“. . . The heaven’s weight / Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle-lid . . .”

Stropped-beak fortune?

Stropped-beak fortune?

Poetry. I wish I’d begun to love poetry much earlier than my 60s. Not to love but write the stuff. It takes more practice. One cannot sit down and whip off a poem. I suppose some folks do, but my guess is that every poem worth reading has been perspired over and dreamed about and cursed at before it reaches the shape in which we read it.

I especially love to read poetry containing a phrase or word that sounds so right, so perfectly in place, so congruent with the rest of the work that I don’t question its position—but then I have to admit I have no idea what it “means,” either because I don’t know the words or because I can’t see why they go together logically.

Stropped-beak Fortune / Swoops, making the air gasp. . .

In about 1997 or -98 a friend (she was not “a” friend; she was in some unfulfilled way my best friend, something I’ve been trying to write about for several years to no avail) invited my partner and me to a party to meet her daughter who was stopping by Texas on her way from living in Turkey to going to graduate school in Arizona. Or some such set of facts that I have memoried in the back of my mind.

[NOTE: I realize more completely with the passage of time that what I think are solid, factual memories are impressions—I live in a world illustrated by Monet, Pissarro, Cassatt, and Matisse. Whenever I talk about the past, I have a real memory of an event, but I describe the essence of the event, not its details. My memories and impressions come out side by side with the “truth,” so they don’t mix but sit unblended in what I say. The light of exactitude gets mingled with the color of my feelings. I never set out to tell an untruth, but all I can do is tell my truth, and that may not have been the truth about an event when it happened, much less now that it has circulated in my memory. In literature classes much is made of the “unreliable” narrator. Believe me, when I tell stories from the past, even if I have every factual detail correct, the narrator is unreliable. Or totally reliable. Your choice.]

My friend’s daughter either had recently been married or was about to be. My friend had either been to Turkey to visit her, or she hadn’t. Either I knew most of the people at the party or I didn’t. I know my friend eventually went to Jordan to be with her daughter at the birth of her granddaughter, and that she came home and too soon died of leukemia, her death being an almost impossible reality for me to face—we spent the last Christmas Day before she died together in her room at the Zale Lipshy University Hospital at UTSouthwestern Medical School.

Stropped in the barber shop

Stropped in the barber shop

What the blank is “stropped-beak Fortune,” and how does it “swoop[ ], making the air gasp?” A strop—I remember this from working in a barber shop in the ‘50s where razors were single-bladed and had to be sharpened, stropped, between customers—is a piece of leather on which one sharpens a blade. So “stropped-beak fortune” swooping, “making the air gasp” is fortune so cutting, so dangerous, so ominous—so sharpened—that like a bird of prey it swoops down on its target fast and powerfully enough to terrify the air even before it finds its victim.

When I get my mind out of the impressionistic paint-blotches of both my memory and my view of what’s going on right now (the truth is most likely that my memory is impressionistic because my understanding of what is happening at any given moment is at best the misty outline of reality), I realize that “anything can happen.”

Anything can happen, the tallest towers

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,
Setting it down bleeding on the next.  (Seamus Heaney)

On a fall day I was walking across campus back to my office after lunch when a shadow passed over my head and in my peripheral vision I saw a swoop toward a tree, heard a cry, and looked up just in time to see a hawk fly off with a squirrel in its talons—freakish for a university campus in the middle of a city in the middle of the day. I knew squirrels lived on campus, but hawks? I assumed I was hallucinating until someone yelled at me, “Professor, I’m glad you saw that, too, because no one will believe me!” He was a former student and knew how to find me if his story needed corroboration—and I him.

Anything can happen.

“God willing” (a phrase often used by the priest I knew to acknowledge that “anything can happen”) on May 15th this year I will submit the last set of semester grades for which I will be responsible as a professor. I hope on that day to have a clear understanding, not simply an impression, of what’s happening.

I will be 69 years old, living alone (does that necessarily mean feeling lonely?), having to learn to survive on much-reduced income, and required to learn to organize my time completely on my own. A short list of the “anything” that can happen.

Is it possible to change anything on that short list? Can I either by desire or by plan make any of those impressions into a more solid or different reality? Where is Edward Hopper when I need him?

My friend’s daughter lives now in Santiago, Chile. On the way to Easter Island. (See my “bucket list.”)

“Anything Can Happen”

Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well, just now
He galloped his thunder cart and his horses

Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth
And the clogged underearth, the River Styx,
The winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.
Anything can happen, the tallest towers

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,
Setting it down bleeding on the next.

Ground gives. The heaven’s weight
Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle-lid.
Capstones shift, nothing resettles right.
Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.

          —Heaney, Seamus. From District and Circle. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2006).

Anything can happen

Anything can happen

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