The Second Life by Edwin Morgan

I love Edwin Morgan’s poetry so much. My tenth grade English teacher introduced me to his work and I’ve been hunting it down where I could find it ever since. “The Second Life” is a beautiful meditation on aging and more generally the passage of time, and since I turn 40 tomorrow, this seems an appropriate time to share it.

I was 16 or 17 when I first tracked this one down and though I was far from 40 and had no idea how being this much older would feel, I sensed there was something profound and wonderful and transgressive in Morgan’s approach to aging. You can see for yourself below, and you can find this and many more of Morgan’s poems in his Collected Works, which I can’t recommend enough. (And I realize this is a longer poem, but stick with it til the end– it’s gorgeous.)

THE SECOND LIFE

But does every man feel like this at forty —
I mean it’s like Thomas Wolfe’s New York, his
heady light, the stunning plunging canyons, beauty —
pale stars winking hazy downtown quitting-time,
and the winter moon flooding the skyscrapers, northern —
an aspiring place, glory of the bridges, foghorns
are enormous messages, a looming mastery
that lays its hand on the young man’s bowels
until he feels in that air, that rising spirit
all things are possible, he rises with it
until he feels that he can never die —
Can it be like this, and is this what it means
in Glasgow now, writing as the aircraft roar
over building sites, in this warm west light
by the daffodil banks that were never so crowded and lavish —
green May, and the slow great blocks rising
under yellow tower cranes, concrete and glass and steel
out of a dour rubble it was and barefoot children gone —
Is it only the slow stirring, a city’s renewed life
that stirs me, could it stir me so deeply
as May, but could May have stirred
what I feel of desire and strength
like an arm saluting a sun?

All January, all February the skaters
enjoyed Bingham’s pond, the crisp cold evenings,
they swung and flashed among car headlights,
the drivers parked round the unlit pond
to watch them, and give them light, what laughter
and pleasure rose in the rare lulls
of the yards-away stream of wheels along Great Western Road!
The ice broke up, but the boats came out.
The painted boats are ready for pleasure.
The long light needs no headlamps.

Black oar cuts a glitter: it is heaven on earth.

Is it true that we come alive
not once, but many times?
We are drawn back to the image
of the seed in darkness, or the greying skin
of the snake that hides a shining one —
it will push that used-up matter off
and even the film of the eye is sloughed —
That the world may be the same and we are not
and so the world is not the same,
the second eye is making again
this place, these waters and these towers
they are rising again
as the eye stands up to the sun,
as the eye salutes the sun.

Many things are unspoken
in the life of a man, and with a place
there is an unspoken love also
in undercurrents, drifting, waiting its time.
A great place and its people are not renewed lightly.
The caked layers of grime
grow warm, like homely coats.
But yet they will be dislodged
and men will still be warm.
The old coats are discarded.
The old ice is loosed.
The old seeds are awake.

Slip out of darkness, it is time.

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He who stole my virginity

A writing teacher once told me that any good poem has to have a good turn. It has to change direction in some way that catches the reader off guard, surprises them, transports them. This poem, in its first three lines, contains a turn so wonderful that I can never really believe it. You can find the poem in another of my favorite anthologies. The book is great and the poem is magnificent:

He who stole my virginity

He who stole my virginity
is the same man
I am married to
and these are the same
spring nights and
this is the same moment of
the jasmine’s opening
with winds just coming of age carrying
the scent of its flowers mingled
with pollen from Kadamba trees
to wake desire
in its nakedness
I am no different yet I
long with my
heart for the delicate
love-making back there under
the dense cane-trees
by the bank of the river
Namanda in
the Vindhya mountains

(anonymous, translated from the Sanskrit by W.S. Merwin and Moussaieff Masson)

I Am Going to Talk About Hope by Cesar Vallejo

I first read this poem in my favorite anthology and quickly became obsessed with Cesar Vallejo. Even in translation, his language is unbelievably forceful, but it’s worth buying the anthology to read it in its original Spanish and hear the music that he intended. Vallejo was not a minor poet and this is not a minor work, but it’s been a rough month and this poem has been on my mind, so I thought I’d share it.

“I am going to talk about hope”

I do not feel this suffering as Cesar Vallejo. I am not suffering now as a creative person, or as a man, nor even as a simple living being. I don’t feel this pain as a Catholic, or as a Mohammedan, or as an atheist. Today I am simply in pain. If my name weren’t Cesar Vallejo, I’d still feel it. If I weren’t an artist, I’d still feel it. If I weren’t a man, or even a living being, I’d still feel it. If I weren’t a Catholic, or an atheist, or a Mohammedan, I’d still feel it. Today I am in pain from further down. Today I am simply in pain.

