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

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