LETTER FROM PARIS in March, 2019 from MARGO BERDESHEVSKY
The man is quickened to memory
a star risen to where none may
touch but his poems and this iota of
the last time I visited amid the dim corners
the bend of fronds his ever caretakers
the surround of palms and on a crowded desk
an array of
tools with which he’d made poems
sculpted out of presence and absence and air
—in a corner of a corner of that room where
his chair still swivels and outside
the man’s shadow—paused on his long lanai
a brightening cloud along with fallen air
and seeds from the beak of a visiting blackbird
—both their meditations—
in a corner that day was a photograph of his long
ascended dog and in the man’s thick scrawl his words
NOW YOU HAVE /GONE /
HOW MUCH DOES /A SHADOW WEIGH !
—this day I bow to his
shadow and poems he has
not written yet
Aloha dear poet dear William.
(mb. 3/2019 for William Merwin, and for all who treasured him.)
“AND BOWING NOT KNOWING TO WHAT”
He was my neighbor on a Hawaiian island, two valleys between us, for many years, and I treasured that, there being very few poets, (only the winds) on that dot in the middle of the seas where I once lived, and where he lived until March 15, 2019. I heard about his ascendance as dawn rose in my present Paris neighborhood. Thirteen hours time difference, a small window on eternities. Clock hands and the elder poet’s hands had paused … or stopped. I mourn, with the many, knowing that he was ready, in his way, even if the rest of those who loved this poet were not quite ready nor ever would be …
A private man, he had made it clear that such privacy was not to be ignored, but over years, I knew he kept a kind eye out for me and my growing as a poet. I had asked to visit him once in his Maui neighboring valley, and received a delicate postcard saying, “The requests for this are like snow, and so I must say no.” But he would cross the aisles of the only bookstore on the island, once, twice—to hand me a copy of Sebald or some writer he thought I might not know, slip in a word about translation, knowing that I spoke French, as he did, and then he’d slip away, not to be disturbed.
And then one day he’d said to me, “you live in France now,” and I said yes, and he said “I have a little place there, if you ever want to go for a bit and write,” and I kissed his brow and wanted to say — but what could I say but thank you?
In time, I came to love the man’s two most loved landscapes. The valley that descended from Haumana Road (the road of the pupil, in the Hawaiian language,) where he raised exotic palm trees which he loved with all is heart, and a valley in France where I also came, and perched, and wrote there, because he had allowed me to. In his valley in the French region of the Lot, visiting and resting and writing and meditating, a series of poems eventuated, inspired by my shared love for both landscapes, grateful for the inspiration in ways to love land and its overseeing silences. I’m ever grateful for the man’s subtle and lyrical influences across my life, across the years.
In the small stone cottage in the Dordogne, all his poetry lived there, also. All his love for the green earth. Ripe as the figs and plums that kept dropping where I walked, there. One could feel such good and kind things about the earth, things he knew, things I would learn and learn.
Sometimes, the not spoken is the most influential. The word “mentor” is too presumptuous. He never offered and I would not have asked. But a silent force. And then, of course, his books.
I had a dream one time, it was when I was visiting what I refer to now in my personal mythos, as Merwin-country. In the dream, a white bird large as a woman-man was riding a unicycle, or pulling a chariot, arriving as a blessing for someone’s birthday. In that countryside, in dream or awake, I sensed my own life. And as he had written, … bowing not knowing to what.
There is also that line of his that people keep repeating now that he has passed on … : “On the last day of the world/ I would want to plant a tree/ . . . I want a tree that stands/ in the earth for the first time.” To be on land that he had loved, I felt I stood in the earth for the first time. Again and again and again.
So one springtime, a tiny village, barely a village, called Lacam, a road with only three houses and pale blue irises leaning against a blue gate door—is where I came. I lit a candle in the elder poet’s house. Beheld the darker purple irises opening their sexy mouths, each one’s rain-fed long stalk, on show on his hill-slope outside the dark framed double latches of his front door. There, and there—
The irises were like old ladies, delicate as lavender-laced pillow shams. Skinny ladies, the darkest blooms curling and fading to early evening sky-sheets. The newer ones were a paler lavender, and there was a rustle in the willows and the walnut leaves, newborn for that year’s May visit. I was lucky. William had had the cottage for more than fifty spring times, since he was a very young man. In his later years, he came to it less often, and then not at all. And I was allowed to wake and sleep and wander in it a few times. A welcome to a woman who needed to learn a difference between the rational and the emotional mind. A welcome to this poet, far from Hawaii now, and far from Paris and her own perch there.
