A Convergence of Symbols

I tend to see my whole life through metaphors and symbols, perhaps explaining why I love poetry, painting, and photography so much. In fact, I sometimes wonder which came first, my love of poetry or my propensity for seeing the world through symbols. I suspect that I have always seen the world through metaphor and symbolism, and poetry and photography simply met those needs.

I think I love symbols as much as Jeff Ward of Visible Darkness loves definitions. Two of my most-referred-to books are The Secret Language of Symbols and A Dictionary of Symbols. In fact, at this very moment, after having written most of this essay, I decided to look up the word "swan" in The Secret Language of Symbols. Under birds it says, "In Greek myth, Zeus took the form of a swan to seduce Leda. Queen of Sparta, and the swan therefore came to symbolize love and the gods. It also stands for solitude, music and poetry and its whiteness represents sincerity." A swan is obviously not a goose, but the symbolic meaning of the swan discussed here seems to fit fairly well with the way the goose appears in the following poems, and the two birds are similar enough that it would not be unusual for poets to take "poetic license" to adapt it to their own particular situation.

Irregardless, I find special pleasure and meaning in moments when symbols from different books seem to converge. Such a moment took place when I was re-reading Carolyn Kizer's The Ungrateful Garden. Her poem about Morris Graves appeared opposite the following poem about Theodore Roethke:

A Poet’s Household
Three for T.R. in the Tanka form
The stout poet tiptoes
On the lawn. Surprisingly limber
In his thick sweater
Like a middle-age burglar.
Is the young robin injured?
She bends to feed the geese
Revealing the neck’s white curve
Below her curled hair.
Her husband seems not to watch,
But she shimmers in his poem.
A hush is on the house,
The only noise, a fern,
Rustling in a vase.
On the porch, the fierce poet
Is chanting words to himself.

Now, it seems like more than coincidence that this poem comparing Roethke's wife to a goose or swan should appear opposite a poem dedicated to Morris Graves, whose paintings often emphasize the spiritual aspect of birds, as pointed out in the poem.

It's obvious that Roethke's life tooka dramatic turn for the better after he married his young wife Beatrice, and he often used bird metaphors to express his love for her in lines like, "I cried, and the birds came down/And made my song their own," "Love likes a gander, and adores a goose;" and "If she but sighs, a bird puts out its tongue." The cental image, or symbol, in "The Happy Three" is of Roethke, Beatrice, Marianne, the goose, frollicking in the back yard.

The Happy Three

Inside, my darling wife
Sharpened a butcher knife;
Sighed out her pure relief
That I was gone.

When I had tried to clean
My papers up, between
Words skirting the obscene –
She frowned her frown.

Shelves have a special use;
And Why muddy shoes
In with your underclothes?
She asked, woman.

So I betook myself
With not one tiny laugh
To drink some half-and-half
On the back lawn.

Who should come up right then,
But our goose, Marianne.
Having escaped her pen,
Hunting the sun.

Named for a poetess,
(Whom I like none-the-less),
Her pure-white featheriness
She paused to preen;

But when she pecked my toe,
My banked up vertigo
Vanished like the April Snow;
All rage was gone.

Then a close towhee, a
Phoebe not far away
Sang out audaciously
Notes finally drawn,

Back to the house we ran,
Me, and dear Marianne –
Then we romped out again,
Out again
Out again
Three in the sun.

These coincidences, in essence, bring me full circle. A little over three months ago John Logan's poem got me interested in Graves. Since then I've researched Graves' works, sought them out, and now, a month later, I'm re-reading Kizer and she ties together Graves' works with Roethke's works, who is has always been one of my favorite poets. While such synchronicities have not yet caused me to forecast the Second Coming, they do remind me a lot of Yeats' spiral, a model of life which I tend to subscribe to. I like to think that as I grow older and seem to end back in the same old situations that I have grown and become more capable of understanding and appreciating my situation.

Oh, by the way, didn't Yeats also write some poems with swans in them? I wonder if that should fit in here somewhere?

Carolyn Kizer’s tribute to Morris Graves

When I first read Carolyn Kizer's Ungrateful Garden I completely overlooked the poem "From an Artist's House" which is dedicated to Morris Graves. I overlooked it simply because I knew little or nothing about Morris then, Recently, though, I keep running into Morris Graves, everywhere. As a result, he now seems more and more like a key figure in the Northwest artistic movement. As often happens, the more you study a subject, the more links you discover to familiar and unfamiliar ideas.

Needless to say, then, that the following poem resonates with me:

From an Artist's House

for Morris Graves

A bundle of twigs
On the roof. We study pictures:
Nests of hern and crane.
The artist who built this house
Arranged the faggots here.

In the inlaid box
With a gilt hasp concealing
A letter, a jewel?
Within, a bunch of feathers,
The small bones of a bird.

The great gold kakemono
With marvelous tapes and tassles,
Handles of pale bone,
Is a blaze on the wall. Someone
Painted an oak-leaf to the silk.

Full of withered oranges,
The old,lopsided compote
Reposes on the sill.
Poor crockery, immortal
On twenty sheets of paper.

"Moor Swan" 1933 Morris Graves

The concrete details in the poem of a mini-study of Graves' style and influence. At least at this point in his career, Graves was most famous for his painting of birds, and, though the paintings are more symbolic than realistic, they convey the feeling that the artists truly understands the very nature of birds. And as the second stanza suggests, the birds seem to be the most valuable thing in life, more valuable than any mere jewel. The third stanza suggests the fusion of eastern and western art that takes place in Morris' paintings. And the final stanza, suggests that Graves' paintings will, by their own immortality, make the "poor crockery" immortal, too.

