread;
But all untouch’d; and no one there:
As though, when they sat down to eat,
Ere they could even taste,
Alarm had come; and they in haste
Had risen and left the bread and meat:
For on the table-head a chair
Lay tumbled on the floor.
We listen’d; but we only heard
The feeble chirping of a bird
That starved upon its perch:
And, listening still, without a word,
We set about our hopeless search.
We hunted high, we hunted low,
And soon ransack’d the empty house;
Then o’er the Island, to and fro,
We ranged, to listen and to look
In every cranny, cleft or nook
That might have hid a bird or mouse:
But, though we searched from shore to shore,
We found no sign in any place:
And soon again stood face to face
Before the gaping door:
And stole into the room once more
As frighten’d children steal.
Aye: though we hunted high and low,
And hunted everywhere,
Of the three men’s fate we found no trace
Of any kind in any place,
But a door ajar, and an untouch’d meal,
And an overtoppled chair.
And, as we listen’d in the gloom
Of that forsaken living-room —
O chill clutch on our breath —
We thought how ill-chance came to all
Who kept the Flannan Light:
And how the rock had been the death
Of many a likely lad:
How six had come to a sudden end
And three had gone stark mad:
And one whom we’d all known as friend
Had leapt from the lantern one still night,
And fallen dead by the lighthouse wall:
And long we thought
Of the three we sought,
And of what might yet befall.
Like curs a glance has brought to heel,
We listen’d, flinching there:
And look’d, and look’d, on the untouch’d meal
And the overtoppled chair.
We seemed to stand for an endless while,
Though still no word was said,
Three men alive on Flannan Isle,
Who thought on three men dead.
— Wilfrid Wilson Gibson
My apologies for the lateness of this post. I have had the good fortune to have houseguests the past two weekends and to have taken on a temporary job for the next three weeks; as I’m adjusting to a much busier schedule I’ve fallen a bit behind in posting.
On October 4th, a poet and English teacher named Lou Barrett passed away at the age of ninety-two. One of Lou’s five children is a dear friend of my parents, and our families grew up together. I was very lucky to know Lou and her husband, Herb, who preceded her in death by several months. When I was seventeen, Lou very kindly allowed me to interview her for a school assignment. I was interested in interviewing her for my assignment because it was (and is) an ambition of mine to become, like her, a published poet. Lou gave generously to the world with her kindness, dedication to social justice, and talent. She will be missed. You can read more about her here.
I have chosen to share her poem “World’s Fair” today.
That morning in ’39
we rode silver tubes
into a perfected future
dialed a state-of-the-art telephone
waved at our images
on a screen.
in Billy Rose’s Aquacade
white arms of mermaids
glided through waters.
to Over the Rainbow
The drums of the khaki youth
marched past the arched gate.
in a carnival of peace
swaying arm and arm
the children of nations
sang of One World.
There is no way to speak
of what visited that place
no way to write it on your sleeve.
Dancing beneath lights
we flung flags
into a festooned September night
while a periling wind
drove across Flushing Meadows
bearing names heaver than air
across the fair world.
– Lou Barrett
Robert Nathan was a novelist, screenwriter, and poet who produced over fifty books in his lifetime. He was born just before the turn of the nineteenth century in New York City. He died at ninety-one years of age in Los Angeles, where he resided for much of his adult life. You can read more about him in his New York Times obituary here. This poem is another that I discovered in the marvelous anthology Fifty Years of American Poetry. I shared this poem with my husband, David, early in our friendship, and it has held a special significance for us ever since.
Now Blue October
Now blue October, smoky in the sun,
Must end the long, sweet summer of the heart.
The last brief visit of the birds is done;
They sing the autumn songs before they part.
Listen, how lovely — there’s the thrush we heard
When June was small with roses, and the bending
Blossom of branches covered nest and bird,
Singing the summer in, summer unending —
Give me your hand once more before the night;
See how the meadows darken with the frost,
How fades the green that was the summer’s light.
Beauty is only altered, never lost,
And love, before the cold November rain,
Will make its summer in the heart again.
— Robert Nathan
Normally, on Fridays, I post recipes for, you know, food. This Friday wasn’t meant to be an exception. I worked on a homemade apple cider recipe yesterday and this morning, but the thing is, I just didn’t love it. I wasn’t wowed by it as I had hoped to be, and there was something off in the flavor profile that I wasn’t able to fix (not yet, at least). And I don’t want to share a recipe with you unless I really think it is worth sharing. But luckily, I’ve been working on some other writing, and it just so happens that it ends up being a sort of recipe itself. I’ll probably never be done editing this, and there will be dozens of versions. But for now, I’m just going to share it. Because vulnerability is important, or something.
For some background, I am not a person who grew up in a church. However, I have always been a spiritual person, starting at a very young age when I bewildered and amused my parents by “making up hymns.” I always enjoyed learning about our friends’ religious traditions and beliefs. I took several years of Jewish studies classes in college, and in my senior year I began correspondences with two other young women I had met online years earlier (incidentally, I have now met both of these wonderful people in person, as they attended my wedding). Both Christian, these two women are both kind, intelligent, and compassionate. One of them, Courtney, grew up in a Catholic family and is now a Catholic youth minister. The other one, Katherine, grew up UCC and is now a (very talented) painter. Katherine and Courtney both shared deeply about themselves, their churches, and their beliefs with me. Courtney, having had theological training, also patiently, honestly, and thoroughly answered any and all questions I had (and there were many, as I am a liberal, feminist, queer person who never imagined feeling safe or comfortable at a church of all places). I credit both of them with supporting me without judgement during a very important time in my faith journey. The fall after I graduated college, I discovered a wonderful church in my hometown. I poured out my life story into an email to the pastor of that church, and he met with me and, like Courtney and Katherine, was nothing but compassionate, welcoming, and kind. During that year, I attended church regularly and read books recommended by my pastor. With the encouragement of both pastors at that church, I decided to be baptized on Easter Sunday, 2013. It is a very happy memory for me, and I felt deep peace and joy with my decision.
