Monday, December 2, 2013

A walk at the beginning of winter

I leave the house, pass
the dried hydrangea and
the sunflower, black, lying on its side,
pokeberry stems crumpling
to the ground, branches and trees
snapped in the storm,
their raw points
straddling a new age.

Walking through leaves
my eye falls on a few—
silvery Russian olive,
spread loosely like a pattern
on a hall runner, gingerbread
oak and fans of poplar,
caught and hunched
at the wall of meadow grass—

and, quickly forgotten,
soon buried under falling snow,
they are as all the days
of all the years fallen since
I lay alone in childhood, the first   
to bed, lamplight from the street
twisting shapes and the day’s
play into amplified terrors:

Will I die in fire?
Will a tornado tear the house
      up by the roots?
Will cold fingers touch and clutch
     my arm?

In the dark we played combat
around the Methodist church,
where Nazis hid in brick
and shrub. And now
in the black woods
behind our field at night
they are almost visible,
running to me.

In daylight I round
the meadow path
at the foot of those trees
where lies a soldier
in army green. He looks
like last year’s fallen tree,
sweatered in moss. I step
over him. I step over him

as winter steps over autumn,
without compunction,
as God steps over the earth
in the wind, not pausing
as he snaps us free


  1. Good work, Ruth! I like the shift starting with 'I lay alone in childhood'… and the decisive way you combat the terror, stepping over it (anticipated by 'straddling a new age' in the first stanza) into freedom, and relating this to the matter-of-fact, natural and necessary progress of the seasons (autumn into winter).

    In the end the lyricism of the first two stanzas is still just there ('last year's fallen tree, / sweatered in moss'), but much more muted, as if there's something greater and more godly to be gained than pretty leaves — something very much worth the price.

    1. Thank you, Robert, your reading is very good, and I appreciate it. I always feel that my poem improves when someone reads it closely. :)

    2. Yes, you hit on something important here, I think. Writing-reading is a symbiotic process; both feed into each other. The writer needs the reader and vice versa. Both have input and influence.

  2. Beautiful and well-crafted, Ruth. I will leave it at that because my reaction was essentially the same as that of Robert — liking the shift into childhood, the confrontation of fear, and and the acceptance of God "not pausing as he snaps us free." Lovely!

    1. You're very kind, George. Thank you for reading and liking this. I am reading In Search of Lost Time at the moment (and many moments to come, no doubt), and Proust awakened some of my own childhood nighttime fears.

  3. just in from work I read this through once and it starts at my wrists and travels up my arms, one slow word, whoa. (i'll come and read again and again:)))))


  4. This could be big and long enough for a movie, dear Ruth! It's all there.

    1. Interesting! As each of our stories is, Boots.

  5. Washed stones are smoothed by harsh rinsings, are they not? And the mystery of history is that its ever more present the longer we linger, child's play in the ruination of the year's garden, those fears become footfalls we slowly learn to accept, even lean into. Great weave of principalities here, Ruth, precise and loving and grieving at the same time. I remember those outdoor games too, played up to dinner and then again until dark. - Brendan

    1. Brendan, thanks for reading and for your perceptions and kind words. Maybe you, like me, watched Combat on TV. It was a wonderful show, even though it was about war, and I loved the characters/actors. The kids in my neighborhood were mostly boys, and so we played boy games, yes, until dark, and sometimes a little later, since they were older and responsible.

  6. Dear Ruth,
    This poem was both lovely and very moving.
    You capture both the loveliness and relentlessness of the natural world.

    1. I thank you, Elizabeth. "Joy and terror" as Proust says.

  7. (oh! I lost my whole comment! ha! even technology plays inside the framework of gain and loss, mortality. fricken computers:)

    what I had written ...

    aren't we always on a walk at the beginning of winter? and aren't we always lying alone in childhood? (! oh, I love the pain this holds, the isolation!) and too, aren't we always playing inside these bodies? and as you note the specificity of foliage at the opening, aren't we always playing also through language, hydrangea, sunflower, poke berry, Russian olive - arent' we here to say, "house, bridge, well, gate, jug, fruit tree, window--at most, column, tower... but to say? and a part of our play, is it not to raise our hand in control of death, to imagine it? and don't we do it still? (I did it just yesterday.) and isn't imagination, in general, of paramount importance? isn't it the basis of our interpreted living?

    and if it is (and it is) then why don't we imagine better?

    and how I love compunction and autumn, one example of many in this poem of finely crafted language.

