Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Inspired by Spielberg's film, Lincoln

There is one photograph of Lincoln’s second inaugural address.  It had rained for weeks, but crowds jostled to witness him speak.  Crowds pressed those on the edge of the balcony so they leaned halfway over the railings.  On the graded ground beneath the marble steps, the crowd strains visibly toward the point above, where the president stood, his body the one thing blurred, as if the world had stopped turning, but he was passing through.
He spoke briefly, a single handwritten sheet.
“Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
He folded the sheet roughly, like a note of no further interest.  He lowered his head and turned from the crowd to walk back to the White House.
Recently, three more photographs have been found—mislabeled in the National Archive.  Soldiers with bayonets lined the path through which Lincoln passed.  If you look close, on the left behind a flag, you may see the woman in a ragged dress who pressed through and plucked his sleeve.  He turned and paused to let her speak.  We can only imagine her words:
“When the war’s won, your battle will be lost,” she whispered.  “In the theater of war, there is no third wall.  You cannot draw a line of fire.”
Lincoln leaned closer, as if her face reminded her of a mourner in recent dream.
“The last act will be played with a curtain for a winding sheet, but your enemies shall be hung with the curtain wrapped around their heads.”
“Don’t listen to such nonsense,” an aid said.  Lincoln was too inclined to predict his own assassination.  He’d joked on the walk over, “Is it time for me to walk to my scaffold?”  He felt that, having drawn the great nation through this nightmare, could he wake unscathed?  Would he lie in peace if he had not paid, as so many did, with his own blood?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Poem from Osip Mandelstam

The taunting form of your face
eluded my grasp in the cloud.
God, I called out by mistake—
I’d never called him aloud.

God’s name unfurled from my chest
like a bird from a cage and
soared through the thick, swirling mist.
Behind the bare cage I stand.

                  trans. Holly Woodward

Osip Mandelstam's poem

My mouth is frozen cold—

my skin is shivering,

but the sky dances gold,

commanding me to sing:

Weep, suffer love, know it,

and don’t drop the frail ball,

you tormented poet,

that I’ve lightly let fall.

So this is the real tie

to heaven’s secret realms,

in this heavy, dark sky—

the sadness overwhelms.

What if, above that shop,

this star shining so hard

were suddenly to drop

through my heart like a shard?

translated by Holly Woodward

Two judgments bookend Mandelstam’s work:
Osip’s mother wanted her son to enter a more secure profession than poetry and dragged him at eighteen to the eminent editor, Makovsky. She demanded that he read the boy’s poems and decide on the spot if they showed any talent. If not, she would forbid her son to write. The editor glanced at a few verses and was about to dismiss them. But Makovsky said that he saw in the boy’s face “such an intense, agonized beseeching, that he won me to his side—for poetry and against the skin trade.” He turned to the mother and said gravely, “Yes, Madam, your son has talent.” He then had to publish the poems.
A second judgment came n 1934, under Stalin’s escalating reign of terror. Mandelstam recited to five people a short verse that mocked a man with a cockroach mustache. He never wrote the lines down.
When a copy arrived on Stalin’s desk, everyone in Moscow knew it. Stalin called Boris Pasternak and asked him, “Mandelstam is the best living Russian poet, isn’t he?’ “Yes,” Pasternak answered. Stalin bellowed, “So why haven’t you called me to defend him?”

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Daisy from my Mother's Grave

My great-grandmother, Elizabeth Woodward, wrote poems as a girl growing up in Brooklyn. Her ten children left her with little time to write, but some of her childhood verse was published in the New York papers. This poem in memory of her mother she kept to herself. Into this page of her journal she slipped a tiny wild daisy from her mother’s grave in Green-Wood Cemetery.

To a Daisy from my Mother’s Grave, 1852

When hills and meads were brown and bare

And wintry winds swept chilly by

This little daisy blossomed fair

Beneath a cold and foreign sky.

Sweet little flower, it raised its head

Within the Greenwood’s hallowed ground

And smiled above the lovely dead

The last which graced that quiet mound.

In youth the hand of her now cold

Beneath the spot that marked thy smile,

Oft plucked the daisy from the mould

In her and thine own native isle.

Yet like thee from the English shore

Transplanted neath the western sky

She passed away life’s transient hour

Midst peaceful scenes at last to die.

Tis thine to boast no colors gay

Tis thine no stately green to wear

So would affection stoop to pay

A tribute to the one so dear.

I doubly prize the little gem

Since blooming on my mother’s grave

My father snipped thy tender stem

To me this simple flower gave.

Sweet daisy we would learn from thee

To scorn no power that we may hold

The humblest offering that may be

Is oft more dear than gems or gold.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A poem by Robert Desnos in my translation from the French

L'anneau de Moebius

Le chemin sur lequel je cours

Ne sera pas le même quand je ferai demi-tour

J'ai beau le suivre tout droit

Il me ramène à un autre endroit

Je tourne en rond mais le ciel change

Hier j'étais un enfant 

Je suis un homme maintenent

Le monde est une drôle de chose

Et la rose parmi les roses

Ne ressemble pas à une autre rose.

Mobius Ring

The road I run along

today is not the same one

I set out upon, and went straight on

it takes me back beyond where I’d begun

I've come round but the sky

is not the same. Yesterday I

was a child now I am a man

the world grows, a shifting design

and every single rose, you’ll find

is different than the rose in mind.

Translated by Holly Woodward

Adapted fromWikipedia:

Robert Desnos was a French surrealist poet who fought in the Résistance during the Nazi occupation. The Gestapo arrested and deported him to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, Flossenburg, and Terezin.

One day, Desnos and other prisoners were taken in the back of a flatbed truck; they knew the truck was going to the gas chamber; no one spoke. Soon the truck stopped and the guards ordered them off. When they began to move toward the gas chamber, suddenly Desnos jumped out of line and grabbed the hand of the woman in front of him. He was animated and he began to read her palm. He told her that she would have a long life, many grandchildren, abundant joy. A person nearby offered his palm to Desnos. Here, too, Desnos foresaw a long life filled with happiness and success. The other prisoners came to life, eagerly thrusting their palms toward Desnos and, in each case, he foresaw long and joyous lives.

The guards became visibly disoriented. Minutes before, they were on a routine mission the outcome of which seemed inevitable, but now they became tentative. Desnos was so effective in creating a new reality that the guards were unable to go through with the executions. They ordered the prisoners back onto the truck and took them back to the barracks. Desnos never was executed.

Desnos died in "Malá pevnost", which was an inner part of Terezín used only for political prisoners, from typhoid, only weeks after the camp's liberation. The poems he wrote during his imprisonment were accidentally destroyed after his death.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

In memory of my father

Blue Hunter

On his birthday, three decades after his death,

my father’s soul feels so far off—lost.

I wrote his other child, though we rarely met.

She said she thought of him too, on Ayers Rock—

his memory still encircled the earth

a hundred years after his birth.

The one gift I know his two daughters share,

the one light that reaches from here to there,

he taught me at night on our back lawn,

great Orion, killed by his own love.

Dad showed me the nova where new stars form,

his blue knee, Rigel, and Betelgeuse above—

it’s dying, but the emptiness is so vast

we will feel nothing of its shattering blast.

If I could grasp the distance of that star,

would the dark years between us feel so far?