IN MY LAST LIFE I WAS A WOMAN (by James Munro)

In my last life I was a woman.
I lived in India. Uttar Pradesh.

Sometimes I still feel like
a woman who lives in Uttar Pradesh

speaks Hindi, worships Siva
and the local goddess, Lalita as Candika.

Her man went to the city, never came back.
My man. He died. No one told her but she knew.

Her two sons followed him. My sons. Me,
I never left the village. Hardly ever left

that little yard where I squatted in the dust
and ground the meal, thrusting away the hen –

The lurki – the name comes back –
that I would never kill. I never saw traffic, not like now, here,

crowded streets, traffic lights, people thrusting and swirling,
clucking like a thousand greedy hens

pouring down into the underground and onto the train
locked in and rocketing beneath the city like in a submarine.

I want to get out. I want to get back to
my Indian roots. Or my submarine roots.

I never saw the sea then, either,
except in my dreams. In my dreams

I was a fish.

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BECAUSE I COULD NOT STOP FOR DEATH (by Emily Dickinson)

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ’tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horse’s heads
Were toward eternity.

NO COWARD SOUL IS MINE (by Emily Brontë)

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven’s glories shine,
And Faith shines equal, arming me from Fear.

O God within my breast,
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life, that in me has rest,
As I, undying Life, have power in Thee!.

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts: unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds,
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by Thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy Spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.

Though earth and moon were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.

There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou – Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.

THE CONDEMNED (by C. S. Lewis)

There is a wildness still in England that will not feed
In cages; it shrinks away from the touch of the trainer’s hand,
Easy to kill, not easy to tame. It will never breed
In a zoo for public pleasure. It will not be planned.
Do not blame us too much if we that are hedgegrow folk
Cannot swell the rejoicings at this new world you make
—We, hedge-hogged as Johnson or Borrow, strange to the yoke
As Landor, surly as Cobbett (that badger), birdlike as Blake.
A new scent troubles the air—to you, friendly perhaps—
But we with animal wisdom have understood that smell.
To all our kind its message is Guns, Ferrets, and Traps,
And a Ministry gassing the little holes in which we dwell.

(Now, please click on the image and read the article. Oh and yes, the author of this poem is the C. S. Lewis.)

DEATH BE NOT PROUD (by John Donne)

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS – A Glance at John Donne

This phrase, For Whom the Bell Tolls, kept coming into my head this morning while I was doing my yoga and, as happens, set off a train of thought …

It is, of course, the title of Hemingway’s great novel of the Spanish Civil War. If you haven’t read it, do. And while we’re on that subject, let me mention another unforgettable Spanish Civil War novel, Winter In Madrid, this one by a contemporary British author, C.J. Sansom.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s title, is a quotation from John Donne, the English poet and younger contemporary of William Shakespeare. Some think the character of Hamlet was at least partly based on Donne.

Now what Donne actually wrote was: Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

Donne was a great poet, one of the greatest in the English language, but these words do not come from a poem, they come from a sermon he delivered late in life when he was Dean of St Paul’s in the City of London. For Donne could not decide whether he was a bohemian poet – on the lines of the French poet Francois Villon – a lover of wine, women and song (which he was), or a devout Anglican priest  (which he became). No doubt a lot of soul-searching and vacillation went on  in The Mermaid Tavern and around the City and Southwark as he gradually gave up the former life-style and devoted himself to the latter. Soul-searching and vacillation which would have afforded Shakespeare and his fellow-actors and writers much amusement. And no one vacillates and soul-searches like Hamlet!

Those lines, as I say, do not come from a poem; but scan them:

Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.

The first line is a perfect pentameter, and the whole is something Shakespeare would have been proud to have penned.

You can’t keep a great poet down.

But what did Donne mean?

Immediately before these lines comes another much quoted line: No man is an island entire unto himself …

What happens to one, happens to all.

This is not the cold and soulless, so-called scientific, world view. This is the world view of the visionary and mystic. The world view of our ancestors. The view that mind is primary, that matter is a function of  mind, not mind of matter. And minds are, mind is, interconnected. As above, so below. As here, so there. As then, so now.

The bell that Donne heard all those years ago across the roofs of the old city tolls for us.

* * *

I’ll post a couple of Donne’s poems (one of each!) tomorrow and Monday.

from IN MEMORY OF DAVID ARCHER (by George Barker)

(viii)

I cannot see. The place I do not know.
Who is that person standing by the wall?
Why do you ask the date on which I died?
Where is the house to which I am asked to go?
What was the question you put to me when
I happened to be listening to that child
Crying for god knows what outside the door?
Who is it calling me again and again
From my own chamber like a person lost?

I hear the dead man calling from the desert
But never the love, never the love, never.
I saw you. I saw you there. You were the other
Side of that window always hidden in shadow.
I cannot see. The place is not the place where
I was supposed to be. Who are those people
Whispering, with heads together, in the corner?
Why do they speak when they should be silent?

I think that I see, walking in the moonlight
The Magus Zoroaster and my dead father
Talking together. What is this heartbroken
House? Is this my home? Why do you look at me
As though I had no parents? Who is at the window?
You? Is it you? I saw you pass, your hand
Covering your face in shadow, and, in the moonlight,
Falling, seven wounds, like stars.