    and the decisive importance of the last stanza! god could simply step over us in the wind, be uncomplicated like momentum, but there is more! the momentum created causes something, a snapping, a violent action but one that is paradoxical, that snaps us (violence) into freedom! jesus, I gasp at the truth of this line! at the point of creation, which is the opening to all being, imagination, saying, bodily delight and violence, we find in our being the blessed point of freedom. I say over and over to myself beneath the blanket into my hands, paradox, paradox, paradox and I feel such pain, ruth, in being, such excruciating delight)))))

    (I don't do these things usually because usually they don't matter but this poem is significant and should have endurance and so I tell you there is but one place in reading that I stagger a little in understanding and perhaps it is my fault or perhaps a shift in telling might make it clearer. I tell you because I love this poem. it is here:

    "And now
    in the black woods
    behind our field at night
    they are almost visible
    running to me."

    the running to me, it caused me to try to understand at first, and when I did, oh, I wanted it stronger...or somehow different. I don't know. forgive me.

    but how the poem sings in such places, "I step over him. I step over him as winter steps over autumn." it is so good, ruth. it is so very fucking good:)


    1. Oh dear, Erin, I’m sorry you had to recreate your comment. :(

      You do me much honor, dear friend. I am so moved by your response.

      Yes, we are here to name, to say. Maybe it gives us something small to control. And still, words are unwieldy! I feel a sort of breathless gratitude that you have found connection with these things you acknowledge, name and understand (through your own lens of life, through your own!). If it is so difficult for us to name, to say, to express (and it is), how miraculous that another understands us, and not only that, but feels what we feel, or something like it, so emphatically! (So often I feel this way about what you write … as I did yesterday.)

      We bring these expressions of all these blissful paradoxes to one another, and our joy and terror (sorrow, what have you) are amplified!

      Please don’t hesitate to ask for clarification about those lines that caused you to stumble. Again, you do me, and the poem, honor. In these lines that you question, I was synthesizing a remarkable, palpable feeling I had the other evening, of fear and dread. Don was watching “Inglourious Basterds” on TV, a movie that I have watched once, and thought it was excellent, but also so disturbing that I could not possibly watch it again. I went outside to the hot tub and felt the peace of the night, but after a few minutes, I felt that the woods on the horizon were full of Nazis, and because I have been remembering many painful things from childhood at the prompting of Proust, I connected this with my childhood war game. I felt that I had to instantly get out of the hot tub, because it felt as if the Nazis were pursuing me from the woods. Maybe you already understand this, and I am explaining what doesn’t need explaining. Maybe the word “running” could be stronger, they are almost visible,
      coming to get me.

      Or something.

      I feel very humbled by your enthusiasm and attention for this poem. Thank you.

  8. oh? and freedom from what? freedom from the void, from nonbeing)))

  9. I try to resist saying more but I can not.

    I do not believe for a moment it is about control. this is essential to understand. perhaps it could be but then I think of berry saying of other things, there are only holy and desecrated places. it is a holy act to apply the word. it is the essence of living. living, so I come to understand, is the act of translation. (for who? why? these are questions for another day.) as I walk (and as you walk) we see, we smell, sensually we experience the world. already we translate the world to ourselves. and then the act of understanding it is yet another act further along the path of translating it to ourselves. we speak it to translate it to others. but poetry, this word is the alchemy not to speak the wor(l)d but rather to cut through the rope of distance and somehow draw closer to the initial saying, which is not said but which simply is. it is not, is not, is not and can not and should not be about control. we've none. we have none. never will. never can, no matter the cleverness. (however, cleverness is not evil if married with humility.)

    I do not say any of this against you, I say this with you and we must say it passionately and we must recognize it in our hands, in our feet, in our faces, in our minds, our bodies. an act of translation. this is why the imagination is so important!!!! this is why we must dare to have deeper imaginations! more fragrant ones!

    these things not to answer any question/problem directly but to give form to ... something. from Charles Wright's "Lost Language": One lives one's life in the word, / One word and a syllable, word and one syllable. / As though ice and its amulets could rise and rest us. / Whatever it is we look for is scattered, apart. / I have a thirst for the divine, / a long drink of forbidden water."

    and from "Body and Soul":

    The world's body is not our body,
    although we'd have it so.
    Our body's not infinite, although
    This afternoon, under the underwater slant-shine
    Of sunlight and cloud shadow,
    It almost seems that way in the wind,
    a wind that comes
    From a world away with its sweet breath and its tart tongue
    And casts us loose, like a cloud,
    Heaven-ravaged, blue pocket, small change for the hand.

