Thursday, January 23, 2014

A thought that wanted further thinking: Reading Poetry and Chatting with Dad

“That poem saved my life,” Dad explained pointing the poem by Rumi adorned in the middle of a painting he bought in between jobs in New Mexico.   It helped me know where to go.

We told talked and read poems all day.  Dad recalled stories of being kicked out of college for conduct unbecoming a Harvard man.  We talked about the allegories of the tides in Walt Whitman.  We shared our favorite poems, read Shakespeare, and reflected.
“The world outside is not all the world,” explained Dad.  “The play within the play, the real world is the Globe,” he continued, speaking about the Globe Theater.  “The other is the world, the life outside the globe.”

“I’ve had the world and time,” Dad explained, paraphrasing the Bath’s Tale.  Talking with Dad, it is sometimes hard to tell where the poetry ends and the story begins, where his life story begins and the poetry begins.  It is all a part of a living theater of the mind and memory.   

We looked at pictures from our recent trip to the Met.  Sat looking out at the room and began one of our favorite games. 
I asked for his favorite poem.

“Going for Water by Robert Frost,” he replied without a pause.

"Going for Water"

The well was dry beside the door,
And so we went with pail and can
Across the fields behind the house
To seek the brook if still it ran;

Not loth to have excuse to go,
Because the autumn eve was fair
(Though chill), because the fields were ours,
And by the brook our woods were there.

We ran as if to meet the moon
That slowly dawned behind the trees,
The barren boughs without the leaves,
Without the birds, without the breeze.

But once within the wood, we paused
Like gnomes that hid us from the moon,
Ready to run to hiding new
With laughter when she found us soon.

Each laid on other a staying hand
To listen ere we dared to look,
And in the hush we joined to make
We heard, we knew we heard the brook.

A note as from a single place,
A slender tinkling fail that made
Now drops that floated on the pool
Like pearls, and now a silver blade.

 “That was your Mom and I in Beverly, Mass,” he explained, recalling the years when he was first married in the late 1960’s.  An elegiac moment, I recalled a poem with a similar feeling for me.  

“I don’t get him,” explained Dad. 
“Listen to this one,” I explained.

if up's the word by E.E. Cummings?
if up's the word;and a world grows greener
minute by second and most by more--
if death is the loser and life is the winner
(and beggars are rich but misers are poor)
--let's touch the sky:
with a to and fro
(and a here there where)and away we go

in even the laziest creature amoung us
a wisdom no knowledge can kill is astir--
now dull eyes are keen and now keen eyes are keener
(for young is the year;for young is the year)
--let's touch the sky:
with a great(and a gay
and a steep)deep rush through the amazing day

it's brains without hearts have set saint against sinner;
put gain under gladness and joy under care--
let's do as an earth which can never do wrong does
(minute by second and most by more)
--let's touch the sky:
with a strange(and a true)
and a climbing and a fall into far near blue

if beggars are rich(and a robin will sing his
robin a song)but misers are poor--
let's love until noone could quiet be(and young is
the year,dear)as living as i'm and as you're
--let's touch the sky:
with a you and a me
and an every(who's any who's some)one who's we

“That’s a wonderful optimistic poem,” Dad replied.
His turn.  He asked me to read A Loan Striker by Robert Frost.


The swinging mill bell changed its rate
To tolling like the count of fate,
And though at that the tardy ran,
One failed to make the closing gate.
There was a law of God or man
That on the one who came too late
The gate for half an hour be locked,
His time be lost, his pittance docked.
He stood rebuked and unemployed.
The straining mill began to shake,
The mill, though many, many eyed,
Had eyes inscrutably opaque;
So that he couldn't look inside
To see if some forlorn machine
Was standing idle for his sake.
(He couldn't hope its heart would break.)
And yet he thought he saw the scene:
The air was full of dust of wool.
A thousand yarns were under pull,
But pull so slow, with such a twist,
All day from spool to lesser spool,
It seldom overtaxed their strength;
They safely grew in slender lenght.
And if one broke by any chance,
The spinner saw it at a glance.
The spinner still was there to spin.
THat's where the human still came in.
Her deft hand showed with finger rings
Among the harp-like spread of strings.
She caught the pieces end to end
And, with a touch that never missed,
Not so much tied as made them blend.
Man's ingenuity was good.
He saw it plainly where he stood,
Yet found it easy to resist.
He knew another place, a wood,
And in it, tall as trees, were cliffs;
And if he stood on one of these,
'Twoud be among the tops of trees,
Their upper brancjes round him wreathing,
Their breathing mingled with his breathing.
If——if he stood! Enough of ifs!
He knew a path that wanted walking;
He knew a spring that wanted drinking;
A though that wanted further thinking;
A love that wanted re-renewing.
Nor was this just a way of talking
TO save him the expense of doing.
With him it boded action, deed.
The factory was very fine;
He wished it all the modern speed.
Yet, after all, 'twas not divine,
That is to say, 'twas not a church.
He never would assume that he'd
Be any institution's need.
But he said then and still would say
If there should ever come a day
When industry seemed like to die
Because he left it in the lurch,
Or even merely seemed to pine
For want of his approval, why,
Come get him——they knew where to search.


Finishing we talked about what it meant.

“A though that wanted further thinking;
A love that wanted re-renewing.”
There is renewal in everything. 

I followed with my new favorite Walt Whitman and his eternal allegory of the tides, as a way of thinking about the dialectical forces crashing on the shores of my beloved treacherous Brooklyn.

