Meeting at Night

Robert Browning composed this poem during his courtship of Elizabeth Barrett, which her father forbad. The couple eventually eloped and settled in Italy; Elizabeth was never able to reconcile with her father.

            MEETING AT NIGHT

The gray sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low:
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand.

Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

-Robert Browning

Portraits by Thomas Buchanan Read, 1852.

We could dance and sing.

Windows above my kitchen sink and near my computer look out on the garden. When the evening sun’s slanting rays make flower stalks shimmer, it is my favorite sort of painting to gaze at, and I can hardly believe it is right here in my back yard — especially in spring when swaths of those blooms are popping up in turn and in overlapping layers, first the white ixia, then blue penstemon and the palest yellow-white California poppies, now the lavender and the rusty yarrow, and banks of little daisies I can never remember the name of.

Probably I should go back and read some of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s descriptions of gardens, to teach me how to convey the scene that makes me so happy. Not only in Elizabeth and Her German Garden but even more in The Enchanted April she expresses her love for this kind of overflowing, colorful and scented landscape, and gardens that are so prolific with blooms that bowls of them bless the rooms of the Italian castle in April (in April, too).

I don’t have a cutting garden most of the time, but right now I am still getting a few heavenly-sweet sweet peas with short stems. When I was snipping them to stick into a tiny vase today, I spied a Cabbage White in the patch of chives. As I understand, those caterpillars eat just about anything, and some years I have seen evidence of that behavior. I wonder how this year will be….

I just discovered that I have never once reviewed a book by Elizabeth von Arnim, or posted a quote by her, on my blog. I guess this is because my relationship with her as a person and writer is about much more than any one of her books; and isn’t it always somewhat of a mystery why we connect with particular authors? Mary Kathryn says it is the writer’s voice that she connects with, and it doesn’t matter what they write about, if one loves that particular voice.

The distance in time and culture between Elizabeth and me seems vast, though it is “only” 100 years. Our life experiences are worlds apart, but as I’ve listened to her voice and her stories, rich with humor that makes me laugh out loud, I’ve been comforted again and again. Today, I didn’t know her name would even come up. Since it has, and while it is yet springtime, here are some words from her that express the feelings of us both:

“Oh, I could dance and sing for joy that the spring is here!
What a resurrection of beauty there is in my garden,
and of brightest hope in my heart.”

Today when I went out to try for a picture of the Lambs Ears, I discovered that the Narrow-Leaf Milkweed flowers have started to open. These are the plants from which I collected Monarch butterfly eggs to incubate indoors, a few years ago. Aphids always decimate the plants, and after that first year’s destruction I realized that any hatched caterpillars would run out of food fast, because the leaves are literally slim pickings to begin with, and then the aphids suck all the life out of them. (By the way, you don’t want to bring in ladybugs to eat the aphids on your milkweed plants because ladybugs also eat Monarch eggs!!) Back then I had to feed my Monarch caterpillars from my Showy Milkweed plants which have large leaves and which the aphids don’t bother so much.

So far the aphids have not arrived — or at least, not noticeably. And the two plants of this species of milkweed come up bigger every spring. I see in the photo enlarged here that ants are among the insects hanging out there, so I maybe the aphids will come soon. But for now, their delicate flower crowns are pristine. The bees will soon be “dancing” around them for joy.

Only the facts saved her.

STORY

A woman’s taking her late-afternoon walk
on Chestnut where no sidewalk exists
and houses with gravel driveways
sit back among the pines. Only the house
with the vicious dog is close to the road.
An electric fence keeps him in check.
When she comes to that house, the woman
always crosses to the other side.

I’m the woman’s husband. It’s a problem
loving your protagonist too much.
Soon the dog is going to break through
that fence, teeth bared, and go for my wife.
She will be helpless. I’m out of town,
helpless too. Here comes the dog.
What kind of dog? A mad dog, a dog
like one of those teenagers who just loses it
on the playground, kills a teacher.

Something’s going to happen that can’t happen
in a good story:  out of nowhere a car
comes and kills the dog. The dog flies
in the air, lands in a patch of delphiniums.
My wife is crying now. The woman who hit
the dog has gotten out of her car. She holds
both hands to her face. The woman who owns
the dog has run out of her house. Three women
crying in the street, each for different reasons.

All of this is so unlikely; it’s as if
I’ve found myself in a country of pure fact,
miles from truth’s more demanding realm.
When I listened to my wife’s story on the phone
I knew I’d take it from her, tell it
every which way until it had an order
and a deceptive period at the end. That’s what
I always do in the face of helplessness,
make some arrangements if I can.

Praise the odd, serendipitous world.
Nothing I’d be inclined to think of
would have stopped that dog.
Only the facts saved her.

-Stephen Dunn