PORTRAIT OF DAVID NICHOLS, ARTIST UNKNOWN

 

Here’s another of the Sheldon Museum poems, this one about a portrait of an extraordinarily handsome man that hangs upstairs in the Sheldon’s office space. There are a few letters of his in the archives, too.  He died fairly young, in Paris. One woman who viewed the portrait was heard to say, “He could only have been shot by a jealous husband.”  

PORTRAIT OF DAVID NICHOLS, ARTIST UNKNOWN

What is the use of a person’s living if he can’t enjoy himself? 

None! say I–and if one can’t enjoy themselves 

when they are in the bloom of life, 

when can they?

~D. N. in a letter to Dugald Stewart, Dec. 28, 1841

Did I meet your ghost in Paris–

slim shadow brushing by that night

on the street in Montmartre?

 

I like the way you look at me

after all these years.

 

That rose that fell

from the balcony in Pigalle

and landed at my feet–did it drop

from your long  fantomatique

fingers? Maybe it was your esprit

murmuring compliments

in terrible French as I sunned

in a green chair in the Tuileries.

Your breath on my neck while I lingered

in the café drinking red wine

and watching the moon . . .

 

I want to run my hands through your hair,

trace the shape of your long nose.

 

Was it your spectre I glimpsed, waving

an immaculate handkerchief

from the Arc de Triomphe?

I’m glad you died

in Paris.  Vermont was too small

for your élégance, exubérance,

“real Yankee” though you claimed to be.

It was “utterly impossible to raise a dance”

here in winter, and I cannot imagine

you in Vermont, in winter,  not dancing.

There’s something about the gleam

in your eye and–oh, I don’t know–

your Mona Lisa smile.

EQUANIMITY

Something happened back when I wasn’t

looking, or maybe I was looking and didn’t care.

Maybe it happens to everyone by a certain age,

or it doesn’t matter. Or it’s what is meant

by equanimity and it’s something to strive for

only I didn’t, or at least I don’t think I did,

and yet, maybe it’s the fruit of all that prayer,

the hours on the front step with my cup,

watching the sun come up, or set.

 

 

~Solstice 2017

‘QASIDA

‘QASIDA

November. I drove through the woods alone.

The chapel had not changed—yellow stone,

pine benches, carven altar, the wide, worn

boards of the floor, pale ceilings adorned

with stenciled flowers. I watched the sun

mark the walls with pattern as it shone

through the western window, low.

Once this was a shelter from the storm

around us.  Once, with you, I won

what my heart desired. But you are gone.

On the forest paths, in shadow, once we roamed,

no need for touch or speech. Some

nights we sang by the lake while moon-

light and starlight from heaven’s dome

brushed us with silver. My voice, a golden horn,

blessed the stones with song. Oh, none

but I can praise our music well, or write this poem!

Free and wise and fair were we, born

between the mountains and the sea, who turned

the wild wood into home.

 

The Qasida is an elaborate form. This is a feeble attempt.

A NAME

A NAME

. . . Surprise is a  name of God.

~Brother David Steindl-Rast

 

Who else would bring a pair of owls

to circle my head on New Year’s night?

Or a fox to the front step

just at sunset yesterday? Who

could have handed us a little child

with round cheeks, his mother’s mouth,

his daddy’s smiling eyes?

In the gray and icy drizzle of winter,

who else would have sent a foot of snow,

north wind to slice through our dismay?

Or gathered us together

and crowned us with roses,

taught us how to sing?

I WHO HAVE DIED

I WHO HAVE DIED

I who have died am alive again today.

~e. e. cummings

I have surrendered to the darkness

of loneliness, of foreign spaces.

 

Where did you go when you were afraid?

I sat on the kitchen floor and wept

 

for my golden house, the porch,

the rock in the meadow.

 

Broken butterflies predicted loss,

so many losses. And today

 

I live again. On New Year’s Night,

two owls flew over my head

 

in the dark garden. This morning,

there is snow. Again I live, again.

 

This was inspired by a lecture by Br. David Steindl-Rast  about the practice of gratitude.

