Robert Penn Warren’s “Tale of Time: Poems 1960-1966” continues his exploration of the dark side of human life, this time with a particular focus on death. The title poem is a sequence of VII poems, with several sub-poems that focuses on his mother’s death. Although not all the poems focus on death, many of the best ones do. At my age, having lost both parents, the poems do seem quite moving and bring back old, and not so old, memories.
My favorite poem in this section doesn’t deal directly with death, though the mood of the poem certainly fits this theme:
The faucet drips all night, the plumber forgot it.
A cat, in coitu, squalls like Hell’s honeymoon.
A child is sick. The doctor coughs.
Do you feel, in your heart, that life has turned out as once you expected?
Spring comes early, ice
Groans in the gorge. Water, black, swirls
Into foam like lace white in fury. The gorge boulders boom.
When you hear, in darkness, the gorge boulders boom, does your heart say, “No comment”?
Geese pass in dawn-light, and the news
From Asia is bad, and the Belgians sure mucked up
The Congo. Human flesh is yet eaten there, often uncooked.
Have you sat on a hillside at sunset and eaten the flesh of your own
The world drives at you like a locomotive
In an archaic movie. It whirls off the screen,
It is on you, the iron. You hear, in that silence, your heart.
Have you thought that the headlines are only the image of your own heart?
Some study compassion. Some, confusing
Personal pathology with the logic of history, jump
Out of windows. Some walk with God, some by rivers, at twilight.
Have you tried to just sit with the children and tell a tale ending in laughter?
Oh, tell the tale, and laugh, and let
God laugh-for your heart is the dragon-tree, the root
Feels, in earth-dark, the abrasive scale, the coils
Twitch. But look! the new leaf flaps gilt in the sunlight. Birds sing.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly had the feeling described in the first stanza more times than I care to remember. It would be hard to imagine going through life without feeling that your life is not turning out the way you thought it would or wanted it to. Does it ever turn out the way you “wanted it to?”
I’ve experienced the feelings described in the second stanza even more than those described in the first stanza. One of the greatest weaknesses of being an introvert is that far too often you tend to observe life rather than live it. I’ve certainly never been known for showing affection; even as a child I would hide in the closet when I cried.
The scenes in the third stanza could have been ripped directly from today’s paper. Despite our heroic defeat of the “evil empire,” there certainly seems to be as much evil and as much consequent sorrow in the world as there has always been, doesn’t there? Too often world events do seem to come at me “like a locomotive/In an archaic movie.” When I’m not just throwing my hands up in despair, I am amazed how much anger and hatred these stories can evoke from me. How can people do these things to other people, and how can we stand by and let it happen?
While current events have never driven me to contemplate jumping out of a window, it has certainly evoked as much compassion as anger from me. But, increasingly I’ve enjoyed sitting and reading a book to Gavin or watching Peter Pan and laughing uproariously at poor old Captain Hook as he tries to keep from being devoured by the gigantic croc. Doing the same thing with my kids when they were young apparently didn’t change the universe, but it did make it possible for me to enjoy life in ways that would never have been possible otherwise. Hope springs eternal with each child.