Poems for Dark December

This Advent season, my husband and I are reading through poet-priest Malcolm Guite‘s book Waiting on the Word, which offers a poem a day from classic or contemporary poets accompanied by Guite’s reflections.

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We started yesterday for December 1 and it is exactly what we need right now. I don’t really know how to explain it other than I think art/poetry offers a balm for our aching hearts.

The Glance by George Herbert

When first thy sweet and gracious eye
Vouchsaf’d ev’n in the midst of youth and night
To look upon me, who before did lie
Weltring in sinne;
I felt a sugred strange delight,
Passing all cordials made by any art,
Bedew, embalme, and overrunne my heart
And take it in.

Since that time many a bitter storm
My soul hath felt, ev’n able to destroy,
Had the malicious and ill-meaning harm
His swing and sway:
But still thy sweet originall joy
Sprung from thine eye, did work within my soul,
And surging griefs, when they grew bold, controll
And got the day.

If thy first glance so powerfull be,
A mirth but open’d and seal’d up again;
What wonders shall we feel, when we shall see
Thy full-ey’d love!
When thou shalt look us out of pain,
And one aspect of thine spend in delight
More then a thousand sunnes disburse in light
In heavn’ above.

Guite opens his reflections on this poem for December 1 with the question:

“What might this moving and mysterious little poem have to offer us as we come to dark December and begin our Advent journey together?”

That phrase “as we come to dark December” has stuck with me. Indeed, it feels dark and heavy. For those of us in Vancouver, we haven’t seen the sun for two months. I normally don’t mind the rain but it has definitely affected me this time. And recent world events add a lot of darkness to our lives, leaving us uncertain, afraid, and confused about the future.

I don’t know if this is why I’m feeling less ready and excited for the Christmas season than usual, but I do find myself struggling to embrace it. Reading that someone else called this month “dark December” made me realize that I am not alone in feeling this way. And so I have offered up a found poem in response to George Herbert’s, that is true of how I am feeling and may be true for you too.

Poem for Dark December by Charlene Kwiatkowski

We are tired
The days are dark and long
The sky is a faucet that refuses to shut off
There is no twinkling of stars

Many a bitter storm our souls have felt
but we are in the season where the soul felt its worth
—because he appeared.
His sweet and gracious eye looked upon us
from the wood of a manger to the wood of a cross

Our hearts overrun with surging griefs
A thrill of hope seems farther away
We are waiting on many things
We are a weary world

Open the mirth that has been long sealed
Look us out of pain
We are desperate for your full-eyed love
Desperate to delight again.

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We Have Plenty of Matches in Our House

The description from VIFF had me at “bus driver and poet.”

This movie takes you through a week in Paterson’s life (played by the subtle and brilliant Adam Driver). Each day doesn’t look too different than the other. Paterson wakes up next to his wife, retrieves his work clothes from the bedroom chair, eats cheerios while examining a box of Ohio Blue Tip matches, walks to work, writes a few lines of poetry in his secret notebook before listening to his boss’s litany of things bothering him, responds that he’s okay whenever he’s asked, smiles to himself at the bus conversations he overhears, drives around Paterson, New Jersey, the city he shares a name with, eats his lunch at the Great Falls, walks back to his modest house, straightens out the mailbox that his English bulldog Marvin dislodges every day, greets his artsy wife who is happy to see him and tell him about her latest career idea, takes the dog for a walk after a healthy but usually unappealing dinner, leashes Marvin outside his favourite bar while he enjoys a drink and conversation with the owner, comes home, kisses his wife, and goes to bed to repeat it all the next day.

There are a few deviations in this routine but that’s pretty much it for seven days. You’re probably thinking that sounds boring but it really isn’t, and it’s a long movie for not having a plot—just shy of two hours. Could it be that the ordinary is actually quite interesting? That a quiet life is worth celebrating? That a content marriage is worth showing?

This is a movie you could picture yourself in. No great thing happens, just a bunch of small things—some of which may mean something, some of which may not.

The poems were my favourite part, voiced by Adam Driver who reads them as if they could be his while the words come up on screen in his handwritten scrawl. We are given just a few lines at a time, echoing real life where we don’t finish drafts all in one go. We are constantly interrupted. And then our desire is finally satisfied when we hear the poem whole. I left wanting to hear them again. All the poems in Paterson are written by Ron Padgett, whom I am delighted to have been introduced to thanks to this movie. He’s a perfect match to this film because his poetry is all in the details.

Love Poem – by Ron Padgett

We have plenty of matches in our house.
We keep them on hand always.
Currently our favorite brand is Ohio Blue Tip,
though we used to prefer Diamond brand.
That was before we discovered Ohio Blue Tip matches.
They are excellently packaged, sturdy
little boxes with dark and light blue and white labels
with words lettered in the shape of a megaphone,
as if to say even louder to the world,
“Here is the most beautiful match in the world,
its one and a half inch soft pine stem capped
by a grainy dark purple head, so sober and furious
and stubbornly ready to burst into flame,
lighting, perhaps, the cigarette of the woman you love,
for the first time, and it was never really the same
after that. All this will we give you.”
That is what you gave me, I
became the cigarette and you the match, or I
the match and you the cigarette, blazing
with kisses that smolder toward heaven.

 

I doubt everyone sitting in the movie theatre was a poetry lover, but Padgett’s poems seem like the easiest entry into this form for even the most hardened sceptic. Like the film, the poem doesn’t try too hard to be more than it is. It doesn’t use fancy language or opt for easy emotion.

It talks straight and simply, like it is having a conversation with you. Like it knows what it is and is content to be just that. Nothing more, nothing less.