TZADIKIM NISTARIM–part 6

31. She works in a Day Care Center in a dying city. She is tiny, and too old for this work. She has bad knees and a smoker’s cough. And she loves the children. She sings to them, embraces them, wipes their noses, listens to them, talks to them as if they were equals since she knows they are. She recognizes their fatigue and anxiety and takes it very seriously. When she cannot reassure them—and many times she cannot—she comforts them with her kindness. When she was five years old, her own parents died in a boat fleeing a country at war, and her older brother saved her and raised her. When she was too young, she married the wrong man. He tried to kill her, and he killed her baby, and killed himself.  Every night she sits before her cardboard altar and lights candles for the baby, and her brother, and her parents. And she lights one, too, for her husband.

32. She is a librarian in a middle-sized mid-western town. When she was in college, she had a great deal of trouble deciding on a major, so she has a background in English, History, Latin, and Philosophy. Later on, a library degree made a great deal of sense to her. She likes to catalogue. She likes things that fit together, and she likes incongruities. When she prays for the library patrons as they come and go, she imagines them in their proper settings: this matron working tapestries in a castle tower, that high school student taming eagles in Mongolia. Sometimes she recommends books that fit her visions of them, and she is always right.

33. He is a jack-of-all-trades in a hardscrabble rural town, doing his best to support his family.  His wife has a bad back and is not able to work. They have three children, two in high school and one in fifth grade. He plows driveways and mows lawns, does some brush-hogging and ditch-witching and logging and roofing, and in the winter sometimes he makes snow at a small ski area. He has a backhoe left him by his father, and he recently bought a small elderly dump truck so he can haul gravel and crushed stone. He will, his wife says, “give the shirt off his back” to anyone in trouble, and she smiles fondly as she says it. They’ve housed neighbors whose house burned down, they’ve taken in runaway teens and stray cats and abused horses. And there’s always enough. “The Lord provides,” he says, and his wife laughs and rolls her eyes.

34.  Her early marriage ended in divorce, and now she lives with her elderly mother, three fat ginger cats and an obnoxious Yorkie. She used to be an office manager for an electronics firm, but after she recovered from breast cancer, she decided that she needed to spend more time outdoors. Now she has two jobs:  in the winter she teaches skiing at a Mom-and-Pop ski area, and in the summer she is a flagger for a traffic control company.  Her favorite of the two jobs is flagging, something that her friends find very surprising. “It isn’t at all boring,” she says. In the evenings, she enjoys making small books from nice papers, and she writes happy things in them and hands them to the people waiting in the first car in the line. She has dog biscuits in her pockets, too, for their dogs.

35.  He is a widower in charge of programs at an adult day care center. There is never enough money, but he always manages. His salary is ridiculously low, but he remembers the birthdays of all the staff members and all the clients with corsages or boutonniers. In season, they are made from flowers from his garden. He knows hundreds of popular songs and sings them while he plays his banjo. He invites people from all over the community to come offer programs at the center, and he rewards them with bouquets.  A cartoonist comes regularly to give free lessons. Every spring a woman who does bird calls comes with slides of the birds she imitates. A group of junior high students come to sing a capella music. A retired history professor leads a current events discussion group. The only problem he has is scheduling: so many people want to come that he has trouble fitting them all in. He likes eating at the center because he is a terrible cook. Left on his own, he eats cold cereal and microwaved baked potatoes.

36.  She is the Lunch Lady at an elementary school in the town where she grew up. Five years ago, she graduated from a prestigious culinary institute, and after some consideration decided she’d rather work in a school than a restaurant. The breakfasts and lunches she prepares are beautiful and good. There is almost no wasted food in the school now. She has convinced many community members to grow extra vegetables and fruits for the school, and she freezes the surplus for winter meals. With her own money, she bought a grow light system so she can make fresh salads all year. Children are always welcome in the kitchen, and sometimes teachers send restless or troublesome children there to help her. She always has something for children to do:  washing vegetables, arranging things on trays, making decorations for the cafeteria tables. She is engaged to a young orchardist who also drives a school bus. They hope to marry as soon as they finish building a little house on the edge of the orchard. She meets regularly with a women’s circle for meditation and earth-honoring ritual.

TZADIKIM NISTARIM– part 5

25.

