Author: Robert Reeves

Back when I was leading you through Otros, my collection of other people’s poems, I balked at saying anything about Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” but promised that I’d try later.  Later is now.  I’ve never done this “close reading” kind of thing before, so bear with me if I do it poorly.  I’ll be relying on, and quoting from, the notes to the Fourth Edition of Hopkins’ Poems, edited by W.H. Gardner and N.H. MacKenzie, which incorporates notes from earlier editions edited by Robert Bridges and Charles Williams.  Otherwise this will record my own reactions to the poem.  I am not a Hopkins scholar or any kind of expert, only a lover of his verse, and this poem most of all.  I’ve had it by heart since the 1970s when I first read it.

My relationship with it is somewhat bittersweet, since when I first encountered it I was a committed Christian, and I long ago renounced Christianity and most of what it stands for.  “Wreck” is one of the strongest statements of Catholic Christianity I know, and to read or recite it is always to place myself back into a Catholic headspace and heart-space.  I appreciate the power of that space while I’m there.  The poem preserves and protects it.  I’ve had the weird experience of converting a student of mine to Christianity after abandoning it myself, and I imagine my deference to this poem might have the same effect on someone.  Religion in general has a conflicted interface with poetry:  the two could be considered enemies, fundamentally opposed ways of dealing with the world.  Hopkins, on that assumption, destroyed his early work upon entering Jesuit training and spent close to a decade thinking about poetry but writing none.  When he began again, with this poem, he had apparently lost all his doubt that poetry could be a perfect expression, even the highest possible expression, of Christian belief and life—not only its triumphant moments, as here, but also the darkness and dread recorded in the socalled “terrible sonnets” he wrote toward the end of his life.  I think his poetry demonstrates, beyond any question, how possible, even how seeming-necessary it is that poetry and religion can and should dovetail, in a religious poet at least.

“Wreck” is the first example of a poem written in what Hopkins called “sprung rhythm,” which goes back to the Anglo-Saxon standard of counting stresses rather than syllables.  He instructs us to read each stanza as a unit, not pausing at the end of lines (sometimes an end rhyme will be completed in the next line!), but putting more emphasis on the stressed syllables than one would in reading through a prose passage.  In Part the First the stanzas have the following number of stresses in each line:  2,3,4,3,5,5,4,6.  In Part the Second the first line has three stresses instead of two.  The rhyme scheme is ABABCBCA.

Hopkins describes the composition of the poem this way:  “ … when in the winter of [18]75 the Deutschland was wrecked in the mouth of the Thames and five Franciscan nuns, exiles from Germany by the [anti-Catholic] Falck Laws, aboard of her were drowned I was affected by the account and happening to say so to my rector he said that he wished someone would write a poem on the subject.  On this hint I set to work and, though my hand was out at first, produced one.  I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm which now I realized on paper … I do not say the idea is altogether new … but no one has professedly used it and made it the principle throughout, that I know of … However, I had to mark the stresses … and a great many more oddnesses could not but dismay an editor’s eye, so that when I offered it to [the Jesuit] magazine the Month … they … dared not print it.”  The key passage from the report of the shipwreck in The Times reads:  “Five German nuns … clasped hands and were drowned together, the chief sister, a gaunt woman 6 ft. high, calling out loudly and often ‘O Christ, come quickly!’ till the end came.”

Next time I’ll give you the entire poem, then focus in on the stanzas, five at a time every entry.

Written in Albuquerque (Terrace SE), April 2007.  “Deep down the high brightness” is a conscious echo of a line from Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”  Published in my books The Hardest Thing and Wings of the Gray Moon.

Peace

 

Not quite noon,

the earth still toppling away from night,

the dead middle of night

where the sun sits.

The dead housefinch in my driveway

hasn’t been disturbed by any violence,

even a death in midair.

