Donald Hall, U.S. Poet Laureate a few years back, is best known for his marriage to fellow poet Jane Kenyon and the series of stark poems he wrote about her war with leukemia and his bereavement after her death. His two poems in Otros predate his meeting Jane. “To a Waterfowl” is a hilarious dissection of an impish poetry reading in Middle America, and “Ox Cart Man,” once published as a children’s book, is about a curiously independent New England farmer.
Thomas Hardy’s grim novels set in the vanishing English countryside are justly known, but even appreciators of them (and I am one) value his poetry more. The long flight of poems mourning both the death of his first wife and his indifference to her while she was alive stands among the best love poems in the language—and the best love poems are often terribly sad. Here is an example from earlier in his career, together with a hilarious demonstration of how, in that society, it might’ve been a fortunate thing to be “ruined.” [A “barton” is an estate; “sock” is another way of saying “sulk;” “megrims” are more or less what we would call bouts of depression—the word is related to “migraines”—and “docks” are onions.]
Satires of Circumstance XV. In the Moonlight
‘O lonely workman, standing there
In a dream, why do you stare and stare
At her grave, as no other grave there were?
‘If your great gaunt eyes so importune
Her soul by the shine of this corpse-cold moon
Maybe you’ll raise her phantom soon!’
‘Why, fool, it is what I would rather see
Than all the living folk there be;
But alas, there is no such joy for me!’
‘Ah—she was the one you loved, no doubt,
Through good and evil, through rain and drought,
And when she passed, all your sun went out?’
‘Nay: she was the woman I did not love,
Whom all the others were ranked above,
Whom during her life I thought nothing of.’
The Ruined Maid
“O Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?”
“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.
“You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!”
“Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.
“At home in the barton you said ‘thee’ and ‘thou,’
And ‘thik oon,’ and ‘theäs oon,’ and ‘t’other,’ but now
Your talking quite fits ’ee for high compa-ny!”
“Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,” said she.
“Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!”
“We never do work when we’re ruined,” said she.
“You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!”
“True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,” said she.
“I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!”
“My dear—a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,” said she.
Here is a wistful little poem by my friend Dale Harris, onetime editor of the important local zine Central Avenue (memorialized in a recent issue of Malpaís Review), which seemed to me when I first read it to describe marriages I’d known, including one of mine.
Theirs was a measured love that held its limits well.
It did not soar or cascade, tumble or roar
but poured itself in drams and drops,
in tablespoons and quarter cups.
What is enough? Better less than too much.
Theirs was a simple love that disavowed complexity.
It did not argue or explain, question or complain
but lived itself from day to day,
and was always as it seemed to be.
Where is truth found? In endings and beginnings
and seldom in between. Better to know than to believe.
Theirs was an interrupted love that lost its faith
and looked away, then kept a guilt so deep
it could not lift its gaze.
How to begin again? Abandon the past with its pain.
Better to forget than to feel.
Theirs was a patient love that waited years
before it spoke and then only of quiet things,
summer picnic plans and children’s bedtime tales,
walks along the beach to hear the singing of the whales.
How does time go? Sometimes fast, sometimes slow.
Better a short life if you fear growing old.
It is the love that dolls have for one another.
I discovered the living California poet Robert Hass—also a Poet Laureate—only a few years ago, and quickly consumed all his published poetry (though not his voluminous translations of other people’s): unless that sounds like I only read them once. It was difficult to single out a short list of things I prized best for Otros, so I wound up with a medium-to-long list. I’ll reproduce it here. Most, but not all, of these are contained in Hass’s selected poems, The Apple Trees at Olema.
Songs to Survive the Summer
A Story about the Body
The Apple Trees at Olema
Shame: An Aria
Regalia for a Black Hat Dancer
The World as Will and Representation
Art and Life
State of the Planet
I am Your Waiter Tonight and my Name is Dmitri
Some of David’s Story
Finally, if you haven’t read Robert Hayden’s sweet poem about his stepfather “Those Winter Sundays” lately, or have somehow missed it altogether, go look up a copy and make it part of this winter Sunday.