Friday, October 21, 2011



Because of the morning bird singing,
song will persist inside me.
Because of the sound of traffic,
I shall always wonder,
and I shall be troubled at what remains
unknown. But I shall hope. And because of the mailbox,
and the road, and the tree. It is hard to despair
because of the tree. Slowly, we turn toward love.

~ Tryfon Tolides, An Almost Pure Empty Walking

This is what I call a “comfort poem.” “It is hard to despair / because of the tree. Slowly, we turn toward love.” As is typical of comfort poems, the beauty of the world is why we love life. Just one tree makes life worth living.

You may remember the ending of Jack Gilbert’s “Brief for the Defense”:

To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

            ~ Jack Gilbert, Refusing Heaven

The most famous line in that poem is “We must risk delight.” But ultimately the poem winds down to a very quiet pleasure, the faint sound of oars in the dark. “We must admit there will be music despite everything,” is another line I like.

If there are comfort poems, there are also “discomfort poems.” Or at least so they seem on the surface. Here is an abridged version of Jaroslav’s Seifert’s “Struggle with the Angel” (translated by Ewald Osers, who is also the translator of all the other passages from Seifert that I quote in this post)


Some time ago I saw a rose-red shade.
It stood by the entrance to a house
facing Prague’s railway station,
eternally swathed in smoke.

We used to sit there by the window.
I held her delicate hands
and talked of love.
I’m good at that!
She’s long been dead.
The red lights were winking
down by the track.

As soon as the wind sprang up a little
it blew away the gray veil
and the rails glistened
like the strings of some monstrous piano.
At times you could also hear the whistle of steam
and the puffing of engines
as they carried off people’s miserable longings
from the grimy platforms
to all possible destinations.
Sometimes they also carried away the dead
returning to their homes
and to their cemeteries.

Now I know why it hurts so
to tear hand from hand,
lips from lips,
when the stitches tear
and the guard slams shut
the last carriage door.

Love is an eternal 
struggle with the angel.
From dawn to night.
Without mercy.
The opponent is often stronger.
But woe to him
who doesn’t realize
that his angel has no wings
and will not bless.


Jaroslav Seifert (1901-1986) was a Nobel-Prize winning Czech poet. In his Nobel Lecture (1984), he described poetry as “our deepest and safest refuge, where we seek succor in adversities we sometimes dare not even name.” Poetry always held human love to be more important than politics, ideologies, nationalism. In his first volume of poetry, Town in Tears, Seifert wrote a typical defense of the primacy of love, of intimacy between two people, as the primary experience that makes any philosophy seem pretty dead, or at least secondary.

Love is something huge
You’ll find out
If there were revolution in the whole wide world
Still somewhere on green grass
Lovers would have time to hold hands
And lean their heads towards one another.

We nod. That patch of grass becomes the garden of Eden, and holding hands and leaning heads toward one another are gestures infinitely more precious than any marching and flag waving. The silence between two lovers is more sacred than anything spoken in religious sermons or political speeches. That’s one reason that religion and totalitarian regimes alike find love subversive.

And yet, these strange lines: 

Love is an eternal 
struggle with the angel.
From dawn to night.
Without mercy.
The opponent is often stronger.
But woe to him
who doesn’t realize
that his angel has no wings
and will not bless.


Personally I don't agree with this. Love brings great gifts and transforms us, even at the cost of suffering. We learn most early on, and then again at parting. 

But it’s not all solemn. Seifert can joke a little about those youthful idolatries:


Remember the wise philosophers:
Life is but a moment.
And yet whenever we waited for our girlfriends
it was eternity.


But this is a poet who in his later work wrote

But suddenly we met
at the steps of the fountain,
then each went somewhere else, at another time
and by another path.

Where is the refuge here, the sanctuary? For me it’s in the line “at the steps of the fountain.” The fountain stands for a different love: for beauty and some kind of inherent value of life. But there is some degree of refuge even in the simple statement that we met and we parted. Reading it, we realize that we participate in universal experiences of humanity. 

Likewise, there is a strange beauty in the description of the Prague train station back in the era of steam locomotives, those great black beasts with their fabulous panting, but also all that smoke and sooty grime. The Prague train station, sometime in the middle of the last century! It suddenly seems like a place we have seen, a portion of the heart of humanity, now ours because of the poet’s gift. It becomes a metaphor for all of life’s partings. And yet its melancholy beauty has the power to console.

Prague train station

Seifert has been called a poet of Prague rather than a poet of love, and yet he writes about love quite often. It’s just that he refuses to glorify romantic love. It doesn’t last, that “tremor of delight, / more often long and bitter pain,” he says in a portion of the poem I left out. Using a memorable image, he also says, “Often loves succeed each other / like suits of cards in your hand.”

