A little honey, a little sun

Today, something to soothe the collective psyche, to ward off anxiety and remind us that we cannot move through this life totally fearlessly, but we can move through this life.

Ann E. Michael honeybee


Take from my palm, to soothe your heart
a little honey, a little sun,
in obedience to Persephone’s bees.

You can’t untie a boat that was never moored,
nor hear a shadow in its furs,
nor move through thick life without fear.

Osip Mandelstam, tr. Clarence Brown & W.S. Merwin

There’s more to this poem–three further stanzas–and I am re-reading it today, over and over, as if to memorize its quietly unfolding lines:

For us, all that’s left is kisses
tattered as the little bees


The poignancy of that image nearly kills me. Yet, soon enough in the poem (and elsewhere), Mandelstam’s bees die; but they also hum in the night, in the woods, “in the mint and lungwort of the past.” They make a sun out of honey. They warm the chill of winter’s approach; like kisses, they can soothe our hearts.


I have read some severe criticism of translations of Mandelstam’s poetry. Brodsky’s work, Merwin’s…Russian speakers suggest no translation adheres at all closely to the original. Rose Styron and Olga Carlyle’s version is here in Paris Review. And here’s a version (tr. uncredited) in The Atlantic. A bilingual version resides here, if you happen to know Russian and can weigh in on the translation controversy (Mandelstam himself reportedly hated reading verse in translation).

But here is why I am holding this poem close to myself today:

The poem acknowledges the fear that resides in all of us.

The poem reminds us that we have much to share. That we can soothe one another’s hearts.



Metaphor & mind

In a recent New Yorker article about the trial of Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, Jelani Cobb reports that during the lead prosecutor’s presentation

Roof’s mother sank down on the bench as he delivered his opening statement, which contained details of the crime that had previously been withheld from the press. At a certain point, she slumped over. It seemed for a moment that she had fainted, but she was taken to a hospital, and it was later learned that she had suffered a heart attack. She survived, but did not return for the remainder of the trial.

In her situation, I might have had the same response. How metaphorical: the heart revolts from within–an embodied reaction. When I read about this incident, I thought of cognitive scientist/philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who have been pioneering the concept that the mind and body evolved together and cannot be separated through the literal, analytical, categorical approaches of classic Western thought.

Languages the world over use body-based metaphors and gestures that reinforce how our  minds are integrated with and connected to our human bodies–we intuit from the gut; a situation makes our skin crawl; we place hands over hearts to demonstrate love, loyalty, compassion. Medical science confirms what people have long understood, in a “folk physiology” way, for years: emotional and intellectual stress has physical expressions and repercussions.

Lakoff and Johnson have been investigating such universal human phenomena since the 1970s. Their work has implications for a wide range of endeavors from artificial intelligence to brain trauma. In 1999, when Philosophy in the Flesh was published, they said Western philosophy needs to retool its thinking from the ground up, the ground being the body itself.

Reason, they assert, is as embodied as emotion; and their argument that intellectual functioning arises metaphorically through the physiological experiences of the (human) body is persuasive and extensively documented through research, particularly neurological research. Exactly where what we term “consciousness” arises may never be determined, but phenomenology, Taoism, and empirical science converge with what we are learning about synapses, cells, hormones, and the neural network to suggest there may be an answer as to how consciousness emerges; and that answer is likely to be biological.



The brain, the heart, the entire bodily system under emotional, mental, psychological duress, the conflicting moods of love, grief, anger, fear, and a chasm of misunderstanding; the terrible awe of disbelief–an embodied self might well collapse, physically, literally, under the metaphorical strain.



Love. Poem.

A beloved member of my family will be marrying in June, and I was asked to find a poem apropos to the celebrants and the occasion. I have written two epithalamiums (or epithalamia) and can testify to the difficulty of composing a good poem that is also a marriage poem. Anyway, in this instance, I wanted to find a suitable long-term-love-commitment poem by someone other than myself. Talk about abundance of choice!

Knowing the celebrants’ interests and tastes narrowed things down a bit, and the poem had to be “short & sweet.” The ceremony will be out of doors on a trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which made me inclined to look for natural imagery in the poem–but nothing so dense as to distract from the place itself.

What a splendid task! I allowed myself the luxury of looking at poetry books randomly, paging slowly through anthologies, browsing handouts I’ve collected for and from classes over the years. Just flitting from poem to poem over the course of weeks, occasionally marking something that seemed particularly likely…no pressure…

When I came across the poem “Tree Heart/True Heart” by Kay Ryan, I was startled into admiration.