Thank you, I’d whispered, entering the cottage. Teach me, I hoped, fervently as the desperation to not be another mad lady or sad or broken or unsure poet any more, but healed of inner wildernesses. I opened my shirt to sense my own heartbeat.
Old wooden chairs in his house were a little broken. The iron locks were a little warped. The rag rugs and Orientals, the drapes and the covers were all a little worn. I loved their whispers of being used, their whispers of books read in the arm chair by the fireside. I wandered through the titles of his stacked and shelved and scattered books, playing like a child in the godfather’s attic. Curious and at peace. The ceiling beams and door frames were as rough as they were in the seventeenth century when they were first cut and hung and hammered. Flea market flowered drapes, a bit askew. Bird song simmered at the windows like a kettle ready for tea, and dusk came each day on perfect pitch.
The poems he’d written in this house whispered as well. I foraged for my favorite of his books. “The Vixen,” (La Renarde,) its verses of the ancient countryside he’d loved for so long sang of the old troubadours whose Languedoc verses he’d learned and translated into English. They spoke of his neighbors, of the trees and of the fox and the swifts that came at light-fall.
Tomorrow I’d look for the newborn lambkins between shade and oaks and forest trails he’d hiked. Put mud boots on, and walk and walk, the forest would be there, the old Roman-built roads, the shadows, the sky. For this night of arrival—one candle— lit. Tomorrow came, and I walked.
To swallow the irises, one by one, my heart opened all its mouths. Bird sonatas, over the old domain. Now tonight, it was to be my own domain, too. Say thank you for the blessing. I did. A shawl around my body, my forehead leaned against each window to see another angle of the town below disintegrate into what followed the dark. Maybe I’d cry tonight, maybe I’d pray for the elder’s life—let him live forever. That’s what I wanted.
Then, it was the second or the third visit. September lambs were being born in dark autumnal blood. Tiny gifts I’d left him the first time were secreted in a tin box on his scratched wooden table where I placed my own pen and notebook. This is where he scrawled and sent postcards, pages to foreign publishers, looked out the window. I wrote my own poems that found their way into pages. I called them “Between Soul & Stone.”
A dog’s head made of brass sat on top of that small tin box, a tiny guardian. The poet was a man who adored dogs. I was a cat lover, but never mind. Here again in the land of troubadour and poem and irises in May, lambs in September, I was ready to be loved by days themselves. The old man’s worn stones and thickening grass and walnut trees and vixen all sniffing my presence when all the light of day was gone. May they circle the house and me, I thought. Vixen and bat and barn owl and others darted in the dark. May they nod to my middle aged blonde sleeps in the upstairs room. Window open to a walnut tree, and the sky. May I dream their secrets, even if they will not tell them. May I write well here, reclusive in sun-up to sun-down meditation. Soul—mind—soul—stones.
Would I dream again as I did the last time, of that huge white peacock bird, peddling its unicycle across the dipping and climbing slopes? In my way, I prayed. I almost believed an old guardian’s kiss meant for my own brow was lurking on the winding stair.
Darker skies. Nothing there but limestone walls, baby lambs being hatched like birds. Bleats of their weak-kneed music. It was the country that Merwin had so often written about, and now I was in love with it also. The cricket chorus started before light had bedded, turned to lullaby before all winged ones were finished telling all they knew to budding nut-tree branches and the closing mouths of the iris. Whistles and whispers and measured cries to the born, and stories to the unborn chicks waiting to crack their shells—tomorrow, maybe.
I stepped outside. I crouched on a dark-night lane, like the animal I knew myself to be on these old troubadour paths, hearing, sharp as a canine. Who hides in hedges and bramble?. Who doesn’t bother with my quiet merging with dusk and midnight and lullaby? There, the last music of the winged ones. I returned to the cottage. Each day could be the last. But thank you for another week in a house with milk-glass lanterns and ants and hidden mice and dark wooden beams and fireplaces haunted by last year’s fires. …bowing not knowing to what.
