Sunday, March 13, 2016

A Poem in First Draft

I spent last Friday afternoon at Longwood Gardens, a few miles south of here, and have been picking away at this since then. I'm not quite sure I've gotten to the end, and other bits of it could still be polished, I suppose. But I guess it's cleaned up enough to go out in public.

Lines Composed at Longwood Garden, Late in Lent

“The woods are set to burst,” my old friend says,
As full of energy as if his ninety years
Were only nine or ten. There’s not that much
In bloom—a snowdrop here, some cherries there—
As we walk past the black, expectant, beds.
And yet the air’s already scented, thick
And sweet, at intervals throughout the park,
Until we reach, with some deliberateness,
The great Conservatory on the hill.
Within, it’s color more than scent, at first:
We’ve come for Orchid Month, and everywhere
One’s gaze alights, extravagant displays
Of epiphytic and terrestrial
Exoticism challenge vividly
The pallid palette of the preconceived.
But there’s a rich, dark, loamy undertone
Beneath the warring perfumes of those blooms,
In part the melded odors of the plants
In longer-term displays—there’s one whole wall
Of deep-green ferns and mosses, on our right—
In part the smell of warm damp earth itself,
Its age-old promise, urgent now, of life.
                “It saddens me,” he says, “to think we’ve lost
The sense of being festive. And I don’t just mean
My peers who’re dozing in Death’s waiting room:
It’s younger people, too. They celebrate,
They have their holidays, they send
More birthday messages than ever, but—”
              “ . . . There’s something lacking,” I suggest.
                                                                                                     “Well, yes,
But I was going to say, they’re still somehow
Alone, wrapped up in ‘authenticity’
So thickly that they almost can't conceive
Of how the larger culture might provoke
A universal un-ironic joy,
One great delight that runs through everyone.
A universal grief can still, I think, be felt,
But even there, the cynics will be heard.
The winter holidays are just one case:
It’s not just Christmas having slowly changed
To ‘Merchandising-tide,’ to coin a phrase.
Quite honestly, I think this stronger sense
Of self before society would keep
A person at arm’s length from V-E Day!”
(Which he remembers proudly: when we drive
To lunch, he’ll steer me to the space reserved
For veterans, though he’ll protest that he
Could walk much farther if he needed to.)
“The disenchanted world?” I ask—last year
His Christmas gift was Charles Taylor’s book
On how the world became so secular,
And I’ve been marching through it, bit by bit.
              “Exactly so. And it is cultural:
I don’t think you or I can look at this”—
He stoops and peers a bit to read a tag—
Paphiopedilum in quite the way
That Wordsworth would have done; there’s beauty here,
We know that well enough, but can it reach
‘Into the purer mind . . . Till we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things’?  I doubt
It can; I doubt our world can feel his sense
‘Of something . . . That impels all thinking things,
All objects of all thought.’ I wouldn’t have
His pantheism if you gave it me,
But even for the Christian of today,
I think that sense of Spirit as a ground,
A source of self which lies outside ourselves,
Is something that we say more than we feel.”
              “You don’t sound very happy.”
                                                                         “No, I’m not.
But is there some alternative?”
                                                            “I hope
There is, but hope is not an argument,
As you’re about to tell me yet again.”
              He smiled and nodded, as we skipped the turn
That led off to the Palm House and went on,
Past ranks of Phalaenopsis, toward the sound
Of falling water coming from the room
Of emerald bromeliads. The path
Was just a little slick, and for a step
Or two he took my arm to supplement
His cane; but back on dry and level ground,
He struck off independently again
Into the desert room.
                                           “All right,” I said
At last, “Let me try this: If we can say
We’re even ill at ease with what you’ve said,
Much less if we can wish it weren't true,
Then doesn’t that conception in itself
Imply that we can stand outside that frame
Of thought? I mean, however much I try,
I can’t desire the sun go round the earth,
Although I can imagine it, or say
The words as if they might be true. If some
Great shift of paradigm has really changed
The way we think about ourselves, deep down
Among our axioms, it shouldn’t be
So easy to desire that it has not.”
              “Or else,” he answered, “it has changed so much
We can’t tell what we’re not imagining.”
              “You wouldn’t have to throw up obstacles
To everything I say.”
                                        “If not me, who?
It’s pretty much my job. But go ahead.
I’ll listen while I smell the roses here.”
They were arranged in several ranks, each one
Stretched out for thirty feet or more:
For him to sniff at just the bottom row
Would offer time enough and more for what
Few further thoughts I had.
                                                         “Well, I admit
I don’t react to nature as I think
That Wordsworth did, or as he says he did;
And if I say like Keats that beauty’s truth,
Truth beauty, I suppose that there’s no way
To know for sure that either of us means
The same thing as the other one, much less
The same thing as Plotinus. But I’m still,
By my own standards, moved by all of this,
And even if I’m not drawn off into the heights
Of transcendental union with the One,
I don’t think they were either, day by day.
When Augustine and Monica look out
The window of their room in Ostia
And work their way up from the garden view
To something like the face of God, I think
The point is that they’d had the view before,
But not that same sublime experience.
In fact, now that I say that, wouldn’t he
Insist that the experience derives
Not from the beauty of the scene, but from
The grace of God, who opens up the path
For one brief moment from the garden there
To Paradise?”
                             “So then you’d want to say
That even if our axioms of thought have changed,
Have isolated our conceptions of ourselves,
That’s only one more obstacle, which is to say,
No obstacle at all, to grace. That’s pretty good.
I’m not persuaded, mind you, but it’s good.”
              He gave up on the roses and we passed along
Beneath the huge banana plants (not trees,
But rather more like grasses, as a plaque
Explained) into the great east room, where walks
With borders of some fiery Kalanchoe
Surrounded spotless swathes of perfect lawn:
And so at length we came out to the pool
And that great arch of orchids which had first
Confronted us when we arrived. We took
Advantage of a bench set up nearby
To catch our breath before the walk downhill.
Conveniently enough for us, one huge
Division of the grounds was closed, so we
Were spared the challenges of walking it.
              As we heading back, the carillon
Began to play some tune I didn't know.
My friend was drawn to it, and thought it worth
A modest detour to the conifer
And oak collection, up a gentle knoll,
But closer to the bells.
                                           We took our time,
And as we reached the tree-lined crest, we both
Came to a startled stop, as did the pack
Of selfie-stick and phone encumbered guests
Who’d passed us as we climbed.
Beneath the trees,
As far as one could see, there stretched a field,
A thick-laid carpet, of bright daffodils.
              “They’re not as big as Wordsworth’s would have been,”
I said.
              “I don’t suppose they are: but still,
They do show something’s trying to break through.”


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