A Last Look at Carnival Evening

I’m going to spend one more day, though I could easily spend a week more, trying to convince you that Carnival Evening is definitely worth your time, a perfect companion during the Covid-19 lockdown. I’ve chosen  two poems which represent two themes in Pastan’s work.  

Several of her poems focus on famous paintings, which I might have found frustrating before the invention of the internet since I would have to run to the library and spend at least an hour finding the painting.  That’s not a problem now, though, and being able to look at the artwork while reading the poem elucidates both.  

I’ll have to admit that I didn’t know who Vermeer was before I read the poem, but I did recognize a couple of his most famous paintings, just not this one, when I looked him up online.  I was a little surprised to find how many references there were to this painting, particularly this one.

Woman Holding a Balance
Vermeer, 1664

The picture within
the picture is The Last
Judgement, subdued
as wallpaper in the background.
And though the woman
holding the scales
is said to be weighing
not a pearl or a coin
but the heft of a single soul,
this hardly matters.
It is really the mystery
of the ordinary
we’re looking at—the way
Vermeer has sanctified
the same light that enters
our own grimed windows
each morning, touching
a cheek, the fold
of a dress, a jewelry box
with perfect justice.

When Vermeer put an illustration of The Last Judgement in the background of his painting he seems to be suggesting a tie between that and the scale, by referring to it as “wallpaper” Pastan notes the painting while at the same time suggesting it is far less important than the “sanctified” light at the heart of the painting and her poem. Even the “weighing” of a human soul to determine its eternal fate “hardly matters”  compared to this holy light. More importantly, for the reader, this is “the same light that enters/our own grimed windows/each morning…”  Most of us are too preoccupied to notice the light; it takes the artist,  the poet, or the photographer to remind us of this daily blessing in hopes that we, too, will see it as holy, sanctified.

Pastan’s interest in art isn’t limited to paintings, she also focuses on her art in poems about Emily Dickinson, new poets, marginalized poets, and the nature of books in general.  My favorite of these types of poems is this one, which made me think that it might have been Emily Dickinson’s version of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

postcard from cape cod

just now I saw
one yellow
across buzzard’s bay
how brave I thought
or foolish
like sending
a poem
across months
of silence
and on such

There is a nowness to the poem that transcends the years it took to reach my eyes. I can almost see the butterfly.  I know many people think of poetry as a foolish waste of time, but I have never thought of it as taking courage to write poetry. Perhaps it takes courage to send it to out there for fear of appearing foolish.  I like this poem because it is delicate, barely two sentences long and, yet, quite beautiful. 

Pastan’s poetry reminds me not only of the Chinese and Japanese poets I’ve come to love but even more of Emily Dickinson.  It’s not just the immediacy and simplicity of her poems that is reminiscent of Dickinson. There is a sadness, a shyness, a sense of isolation that pervades her poems which she transforms into wisdom.  

Memorial Day, 2020

Long, long ago when I was a freshman in college and had overcome my dislike of poetry, I memorized Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” because I loved the sheer sound of “Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light” and because I identified with the poet’s attitude towards death.  

Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

It’s still an amazingly powerful poem.  I certainly knew at that age that my wisdom had “forked no lightning” and that I wasn’t ready to depart this world.  I believed that even more fervently when Lt. Wright died when his tank was blown up by a Viet Cong bazooka while escorting a supply convoy, a death that still haunts me every Memorial Day.

I’ll have to admit, though, that I hadn’t thought of this poem for a long time until I read Pastan’s “Go Gentle,” a very different view of death. 

Go Gentle

You have grown wings of pain
and flap around the bed like a wounded gull
calling for water, calling for tea, for grapes
whose skins you cannot penetrate.
Remember when you taught me
how to swim? Let go, you said,
the lake will hold you up.
I long to say, Father let go
and death will hold you up.
Outside the fall goes on without us.
How easily the leaves give in,
I hear them on the last breath of wind,
passing this disappearing place.

The similarity between the titles of the poems doesn’t seem entirely coincidental — though their views on death are diametrically opposed.  “Go Gentle” made me reexamine my views toward death some fifty years later. 

At 78, my attitude towards death is no longer so black-and-white.  Seeing my mother spend the last years of her life suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in a residential care facility  might well be the worst experience of my life, especially knowing how much she hated seeing her own grandmother die from the same disease. Faced with the same fate, I’d be sorely tempted to use the shotgun on the top shelf of my closet.  Visiting a close friend slowly dying from lung cancer after his throat cancer spread was nearly as painful. 

I’ve overcome three different cancers in my life.  When I was told that I wouldn’t live for more than six months if they didn’t immediately treat my throat cancer at the age of 57, I opted for surgery three days later. After the surgery, I wasn’t sure I had made the right decision.  Being on a feeding tube for three months unable to talk can make you question the value of your life.  Twenty years later, the pain and suffering seem justified but faced with the same decision at 78 I suspect my decision would be different.

