(Making Me Understand is an occasional blog feature where I analyze, in brief or at length, what a particular work of art or an artist means to me right now.)
The bar mitzvah weekend passed in the blink of an eye. All of our preparation paid off and absolutely nothing that mattered was amiss. The tidal wave of joy broke over us and we stood in the surf, blinking and sputtering and smiling from ear to ear.
However, the world continued doing what it does, which is turn. Turn bad, mostly. An old friend, F., lost her beloved sister H. to cancer on Friday, just as we were beginning our celebration. I was simply shattered to receive messages from her, congratulating us, even as she was preparing for the hardest funeral ever.
The collision of good and bad shook loose in my brain a poem that I hadn’t read in a long time. I am fairly certain I was introduced to it in my freshman poetry workshop at University of Maryland, taught by Kim Roberts.
Patricia Goedicke (1931-2006) was born and raised in New England but spent the rest of her life moving westward (to Ohio, then Mexico, and then Montana). In her youth she studied with Robert Frost at Middlebury College, which thrills me because I took part in the Bread Loaf Writers Conference at Middlebury many years ago, and visited Frost’s cabin there. She also studied with W.H. Auden at what is known today as the 92nd Street Y in New York. I took many wonderful poetry workshops there, when I first moved to NYC.
There are any number of drafts of this poem. I don’t own the collection that it was a prelude to (The Wind of Our Going) so I tried my best to find the version that I read in college. I strongly recommend that you read this poem aloud:
For All the Sad Rain
O my friends why are we so weak
In winter sunlight why do our knees knock,
Why do we walk with small steps, ugly
And spindly as baby birds
Whose world do we think this is?
O my friends take it,
O my friends don’t look at each other
Or anyone else before you speak.
I have had enough of scared field mice
With trembling pink ears,
I have had enough of damp
Do you think I haven’t been stepped on by giants?
Do you think my teachers didn’t stand me in a corner
For breathing, do you think my own father didn’t burn me
With the wrath of a blast furnace for wanting to sit on his knee?
Indeed I have been pressed between steamrollers,
I have had both my feet cut off, and the pancreas
And the liver and lungs of the one I love
Have been sucked out of my life and the air around me
Has turned to cereal, how will I stand up,
What opinions can I offer but I will not be silent,
There are dogs who keep their skinny tails
Permanently between their legs
But also there are sleek horses, as easily as there are curs
There are squash blossoms that flower around fountains
Like white butterflies, there is courage everywhere,
For every reluctant nail-biter
There are a hundred raised fists, for every broken broomstick
There are millions of bent grasses snapping
Back and forth at the sky, beating the blue carpet
As hard as they can, with the frail tassels of their hair
For every pair of eyes squeezed tight
Under colorless lids there are thousands of others
Wide-open, on the proud columns of their necks turning,
Observing everything like King Radar,
O my friends for all the sad rain in heaven
Filling our dinner plates you have ten fingers of honey
Which are your own, stretch them, stick them up
And then, wave to me, put your arms around each other’s shoulders
When we meet in a field with no fences
The horizon is yours, and the books and all the opinions
And the water which is wine and the best bed
You can possibly think of to lie in.
What a journey this poem is. I adore its audaciously varied line lengths, and the changes in the speaker’s register, which range from the oracular and religious to the informal and everyday. I’m intrigued by “King Radar,” the air that has turned to cereal (not the kind that waves in the breeze, I imagine, but the soggy kind in your breakfast bowl), and the single stanza that presents a chain of images from horses to curs to squash blossoms to… nail-biters. There truly is something for everyone here. The “field with no fences” connected me immediately to the landscape of the US-Mexico border, and the abject misery of incarcerated migrant children. And yet, the voice here, while obviously traumatized, is clear and strong. It exhorts us not to collapse into ourselves in sadness.
It is no mistake that this poem resurfaced in my consciousness at a time of worldwide and local upheaval. My son became a bar mitzvah at a time when Jews are being attacked and murdered, in our country and around the world. My friend F. lost her sister to cancer in a world where new treatments offer some hope, but not yet anything globally reliable. We are enjoying yet another New Year’s Eve day with temperatures in the 50s and I wonder on a small scale when on earth to get the bulbs in the ground when the alliums I planted last year have already decided the party is starting. I wonder on a large scale what kind of scorched, post-apocalyptic landscape of famine awaits my children in their adult years. We continue never to watch television news with them, or bring any newspaper headlines to the dinner table. I hate keeping them in the dark. But then, the news keeps all of us in a dark, dark place.
I think a lot of us need this poem now more than ever. I know I do. I had a brain MRI yesterday, and because of the holiday, I have not yet gotten a report back from it. (Usually I hear in a matter of hours.) So I’m trying to proceed with my day, but the giant sword that perpetually dangles over my head keeps troubling my peripheral vision. I just need independent confirmation that I am as OK as I feel. But of course nothing is OK, and it is possible nothing has ever been OK. Patricia Goedicke gets that exactly right.
Happy New Year. Let’s all put our sticky honey fingers around each other’s shoulders in solidarity, and wade back out into the mess of the world and try to do some good in it.