Carolyn Kizer’s Ungrateful Garden

Considering how fond I was of Carolyn Kizer’s The Ungrateful Garden, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I haven’t bought another book of her poetry since that one came out despite my best intentions. As soon as I’ve caught up with my backlog of poetry books, I’ll have to remedy that problem, though I must admit I haven’t been able to find her books very easily when I have looked for them.

I much admired Kizer’s sense of irony in many of the best poems in this volume, but I must admit even more of my admiration for the poems stemmed from a similar attitude towards nature and towards man’s betrayal of nature:

The Ungrateful Garden

Midas watched the golden crust

That formed over his steaming sores,
Hugged his agues, loved his lust,
But damned to hell the out-of-doors

Where blazing motes of sun impaled
The serrid roses, metal-bright.
"Those famous flowers," Midas wailed,
"Have scorched my retina with light."

This gift, he'd thought, would gild his joys,
Silt up the waters of his grief;
His lawns a wilderness of noise,
The heavy clang of leaf on leaf.

Within, the golden cup is good
To lift, to sip the yellow mead.
Outside, in summer's rage, the rude
Gold thorn has made his fingers bleed.

"I strolled my halls in golden shift,
As ruddy as a lion s meat.
Then I rushed out to share my gift,
And golden stubble cut my feet."

Dazzled with wounds, he limped away
To climb into his golden bed,
Roses, roses can betray.
"Nature is evil," Midas said

In the title poem from this volume, Kizer turns a well-known fairy tale to her own purposes. Surely, the role of greed in modern man’s destruction of nature has not gone unnoticed in the Northwest where a miracle of nature has been stripped of its forests and its bountiful salmon by human greed in relatively recent times. And when floods or other disasters have resulted as the final consequences of this greed, man has blamed the events on nature, not on his own greed. Certainly the lust of western business pioneers like Weyerhauser have “damned to hell the out-of-doors” with their clearcuts that destroyed not only the trees but the salmon that relied on the streams that ran through those forests. And, yet, if nature, as a result of these atrocities, should bring floods or destructive mudslides, it’s nature and not human greed that is generally blamed. For, as our Puritan forefathers so loudly proclaimed, “Nature is evil.” The dark woods hide evil, and for civilization to thrive forests must fall to serve man’s needs. And so they have.

“The Intruder” is a much subtler poem than “The Ungrateful Garden” but it, too, effectively portrays man’s betrayal of nature, the betrayal of the darker, less pleasant, side of nature. In a sense, this poem reminds me of recent Republican arguments that Alaska’s northern expanses should be turned to oil fields because they “aren’t even pretty.”

The Intruder

My mother-- preferring the strange to the tame:
Dove-note, bone marrow, deer dung,
Frog's belly distended with finny young,
Leaf-mould wilderness, hare-bell, toadstool,
Odd, small snakes loving through the leaves,
Metallic beetles rambling over stones: all
Wild and natural -flashed out her instinctive love,
and quick, she
Picked up the fluttering. bleeding bat the cat laid at her feet,
And held the little horror to the mirror, where
He gazed on himself and shrieked like an old screen door
far off.

Depended from her pinched thumb, each wing
Came clattering down like a small black shutter.
Still tranquil, she began, "It's rather sweet..."
The soft mouse body, the hard feral glint
In the caught eyes. Then we saw
And recoiled: lice, pallid, yellow,
Nested within the wing-pits, cozily sucked and snoozed,
The thing dropped from her hands, and with its thud,
Swiftly, the cat with a clean careful mouth
Closed on the soiled webs, growling, took them out to the back stoop.

But still, dark blood, a sticky puddle on the floor
Remained, of all my my mother's tender, wounding passion
For a whole wild, lost, betrayed and secret life
Among its dens and burrows, its clean stones,
Whose denizens can turn upon the world
With spitting tongue, an odor, talon, claw
To sting or soil benevolence, alien
As our clumsy traps, our random scatter of shot,
She swept to the kitchen. Turning on the tap,
She washed and washed the pity from her hands.

Now, admittedly, I haven’t gone out of my way to build bat homes or to attract them to my yard, for they aren’t nearly as “desirable” as birds. Still, the mother seems to have a taste for the strange; it’s the unexpected that seems to disgust her.

Nor is it the event itself that so shocks, but the result that disturbs. We realize, as the poet does, that we cannot afford to wash the pity from our hands simply because the animal does not fit our definition of cute or desirable. The cat with its “clean careful mouth” may be more acceptable to the woman because of that, but it is no less destructive of the natural order of things because of that cleanliness. We, probably, or no less guilty than the mother of forgetting about the destruction of “undesirable” animals.

Surely, we reason, it’s a good thing to kill off the sharks that prey on swimmers or surfers, until we realize that the massive destruction of any one species upsets a balance that has been attained through centuries of natural selection. I, for one, am not fond of snakes, but I still endure the garter snake in the compost heap because it is probably an important part of my organic garden. I doubt, though, that I would be so understanding if it were a rattlesnake, even though the rattlesnake might be as important to its ecosystem as the gartner snake is .

The truth is, though, that if were going to manage to save what little is left of our natural environment, we are probably going to have to be wiser than the mother and learn to accept denizens that “can turn upon the world/ With spitting tongue, an odor, talon, claw/To sting or soil benevolence” if we are really going to preserve nature as we know it.