Sunday, August 01, 2021

Poetry: Eating Alone

 

Eating Alone

 - 1957-

I've pulled the last of the year's young onions.
The garden is bare now. The ground is cold,
brown and old. What is left of the day flames
in the maples at the corner of my
eye. I turn, a cardinal vanishes.
By the cellar door, I wash the onions,
then drink from the icy metal spigot.

Once, years back, I walked beside my father
among the windfall pears. I can't recall
our words. We may have strolled in silence. But
I still see him bend that way-left hand braced
on knee, creaky-to lift and hold to my
eye a rotten pear. In it, a hornet
spun crazily, glazed in slow, glistening juice.

It was my father I saw this morning
waving to me from the trees. I almost
called to him, until I came close enough
to see the shovel, leaning where I had
left it, in the flickering, deep green shade.

White rice steaming, almost done. Sweet green peas
fried in onions. Shrimp braised in sesame
oil and garlic. And my own loneliness.
What more could I, a young man, want.

 

I feel that Lee, as a converted Presbyterian minister, was attempting to connect with the possibility that the people in our lives who have died are really just out of sight in another existence or plain of spirits. I relate to this poem because I have had moments where I felt the presence of family members who have passed so strongly that I have turned my head and felt like I just missed the sight of them. This theme is presented though symbols and personification.

Lee uses the symbols of flame and the cardinal in this line, “What is left of the day flames in the maples at the corner of my eye. I turn, a cardinal vanishes” (970). Cardinals, in many religions represent loved ones who have died. In Christianity, red cardinals are a symbol of the fire of the living spirit. Lee used the word “flames” just before the almost sighting of the cardinal to great symbolic effect. Even though the word “red” isn’t present, it is inferred by the flames and the fact that male cardinals (male, like his father) are inherently red. Pair that with the “flickering, deep green shade” (Lee 971) near the end of the poem after he thought he saw his father, but realized it was a shovel instead. Green is the symbol of renewal in nature, and of resurrection and rebirth in Christianity. The symbolism is enhanced by the inferred red in flames, while the shaded green flickers like those loved ones in the spirit realm or the hint of Lee’s father leaning against the tree might flicker just out of sight.   

Personification is used sparsely in one instant when Lee thought he saw his father, to realize moments later that it was “the shovel, leaning where I had left it” (971). Using the element of  personification only once made it stand out that much more in the way that a thing, the shovel, for the briefest of seconds in the flickering light looked like his deceased father, leaning, almost in the way he had mentioned his father earlier while alive with “left hand braced on knee, creaky” (Lee 970). The similarities of the poses makes the personification of the shovel realistic that it could have been mistaken for his father. Even though the shovel wasn’t his father, it echoes the theme that it could have been because he is there, renewed, flickering out of our view, but in the realm of spirits that is so very close. 

The use of personification felt very real to me as I’ve had the same things happen to me, glimpsing what I wanted, but in reality was something else but looked so familiar simply by the way the item was positioned or “leaning”. Seeing the shovel momentarily as his father, made the poem more meaningful to me on a personal level. The symbols employed also enhanced the meaning of the poem, realizing that the cardinal barely glimpsed is symbolic of loved ones gone, but who are really only just out of our mortal sight is also deeply effective, even as daily life goes on as we prepare meals, drink the icy jolting water, and eat our meal in lonely quiet. Because even though our dead are near, they still aren’t with us, and are missed deeply.

 

Work Cited

Lee, Li-Young. “Eating Alone.” Literature: The Human Experience, edited by Richard Abcarian, et al., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016, pp. 970-1

poem borrowed from The Poestry Foundation 

Monday, July 26, 2021

Analysis: Henry David Thoreau’s “The Shipwreck”

 


Has there ever been a person, when they first came to any ocean, who did not take a moment to just stand and see? Whether on a calm day as the wide expanse curves on the horizon with waves rolling in long hypnotic sweeps, or whether it’s a day of storms and mighty crests crashing against rocks, one can’t but stop and gape at the power of something beyond ourselves. When Henry David Thoreau set out to go to Cape Cod to look at the sea and ponder and write about its majesty, he found that the day before he arrived, a ship full of emigrants from Ireland had been beaten violently on the harsh rocky shores and more than a hundred people had lost their lives. Irish mourners flocked to the scene, traveling the same path with Thoreau, yet it was the local villagers and how they went about the business of recovering the corpses that seemed to fascinate Thoreau. In “The Shipwreck”, Thoreau explains how people who live near the waters of Cape Cod have become pragmatic in the aftermath of the sea’s brutality, and how Thoreau’s view of the sea has this same detachment of the harshness in common with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.



