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Sestina -- Elizabeth Bishop

Guest poem sent in by Mark Penney
(Poem #1799) Sestina
 September rain falls on the house.
 In the failing light, the old grandmother
 sits in the kitchen with the child
 beside the Little Marvel Stove,
 reading the jokes from the almanac,
 laughing and talking to hide her tears.

 She thinks that her equinoctial tears
 and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
 were both foretold by the almanac,
 but only known to the grandmother.
 The iron kettle sings on the stove.
 She cuts some bread and says to the child,

 It’s time for tea now; but the child
 is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
 dance like mad on the hot black stove,
 the way the rain must dance on the house.
 Tidying up, the old grandmother
 hangs up the clever almanac

 on its string.  Birdlike, the almanac
 hovers half open above the child,
 hovers above the old grandmother
 and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
 She shivers and says she thinks the house
 feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

 It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
 I know what I know, says the almanac.
 With crayons the child draws a rigid house
 and a winding pathway.  Then the child
 puts in a man with buttons like tears
 and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

 But secretly, while the grandmother
 busies herself about the stove,
 the little moons fall down like tears
 from between the pages of the almanac
 into the flower bed the child
 has carefully placed in the front of the house.

 Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
 The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
 and the child draws another inscrutable house.
-- Elizabeth Bishop
I was amazed to discover that Minstrels had never run this poem.

Like it says, it’s a sestina; Minstrels has run a couple before, notably the
awesome Shrinking Lonesome Sestina by Miller Williams [Poem #904]. There’s an
explanation of the form there; if that’s not enough for you, you could also
try googling "sestina", which will send you to all kinds of sites that’ll
have you writing them in no time.

I love this one because it uses the form so gloriously.  Look at the six key
words:  house, grandmother, child, stove, almanac, tears.  Five homey,
mundane, comforting, cozy words, and "tears".  That choice right there tells
you that there’s something going on beneath the surface, that not all is
right with the world of grandmother and child and crayons and tea.  After
the second stanza, the tears aren’t even literal, but we’re still seeing
other things (the rain, the tea, the moon figures in the almanac, seeds)
likened to tears.  There’s an all-pervasive sadness there, even though the
surface imagery of the poem is so very cheery and homey.

And the relationship between grandmother and child is captured so
beautifully, too.

Classic Elizabeth Bishop; you wouldn’t mistake it for anyone else.


I Do Not Love You Except Because I Love You -- Pablo Neruda

Guest poem sent in by Shatarupa Ghoshal
(Poem #1798) I Do Not Love You Except Because I Love You
 I do not love you except because I love you;
 I go from loving to not loving you,
 From waiting to not waiting for you
 My heart moves from cold to fire.

 I love you only because it's you the one I love;
 I hate you deeply, and hating you
 Bend to you, and the measure of my changing love for you
 Is that I do not see you but love you blindly.

 Maybe January light will consume
 My heart with its cruel
 Ray, stealing my key to true calm.

 In this part of the story I am the one who
 Dies, the only one, and I will die of love because I love you,
 Because I love you, Love, in fire and blood.
-- Pablo Neruda
    (translator unknown)

I first came across Neruda’s poetry when I was in college. We studied him as
part of the syllabus. Though poetry was never one of my favourite subjects,
I found that I liked Neruda. There is something about the way he wrote that
just captivates the reader, even a lay one like me.

This poem quickly entered my halls of poetical fame because on some level I
identified with the very literal movement from intense love to hatred and
back again that the poem portrays.

I am afraid that’s the best - and I know it is not nearly enough - I can do
here. I hope those of you who read it, also fall in love with it the way I


A Note -- Wislawa Szymborska

Guest poem sent in by Neville Clemens
(Poem #1797) A Note
 Life is the only way
 to get covered in leaves,
 catch your breath on the sand,
 rise on wings;

 to be a dog,
 or stroke its warm fur;

 to tell pain
 from everything it's not;

 to squeeze inside events,
 dawdle in views,
 to seek the least of all possible mistakes.