CITY of ships!
(O the black ships! O the fierce ships!
O the beautiful, sharp-bow'd steam-ships and sail-ships!)
City of the world! (for all races are here;
All the lands of the earth make contributions here;)
City of the sea! city of hurried and glittering tides!
City whose gleeful tides continually rush or recede, whirling in and
out, with eddies and foam!
City of wharves and stores! city of tall façades of marble and iron!
Proud and passionate city! mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!
Spring up, O city! not for peace alone, but be indeed yourself,
warlike! 10
Fear not! submit to no models but your own, O city!
Behold me! incarnate me, as I have incarnated you!
I have rejected nothing you offer'd me--whom you adopted, I have
Good or bad, I never question you--I love all--I do not condemn
I chant and celebrate all that is yours--yet peace no more;
In peace I chanted peace, but now the drum of war is mine;

And we read some Rumi, one of our favorites.  I told Dad about the Princeton poetry mile, where poems, including some by Rumi, are lined along  a few acres of preserved open land.  Dad talked about the sex and humor of Rumi.

Rumi  A moment of happiness
A moment of happiness,
you and I sitting on the verandah,
apparently two, but one in soul, you and I.
We feel the flowing water of life here,
you and I, with the garden's beauty
and the birds singing.
The stars will be watching us,
and we will show them
what it is to be a thin crescent moon.
You and I unselfed, will be together,
indifferent to idle speculation, you and I.
The parrots of heaven will be cracking sugar
as we laugh together, you and I.
In one form upon this earth,
and in another form in a timeless sweet land.

Then we have to read Mandalay, Dad chimed in.  Dad starting reciting it.
Whose it by Dad?  I want to read along.
“Its by Kipling.”
Dad proceeded to recite it as I read along.
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the Temple-bells they say:
"Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!"
            Come you back to Mandalay,
            Where the old Flotilla lay:
            Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?       
            On the road to Mandalay,
            Where the flyin' fishes play,
            An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China
            'crost the Bay!

'Er petticoat was yaller an' 'er little cap was green,
An' 'er name was Supi-yaw-lat --- jes' the same as Theebaw's Queen,
An' I seed her first a-smokin' of a whackin' white cheroot,
An' a-wastin' Christian kisses on an 'eathen idol's foot:
            Bloomin' idol made o' mud ---
            Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd ---
            Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed 'er where she stud!
            On the road to Mandalay,
            Where the flyin' fishes play,
            An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China
            'crost the Bay!

When the mist was on the rice-fields an' the sun was droppin' slow,
She'd git 'er little banjo and she'd sing "Kulla-lo-lo!"
With 'er arm upon my shoulder an' 'er cheek agin my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an' the hathis pilin' teak.
            Elephants a-pilin' teak
            In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
            Where the silence 'ung that 'eavy you was 'arf afraid to speak!
            On the road to Mandalay,
            Where the flyin' fishes play,
            An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China
            'crost the Bay!

But that's all above be'ind me --- long ago an' fur away,
An' there ain't no buses runnin' from the Bank to Mandalay;
An' I'm learnin' 'ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
"If you've 'eard the East a-callin', you won't never 'eed naught else."
            No! You won't 'eed nothin' else
            But them spicy garlic smells,
            An' the sunshine an' the palm-trees an' the tinkly Temple-bells;
            On the road to Mandalay,
            Where the flyin' fishes play,
            An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China
            'crost the Bay!

I am sick o' wastin' leather on these gritty pavin'-stones,
An' the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho' I walks with fifty 'ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An' they talks a lot o' lovin', but what do they understand?
            Beefy face an' grubby 'and ---
            Law! Wot do they understand?
            I've a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
            On the road to Mandalay,
            Where the flyin' fishes play,
            An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China
            'crost the Bay!

Ship me somewhere's east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst;
For the Temple-bells are callin', an' it's there that I would be ---
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea;
            On the road to Mandalay,
            Where the old Flotilla lay,
            With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
            On the road to Mandalay,
            Where the flyin' fishes play,
            An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China
            'crost the Bay!

“I always wanted to see the dawn come up like thunder,” Dad explained.  “I always wanted to go to Burma. But it still gives me a lump in my throat to read that.  Even if my traveling days are over.”  He confessed to feeling odd still like Kipling, given the guy was such a racist. But he still loves the poem   Dad has lost a lot of his eyesight and his capacity to read or drive on the open road, two of his favorite things.  But he’s still grateful, more full of gratitude than ever.

As the afternoon proceeded, we settled in to read Macbeth.
We read the opening lines… with thunder and lightning. 
“The witches had the best lines…” he explained.

The witches enter.

First Witch
When shall we three meet again
Second Witch
When the hurlyburly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.

“That kindov lays out the whole play,” Dad chimed in, reciting the last lines.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

“That’s a depressed man,” Dad commented, as if to suggest he was not.
We watched football all afternoon, eating Cajun sea fish stew, drinking Shiner, and reading more Macbeth during commercials.

“Hell of a game,” he noted, “even if it wasn’t as good as reading Whitman.”
“Just as good,” I chimed in. “You’ve always been a snob.”
“A first class snob,” Dad corrected me.

Saying goodbye the next day, I noted that there is more to Dad than meets the eye.
“You’re still here, smiling reading poetry.  You’re like the thought that wanted further thinking,” I explained. 
A thought that wanted further thinking,” he replied with a big smile.  “That’s me.”
“All these years later, even when the battles lost and won.”

He agreed.  The globe theater of his mind remains a living theater, where the real world is still very much alive. The rest of us are all in the outside world.  

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