She is a clerk in a city bookshop, and since she has an MFA, she specializes in books about music and art. Customers always ask for her when they want to find the perfect recording to give to an aunt who loves opera, or the perfect coffee-table book about the pre-Raphaelites.  She lives alone in a one bedroom apartment two blocks away from the bookshop, over a stationery store, and she has a tiny, elderly dog whom she rescued from a high-kill shelter five years ago. She lives very modestly, without a car or television or computer, though she has an excellent, though compact, sound system. Once a week, she takes the night shift at a shelter for homeless teenagers, and she gives a third of her income to support the shelter and the local food pantry. She also attends AlAnon meetings twice each week, in the basement of the synagogue on the corner.

26.

He’s a high school senior in a small-town union high school. He’s not an athlete, nor especially gifted academically, though he is a solid B student. He isn’t part of the crowd of “popular” students, although he has a good circle of friends who, like him, are creative and funny.  He lives with his parents and twelve-year- old sister in a double-wide on the edge of town. Both his parents work odd hours, so he does most of the cooking for his sister and himself, and he keeps an eye on her after school.   During his junior year, he came upon a group of people teasing one of the special education students who attend his school, and he put an end to the teasing, and defused the situation. He also has a knack for stopping fights before they become violent. This has been noted by one of his teachers, who is encouraging him to go on to work with troubled teens. He likes that idea, and has decided that if he can’t get a scholarship to college, he will work for a couple of years on his uncle’s farm, and then become a classroom aide. He plays the ukelele.

27.

She is the music director in a large church, responsible for two choirs, music for all the services, and a concert series. She is also in demand as an organ soloist and a teacher, and has several advanced students, although her favorite students are the beginners. She loves music, especially Bach and Fauré, and she loves her work. God, she believes, is best known through music, and she once told her husband that if she had to choose between music and God, she would choose music. Her choristers respect her and always give her their best because, as one soprano says, “She cares so much—not just about the music, but about us.”  Her husband is the principal cellist in the city symphony orchestra, and they have one daughter who is in junior high school and plays the clarinet. She has a dry sense of humor, and privately considers the disbanding of the church’s handbell choir one of her greatest accomplishments.

28.

He was born again two years ago when he attended a revival meeting at a Baptist church in the suburban neighborhood where he lives in a duplex with his girlfriend. The early glow has worn off, but he still feels the love of Jesus in his heart. His girlfriend, a massage therapist and yoga teacher, calls herself a secular Jew, and is bemused by his religious fervor, although she loves him dearly and does not make fun of him. He attends a community college, hoping to get a degree in management. To pay the bills now, he is a picker in the warehouse of a large catalogue company. But in the back of his mind, he is always singing hymns and saying prayers for the world, especially for the people whose orders he is filling. His co-workers are very fond of him. He does not proselytize, but they know that he’ll pray for them if they ask him. He likes to bake, and often brings homemade cookies to share at breaks.

29. When he retired from IBM, he started volunteering. He drives elderly and low income people to medical appointments now, in all kinds of weather. Nearly all the staff at the small-town hospital and in the various doctors’ offices know him and greet him when he walks in with a patient. In order to do the job, he had to learn CPR, but he has never mastered the blood pressure machine. The people he transports are often anxious, and he listens to them but does not offer advice. Usually he gives each of them a small white stone from a supply he keeps in a paper bag in the glove compartment. “Put it in your pocket,” he says. “And remember that I’m remembering you.” He gathers the stones on a beach in Rhode Island where he goes every year to visit his wife’s sister, who is alcoholic and diabetic, and does not follow her doctor’s orders.   Her religious and political views are extreme, so the visit is always difficult, and he finds great comfort in his daily walk on the beach, looking for perfect white stones and praying over them.

30.  He worked all his long life as an editor, working his way up from jobs at small-town newspapers. By the time he retired, he was editor-in-chief of a major publishing company. He shepherded uncounted authors through the publishing process, and discovered several major writers. He cared passionately about language and thoroughly enjoyed the changes, including the evolution of slang words, which he defended vigorously against what he called “English-murdering snots.”  After he retired, he and his wife moved from New York to a small town in Vermont, where he occupied himself by writing letters to the editors of every newspaper he subscribed to. He became a warden in the church there, and developed a reputation in town as a curmudgeon, which delighted him. When he was in the hospital undergoing a fiercesome chemotherapy for lymphoma, the parish priest visited him and asked him how he was, and he said,  “Let’s just say I’ve had better days.”  Since his recovery, he has been recording books-on-tape for people who are unable to read.