Almost Heaven

My favorite section of Dorothy Livesay’s The Self-Completing Tree is the very last one, entitled “At the Finish.? I’ve noted more poems in this section than in any other section of the book, all equally deserving of your notice, all the more reason you should run out and buy this book or get it from your local library if you find that your tastes and mine run along similar lines. After all, since I’m no longer required to run a classroom, I make not pretense that my taste in poetry is any better than anyone else’s.

That said, here’s my favorite poem in the section:


Last night a full silver
shone in the waters of the bay
so serene
one could believe in
an ongoing universe.

And today it’s summer
noon heat soaking into
arbutus trees blackberry bushes
Today in the cities
rallies and peace demonstrations exhort


But save also I say
the towhees under the blackberry bushes
eagles playing a mad caper
in the sky above Bellhouse Bay

This is not paradise
dear adam dear eve
but it is a rung on the ladder
towards a possible
breathtaking landscape

There are moments in nature so serene, so magnificent, so infinite, that it seems impossible to doubt that the world will go on forever, perhaps explaining why so many religions have come to know God through his handiwork.

Although I find it impossible, even undesirable, to ignore the news when I finally find myself muttering at the computer screen or flipping off the TV, I regain my sense of perspective by going outside, sitting on the front deck, enjoying the flowers, and waiting for a hummingbird to honor me with its presence.

Pt Defiance Park, the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, and Belfair may not be heaven, but they are as close as I’ve been able to find lately, and I’d be more than happy to spend eternity in any of them.

I would even go so far as to say that we cannot save our world, our children, or grandchildren unless we can also manage to save the towhees and eagles that share this small space we call our world.

Livesay’s “For the New Year?

Though I’ve heard it argued rather convincingly that poetry about poetry should be banned, Dorothy Livesay has a couple of poems about poetry I liked quite a lot. My favorite is


Stamped in the throat
bird song
biologists say
is inevitable
as that beak that eye
that red wing
is not learned
is born with the bird.

Perhaps then there’s another
dimension behind our learned
word patterns ...
perhaps an infinite song
sways in our throats
yet to be heard?

This poem strangely reminds me of the first poem I ever willingly memorized, Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush“ which may partially explain my affinity for it.

Of course, my recent fascination with bird photography has also attuned my ear to the complex bird songs that fill the wilderness air, and it’s not hard to imagine that the beauty of these songs attracts mates to the same extent it attracts human listeners.

Could it perhaps be true that each of us has an “infinite song? waiting to be heard, that we’re all poets waiting to burst forth in song?

Livesay’s “New Jersey: 1935?

I suspect my favorite part of the section entitled “Struggle: The Documentaries“ in Dorothy Livesay’s The Self Completing Tree is actually the introduction which she ends with this paragraph:

In defense of the poet as unacknowledged legislator, I like to quote an English poet of the thirties, C. Day Lewis:

“We make art of the quarrel with others, rhetoric,? Yeats has said, “but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.? … This conception … expresses the opposition between the divided selves of the poet; his poetic self and his human self, a conflict of which Yeats has always been acutely aware. Yeats’s own magnificent political poems … are sufficient proof that a deep feeling about political ideas and events is not necessarily synonymous with that “quarrel with others? which produces only rhetoric.

Deliberately then, I have chosen to reprint some poems that sprang out of these ironies and dichotomies; and some where hope flies free.

Many of the poems remind me of Archibald McLeish’s poems, though they don’t resonate with me quite as much as his did — and even his often times seem too didactic for my taste.

Still, I like “New Jersey: 1935?

In the landlady’s garden
we walked entwined in moonlight
Luella and I
tree and shadow of tree
linked white and black.
It was a time
before this present darkness
before flashes of violence
tore clouds with lighting crack —
but in the moonlight
we were visible
walking the landlady’s garden
we were seen entering her house
climbing upstairs for supper.
And when Luella had left
(at least she waited till I closed the door?
the landlady shoved her shoulder
into mine
and her frog eyes
into my face:
“Was that a coloured girl you dared to bring
into my home?
“Why, yes, a social worker,
we have jobs together in the Settlement House.?
“For that I could whack
the liver out of anyone. Don’t ever
let a nigger enter my door again.?
“Why no!— I never will—
not a white girl, either.?
And I went upstairs
to pack.
They say it’s the same thing, now
even in the North, the same
animal fear, frog eyes —
and in response
the same dark guttural laugh:
“You just don’t understand things, honey.?