As Thoreau walked down to the beach, he saw the local farmers and tradesmen bringing wagons down, loaded with rough-hewn boxes to be used as coffins. There had only been twenty-eight bodies founds of the one hundred and forty-five perished. The locals were busily engaged in finding the rest beneath the largest part of the wreckage which lay onshore. Yet Thoreau “witnessed no signs of grief, but there was a sober dispatch of business which was affecting” (1) as the men went about nailing down lids or trying to identify certain bodies sought by the Irish who had come to find them. Others were collecting sea-weed for fertilizer, taking it higher up on shore so it would not be lost in the tide “though they were often obliged to separate fragments of clothing from it, and they might at any moment have found a human body under it (Thoreau 1). Even though there was a tragic event just beyond their homes, the people living by the sea understood the importance of gathering what one could from the ocean. The locals had acquired a great deal of resilience to cope with the horrors that living by the ocean and near one of the deadliest shores demanded of them. They became people who were able to detach themselves from what the harsh sea spat out in order to do what had to be done for those who couldn’t do it for themselves. Yet, Thoreau conjectures, for all their pragmatism and seemingly being unaffected, once the funeral procession had passed on and the mass graves covered, it was the local villagers who “would watch there many days and nights for the sea to give up its dead, and their imaginations and sympathies would supply the place of mourners far away, who as yet knew not of the wreck” (1). Thoreau muses that the inhabitants should have a crest on their family shields of a wave and the datura plant, “which is said to produce mental alienation of long duration” (1) which is the only way they could deal with what the sea brings them. With the dreadfulness of the multitude of corpses around him on the beaches, Thoreau seems to cope by wondering about man’s relationship to the sea, as well as how that may fit into the afterlife, much like the wonderings of the Mariner about the sea in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

Thoreau, too, appears to take on the detachment shown by the locals at seeing so many dead at one time. He notes that when “corpses might be multiplied, as on the field of battle, till they no longer affected us in any degree, as exceptions to the common lot of humanity” (Thoreau 1). He goes on to think about how while these poor bodies are ravaged in the ocean, that perhaps they really have sailed into a safe port in Heaven (Thoreau 1) and it doesn’t matter that their corpses are “dashed on the rocks by the enraged Atlantic Ocean” (Thoreau 1). Thoreau ends “The Shipwreck” by writing of another trip to the same beach much later on a calm day. The breezes from the water brought an enjoyable coolness and the water was crystal clear. He looked down and “could see the sea-perch swimming about” (Thoreau 1). The harshness of the sea had been replaced by a calm and beautiful ocean. This same scenario occurred in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. The sea turned on the sailors just as it had turned on the emigrants coming from Ireland. Instead of tossing them and cracking the ship against the rocks, Coleridge’s mariners were caught in a lull in the middle of the ocean, just as dangerous when food and water run out and there is no breeze to sail by. Just as Thoreau did, Coleridge, through his mariner, ponders the afterlife and whether the dead sailors’ souls flew “to bliss or woe!” (Coleridge 1), and whether the pilot who comes to greet him will give him a blessing to wash away his sin of shooting the albatross. Another similarity in the two works is found with how as terrible as the sea can be, both Thoreau and Coleridge saw the beauty the sea can also give in the same way as the mariner looks down into the calm water and glimpses the water-snakes “move in tracks of shining white” (Coleridge 1). The sea can be both terrible and beneficial and those sailing upon it or making a living close to the coast have learned to live in harmony with the nature of the ocean in good or horrible times.

Thoreau was able to witness just one moment of tragedy in one particular day in the lives of the people of Cohasset. He glimpsed their resiliency and how they have learned to live and work near the sea, as well as the pragmatism that has evolved in their character. Thoreau writes about this unyielding practicality of the local inhabitants and how they went to work after a terrible shipwreck, and how all of mankind has the ability to cope with the brutality of the sea, by also seeing the ocean’s beauty as found in Thoreau’s “The Shipwreck” and Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. When next one stands on a seashore, take a deep breath and see.


 

Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Bartleby.com www.bartleby.com/41/415.html 

Thoreau, Henry D. “The Shipwreck.” Cape Cod, 2010. The Project Gutenberg www.gutenberg.org/files/34392/34392-h/34392-h.htm

Image: 

"Ardgour Shipwreck - Scotland" by Dave Holder is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Comparing The Road with The Hunger Games: Different Aspects of Humanity

Both The Hunger Games and The Road were written closely after the events of 911, an act of terrorism that was caught on camera. Before this, it was rare footage that caught a bombing or other act as it actually happened. But on September 11, 2001 the world watched as the second plane hit and people plummeted from the twin towers before the buildings were engulfed in smoke and part of our humanity was lost on a collective scale as we saw live what mankind could unleash against man. In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins shows the theme of humanity within a world of harsh rules, yet within Cormac McCarthy’s postapocalyptic world of The Road, humanity is present where there are no longer any rules.  



