April 19, 2019

Wild Nights with Emily

Emily (Molly Shannon) doing what she should be best remembered for -writing
WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY - Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

This is not a review but a preview since I have not seen the new film about Emily Dickinson, Wild Nights with Emily.  The reviews have been positive.

I have posted a few times in recent years here about poets and poetry portrayed on film. The results have been mixed, but I think it is difficult to explain what poetry's power is to someone who does not read or write it. It would be even more difficult to make it come to life on a screen. It comes to life for many of us on a page, read silently or read aloud.

On the film's website "About" page, they describe the film in this way:
"In the mid-19th century, Emily Dickinson is writing prolifically, baking gingerbread, and enjoying a passionate, lifelong romantic relationship with another woman, her friend and sister-in-law Susan...
Yes this is the iconic American poet, popularly thought to have been a recluse.
Beloved comic Molly Shannon leads in this humorous yet bold reappraisal of Dickinson, informed by her private letters. While seeking publication of some of the 1,775 poems written during her lifetime, Emily (Shannon) finds herself facing a troupe of male literary gatekeepers too confused by her genius to take her work seriously. Instead her work attracts the attention of an ambitious woman editor, who also sees Emily as a convenient cover for her own role in buttoned-up Amherst's most bizarre love triangle.
A timely critique of how women's history is rewritten, WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY remains vibrant, irreverent and tender--a perhaps closer depiction of Emily Dickinson's real life than anything seen before."
Emily (Molly Shannon) and Susan (Susan Ziegler) in bed - WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY - Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

Not every filmgoer will know walking into a theater that the film's title comes from one of her poems. It is one of my favorites of Emily's poems.

Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile - the winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden -
Ah - the Sea!
Might I but moor - tonight -
In thee!

The Atlantic editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Brett Gelman) visits Emily to tell her that her poems are inaccessible, so he won't be publishing them.  WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY - Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment
I liked Terence Davies' film A Quiet Passion, which is a biopic about Ms. Dickinson, but it followed the traditional story - which is at least partially true - of Emily's chronic pain, unrequited love, literary obscurity, self-confinement and isolation.

What makes this new film different from other works about Emily is that it takes some of the evidence that has been found through studying the poems and Emily's erasures which seem to indicate more than just a friendship with her brother's wife, Susan.

If Emily was on Facebook, her relationship status would read "It's Complicated."

Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz) who narrates the film and assembled and edited the first posthumous collection of Dickinson’s poetry was also the mistress of Emily’s brother. Mabel's edits out Emily’s now-famous dashes and deleted the dedications to her sister-in-law, Susan. Fake news.

Madeleine Olnek’s film is a reinterpretation of the somewhat standard story of Emily's life that was taught for many years. I certainly was given a picture of a hermetic poet who never left her bedroom and would gaze out the window at flowers, funerals and the world passing by. She wanted her poems destroyed and forgotten.

That story is not accurate. How much closer to the truth is this film's interpretation? The film is rated PG-13 for "sexual content" but it is a gentle intercutting of the edited Emily and the version of her where petticoats fall to the floor. Molly Shannon's Emily is more of a heroine in what is probably a romantic comedy. If that interpretation brings more readers to the poems and blows the dust off Emily's portrait, I'm all for it.

April 12, 2019

No Time in the Garden

I have written before about poet Stanely Kunitz's garden in Provincetown. With the start of early gardening here in the Northeast and the recent passing of poet W.S. Merwin, my thoughts again turn to poets, poetry and gardens.

W.S. (William Stanley) Merwin was the 17th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry of the United States. He authored over fifty books of poetry, prose, and translations. He earned every major literary prize, most recently the National Book Award for Migration: New and Selected Poems and the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for The Shadow of Sirius.

He lived in Hawaii where he was an avid gardener, guardian of nature and raised endangered palm trees.

W. S. Merwin’s collection of poems, Garden Time, concluded his 70 years of writing poetry when it was published in 2016.

He had at the end of his life macular degeneration and so had great difficulty seeing and was no longer traveling or giving readings.

In an article in the American Scholar, John Kaag wrote about a brief conversation he had wit Merwin about how that book had meant a lot to him in connection with John's mother. His mother "gardened with a passion I often mistook for rage."

In their conversation, Merwin said “You have to understand, John: The time of wisdom cannot be measured, and, for me, wisdom is the garden. There is no time in the garden. There is no time in the garden. There is …” He halted, coughed, and let it out, “… no time in the garden.”

I am a gardener and I think I know the timelessness there that Merwin felt.

Kaag thought it could mean several things including how it predates and outlasts us, pays no little heed to the human timeline, flourishes and declines in the “now,” and is a reminder that nothing lasts forever.