The pain I have has no explanations. My pain is so deep that it never had a cause, and has no need of a cause. What could have its cause been? Where is that thing so important that it stopped being its cause? Its cause is nothing, and nothing could have stopped being its cause. Why has this pain been born all on its own? My pain comes from the north wind and and from the south wind, like those hermaphrodite eggs that some rare birds lay conceived of the wind. If my bride were dead, my suffering would still be the same. If they had slashed my throat all the way through, my suffering would still be the same. If life, in other words, were different, my suffering would still be the same. Today I’m in pain from higher up. Today I am simply in pain.

I look at the hungry man’s pain, and I see that his hunger walks somewhere so far from my pain that if I fasted until death, one blade of grass at least would always sprout from my grave. And the same with the lover! His blood is too fertile for mine, which has no source and no one to drink it.

I always believed up till now that all things in the world had to be either fathers or sons. But here is my pain that is neither a father nor a son. It hasn’t any back to get dark, and it has too bold a front for dawning, and if they put it into some dark room, it wouldn’t give light, and if they put it into some brightly lit room, it wouldn’t cast a shadow. Today I am in pain, no matter what happens. Today I am simply in pain.

Translated from the Spanish by Robert Bly

I Am by John Clare

I really love reading John Clare, whose poetry was not on the syllabus of any of the many college literature classes I took. So I guess he’s a minor Romantic poet, but I there’s a wild energy to his writing that makes him, to me, far more enjoyable than Wordsworth or Keats. And I was very pleased to incorporate “I Am” into a play reading I had last week at IRT Theater in Manhattan. Those of you who came to see it will recognize the opening lines.

I AM

I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

Kaddish by David Ignatow

My grandmother died about a month ago. There’s not really much to say about death and about losing family members that doesn’t end up sounding banal when you say it out loud, so I’ve been looking for works where writers do things that help me understand what it means to lose someone. This has been one of my favorite poems for a long time. I first found it in this wonderful anthology and it’s especially helpful now:

KADDISH

Mother of my birth, for how long were we together
in your love and my adoration of your self?
For the shadow of a moment, as I breathed your pain
and you breathed my suffering. As we knew
of shadows in lit rooms that would swallow the light.

Your face beneath the oxygen tent was alive
but your eyes closed, your breathing hoarse.
Your sleep was with death. I was alone
with you as when I was young
but now only alone, not with you,
to become alone forever, as I was learning
watching you become alone.

Earth now is your mother, as you were mine, my earth,
my sustenance and my strength,
and now without you I turn to your mother
and seek from her that I may meet you again
in rock and stone. Whisper to the stone,
I love you. Whisper to the rock, I found you.
Whisper to the earth, Mother, I have found her,
and I am safe and always have been.

Ice Cream Man, Blue Balls, and The Funny Thing

promo pic

If you read this blog, you know that I mainly use it to promote writing that’s excluded from the canon, but that I find beautiful or powerful or otherwise remarkable. I don’t usually use this blog for self-promotion, but a play of mine, “Ice Cream Man, Blue Balls, and The Funny Thing”, is opening in New York next week and if you like this blog, you might like the play. It’s a wide-ranging play that explores some heavy topics — racial violence, discomfort with disability, the banality of romance — and still manages to be funny. If you’re in New York, you should come check it out! You can get tickets and more information here.

If you come see it, you’ll get to hear this monologue at the opening of the third act, which is a sort of deconstruction of the romantic comedy form. And if you can’t make it, I hope you enjoy the monologue anyway:

What’s that thing Tolstoy said about happy families? They’re all the same? I don’t believe that for a minute. Actually, I don’t believe that happy families even exist, but if they do, they’re probably weird and interesting and all different from each other. What’s all the same is heartbreak. What’s all the same is that hollowed out, empty feeling you get when you’re left alone. It’s always the same, every time, and probably everyone who’s experienced it has experienced it the same way, forever.

The funny thing is I already know how this’ll go. I’ll be depressed for a while and then I won’t. And then I’ll start to forget and, soon enough, I’ll be on to the next thing, but I’m not ready for that yet. I wish I was. I wish I could just let go, but it’s a compulsion. Clinging to things.