February’s Foot

Ground Hog’s Day seems a good time to make this announcement.  My book, My Bayou: New Orleans through the Eyes of  a Lover (Michigan State University Press) has been published and should arrive in bookstores any day now.  There is more information on my new website.

Ground Hog’s Day or February 2nd is also Imbolc, sacred to Brigid with her great belly-shaped cauldron.  It is also the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, when the Blessed Mother leaves her postpartum seclusion and goes to the temple, where she is bathed and prepared to re-enter society.  Forty days after his birth, her baby has grown safely past that delicate, infection-prone stage of early life, and she may present him to the world without fear that he’ll catch his death of cold.

The day marks the faint stirring of new life.  It shows here in this mild, rainy humid place.  The Japanese magnolia in my yard is sprouting all over with small green leaves.  There is a lot of dead brown junk, but I see the beginnings stirring underneath.  This weather would be considered spring by most other standards.  Emily looks onto a New England winter that is nothing like mine.

#1133, ca. 1868

The Snow that never drifts —
The transient, fragrant snow
That comes a single time a Year
Is softly driving now —

So thorough in the Tree
At night beneath the star
That it was February’s Foot
Experience would swear —

Like Winter as a Face
We stern and former knew
Repaired of all but Loneliness
By Nature’s Alibi —

Were every storm so spice
The Value could not be —
We buy with contrast — Pang is good
As near as memory —

The only thing Emily and I have in common right now is February’s Foot. We’re both under it. The difference between this condition in Amherst, Massachusetts and New Orleans is that here February’s Foot wears a jeweled strappy sandal with a soft sole and a kitten heel. In Emily’s case, the foot on her neck wears an ice-crusted boot, thick, solid, unforgiving.

The winter freeze in her poem has a cleansing quality, setting out a pure white space. The cold kills off everything but loneliness. The color of white is really the absence of color. We can even call white the color of death exactly—it does not point to loss or decay, but removal.  A vacancy, where life and color used to be.

This a an abrupt contrast to my February where winter is a riot of color. Purple, gold and green! Carnival is about to explode into our daily lives. We grow fat on cake and misbehavior. One of the first changes I noticed in myself when I made New Orleans my home was that my customary seasonal affective disorder disappeared. All my life I had experienced a deep depression in winter. My emotional state went into steep decline in January and a didn’t come up to a level approaching normal until April, after the ice had thawed. Once I’d had a few winters in New Orleans, I noticed this depression never had a chance to take hold of me again. Just as winter sadness began to creep into me, Carnival would snap its fingers, and I had to get busy, making my costume. It’s impossible to be depressed under the gauzy banner of Mardi Gras. Plus the weather doesn’t lock you indoors where depression incubates. Who knew?! All those years I didn’t need anti-depressants, just the Pagan Rites of Carnival.

This is genius, whoever thought of it. What a smart antidote to the inevitable emotional flattening that our environment slams us with each season. Of course, New Orleans is not the only place to celebrate Carnival. The practice exists in France, Germany, Italy, South America . . . wherever you find deep and old enclaves of Roman Catholics, you find this wise, psycho-cultural anti-depressant. Just not in New England. Those Protestants wear their depression with pride. Important to note this is not the grand, sparkling, spiking pain of Roman Catholic suffering—also called “passion”—how operatic. No, the Protestants have cornered the market on that low-grade, chronic, dulling down, long drawn-out suffering—the pain of endurance.

I’m over-simplifying, but I’ve got my reasons.

Emily strives to make the point, “pang is good.” She insists we need these blanketing snow-bound February storms where all the eye can see disappears as if into the great void for a time, which on the poet’s clock is forever. Emily claims that without the contrast, we do not gain the emotional value of the return to life. While under the frost of February’s foot, the depressed person cannot remember anything else but nothingness and loneliness. It stretches infinitely in all directions at once. The depressed mind knows no limits, sees no shape or cycle to her emotional life. Each minute of winter is eternal.

Emily wants us to consider the value first of being muffled into vacancy and then given a reprieve. The shift from nothing to something, the first green shoot that sends life and juice into all our cells, and we return to ourselves. Em says we can’t fill ourselves up without first becoming empty.

I’m not sure . . . after enduring plenty of those vacant winters myself, I want to invite Emily to live in south Louisiana for a few seasons and then ask if she is still so attached to that seasonal affective disorder. I’m glad she has made poems about it. What else is there to do in western Massachusetts in February? Still I’d like to see what Emily would do with Carnival. Wouldn’t you?

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The Seed of Noon

Winter Solstice tonight—time for darkness and contemplation, waiting.  We pause at the turning point before embarking on the long return to summer.  Emily holds a splinter of light and asks: Where does it point?   What is the path it wants to illuminate? Not the whole path, just the beginning.  It begins with a song.

#250, c. 1861

I shall keep singing!
Birds will pass me
On their way to Yellower Climes —
Each — with a Robin’s expectation —
I — with my Redbreast —
And my Rhymes —

Late — when I take my place in summer —
But — I shall bring a fuller tune —
Vespers — are sweeter than Matins — Signor —
Morning — only the seed of Noon —

Sound brought the universe into existence and so does everything else come to life with sound.  When we speak an intention or desire, that begins it.  “I love . . . I want . . . Why don’t we?  Would you . . . Will you?” All these sounds lead to trouble and change.  The ground shifts because someone says, “I want.”

