frail, illegal fire balloons

Posted by on February 2, 2010

Burning the yule log at Sts. Peter and Paul © 2010 Julia Mason Wickes.

Burning the yule log at Sts. Peter and Paul © 2010 Julia Mason Wickes.

For Poetry Wednesday

Elizabeth Bishop spent time in Brazil and wrote poems based on her experiences there. For some reason I find her very interesting, but have never sought to learn about her life in any real depth. I know she was friends with Marianne Moore, another poet whom I also find interesting. I love her poem “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore.” She dedicated this one to Robert Lowell. I’ve tried, but so far I cannot get into the poetry of Robert Lowell, who is considered a very important American poet. I just saw a gigantic book containing the complete letter correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop, whose poetry I really love, and Robert Lowell, whose poetry I cannot get interested in, at a bookstore. I quailed at its size and weight. I showed it to my husband and said: “This is why I could never be an academic. I could never be that interested.” He said: “You would just have to see it as what you do everyday. You go to work every day and do that (indicating the book) instead of something else, like house work, and the nice thing is that it is actually marginally more interesting than house work.” He meant it seriously and I could tell that, because, in fact, this is exactly what he does every day. He leaves on his bike and rides to a small, borrowed office on campus, where his books are.

On Monday he left his keys at home because they were still in the pocket of my coat from Sunday when I took our tired girls home from a long after-church luncheon and program–a talent show in honor of St. Sava with lots of speeches, recitations of Serbian poetry, songs, and even a girl who did a jump rope routine. Our three year-old did not understand why she could not participate in the entertainment on stage with the other children and a meltdown was in progress when I swept my husband’s car keys, our stuff, and our girls into the car while he stayed behind. Since he is serving as a deacon now, and also helping with the Church School program, he really had to stay until the end. Because of this irregular situation, his keys were still in my coat pocket on Monday morning, and he had to ride all the way back home to get them so that he could open the door to the borrowed office where he works. This is how his workday always looks from my perspective– just that mundane, involving keys and a schedule, and a range of feelings about what he is working on– feelings that sometimes include ambivalence–even though poetry actually does factor prominently in what he works on, albeit ancient, and eastern.

In any case, when he pointed this out to me something overturned in my mind– an infantile and unworkable definition about what it means to love and study literature. I have typically regarded the love of literature as an unsustainable and fragile infatuation which must sooner or later be abandoned. But thinking of it instead as daily, unhurried, ordinary work sounds soothing and imminently sustainable. Only in this way could I survive the complete correspondence between two modern American poets. Otherwise it would surely kill me and kill any regard I ever had for them. But how satisfying it would be to survive it in small daily doses and, as a result, to know it.

But I am not going to enroll in school again. It is only an interesting exercise to think about it in a different way–dispassionately. This poem seems like this to me: an account of, a dispassionate attention to, something whose content is actually quite fantastic. It’s like the impulse to simply tell another person about what you dreamed, even if the dream means nothing you can discern, and there is no interpretation, and nothing else to say, only the fact of the dream.

THE ARMADILLO

For Robert Lowell

This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear,
Climbing the mountain height,

Rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.

Once up against the sky it’s hard
to tell them from the stars–
planets, that is–the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars,

or the pale green one. With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it’s still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,

receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.

Last night another big one fell.
It splattered like an egg of fire
against the cliff behind the house.
The flame ran down. We saw the pair

of owls who nest there flying up
and up, their whirling black-and-white
stained bright pink underneath, until
they shrieked up out of sight.

The ancient owls’ nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,

and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft!–a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.

Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry

and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!

  1. Molly Sabourin
    February 3, 2010

    Dear Julia,

    How nice I think it would be to grab a steaming cup of tea and spend a tranquil afternoon in your mind. : ) I so thoroughly enjoyed your reflections on the love of literature ("as an unsustainable, fragile infatuation" ) and academia. This post was indeed a satisfying respite from the loudness and messiness commandeering my Wednesday (SO loud. SO messy.).

    I LOVED your introduction to that Robert Lowell Poem:

    "This poem seems like this to me: an account of, a dispassionate attention to, something whose content is actually quite fantastic. Its like the impulse to simply tell another person about what you dreamed, even if the dream means nothing you can discern, and there is no interpretation, and nothing else to say, only the fact of the dream."

    Thanks for sharing with us your time and talents!

    Love,
    Molly

  2. Julia
    February 3, 2010

    Molly, thanks. What a great idea– to have tea in my mind. I would love to have you over to my mind for tea. It is pretty loud and messy at my house too, and it would be so great to escape into my mind instead, with tea. Seriously though, thanks.

  3. amber
    February 4, 2010

    I can assure you that having tea is Julia's mind is deeply satisfying. Although I think we used to have coffee there more often than not.

    I loved the poem, Jules. I've never read an Elizabeth Bishop poem that you didn't give me. And I always think I should read her without you, but then, well, Julia and Elizabeth Bishop go together so nicely.

  4. Kris Livovich
    February 4, 2010

    This is one of those poems I will have to re-read. The language is beautiful, if for only that reason I will need to read it again.

    My husband would love a job where he did nothing but read heavy old literature all day. I would too – if that literature involved wizards or crazy hispanic women.

  5. Julia
    February 4, 2010

    Amber, Kris, I'm glad you liked the poem. I was fearing people would be like: "Ok, anyway…moving on." It does need to be re-read and appreciated, in spite of my crappy intro. There is also a great audio clip of Elizabeth Bishop reading it herself on poets.org.

    Kris–your comment made me laugh. I have no doubt whatsoever that you could do a PhD in wizards and crazy hispanic women, and that several academic presses would compete to publish your dissertation.