I dream, and wake to good things.

Recently I was laboring to find and write words to convey the empty feeling that persists deep in the bones of my psyche, a kind of panic at being a stranger in my own life. I had stepped back from that project, because this feeling is typical of emotions and imaginations in that it lacks substance. It is natural for someone in my situation, but not evidence of true emptiness.

I have an even deeper perception, in my spirit, of how God is “satisfying my desires with good things, and renewing my youth like the eagles’.” (Psalm 103) He has me all figured out and He knows who and where I am, even if I myself am sometimes confused. But while I was realizing that I didn’t want to spend time chasing nightmarish ephemera, I came across a poem that perfectly captures in a few words what it is like to have this “dream.”

Reading it brought on a healthy cascade of fresh grief, but now that I’ve revisited that I want to be awake again to today’s good things — which include the poem itself. It takes my experience and makes it into a cathartic story in which every word adds to the growing picture of a woman whose person and setting are more solid and convincing than my mind’s vague imaginations. I feel as though the writer has put the poem into my waiting hands, because I needed her to do with her skill what I couldn’t do for myself. I am so thankful for poets who give joy to the world the way musicians do, playing their instruments for love.

I had to look up “eelgrass,” and found that it is an ocean plant with ribbonlike leaves.

WIDOW’S WALK

When he visited Nantucket, Crevecoeur noted, “A singular custom prevails here among the women… They have adopted these many years the Asiatic custom of taking a dose of opium every morning, and so deeply rooted is it, that they would be at a loss how to live without this indulgence.”

Walter Teller,
Cape Cod and the Offshore Islands

Captain: the weathervane’s rusted.
Iron-red, its coxcomb leans into the easterly wind
as I do every afternoon swinging
a blind eye out to sea. The light
fails, day closes around me, a vast oceanic whirlpool…
I can still see your eyes, those monotonic palettes,
smell your whiskeyed kisses!
Still feel the eelgrass of embrace —
the ocean pounds outside the heart’s door.
Dearest, the lamps are going on. I’m caught
in the smell of whales burning! Vaporous and drowsy,
I spiral down the staircase in my wrapper,
a shadow among many shadows in Nantucket Town.
Out in the yard, the chinaberry tree
turns amber. A hymn spreads through the deepening air —
the church steeple’s praying for the people. Last night
I dreamed you waved farewell.
I stood upon the pier, the buoys tolling
a warning knell. Trussed in my whalebone,
I grew away from you, fluttering in the twilight,
a cutout, a fancy French silhouette.

-Elizabeth Spires

 

11 thoughts on “I dream, and wake to good things.

  1. If it weren’t for the very personal connection for you, I might ask about the ending. I’m not sure how to interpret the word “grew.” Also, I think I can understand the emptiness in the last line’s image in “cutout” and “silhouette,” but how to read the tone of “fancy French” eludes me, unless it is bitter sarcasm.

    P. S. I didn’t miss the power of the Crevecoeur quotation at the beginning, or the fact that the speaker in the poem addressed her lover as “Captain.” Also, you are so right about one person’s story summarizing and calling forth the griefs of many of us others. Thanks for sending out the poem and your reflections.

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    1. Albert, I could tell that the story of the poem was complex, and distant from my own experience in ways I will not take the trouble to explore, being a fairly lazy poetry reader 🙂 I very much appreciate your comments on aspects that I wonder about, too. “Fancy French” does sound bitter. One might wonder if the woman had been other than a legitimate lover, except for the title of the poem. You have intuited my own, less specific connections.

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  2. ‘…this feeling is typical of emotions and imaginations in that it lacks substance. It is natural for someone in my situation, but not evidence of true emptiness.

    I have an even deeper perception, in my spirit, of how God is “satisfying my desires with good things, and renewing my youth like the eagles’.” (Psalm 103)’

    Loved your thoughts here.

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  3. Very touching and moving poem. My inner-former-college-student immediately started analyzing it, much to my chagrin. I looked up French silhouette because I wasn’t positive I knew what that was. In context of the poem it’s almost like a losing of identity, perhaps? I also heard a bitter undertone. But mostly I felt the grief.

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    1. Maybe it’s only the bitterness of loss and feeling that empty hole … and maybe in the case of this woman, she is feeling too “fancy” and foreign, not sturdy enough to be able to cope with this American life on her own.

      I’m glad you went ahead with your analytical impulse. I enjoy this kind of discussion which I don’t get in real time 🙂

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  4. A fancy French silhouette sounded to me so one dimensional, so unsubstantial. Unreal apart from the one who is lost. There is beauty here, but also great sorrow. And a sense of unreality.

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    1. I know you understand that sense of unreality. And the one-dimensional aspect of the cutout – yes, that puts it very well… That reminds me of a thought that came to me, or a feeling that burst upon me once, a few months after my husband’s death, “My life is going to be boring from here on!” I suppose it was that flatness I was feeling. But it surprised me at the time, because I didn’t really believe it even then, though it came as the form of a statement of fact into my consciousness. Thank you, Kristi! XO

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  5. Beth was my student at Iowa in the Seventies. She had a healthy independent streak, hard to realize in a large creative writing program. This poem intrigues and attracts me too, Gretchen. Especially the ending. In my book Outline Scribe is a poem on silhouettes–there’s a lot worth learning about them. Maybe something in that poem–not my own insights but what I discovered in research–would be worth exploring further. If you find any more poems inclusive of silhouettes, do post them. –Sandra McPherson, Professor Emerita, UCDavis

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  6. Some quick comments, Gretchen, without having read all of yours and your readers’. –He is the one known as separating himself from her, for going out to sea, where he has no need for her. But at the end she dreams of “cutting herself out” from him — with the result that she feels “fancier” and more than decoratively perhaps — especially when seen against (as a silhouette is) his whiskey-stinking monotone. She becomes quite different (aesthetically, emotionally) from the rusty life she’d been calling him “Captain” from. Her role has changed. Amber indicates a preserving as well as a passing into a different season of life. She manages this through the artifice of a dream. The “blindness” so to speak is replaced by something worth seeing. The “failing” from earlier becomes a light movement in that exquisite sky at the end of day. No more burnt whales. Bye-bye.

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  7. You are such a good writer, Gretchen! I can relate to the emptiness in the bones and being a “stranger” in your own life. Beautiful!

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