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The Traveling Poet: Carrying On
A few days into a three-week vacation, on a train with friends returning from a day-trip to Florence to the house we were sharing in Chianti, having seen Michelangelo’s David, eaten a fine lunch with wine, we were laughing and talking amongst ourselves, when an American woman sitting close-by said, “Obviously, you haven’t heard the news.” It was September 11, 2001.
When I went to bed that night, after frantic phone calls home and hours of watching TV coverage in Italian, I longed for words of solace that might usher me into sleep. My husband had been killed just three years before; I had already lost faith in a benign world. I longed to whisper familiar words, but could recollect little of what I knew and loved. Lines by an ancient anonymous poet became my mantra:
Western wind, when will thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!
Among the other half-remembered poems, were these lines from W.H. Auden: About suffering, they were never wrong. / The Old Masters: how well they understood its human position; how it takes place/ while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along. How perfectly those words captured our own obliviousness to what was going on across the Atlantic while we were having fun.
In the years and the many trips that have followed the horrid events of 9/11, the nature of travel has changed. Fees for checked bags, intensive security, and limits to what we may carry on board. Always the question: What will be of use? Fear is a companion I try not to travel with, and yet the times bring W.B. Yeats to mind: The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.
In her wonderful book How to Read a Poem . . . and Start a Poetry Circle, Molly Peacock speaks of poems as talismans:
A Talisman is an object that gives its bearer a special hold on life, even though the talisman itself might at first be as undecipherable as an ancient Chinese poem written in ideograms. But a hold on life is what I got from my favorite poems, and I tote them around like amulets against the world, using them to ward off every evil. The Greek root telesma means a consecration, a fulfillment, or complete, and my talisman poems have a holy quality of sensuous pleasure.
I love poems short enough to memorize, to learn by heart, as teachers once said to children. Poems with talismanic power have become for me like prayers. Some poems offer comfort—as in the 23rd Psalm. Other poems show the way—how to put disappointment into perspective, survive tragedy, or face inexorable mortality.
Te Deum by Charles Reznikoff Not because of victories I sing, having none, but for the common sunshine, the breeze, the largess of the spring. Not for victory but for the day’s work done as well as I was able; not for a seat upon the dais but at the common table. ~~~ After Frost’s Moon Compass by Jane Buel Bradley A silver eyelash in the sunset sky draws me outside to look and dream the why this monthly promise always stirs my soul and keeps me hopeful that before the whole full moon lights up the autumn’s darkest night I shall find words to speak of my delight in this world’s beauty and begin to face the waning and the darkness with some grace. ~~~ Nothing Gold Can Stay by Robert Frost Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf’s a flower; But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay. ~~~ b''h The Tourist by Firestone Feinberg My pen is dry — it's out of ink, My paper's brown with age, But still I'll write — or so I think — At least another page. It need not be pure poetry, Neither perfect prayer, But just a word to tell someone That once I traveled here. ~~~
Packing is difficult, full of tiny questions: will the predicted weather hold? Which shoes will blister tender feet? But, what I am certain will be useful are the words that comfort and guide into the unknown, which is after all, though we might wish it otherwise, the only place we travel.