When I moved to Indiana, I was very nervous about no longer having the support of my hometown church, so I did research in advance (typical me). I actually found the church I now attend six months before moving, but made myself wait a few months before contacting one of the pastors. (Still a bit early. Oh well.) And I am so glad I found this congregation. Since I moved here a bit over two years ago, David and I have attended our church and we love it to bits. Recently, I have been engaging in deep conversations with my pastor here in Indiana as well as other members of the church. I have been overwhelmed by love and support. So this is a bit of a love poem for my church.
A Recipe For Church
a generous helping of space.
space that allows for the unfolding of wings
space that opens itself to words too large to contain.
pinches of patience as you listen. patience as you hear. patience as you wait.
one strong net : for when we encourage you to leap, we also will catch you, over and over, as you fall.
regular meals. dinners. post-worship Oreos and punch.
a sprinkle of eye contact. during the sermon. when you know things have been tough. the “are you okay?”
we drive each other home, right through silence.
a weekly-or-more hug at the door, maybe with no time for words, but communicating all the same.
when turning the dial, making the choice for community, even when that is the harder choice.
the laughter, the laughter, the laughter.
interaction, despite awkwardness, despite discomfort.
the knowledge that we need this : that I need this.
oh. so this is church.
These past several weeks we have all been confronted in a more personal and tender way than usual by the plight of those fleeing Syria. Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old boy, drowned in the Mediterranean Ocean while his family tried to make it to Greece. In response, the topic of Syrian refugees has been reenergized in our media. To acknowledge this situation, I have chosen to share a poem today by the well-known Syrian poet, literary critic, and activity Ali Ahmad Said Esber, who publishes his work under the pen-name Adonis. He is 85 years old and lives in Paris, France. You can learn more about him here and read an interview with him in which he discusses this poem here. This poem is from his Selected Poems, and was translated by Khaled Mattawa.
Even the wind wants
to become a cart
pulled by butterflies.
I remember madness
leaning for the first time
on the mind’s pillow.
I was talking to my body then
and my body was an idea
I wrote in red.
Red is the sun’s most beautiful throne
and all the other colors
worship on red rugs.
Night is another candle.
In every branch, an arm,
a message carried in space
echoed by the body of the wind.
The sun insists on dressing itself in fog
when it meets me:
Am I being scolded by the light?
Oh, my past days–
they used to walk in their sleep
and I used to lean on them.
Love and dreams are two parentheses.
Between them I place my body
and discover the world.
I saw the air fly with two grass feet
and the road dance with feet made of air.
My wishes are flowers
staining my days.
I was wounded early,
and early I learned
that wounds made me.
I still follow the child
who still walks inside me.
Now he stands at a staircase made of light
searching for a corner to rest in
and to read the face of night again.
If the moon were a house,
my feet would refuse to touch its doorstep.
They are taken by dust
carrying me to the air of seasons.
one hand in the air,
the other caressing tresses
that I imagine.
A star is also
a pebble in the field of space.
who is joined to the horizon
can build new roads.
A moon, an old man,
his seat is night
and light is his walking stick.
What shall I say to the body I abandoned
in the rubble of the house
in which I was born?
No one can narrate my childhood
except those stars that flicker above it
and that leave footprints
on the evening’s path.
My childhood is still
being born in the palms of a light
whose name I do not know
and who names me.
Out of that river he made a mirror
and asked it about his sorrow.
He made rain out of his grief
and imitated the clouds.
Your childhood is a village.
You will never cross its boundaries
no matter how far you go.
His days are lakes,
his memories floating bodies.
You who are descending
from the mountains of the past,
how can you climb them again,
Time is a door
I cannot open.
My magic is worn,
my chants asleep.
I was born in a village,
small and secretive like a womb.
I never left it.
I love the ocean not the shores.
There are many organizations that could use financial support in order to help those suffering in Syria as well as refugees leaving the country. Two of note are Migrant Offshore Aid Station, an organization that completes search and rescue operations for refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean, and Hand in Hand for Syria, which provides humanitarian aid on the ground in Syria.
What better way to start the week (and this blog) than with poetry? When I was fifteen, my mother’s best friend took me to a bookstore and let me select any book I wanted as a gift, and I had the good fortune to come across the humble and little-known anthology Fifty Years of American Poetry. I found this poem in that book, and it became a favorite of mine and of my father’s. It took a bit of digging to learn more about the poet, Laura Crafton Gilpin. She was a nurse, patient advocate, and poet who published two books, the first of which won a Walt Whitman Award. She was one of the first staff members of Planetree, an organization that helps hospitals implement patient-centered care models. She died of brain cancer in 2007 at the age of fifty-six.
The Two-Headed Calf
Tomorrow when the farm boys find this
freak of nature, they will wrap his body
in newspaper and carry him to the museum.
But tonight he is alive and in the north
field with his mother. It is a perfect
summer evening: the moon rising over
the orchard, the wind in the grass. And
as he stares into the sky, there are
twice as many stars as usual.
— Laura Gilpin