Really, it looks like it walked there

and huddled asleep like a human,

a shoulder lifted a bit

to shade the glare of cracked mud,

its onedimensional feet flung limp

as if sleep finally couldn’t be fought.

I scrape it into a bag

of course

and convey it to the dumpster

saying I’m Sorry to the empty world

and it fits and falls there,

this time it falls,

between a pizza delivery box

and the box a pump-up air mattress came in.

Another slit of harsh redbrown

deep down the high brightness.

I think

I am thinking of peace.

Written in Albuquerque (Terrace SE), February 2007.  After the threat to the Jewish community is removed, the life is taken out of the golem.  These are his meditations slightly before that event.  Published in Yossele and Wings of the Gray Moon.

Earth                                                                                                          The Golem

 

I know it will be soon.

 

I would like to go for a walk in the whistling air.

 

I would like to hear the boys sounding out the funny Hebrew

that isn’t so funny to me.

 

I would like to run my finger over petals again.

 

I would like to lean on a tree

as I have done,

two still living things, unprotected.

 

I would like to clap my shoes on cobbles.

No clap like it.

 

Cloud shows and hides, shows and hides the moon.

I think it is a brilliant eye that tries to see us

but the night is too black

and after a month of trying it dozes off.

 

I think the houses are shells for the breaths of children.

 

I think the roads are one road plotted by rain

which is the dream of the ocean.

 

I would like to have seen the ocean.

 

I would like to have had a bird in my hands for a moment

so my hands could be ears.

 

I would like to understand why it’s a matter for laughter

when a man chases his hat.

 

Why real laughter dwells in the eyes unheard.

 

Why ten men don’t gather around the small dog smashed under a cartwheel

to say Kaddish.

 

Why the new smell of bread makes me shake and shake.

 

Why no one has ever addressed a question to me.

I would like to be unable to answer.

Written in Albuquerque (Terrace SE), February 2007.  This poem cycle about the golem of Prague was a collaboration with my partner Sari.  I wrote all the poems in the golem’s voice.  Sari remembered that it was a son-in-law, not a son, who assisted at the creation of the golem, and made that clear in one of zir poems, so this poem’s vague inaccuracy on that point can stand.  I’d also forgotten that, according to Sari, the rabbi had originally installed the golem in the schoolroom—but the poem ze wrote before I wrote this one had him being moved to the house:  one of the many serendipities that attended our mutual composition of this book, despite the fact that we didn’t see or discuss each other’s poems in progress.  Published in our book Yossele.

Shabbat                                                                                                   The Golem

 

On Shabbat

I don’t go out on patrol.

Master’s conscience couldn’t push

even a dead thing in his home

that far outside his ways.

I am, then, observant.

No, I can’t share the meal,

recite the benedictions,

know what it is

to be gathered in family

like a quilt against the chill.

The chill is my dwelling.

Master’s children are grown

and helped him bring me,

so from them I don’t sense the dread

small ones would feel

when the angels are asked to the table

and instead this, this,

comes to sit.

Then after the house is abed

I sit alone

on the end of my cot

in my room

alone with Him.

And my room is the world.

And the world is His room

where He sits on the end of His cot.

And neither of us has a name

those hours

and those hours don’t stop for us.

No lights are lit

by any mother’s hand.

On the six days

He made all the others.

On the seventh day

He knew He was still alone.

Written in Albuquerque (Terrace SE), January 2007.  Written in the Student Services building at CNM.  Published in my books The Hardest Thing and Wings of the Gray Moon.

Cafeteria

 

Time is feeble and stiff.

The coarse-natured beauty leans forehead on weightless hand

till one of an infinite number of kids with military hair

cuts my view of her,

sitting by someone he calls “G.”

In spasms of air between the bustling crewcuts

the beauty checks her raccoonish mascara,

her candy-lime coat the color of her deft boredom.

Everyone’s arranged in rows

for life

which must be nearby.

