"What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance." Theodore Roethke
There was a time in my life when I willingly embraced those things that both intrigued and frightened me. I was looking for the deeper meaning, always looking over the edge to get a glimpse into the darkness, the place where I thought all the answers to all the secrets were kept. One could say I was looking for life in all the wrong places.
It did lead to some interesting experiences and people and I have come to see that time as an invaluable precursor to what lay ahead, to the life I've come to know. I have tried to live my life since that time in the light of day, in an openness that doesn't allow for secrets to take hold, nor for shades of meaning to cloud my judgment. It's a good way to live and makes everything so much easier. Living with my cards on the table and letting the chips fall where they may has brought with it a sense of liberation that in and of itself brings deeper meaning, and with it a light and a lightness that provides reliable guidance with far surer footing.
What does this have to do with anything? Today, it seems to have to do with Theodore Roethke.
Roethke was no stranger to the darkness. He walked the edge many times during his life. For that very reason I have wrestled with him for many years, never certain if I wanted to pull him into my circle of imaginary friends, who just happen to write good poetry, or keep him at a safe distance where I can look but not touch, at least not too much nor too often. You might not have the same response to him, but with some poets I need space between their words and my world or I feel cornered, and I've never been good at feeling cornered. Plath and Sexton, Berryman and Bukowski come to mind, so I take my Roethke slow and measured, a few lines at a time, sort of feeling my way through.
In my first reading of this poem I felt as though I was drowning in dirt, but I pushed through, turning his words over and over, pausing and mulling, pausing and mulling, and I found this: they are rich and dark with a certain mustiness that smells and tastes like the first carrot I pulled from the earth all those years ago, carelessly brushing off the dirt before taking that first delicious bite. And this: despite the darkness a little sliver of light comes through. That, for me, is poetry of the best kind.
"In a Dark Time"
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood --
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
What's madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks - is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.
A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is --
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.
Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I ?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
~ Theodore Roethke
Theodore Roethke, above, won many awards for his poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for The Waking.
My friend, JB, from Moab, Utah, has created a great little video using images from Lonewolf, my home. They're all photographs I've taken during the last year and a half and used in various posts. You might recognize some of them. I turned the images over to him, he pulled them all together and chose a beautiful song to accompany them, "Women 'Cross the River," by Linda Ronstadt (written by David Olny). When I first watched and listened to it, it brought me to tears. Thank you, JB, for putting up with me all these years, for taking the time to really get to know me, and for liking me in spite of it.
It's a cold and gloomy day, with a smattering of snow on the ground. A quiet seems to have settled on everything. It feels peaceful and good.
Last night, while watching a few videos from one of my favorite albums, Leonard Cohen's "Ten New Songs," I was reminded of when I was a child and my father did some trapping of mink and ermine in order to make ends meet. We thought nothing of it. It's what men did to get enough money to put food on the table, maybe some women did, too.
I would sometimes ride along with him when he'd go to check his traps. He would park near a bridge, on the shoulder of a dirt road not too far from our house, and walk along the banks of a small creek. Sometimes he would return with nothing, sometimes he would bring home one or two and then he'd skin and stretch them out on small boards made for that purpose.
Later, when I saw them on the boards, a smidgen of sadness would pass through, but I never took it any further than that. Never gave one second of thought to the fact that they would more than likely become part of a lady's coat. When you're young, you sometimes fail to connect the dots. At any age, we can fail to connect the dots. The news, on any given day, can attest to that. And, well, the late 1950's weren't exactly enlightened times. I'm not so sure these are, either, but I'll try to stay on track.
Anyway, I certainly hold no judgment of those who trapped then, nor of those who do now. There are those who feel it's essential for wildlife management. I don't know enough about that to have an opinion even. I love wildlife, emphasis on the life. That's all I know. And, I didn't decide to post this video because of the trapping aspect, although it is taken from the foreign film, "The Last Trapper," but because I found it to be quite beautiful, a visual treat, and Leonard Cohen is always worth a listen.
While looking over images taken by the Farm Security Administration photographers, I kept being drawn to those by John Vachon. So, I wasn't surprised when I saw his picture and felt a sort of kinship with him. This happens sometimes, both in person and through photographs. I did a little more reading about him and found that he was born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, receiving a bachelor's degree from St. Thomas College in 1934.
A couple of years later, he went to work for the FSA in Washington filing the many photographs taken by people such as Dorothea Lange. This, of course, piqued an interest in photography. After spending his weekends on the streets of DC with a borrowed Leica, encouraged by folks such as Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstein, he joined the ranks of these noted photographers in 1937. The rest, as they say, is history.
