Saturday, December 14, 2019

Get Me Through December (December 13, 2019)

In September of 2011 my family experienced the loss of a family member in a violent and shocking manner. The trauma of this event reverberates to this day in the lives of my two adult children. Needless to say, Christmas that particular year was very painful, as each holiday since has been. The festivities that accompany each Christmas season which are intended to lift spirits instead create a painful emotional dichotomy because although time passes and healing slowly presents itself, the pain and sense of loss remains. Similarly, a friend of mine lost a young son to a drug overdose five years ago, after years of dealing with the darkness of addiction. Since that time Christmas has become something to be endured, rather than enjoyed. Another close friend lost a daughter to cancer in the fall of 2018 and has had to reimagine Christmas since that time.

Although these are extreme examples of loss, they are not uncommon. But even if one has not endured a personal tragedy of some type, many, many people live with chronic depression and anxiety, day in and day out. Ironically, the holidays inevitably stir up deep and latent pain and longing for many, made more difficult by the societal pressure to feel “happy” and “joyful” and spread the “Christmas spirit”. 

Tonight, on W&M we will give voice to the struggle faced by many during the Christmas and holiday season, through a group of poems that are honest and insightful, and music that expresses what words cannot. 

Some may ask, “why focus on the negative?” or “life is difficult enough, so why dwell on pain and make it worse, especially at this time of the year?” These are fair questions. My response is simply this: loss, pain and longing are all part of human existence, whether acknowledged or not. I’ll go further. There are gifts that come with depression and pain, in the form of a deeper appreciation of beauty, for example. Music resonates more intensely within the soul that knows pain as well as it knows ecstasy. We all carry some emptiness within; emptiness that we sometimes try to fill with activity, or pleasure, or food, or alcohol or drugs, anything to distract from the pain, remedies that ultimately do not deliver. I believe that this emptiness within is sacred. A sense of emptiness and longing opens us to the healing powers of music, literature, deep friendships and love, passion, empathy,  and the ability to do good work. This sacred emptiness is what tonight’s program is directed to. 

Elegy Beginning with a Text from My Brother
By Molly Spencer

how was the snow

As if the snow were a province I'd visited,
not a season come down upon me. As if
he'd never stood on the ridge and watched

the whole cloth of it blow in
over the lake,
blank and bridal.

Any mark I'd made on the earth, it annulled:
the dropped map, the poor footprints of children,
the felts I pulled from their boots hoping they'd dry

by morning. The snow was a field
I woke in.
Here are the drifts
of my ribs for proof, here is my heart

gone to windbreak. Brother, I am tired
of living bone-bound and uphill, of rolling through stops
to keep from getting stuck.

The snow was irrevocable, songless.

A relic. The ruins
of the wood.

I made my way home
by ditch and by deadfall,
all night laid awake in the storm
listening for the scrape
of the plow gone by, waiting
for the blade and my body

to change the snow's tense
from falling and falling
to fell.

From If the house by Molly Spencer. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2019 All rights reserved. Originally from The Georgia Review, Volume LXXII, No. 3&4 (Fall/Winter 2018)



Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft, and slow
Descends the snow.

Even as our cloudy fancies take
Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
In the white countenance confession,
The troubled sky reveals
The grief it feels.

This is the poem of the air,
Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair,
Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
Now whispered and revealed
To wood and field.

Christmas Away from Home


Her sickness brought me to Connecticut.
Mornings I walk the dog: that part of life
is intact. Who's painted, who's insulated
or put siding on, who's burned the lawn
with lime—that's the news on Ardmore Street.

The leaves of the neighbor's respectable
rhododendrons curl under in the cold.
He has backed the car
through the white nimbus of its exhaust
and disappeared for the day.

In the hiatus between mayors
the city has left leaves in the gutters,
and passing cars lift them in maelstroms.

We pass the house two doors down, the one
with the wildest lights in the neighborhood,
an establishment without irony.
All summer their putto empties a water jar,
their St. Francis feeds the birds.
Now it's angels, festoons, waist-high
candles, and swans pulling sleighs.

Two hundred miles north I'd let the dog
run among birches and the black shade of pines.
I miss the hills, the woods and stony
streams, where the swish of jacket sleeves
against my sides seems loud, and a crow
caws sleepily at dawn.

