One or two things are all you need to travel over the blue pond, over the deep roughage of the trees and through the stiff flowers of lightning–––some deep memory of pleasure, some cutting knowledge of pain.
For years and years I struggled just to love my life. And then
the butterfly rose weightless, in the wind, “Don’t love your life too much,” it said,
“April is the cruellest month…” says T. S. Elliot in The Waste Land. He has his reasons. For me, April teases us with uncertainties, so in that sense, it’s a bit cruel. Just when you think it’s spring, a snow storm cometh. And just as that snow has melted and the temperature goes way above freezing and you step out to that bright sunshine, the brutal wind blows your optimism away and drops you back to sub-zero chill.
Just like this frequent visitor to my backyard. Crept underneath the fence to hide in her favourite spot under the spruce tree, uncertain which coat to wear, winter or spring, white or brown:
Just as our world has lived through a pandemic year, now with vaccines in hand, here come the new waves of variant outbreaks, bringing more uncertainties.
I wrote this poem at Easter exactly ten years ago. At that time I was dealing with a bit of a writer’s block, some kind of brain freeze while facing the real freeze outside. The next time I re-posted the poem a few years later in 2016, I was stressed out dealing with the post-surgery care of a family member. Thanks to all who had commented then, we got out of it slowly and experienced the grace of healing.
Easter 2021 is none like others. Distressful situations have multiplied, their magnitude in epic scale. As with everyone else in this world, I’ve lived through a pandemic year, which alas, still has no end in sight with the outbreaks of variants. And personally, I’m wary even just walking in public, not only for Covid risk, but having to look out to avoid being spat at or punched in the face due to all the unprovoked violence against Asians, or women, or both. Face masks may help protect us from a physical virus, but not that stemming from the human heart. Looking out to the world political stage, looming conflicts breed like a plague.
That first Easter wasn’t a celebration but an execution. A dark day, a torturous public punishment, Crucifixion. It was there in the middle of the world––signifying the centre and reaching to all––one sacrificial death unleashed the power of divine love to save us from ourselves, a concept I’m beginning to grasp as more and more urgent and relevant now. After death came the ultimate miracle, resurrection. That same resurrecting power today can raise the deadest of soul to a brand new life.
An Easter Poem
April is the month of empty dreams Half the days gone waiting for words and spring still frozen ground and on the screen a frigid page as white as snow.
Brown could be the color of hope After the white for all I know green is too much to wish for I’m contented to see a patch of dry and withered brown.
The sun is a perpetual sign that there’s still hope But it’s no herald of the seasons for its presence comforts all year long warming my blank and barren state as I await for words and spring.
But Easter is an apt reminder that The Word had come spoken clear to half-frozen ears His body hung on a lifeless tree Blood and water flowed onto parched and dusty earth
So what if no words come to me That dreaded writer’s block reigning the winter of sterility numbing senses, snatching thoughts, seizing any sign of spring.
It’s not about a post or a blog, Or even buds and melting snow. The Word had come lived and loved among us, broken, bled, died and rose, melting frozen hearts to greet a new dawn and eternal Spring.
–– Arti (April, 2011)
That historic Event in the past overrides all uncertainties in the future. He is risen!
Yesterday I went back to the place where just a few days ago I saw the Trumpeter Swans, and this time I found more. One adult and five juveniles were swimming leisurely in a peaceful surrounding. The scene was breathtaking.
This was the closest I’ve ever got near to a bird this big. They were swimming just a few feet from the snow-covered river bank where I was standing. This time, I could observe much clearer the beauty of their form… and discovered, of course, it’s in the curves!
Their naturally endowed, long neck is a posture of grace when held up straight, elegant and serene:
But when they bend down, the velvety, long neck creates curves that are sensually stirring:
When they fly, I could see the lofty curvature composed by their wings:
Beauty in its most natural and simplest form. Not flaunting, just being. Nothing they do to cultivate that, all endowed by their Maker, the creative Giver of life and grace.
Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river? Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air – An armful of white blossoms, A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies, Biting the air with its black beak? Did you hear it, fluting and whistling A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall Knifing down the black ledges? And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds – A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river? And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything? And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for? And have you changed your life?
– Mary Oliver (italicized lines her own)
Yes, I saw it… and felt it. Still rippling in my heart.
