Wilbur’s “Blackberries for Amelia”

Several articles, including ‘A Mind of Grace’ , state that “Blackberries for Amelia” is currently Wilbur’s favorite poem:

Fringing the woods, the stone walls, and the lanes,
Old thickets everywhere have come alive,
Their new leaves reaching out in fans of five
From tangles overarched by this year’s canes.

They have their flowers, too, it being June,
And here or there in brambled dark-and-light
Are small, five-petalled blooms of chalky white,
As random-clustered and as loosely strewn

As the far stars, of which we are now told
That ever faster do they bolt away,
And that a night may come in which, some say,
We shall have only blackness to behold.

I have no time for any change so great,
But I shall see the August weather spur
Berries to ripen where the flowers were —
Dark berries, savage-sweet and worth the wait —

And there will come the moment to be quick
And save some from the birds,and I shall need
Two pails, old clothes in which to stain and bleed,
And a grandchild to talk with while we pick.

It might be my favorite Wilbur poem, too, certainly my favorite of his later poems. I’m not always optimistic about mankind’s future; I’m sure there’s a dark hole waiting out there somewhere, but when I look into the distance I’m comforted by the realization I won’t be there. No, I live my life one season at a time — with an occasional look forward to the next one.

I haven’t actually picked blackberries with any of my grandchildren, but some of my earliest childhood memories are of picking wild blackberries with my family and sitting in the kitchen watching mom transform those sour berries into the sweetest pie ever.

The high points of my retirement invariably involve a grandchild, whether it’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Disneyland, a trip to the zoo, or a simple birding walk. Retirement gives you the time to do all those things you should have done when you were younger but were too busy to do.

Wilbur’s “A Wood”

In “Waking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations(1969)” and “The Mind-Reader: New Poems (1976)” Wilbur, as the title indicates, introduces a number of translations to his work. Wikipedia notes, that he is known not only for his translation of poems but of several French plays. Personally, I found the translations less interesting than his own poems, but that’s probably largely a matter of personal taste.

Although I didn’t find any poems that stood out from the rest as in the earlier collections, I did find numerous poems that I enjoyed. My favorite poems usually deal with nature as does:

A WOOD

Some would distinguish nothing here but oaks,
Proud heads conversant with the power and glory
Of heaven’s rays or heaven’s thunderstrokes,
And adumbrators to the understory,
Where, in their shade, small trees of modest leanings
Contend for light and are content with gleanings.

And yet here’s dogwood: overshadowed, small,
But not inclined to droop and count its losses,
It cranes its way to sunlight after all,
And signs the air of May with Maltese crosses.
And here’s witch hazel, that from underneath
Great vacant boughs will bloom in winter’s teeth.

Given a source of light so far away
That nothing, short or tall, comes very near it,
Would it not take a proper fool to say
That any tree has not the proper spirit?
Air, water, earth and fire are to be blended,
But no one style, I think, is recommended.

I must admit I’m somewhat ambivalent about Wilbur’s formal style. It’s hard not to admire his ability to rhyme without allowing the rhymes to intrude into the poem, as they so often do, but when combined with phrases like “adumbrators to the understory” and “Maltese crosses” it begins to intrude upon the content of the poem.

Despite that, the poem offers a delightful observation, one that’s seldom made. “Mighty oaks” has become a cliché because past poets emphasized their majestic strength, their longevity. And it’s not only poets who have perpetuated these clichés. Just consider this purple passage, for instance.

Unfortunately, there’s a natural tendency to notice the obvious and ignore the hidden, to value the mighty and devalue the weak, to prefer the ostentatious to the subtle. It takes the artist to convince us of the value, and the beauty, of all.

Digging for China

I’ve just finished reading the volumes “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” and “Advice to a Prophet,” the first volumes of Wilbur I ever bought. I still think Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” is his masterpiece, comparable to Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress,” but I’ve already discussed it here and don’t have much to add to what I wrote then. If you haven’t read the poem, it certainly deserves a look.

Although “Digging for China” isn’t nearly as memorable as “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” few poems are, it develops some of the same ideas, but in a minor key, a key that, generally, I tend to prefer. Before reading the poem, or afterwards for that matter, you might enjoy listening to Wilbur read it here.

DIGGING FOR CHINA

“Far enough down is China,” somebody said.
“Dig deep enough and you might see the sky
As clear as at the bottom of a well.
Except it would be real–a different sky.
Then you could burrow down until you came
To China! Oh, it’s nothing like New Jersey.
There’s people, trees, and houses, and all that,
But much, much different. Nothing looks the same.”

I went and got the trowel out of the shed
And sweated like a coolie all that morning,
Digging a hole beside the lilac-bush,
Down on my hands and knees. It was a sort
Of praying, I suspect. I watched my hand
Dig deep and darker, and I tried and tried
To dream a place where nothing was the same.
The trowel never did break through to blue.

Before the dream could weary of itself
My eyes were tired of looking into darkness,
My sunbaked head of hanging down a hole.
I stood up in a place I had forgotten,
Blinking and staggering while the earth went round
And showed me silver barns, the fields dozing
In palls of brightness, patens growing and gone
In the tides of leaves, and the whole sky china blue.
Until I got my balance back again
All that I saw was China, China, China.

I think I heard this same tale when my brother and I dug our fort out in the back forty of our parents’ house when I was five. I might even have believed it since my brother was four years older than I and often managed to con me into doing more than my share of the digging. If he did, I probably just ended up exhausted, not elated like the narrator.

Still, I can easily identify with the concept of working so hard to “get ahead” that all I did was dig myself deeper and deeper into a dark hole. It’s called work, a means of getting to a “better place.” Or of losing sight of just how beautiful the place you are really is.