    I used to think the power of words was inexhaustible,
    That how we said the world
    was how it was, and how it would be.
    I used to imagine that word-sway and word-thunder
    Would silence the Silence and all that,
    That words were the Word,
    That language could lead us inexplicably to grace,
    As though it were geographical.
    I used to think these things when I was young.
    I still do.

    Some poems exist still on the other side of our lives,
    And shine out,
    but we'll never see them.
    They are unutterable, in a language without an alphabet.
    Unseen. World-long. Bone music.
    Too bad. We'd know them by heart
    if we could summer them out in our wounds.
    Too bad. Listening hard."

    I love to imagine you so fearful in your hot tub. imagination is just so potent. I become frightened thinking of what you experienced. isn't that silly! and while I did understand upon second reading, yes, it is somehow in those particular lines/words ... but again, I only pointed to it because this poem (ah! which exists outside of you now as though you had never written it) calls for it to frighten me as it frightened you.

    so much joy in experiencing this world with you!)))


  10. How I love this delicious conversation. Love. Everything in me craves what it is we seek and say, point to only. I love everything you wrote.

    All of me hears and believes and affirms what you say about control. And how wonderful Wright's representations are of this that we believe.

    Still. There is a small voice in me that wants to discuss the word control. :)

    Given that I agree with you, and with Wright, given these all-important beliefs that poetry should not be about control, I am not yet ready to give up the idea, the concept that something in me that submits to what is seeks also to submit to the word, and by doing this, by finding representations for what it is I see, I am controlling something.

    I do not say this is a good thing, or a bad thing. But what if it just is something about us as humans? We are not like the animals, though we wish to be (as I think Wright says). We express in human ways what we see, through paintings, through photographs, through poems. Every word is a translation of what we see, yes. Every thing is a translation of another truth.

    I am reading Proust, and in the passage I read this morning, he describes frescoes by Giotto that represent the Virtues and Vices. The boy in his novel does not like them, because they at first seem too physical, too real. But he comes to like and understand that the figures are symbols of the virtues and vices, in real bodies. Somehow, the artist controlled the symbol, took it and wielded it, to get his meaning across to the viewer.

    When I write, I submit to something inside and outside myself. I do not write if I don't feel connected to that something. But as a human, I still control what I write, my mind and heart are the tools that apply this inner sight. For me it is not a matter of should or shouldn't. It just is. Do I want to get out of the way? Yes! I want what is holy to speak. But part of the beauty of this art is that the human is laced in every divine witness. Control may be the wrong word for it. There is something like authority that we carry, as if each of us carries our own divinity. When we submit, recognize, open to this divine Life, we submit/link our own authority arm-in-arm with Life and create the next moment.

    I put these thoughts on this page, not as truth, but as thoughts alone. We shave our ideas, sculpt them as we attempt to understand. I don't want to create anything out of my ego; this is the supreme task for me. But somehow, the human reality (human stain, perhaps), is part of the paradox, and so it is part of the beauty. I know you believe this, too, but perhaps in different ways of saying it.

    Yes, so much joy exploring all this with you, my dear friend. <3

  11. I like the free interchange between Ruthie and erin. I like that erin writes without compuction. Like the wind, her free spirit's words blow where they will. This is good.

    This conversation reminds me of Ruiz's first agreement, "be impeccable in your word" (or something close to this, as my copy of The Four Agreements is on loan). Tell what is true for you, even if it is very hard to discern. As Byron Katie asks about the stories we tell ourselves, "are you absolutely sure your story is true?"

    In my own process of self discovery I am beginning to see that it is our truth telling that connects us. In this sense we can control what we say, indeed, we must control the word we speak if we desire connectedness. But it is not about my controlling you, and I think that this is at least part of erin's point. I have no control over what you hear because it is your stories that influence what you translate to yourself.

    Yes, you all, so much joy in reading these explorations!

  12. i know that lamplight, those twisting shapes, that amplified terror. how you weave the truth of experience and let us find it, hidden among your exquisitely hammered phrases.

  13. I really enjoyed reading your poem and all the comments – which add to the pleasure a lot. It is great that you are still living in a state where you spent your childhood – I believe it would make one feel a lot more familiar or “with” nature around one. I wish I could write like you do, but I don’t… Isn’t if funny that as we age, we think more about childhood? I know for example, my husband who has onset Alzheimer, will forget what he had for breakfast but will tell me the name of his high school English teacher and the kids he knew. Certainly our young years vibrate in us, tremendously, and more so as time goes by.

  14. Beautiful, dear Ruth!
    Wishing you and yours a Happy New Year!


All responses are welcome.