As I mentioned, I disagree with ending of “The Struggle with the Angel”: even unhappy love does bless, but it may take us a long time to see what its gift has been and how it transformed us. The angel of greater love blesses us every day, indeed every moment when we are in touch with what we love; the angel of romantic love may seem capricious and withholding, even sadistic at times. But his ultimate blessing is growth into a larger personality, and that is infinitely precious. Each human lover is a teacher; these teachers/lovers, absorbed our psyche, guide us as needed. 

Why can’t romance be just joy? Why all the pain and weeping? Almost as soon as we experience our first love, we learn that there is indeed much sorrow inextricably bound with romance, an almost physical pain, a heavy stone in the middle of the chest. What a saving miracle that romance is not the only kind of love we experience. It’s the most stormy, passionate, and dramatic – sometimes a runaway locomotive, though more often a “tremor of delight” followed by a gradual loss of that trembling, a diminishment, a dwindling, and finally either a settling down to quiet affection (“the triumph of affection over passion,” as Louise Glück put it), or a parting of the ways.


Love is the torturer, and love is the savior: an entirely different, wider, and lasting love that can’t quite be labeled, but it is that love that permeates all true poetry. Is it “tenderness toward existence”? That’s the best phrase (thank you, Galway Kinnell) I have come across. That tenderness feels mostly like quiet affection, but it can be intense at times.

One of the questions that I have been answering in different ways over the years is the question of how I managed to survive my youth, when so many bad things were hitting me that the memories seem like an unfunny black comedy. Those were the crying years. Romantic love was a cruel joke, again and again. But against all that awful romance or lack of it (hard to say which was worse), I had two greater kinds of romance that didn’t fail me: my love of beauty, fused with my love for California, and my love of the intellect – all those books! The libraries kept me from suicide; that, and the beauty of California. And, in my later youth, also the love of my emerging vocation.

I’ve always found the way Marlene Dietrich signed off her letters – “I wish you love” –
to be one of the most wonderful things one could say to another person. To me it means love in every sense, including that larger kind of love that made me survive my own years of perdition. When one middle-aged single woman, stressed on the eve of a major trip, snapped at me, “Funny that those who don’t believe in God believe in romance!” I saw no contradiction at all. As long as I had a life of the mind and some beauty, I had my “larger love,” and felt no need for religion. And having the larger love allowed me to believe even in romance. 

In any case, it’s not a matter of “believing” in romantic love. It’s knowing that you can cope with the agony and ecstasy, and, later, with the loss of intensity when the infatuation phase ends, as it must. That’s where the steady flow of blessings from “greater love” comes to rescue. And, turning now to marriage rather than romance, those blessings, those marriages to something other than the human spouse, also strengthen the marital relationships – simply because one is no longer so needy and dependent, a little vampire in terror of abandonment, asking, “Do you love me? Do you really love me? Do you still love me? Will you always love me?”

True, some men are displeased to discover that a woman has a “life of her own.” They dream of a “service person” with no interests and no passionate pursuits of her own, so that her sole task would be taking care of the man’s needs. “Why do I always receive marriage proposals when I am in the kitchen?” one attractive older woman asked, knowing the question was rhetorical. Another single friend bewails the male attention she gets at a laundromat: “There is only one thing they want.” Freud was wrong! There are things that men want more than sex.

If we take seriously the radical idea that the pursuit of happiness is an unalienable human right, then no one should be expected to be another person's dedicated slave. But we should perhaps take a deeper look at the other love or loves in our partner’s life. If we can share even one of them, that’s magnificent. If not, the marriage can still be harmonious, since marriage is not about romance; it’s about stability. It’s a commitment to non-abandonment, to “being there” for the other – a foundation where we feel safe to explore our other loves, other “soul marriages.”

How reliable is the Angel of Greater Love? Sometimes I ask myself if I would still find life worth living if I could no longer read and write – stroke, for instance, can destroy the ability to understand and use language. It would certainly be a huge and cruel loss. I hope what would remain is the joy in the beauty of nature. And that is what poets continually appeal to.

“It’s hard to despair / because of the tree,” Tolides writes. And the love of that tree, of all trees, of animals, of rivers and lakes, of all there is, can bring its own moments of ecstasy and a delicious suspicion that we are links in the web of cosmic love. Seifert writes:

Hush, city, I can’t make out the whispering of the weir.
And people go about, quite unsuspecting
that above their heads fly
fiery kisses.



On this tenderness toward existence:

Yes, I am amazed by how much energy a small tree (with all of its leaves turned to brilliant, fluorescent red) holds for us! I'm experiencing the great "rootedness" of the South, whether it be due to the trees themselves, the ancient nature of the great Smokey Mountains, or the history of the place. At any rate, I taste this "tenderness" in the holy basil from the biodynamic farm, I hear this tenderness in my uncle's obituary (a hunter and outdoorsman who died yesterday evening), and I feel this tenderness in the Chinese clothing designer's true friendliness and new friendship as she tells me about her commitment to fair local governance in Asheville – her head wrapped in a funky art piece, her small body wrapped in a funky pieced-together jacket, as we share exquisite Indian food here in the deep South!