I don’t think I ever saw work as a form of prayer, but I could certainly see how it could be viewed that way, particularly if the work makes you sweat “like a coolie.” Such work is usually seen as a means of attaining a better life, preferably here, but, if not, at least in heaven.

If we’re lucky, like the narrator we finally step back from our efforts, look around, and realize that we’re already there. Heaven on earth if we can but see it in “silver barns,” “tides of leaves,” and “the whole sky china blue.”

Richard Wilbur’s “The Terrace”

I’ve just started reading Richard Wilbur’s Collected Poems: 1943-2004, and as usual I started with the earliest poems, though it meant I had to begin at the end of the collection. Although Wilbur does not entirely ignore the four years he spent fighting in World War II in the two volumes entitled “The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems,” 1947, and “Ceremony and Other Poems,” 1950, very few of the poems could be labeled “war poems.”

This poem, even though war is never mentioned, seems to me to accurately display the kind of alienation many soldiers experience after combat experience:

THE TERRACE

De la vaporisation et de la centralisation du Moi. Tout est là.
-Baudelaire


We ate with steeps of sky about our shoulders,
High up a mountainside,
On a terrace like a raft roving
Seas of view.

The tablecloth was green, and blurred away
Toward verdure far and wide,
And all the country came to be
Our table too.

We drank in tilted glasses of rosé
From tinted peaks of snow,
Tasting the frothy mist, and freshest
Fathoms of air.

Women were washing linens in a stream
Deep down below,
The sound of water over their knuckles
A sauce rare.

Imminent towns whose weatherbeaten walls
Looked like the finest cheese
Bowled us enormous melons from their
Tolling towers.

Mixt into all the day we heard the spice
Of many tangy bees
Eddying through the miles-deep
Salad of flowers.

When we were done we had our hunger still;
We dipped our cups in light;
We caught the fine-spun shade of clouds
In spoon and plate;

Drunk with imagined breathing, we inhaled
The dancing smell of height;
We fished for the bark of a dog, the squeak
Of a pasture gate.

But for all our benedictions and our gay
Readily said graces,
The evening stole our provender and
Left us there,

And darkness filled the specious space, and fell
Betwixt our silent faces,
Pressing against our eyes its absent
Fathomless stare.

Out in the dark we felt the real mountains
Hulking in proper might,
And we felt the edge of the black wind’s
Regardless cleave,

And we knew we had eaten not the manna of heaven
But our own reflected light,
And we were the only part of the night that we
Couldn’t believe.

This begins like a stereotypical love poem with a traditional romantic setting. The first eight stanzas are filled with the very language of love, “steeps of sky about our shoulders,” “verdure far and away,” “freshest fathoms of air” and poetic spellings like “mixt” and “betwixt.”

However, instead of the night bringing love’s fulfillment, as expected, it suddenly leaves the characters facing darkness’ “absent fathomless stare.” In the dark the mountains are “hulking,” and cold night winds “cleave” the two.

They conclude that any love they felt during the day must have been their “own reflected light,” a light that suddenly seems less believable standing there in the dark. Once having lost their “innocence, they seem incapable of believing the old myths. They are the equivalent of Hemingway’s “lost generation.” Having seen first hand what evil mankind is capable of, it’s hard to trust such “perfect moments.” They have lost faith in their very selves.

UPDATE: Here’s an interesting essay by Dana Gioai calledRichard Wilbur: A Critical Survey of His Career that has some war history particularly relevant to this poem, but also includes several equally interesting ideas.

Love Calls Us to the Things of the World

When considering poems appropiate for Valentine’s day, my thoughts first turned to Richard Wilbur’s powerful “Love Calls Us to the Things of the World” because of the title. However, a closer review revealed it isn’t really about romantic love, that staple of Valentine’s Day. Instead, it’s about a far deeper love, the love of the physical world, the love of life as lived here on earth.

Wilbur’s use of conceits is reminiscent of my favorite metaphysical poets, while his use of the “pulleys” in the first line reminded me of Herbert’s poem “The Pulley.” Like the metaphysical poets, Wilbur combines humor and seriousness to create a complex poem that reflects our own contradictory view of the relationship between the soul and our body:

Love Calls Us to the Things of the World

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.

Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessed day,
And cries,

“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven."

Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world's hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,

"Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance.'


Like the awakened sleeper in the poem, it took me a minute to realize exactly what Wilbur is describing at the beginning of this poem. Because the soul is freed from the body at night, when the body is startled awake in the morning, the soul sees itself, and other souls, floating in the air.

Though this appears to be just laundry hanging on a line outside the window, the narrator assures us “truly there they are,” filling whatever they are wearing “with the deep joy of their impersonal breathing,” impersonal because the soul, in its natural state, lives a calm, meditative existence, not the passionate life of the body.

Returning to the body, the soul “shrinks from the punctual rape of every blessed day,” because to the soul’s “impersonal breathing” any bodily activity must seem like rape. Still, the soul sees each day as a “blessed day,” hardly a term I would use to describe “rape.” The soul wishes there would be nothing on earth but “laundry,” unsoiled souls, repentant hands trying to wash the stains away, and a celebration of heaven.

Still, the soul descends with the warm sunshine in “bitter love.” Bitter because the soul knows that man must invariably sin, but still with love because the soul is drawn to the passion that only the body can truly feel and express. The souls descend from their angelic heights to the backs of both “thieves” and lovers who daily go forth to lose their innocence. Even the “saintly,” the nuns walking around with bad habits, like all of us, are trying to strike the difficult balance between the needs of the soul and the desires of the body.

Wilbur’s delightful poem celebrates the joy we all find in our bodies while still trying to stay true to our soul, that difficult line we all find so hard to walk while intoxicated with life.