 An extraordinary chance
 to remember for a moment
 a conversation held
 with the lamp switched off;

 and if only once
 to stumble upon a stone,
 end up soaked in one downpour or another,

 mislay your keys in the grass;
 and to follow a spark on the wind with your eyes;
 and to keep on not knowing
 something important.
-- Wislawa Szymborska
 (Translated from the Polish, by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.)

It's hard to follow a poetic commentary on Life with a commentary on it.
Every line in this poem draws a sigh out of the reader. And to think of it,
if they stand *alone*, many of the lines might seem quite...well...unpoetic:

  "mislay your keys in the grass"

Hmm. Not quite up there with spectacular descriptions of searing sunsets and
passionate romances. Or is it? The magic of the poem, I daresay, is in the
opening line. It is only when *dovetailed* with this opening line that the
rest of the poem's lines acquire their magical qualities :

  "Life is the only way..."

It wakes the reader up! We're all ears now; what is this Life thing?  Oh
let's see what it's all about. This is going to be deeply philosophical and
wrenching. Intense.

But then Szymborska follows it up with all these simple and yet wonderful,
wonderful lines that defy any sort of intellectual analysis. It defies them.
Denies them the opportunity to probe the poem for this or that with their
rude speculative tools. Follows it up with lines that are almost Koan-esque
in nature, accessible only to the intuition and leaves the reader with the
sense that he/she now shares this secret knowledge of Life with the poet - a
knowing, and at the same time a Not Knowing that gives us joy, the joy

  "to keep on not knowing
  something important."

- Neville

Kimbol Soques had posted a comment on Poem #224 with a link to Szymborska's
Nobel acceptance speech. I think it's worth posting a link to that speech
again, so here it is:

Flying at Night -- Ted Kooser

Guest poem sent in by Sarah Korah

My favourite Ted Kooser poem is already on Minstrels [Poem #1667]. Here's
another nice poem:
(Poem #1796) Flying at Night
 Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
 Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
 like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
 some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
 snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
 back into the little system of his care.
 All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
 tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.
-- Ted Kooser
A galaxy dies.. Not with a bang, and not with a whimper.. but like a
snowflake falling on water.  And far away, a nameless shepherd, feeling the
sudden nip in the air, snaps on his porch light - bringing all that is
precious into the warmth of his care.

There's something very comforting about that yard light. It reminds me of
hot chocolate fondue.. and Christmas at home. And doesn't the image of death
as a snowflake falling on water sound more hopeful, and meaningful, than the
usual "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust" ?

Sarah Korah

Tangmalangaloo -- John O'Brien

Guest poem sent in by William Grey
(Poem #1795) Tangmalangaloo
 The bishop sat in lordly state and purple cap sublime,
 And galvanized the old bush church at Confirmation time.
 And all the kids were mustered up from fifty miles around,
 With Sunday clothes, and staring eyes, and ignorance profound.
 Now was it fate, or was it grace, whereby they yarded too
 An overgrown two-storey lad from Tangmalangaloo?

 A hefty son of virgin soil, where nature has her fling,
 And grows the trefoil three feet high and mats it in the spring;
 Where mighty hills uplift their heads to pierce the welkin's rim,
 And trees sprout up a hundred feet before they shoot a limb;
 There everything is big and grand, and men are giants too --
 But Christian Knowledge wilts, alas, at Tangmalangaloo.

 The bishop summed the youngsters up, as bishops only can;
 He cast a searching glance around, then fixed upon his man.
 But glum and dumb and undismayed through every bout he sat;
 He seemed to think that he was there, but wasn't sure of that.
 The bishop gave a scornful look, as bishops sometimes do,
 And glared right through the pagan in from Tangmalangaloo.

 "Come, tell me, boy," his lordship said in crushing tones severe,
 "Come, tell me why is Christmas Day the greatest of the year?
 "How is it that around the world we celebrate that day
 "And send a name upon a card to those who're far away?
 "Why is it wandering ones return with smiles and greetings, too?"
 A squall of knowledge hit the lad from Tangmalangaloo.

