A Second Opinion
A week ago the gravel on the driveway
Was grave and broken as the world itself was gray,
The dirt as dark and hard as death,
A landscape breathing without breath,
Moving without sound, dying without gain,
A damp suburb of decay and rain
Where the softest touch was turned to stone,
As bleak and bleached-out as a bone;
How could nature dream of veils or dresses
Face to face with winter’s frozen messes?
How could all the molten forms of bliss
Come from mud as dense as this?
My daughter's teachers say the world's like that:
Bits of rock and flowers beaten flat,
Entire groves of blossoms lost
To a society of frost:
All the weeding, hoeing, flower bedding
Essential to a summer wedding,
The forest of a thousand Ardens
Turned to chaos in the gardens—
But look again: today the lime-green grass
Is changed from last week's class:
In your bare feet you can't touch a place
That isn't ripe with myrtle or with Queen Anne's lace—
The fungus that a day ago was mold
Is moss now, growing uncontrolled;
Where once the winter, now a daisy weaves,
On which the sun seeps through the leaves—
Florescent lawns invest the breeze
With gentians, daffodils, and bees,
The world inexplicably become
A meadow dotted with the sun.
What happens here is just a model
For the universe's cosmic throttle—
The natural world is just a hint
Of the spirit's finer print.
Each vine has something it can teach:
Since yesterday the land has had to reach,
And if you take the ground as heaven's thermostat,
I wonder what my daughter's teachers make of that?
May, 1986; May 21st, 1994
July 19th, 1996
Back in 1986, our daughter Liza, so indigenously optimistic, was moping around, brooding on eternal nothingness, having just learned about existentialism at Dalton, and I thought I might offer a second opinion.
As schoolteacher talk wallows in outmoded despair, it often teaches in the next room about the phoenix, the resurrection of gods, the return of Persephone each year with the spring, and the reemergence of Virgil, Theseus, Hercules, and Aeneas from the underworld. So we can believe, if we want to, that the human spirit sometimes behaves inversely to Newton's law of gravity: what goes down often comes back up again, levity being the soul of wit.
I wanted Liza to know back then that the softest things can bloom out of the hardest ground. Ten years later, for her wedding, I rewrote the poem for her and her husband Alexis, trying to make it somewhat comprehensible, although I always feel that anything that can be understood probably hasn't been said right. Things worth knowing are probably not so easy to understand. It's a challenge to say something complicated in a simple way.
What happens to seasons, to plants, might also happen to planets. Nature is certainly the classic microcosm.
When I play something on the piano, I always try to surprise myself, to trick myself into being thrilled, to shock myself out of clichés so that I really hear something for the first time. Can language do this? Can it change our minds, our philosophy? Can it take a rabbi out of a hat, momentarily inverting reality with a cheap verbal trick? Can it make a far-fetched idea come alive and look real, thus sending the reader on a life of metaphysical crime?
The forest of Arden was a few miles from Shakespeare's house in Stratford, and is the setting for As You Like It.
May 21st, 1994
July 19th, 1996