The Wonder of Unexpected Supply

Intertextuality, allusion, remembered scraps of poetry: all gifts we
didn’t know we needed till they arrived.  Three recent and very different,
but all happy, examples:

1)  Here in the country, I’m getting to spend some time with my 25
year-old son for the first time in many months. The other night, I said
something to him and his girlfriend about the precariously hung curtains
in the freshly painted room they’re sleeping in.  “The curtain cord she
likes to wind,” said Jonathan quietly. These seven words brought back
Eliot’s “The Old Gumbie Cat,” and the days when I read it to Jonathan, and
the fact that he and I both remembered most of this eminently memorizable
poem – remembered it from when he enjoyed it almost 20 years ago.  I refer
interested readers who don’t know this wonderful poem to OLD POSSUM’S BOOK
OF PRACTICAL CATS.  The gift this little quote bestowed was at least
double: bringing back a wonderful poem, and a past (but not past) layer of
shared life.

2) I’ve been working on a poem, or maybe a series of poems, about a
consuming subject: my husband’s dementia.  But more specifically, this
poem is about uneasy sleep, lying as it were curled up around or humped
over a problem.  Hard to find words for.  But an essay about Sylvia Plath
which recently arrived from my friend Adrianne Kalfopoulou in Athens
turned out to contain a quote from a poem in Plath’s THE COLOSSUS which I
hadn’t known and whose title even now escapes me – something about
“Hardcastle Crags;”

All the night gave her, in return
For the paltry gift of her bulk and the beat
Of her heart, was the humped indifferent iron
Of its hills, and its pastures bordered by black stone set
On black stone.

Was Plath thinking of me when she wrote these lines? Naturally not.  Do
they help me now?  Yup.

3)  My former student Keith O’Shaughnessy recently published a poem that
gives me several gifts whenever I read it, and which was itself in a way
occasioned by a gift I gave him, as well as by his love for two poets and
also by a cultural event ceelbrating one of these poets.  There is a lot I
could say about Keith’s poem, from its triumphantly appropriate deployment
of terza rima and of poetic allusion, but I think I’d rather quote it in
full. (Please think of words in quotes as italicized.)

Il Mio Tesoretto     by Keith Devlin O’Shaughnessy

At an annual reading of Dante’s INFERNO

Just a bit more than halfway through my life’s journey,
I find myself raising Cain at the Cathedral
Of Saint John the Divine.  It is Maundy Thursday –

Or Hallows Eve for fans of the infernal.
When I was just a bit less than a quarter
Way through the same hellish pilgrimage, an aging James Merrill

(Alumnus of my high school) stood like an immortal
Limbo-bent, before a room of sighing adolescenets
And taught them how a man makes himself eternal.

Now, as if to mingle breath with incense,
I mutter with the cantor, “Ah, Ser Brunetto,
Are you here?” and make tactile his winded spirit’s omnipresence

Through a shade as ethereal as that patrician ghost’s.
One reader finishes.  Another adjusts her glasses,
Declaims a Medievalist’s Florentine.  At my elbow

Sits my own “miglior fabbro,” Rachel Hadas,
For whom my alma mater’s James was simply Jimmy;
Under her chair, wrapped in plastic shopping bags,

Lies a tiny, wood-framed portrait of Sr. Alighieri
She tells me belonged to him.  When at last that “maestro” moored
His lithe craft along the verge we make out so dimly,

His companion found it sitting in a drawer
And passed it on to her, who took it home
And, as if gliding back from the same murky shore,

Buired the little treasure in a chest of her own.
At midnight she, in turn, will pass it on
To me, who will carry it through this Dis’ divinely comic underground –

By subway, ferry, rail – further down, like the baton
At Verona, where the green cloth waves at the foot of the stair
To flickering stars, and the last man in, panting for Marathon,

Crows like the damned at blank space, through dead air,
To proclaim himself, if not the winner, there.

Filed under: Book Review, Prose