 He gave a lurch which set a-shake the vases on the shelf,
 He knocked the benches all askew, up-ending of himself.
 And so, how pleased his lordship was, and how he smiled to say,
 "That's good, my boy. Come, tell me now; and what is Christmas Day?"
 The ready answer bared a fact no bishop ever knew --
 "It's the day before the races out at Tangmalangaloo."
-- John O'Brien
This is a Christmas poem by my favourite Australian bush poet: Patrick
Joseph Hartigan (1878-1952) who published under the alias "John O'Brien".
The poem immortalises an incident that took place at a school at
Tanbangaroo, a "Back-o'-Bourke" town (see notes to [1]), near Yass in New
South Wales. Tangmalangaloo is a fictitious town, presumably invented to
serve the poet's prosodic requirements.

Hartigan was a Roman Catholic priest in rural New South Wales, in particular
the Goulburn diocese and later at Narrandera. He is less well known than
Banjo Paterson[2] and Henry Lawson[3][4], the doyens of the Australian
bush ballad tradition, though he expresses a closer and gentler affinity for
the Australian bush and its communities than either of them. Hartigan has
another connection with Paterson: he gave the last rites to Jack Riley of
Bringenbrong, the man whose legendary exploits are supposedly recorded in
Paterson's epic bush ballad 'The Man from Snowy River'.

According to legend, Hartigan was in the Albury presbytery in 1914 when word
came through that an old man named Riley was dying at a place called
Bringenbong on the Upper Murray, and had asked for a priest to bring him the
last sacraments. It took Hartigan several days to reach Riley, who he found
not at Bringenbong but at a place called Hickeys, in sight of Mt Kosciusko
at the end of the track. After administering the sacraments it was too late
for Hartigan to return to Albury, so he gratefully accepted local
hospitality and, in front of a blazing log fire, recited one of his
favourite poems, 'The Man From Snowy River'. After he had finished he
remarked that it must have been in these parts that the man from Snowy River
had made his famous ride. To his astonishment the laconic reply came that
the subject of Paterson's poem was none other than Riley, the old man he had
just prepared for death.

Hartigan was known as an ecumenist and was greatly respected for his
pastoral care, particularly during the Great Depression, for those of all
faiths and none. 'Tangmalangaloo' was published in [5]. A second collection
of his poetry [6], honouring his Narrandera parishioners, was published

William Grey

[1] Poem #1573, 'Said Hanrahan',  John O'Brien
[2] Poem #566, 'Clancy of the Overflow',  Banjo Paterson
[3] Poem #569, ' The Great Grey Plain',  Henry Lawson
[4] Poem #1569, 'Past Carin',  Henry Lawson
[5] John O'Brien. 'Around the Boree Log and Other Verses'. Sydney: Angus &
Robertson, 1921.
[6] John O'Brien. 'The Parish of St. Mel's and Other Verses'. Sydney: Angus
& Robertson, 1954.

The Huron Carol -- St Jean de Brébeuf

Merry Christmas from all of us - and here's a guest poem sent in by Mac Robb:
(Poem #1794) The Huron Carol
 ’Twas in the moon of wintertime,
 When all the birds had fled,
 That mighty Gitchi Manitou
 Sent angel choirs instead;
 Before their light the stars grew dim,
 And wondering hunters heard the hymn:
 Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
 In excelsis gloria.

 Within a lodge of broken bark
 The tender babe was found,
 A ragged robe of rabbit skin
 Enwrapped His beauty round;
 But as the hunter braves drew nigh,
 The angel song rang loud and high:
 Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
 In excelsis gloria.

 The earliest moon of wintertime
 Is not so round and fair
 As was the ring of glory on
 The helpless Infant there.
 The chiefs from far before Him knelt
 With gifts of fox and beaver pelt.
 Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
 In excelsis gloria.

 O children of the forest free,
 O sons of Manitou,
 The holy Child of earth and Heav’n
 Is born today for you.
 Come kneel before the radiant Boy,
 Who brings you beauty, peace and joy.
 Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
 In excelsis gloria.
-- St Jean de Brébeuf
      c.1643 (Old Huron); tr. Jesse Edgar Middleton, 1926

The approach of Christmas in hot Australia makes northern hemisphere natives
acutely nostalgic for white Decembers (and not only northern hemisphere
natives: a Tamil Christian friend of mine’s parents retired from Singapore
to Canada instead of India precisely because they love chestnuts roasting on
an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, and all that). So here is
that belovèd chestnut, St. Jean de Brébeuf’s Huron Carol.