What do you do when almost everything attractive is closed except the essentials which you’ve already stocked up for the next week or two? To the woods I go, to find relief for cabin fever and a breath of fresh air despite the crisp -12C (10F) weather on this winter day.
Dust of Snow
The way a crow Shook down on me The dust of snow From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart A change of mood And saved some part Of a day I had rued.
–– Robert Frost
Frost is right. A dust of snow can dispel a stuffy mood. Also birds, mosaic of dried leaves on the ground, wavy patterns of the icy river, chickadees and downies on branches are some other natural remedies.
Or this bluejay in the tree which occupied me for half an hour or so. Why, such a common bird, you might say. But for me, not so, not on a cold, winter day.
Or, this swirling pattern of frost on water, where I spotted a goldeneye swimming by, oblivious to the cold. Don’t see her? Right by the rock:
But it’s this scene that mesmerized me most, entry to an imaginary place, where the escapist in me can flee:
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
‘Reading the Season’ is my Christmas post every year. It’s always a pleasure to spend some quiet time amidst the hustle and bustle of the festivities to meditate on the essence and meaning of the Season. Yes, something like the perennial “A Charlie Brown Christmas”.
My favourite of her works is The Crosswicks Journal series. In there is the alchemy of wisdom, experience, and faith. Rereading Book 3 The Irrational Season this time, I came upon this verse which I didn’t notice much before. But this year’s different, for there’s a newborn in the family.
Here’s L’Engle’s short intro before the poem:
“When I wrote the following lines I thought of them as being in Mary’s voice, but they might just as well be in mine––or any parent’s.” (p. 115, The Irrational Season)
Now we may love the child.
Now he is ours,
this tiny thing,
utterly vulnerable and dependent
on the circle of our love.
Now we may hold him,
feeling with gentle hands
the perfection of his tender skin
from the soft crown of his head
to the sweet soles of his merrily kicking feet.
His fingers softly curl
around one finger of the grownup hand.
Now we may hold.
Now may I feel his hungry sucking at my breast
as I give him my own life.
Now may my husband toss him in the air
and catch him in his sure and steady hands
laughing with laughter as quick and pure
as the baby’s own.
Now may I rock him softly to his sleep,
rock and sing,
sing and hold.
This moment of time is here,
has happened, is:
give me the courage for the time
when I must open my arms
and let you go.
And oh what letting go it was for Mary that day at the foot of a cross, that ultimate letting go, and with it, the awakening which must have brought her back to that first night when she gave birth in the manger.
Above Photo Credit: Diana Cheng. An evening view from Ontario’s Point Pelee National Park, September, 2018.
Behind that stone before
it was rolled away
a corpse lay.
There lay all I deplore:
fear, truculence – much more
that to any other I need not say.
But behind that stone I must be sure
of deadness, to allay
self-doubt i.e. so nearly to ignore
the love and sacrifice for our
release; to nearly stray
back into the old
pursuit of virtue.
Once it is clear
it was a corpse that day,
then, then, we know the glory
of the clean place, the floor
of rock, those linens, know the hour
of His inexplicable “Peace;” the pour
— after He went away —
of wonder, readiness, simplicity,
“Then went the jury out, whose names were Mr. Blindman, Mr. Nogood, Mr. Malice, Mr. Love-lust, Mr. Live-loose, Mr. Heady, Mr. Highmind, Mr. Enmity, Mr. Liar, Mr. Cruelty, Mr. Hate-light, Mr. Implacable, who everyone gave in his private verdict against him among themselves, and afterwards unanimously concluded to bring him in guilty before the judge. And first among themselves, Mr. Blindman, the foreman, said, I see clearly that this man is a heretic. Then said Mr. Nogood. way with such a fellow from the earth! Ay, said Mr. Malice, for I hate the very look of him. Then said Mr. Love-lust, I could never endure him. Nor I, said Mr. Live-loose; for he would be always condemning my way. Hang him, hang him, said Mr. Heady. A sorry scrub, said Mr. High-mind. My heart riseth against him, said Mr. Enmity. He is a rogue, said Mr. Liar. Hanging is too good for him, said Mr. Cruelty. Let us despatch him out of the way, said Mr. Hate-light. Then said Mr. Implacable, Might I have all the world given me, I could not be reconciled to him; let us forthwith bring him in guilty of death. And so they did; therefore he was presently condemned to be had from the place where he was, to the place from whence he came, and there to be put to the most cruel death that could be invented.”