Written in Albuquerque (Terrace SE), November 2006.  I was telling the story of Dante and Beatrice to my Humanities class and suddenly got sick of this, well, abuse of a girl who was probably quite ordinary.  Most people I’ve ever fallen in love with have been!  Published in my books The Hardest Thing and Wings of the Gray Moon, and in the local zine Central Avenue.

Beatrice

 

She was probably like other girls,

Dante’s ten thousand stanzas notwithstanding.

She probably did spot the sickly boy in the street

but it wouldn’t have occurred to her she caused the sickly.

When she smiled at him,

that was manners,

when she gave him the cold front,

she had her period that day.

More than anything she thought about clothes,

giggled at the idea of bodyparts

with her nastier girlfriends.

She went to church,

but to study the fine women’s intricate hairdos,

not because any kind of paradise

was her real home.

To such a wisp

theology’d just be scary.

And so would poetry.  And rightly.

She knew how she was supposed to act

when the sun came out, when the snow came down,

and how she liked to act.

She married, as far as we know,

obeying her parents,

and she died, we do know this,

still teenaged,

obeying her God.

A Christian child

but a child.

Love kept outside of her probably,

respecting her play,

her silence.

She never found out her silence had been broken

these seven hundred years.

Written in Albuquerque (Terrace SE), October 2005.  Published in my books If I Could Be the Stone and Wings of the Gray Moon, and in the local zine Central Avenue.

A Continent

 

I have watched Africa creep closer,

then back away again.

 

(Or one of many Africas.

  There are more small ones than I know about, probably.)

 

Mother’s bones are there somewhere

of course, her ingenious straight bones.

 

And something that unleashes red-eyed men is there,

their swords fast and heavy through meat like the meat of flowers.

 

And the things that group in the high grass are there.

I am already getting my carcass picked beneath a tree shaped like burnt lightning.

 

And there are swords that buzz like flies

and work in babies’ blood.

 

I am not bothered by the years on years I sidled against its West shores in my fat ship.

I am not bothered, I am lifted, by its great scream of prevailing.

 

I think instead—though the light is insecure—it is really

a tattoo on the back of my hand, the shape of Africa, that creeps close and backs away, that I don’t remember getting.

 

I am afraid my own hand is slapping out screams

that will need to be followed.

 

(Or one of my many hands.

  They multiplied in my absence, while I waited for Africa.)

Written in Albuquerque (Terrace SE), September 2005.  Published in my books If I Could Be the Stone and Wings of the Gray Moon.

Kitsch Construction, Regina, Jemez, 1968

 

October has that

juicy dawn cold

the mountains like to keep to themselves.

The aspens are flaring like a wick losing oil.

John quips to his brother

who’s not ramming the posthole digger

hard as he can

and who’s just come off his honeymoon,

“Too much pussy, Dave.”

“Too much work” Dave comes back.

“Not enough pussy.”

My arms are memorizing these plunges

for the first time

and already long to forget.

John’s burnt about having to get this done

with a soft city kid,

his lazyass sibling

and a fourth crew who hasn’t even shown yet,

who’ll shatter into the bunkhouse tonight

after the mountains are ink,

whiskeyed off the vertical,

and ask directions to whatever food I’ve got,

rummage thru PopTarts and scowl

“What is this shit.”

The aspens will expect me to quit in the morning.

Written in Albuquerque (Terrace SE), July 2005.  The fire in my backyard mentioned in “Against the Drone” left innumerable bits of glass from the trash dump that used to be there.  As much as I took out, there always seemed to be more.  Published in my books If I Could Be the Stone and Wings of the Gray Moon.

Broken Glass

 

My back lot

is a purity

of dead voracious sun

and sidelong glass sliver

and much of the glass

refinedly pounded into

sugary uncutting cubes.