And I guess I don’t understand
for I haven’t been back.

Luckily I was never faced with a similar situation, but I’d like to think that I would have done the same thing if I’d been confronted with the same situation.

I can still remember how angry I was when temporarily stationed in Alabama and the post was told that white and black officers should avoid being seen together downtown. My reaction was then the Army should damn well shut that post down rather than telling officers that they couldn’t fraternize with fellow officers off post.

Of course, it turned out that having been raised on the West Coast that I wasn’t aware of the prejudices that seemed to pervade other parts of the country. In Armor School I was criticized by a fellow officer for running around with a group of Jewish lawyers who had just graduated from New York City College.

I didn’t even know they were Jewish, much less that I shouldn’t be running around with them. I just looked blankly at the officer and continued running around with them until school was out.

My favorite part of the poem is Livesay’s apt reply to the landlady’s comment, “You just don’t understand things, honey.“ Brought up to believe everyone’s equal and a healthy skepticism towards those who feel better than others, not to mention an underlying suspicion that most rich people aren’t quite “equal,? I’m sure that I earned the scorn of some fellow Army officers, not to mention the scorn of some working folks who didn’t like my “liberal ways.?

Livesay’s Love Poems

Considering that two of my favorite Livesay’s poems from the collection 15 Canadian Poets x 3 were love poems, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that some of my favorite poems in her collected poems are also love poems, though I didn’t find any I like more than “The Unquiet Bed“ and “Sorcery.“

Another of my favorites is “Aubade?

Not what you are
but what you are to me:
a stranger who’s at home
inside my eyes
shoots rainbows
down my spine
laughs at my absurd
long second toe
and wags the world away
upon my tongue.
You are the one
who when I leap to leave you
for the sun
can pull me back to bed:
“Woman, Woman, come.’

It’s lines three and four that initially grabbed me, but I think true love is best shown in the kind of intimacy where one “laughs at my absurd/ long second toe.?

Which is not to say that that kind of intimacy isn’t also intertwined in the sexual intimacy of that last line.

Livesay‘s best poems are seductive without begin pornographic as in “Let Your Hand Play First:?

Let your hand play first
fanning small fires
over the arms, the breasts
catching responses all along the spine
until the whole body flowering
‘s enveloped in one flame
that shudders wildly out
to meet your thrust —

Then burn, my fire
burn with a flame so tall
it unshape the shaping clouds
unearthly move the sphere

Dorothy Livesay’s Ballad of Me

I’ll have to admit I’m always hesitant to read personal history into a poem, even though it’s clear some “confessional poets? intend their poems to be a record of their personal struggles. While personal history can undoubtedly give us insight into a poet’s meaning, a poem, like a short story, is obviously not an autobiography or even a personal essay.

However, it’s difficult not to read the author’s personal life into a poem when she includes her own name in a poem entitled “Ballad of Me:?

born clumsy
bursting feet first
then topsy turvy
falling downstairs;
the fear of
joy of
father called it
throwing the ball
which catch as catch can
I couldn’t.
Was it the eyes’ fault
seeing the tennis net
in two places?
the ball flying, falling
space-time team-up?
What happened was:
the world, chuckling sideways
tossed me off
left me wildly
treading air
to catch up.
Everyone expected guilt
even I —
the pain was this:
to feel nothing.
Guilt? for the abortionist
who added one more line
to his flat perspective
one more cloud of dust
to his bleary eye?
For the child’s
‘onlie begetter?
He’ll make another.
For the child herself
the abortive dancer?
No, not for her
no tears.
I held the moon in my belly
nine month’s duration
then she burst forth
an outcry of poems.
And what fantasies do you have?
asked the psychiatrist
when I was running away from my husband.
Fantasies? fantasies?
Why surely (I might have told him)
all this living
is just that
every day dazzled
gold coins falling
through fingers.
So I emptied my purse for the doctor
See! nothing in it
but wishes.
He sent me back home
to wash dishes.
Returning further now
to childhood’s Woodlot
I go incognito
in sandals, slacks
old sweater
and my dyed
I go disarrayed
my fantasies
twist in my arms
ruffle my hair
I go wary
fearing to scare
the crown
No one remembers Dorothy
was ever here.