Linda Pastan’s Carnival Evenings

As usual, I’ve long since forgotten which blogger enticed me to buy Linda Pastan’s Carnival Evening in November of 2017, but if I did I would write them a “Thank You” note.  I love this collection of poems; I can’t remember marking so many poems to reread in a single volume since I started using Post-it Tabs. I wonder why I never heard of her before.  

I suspect, however, that if I had encountered her poems long ago when I was in college I wouldn’t have appreciated them nearly as much as I do now.  Heck, I might not have appreciated them as much in 2017 as I do right now during this Covid-19 lockdown.  Like all “good” poets Pastan helps you to recognize things in yourself that you already knew but didn’t recognize until you discovered them in her poems.  The view expressed in 

The News of the World

Like weather, the news
is always changing and always
the same. On a map
of intractable borders
armies ebb and flow.
In Iowa a roof is lifted
from its house like a top hat

caught in a swirl of wind.
Quadruplets in Akron.
In Vilnius a radish
weighing 50 pounds.
And somewhere
another city falls
to its knees.

See how the newsprint
comes off on our once
immaculate hands
as we wrap the orange peel
in the sports page
or fold into the comics
a dead bird

the children found
and will bury
as if it were the single
sparrow whose fall
God once promised
to note, if only
on the last page.

is not exactly original, and, in fact, seems like some long-forgotten cliché.  Like most clichés or stereotypes, though, it contains a kernel of truth — and never more so than in today’s 24-hour news cycles. The only real question is whether the city where you live will be the next one that “falls to its knees”  — and, if so, will it ever get back up?

The line that really makes the poem for me, though, is “See how the newsprint/comes off on our once immaculate hands.”  Perhaps no one under 30 would understand that line, but I still remember having to wash my hands repeatedly after delivering the newspapers on my route. They just felt dirty.  Does reading the news just increase our awareness of injustice and sin, or does knowing that evil exists (and doing nothing about it) make us guilty, too? 

The poet’s view of the “news of the world” becomes even more complex at the end of the poem when she references Matthew 10:29:  “Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s consent” (Christian Standard Bible translation). Somehow the “real news” we are constantly fed seems less real, and less newsworthy, than the small tragedies we face in our personal lives.

Perhaps my favorite poem in this collection, and one that is much more representative of the volume as a whole is:

The Obligation to Be Happy

It is more onerous
than the rites of beauty
or housework, harder than love.
But you expect it of me casually,
the way you expect the sun
to come up, not in spite of rain
or clouds but because of them.

And so I smile, as if my own fidelity
to sadness were a hidden vice--
that downward tug on my mouth,
my old suspicion that health
and love are brief irrelevancies,
no more than laughter in the warm dark
strangled at dawn.

Happiness. I try to hoist it
on my narrow shoulders again-
a knapsack heavy with gold coins.
I stumble around the house,
bump into things.
Only Midas himself
would understand.

Although I suspect that my overall outlook on life is a little more optimistic than Pastan’s, I can certainly identify with the narrator of this poem.  I’ve had evaluations where it was noted that I needed to smile more. And I would have been more than willing to do that if I had honestly been happier.  I’ve always been suspicious of the modern obsession with “happiness.” I’m even more suspicious of “obligations.” Being obliged to be happy definitely makes me unhappy.   

I know very little about the “rites of beauty,” but I do know that it was much easier earning my way through college as a janitor than it was to be “happy” all the time.  Love, too, always seemed to come naturally.  I couldn’t imagine having grown up without my parents’ love,  just as I can’t imagine not loving my kids and grandkids as I’ve grown older.  Happiness, depending on how you define it, of course, is much harder to attain, which probably explains why I don’t take it as a given or think of it as a goal.

Like the narrator, I can manage to smile when its demanded of me, but I’m pretty sure I’m more apt to look somber or, hopefully, pensive.  I like pensive. I first got serious about  Buddhism when I read that 

The First Noble Truth is the existence of sorrow. Birth is sorrowful, growth is sorrowful, illness is sorrowful, and death is sorrowful. Sad it is to be joined with that which we do not like. Sadder still is the separation from that which we love, and painful is the craving for that which cannot be obtained

I don’t think I have a “fidelity to sadness,”  am not entirely convinced that “existence is sorrow,” but do believe there is more sorrow in the world than happiness, that sorrow is as essential to our existence as happiness is.  

Trying to be happy all the time is definitely too much of a burden to bear. You’d have to have superpowers — or drugs — to be happy while performing all the mind-numbing chores that are required around the house.  I suspect (like the author does) that we would soon discover, as Midas did, that too much of a good thing is even worse than not having enough.  

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