 

I’m selecting this

atom by atom

slice by slice

for a plastic bag

and I hear the city workers

laying pipe a block up

jeering on their lunchhour

in shadow of hedge

and young mimosa

across the front street, one

keeping his hardhat on

 

and when a tall

college girl passes

dressed for July

they try not to be stereotypes

and only turn their eyes

and whisper evaluations

once her back’s to them.

 

I can’t see any of this

from where I am.

I’m not hiding

but hidden.

My lowered flesh

sows the ground

with salt.

Written in Albuquerque (Terrace SE), February 2005:  for Jones Wright Pegram, my maternal grandfather, and spoken in my mother’s voice.  Several details are fictionalized:  she trained as a psychologist, not a medical doctor, for instance, and I don’t know for certain that Jones was ever pastor of a church;  but this is mostly an accurate depiction of their relationship.  Published in my books If I Could Be the Stone and Wings of the Gray Moon, and in the local zine Central Avenue.

An Abraham

 

We are a big enough family

to do most things, except become smaller.

The old man in this bed swordfighting the air,

backing off from its assault,

has been various smooth and harsh things to many of us

and now is various things inside,

something about the kidneys giving way,

holes melted in the stomach by a lifespan’s sour mind.

 

He wakes panting and the eyes wheeling wall to wall

and croaks dreams:  he’s driving

up to a red light he knows means stop

for everyone but him, the cars ahead

like a clotted passing train, his shoe on the gas.

He’s a bird looking a mile down into streets like a machine,

city streets they must be (the man’s never seen the city),

some crazy-stacked overpass maze, but then oh!

he’s a man not a bird, and that wakes him.

 

I am his eldest daughter,

which hasn’t been good for anyone.

His church was the kind where only the walls are nude,

the pewbacks level as farmer’s rows

or his back, marching after the team, his

back to the bed, the last pulpit.

I wanted curves and dark cups, bewilderments of hillsides.

I guessed the plainness of things was fooling.

I had fox’s nose and ears.

 

A good farmer has nothing for a fox but a gun.

There was enough father in him that he broke his on his knee

and didn’t reload.  Once it sank in

that God meant a fictitious nuisance to me,

that I would only lay my faith in what I could rub myself against,

the further steps were gentler:  med school

in the fellowship of niggers (at least a doctor

you could avoid calling Mister), my flight

to the perverse Yankee states,

my children doomed to be smaller than their cousins.

 

I don’t know why I’m sitting here

unless to honor the way he sat and never spoke

well or ill of me, in the uncomprehending rocker

and the Bible at his eyes.

                                                A mere thing to give

but in this bed years ago he must’ve given mere things to my mother

from his lean fierce shanks to start the multitude of us,

an Abraham.

                          And this was his love,

that bare no-comment, and now these hurtling dreams,

his breaths feinting at him and

closing in, closing in.

Written in Albuquerque (Terrace SE), November 2004.  Published in my books If I Could Be the Stone and Wings of the Gray Moon.

Against the Drone

 

Outside the laundromat

the hair blows over my eye,

thinner than the air’s rivers.

 

Inside, the drunk in the brittle black wardrobe

who looks like he ought to go into the washer whole

finishes a giant sack of junk food

then starts asking people for money.

Me he calls brother-man

or that’s my guess,

my detective work on the warped syllables.

 

“My team came in!”

yells the beard in the cushioned vest

as quarters jackpot out of the change machine.

But it wasn’t only a gag:  “Denver!

Denver’s kickin’ their ass!” he announces to the room.

The drunk’s pard, shiner covering a stab scab,

comes up and highfives the beard.

They tell each other “Denver!” a couple times.

 

I wouldn’t be here

except the laundry room at my buildings caught fire

last month.  The sign on the door says TEMPORARY CLOSED.

It was the second fire in one week.

The first took out my back fence

and now our yard’s twice as big.

I stood across the street squeezing the popcorning cat in my arms,

wearing dumb indoor clothes.

 

The firemen weren’t in much of a rush either time.

All in a day’s work

when the flames take more of the world,

 

brother-man.