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QUINTESSENCE

Time, Next


THE NEXT TIME
BY Mark Strand

Nobody sees it happening, but the architecture of our time
Is becoming the architecture of the next time. And the dazzle

Of light upon the waters is as nothing beside the changes
Wrought therein, just as our waywardness means

Nothing against the steady pull of things over the edge.
Nobody can stop the flow, but nobody can start it either.

Time slips by; our sorrows do not turn into poems,
And what is invisible stays that way. Desire has fled,

Leaving only a trace of perfume in its wake,
And so many people we loved have gone,

And no voice comes from outer space, from the folds
Of dust and carpets of wind to tell us that this

Is the way it was meant to happen, that if we only knew
How long the ruins would last we would never complain.


Thre is something deeply wise and thought provoking about this poem. The poet, Mark Stand, has taken the familiar idea of time and its passage and said something interesting about passage itself. We know time is transition, a flow of moments here and gone, rinse and repeat. Yes, we think of time as dynamic. But do we think of it as an architecture, a ghost? I am intrigued by the way Strand envisions time as the inexorable tumble of what was into what is. That "then and now" coexist ever so briefly before what was is no more. This is a poem of moments. A poem that says be now, let go.

The last line of this poem is particularly poignant -
...if we only knew
how long the ruins would last we would never complain.


Measured hours lean into the next and the next. The architecture of time is beautiful - a vaulted hall. A long, columned esplanade forever heading into the distance. Strand writes of the pull - we cannot stop nor begin time's flow. The culmination of expired tomorrows. In time we abandon our monuments, let go our losses, release our loves. The ring of our footsteps swallowed in silence.

A trace of perfume. How long the ruins last.

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Bookmark, The Passing of Philip Levine


THE RETURN: ORIHUELA, 1965
for Miguel Hernandez

by Philip Levine

You come over a slight rise
in the narrow, winding road
and the white village broods
in the valley below. A breeze
silvers the cold leaves
of the olives, just as you saw
it in dreams. How many days
have you waited for this day?
Soon you must face a son grown
to manhood, a wife to old age,
the tiny sealed house of memory.
A lone crow drops into the sun,
the fields whisper their courage.


By chance does a poet become a bookmark in one's life. This small poem has a special place in my heart. Not only because "The Return: Orihuela, 1965" (THE SIMPLE TRUTH) describes hill country I know and love, but because the poet has framed a transfiguring moment - a tenuous tipping point in the human soul.

At some point in life we will each of us tilt between yearning and insufficient courage: afraid that what we remember, what we loved and left and dream to see again, must as the fates would have it, be gone. Revisiting what is memory, standing in the firmament of a dream, echoes the poignancy of that famous melancholy line, That is no country for old men, from Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium." In "Byzantium," Yeats's observer understands his time has passed.

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.


Levine however, stands in the shoes of a man on the brink of a return. A man stepping back toward his past; who comes "over a slight rise" awash in fear, hope embedded in memory.

Philip Levine has died. Prolific, thoughtful, humble, comfortable among the ordinary - the common man celebrated in his poetry - Levine (1928-2015), bookmarked an important cornerstone in my life's eclectic reading. One of those contemporary American poets whose work remained as honest and strong throughout his life as when I first encountered WHAT WORK IS, which was honored with the National Book Award in 1991, followed by THE SIMPLE TRUTH, honored with the Pulitzer in 1994. Levine was a poet without pretense. He offered insights that did not need to be made grander than the breadth of plain truth. He gave me a language of beauty, but not false.

Philip Levine's poems, to paraphrase Yeats, stand among "the singing-masters of my soul." Perhaps we do not know these influential voices until they are silenced. At the end of "Sailing to Byzantium," Yeats reflects on the soul, It knows not what it is... Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Philip Levine.
A lone crow drops into the sun.

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Keep Ithaca In Your Mind


ITHACA
- by K.P. Kavafis (C.P. Cavafy)

As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you’ll never come across them on your way
as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.

Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire fine goods:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
To many Egyptian cities may you go
so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.


In high school my son was asked to contribute a poem that was meaningful to him for a booklet complied by his AP English Literature class. ITHACA was his choice. I recently stumbled across the poem again, thinking how surprised I was that this complex and thoughtful poem was his selection. That at the age of not quite eighteen, he understood something about the nature of journeys and setting goals and the hidden significance of the unexpected. This, on the precipice of personal challenges over the next six years that would change his life, redefine him, and reorient his compass.

Do we not all "hope that the road is long" and full of adventure, full of knowledge? Are we able and willing to set down our fears and refuse to "carry them within" as we set out upon our journeys? I suspect many of us head out in pursuit of our grand desires mostly unaware the journey has no more to give than the beauty of the voyage. Ithaca, as the poet writes, will not make you rich.

I like to think my son had an intuition of the difficult and life-changing pathways ahead for him. That he understood the value of mountains climbed and challenges met, the gift in an unexpected view. Certainly he knew very young that nothing is a given. He picked a star and followed it on through the dark.