“A Quiet Passion” is a biopic of the reclusive 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson. It is written and directed by the esteemed English auteur Terence Davies, who brought us the adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel “The House of Mirth” in 2000, “The Deep Blue Sea” based on Terence Rattigan’s play in 2011, and last year’s “Sunset Song”, a beautiful cinematic rendition of Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s work.
Literary filmmaking is Davies’ repertoire. If a movie is about a poet, under his helm, it is only natural that it would be crafted like poetry. In this sense, “A Quiet Passion” is a fine example. Every frame is meticulously composed and lit, the atmosphere dense with meaning. We also hear lines from Dickinson’s poems read out as voiceover. We experience poetry in sight and sound.
However, not all poetry is of the Romantics, roaming vales and hills, dancing with the daffodils. Davies’s Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) is confined in her father Edward’s (Keith Carradine) Amherst house. Her main human interactions are with her immediate family, a stern father, a depressed mother (Emily Norcross), an attorney brother Austin (Duncan Duff), and her younger sister (Jennifer Ehle). If she ever felt claustrophobic, there’s her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May) and her close friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey). Too narrow a social circle? Not really, for they are all responsible for sharpening her views and words. And they make a wonderful cast.
Under the direction of Davies, Cynthia Nixon (of ‘Sex and the City’ fame) portrays Emily Dickinson with an austere persona restrained by social mores and troubled by unrequited romantic pursuit. She might have been a rebel with a just cause in confronting restrictive societal norms, but I was surprised to see Dickinson here as a verbal combatant, a bitter and belligerent soul. Somehow from my limited reading of her poetry, that image has not set in my mind.
“A Quiet Passion” is a mixed bag of oxymoron. In an austere setting, characters deliver ornate speeches like you only hear in a stage play. Shrouded in a confining milieu, you hear comedic exchanges and humorous, deadpan facial expressions, even LOL moments. While the cinematography is meditative and calm (as in Davies’ last work “Sunset Song”), the feeling evoked is unsettling anticipation.
Emily’s supportive and devoted sister Lavinia (Vinnie), well played by Jennifer Ehle (of Elizabeth Bennet fame), gives me a breath of fresh air, for often she is the quiet passion supporting the poet, a gentle strength and a moral compass. Vinnie is the pragmatic and rational voice, like reminding Emily that Rev. Wadsworth—on whom Emily has a romantic crush—is a married man. But she is ever so sweet and pleasant as Jennifer Ehle is, even when admonishing.
The sisterhood between Nixon’s Emily and Ehle’s Vinnie makes me think of another literary sisterhood, that of Jane and Cassandra Austen. But what a difference. I long for Jane’s joie de vivre, something that’s missing here in this relatively harsh portrayal of Emily Dickinson. Further, I couldn’t help but compare this film with another that’s also about a poet: Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” (2009), a beautiful cinematic rendering of the English Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his muse Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish).
The last scenes are as severe as they are heart breaking. Death may be a frequent motif in Dickinson’s poetry, as Emily had experienced the passing of her parents, but the constant pounding of her own illness makes me think of another oxymoron: superfluous suffering. The repeated scenes of seizures Emily goes through in the last section of the film may be a bit too much to watch for some, although Nixon has certainly given us a true-to-life performance. I can’t imagine all the takes she had to repeat, acting out those excruciating seizures on her bed.
When asked about the seizures in the Q & A after, Nixon replied that she had not done any research or specifically prepared; she just went ahead and did it. All the research had been done by Davies. He had read up on volumes of Dickinson’s biographies for the film.
What “A Quiet Passion” has done for me is stirring up my curiosity in finding out what Emily Dickinson the person was really like, and, I want to delve into more of her poetry. I have to remind myself though that the cinematic portrayal here is only Davies’ own interpretation and personal response to her poetry. I just like to explore on my own.
April is still here I’m glad. Here’s a timely piece to join in the celebration of National Poetry Month.
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there are two of us – don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
Emily Dickinson (1830-86)
Oh the comfort of anonymity, no need to trend, to like or be liked, to climb the social media ladder, to reach new heights with more followers. Dickinson sure enjoyed her reclusive life, felt fine with being an unknown. Most of her poems were published posthumously, including this one.