The Shape Of Things

Whistler Mountain, Vancouver, British Columbia. Photo by Brennan Robison, February 2018

I’m not sure when I fell in love with language. My father loved words. When he was a boy, he had a handwritten notebook full of new words. I tried to learn ten new words a week, he told me once with a sideways smile. When you use words, you want to use the right ones.

My earliest memories consist of my father and my mother reading aloud to me wondrous stories full of emotion and action. The sound of their voices rising and falling, enunciating words, gesticulating with their hands in accompaniment like conductors of word orchestras, the great emotional drama conveyed by their language, the life truths stories evoked –these things I recall from an awakening consciousness and intellect.

My Grandfather Forsberg had a bookcase full of Shakespeare and adventure books as well as the decades of sleek National Geographic magazines organized by year and month on glass shelves. I read them all, over and again throughout my childhood. The words created worlds within me. As years passed, I came to the words differently and thus, each read was a fresh one. This is still true.

At 14, a soft cover anthology of the world’s “greatest poetry” showed up in my hands. I read it throughout high school a thousand times, falling in love with Byron and Tennyson, Browning, Dickinson, Frost, Wordsworth. And at 23, I sat in literature classes with extraordinary teachers like Jack Mayne and Douglas Carlson, a fine poet himself, at JCC and fell in love, for the rest of my life, with words, literature and language. At SUNY Fredonia, I studied with the Victorian scholar Robert Schweik who not only read aloud to us great British poems of the 19th century but invited us to his house for Schweik’s Special shrimp dip and glasses of dark swirled sherry, where we all sat around, in love with a scholarly life that honored words. I can hear Dr. Schweik’s voice reading “My Last Duchess” by Browning from his podium in Fenton Hall, his intonations fluctuating with the Duke’s telling — friendly, dark, ironic, sardonic, angry, then charming again. I heard the interior rhyme, the impeccable and natural rhythm of Browning’s narration. I recall this passage:

Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,

Sandy and dad, circa 1953.

Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without

Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;

Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands

As if alive.

The Duke then moves on, charmingly now, leaving this wickedness behind as only the rich and powerful can. I recall the startle in my brain as I got it that the Duke had had his young bride murdered, as I encountered the banality and surprise of evil, as I understood poems can contain such human experience. Dr. Schweik stood there at the end, leaving the silence in our ears. It was a profound moment for me as a student, a scholar, a person.

Dad with Vicky, 1960. Family archives

My quest for a major was over. I loved philosophy and realized literature was philosophy. I loved psychology and realized poetry was psychology. I loved history and recognized the language of civilizations century by century were its history. And so I became the quintessential literature major. I stumbled into it — a young single mother with two small boys, weaving her way through life — yet as I write this, I see I was always on the road to it.

Early in my scholarly love affair, I rejected form and shape in poetry as if it were a cool rejection of restrictions in life, and I favored the rebel poets. I thought I was a rebel, when in all reality, I was a person who made bad choices, a person driven by loss and grief. In my brazen youth, I even had the audacity to reject Frost and Dickinson, who later I would realize were in fact true rebels. Then, for 25 years, I had the pleasure of talking about language and literature with thousands of students. How is it I was that lucky? Every day of my working life I got to share my love of words. But it’s so much more than this.

Today on Twitter someone tweeted a reading of Robert Hayden’s poem about parenting, “Those Winter Sundays,” the perfect poem for a February Sunday. It’s a poem I shared with my students every semester for decades, and I always enjoyed reading and hearing their responses to it from the ho hum of the slack-jawed student in the back row to the few faces that right before my eyes caught it — meaning, relevance, connection, and were changed forever. The last lines of this poem which one might term an elegy of sorts reads: What did I know, what did I know? Of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Here is the whole poem:

Sundays too my father got up early

My mother with Vicky as a child holding puppy Mike. Madison, Conn., 1964.

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

Whistler Mountain, Vancouver. Photo by Brennan Robison

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?

The offices of love. Such a metaphor. Such a mournful cadence. I came anew to those lines as I heard them though I had read this poem literally hundreds of times. It made me think of my younger son whose devotion to his two children after losing his wife has been absolute. He is in Vancouver, having recovered from flu and pneumonia, skiing on a monumental mountain called Whistler. He sends selfies of himself on the chair lift so high the trees made a carpet of green and white far below. His face is unshaven. His eyes deep and gray. He still doesn’t sleep much. But he gets up every day and goes to work. As Woodrow Call says in Lonesome Dove, “he never shirks a task.” That is the office of love.

The offices of love. I thought too of my childhood friend’s battle with cancer and of her two-year-old grandson’s ongoing struggle with leukemia. The trips to Buffalo hospital in the snow, the whirring machines, the sleeplessness. The agony of loving someone who is suffering. The holy duty of seeing them through it. I saw my mother’s face twisted in death on the white sheets as we sat vigil with her. I saw her eyes as she awoke to stare at us a minute before she left us forever. I thought of my little mother left by a husband after 23 years with no skills, nothing at all but mettle. I recalled how she got up every day and shoveled out the driveway atop Townline Road in the fiercest of storms and drove to work without complaint. I recalled how I might awake in the night, often, to smell her Viceroy cigarettes and know she was at the kitchen table again, alone. Who knows what she thought about? The austere and lonely offices of love?

And I thought of my father, my Hollywood father, who left us without mercy in a youth that turned to winter, but who in the end, year after year, clung to us by phone and letter so that it was us he called in the end, asking for help, crying out against the dying of the light. I think of my sister driving 1,000 miles over night to see him before he died, to hold his hand, to murmur comfort while he, unable to move or talk, lay dying at a Florida nursing home. Such are the offices of love.

I thought of the often grueling duties involved in loving and caring for our children, for others. On my older son’s 49th birthday recently, I thought back over 50 years and how as young woman I met with meanness and assault at the hands of my dearest love, how meeting that reality was as shocking and astonishing as running headlong into a wall. I recalled how, to keep myself and my boys safe, I fled in an old red Ford in a February snowstorm and never looked back. I drove Route 90 in a white out, hour after hour. I think of how I got up every day of the next 30 years. How I often rose in the middle of the night — as I do now in my old age –to thrust open a window and breathe in the cold, feeling the “austere” loneliness. I think, I could have done better; at the same time, I think, my god, what did I know, what did I know, of love’s austere and lonely offices? We do these things. We attend to business. We get the job done, no matter how exhausting, how hard. We get up and go to work. We polish the shoes. We awake before dawn. We light the furnaces. Like the parent in the Hayden poem, could we have done better at some things? Yes, unquestionably, yes. But did we quit the job? Or did we keep working in the offices of love?

And so life surprises us anew. I listen to the poem again. It’s fourteen lines. It’s unrhymed, but it’s got clear boundaries. It’s got distinct cadences of rhythm and time. It’s a sonnet, hiding inside a free verse. It’s like life. We think we’re free, but we are enclosed by the shapes and forms of loving, by the building of family and the offices of love — of those we love and those who love us. And the shapes and forms are good things. They are the poems of us. They find the truth.

And the words — our own and others’ — help us make sense of our lives.

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