Garden Time is dedicated to Merwin’s wife, Paula who was dying as he composed the poems. From the article, I learned that she had become his eyes, reading to him, helping with poems and guiding him through the garden.

I heard Merwin read several times and once, at a Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey, I got to speak briefly with him. He had attended nearby Princeton University and I asked him what he remembered about the place. he said, "Walking the campus and the beautiful old trees passing through the seasons."

I told him that I had two lines from his poem,"Place," in a small frame over my writing desk.

On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree

I said that I considered it the most optimistic message. This seemed to please him.

His poem, "Garden," reprinted on the Merwin Conservancy website, comes from an earlier collection, The Vixen, but is part of the throughline of the garden and nature that runs through his poetry.


When I still had to reach up for the doorknob
          I was wondering why the Lord God whoever that was
who had made everything in heaven and the earth
          and knew it was good and that nobody could hurt it
had decided to plant a garden apart
          from everything and put some things inside it
leaving all the rest outside where we were
          so the garden would be somewhere we would never see
and we would know of it only that it could not be known
          a bulb waiting in pebbles in a glass of water
in sunlight at a window You will not be wanting
          the garden too the husband said as an afterthought
but I said yes I would which was all I knew of it
          even the word sounding strange to me for the seedy
tatter trailing out of its gray ravelled walls
          on the ridge where the plateau dropped away to the valley
old trees shaded the side toward the village
          lichens silvered the tangled plum branches hiding
the far end of the scrape of the heavy door as it dragged
          across the stone sill had deepened its indelible
groove before I knew it and a patch of wilting
          stalks out in the heat shimmer stood above potatoes
someone had cultivated there among the stately nettles
          it was not time yet for me to glimpse the clay
itself dark in rain rusting in summer shallow
          over fissured limestone here and there almost
at the surface I had yet to be shown how the cold
          softened it what the moles made of it where the snake
smiled on it from the foot of the wall what the redstart
          watched in it what would prosper in it what it would become
I had yet to know how it would appear to me

What is a Garden? - a photo book featuring
Merwin’s essays and poems about his palm forest

Merwin died at home on March 15, 2019. I have made a calendar note for next year to reread his poem "For the Anniversary of My Death," which begins:

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

The idea that the day of your death is a day you have lived through over and over, like an anniversary, like a birthday, is another one of those things that merwin has written that stays with me.


April 5, 2019

Prompt: Reverdie

The reverdie is an old French poetic genre. It originated with troubadour ballads of the early Middle Ages and so many of them were song lyrics. They are usually about the arrival of spring. The word "reverdie" translates as "re-greening." There are some traditions in those old poems and lyrics, such as addressing spring as a beautiful woman. Reverdies were often dancing songs and were popular during the time of Chaucer.

The Middle English reverdie that begins "Svmer is icumen in/ Lhude sing cuccu" can be translated as "Summer has arrived / Sing loudly, cuckoo! /The seed is growing / And the meadow is blooming /And the wood is coming into leaf now / Sing, cuckoo!" This "Cuckoo Song" is one I always find odd because it says that summer is coming and yet all the images seem to be of spring.

There are many, perhaps too many, poems about spring. In lists of them, you will find Eliot's "The Waste Land." I like Eliot's poetry, but his images of spring are pretty grim. The poem's first section is subtitled "The Burial of the Dead" and its opening is often quoted:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Spring and All is a volume of poems by William Carlos Williams and the section we consider for this prompt is "By the road to the contagious hospital" - which also sounds pretty grim.

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

The landscape is "Lifeless in appearance" but Williams knows that "sluggish dazed spring approaches" and the poem is more optimistic in this very early spring.

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them the cold, familiar wind- Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wild carrot leaf
One by one objects are defined-
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf...
Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken

E. E. Cummings describes Spring as being "like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere)arranging
a window,into which people look(while
people stare
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here)and
changing everything carefully

What we asked poets to do this month was to write a reverdie about the arrival of spring but - is this is not easy - say something that has not been said by poets before.

In "Spring Snow" by Arthur Sze, I see a picture of the spring around me currently - a mix of winter and summer that has not been well blended.

A spring snow coincides with plum blossoms.
In a month, you will forget, then remember

what I like about the poem is the unexpected images that follow in his reverdie. Snow and plum blossoms seem like a wrong coincidence, but it occurs in haiku fairly often, But he follows with several images of that odd mix.

when nine ravens perched in the elm sway in wind.

I will remember when I brake to a stop,
and a hubcap rolls through the intersection

In "National Poetry Month" the poem speaks by itself, according to Elaine Equi. The poem mentions April, but can you find the spring within it?

Sometimes the poem weaves
like a basket around
two loaves of yellow bread.

“Break off a piece
of this April with its
raisin nipples," it says.

“And chew them slowly
under your pillow.
You belong in bed with me.”