Monday, December 15, 2014


14h century French triptych, ivory. Its depiction of Nativity is unusual, possibly unique. In the upper right, Joseph is holding the baby; Mary seems to have just said, “You hold him now, I need a nap.”


The first time some teens, buzzed on beer
or coke, caved in her mailbox with a bat,
a new one appeared the very next day,

but with two small hand-painted geese
on the routine black metal where the flag
is raised. When that one was crushed,

her next gave both sides to a scene
of woods and field and a small brook
that jointed each other at the door.

After yet a third time the mailbox
and even the post was taken out, she built
a little red barn out of wood

with a door that opened to receive
the mail. Below the mailbox, she placed
a flower pot, of deep blue porcelain,

filled with salmon-colored lilies . . .
Often I see her pulling weeds, watering
the ocean-throated lilies, tending to

the spot of ground around the mailbox
as if Martin Buber were right, and God allots
to each of us our own little area to redeem.

Of course her actions may only prove again
how thin the line between divinity and madness.
Or that she may be merely holding on

to some principles learned in Sunday school,
those kids no more to her than a test
of neighborly love. But maybe

she sees those boys, whoever they are,
with girlfriends and high school classes,
all of them rushing into what lies ahead

without a sense yet of who they might be;
and maybe she can imagine them
arriving one night only to pull back their bat

and just laugh, the barn door open,
a letter lying like a beast in its stall, the night air
disarming, charged with the scent of lilies.

~ Robert Cording

Cording lives in rural Connecticut (in Woodstock, but not the one of the rock music festival in 1969), and often writes about the area: the changing seasons, the walks he takes, the sparrows, the swallows. He’s no Mary Oliver, however, removing humanity from the scene so he can feel ecstatic about the deer or the birds (though he does write about deer and birds also). What I especially value is his poems about the people he knows, trying to make sense of their suffering. I chose the mailbox poem because, with constant images of rubble and destruction on the news, I think we can use a poem praising those who restore the world.

The neighbor may be naive, but there is a strange beauty to her naiveté and persistence. She reminds me of people in Europe rebuilding their cities over and over again after each war — as if in the hope that the beautiful town hall would ultimately be allowed to stand un-shelled and un-bombed. And it seems that hope and peace have prevailed — but some think there is always a chance that a new vicious ideology will march in in SS-like black boots, reminding us that those deprived of a positive outlet for the enormous energies of youth will find a destructive venue. “You can’t imagine how much fun we are having here,” a US-born ISIS recruiter speaks on TV. “This is the real Disneyland.”

(Do I have the right to read all this into a “small” poem? Yes, because a poem belongs to the reader, and the meaning of something small can be huge.)

Is the neighbor who keeps restoring her mailbox a saint, showing neighborly love, or perhaps someone who’s losing her grip on reality? Yet her ability to tend to the lilies testifies to a will to create and preserve order and beauty at least in her small plot. This is a miniature vignette of the race between civilization and destruction. A young man who can’t build a house may find it “fun” to blow up someone else’s house instead.

And the poem could easily end on:

Often I see her pulling weeds, watering
the ocean-throated lilies, tending to

the spot of ground around the mailbox
as if Martin Buber were right, and God allots
to each of us our own little area to redeem.

That would leave me entirely satisfied. Yes, we each have a special small area to redeem, our own garden to cultivate, just one child to turn on to reading and learning — and that is enough. The poem reminded me of a young woman whom I managed to motivate to become an A student — her first name happened to be Hope, because life doesn’t care to be subtle.

Dali: Madonna and Child

But the poem goes on past what me is the main message. There is a religious subtext here, to put it mildly. I was surprised at the word “beast”; because of the barn and the lilies I fully expected Baby Jesus. And yet even a “beast” — a word we might associate with the nasty boys — is, as an animal, any animal, a symbol of innocence.

Again it’s hard to escape from the imagery of Nativity, even though Pope Benedict had the bad taste to insist that there were no animals at the birth of Jesus since the Gospels do not mention animals. Fortunately Pope Francis, following his patron saint, has just announced that all animals go to heaven. Pope Francis understands that the human heart needs animals to inspire us with kindness and patience. And blessed are those who clear the rubble, install a new mailbox, and yes, grow lilies in a flower pot — for it is they who day by ordinary day keep saving the world. 

First known presentation of Nativity, 4th century, Sant’Ambroggio, Milano

To my readers: Rather than continue with infrequent lengthy blogs, I’ve decided to shift to more frequent short posts. Here’s wishing you all a joyful winter solstice, and, afterwards, happy lengthening days.


John Guzlowski sends this “rebuilding” poem by Szymborska:


After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
can pass.

Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone has to drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone has to glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

We’ll need the bridges back,
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls the way it was.
Someone else listens and nods
with unsevered head.
But already there are those nearby
starting to mill about
who will find it dull.

From out of the bushes
sometimes someone still unearths
rusted-out arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way
for those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass that has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out,
blade of grass in his mouth,
gazing at the clouds.

~ Wisława Szymborska, translated by Joanna Trzeciak


John, thanks for this gift. I love the last stanza.

And how oddly relevant to recent events:

Someone else listens and nods
with unsevered head.

~ as if to show that “the poem is news that stays news.”


If Cording’s poem is “micro-news,” then Szymborska’s is macro. Both of them have the same message: this is what the human spirit is. No matter how huge the devastation, we get up and start clearing the rubble. And eventually someone will again lie down and watch the clouds, chewing on a blade of grass.

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