I’m told his long ago first wife had installed central heating, here. Planted flamboyant roses. The late one had paisley woolen scarves hung over faded cushions and piled in antiquated baskets. Novels and gardening books all stacked on tables. The wooden bed was wide enough for the couple, and my spread eagled singleness settled in its places where other body weights had lain. I slept and snuggled in the dark that didn’t frighten me, here. Rose naked, opened the high east window to the same walnut tree I loved the last time. Drew the old one’s wicker rocker there a second and a third and a fourth time. It was my favorite. Listened to each bird’s voice, each note like a seashell’s long repeating waves, continuing in improvisations non stop until all light was gone. By the time of soft morning clouds, I would have clipped three long stalks of purples from the front door bank, and given them a plain pitcher, let their color heat the table. Thank you, I said, more and more and more. All day I asked, who speaks? …bowing not knowing to what.
The warbler was again in the high branch, such a small machine for such a huge singer. Faster than the train’s wheels that had brought me to these valleys, her voice covered space. Gatherer of clouds and flight, I listened. What was it like to have her body, her throat, her tiny heart, to compare herself—does she ever, to a bat? One dark hawk glides toward sunrise, how loud the warbler voices all around the brightening dart their shrills while the bat retreats to her eaves. I’ve risen to the windows, lit my own flame and hummed at the good French sky, and begun another poem. Don’t ask if it’s good. (Remember Berryman, remember that. )
Does the lamb pray take this cup away when its sheared body is red-x-smeared for the season’s slaughter? Does it feel the chill rolling morning fogs on that unprotected skin? Does its bleat for its mother match all the world’s other cries? Does it hear every note of dawn-song from finch to exploding-across-the-landscape owl, and a black forest cuckoo and a high in the oak hoot?
Or what is a hunter and what is a shepherd, or what’s a woman at her early shutters, opening to each story, combing her hair alone after the soft rain all night, and the words that could murder sleep—turning in her body? She doesn’t pray, now. She wants a lamb to hold. The whole valley of lambs is following its leader’s bell that parts the silent mists that roll uphill. Sunrise finds the shutters, pierces in. The lambs will be slaughtered meat by noon.
Alone here? …bowing not knowing to what… But I do know what to bow to. A little more than before. And before the end of May again I leave the garden. The valley. The window. Paris, jealous lover, calls me home. And the old poet’s gift has been given. I bow to it.
I did visit his home and sanctuary when I returned to Maui, and spoke a little of France and the lambs, and of Paris, and the world. He was nearly blind by then. And he preferred to speak of Maui. Paris had become far away to him. Mostly, I shared an hour of silence with him, spoke about his dogs, read him one poem of mine, a “Blason” I’d written for him, and asked if I could make one photograph. “Did you get what you wanted,” he asked after the camera’s click. Yes, I did. Time with a grand soul. And on the 15th of March in 2019, waking at dawn, in Paris, I heard that the giver of the gift had ascended.
About MARGO BERDESHEVSKY:
Born in New York city, often lives and writes now in Paris. Her newest poetry collection, ‘Before The Drought,’ is from Glass Lyre Press, (September 2017.) (In an early version, it was finalist for the National Poetry Series.) Berdeshevsky is author as well of ‘Between Soul & Stone,’ and ‘But a Passage in Wilderness,’ (Sheep Meadow Press.) Her book of illustrated stories, ‘Beautiful Soon Enough,’ received the first Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Award for Fiction Collective Two (University of Alabama Press.) Other honors include the Robert H. Winner Award from the Poetry Society of America, a portfolio of her poems in the Aeolian Harp Anthology #1 (Glass Lyre Press,) the & Now Anthology of the Best of Innovative Writing, numerous Pushcart prize nominations. Her works appear in the American journals: Poetry International, New Letters, Kenyon Review, Plume, The Collagist, Tupelo Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Southern Humanities Review, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, The American Journal of Poetry, Jacar—One, Mānoa, Pirene’s Fountain, among many others. In Europe her works have been seen in The Poetry Review (UK) The Wolf, Europe, Siècle 21, & Confluences Poétiques, Recours au Poème, Levure Littéraire. A multi-genre hybrid of poems, Square Black Key, waits at the gate. She may be found reading from her books in London, Paris, New York City, Los Angeles, Honolulu, or somewhere new in the world. Her “Letters from Paris” may be found in Poetry International, here: http://pionline.wordpress.com/category/letters-from-paris/ … For more information, kindly see here : http://margoberdeshevsky.com
Archive of Letters: https://pionline.wordpress.com/category/letters-from-paris/
Amazon Author page: http://amazon.com/author/margoberdeshevsky