I hope you have been enjoying the sunny glories of the season. Most nature poems approach a mystical yearning, where the verdant earth–or perhaps its frozen majesty–takes the place of the divine in the spiritual seeker’s imagination. Today’s sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) seems more like an ornate "STFU," but is a nature poem nonetheless. Its natural descriptions will have relevance for those readers lucky enough to live coastally, as well as for us landlocked schlubs inbetween.
Millay was born in the year of Walt Whitman’s death, and was widely read and critically lauded throughout her career. In a post-career appraisal, Allen Tate remarked that she used nineteenth-century language to express twentieth century thoughts. Here she employs a strict Shakepearean sonnet (16th century!), plain-spoken syntax and vocabulary, and the stretched-out metaphors of the nature poem to express thoughts that, here from my 21st-century vantage, seem eminently relatable. -ed.
Hearing your words, and not a word among them
Tuned to my liking, on a salty day
When inland woods were pushed by winds that flung them
Hissing to leeward like a ton of spray,
I thought how off Matinicus the tide
Came pounding in, came running through the Gut,
While from the Rock the warning whistle cried,
And children whimpered, and the doors blew shut;
There in the autumn when the men go forth,
With slapping skirts the island women stand
In gardens stripped and scattered, peering north,
With dahlia tubers dripping from the hand:
The wind of their endurance, driving south,
Flattened your words against your speaking mouth.
TJ Dema is a poet and arts administrator from Botswana. She spent a year in Pittsburgh as a "City of Asylum" writer in residence, and participated in the University of Iowa’s international writers program. She is considered a spoken-word poet, but has been published in many anthologies. As her "team" likes to phrase her biography,
TJ Dema is a poet who favours reading her work out loud and has done so in countries including but not limited to Germany, Zimbabwe, India, USA, Scotland and France. She participated in Lancaster University’s Crossing Borders program and later mentored the all female team of national champions for the British Council’s 7 country Power in the Voice initiative.
She is an honorary fellow of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (2012), former chairperson of the Writers Association of Botswana and runs Sauti A&PM – a Botswana based arts administration organization.
For her work within Botswana’s literary community she was named an Arise Magazine African Changemaker (2013) and a St Louis Top 40 under 40 catalyst (2014). Her chapbook Mandible (2014) was published by Slapering Hol Press for the African Poetry Book Fund as part of the Seven New Generation African Poets.
I don’t have a precise date for today’s reading, although the source where I found it is dated 2012. Enjoy. -ed.
When midnight comes
I find I have been away too long
Blowing my insides upside down
An umbrella in the wind
Too busy believing
In the magic to be found
In rat-infested pumpkin patches
And men with time
And one too many glass slippers in their hands
That sometimes there is blood
But not death
They learn to conceal the womb with breast
To choose that which can be lost
The hopeful recipe or the constant cake in cupboard
They learn to clutch the knife
Blade to borrowed rib
To empty the cup and be content
With utterly nothing
Well, there was a full month gap in publishing there that was completely unintentional. It just happened. When last I was preparing to write, I was hanging out on the sesquicentenary of William Butler Yeats’ birth (June 13, 1865) with some old WBY friends. Yes, one can literally and legitimately call them William Butler Yeats friends–we might not have met if not for him. And there are another 2-3-4 of those old WBY friends on this listserv, so I enjoy the opportunity to celebrate together, even at this digital remove.
Word searches are so awesome. With a simple one I found a poem I’m not sure I’d seen before. Sure, it’s slight, but it touches on just the theme I was seeking for today’s reading. One factual difference: all my old friends have kept their beauty remarkably! We’ll check back in in another 50 years, I suppose… -ed.
THE LOVER PLEADS WITH HIS FRIEND FOR OLD FRIENDS
Though you are in your shining days,
Voices among the crowd
And new friends busy with your praise,
Be not unkind or proud,
But think about old friends the most:
Time’s bitter flood will rise,
Your beauty perish and be lost
For all eyes but these eyes.