I am carrying "The Tree" in my pocket as I walk through the falling leaves of the Appalachian fall. This poem is very real here. Thank you!


Thank you for another post that brings us the colors of the Appalachian fall. How rich this kind of prose seems next to the minimalist – I am tempted to say “miserly” – style of modern poetry. Yes, Tolides gave us the precious observation that “it’s harder to despair because of the tree.” You give us not one abstract tree, but a feast of color and detail (holy basil! even sharing Indian food with a Chinese clothing designer).

If I were to summarize the central message of this blog entry, I’d say it’s the idea that for romantic love to be healthy rather than idolatrous and ultimately devastating, there needs to be that “greater love” behind it – or in parallel, or above – in any case, within us. And the easiest way to connect with that greater love is to take delight in nature.

A neighbor described Emily Brontë returning from a walk on the moors with a “divine light in her face.” Nature has the power to lift us to that higher plane that need not be called divine in any traditional sense, but is nevertheless transcendent – because we are not obsessing about ourselves or whether our partner “really” loves us. Here in Chula Vista we have a lot of liquidambar trees that have turned early this year: great scarves of crimson that bind even my shy heart, afraid as it is to lose yet another beloved landscape.


Here is where Seifert's poem comes to life for me: 

As soon as the wind sprang up a little
it blew away the gray veil
and the rails glistened
like the strings of some monstrous piano.
At times you could also hear the whistle of steam
and the puffing of engines
as they carried off people's miserable longings
from the grimy platforms
to all possible destinations.
Sometimes they also carried away the dead
returning to their homes
and to their cemeteries.



I agree. I think Seifert loved Prague, including even the grimy platforms of the train station, more than he loved any woman. 


My spirit is rich with the flames of trees after seeing that wonderful photo on your blog. THANK YOU!


When I closed the door on depression, I soon discovered that “working works” – work is my best therapy. At first I worked blindly, without asking why, what good does it do. But I longed for a meaning. As so often, it emerged by itself, and with the help of feedback such as yours: my conscious mission is to nourish hungry minds with beauty and ideas. My audience may be small, but doing the blog is much more fulfilling than publishing poems in small (or even large) magazines. 


  1. The first poem I remember writing when I was 7 or 8 while sprawled on my tummy in front of the fireplace, head on hands, entranced by flames consuming logs and dry leaves:

    Leaves that fell and died
    of the autumn wind’s desire
    I marvel at their yellow ghosts
    dancing in the fire.

  2. My seasonal comment and poem was just posted but I was confused about how to use the system so it appeared anon.
    Thank you! Seretta Martin

  3. Oh, that's quite a lovely and accomplished little poem for a young child.

    I shudder at the thought of the coming illiteracy. And yet poetry will survive somehow . . . somehow.

  4. Only "thank you" this time. I hope that's enough. I loved it all, especially:

    At times you could also hear the whistle of steama nd the puffing of engines as they carried off people’s miserable longings from the grimy platforms to all possible destinations.

    There is a kind of aesthetic misery in Prague. Vyšehrad cemetery is unforgettable. Was on a poetry tour in and visited Brno and other strange cities...


  5. Thank you, Lois. I feel sad to have lived so close to Prague, relatively speaking (it's a day trip from Krakow -- you just take the train and watch the lovely countryside go by), and never have gone. But the steam locomotives, ah the steam locomotives, those great panting beasts, I could forgive them even the pollution they created -- they were such a feast to look at.

  6. I miss trains very much, and the little trip between San Diego and LA's Union Station (anyway, it's Norwalk these days, like Newark instead of New York)doesn't resolve the nostalgia. Here is a poem that's mostly about trains:


    I miss traveling by train,
    the sway of disappearing landscape.
    I miss even the crowded trains.
    I miss men like the man

    who murmured, as I pressed toward the exit,
    thrust against his warm spacious body
    (was he married? was he sober?) “Not so
    fast, it’s less pleasure that way.”

    I miss the scent of forest mushrooms.
    Forget rainy lilacs, twilight jasmine.
    Give me a basket of wild mushrooms:
    eyes closing, the forest moaning inside me.

    I miss the wind in the linden corridors of leaves –
    that whispering like a million ghosts
    wanting to come back, climb the stairs,
    eat a plate of pierogi.

    I miss someone I hardly know,
    the wife of a second cousin maybe,
    kissing me on both cheeks, calling
    after me, “See you, darling!”

    And me waving back
    from the train, Pa, pa! –
    meaning goodbye, meaning
    Darling, I will never see you again.

    ~ Oriana

    Thinking back to "The Angel of Greater Love," I am stunned to discover that a certain liberation from romantic love ("slave of love" no more!) results in seeing the world in more vibrant color, in loving so many things out there! What riches open up when we stop obsessing over a particular individual.. . I had no idea that would be one of the great gifts of growing older.