Somewhere along the road toward a goal, the journey becomes all. I think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge sailing from England to Malta in 1804 - his ambition to repair his health in a warmer clime, to regain his poetic focus and stoke the powers of creative fire. Coleridge's journey at sea did indeed deepen the keenness of his observations, and served as the catalyst for new poems and imagery. His love of the sea consecrated in his journal, "The Stars that start up, sparkle, dart flames and die away in the Snow of Foam by the vessel's side." Nonetheless the poet sensed, even as he neared his destination, "Malta, dear Malta as far off as ever."

The island failed to fulfill Coleridge's dreams but the voyage was a poetic highlight of his life. As ITHACA reminds us, our lives are gems of boldness, pearls of adventure, "the summer mornings...when — with what pleasure, with what joy — you first put in to harbors new to your eyes." Ithaca is the beautiful voyage - for without her we would never have taken the road.

I like to think my son, now in his mid twenties, gazes long and far down the road. Not measuring the miles but the viewpoints along the way. A poem that first spoke to a boy keeps the watch in a young man's heart.

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The Everyday of Work Life

Adam, Auguste Rodin, Cantor Art Museum Sculpture Garden

It takes a certain maturity of mind to accept that nature works as steadily in rust as in rose petals.
- Esther Warner Dendel

Three years ago I wrote about the "work value" of artistic versus public service ("A Content Heavy World," 9/14/2012). In this essay I mulled over what I felt was a troubling dissonance between the work value of individual creativity versus practical service to others. An online discussion then evolved which included a Washington physician and a professor in the humanities from the Chicago area. Let me begin by recapping some of our discussion before I pick up this thread in view of the importance of work itself:

"In light of our challenged world, can we value a work life committed to personal pursuits equal to one led in productive service to others? Can we meaningfully balance the social value of the artistic (inclusive of work in the humanities) with production, service, or quantitative science careers?"

Physician: Such an appropriate question for all of us. Especially those who yearn to have a meaningful life. You are asking exactly the question that my daughter, working in the arts and humanities, has had for ten years now. For those of you who are artists as well as pragmatically skilled, the contrast stares you directly in the face. For the rest of us, the choice may not be so stark, but the question still exists. How have you, Glenda, reconciled creative writing vs. your past government work with the U.S. State Department?

Me: I'm not sure I have. Although I like to think that value exists (however intrinsic or physically expressed) in all manner of human endeavor, and anything fundamentally positive, even indirectly channeled or expressed as a catalyst, is of benefit.

Professor in the Humanities: What a wise thinker (the two don't always correlate). This debate very much reflects the paradox of my chosen path. It is so hard to measure the impact of work in the humanities. I'm not sure it puts me at more ease but it is nonetheless interesting to compare my tension (in a productive sense) with another's. I think what matters most is that each individual finds fulfillment in the everyday of work life. I can only hope to work within something bigger than myself... and my tensions will begin to subside.

Me: Our shared perspective! For example, I think sensitivity to the question of "social versus personal" value was partly behind my decision to stand back as my daughter made her career choice, weighing her dual passions for art history and medicine. She concluded she would always express and appreciate the arts, while a day's work in medicine would provide a concrete sense of purpose. It was very personal for her, and very balanced as she combined degrees.


What do you think? Does everyday work have life and value, independent of what or how work is done? I think it does. I also think because the arts and humanities are by some definition open-ended fields of research and interpretation - perpetually yielding to new territory, rendition, and discovery - the artist/scholar never feels something is concretely, genuinely accomplished but rather always part of a subjective, shifting evaluation. It is the burden of artists and some scholars to settle for a role as "a voice of translation." The light shines brightly on new thinking and understanding, yet is transitory: a perpetual "work in progress."

I like the professor's approach, valuing work in term's of the everyday of work life. Reminding us the universal, haunting sense of a bigger picture might frame our choice of work - how we productively use our "voice" - and still incorporate all the subtle, nuanced efforts we make in life and love that nonetheless mysteriously impact the micro and macro human story.

To be capable of both the artistic and practical. To quest from science into art and back again, from one subject's track to its cross. I spent dinner in California recently with a friend of my late husband's, a gentleman who reminded me of the richness of work life balance and its inherent personal uniqueness and complexity. This friend is a chemical engineer, as well as entrepreneur, professor, and spiritualist: an intellect that traverses all boundaries. He has found a way to make his "inner creative" practical as well as personal. We all mirror complexity. Observing those in medicine, there is clearly art in the science of the body human, and machine in the art, scalpel as tool of discovery. Consider the journalist, who combines research with the precise and creative. Many fields combine the technically skilled and creatively inventive, work in everyday engineering, technical design, agriculture, teaching.

Perhaps the debate is not so much the value of one particular professional path or "field of dreams" over another, but instead, acknowledging the importance of the everyday work life, committing to "work within something bigger than myself."


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