By now the streams must run under a skin
of ice, white air-bubbles passing erratically,
like blood cells through a vein. Soon the mail,
forwarded, will begin to reach me here.

"Christmas Away from Home" by Jane Kenyon from Collected Poems. Copyright © 2005 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon. Reprinted with permission of Graywolf Press,

First Frost
By Maggie DeCapua

This morning,
I watched the temperature
sink below forty degrees
for the first time
since May in Montreal,
so seeing my breath
as I spoke to you
felt safe, as though
our words are all
we watched them drift
towards the sky with
the morning mist
rolling off the mountains,

Driving home I watched the minutes
tick by, feeling the hot processed air
on my face
from your car’s heaters.
it smelled like
December: snowfall and
salted caramel mochas.

As the signs of winter reach
their bare-branch boney fingers
out to me,
I join hands with the cold. Each
passing season
spins spirals, pulling me away
from the fragments
of memories
beneath the snow.

From “a fear of the dark”, reprinted with permission.

Get Me Through December
By Fred Lavery & Gordie Sampson

How pale is the sky that brings forth the rain
As the changing of seasons prepares me again
For the long bitter nights and the wild winter's day
My heart has grown cold, my love stored away
My heart has grown cold, my love stored away
I've been to the mountain, left my tracks in the snow
Where souls have been lost and the walking wounded go
I've taken the pain no girl should endure
Faith can move mountains; of that I am sure
But faith can move mountains; of that I am sure
Just get me through December
A promise I'll remember
Get me through December
So I can start again
No divine purpose brings freedom from sin
And peace is a gift that must come from within
I've looked for the love that will bring me to rest
Feeding this hunger beating strong in my chest
Feeding this hunger beating strong in my chest
Get me through December
A promise I'll remember
Get me through December
So I can start again

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Be Still, My Soul

Body and Soul

They grow up together
but they aren't even fraternal

twins, they quarrel a lot
about where to go and what

to do, the body complains
about having to carry

the soul everywhere as if
it were some helpless cripple,

and the soul snipes that it can go
places the body never dreamed of,

then they quarrel over which one of them
does the dreaming, but the truth is,

they can't live without each other and
they both know it, animaanimosity,

the diaphragm pumps like a bellows
and the soul pulls out all the stops—

sings at the top of its lungs, laughs
at its little jokes, it would like

to think it has the upper hand
and can leave whenever it wants—

but only as long as it knows
the door will be unlocked

when it sneaks back home before
the sun comes up, and when the body

says where have you been, the soul
says, with a smirk, I was at the end

of my tether, and it was, like a diver
on the ocean floor or an astronaut

admiring the view from outside
the mother ship, and like them

it would be lost without its air
supply and protective clothing,

the body knows that and begins
to hum, I get along without you

very well, and the soul says, Listen
to that, you can't sing worth a lick

without me, they'll go on bickering
like this until death do them part—

and then, even if the soul seems to float
above the body for a moment,

like a flame above a candle, pinch
the wick and it disappears.

She Considers the Dimensions of Her Soul

The shape of her soul is a square.
She knows this to be the case
because she often feels its corners
pressing sharp against the bone
just under her shoulder blades
and across the wings of her hips.
At one time, when she was younger,
she had hoped that it might be a cube,
but the years have worked to dispel
this illusion of space, so that now
she understands: it is a simple plane,
a shape with surface, but no volume—
a window without a building, an eye
without a mind.
Of course, this square
does not appear on x-rays, and often,
weeks may pass when she forgets
that it exists. When she does think
to consider its purpose in her life,
she can say only that it aches with
a single mystery, for whose answer
she has long ago given up the search—
since its question is a word whose name
can never quite be asked. This yearning,
she has concluded, is the only function
of the square, repeated again and again
in each of its four matching angles,
until, with time, she is persuaded
anew that what it frames has no
interest in ever making her happy.