Section i is certainly generic enough that most of us can relate to it, or at least I can. Most of us end up “treading air? trying to live up to our own expectations, much less our parents’.

Section ii is a little more difficult. Is the abortion suggested in this section one the author actually had? Was it a metaphorical abortion, one that led to an “outcry of poems?? Or, did a real abortion, with all the accompanying heartbreak, lead to an outburst of poems?

Section iii could easily be autobiographical since it was widely known that she and her husband had marital difficulties, that it was faddish to consult psychiatrists during that period, and, like most men of the period probably considered it “normal? for a woman to be at home taking care of the home, washing the dishes.

How many of us are famous enough to be remembered when we return to our childhood home? How many of us can ever rediscover those childhood fantasies, much less have them come true. Or do we discover that the Wizard of Oz isn’t a wizard at all, but a charlatan that impresses us with our own fantasies?

Livesay’s Rites of Passage

Dorothy Livesay introduces the section of poetry called Rites of Passage with:

Rites of passage are generally recognized within the context of the adolescent’s struggle towards individual identity. In my view, however, these stages of ritual passage also characterize the search for relationship between a man and woman — the phases of love.

My favorite poem in this section


Nailed to two crosses, his and hers,
the mother’s
the father’s
How to resurrect
is the intense question
How to make of thine
Out of such desperate inharmonies
to become
one human domain?

The pain of it held me
thisway thatway turning
through fiery furnaces
eternally burning

If I have come out of it
calm clear as glass
it is because
you each one kissed me goodnight
without reprisals
sent me to sleep
on earth’s pillow
the solace that green grass

I was allowed to dream.

seems to exquisitely summarize several of the ideas in this section and reveals a universal truth that is all too often forgotten when parents disagree or fight with each other.

Livesay’s parents apparently had some strong disagreements, but their love for her allowed her to bridge those differences and emerge as a strong person. It is the loving acceptance of our parents, both our parents, that gives us the power to forge successful personalities, one that honors both parents. Without that love, personal weaknesses and it’s accompanying flaws seem inevitable.

Dorothy Livesay’s The Self-Completing Tree

I’ve been reading Canadian Poet Dorothy Livesay’s The Self-Completing Tree between working in the garden and taking walks. I’ll have to admit that I probably like what she has to say more than I do the way she says it. In fact, I was a little amazed at how similar our views of the world were when I read Linda Rogers’ excellent introduction. Nor am I sure I like that the book is arranged thematically rather than chronologically.

That said, I have found much that reawakens old feelings, even if there is little to bring new awareness. I did like this poem from the opening section that focuses on the title of the collection which offers an entirely different perspective from the similarly titled poem by Yeats:

What unwithering
is this?
the gnarled tree un-
knotting itself?
While in autumn
the dogwood blossoms —
against red rowan
is green and white
coming be

Actually, it reminds me of a favorite William Carlos Williams poem about a “dead? cherry tree that blossoms forth in the spring. Perhaps I merely like the poem because it reinforces my prejudice that despite my old bones I’m still blossoming forth with new ideas and new works of art.

I’m sure that my fondness for “Life Styles? comes from the same kind of prejudicial view of the world:

A city street
a corner
a nest
is always

but I accept
the situation
enjoy the tucked-in
kosher grocer
listen with silent laughter
to the sweet
private Hebrew lingo
my buttermilk
my yogurt

I’m so lucky:
Can fly off
beside the rivering waters
cabined and closed
facing the sunset
than fans the fast-flowing
river Opposite
are the shivering yellow woods
sturdy enduring

I’d like to think
we will never give up
the two life-styles:
of the teeming, jostling city
and life surrounded
by elms oaks maples
harbouring bluejays and squirrels:
scent of earth fast flowing water
gold drift of leaves—

I’d like to think
my grandchildren
would understand —
breathe hard —
seize unto these
two ways of being human.

I sometimes worry this is a hypocritical, not to mention unrealistic, view of the world, but I’ll have to admit to loving life in a sophisticated, international city with fine restaurants and art studios but thrive on nearby wildernesses. No matter how delightful the city, I cannot be happy unless I can escape to the country or to what passes for wilderness in the 21st century.

I only hope that my grandchildren and their grandchildren can somehow share that experience of two very different, but very enriching worlds.