“It is always a matter, my darling, of life and death…”

Hans Christian Andersen's Window-sill Desk

“It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.”

I teach eighteen year old boys. They are very bright, quite talented, and well-situated so as to take advantage of the most amazing opportunities.  And yet they are still eighteen years old–filled with false bravado and insecurities, dreams and fears, uncertainties and confusion.

And this is the week!

In the States, April 1 is the arbitrary deadline that most colleges and universities set for informing applicants whether they have been accepted or rejected. The three or four days beforehand is a time period when these students believe that their lives sit in a balance.  I try to tell them–not flippantly–that it is not the end of the world, that perhaps rejection from one school and acceptance to a lesser-desired one might be the best thing to happen to them.  Who can tell?

But I have to remember as the poet says, at that age “it is always a matter of life and death.”

I don’t envy them their angst.  And I don’t downplay it. It is very real–and almost palpable in the school hallways. Instead I give them this poem, which I think is good for them to know.

The Writer by Richard Wilbur

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

There are two important pieces in that last verse.  One, I realize that for them everything–a university rejection, a break-up with a girlfriend, a strike-out when a game is on the line–everything is “a matter of life or death.”  The second is that wish that the speaker “wished you before, but harder.”  Undoubtedly, they will be battered and smacked up against hard obstacles. Even the most fortunate among them–and they are mostly fortunate–will have moments where things seem hopeless.  And so, like the poet, I wish them well, I wish them smooth sailing, and I wish it even harder.


“Modern Love”

The word “modern” is such a subjective term.  The 19th century poet, George Meredith, wrote a poetic sequence of 50 poems and entitled it Modern Love. The poems, each having 16 lines in 4 rhymed quatrains,  describe the relationship between a man and his wife.  It is “modern” for him because it is describing his current life in the 1860s.  Yet, it is extraordinarily modern to us, in that it is timeless.  It doesn’t seem filtered by the past, but emotionally contemporary. The distant couple, the repressed emotions, the sleepless night, these all seem to be taken from the late-20th-century, early -21st. I swear I have seen countless movies where a modern woman and modern man lie on their backs, thinking, wishing, wondering–the very emotions that Meredith attaches to his “modern lovers.”  All it needs is a plaintive soundtrack by  Bonnie “Prince” Billy.

Here is the first poem in the sequence.  Notice the dread, the sadness, the angst; it seems all so very real, very contemporary.

By this he knew she wept with waking eyes:
That, at his hand’s light quiver by her head,
The strange low sobs that shook their common bed                                             
Were called into her with a sharp surprise,
And strangely mute, like little gasping snakes,
Dreadfully venomous to him. She lay
Stone-still, and the long darkness flowed away
With muffled pulses. Then, as midnight makes
Her giant heart of Memory and Tears
Drink the pale drug of silence, and so beat
Sleep’s heavy measure, they from head to feet
Were moveless, looking through their dead black years,
By vain regret scrawled over the blank wall.
Like sculptured effigies they might be seen
Upon their marriage-tomb, the sword between;
Each wishing for the sword that severs all.
(For those who like the “biographical” strategy, check out George Meredith’s life. It makes the poem all the more poignant.)