20 April, 2011

Poems from my Mother

Just a few days ago, the husband of my college room-mate, a guy I’ve only met once (at their wedding), who serves in the American military whose wars I cannot condone, posted this line as his facebook status update: “I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky; and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.”

In a rush of excitement at discovering something in common between us, I mistook that poem for one I had learned as a child, ‘Wander-thirst’ by Gerald Gould, whose poem opens with these lines:

Beyond the east the sunrise; Beyond the west the sea
And East and West the Wander-Thirst that will not let me be;
It works in me like madness to bid me say goodbye,
For the seas call, and the stars call, and oh! The call of the sky!

I heard that poem recited best by my oldest brother, Arjuna, to whom poetic declamation and stage-presence came readily along with the accolades of teacher and examiner alike. The lines quoted by my Facebook friend, of course, came form John Masefield’s poem, ‘Sea Fever,’ another “yearning to breathe free” poem that I had heard recited by my brother.

It got me thinking about poetry and the first poems that I read. I studied what is called ‘Elocution’ in Sri Lanka, a mannered acquisition not only of the English language but of its literature, including history and literary theory as well as the latin terminology for the various parts of our mouths that combine or separate to form sounds – the epiglottis, lingua, etc. I learned these things at a young age, as an only girl in an all-boys classroom where I am told that during one morning in an early year of my life – I must have been six or seven at the time – I, much to my teacher’s and mother’s horror, stood up and tucked my pretty dress into my underwear in order to look like them! Small efforts to integrate like that notwithstanding, In comparison to my oldest brother who executed precise and heartfelt recitations, I struggled with the poems and prose passages I was given to memorize for my examinations. I could decorate the pages of my notebook with sketches of my characters, even manage a passable Becky Sharp (from Thakeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’) or Katherine (from Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’), but in general I was not bound for success upon the stage.

My appreciation of literature came from listening to my mother teach her students, then one of my older brothers (who gave up physics and maths to study literature and politics), and finally, me. And of all the poems my mother taught, the one I remember with the greatest clarity as it stayed on the Advanced Level syllabus year after year, was John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God ; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

A teenaged school girl at the time, Donne’s message was entirely crystallized in an unabashedly secular reading of those final lines, their visceral yearning finding an answering beat in my own tormented heart, a heart whose longings were anything but prayerful. And yet I often wondered what faith my mother harkened toward as she recited those lines, sounding the beat of his words with consistent passion. Who, in other words, was her God? Was he – I had no doubt that this God was male – human? Was he crowned with thorns like the Jesus Christ who reigned in stained glass glory over the chapel at the convent I attended? Was he poetry itself? Somewhere along the way I realized that I did not know to whom or of whom she spoke, and I learned that I, too, may never know of whom I spoke then or speak now. The poem existed and the very fact of its existence, its permeable words, its impermeable intent, its offering of itself, these things were enough.

I always knew that this poem and all the other poems that she would teach me – poems by Wordsworth, Longfellow, Soyinka, Dryden, Browning, Coleridge, Rossetti and dozens of others including Dylan and Lennon – moved my mother into a realm that held a greater peace than was permissible in the conduct of her life. I followed her there as a child, longing to inhabit the same space that moved her so greatly. I never made it. She was always a little further on, somewhere else, the reading that she gave to me only a fragment of the gift she received through her own involvement with the poem. I realize now, that was her gift: to teach me to hold a poem on my tongue, to follow it with my whole heart, to let it take me where it will, to return blessed.

A while back I put out a call to ask my friends to tell me their favorite poets. A reading list for me. Here is that thread. I am sure my friends will forgive me the cut/paste that reveals their identities (and do click their links to read their work):

In honor of this month dedicated to poetry, can you tell me your favorite poets? Mine: Mahmoud Darwish, Jane Hirshfield, Wislawa Szymborska, Czeslaw Milosz, Anne Carson, Eevan Boland, Rabindranath Tagore, Sholeh Wolpe, Jack Gilbert, Stanley Kunitz, Nathalie Handal…

Larry Bradley: Czeslaw Milosz, John Berryman, Carolyn Forche, WS Merwin, Linda Gregerson, Rilke, Charles Wright, Eliot, and maybe an ounce of Pound

C. Dale Young: John Donne, George Herbert, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Donald Justice, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Brigit Begeen Kelly, Carl Phillips, and others…

Ru Freeman: Love yours too, C. Dale. My first poems were Donne’s – with my mother teaching them as part of the syllabus for high school literature.

Amanda Auchter: Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Marie Howe, Nick Flynn, Claudia Rankine, Lucie Brock-Broido, Nicole Cooley, Matthea Harvey, Sylvia Plath, Brian Turner, Jason Shinder, Gary Copeland Lilley, TS Eliot, Sophie Cabot Black, Carolyn Forche, Brenda Hillman, Kevin Young.