The Huron Carol used to embarrass me mightily when I was 8 and 9 years old
and we were obliged to sing it in school assemblies as Christmas drew nigh.
The symbolism was so obvious, and so patronising; the reference to "Gitchi
Manitou" so bogus -- and certainly in today’s terms it is politically
incorrect. But nobody seems to mind, and I’ve mellowed.

Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary in New France, first stayed among the Huron at
Georgian Bay (in modern Ontario) in 1628 and wrote the original "Jes8s
ahatonhia" in 1643. Verse 1 is as follows:

  Estennialon de tson8e
  Jes8s ahatonhia
  Onnawatewa d' oki
  Ennonchien skwatrihotat
  Jes8s ahatonhia, Jes8s ahatonhia.

The Old Huron language, more accurately the Wendat dialect, became extinct,
though it can be reconstructed through 17th century French-Wendat
dictionaries.  The Jesuits’ orthography for Old Huron is essentially a
representation of corresponding French vowel and consonant sounds with the
"8", actually a "u" over an "o", representing the French "u" before a

The Iroquois finally dispersed the Huron in 1650 and during the course of
that dispersal massacred Brébeuf and his companions in 1649. (For a literary
reconstruction of the episode, see E.J. Pratt’s 1940 epic poem "Brébeuf and
His Brethren.") The Canadian Martyrs, as they came to be known, were in due
course canonised by the Catholic Church (Feast Day September 26: curiously,
in the USA it is observed as the Feast of the North American Martyrs [sic]
on October 19) and there are numerous "Canadian Martyrs" parishes throughout

The 1926 English version of the Huron Carol set out here -- actually more an
interpretation than a translation -- is by Jesse Edgar Middleton (1872-1960),
a Toronto journalist and church musician. Little needs to be said of the
hymn itself in Middleton’s version; strictly speaking it is not a carol at
all, having been written by an author -- two authors -- known to history, but
that is perhaps a minor point of pedantry. Despite its slightly clichéd and
inauthentic aboriginal Canadian terms it is considered something of a
national treasure in Canada; it has been commemorated in postage stamps,
paintings gift books and children's picture books. (I may seem to praise it
with faint damns but I really am now very fond of it, doubtless mostly for
reasons of sentiment.)

It is of course simply the nativity story of St Luke’s Gospel locally
adapted.  Gitchi Manitou is "the Great Spirit", or "the Mighty Lord of All
the World" (cf the several Lake Manitous and Lake Manitoba as well as the
province of of that name). Verse 3, concerning the magi-chieftains, does not
work quite as well as the other verses since, although furs became an
extremely valuable trade item for aboriginal hunters and trappers in New
France and, later, Canada, they lack the scriptural significance of gold
(for a king), incense (for a god) and myrrh (for mortality). Possibly for
this reason the verse is often omitted when the hymn appears in English and
American Christmas collections and hymnals.

A literal English translation of Brébeuf’s hymn has been made by John
Steckley Teondecheron; it is perhaps mostly of scholarly interest:

  Have courage, you who are humans;
  Jesus, he is born

  Behold, the spirit, who had us as prisoners, has fled
  Do not listen to it, as it corrupts the spirits of our minds
  Jesus, he is born

  They are spirits, sky people, coming with a message for us
  They are coming to say, "Be on top of life [Rejoice]"
  Marie, she has just given birth. Rejoice"
  Jesus, he is born

  Three have left for such, those who are elders
  Tichion, a star that has just appeared on the horizon leads them there
  He will seize the path, he who leads them there
  Jesus, he is born

  As they arrived there, where he was born, Jesus
  the star was at the point of stopping, not far past it
  Having found someone for them, he says, "Come here!"
  Jesus, he is born

  Behold, they have arrived there and have seen Jesus,
  They made a name [praised] many times, saying "Hurray, he is good in nature."
  They greased his scalp [greeted him with reverence], saying "Hurray."
  Jesus, he is born

  "We will give to him praise for his name,
  Let us show reverence for him as he comes to be compassionate to us.
  It is providential that you love us and wish, ‘I should adopt them.’"
  Jesus, he is born

Mac Robb
Brisbane, Australia