The world of The Hunger Games is set in an inhumane setting where the totalitarian type victors keep the remaining twelve districts of the continent in a state of subordination enforced by laws and rules, spoken and unspoken. Katniss “learned to hold my tongue and to turn my features into an indifferent mask so that no one could ever read my thoughts” (Collins 6). It’s this type of control, or subjecting others to live in an inhumane world that is at the core of the story. It is Katniss’s humanity that prevails.  She goes against the rules and hunts to provide for her family. She takes her sister’s place as tribute. She is a skilled hunter, yet it is not the fear of being killed that shows her humanity; it is the prospect of killing others.  According to Jeremy Adam Smith, The Hunger Games “is mainly preoccupied with how human goodness can flourish even in the most dehumanizing circumstances” (1). When Gale tells her “You know how to kill” (Collins 40), Katniss replies, “Not people” (40). Whether she could kill another person is something she reflects on throughout the book. 





Katniss’s humanity is taken a step further as she teams up first with Rue, and then Peeta. Smith describes a study that “has revealed that power is wielded most effectively when it’s used responsibly by people who are attuned to, and engaged with, the needs and interests of others” (4). Katniss does, indeed, become a more powerful opponent when she has others to protect. Her show of humanity has another effect. As she sings over Rue’s body and covers her with flowers, she is exhibiting her humanity in the middle of an arena where humanity should not exist in a fight for survival. Katniss’s humanity is what makes her a compelling heroine and the symbol of the Mockingjay. Like Katniss, the man and the boy also show humanity in a hostile world, but in their case, there is no one to witness it or move to compassion. 


The world of The Road is set after a catastrophe has destroyed most life. Hunger has driven humans to cannibalism. As Adeline Johns-Putra put it, “the man and the boy are not humans in a dead world as such; they are humans in an inhuman world” (529). Yet the man teaches his son the last vestiges of humanity. The man has instilled in his son that they are the good guys and that they will not eat anyone no matter how hungry they get. Like Katniss, the man’s power comes from caring for another. And also like Katniss he will kill to protect. Johns-Putra calls it “survivalist insularity . . . saving one’s offspring at the expense of others” (532) where the boy has a code of humanity that goes even further as he wants to extend care to others. The boy wants to go back for the child he saw; he wants to save the people in the pantry; he believes that there are more “good guys” in the world where the man no longer believes there are any. The boy believes this even when the only life he has known is full of horror and inhumanity. After they run from the cannibals, the boy asked, “And we couldnt help them because then they’d eat us too” (McCarthy 127), trying to find a reason for the man’s actions to not help.  

Johns-Putra explains that “the boy constantly proffers the hope of the existence of other good guys” (533). He sees tracks and says, “They could be good guys. Couldn’t they? (McCarthy 108). He wonders if the people in the bunker could be the good guys. Johns-Putra emphasizes that  because of “the unflinching focus on the relationship between father and son, the novel ensures that the contrast between past humanity and present inhumanity pivots on the question of care” (521) To the boy the man’s care is “the standard-bearer for humanity itself, [yet] the boy emerges by the end as an ironic facilitator” (Johns-Putra 521). The man’s belief that there is no humanity left in the world causes him to pass the boy’s salvation. “The attitude of the bearded veteran who saves the boy after the man dies is in keeping with the boy’s ethos of open compassion and in contrast with the father’s code of fiercely guarded filial protection” (Johns-Putra 533). By coming after them, the veteran proves there is humanity left in the world by showing an “interest in the welfare of others beyond kinship” (Johns-Putra 533). His humanity is more in line with the boy’s.   


The theme of humanity adds to the popularity of both books as examples of caring for others in a world of terrorism.  After September 11, our culture was disrupted. We suddenly knew, seeing it live, that inhumanity existed on a large scale. Like Katniss and the man, distrust of others, fear, and horror became prevalent, yet there were stories shown on the news and social media of heroism. Families of victims and how they were coping were spotlighted. Kind acts were shown. The nation came together. Humanity prevailed during an era of attacks and inhumanity against innocent lives. The Hunger Games and The Road follow in this spirit of caring for others even when survival would dictate that you only care for your own.  


Works Cited

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. Scholastic Inc. New York. 2008 Print. 

Johns-Putra, Adeline. “’My Job Is to Take Care of You’: Climate Change, Humanity, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 62, no. 2, 2016. pp. 519-540. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mlf&AN=2016396341&site=eds-live&scope=site. 

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage Books, 2006. Print. 

Smith, Jeremy Adam.  “Five Lessons in Human Goodness from ‘The Hunger Games’” Greater Good Magazine. Berkeley Education. April 18, 2012 https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/five_lessons_in_human_goodness_from_the_hunger_games

images from Amazon