“. . . like a mammy bending over her baby. . .” redux

Griff's on the Dock - please don't come here

Griff’s on the Dock – please don’t come here

On November 15, 2009, I wrote about a day alone on the beach at Port Orford, Oregon. I must stop writing about Port Orford, or everyone will rush there to get a tiny corner of the mystical experience—or at least the catch of the day at Griff’s on the Dock (swordfish steak the last time I was there). Then I’ll have to find another (ethereal, lovely, pleasing, rare, incomparable—because I’m not poet enough to find the right adjective) place to go to “sing myself. . . and invite my soul.”

Is that the height of ego, to make a link to my writing in the same paragraph with a link to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself?” (But this is a lecture with hyperlinks in place of footnotes, so if you want the full effect, you should follow them. Please, however, if you don’t click on any others, read the poem at the last one.)

I reread what I wrote on that November day and wonder. How I could write anything so overblown. How could I possibly post for all eternity (or at least until the internet disappears) such purple prose?  As I reread my writing, I am reminded of one of the most successful poems in English—not of Whitman’s extravagant genius.

My poem is by Joyce Kilmer (1886 –1918). That I know it proves I’m in my senescence. We memorized it in second grade. No teacher since about that time has read it to her class (if by some quirk of history she knows it). It’s not on any standardized test.

“Trees” (1913)

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

You can enjoy the poem best in the 1939 recording by Paul Robeson—a “parlor song” by Oscar Rasbach, published in 1922. I don’t mean to make fun either of Kilmer (he died fighting in World War I) or of Rasbach. I simply use their work as the background for what I need to say this morning.

Star Dust

Star Dust

“I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.” That is one of the best critiques of poetry (perhaps art in general) I know. Kilmer’s poem works brilliantly because it goes on to prove that a poem is not as beautiful as a tree. I know, I know, that’s silly. But true. The musical setting (which I first accompanied on the piano when I was in high school—it was even then a popular vehicle for amateur singers) is commensurate with the success of the poem.

My posting on November 15, 2009, originated in my growing, and by now nearly overwhelming, understanding that I am simply part of whatever it is that makes trees. I wrote that day a somewhat confusing and confused (because it’s based in lack of knowledge of physics, chemistry, and/or astronomy) description of my body as part of the inter-planetary dust that makes up the earth. Star dust, apparently.

The day I was walking the beach at Port Orford I understood a kind of connection with the physical world that I’ve known a very few times in the last 68 years. I felt a kind of bodily peace that resulted in a slowing of my mind and deep awareness both that I am alive and that I will soon enough die. I have blogged about that experience before (surprise—I’ve blogged about everything I think before), seeing Wind Cave in South Dakota when I was a kid. About being submersed in solid ground, not water.

This writing began in my mind as a discussion of the healing power of water. (I am as sentimental as Joyce Kilmer.) No, really. For seven months I have been walking almost every day in the therapy pool at the Tom Landry Fitness center at Baylor University Hospital. I’m not going to speculate about that too deeply here because I don’t know how. This writing would have begun there it I did.

What I know is this. I have met a small cadre of old folks like me, many of whom have much more serious physical problems than I. But we all walk, work out, exercise, do Yoga—you name it, we do it. And the water helps us heal—or, perhaps, it heals us. Someday I will find a way to explain. Of course, there’s the actual physical phenomenon. I walk (forward, backward, and sideways) for an hour. The water buoys me up so I do not damage my healing hip. The water provides resistance so I strengthen my muscles without straining.

But I get into some kind of meditative state that I cannot explain, that I don’t understand, that I would rather not talk about. It’s the same sense I had in Wind Cave and on the beach at Port Orford. Yesterday a metaphor came to mind. I won’t even try to say why. It would spoil it if I did.

It’s from James Weldon Johnson’s poem “The Creation.” OK, so I don’t believe in God, and I have no idea how to put my experience of life and the sureness of death together. But I somehow believe and understand

Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image
.

Perhaps there are poems lovely as trees.

Then he stopped and looked and saw That the earth was hot and barren. So God stepped over to the edge of the world And he spat out the seven seas --

Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas —

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: