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This Strange Land

November 1, 2011

We’ve been watching the Jeeves and Wooster TV series with Walker (who is enjoying it as much as we are without having read the stories first) so when we were getting dressed up for yet another fancy dinner on campus last night, Ron pointed out that we were living the life of Bertie Wooster, just one party after another. That quite cheered me up about another night out.

Not surprisingly, my favorite part of the revamped campus job is the writing. My least favorite part is the human contact. And yet, I do enjoy a little of it, and it’s quite nice to put faces with names of people I’ve read and been read by for the past, um, two decades. As people get older, it’s often good for them to be shaken out of the comfortable ruts they’ve made for themselves, and I think it leads me a little away from the path of becoming just like my mother, a solitary person whose shyness and wicked sense of humor often presents as a steely disapproval of others.

So I was fascinated when I came across the following poem in Shara McCallum’s volume This Strange Land:

My Mother As Narcissus

Once I was like you, wearing solitude
as if it were a garment of the finest threads.

Mistaking loneliness for beauty, I knelt
before the pool, dipped my face toward its surface,

Meeting not my reflection so much
as the stillness of its depths.

At first, it was only a test. Then each day
I had to surpass the one before,

peering longer to feel time
spinning almost to a stop.

Daughter, believe me when I tell you my flaw
Was not vanity but pride. I thought

I could succeed where others had failed.
I thought I could stand to look

into the centre of myself
and not fall in.

Isn’t that a nice twist on the convention, and a turn of thought, to consider how vanity and pride overlap and feed on each other in solitude? Sometimes I think I’m too influenced by how others must perceive me, but then I read a poem like this and think that perhaps that awareness is a good thing for those of us who need a lot of solitude.

The volume has two other poems that spoke to me as loudly as that one did. The first one that struck me (because I was reading the volume in order, for once) is about those moments when your life changes. The moment when you’re in a car crash, or you injure yourself, or you find out the number of days left to a loved one.

The Waves

We walk into rooms that wait for us to enter them.
We walk into waves that threaten to drown us.

But they don’t. They fill us instead
with salt, sand, and their own light.

As a child, from a small boat, I watched my father
swim away, ignoring my mother’s pleas—her voice

sucked into the wind, my own no match
for the undertow or sharks I feared.

There are moments in a life
when everything comes apart, is ripped so clean

who you are is laid bare. My father returned to us
that day, but he was not the same man

I had seen enter those waves.

Isn’t the wave metaphor apt? It makes me think of my housemate Miriam, who always looked at our mail with apprehension, saying she feared a “letter of ruin.” It makes me think of the “check engine light” that came on again last night, the one that I’m going to cover up with a piece of black electrical tape as soon as I get some.

The other poem I enjoyed from this volume (published in 2011 and therefore eligible for the Indie Lit Awards) is this one, which must strike me particularly because Ron and I are having more moments with just the two of us, what with Eleanor being far away and Walker being busy with chess, theater, astronomy, and forty jillion other activities.


In another life, you and I
remain the couple of our youth,

living in upstate New York,
renting a farmhouse on thirty-three acres of woods.

Walking in winter, knee-deep in snow,
we came to a clearing. I could not see

the immensity of the field for the cold.
With each inhale air pricked my lungs,

almost erased sunlight and blackberries
we’d picked from brambles months before.

Love, marriage is that purple-black fruit,
even now searing my tongue.

One of the things that amuses me about the idyllic “upstate New York farmhouse” image is that it’s in one of our favorite movies, The Sure Thing. It was never our image of the good life, but it’s part of a story that is.

A lot of the poems in this volume were foreign to my experience, but these three spoke to it, so they’re the ones I picked out to share with you. It’s one way to read poetry. Do any of these poems also speak to you?

21 Comments leave one →
  1. November 1, 2011 10:36 am

    Wow, this sounds like a wonderful collection…Thanks for a great review.

    • November 2, 2011 12:12 pm

      It’s an interesting collection; much of it quite foreign to me.

  2. November 1, 2011 1:24 pm

    Any and ALL of those poems speak to me. Really loudly. The middle one evokes William Stafford’s classic, “With Kit, Age Seven, At the Beach.” It’s sort of a child’s perspective to Stafford’s poem. Lovely.

    Thanks for passing them along.