I want more movies like this. I want more poetry like this.

A Poem to Picasso

Tuesday this week, I saw Picasso: The Artist and His Muses at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

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Pablo Picasso, Reclining Woman Reading (1960).

I learned a lot. And most of what I learned about the man, I didn’t like. Picasso didn’t seem very easy to love and live with. And yet there is his art, his strange, powerful, game-changing art. But his art and his life are so intertwined. And I appreciated that this exhibit focused on the six women behind so many of his paintings, making room for their stories and personalities that get dwarfed by the man who immortalized their bodies.

As is often the case when I have mixed feelings about someone, I wrote a poem.

you’re like Henry VIII
with his six wives
though you only married two

born in Spain but French
at art
and women

Fernande was your first crush
with Olga you said I do
Marie-Thérèse came blonde and bright

Dora came in tears
Françoise actually left you
and finally Jacqueline, a wife for the end

you acquired mistresses
like you finished paintings
fast, flattening every angle

here she sits
here she reads
here she weeps

here she lies
here she stares
here she is elsewhere

over six dozen
and they all start
to look
the same

the double face, changing into the next
easier to paint secrets
than keep them

a cheek was something to burn
with the butt of a cigarette
a body, something to dissect

you were a cruel
unfaithful man
but then, what to do with Guernica?

you paint it as you see it
you saw horror well
but, I wonder, is that the only story to tell?

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Photographic replica of Picasso’s Guernica (1937) at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Looking for the Character Behind So Much Wit

Yesterday, I saw Wit at Pacific Theatre by Margaret Edson. It was moving and brilliantly acted.

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The story almost all takes place in the hospital and in the present. 50-year-old Dr. Vivian Bearing, professor of 17th century metaphysical poetry specializing in John Donne, has been diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer. “There is no stage 5,” she tells us.

She narrates the story for us and we watch her when she learns of her diagnosis, when she is reminiscing about her successful academic career, when she is undergoing medical exams, when she pukes her brains out into a bucket, when she is screaming and writhing in pain from the effects of the full dosage medication the doctor gives her, and lastly, when she walks from this world into the next. Through this all, we see, as the play’s description reads, “her intellectual armour giv[ing] way to her need for human kindness.”

Katharine Venour, who plays Vivian Bearing, did a thoroughly convincing job as an unrelentingly hard academic and as a cancer patient whose pain, fears, and vulnerability felt entirely believable. Her dry humour and cynicism gave her a lot of funny lines and I laughed much more than I thought I would in a play about a woman dying of cancer.

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Photo by Emily Cooper.

In pondering the play more and more though, I can’t remove the niggling feeling that something was missing.

I think it had to do with the fact that as sympathetic as Vivian was, I didn’t know her very well, and it’s hard for me to fully embrace a character that I don’t know. This is more an issue I have with the storyline.

Because Vivian is such a demanding professor who puts research above relationships, no one comes to visit her in the hospital (except at the very end, her old professor played by Erla Faye Forsyth shows up and reads her Runaway Bunny in one of the most touching and human scenes of the play).

When the young Dr. Jason Pozner doing his fellowship takes Vivian’s medical history, we learn that her parents have died and she has no siblings. This accounts for no immediate family members visiting her in the hospital, but what about an uncle, an aunt, even a cousin?  One of the best ways to know someone is to watch them with their family, but aside from one flashback between Vivian and her distant father, we aren’t shown any family. I know this is part of the point—to show how isolated Vivian is—and I know some people just don’t have any siblings—but I find it difficult to really know, and hence connect with a character (in a novel or play), if I don’t see them with people who share some common history.

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Katharine Venour  as Vivian and Dan Amos as Dr. Jason Pozner. Photo from soulfoodvancouver.blogspot.com

There’s a really funny line when Dr. Pozner asks Vivian some questions like, “Ever been married?” “Every been pregnant?” to which the answer is “no”, and then in his casually charming and completely insensitive way, “Okay, well that’s it for life history.” Vivian responds with one of her many wry asides to the audience that goes something like, “Yup, because that’s all my life history.” We laugh because of course there’s more to a person/a woman than marriage or kids, but the play doesn’t actually fill in those gaps of her life story so all we know is she’s an excellent and exacting Donne scholar and she has no family or friendships. I wanted a bit more.

On the other hand, you could say this missing piece highlights a central theme of the play in reminding us of what really matters in life (and death).

Thankfully, we witness a thread of friendship in the short relationship Vivian develops with a compassionate nurse named Susie.

Being a Donne fan myself, I highly enjoyed all the quotations and references to his work (the classroom scene was superb). His Holy Sonnet X got the most air time, and Vivian’s professor delivered a gripping speech near the beginning on why there should be a comma and not a colon between “more” and “Death” in the last line. It is not an awkward and abrupt semicolon that separates us from life and death. It is a breath, a whisper, a comma.

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.

My favourite audio version of this poem is in this opening to Canadian spoken word poet Shane Koyczan‘s Move Pen Move, which, no matter how many times I hear it, moves every piece of me.

Wit is showing at Pacific Theatre until tomorrow, June 11.

The Writer

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In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

By Richard Wilbur

Float

Inspired by the Richmond public artwork Float (2014) by Mark Ashby and Kim Cooper.

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on the corner of No. 1 and
Westminster Highway
there is a ball and chain and
beside it, a girl
standing on tiptoes
hands reaching to touch these
curious ornaments that
lean just enough
away

oh! the tension of the young
to feel everything so sharply
welded chain and painted steel
the pull to stay on the ground
the buoyancy to float
on

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