Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush”

I included this poem in my January 1, 2002 entry and I still haven’t found a better poem to start a new year.

Perhaps it’s a testament to the value of art that this poem written at the beginning of the 20th Century seems as valid today as it did the day it was written.


I LEANT upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky-
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleapt,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

December 1900

I’m really not fond of traditions, but republishing this poem is one of the traditions I really don’t mind repeating, particularly since it’s the first poem that I ever voluntarily memorized, certainly one of the few I still have memorized.

Lam’s Enter the Chrysanthemum

My problems with my back have made it impossible to spend much time at the computer, but they haven’t prevented me from fulfilling my pre-Christmas duties (cookies are done, presents are bought, most of the home-made candy is made, I made it to my daughter’s performance at the Tacoma Christmas Revels (though I’m sure I didn’t sound very cheerful while climbing the steep hill back to the car after sitting for three hours).

More importantly, though I’ve found it impossible to sit long enough at the computer to write a reasonable review of Jude the Obscure I am able to sit in my rocking chair and read for reasonable lengths of time, making it possible to read some poetry books that have been waiting for me. So I decided to come back to Jude later and read some poetry. Today I finished Fiona Lam’sEnter the Chrysanthemum, a delightful volume that made reading even more of pleasure than it already was.

I hesitated to cite my favorite poem, the title poem, but when I found it online read by the author

I decided I’d go ahead and discuss it briefly since I found it to be a marvelous poem:


Rolls of rice paper in the corner,
jars of soft-haired brushes,
elegant cakes of watercolour,
black inkstone at the centre.

My mother held the brush vertically,
never slant, arm and fingers poised,
distilling bird or breeze into
diligent rows of single characters.

Hours rippled. Years of practice urged
the true strokes forth-stiff bamboo
now waving in white air, cautious lines
now ribboning silk folds of a woman’s gown.

My favourite of her paintings
was of chrysanthemums. They began
as five arcs of ink, long breaths in the emptiness
alluding to stem and blossom. Then,

from the finest brush, the outline of each petal.
Flesh flowed from the fuller one, tipped
with yellow or lavender, until every crown
bloomed amid the throng of leaves.

If only I had been paper,
a delicate, upturned face stroked
with such precise tenderness.

Initially I was impressed with the concreteness of the poem, the description of the mother’s tools, and the mastery that goes into the calligraphy and drawing the author describes. I’m sure the fact that I have several books, brushes and inkstones on the art of Chinese Brush Painting sitting among my art supplies adds to my appreciation of phrases like “Years of practice” and “precise tenderness,” since I’ve never attained any of those yet.

The precision of the details reflects the precision of the art itself while also suggesting some of the mother’s characteristics, characteristics that are developed throughout the rest of this short volume.

In the end, though, it’s the final three lines, a virtual haiku, that make the poem for me because they succinctly capture the child’s view of her mother.

We learn much more about the narrator’s relationship with the mother, and father, in the first thirteen poems that make up part One of this 82 page edition. They are by far my favorite poems, perhaps because they unfold the child’s complex relationship with her parents with all the beauty of the unfolding chrysanthemums in this first poem.

In the end, though, it’s perhaps the subtle way each of these poems reflects on each other that I most like about this book. This poem, with a slightly different title provides an easy tie, but there are many instances like this:

Chrysanthemum Tea

As a child, I marvelled:
flowers I could drink.
Yellow granules in a yellow tin-
fragrance distilled for the tongue.
Pale gold elixir my mother dispensed
to quell a fever or aching throat..

Years later, I lift a teacup lid
to show my son the dried blossoms
blooming in a steaming collage
of leaves, crimson berries, rock sugar.
An undersea garden for the senses.
In the noodle house’s clang and bustle,
we take little sips of grace.

Of course, you probably can’t appreciate fully how this poem, found near the end of the volume, relates to earlier poems unless you buy the book, but it certainly seems well worth the price to me. I’ll definitely be looking for future volumes.

Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

I still can’t take Skye for his daily walk because my lower back is still out of alignment and walking often triggers instant, intense pain. However, I am well on my way to getting ready for Christmas. I’ve already baked six different kinds of cookies and am getting ready to start making my traditional decorated cookies. Combined with Leslie’s six kinds of cookie we have nearly a freezer full of cookies — a better than usual start, I think.

Heck, I’ve even played Bing Crosby’s “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”

on my iPhone and new Sony Blu-Ray sound systems while baking cookies. That song has been my traditional beginning of Christmas since I was three years old — though my family never played the song until we were decorating the tree. I suspect that song and my mother’s retelling of how much I cried when I at my first Santa Claus cookie that year are my two oldest memories.

I played it early because I needed a little extra motivation to begin baking this year. I’ve found it impossible to stand the whole time while baking, but luckily our kitchen is small enough that I can sit on a bar stool most of the time and swivel around to put cookies into the oven once I’ve made them.

It’s actually proven easier to hold a bowl of dough in my lap while using a small scoop to form most cookies. I suspect I’ll end up doing that even next year when I’m assuming I won’t be having back problems. We’ll have to see how decorating the house goes today.

I’m even able to sit at the computer a little longer lately, even though I’ve always managed to play some form of Scrabble at least once a day. While searching for the Bing Crosby version of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” I ran into this version by Bruce Springsteen that I just bought on iTunes:


Sick Leave

For those few who may have noticed my recent absence, I’m afraid I’ve been on sick leave and may be for a while longer. The day after Thanksgiving Leslie and I tackled the long-put-off job of painting the main floor of our home, and by the time we finished late Sunday night we knew exactly why we had put it off so long.

Our (relatively)new home has high cathedral-ceilings which I love for their openness and for the many skylights which help to make the rooms as light as possible throughout the cloudy windows. At first I was convinced that I would need to rent and set up scaffolding in order to paint the top half of the room. I dreaded that so much that I finally figured out a way to build a portable platform that could be moved up and down the stairs as needed. To cut a long story short, we finished about 80% of the downstairs by late Sunday evening.

I would have been delighted if that had been the end of the story because I was quite pleased to have finished a job I put off for several years, but it wasn’t, at least for me. Apparently my back did not appreciate being stretched and distorted for three days in a row, and let me know its displeasure by keeping me awake screaming most of Sunday night and Monday morning, despite the use of pretty strong pain killers. In fact, it protested pretty loudly for all of last week, though I did manage to help out Dawn with Gavin and Lael as I’d promised to do. More importantly, I managed to keep my promise to Lael that I would take her to the Butterfly Garden on her first day off from school.

It was rather crowded, but I did manage to catch a couple of shots I liked, like this one


and this one,


but more importantly Lael seemed to enjoy the trip. It’s nice to know she hasn’t outgrown all of the things we used to do together.

After Friday I thought I felt nearly completely healed, but I found out differently when I tried to help Leslie finish the 20% we hadn’t finished the previous weekend. Instead, I seemed to “throw out” another part of my back and ended up at the doctor’s office this morning, and at the physical therapist’s tomorrow at 7:00 am.

Worst of all, it was sunny almost all the days I’ve been sick, the perfect time to be out birding. Hopefully all will go well at the physical therapist tomorrow and I’ll be back on track soon. Don’t count on too much too soon, though, as sitting at computer seems to be one of the main stressors on my back.

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