It doesn’t start off like a love poem. It offers little in the opening imagery to suggest romance, or life attachment, or promise.

It is breathtakingly brief, revolves around wordplay and connotations, sounds lovely when read aloud.

The last two lines clinch the “commitment” in the poem; and the three lines preceding that final, spare, achingly-sweet sentence made me gasp when I re-read the poem, trying to figure out how Ryan managed all this in 16 lines, not one of which contains more than five words.

Love is all you needOkay, now you want to read the poem, right?

It was published in The New Yorker on September 26, 2011 (p. 116), and I am certain that I will be violating some sort of copyright if I reproduce it on this blog.

I hope Ms. Ryan forgives me, though if The New Yorker or her publishers find out, I may have to take this post down. It seems likely to me that The New Yorker has bigger fish to try to catch, however, so here goes. And I am putting in a plug for Kay Ryan’s books. Go buy them, preferably not second-hand, because poets make hardly any money from book sales and no money whatsoever from second-hand sales.


Tree Heart/True Heart

by Kay Ryan

The hearts of trees
are serially displaced
pressed annually
outward to a ring.
They aren’t really
what we mean
by hearts, they so
easily acquiesce,
willing to thin and
stretch around some
upstart green. A
real heart does not
give way to spring.
A heart is true.
I say no more springs
without you.


My beloveds–who are an ocean apart at present and miserable about it, and who aim to make sure that each has “no more springs/without you” –agreed that this poem suited their intentions, their personalities, and the leafy stretches of the hiking trail.

Thank you, Kay Ryan. Thank you, human beings, whoever it was who invented the arts, and poetry.

Love is all you need?

My daughter made this collage when she was nine years old. This is a poorly PhotoShopped version (the original has faded pretty badly):


Love is all you need

I was listening to The Beatles recently, music that takes me pretty far back into my childhood. I’ve been thinking about musical cues to memory for another poetic project on which I am currently working, so the concept of music evoking imagery, subjects, memoir has been uppermost in my mind. More on that project perhaps later, when I have arranged my thoughts more cogently. Meanwhile, some thoughts on “All You Need is Love.” Or more correctly, some musings that begin with “All You Need Is Love.”

When I was an adolescent, that Beatles’ song seemed to signify on several levels. One level was the universal: Love as the root of human sharing, as the means to peace and understanding, as the solution to the Big Problems. Another level was the romantic: Love as the way to solve personal loneliness, finding the partner with whom I could mesh, forge a permanent and personal understanding.

Love as solution. I view that ‘philosophy’ as a non-philosophy now; it is simplistic and impossible. Love is not a solution; it is a verb, active and engaging. Love certainly does not fix things. Its necessity, however, I do not question. Not for those who wish to be fully human.

Wait, you’re going to object–love is a noun, too. In most dictionaries, love as a noun is the entry before love as a verb. Arbitrary on my part to assert precedence for the verb, but I am cautious of abstractions even though I relish philosophy. Love as noun is abstract.

Merriam-Webster: “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties.” My OED (compact, print edition) contains 9 columns defining Love as a noun and two defining Love in the verb sense.

When I say love is a verb, I mean that in definition 3b in the OED: “to entertain a strong affection; in the reciprocal sense” and 4c: “to take pleasure in the existence of (a virtue, a practice, a state of things) in oneself, in others, or in the world generally.” Love need not be reciprocal, though that feels best to us–hypersocial beings that we are (see my post on Brian Boyd). Love is the greater part of compassion, in which case love is something we do.

I know people who have chosen to take their own lives. A few felt the sense of despair that comes from feeling there is no love (and therefore, no hope). But that is not always the case; some who took their lives did feel love, knew love deeply, knew that others loved them and would miss their physical presence. Love was not all these people needed.

And love was not the solution.

I think we damage ourselves when we believe that love is the solution to our problems. We need other strategies, other fullness in our lives, the tools to overcome or bear with many obstacles; we need perspective and humor and grace. Love alone, in and of itself, doesn’t make peace break out. It does not solve all the issues in a truly profound and sharing relationship–not on its own. Love needs other actions, and other abstractions (trust, communication, compassion, patience, for example) to do its work. It does not solo well–that is not what love needs. Altruism cannot exist in a vacuum, nor can romance, nor compassion.

It takes some effort not to become sentimental here (but Bachelard defends a certain amount of sentiment…)

This is not my definitive post on the subject of love! I need to read more philosophers on love, and to consider love’s evolutionary role, and its spiritual role, in human existence. I’ve done reading on t his in the past, but it was all very long ago. Now might be a good time to begin anew (since “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”).