I am borrowing from the title of Geraldine Brooks’s novel of the Black Plague, Year of Wonders. It’s been that kind of year, worried about friends and family, seeing people lose their jobs, or risk their lives doing their jobs. Everything is out of balance, even with the ecosystem in our back yard.
It’s also a year that marks the achievement of a lifelong goal. I have finally earned my Ph.D. in English, writing about the connections between American women writers and women photographers in the early twentieth century. One of the women writers I’ve studied is Katherine Anne Porter, who may be one of the few novelists who has included the Spanish Flu of 1918 in her novella, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, after she, herself, barely survived that plague. Lit Hub even features a short video clip from 1973 featuring an 83-year-old Porter describing her experience.
We can or will eventually relate to her words at the end of Pale Horse, Pale Rider: “[N]o more plague, only the dazed silence…noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow.”
I can’t escape the irony that on this anniversary of Earth Day, humankind is forced to retreat indoors because of a raging virus and we must leave the natural world to nature. As a result, the air has become cleaner, the water clearer, the animals free and unharassed. I embrace nature as it exists in my back yard, feeding the birds, rescuing honey bees that fall into the birdbath, breathing in the plants, the vegetables and the herbs growing in pots all around our patio. And I turn to poets who have deep roots in nature, like Wendell Berry:
Mama Bird, Baby Bird
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
“The Peace of Wild Things,” Wendell Berry
Our worlds have shrunk, have concentrated, making us focus on what is immediately around us. For my husband and I, we were fortunate to plant our potted garden in the back yard before we all had to retreat into our homes. Those plants, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, peas have become our sanctuary. I’m also taking shelter in poetry and poets.org is offering to mail you a poem a day during April to celebrate Poetry Month, and they also offer Shelter In Poems: “This National Poetry Month, we ask our readers to share a poem that helps to find courage, solace, and actionable energy, and a few words about how or why it does so.”
This particular poem was emailed to me today, “The Way We Love Something Small,” by Kimberly Blaeser. This poem resonates with me, even more so now as my photography often focuses on small things because it has been my experience, like Blaeser claims, that using one’s camera, like writing poems, is an “act of attention.” And these are the things that save us. These small things have always saved me, having the power to change me.
The Way We Love Something Small
The translucent claws of newborn mice
this pearl cast of color,
the barely perceptible
like a ghosted threshold of being:
here not here.
The single breath we hold
on the thinnest verge of sight:
not there there.
A curve nearly naked
an arc of almost,
a wisp of becoming
tiny enough to change me.
The joy of research means discovering new things, like a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who seems virtually unknown today. Julia Peterkin’s Scarlet Sister Mary, the fictionalized story of the Gullah community on Peterkin’s plantation in South Carolina, won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1929. A Devil and a Good Woman, Too by Susan Millar Williams, is the only biography written about her. Thomas Landess’s book, pictured here, offers some biographical information, but it concentrates mainly on Peterkin’s oeuvre, including Roll, Jordan, Roll, the collaboration between Peterkin and photographer, Doris Ulmann. This is the first, published collaboration between a woman photographer and a woman writer. Appearing in 1933, it predates similar, collaborations, like Cabins in the Laurel, featuring a collage-like memoir by Muriel Earley Sheppard and the photographs of Bayard Wooten. Roll, Jordan, Roll also predates more famous collaborations like Walker Evans’s and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Roll Jordan Roll
“Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.” –George Orwell
A Certain Slant of Light
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
At a time when the voice of hate seems louder than other voices, I turn to the voices I trust. I turn to members of my family. I turn to my friends. And I turn to the poets and artists whose work has sustained me. Thank you, Emily.
And he remembered it no more….
I found this small, leather-bound SwedishPsalmbok in a used bookstore in Ventura, CA. In addition to how lovely it feels in the hand, its leather softened by the hands of another, its delicate weight, the fact that it is written in Swedish was intriguing. How had that book made a journey from Sweden to southern California? Moreover, who is Kris Lind, whose name is embossed in gold on the bottom right corner of the front cover, and how did he or she end up in California? Did his or her effects end up in this bookstore after a death, both book and man to be remembered no more (a line at the edge of the page reads, “Och han minnes den ej mer…” meaning, “And he remembered it no more……”)? Although I can’t read Swedish, I recognized the language on the page as some of my ancestors emigrated from Sweden to live in the northeast region of the U.S., where my maternal grandfather, Bernard Oscar Sandquist, was born. Growing up, I was told I was named for his mother.
Kris Lind may not be related to me in any way, but his or her Psalmbok now lives with me, no longer stripped from memory.
Vila väl, Kris Lind. Inte alla är glömt.