My Soul

In the suburbs on a bike path that in
any other age would be a road roughed
halfway through some dark wood’s listening heart

two damp young men in suits sucked dry of light
walk stiffly and uncertain round a bend
in each left hand the black box of a book

They see me then spread out to fill the way
as sun blares down and dry May wind slaps
cheap loose plastic cloth against their shins

The thinner taller blond one greets me in
an earnest tone these days not often heard
and when I do not take his offered hand

surprised he pulls it back by jerked degrees
says I’m Elder White this is Elder Cole
We’d like to talk with you about

Then without my willing it this left palm
rises as if to let them read what life
has written there and with eyes as steady

as I always hoped they were I meet the
blue and shaking gaze of this elder who
is younger than my unborn son’s first son

and without warmth or cold not harsh or kind
say I do not want to talk about this
These boys awkward in cloth and flesh of men

stammer in relief their soft farewells
and what I would not let them save or name
stands long in silence looking after them

I Know My Soul
By Claude McKay

I plucked my soul out of its secret place, 
And held it to the mirror of my eye, 
To see it like a star against the sky, 
A twitching body quivering in space, 
A spark of passion shining on my face. 
And I explored it to determine why 
This awful key to my infinity 
Conspires to rob me of sweet joy and grace. 
And if the sign may not be fully read, 
If I can comprehend but not control, 
I need not gloom my days with futile dread, 
Because I see a part and not the whole. 
Contemplating the strange, I'm comforted 
By this narcotic thought: I know my soul.

Be Still, My Soul
By Katharina A. von Schlegel

Be Still My soul the Lord is on thy side 
Stand calm within the storm of grief and pain 
Trust in thy God to order and provide 
Through every change his faithful light remains 
Be still my soul the restful peace within 
Through trying times leads to a joyful land 
Be still my soul the wind and waves shall know 
The voice who ruled them while he dwelt below 
Torment and doubt have slipped into the past 
All dark and mysteries shall shine at last 
His burning sun shall melt the ice of fear 
Lift up your heart his soothing voice to hear 
Be still my soul when light you cannot see 
That trembling skies speak to the fear in thee 
The face of God illuminates the night 
Unending peace and trust in perfect light 
Be still my soul when tears fall from above 
You are divine eternally in love 
You are divine eternally in love

Saturday, November 9, 2019

The Aim Was Song (November 8, 2019)

The Aim Was Song

Before man came to blow it right
The wind once blew itself untaught,
And did its loudest day and night
In any rough place where it caught.

Man came to tell it what was wrong:
It hadn’t found the place to blow;
It blew too hard—the aim was song.
And listen—how it ought to go!

He took a little in his mouth,
And held it long enough for north
To be converted into south,
And then by measure blew it forth.

By measure. It was word and note,
The wind the wind had meant to be—
A little through the lips and throat.
The aim was song—the wind could see.

Two-Part Inventions


The First Invention, ear laid to earth, is listening
to the fingerlength underground beings moving in segments
through tiny tunnels; one inch shrugs out another,
as bamboo climbs in segments, joint by green joint ...

Or an inexpressive mask that must travel
the world, uphill and down, always keeping its own
counsel, impelling  forward from inward
unspelling a logic that cannot look out or see.

Or a thought that recurs, till one wonders
whether Bach’s theme, without cause, or pause,
is like a cat in a night-closet, the cat evenly leaping
from level to level; the theme that sinks down

into one hand, next leaps to the other, reprises itself,
then doubles down softly, a counterpane on a shelf.


Have you ever noticed, in Piranesi’s Carceri
d’invenzione, the tiny repeating figures in the foreground?
Brittle, frugal, fugal, they ignore that above them
stairways rise out of sight, and somewhere else

collapse, in-swallowed, devolving through walls or domes.
The same way Bach’s motive splays out to the right,
swoons flatly, swans it, footnotes, follows up,
talks to itself, purls, mutters, dawdles, resumes ...

Six is playing at infancy, one three five,
that’s all Baby knows, a block pile clumsily building.
Then the tall chord falls sideways—pretends
it’s a melody—everyone knows it’s a chord—

or a problem in long division which at one point just sticks
on that endless, that déjà vu decimal, six six six ...


Eleven is caterpillars, two, marching: the one
stave of thick-barred sixteenth notes set down
precisely beneath the other, tiptoe to toetip,
close-clinging, rising and falling and mirrored:

one looks down and locks the other’s horns,
or its own; the two could be said to be linked
like the locked yet endlessly out-spiraling
spindled ribbons of DNA. Yet there’s something

scary, like Cicero’s dizzying concept
of motus animi, hurtling mind unstoppably inventing
figures on figures, yet with no vanishing point,
a world of ladders or stairwells

where space keeps revolving, welling up into space
endless, unfree, unfolding like stairs in a case.

