This northern life must be two, no three, of those black-headed, gray-bodied birds. They look like crows, they stalk the forests stubborn as partisans who know they will die for a lost cause, who list the code names of their fallen comrades, who sit in miserable bunkers and write What if nobody wanted to sacrifice? and Spring is coming but not to Lithuania. So wrote Lionginas Baliukevičius, aka Dzūkas, in 1949. I sit and think, he wrote, but my thoughts don’t materialize into anything. The birds are crows, hooded crows, similar to the carrion crow but elevated to full species status in 2002. The partisan Dzūkas died in 1949, his country not free, his last hideout collapsed. I skipped to the end of his brave, sad journal, a few sentences in praise of Tolstoy, who went pacifist and ate no meat in his last years, who wrote All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love and The two most powerful warriors are patience and time. The crows live in the forest, walk its enigmatic floor, test everything they find. Love nothing. Stay away from the bunkers.
It was the holy part of the day, my loved ones asleep in other countries, me with no duties and rooms full of quiet. I ate my dark bread with brie and jam, pressed out two cups of dark coffee. And that must be the sun, skulking like a grown-up boy who knows it’s been too long since he visited his mother. He has no excuse but all is forgiven, she will open the curtains, haul up the shades, crack the windows though it’s far too cold for that. We will ring all the bells in the quiet church across the street, unscrew the doors from the jambs, dismantle all the borders, forgive the Russians whether they like it or not. And mercy will pour down like sunshine in the grand photographs in the vast inscrutable book I bought for ten euros at the bookstore downtown, a store full of books translated out of the language I know so that I could read only the authors’ names. Truth must be personal, said Kierkegaard, home from another of his long, brooding walks. And yet not merely private. You shall love the neighbor, he insisted. Outside my window the church is solid and pale, three stories and a squat round tower, in the tower three narrow windows that reveal nothing. Winter sun warms the green roof, but the entrance is still in shadow.
He’s heard stories of amber, of winter storms that deposit yellow knurls and knuckles the length of the long beach that runs north to Palanga, of roads jammed even in winter on a fair Sunday with beachcombers eager for treasure. He’s not found that road yet, shy or distracted or put off by some vague sense that the old powers should be cautiously approached. He’s read that the Christians found this land hard to enter, the people stubborn, claiming to be happy with the gods they knew. That’s been centuries. Still the borders mean something. Still the news is bloody and not so far away. The traveler read in the U.S. news that there’s new word form Vilnius: if the Russians come, stay calm. Show up for work. Hug your children. The traveler has noticed nothing scary, but he knows he’s wearing a snug cocoon of ignorance. Anyway another source insisted that the message was mostly about storms, fire, earthquakes, the Russians only one of many perils that need forethought but not fear. He doesn’t know whether the bundled souls he passes on his night walks are brooding on blood, or thinking only of their doors and dinner and a drink, or wondering how much amber the last storm of winter washed up on the beach, how much waits half-buried to give itself to any walker, golden as cool fragments of a lost sun.
Each man is a half-open door leading to a room for everyone. —Tomas Tranströmer
My friends say Tolstoy really got into the heads of his female characters. They give him credit. They talk dreamily of the books they love, books so long only two will make a whole course. This seems to me like making twelve gallons of chili and eating nothing else till it’s gone, but I smile and listen. My friends are smarter than me and more patient, surely. I’m the only guy in the house tonight so I get my own room with a good foam mattress, a bad desk, windows that open on other rooms. I make up the bed and lie down with Tranströmer’s poems, ten or twenty lines on a page, fewer words in fifty years than Tolstoy or George Eliot put down in a decent work week. Every man is a half-open door.
The door to my room is cracked open, lights blaze outside. My friends are all upstairs. If I don’t shut the light off, no one will. The wind will settle toward morning, the waves begin again to spell their single complicated word. Waiting for the ferry we watched a hawk try to lift a four-foot snake from the shallows, drop it, circle, swoop and grab again and lose its grip and veer away. Oh, how sweet would that meat have been, how grand a feast, how we would have cracked and sucked the bones, how long we could have made that story last.
Not so long ago, the standard view was that American poetry had been thoroughly secularized by the great modernist poets, especially Wallace Stevens (who at least worried about the absence of God) and William Carlos Williams (who seemed unaware that anyone thought about God at all). But that has changed.
What books compel a second—or third or fourth—reading? How is the second reading different from the first, and what does the difference reveal about the book or the reader? We asked ten writers, including Margaret Miles, Gordon Atkinson, Mary Doria Russell, Diana Butler Bass and David Cunningham, to name a book that they chose to reread, and to share their reactions "the second time around."
It came to me as I waited at the desk, thinking how to turn another scattered group toward the day’s work: I want a bell. Not the electric commands that drilled through our younger days,
not some jingly tinkle. No, something small but clear—a signal, a reminder, a request. After Christmas we went looking and my son found a pair of heavy, small brass disks joined
by a leather thong at the import place in town. They had eight raised symbols in a ring, some scratchy lettering inside. When he struck them the pure tone hung for seven seconds
in the air, shimmering and clean as the sun. Of course I bought them. Each day now I put them on the desk, try to keep them quiet. They want nothing but to ring. They desire not to join but to meet.
When it’s time I hold the thong close to each disk and strike them at right angles to each other, as I learned from a man who told me that their true name is tingsha, that in Tibet the monks strike them
when minds start to ramble. Inside, he told me, were the great and ancient words, Om mani padme hum. We might say: See the jewel in the heart of the lotus. He rubbed the symbols on the top: here
is the conch shell, he said, here the prayer wheel, the umbrella, the flower. The students smile each time I strike the chimes, hold them as the sound wavers, fades. It lasts such a long time.
Such a short time. And then we begin, teasing new sounds from the old tongue as we can, taking the next steps across the rocky plain, following the smoky thread on the horizon.
We fold out the map and it tells us where we might be. We study the compass and it offers some names. We open the timepiece and it says, Be quiet. Bring the chimes together.
Edgar Allan Poe once famously opined that the death of a beautiful woman is “unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” What if the woman is also a poet, death comes early, and her husband is a famous poet as well?
The dates in the title tell of Richard Wilbur’s remarkable longevity. Once a youthful prodigy, he became part of poetry anthologies 30 years ago. By now Wilbur is a grizzled eminence, known at least vaguely to most Americans who pay any attention to poetry.
When William Stafford died in 1993, he was not the most famous or most critically acclaimed poet around, but he was certainly among the most beloved. To the many who knew him personally or through his work, he was not only an innovative poet, but one who managed to bring his life and his writing together into a seamless, striking witness to nonviolence and poetic freedom.