Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Garden of Verse: Statues, Long Nights, Lilacs and Matthew

           Among my favorite poems in the March issue of, the online poetry journal that publishes a new issue every month... 
           A set piece poem for a set piece work of art that somehow humanizes and makes the "The Mendelssohn Statue in Leipzig," a project slow in developing in postwar German after the Nazis destroyed an earlier statue to the great 19th century composer, endearing and laudable despite its tortured origins. I've never been to Leipzig, or Germany, but I feel I've received a history lesson and a cultural one after reading Robert Wexelblatt's poem. The composer Felix Mendelssohn was the grandson of the great Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn.The poem teaches us of Felix's fathers anguished feelings over his decision to convert to Christianity and later change the family surname to something less Jewish. 
          Its poem's description of the statue is charmingly ambivalent:
A lyre-bearing muse, looking like a
foot-sore tourist, rests on the steps below
the Master.  On one side a pair of angels
scrape a violin, blow a flute; on the other,
a brace of cherubs work through a vocal score....
This thing looks echt Victorian
though it’s not yet a decade old. 

I admit to finding Felix a romantic figure, a better behaved Mozart perhaps who got jazzed up by places like Scotland. The poem sums him up better:
His gaze
is fixed. He could be looking back to the beloved
Bach or forward to a quasi-Jewish Mahler.

I feel learning the history of the dilatory replacement of the statue tells me something too about the culture that produced both the composer and this final reckoning. By the poem's end I find myself caring about the statue, wishing to know even more about the Mendelssohn family, and sure that if I ever go to this city I would look for this somewhat tortured recognition of a famous local son.

         A poem with a more directly religious theme, Laura Kaminski's "Confirmation: poem ending with Matt. 18:4 KJV" says things about religious belief that I've always meant to say, and says them beautifully:

All the complexities of creeds seem to me like sieves,
fine mesh strung to strain out heresy and apostasy,
wires stretched like prison bars to keep out questions
and their askers. And I've been challenged: do I not
strive to earn a place within the heavens? But how can
an infant pay the rent on such a lofty crib? What must
an infant do to earn a meal? I can only say that I am
racked with hunger, wail in poems, cry in silence
for the remembered sweetness, for a taste of the Beloved.

The absurdities of orthodoxy are "strained out" here in such fitting imagery. How would "an infant" -- or, for that matter, any solitary soul -- decide how to earn a spot in heaven? Are we not more likely to do as the poem puts it, "cry in silence/for the remembered sweetness, for a taste of the Beloved"? 
           "Confirmation" ends with the citation from Matthew, affirming as godly the stance of whoever "shall humble himself as this little child..." 
           That feels right to me as well. Doctrine matters not a whit. The heart is all. 

              In keeping with my admiration for (or vulnerability to) deeply felt poems, I responded to Michael Minassian's "On The Maryland Coast," a poem that captures an experience many of us can no doubt relate to. The poem recalls an evening spent with that rarely encountered ideal other, talking about writing and reading one another's latest poems:

you were so intense, your face a map
not too different from my own story.

              Sometimes we do see ourselves in another person; and perhaps we remember those moments forever. 
              I also admired the poet's sharply written "The Postcard on Reverse," a poem that describes time as "a group of islands/ & the wooden skeleton/ of a wrecked steamboat" and offers a picture of the stained glass windows of a cathedral 
 when lit by the sun/
like a row of teeth, sharpened." 
              Pretty pictures, the poem suggests, sometimes cover up a multitude of sins.
           Tom Montag's series of poems about  'elemental' conditions (to borrow from the title of one of these, "These Elementals") ring particularly true to me following a period of much waking during the darker watches of the night followed by long waits for dawn. At the end of "Day, Breaking," his poem offers this reward:

What we get is another
fragile day holy with

promise of farther light.

In a similar vein, I appreciated these lines lines from "Elementals":

We are not what we think we are.
The stars know that. All night they tell us
all things come again to nothing.

Lastly in a poem called "Lilacs" that begins 
O, let the lilacs
come like a dream,
the poet offers this just-right observation:
Not their color but
the frank scent of them...

           Strong words in these poems, for strong emotions. 

          Kathleen Brewin Lewis's poem ​"Re-turning," also touched a nerve. It's a poem about beach memories, probably we all have them, and I found a particular moment evoked strongly and irresistibly in the line "the sand liquescent dribbling through our fingers." The poem's evocation of such moments is so right that I was both surprised and completely satisfied to be asked to imagine it last line: "the sea flings sheets upon the shore."

See all these poems and others at