Week 235: Strange How You Stay, by Dorothy Trogdon

I have to confess that I had never heard of Dorothy Trogdon till a few days ago, when my attention was drawn to this poem on the Web and I knew from a sudden switching on of alertness that here was a poet I wanted to know better. Haven’t found out much about her so far – she’s American, lives in Orcas Island, been writing for a long while but only recently in her old age started publishing. So, acquaintance is a work in progress; meanwhile I hope you like this quietly assured piece as much as I did.

Strange How You Stay 

Strange how you may stay in one place—
Say a house facing a stand of alders—
and yet are carried forward,

stay in one place but not in that time,
not in the years that meant so much to you,
that were your happiest years,

how you are helplessly carried onward.

It has come hard to me, this knowledge,
I have had to practice to do it—

to swallow silently the losses while I hold close
what the heart has claimed.

Now the trees have entered their winter silence.
In the garden, one foolhardy yellow rose
Is blooming still.

Dorothy Trogdon

Week 234: Evidence At The Witch Trials, by James K. Baxter

An oddly disturbing piece by the New Zealand poet James Baxter (1926-1972) – witchcraft and devilry may be delusions that we have largely put behind us, but human vulnerability and gullibility are the same as ever, and maybe this account of a young person seduced by a sinister cult leader with promises of reward is not without echo in our own times.

Evidence At The Witch Trials

No woman’s pleasure did I feel
Under the hazel tree
When heavy as a sack of meal
The Black Man mounted me,
But cold as water from a dyke
His seed that quickened me.

What his age I cannot tell;
Foul he was, and fair.
There blew between us both from Hell
A blast of grit and fire,
And like a boulder is the babe
That in my womb I bear.

Though I was youngest in that band
Yet I was quick to learn.
A red dress he promised me
And red the torches burn.
Between the faggot and the flame
I see his face return.

James K. Baxter

Week 233: Quand vous serez bien vieille, by Pierre de Ronsard/The Apparition, by John Donne

Two for the price of one this week, as I thought they would make an interesting comparison. Both poems deal with what seems to be an occupational hazard of male poets: the fact of women not fancying them as much as they feel entitled to be fancied. But the spirit of the two poems is very different. Ronsard’s poem is grave, beautiful and not without compassion for the woman as he imagines her in her old age; Donne’s poem is more punchy, full of a jagged energy and vengeful to the point of vindictiveness. I value both poems greatly, but do you not get the feeling that that Ronsard’s poem, beautiful though it is, has something of the rhetorical exercise about it, while Donne really does have it in for this poor woman and doesn’t care who knows it?

Note on line 6 of the Donne poem: It was a common belief that candles guttered in the presence of ghosts.

The translation from the French is my own.

Quand vous serez bien vieille

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant:
Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j’étais belle.

Lors, vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Déjà sous le labeur à demi sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s’aille réveillant,
Bénissant votre nom de louange immortelle.

Je serai sous la terre et fantôme sans os:
Par les ombres myrteux je prendrai mon repos:
Vous serez au foyer une vieille accroupie,

Regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain.
Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain:
Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie.

Pierre de Ronsard, Sonnets pour Hélène, 1578

When you are old and sit by candlelight
Spinning your wool at the fireside, then declare,
As you read out my lines for your delight,
‘Ronsard once feted me when I was fair’.

Then not a servant-girl, knowing my fame,
Though she be half-asleep in labour’s daze,
But suddenly will wake, to hear his name
Who blessed your own with such immortal praise.

By then I shall be bodiless, a shade
At rest now in some myrtle-shadowed glade
And you old, at the fireside, stooped and gray,

Regretting my lost love and your proud scorn.
Then trust me, live, and don’t wait till the morn,
Gather the roses of this life today.

The Apparition

When by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead
And that thou think’st thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, feign’d vestal, in worse arms shall see;
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tir’d before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call’st for more,
And in false sleep will from thee shrink;
And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bath’d in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie,
A verier ghost than I.
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee; and since my love is spent,
I’had rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threat’nings rest still innocent.

John Donne (1573-1631)

Week 232: The Sign-Post, by Edward Thomas

This Sunday, April 9th 1917, marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Edward Thomas, on the first day of the Battle of Arras. I will celebrate it with the first Edward Thomas poem that I ever came across, around the end of the nineteen-fifties. At that time Thomas was still far from having the iconic status among general poetry readers that he now enjoys, and he certainly hadn’t figured in my English teacher’s rather conservative version of the school curriculum, which stopped with that daring modernist Wordsworth (and let us never forget that Wordsworth was a daring modernist). But I fell in love at once with Thomas’s combination of close observation, natural speech rhythms and rueful self-examination.

The Sign-Post

The dim sea glints chill. The white sun is shy,
And the skeleton weeds and the never-dry,
Rough, long grasses keep white with frost
At the hilltop by the finger-post;
The smoke of the traveller’s joy is puffed
Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.
I read the sign. Which way shall I go?
A voice says: You would not have doubted so
At twenty. Another voice gentle with scorn
Says: At twenty you wished you had never been born.

One hazel lost a leaf of gold
From a tuft at the tip, when the first voice told
The other he wished to know what ’twould by
To be sixty by this same post. ‘You shall see,’
He laughed – and I had to join his laughter –
‘You shall see; but either before or after,
Whatever happens, it must befall,
A mouthful of earth to remedy all
Regrets and wishes shall freely be given;
And if there be a flaw in that heaven
’Twill be freedom to wish, and your wish may be
To be here or anywhere talking to me,
No matter what the weather, on earth,
At any age between death and birth, –
To see what day or night can be,
The sun and the frost, the land and the sea,
Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring, –
With a poor man of any sort, down to a king,
Standing upright out in the air
Wondering where he shall journey, O where?

Edward Thomas