Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Poems for Bastille Day

Today we have another chance to celebrate independence, liberty, and equality:  Happy Bastille Day to us all!

I remember very few dates without having to look them up to be sure, but I do know that the storming of the Bastille happened in 1789--and by reversing those last 2 numbers, I can remember that Wordsworth and Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads in 1798.  I can make the case that both events forever shaped the future.

Here's a Wordsworth quote for your Bastille Day:

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!—Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!"
If you want to read the whole poem, you can find it here.  Fair warning:  it will have too many exclamation marks for modern tastes.

I had to identify the first two lines and the event to which they referred during the subject area test of the GRE.  The question came early in the exam and gave me confidence.

I woke up this morning thinking about Wordsworth's enthusiasm and how so many people who saw themselves as revolutionaries during the late eighteenth century headed off to France to witness the birth of the new society--or simply, to fight.  I thought about how people wouldn't do that today--and then I thought of all sorts of people who have--most recently, those going off to fight with ISIS.  I think of them as poor deluded souls.  I suspect people said the same about Wordsworth and his compatriots.

Today will be the day when some of us read Harper Lee's "new" novel.  I will not be reading it.  I'm suspicious of how it came to see the light of day--that the sister who helped guard Lee's reputation died, and now we have a novel.  Hmmmmm.  I suspect the younger Harper Lee would not approve of this publication.

But that's not why I'm not reading it.  I know that plenty of people are not reading it because it will likely show us an Atticus Finch that we won't like.  But that is not the reason that I won't read the book.

Here's my confession:  years ago, about 2008 or so, I was part of a book club, and we read the book.  I remember loving it in 8th grade.  I did not love it so much as an adult.  I didn't hate it--but it doesn't make me eager to read a book that many have described as much messier than Mockingbird, or worse, a rough draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.

I've imagined these characters all grown up already.  After our book club discussion, I wrote a poem that I still love, although many have told me that it's heartbreaking. 

Here's my version of the Mockingbird characters decades later.  Once you've read Harper Lee's version, you can tell me which you like better.

It's not exactly a Bastille Day poem--but like Bastille Day, our hopes for earlier heroic times often come to this:

Scout at Midlife

Several times a day, Atticus asks,
“Who are you again?”
And lately Scout shudders
to realize she isn’t sure.

Once, she was surrounded
by people happy to help
define her, to shape
her, like red Alabama clay
transformed into a garden.

But now these people are ghosts
who haunt her thoughts.
Dill gone on to marry
Lottie Mae after Scout waited
too long to say yes.
Jem dead in a hunting accident.
Aunt Alexandra and Calpurnia both felled
by the same kind of stroke.

Now, surrounded by the rabid
dogs of self-recrimination and regret,
she has only her Ph.D. in Theology
and memories of an earlier Atticus
to remind her that she once lived
on an intellectual plane.

Atticus asks, “What is it called,
that thing between your foot and the floor?”
Scout thinks about possible answers:
a carpet, a shoe, a sock, a callus.

She looks at her framed credentials as she explains,
once again, the nomenclature
of everyday objects. Sometimes she answers
Atticus’ questions in Hebrew.
Some days, she chooses Aramaic, Latin
some other dead language.


Wendy said...

2 things:

1) As I have read bits and pieces on Go Set a Watchman I had in my head that I had learned that Calpurnia and Aunt Alexandra were "felled / by the same kind of stroke." This morning I realized where I learned that tidbit. Hmmm...

2) I remember coming across this poem in your chapbook and thinking that you had captured something exquisite. It is one of my favorite poems from that book (except maybe the Penelope poems, but I wrote a paper once on Penelope as she is developed in literature through the ages, so I have a particular interest in that).

Finally, I am re-reading TKaM right now, and am I little non-plussed. I still like it very much, but Atticus is a little disappointing. When I read the book in High School, it was life-altering for me, and may have been part of why I became an English teacher. (Atticus was never why I loved that book, though. I like the first part, Scout learning what it is to live and grow up, mostly parent-less though she has many surrogates. I have a special place in my heart for the Mrs. Dubose storyline. That has defined courage for me.)

I am reminded by your post of how I felt the last time I read Jane Eyre. I still like the book, but I was completely put off by Rochester. He was not the great Romantic (if Byronic) hero I had remembered and built him up to be.

Kristin said...

Thanks Wendy--your comment is blog worthy--if you're looking for some subject matter for your blog, you've found it! In the meantime, I'm glad you shared your thoughts with me.