    • November 1, 2011 1:51 pm

      I hadn’t read the Stafford poem! Thanks for pointing me to it.
      With Kit, Age 7, at the Beach

      We would climb the highest dune,
      from there to gaze and come down:
      the ocean was performing;
      we contributed our climb.

      Waves leapfrogged and came
      straight out of the storm.
      What should our gaze mean?
      Kit waited for me to decide.

      Standing on such a hill,
      what would you tell your child?
      That was an absolute vista.
      Those waves raced far, and cold.

      “How far could you swim, Daddy,
      in such a storm?”
      “As far as was needed,” I said,
      and as I talked, I swam.

      • November 1, 2011 7:53 pm

        Every time I think of the last 2 lines of that poem, I am overcome with swarms of goosebumps.

  3. November 1, 2011 2:28 pm

    This post caused my brain to write a poem which, since I neglected to write it down, is now lost. Oh well. It probably wasn’t any better than the kind of plots I come up with in my dreams.

  4. November 1, 2011 2:30 pm

    You have a knack for finding poems and poets that speak to me and that I understand. I love hearing your thoughts about them too. For me, The Waves spoke to me the most. It made me think of those moments in my own life when things just changed and you were never the same again.

    • November 2, 2011 10:46 am

      I’m glad to hear it. I think a lot of people would find poems that speak to them if they skimmed through more volumes of poetry. Luckily, I have an entire college library at my disposal, so I can skim through and put the ones that don’t appeal back on the shelf.

  5. trapunto permalink
    November 1, 2011 2:57 pm

    Jeeves and Wooster! I haven’t read the stories, but I watched the first series on PBS before I left for college. It hadn’t occurred to me that there might be more until a couple of years ago, what a treat. Like finding a forgotten dark chocolate bar in the back of the pantry (which never happens to me). Have you got to the shark jumping moment with Walker yet? Or perhaps it doesn’t jump the shark for everybody. I’m talking about the beards.

    I love it when Bertie sits down at the piano and cheerily plays and sings one of those inane 1920’s pop songs!

    • November 2, 2011 10:49 am

      We have gotten to that shark jumping moment, and we loved it. Walker has a thing about beards lately; it has to do with being fifteen and a half and wanting to grow one as soon as he can get another hair on his chin to go with the first one. And besides that, we were sitting there laughing that they really went there. They really did.
      We also love the piano playing and singing. One of our favorites was “Puttin on the Ritz” because Bertie couldn’t figure out where the syllables went with the music, and we were hearing an echo of the monster from Young Frankenstein.

      • November 7, 2011 7:34 pm

        Ha, yes. I didn’t love the beards, but I loved the silent comedy style scramble at the very end of the very last episode. What better way to wind up a series of such divine ridiculousness than to suddenly transition into a game of giddy actors playing here-we-go-round-the-mulberry-bush.

        I am trying just as hard as Walker NOT to to get a second hair on my chin to go with the first one.

        • November 7, 2011 8:27 pm

          Yes–we just reached the end of the series and we did enjoy the round and round chase, especially as it was so close on the heels of the amicable sing-along.

  6. November 1, 2011 5:20 pm

    You’ve reminded me I want to read a Jeeves story. Nice poems. (I NEVER know quite how to respond to these posts.)

    • November 2, 2011 10:50 am

      Oh, you know, you can tell me your deepest secrets. Or just let the poem wash over you and go read some G.K. Chesterton!

  7. November 1, 2011 10:25 pm

    They did speak to me, all of them, but especially the middle one. It made me think of the time when AJ was two or three and we were at the beach by my parents’ house. AJ was afraid to go in the water. I left him with Mr. Spy so I could swim and he screamed, terrified, I think, that I would disappear in the ocean and never come back. I did wish the poet had left off the last line, though. It felt like over-explaining to me. I like it better without.

  8. November 2, 2011 12:16 am

    I like them, although I think I don;t actually like the endings of any of them. Hmm. I do like this:

    We walk into waves that threaten to drown us.

    But they don’t. They fill us instead
    with salt, sand, and their own light.

    I really really really love Bertie and Jeeves on tv, even though it drives me crazy the way they’ve mixed up the plots of so many stories in each episode. We no longer try to untangle them — we just enjoy them. I do particularly like the song: “we will build for you a hut, you will be our favorite nut”

    • November 2, 2011 10:52 am

      We just watched that episode last night. It was so…heartwarming, the way they all sang at the end!

      You picked out my favorite part of the Waves poem.

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