Jess Row: Meng Jiao, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, Su Shi, Wang Wei, Rilke, Celan, Anna Akhmatova, Anne Sexton, W.S. Merwin, James Tate, James Galvin, Mary Ruefle…

Tomas Q. Morin: Zbigniew Herbert, Gerald Stern, Homer, Philip Levine, Szymborska, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Milosz, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Elizabeth Bishop, T.S. Eliot, and whomever wrote the books of Ezekiel and Amos.

Hamutal Yellin: William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Dorothy Parker, Wislawa Szymborska, Rachel Bluwstein, Leah Goldberg, Dahlia Ravikovitch, Tal Nitzan

Julie Prough: Erica Jong, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Jim Morrison, Dylan Thomas, Sandra Cisneros

Pat Ford Loeb: Tony Hoagland, Kay Ryan, Pablo Neruda, Walt Whitman, Rainer Maria Rilke

Marsha Levell: paul Lawrece dunbar

Cecilia Rodriguez Milanes: Lucille Clifton, Marjorie Agosin, Tato Laviera, Quincy Troupe, Janye Cortez . . .

Porochista Khakpour: ‎#1 Favorites: Henri Cole and Forugh Farrokhzad. Then James Wright, Mark Strand, CK Williams, Sylvia Plath, GC Waldrep, Philip Larkin. And yes re Darwish.

Porochista Khakpour: Oh and Gerard Manley Hopkins of course!! (love this post, Ru. It’s a great reading list for me!)

Sara Stowell: ernesto cardenal, roque dalton

Porochista Khakpour:(how did i forget frank o’ hara! oops)

Not knowing what to pack for the flight home for my mother’s funeral, I stood sobbing before my shelves of books searching for the one among all the others that may bring me some comfort. I took one book – Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s The Orchard, hearing the poems in the poet’s voice and, eventually, finding the one that would help me write about my mother in an eulogy. As a child the poems that came to me were filtered through the choices made by my mother. As an adult I am never very far from a book of poetry. The shelf that I have at eye-level in my writing space at home contains only poetry. When I travel I reach first for a colletion of poetry – usually by a friend though not always – to keep me company. I read and re-read. Somewhere along the way I understand my mother and myself.

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7 Responses to “Poems from my Mother”

  1. Star Trek: “The Ultimate Computer” — Kirk recites a few lines of Masefield’s poem to Bones after feeling that a computer has made him particularly useless. I was a kid the first time I saw that, but the words made me so sad but hopeful that I fell in love with them, a geek at a young age. “All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…” To be reminded of that and then to read Donnes poem which is a better call to God than the Pope will ever give… Thank you. Thank you so very much.

  2. Ru says:

    Glad to be of service, Clarence. And good of you to read – as always!

  3. Gamini Seneviratne says:

    Donne, yes, and long before, Sir Gawayne, Chaucer. Also Whitman, Neruda, Akhmatova, Herbert (both G & Z), Burns, Swinburne, Hardy, Pushkin, Pound, Bharathari, Cesaire, Langstone Hughes, Pasternak, Voznesensky, Yevtushenko, Michaelangelo, Marlowe, Shakes-perera, Tagore, Sandburg, Rilke, Rimbaud, Joe Hill, Brecht, others. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’, Thomas – ‘Under Milk Wood’, bits of Frost, Dickinson, Larkin, Ted Hughes, Plath, Jane Hirshfield, Patrick Fernando, Yasmine Gooneratne, Lakdasa Wikkramasinha, Yvonne Gunawardena, Derek Walcott, John Tomlinson & Ian Hills, Judith Wright, Judy Small, Heaney, some of mine.

  4. clarence young says:

    Ru and Gamini: any current haiku masters you can recommend? I recall Basho from college. Like Donne, he hit me hard in the soul. Gotta re-immerse myself in poetry to help rehumanize myself.

  5. Arjuna Seneviratne says:

    We have much to thank our mother for in our growth as children. If I ever had any “stage presence” it was probably due to the songs from my mother when I was 3 years old and which I sang back to her and to anyone else who cared to listen – mostly without understanding what I was singing. The picture transports me back to that time when I started writing “poetry” or rather “rhymes” sitting under the jack tree that is vaguely visible in the background. Thanks for re-igniting the memories nangi and also, by the way, you do yourself injustice when you say you couldn’t recite as a child (smiles)

  6. Edward says:

    wow such great poems. THANK YOU mother,,, that you looked after me and still doing it even now.

  7. Can’t remember reading this one. Now, almost 4 years after you’ve written it, it’s still fresh. That’s usual for good, honest writing. I could say ‘she would have been proud’ but then she always was proud of you. Love.

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The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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