A New National Anthem

The truth is, I’ve never cared for the National
Anthem. If you think about it, it’s not a good
song. Too high for most of us with “the rockets
red glare” and then there are the bombs.
(Always, always, there is war and bombs.)
Once, I sang it at homecoming and threw
even the tenacious high school band off key.
But the song didn’t mean anything, just a call
to the field, something to get through before
the pummeling of youth. And what of the stanzas
we never sing, the third that mentions “no refuge
could save the hireling and the slave”? Perhaps,
the truth is, every song of this country
has an unsung third stanza, something brutal
snaking underneath us as we blindly sing
the high notes with a beer sloshing in the stands
hoping our team wins. Don’t get me wrong, I do
like the flag, how it undulates in the wind
like water, elemental, and best when it’s humbled,
brought to its knees, clung to by someone who
has lost everything, when it’s not a weapon,
when it flickers, when it folds up so perfectly
you can keep it until it’s needed, until you can
love it again, until the song in your mouth feels
like sustenance, a song where the notes are sung
by even the ageless woods, the short-grass plains,
the Red River Gorge, the fistful of land left
unpoisoned, that song that’s our birthright,
that’s sung in silence when it’s too hard to go on,
that sounds like someone’s rough fingers weaving
into another’s, that sounds like a match being lit
in an endless cave, the song that says my bones
are your bones, and your bones are my bones,
and isn’t that enough?

Ada Limón, "A New National Anthem" from The Carrying.  Copyright © 2018 by Ada Limón.  

First Blues


That summer night
Was hot
Steaming like a crab
Luscious under the shell

Televisions gone bleary
In front of men
In undershirts drinking beer

Wives upstairs took showers
A glimpse of their backs
In hallway mirrors

I sat in the dark
On the backporch
Drinking in the night

And it tasted good
So good
Going down
And somebody like me

Blew night through an alto sax
Blew and blew
His cooling breath
His hot cool breath on me—

And I came alive
In the dark
Listening like a fool

Saundra Rose Maley, "First Blues" from Disappearing Act. Copyright © 2015 by Saundra Rose Maley.  

Opera Singer


Today my heart is so goddamned fat with grief
that I’ve begun hauling it in a wheelbarrow. No. It’s an anvil
dragging from my neck as I swim
through choppy waters swollen with the putrid corpses of hippos,
which means lurking, somewhere below, is the hungry
snout of a croc waiting to spin me into an oblivion
worse than this run-on simile, which means only to say:
I’m sad. And everyone knows what that means.

And in my sadness I’ll walk to a café,
and not see light in the trees, nor finger the bills in my pocket
as I pass the boarded houses on the block. No,
I will be slogging through the obscure country of my sadness
in all its monotone flourish, and so imagine my surprise
when my self-absorption gets usurped
by the sound of opera streaming from an open window,
and the sun peeks ever-so-slightly from behind his shawl,
and this singing is getting closer, so that I can hear the
delicately rolled r’s like a hummingbird fluttering the tongue
which means a language more beautiful than my own,
and I don’t recognize the song
though I’m jogging toward it and can hear the woman’s
breathing through the record’s imperfections and above me
two bluebirds dive and dart and a rogue mulberry branch
leaning over an abandoned lot drags itself across my face,
staining it purple and looking, now, like a mad warrior of glee
and relief I run down the street, and I forgot to mention
the fifty or so kids running behind me, some in diapers,
some barefoot, all of them winged and waving their pacifiers
and training wheels and nearly trampling me
when in a doorway I see a woman in slippers and a floral housedress
blowing in the warm breeze who is maybe seventy painting the doorway
and friends, it is not too much to say
it was heaven sailing from her mouth and all the fish in the sea
and giraffe saunter and sugar in my tea and the forgotten angles
of love and every name of the unborn and dead
from this abuelita only glancing at me
before turning back to her earnest work of brushstroke and lullaby
and because we all know the tongue’s clumsy thudding
makes of miracles anecdotes let me stop here
and tell you I said thank you.

Ross Gay, "Opera Singer" from Bringing the Shovel Down.  Copyright © 2011 by Ross Gay.