As I was reading this, my imagination went to work creating a scenario where he would have driven by our farm, just off the highway, sometime around 1962, on his way to Bemidji where he took a photo of a used car lot with Paul Bunyan at the gate (yes, the photo was taken in 1939, we're pretending here). Paul Bunyan was a pretty big deal in Minnesota back when I was a kid, this larger than life, folk tale lumberjack. For several summers, we would ride the train up to Bemidji to visit our cousins for a few days, a visit which usually included an afternoon at the Paul Bunyan Amusement Park. We loved riding that train, just my sister, Jane, and I. My mother's second cousin was the conductor, so we had someone to look after us along the way. We rode those rails as the brave adventurers we imagined ourselves to be.
I like to think that Vachon, all those years ago, might have stopped in our parent's cafe that was just up the road from our farm, in yet another small town on the main highway that runs between St. Paul and Bemidji. Maybe he had a stack of my mother's pancakes for breakfast, or he'd come through in the evening and had supper, fried chicken being the calling card. It didn't matter that he'd moved out east long before that time. I placed him on that highway as a way to have him come to life for me. And he did.
I was taken back to an evening when I was probably around six or seven years old. My parents, in a very atypical moment, decided to go out for the evening. Where? I have no idea, but they were away and it was just we three younger siblings at home. Shortly after they left, we noticed that several cars seemed to be parked at the corner where our country road met the highway. It was so out of the ordinary that we started speculating about it, and in my little mind I started imagining the worst: our parents had gotten into a car accident and would never be coming home again. I sat on my sister's bed, peering through the round metal headboard and out the window that was closest to the scene on the highway.
After a time of no answers, the oldest of the three of us, Christy, who was probably 12, was dispatched to ride the bike, yes, The bike, up to the corner to see what was going on. When she didn't immediately return, my mind went into overdrive. I had not developed any coping skills for such an event. Fear was the driving force and it hit me pretty hard. I might have prayed, 'cause that's what we'd been taught to do, but it didn't seem to alleviate my fear and I wasn't close to anything that remotely resembled peace of mind. I watched and waited. Eventually, after what seemed an eternity, but was probably no more than half an hour, Christy returned, and our parents shortly after that.
We found out that a bad car accident had happened just up the road and lives were lost. My parents had come on the scene just before arriving home, but had not been involved.
Some time later, I was up at the filling station on the corner, where my mom's best friend, Lu, and her husband, Hank, lived. I had become friends with her grandson, Michael, and together we would explore the woods behind the garage. It was there, in the woods, I saw the two cars with wrinkled hoods and broken windshields. One of them was a pea green color. Odd, isn't it, how the little details remain? This all came to mind when I was looking into John Vachon's life. Perhaps it was just the idea of him taking photos while driving around the countryside in a car from that long ago era, or the romanticized notion that he may have driven right by our farm those many years ago.
John Vachon went on to become a staff photographer for Life and then Look magazine, returning to Minnesota as a guest lecturer at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts shortly before his death in 1975. I love his photos of rural people and times, but, I have to say, his city scenes, especially those taken in the rain, jump out at me. There's something about city streets in the rain.... These photographs make me want to walk right into them, even with the rain coming down (especially with the rain coming down), on my way to a cafe, or a movie, perhaps "River of No Return," starring Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe, for which Vachon was the sole photographer while they were on location in Alberta, Canada.
And, although this all happened long after Vachon had completed his assignment for the FSA, we still would have made pretty good subjects for that whole rural poverty thing.
Yeah, that's me. The Bone Lady was beginning to form within.
All of the photographs, except for the one of me, of course, were taken by John Vachon throughout his career. None of his photographs are of people I know, but they could have been. These are among my favorites of his. They illustrate a time and place that sometimes seems like yesterday.
It's getting late. I'm fighting to stay up for just a little while longer, here at my kitchen table where a very small celebration is taking place: Enya's Watermark is on the stereo, a glass of red wine sits on the notebook to my right, a thin volume of Mary Oliver's poetry is on my left. Buddy, a bit of a party-pooper, sleeps at my feet.We're coming to the end of daylight saving time and that's reason enough to celebrate this first Saturday night in November. When I wake up tomorrow morning I won't have to wait two hours for the first faint light to cross the field, then climb above the treetops. It will arrive, as expected, then depart in the evening in perfect timing with the world. It will be daylight enough for me.
It is our nature not only to see that the world is beautiful
but to stand in the dark, under the stars, or at noon, in the rainfall of light,
frenzied, wringing our hands,
half mad, saying over and over:
what does it mean, that the world is beautiful-- what does it mean?
When I was a child, I pumped water from a well, on top of a wooden platform much like the one in the photograph. A few trees surrounded it, creating a sort of oasis in the summertime. I liked this chore, sometimes having to lean hard on the handle to draw the water up and into the pail. It would then sit by the porcelain sink in the kitchen, with a metal dipper hanging from its side. That water tasted so good. It was cold and clear.
"Though I speak with the the tongues of men and of angels and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail, whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now, we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity."
~ The Bible, 1 Corinthians 13
Photograph: Aroostook County, Maine, 1942, by John Vachon.