Emily does something a little out of character here when she writes: “I take my place in summer . . . ”  which pleases me.  She announces her right to occupy space.  She is a fully realized person of weight and substance.  That “I take” borders on aggression, assertion certainly.

Then at the end in the direct address to “Signor” her tone dials back from the hungry tigress to the coquette.  “Vespers are sweeter than Matins . . .”  She veils her energy in a pretty and holy metaphor.  By the time we get to the end of the poem, however, it’s too late.  No one can mistake the fierce woman behind the flirty words.  She has already tipped her hand.  She may soften her note to persuade, rather than frighten.  But this Signor faces a woman of appetite.  He should be so lucky.

What is she up to?  Emily sings in celebration of the late harvest, the fuller tune of that mature season of summer that comes after the callow, youthful spring.  Furthermore, her song lasts forever, long after the Robins have been silenced by age, death, winter.  The song that Emily sings onto the page is informed by the intelligence of a long life and all the shocks that give her voice dimension and timbre, the story beneath the song.  This song is sweeter because it is more interesting, complex, veined with an awareness of death, thus more sustaining.  Em says that time has made her the better lover.  Her song isn’t kidding around. Signor is an idiot if he doesn’t recognize the value of that.

Tonight for the solstice, I’ll make a meal—not sure what yet, but something good.  Then we will have grilled figs, our own late harvest.  We’ll light the candles on the Christmas tree, and sit in the darkness to watch the small flame flicker against its opposite.  We’ll do all that just to know what it looks like to hold a light in the dark.  We will complete these gestures, as we do every year, to see our hope external and playing shadows on the wall.

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New Figs in Winter

Good morning.  Today is Emily’s 181st birthday, and there was a total lunar eclipse.  It might have been somewhat visible in our sky at about 6:00 a.m.  But I slept through it.  Chances are it would have been covered by clouds anyway.  The day is gray and cold.  Here are Emily’s prescient remarks:

#415, c. 1862

Sunset at Night — is natural —
But Sunset on the Dawn
Reverses Nature — Master —
So Midnight’s — due — at Noon.

Eclipses be — predicted —
And Science bows them in —
But do one face us suddenly —
Jehovah’s Watch — is wrong.

The poem gives us a solar eclipse, not quite consonant with today’s weather, but I’ll take it.  The “Sunset on the Dawn” is the line I like.  She points to an eclipse, which darkens the sun just at the time that we expect it to be most bright, as a reversal of Nature.  Yet it can happen and often does.  Eclipses occur all the time.  We know about these events and what causes them.  Yet the eclipse still touches some atavistic fear that the sun may be dying and the world coming to an end.  In our primitive reactive lizard brain, nature is perverted when the sun doesn’t do what we expect.

Given that we see eclipses happening all the time, albeit not often, wouldn’t that make it “natural” insofar as it does happen in nature?  Apparently not. Astronomers map out eclipses well into the future in their star charts.  They always know what is happening out there and calendar celestial movements with mathematical precision.  Even with all that comforting information, these events still arouse an old anxiety about the correct order of things.

The eclipses that change us, that reverse Nature, are the ones we didn’t predict.  Here Emily means “eclipse” more broadly as a sudden change, something gone, or something returned.  I want to ask what makes one thing a product of Nature and another a reversal of Nature?   If it happens in the physical world then that is Nature doing its work, right?  If it surprises us or “face one suddenly” that is only because we have not yet fully understood our Nature.  These unexpected “eclipses” that Emily suggests serve only to reveal the unseen parts of ourselves.

I particularly enjoy her blasphemy at the end:  “Jehovah’s Watch — is wrong.”  There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio . . .  Jehovah’s Watch is Adam and all the humans that descended from him.  The human body and mind comprise the watch tower that houses Jehovah’s presence.  Emily says that Jehovah’s Watch is wrong.  Not Jehovah.  She does not presume to know the mind of God.  But she is willing to dismantle the bricks of the self-appointed watch tower—those fallible humans who have missed a few turns in the road along the way.

She is not willing to genuflect to Science, either.  There are a few things that the astronomers failed to predict or explain.  For Emily the truth is in the middle, in that tension between faith and knowledge, where the foreground and background shift past each other in a constant optical illusion.   The middle ground where poems rest.

Speaking of reversals of Nature . . . my fig tree gave me five ripe figs this morning.  Here we are on the cusp of the Winter Solstice and my silly fig tree, who apparently can’t tell time, has decided to bear new fruit.  Geoff’s fig tree (which I gave him—everyone I love should have a fig tree) has also fruited spontaneously and mysteriously in this early winter.

I was thrilled to receive these fruits, no matter how unnatural their arrival.  The pickings in Summer are usually slim because those idiot Blue Jays eat all my figs before I can get to them.  The birds can spot the ripening blush sooner than I do, which makes sense—they’re more invested.

In any case, my answer is Yes!  I will take this late harvest.  The figs are fat and sweet.  Perhaps a little tougher than what I’d get in July.  Still, this fruit will feed me just fine.

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