Heraclitus

Amy Kermeth was a retired teacher from New York state who had been head of the lower school at the Albany Academy for Boys and who taught ancient history in the upper school. When Amy retired, she moved to Sonoma, California. I was librarian at the high school there. Amy volunteered in the library helping students with writing projects. Because she met her students in a small conference room in the library, we got acquainted and became good friends.

Amy’s sight was failing and, as time went on, she became blind. I began reading to her in her home on Wednesday afternoons over tea. I read from books we chose or from collections of poetry. Often I read letters from her sister, her niece, and her friends. I became a member of her family and of her circle of friends. A highlight of the time we shared was the arrival of the Albany Academy’s news paper, The Fish & Pumpkin, or the F & P, as Amy called it.

Amy read voraciously and she loved poetry. Her mind held a reservoir of poetry she could quote to fit just about any situation or occasion. Amy introduced me to a more exciting world of poetry than I had known. It was she who introduced me to Wendell Corey Johnson’s (1823-1892) “Heraclitus.”

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept as I remembered how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

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And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

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Amy and I “tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky many times.” Though she has been gone for years, Amy’s pleasant voice, her “nightingales,” are still awake.

“What is the Grass?”

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘walt-whitmanA 1959 Caedmon recording of Ed Begley, Sr. reading selections from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass echoes in my ears. I was 20 years old and Begley’s voice and Whitman’s poetry formed a major impact on my life. I still have the Signet Classic paperback copy of Leaves of Grass I bought for 75 cents. Dog-eared, with poems annotated, highlighted, and underlined, it is a relic of a lifetime infatuation with Walt Whitman.

[Click to see full-size images]

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I wanted to write poetry and thought the best way to do that was to write poetry. Every morning, for several weeks, I copied small portions of Leaves of Grass, word for word, into a notebook. Like journaling, copying Whitman was a discipline. I don’t know what copying Whitman’s poetry into a notebook accomplished. The practice did not last long and I did not become a poet.

In “A Song of Myself,” Canto 6 (“What is the grass?”), Whitman poses a child’s question and responds he doesn’t know any more about the topic than the child who asked the question. He then proceeds to posit a number of guesses as to what the answer might be. After so many guesses, he begins to perceive an answer and suggests a conclusion.

Familiar with death from a young age, the reference to death  in the “What is the Grass?” canto appealed to me. My father was killed in an accident when I eight years old. My uncle died when I was ten. My grandmother died when I was 14. Two of my mother’s closest friends died about the time I was eleven—one committed suicide and the other was killed with two of her children in a flashflood.

I had no fear of death. In much the same way that Whitman guesses his way to a conclusion, I figured out that life goes on. Whitman’s confirmation of what I had experienced was reassuring: “They are alive and well somewhere, / The smallest sprout shows there is really no death….”

Funeral Blues

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘w-h-audenAuntie Beth died suddenly. Coronary thrombosis gives no warning. Driving to the funeral home, people on the sidewalks and in cars were happy, laughing, and enjoying life. “Don’t you know what a sad day this is?” I wanted to scream. “Can’t you see my grief?”

Any attempt to find words to express feelings related to the sudden loss of a loved one is futile since there are no words that can handle this moment in anyone’s life.

In the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, Matthew (John Hannah) and his partner Gareth (Simon Callow) are enjoying a festive wedding reception when Gareth suffers a heart attack and dies.

At the funeral, Matthew’s eulogy to Gareth is heart-wrenching. I began this post saying there are no words to express the sadness of sudden loss; but, W. H. Auden proves me wrong. Through Matthew, Auden captures the feelings of devastating loss in his poem, “Funeral Blues.”

With Gareth’s death, Matthew’s joy and his reason for living are gone. His loss is both public and private. He feels the world should acknowledge his pain and share his grief. “Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead / Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead, / Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves, / Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.” At the same time, Matthew’s loss is intensely personal. “He was my North, my South, my East and West, / My working week and my Sunday rest.”

No one but the bereaved can understand or feel the intensity of such sorrow, “For nothing now can ever come to any good.”

Auden’s ability to express intense emotions moves me deeply.

Exploration

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
—T.S. Eliot. “Little Gidding.” Four Quartets.

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‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘t-s-eliot“To know the place for the first time” haunted me. I didn’t know where I read the words or heard them. I didn’t know who wrote or said them. How they found their way into my memory remains a mystery. They took up silent residency until they were needed. Roused from their slumber, the words clamored into my consciousness. I launched a search for their source. With that fragment and the magic of Google, I found T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

I’ve kept a journal for over thirty years. I recall struggling in the beginning to make the journal relevant. After several attempts, I created a persona to whom I wrote letters. John was wise and unconditionally loving, exhibiting the personal characteristics to which I aspired. I poured out my soul to him.

Four years into journal keeping, I came across Tristine Rainer’s The New Diary in which she talks about deciding on an audience to whom the journal is addressed. Rainer suggests that the audience should be the person the writer will become at some time in the future—a future self. It pleased me that John met Rainer’s criteria and that I created him intuitively.

Journaling is an exploration, a journey of self discovery accomplished through writing. The journey of self discovery is a cycle. The self, multi-layered and multifaceted, is discovered in stages or in waves of awareness. I discover myself at a particular level and then the journey of self discovery begins anew. The end of exploration is to know myself at a new level of awareness for the first time.

Having put my pen to the page, it is not possible to cease from exploration.

Déjeuner du Matin

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘jacques-prevert

Déjeuner du Matin is the first poem I learned in French. The poem is easy for first semester French students to understand and to learn. Poet Jacques Prévert’s simple language carries a dramatic punch. I was pleased to recite the poem because I felt, at the time, as though I were really speaking French even though the poem was the extent of my facility with the language.

My fascination with French began when I registered for the first semester of college classes. My adviser, Mr. Sydney Patzer, was an older man with white hair and a carefully trimmed mustache. Distinguished and quite dapper, he looked as though he stepped from a 1940s movie set.

“If you’re going to major in political science,” Mr. Patzer said, “you’ll want to study French, of course.”

The first class the first morning of my first semester of college was French 1. The instructor was Madame Ruth Parlé Craig. And, everyone called her “Madame.”

Bonjour, ma classe,” Madame said as she bustled into the room, arms full of books and papers. Rubenesque, with redish blonde hair streaked with gray and pulled back from her forehead into a tight roll at the base of her neck, she was dressed in a rust colored two piece suit. With short quick steps, Madame walked to the front of the classroom where she dropped her books and papers on top of the desk and pulled a class roster from the pile.

“Good morning, everyone,” she said. “This if French 1. I am going to call the roll. I ask that you sit in the same seat each time we meet. I have a photographic memory and take roll by doing a memory pattern. If you’re not in the same seat, you will not be counted as present.”

Madame finished calling the roll then, without consulting the list, identified each student correctly. From that moment, I was in love with Madame, French, and tous les choses  françaises (everything French). Midway through the semester, I became a French major.