Dec 11, 2017

love's austere and lonely offices

I went to hear Matthew Zapruder and Alex Zapruder at the Houghton Library last week, both of whom were interviewed by Michael Downing—and what a terrific conversation, about language, memory, history, and more. Matthew read his own poems and passages from his new book, Why Poetry, including a discussion of Richard Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” which is surely never more appropriate than at this time of year, when we’re in mixed company with our families:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack 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?

(via the Poetry Foundation)

All the discussion sent me back back back some 25 years to when I first fell hard for poetry as an undergraduate. It was my professors Jill Palaez Baumgaertner and Gail Kienitz who really blew open the doors for me, helping me see what language could do. And Zapruder’s reading made me re-connect again with the poets who meant most to me in those days: Denise Levertov, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop. But this one, Peeling Onions, this little humble thing by Adrienne Rich is the one poem that lives with me most, oddly. Day in and day out:

Only to have a grief
equal to all these tears!

There’s not a sob in my chest.
Dry-hearted as Peer Gynt

I pare away, no hero,
merely a cook.

Crying was labor, once
when I’d good cause.
Walking, I felt my eyes like wounds
raw in my head,
so postal-clerks, I thought, must stare.
A dog’s look, a cat’s, burnt to my brain—
yet all that stayed
stuff in my lungs like smog.

These old tears in the chopping-bowl.

(From her 1984 collection, The Fact of a Doorframe)

It’s not in any of the anthologies—you’ll only see it collected in, like, clever poems-about-food publications. But those first two lines I always hear like a miracle: illuminating the mismatch of the empirical with the experiential. Only to have a grief equal to all these (un-earned) tears. The irresolution of the world!