Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Poetry for the New Year

Poetry for the New Year
A Rosh Hashanah Message
from Doris White, Financial Secretary
Congregation Adas Emuno
Leonia, NJ
Delivered on Rosh Hashanah
September 10, 2010
1 Tishrei, 5771

During this very hot summer, I talked lots of poetry with my friend Joan Klein. We shared favorites and suggested new poems and that talk enriched me and my dedication to words. 

Emily Dickinson has defined poetry in this way: She said,“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”  So hang onto your kippas or yarmulkas , and let me add that I know it’s poetry when the words echo in the crevices of my heart.

We remember at this season those who have left us, and we remember most deeply mothers and fathers.  “Those Winter Sundays” by the African-American poet Robert Hayden is about a father:

Sundays too my father got up early 

And put his clothes on in the blueback cold, 

then with cracked hands that ached 

from labor in the weekday weather made 

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. 

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. 

When the rooms were warm, he'd call, 

and slowly I would rise and dress, 

fearing the chronic angers of that house, 

Speaking indifferently to him, 

who had driven out the cold 

and polished my good shoes as well. 

What did I know, what did I know 

of love's austere and lonely offices?

Billy Collins speaks of his mother as he recalls a present he once gave her:

The Lanyard - Billy Collins

The other day I was ricocheting slowly

off the blue walls of this room,

moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,

from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,

when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary

where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard. 

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist

could send one into the past more suddenly—

a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp

by a deep Adirondack lake

learning how to braid long thin plastic strips

into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard

or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,

but that did not keep me from crossing

strand over strand again and again

until I had made a boxy

red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,

and I gave her a lanyard.

She nursed me in many a sick room,

lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,

laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,

and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,

and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.

Here are thousands of meals, she said,

and here is clothing and a good education.

And here is your lanyard, I replied,

which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,

strong legs, bones and teeth,

and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,

and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.

And here, I wish to say to her now,

is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,

but the rueful admission that when she took

the two-tone lanyard from my hand,

I was as sure as a boy could be

that this useless, worthless thing I wove

out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

This is also the time of repentence to say I’m sorry--forgive me. William Carlos Williams in his poem “This is Just to Say” might help us:

This Is Just To Say 
William Carlos Williams 

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I would like to end with a poem of blessing by James Wright:

A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota, 

Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass. 

And the eyes of those two Indian ponies 

Darken with kindness. 

They have come gladly out of the willows 

To welcome my friend and me. 

We step over the barbed wire into the pasture 

Where they have been grazing all day, alone. 

They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness 

That we have come. 

They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other. 

There is no loneliness like theirs. 

At home once more, they begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness. 

I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms, 

For she has walked over to me 

And nuzzled my left hand. 

She is black and white, 

Her mane falls wild on her forehead, 

And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear 

That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist. 

Suddenly I realize 

That if I stepped out of my body I would break 

Into blossom.

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