Friday, April 16, 2010

Two Poems: let down your hair

The concept of grouping poems with a shared theme or metaphor in order to better reflect on the different ways poets treat/use the same theme has fascinated me since my high school days - I loved it whenever we got to do a contrast/compare exercise for practical criticism class. So sometime last year, I began posting pairs of poems on my FB notes page - mostly revolving around themes of food and culture for food loving bibliophiliac friends. There was the cheese poem, the WCW plums poem and the pair on greek food/mythology.

Concurrently, I also posted a series on this blog on the representation of the seasons in poetry and I wroteabout the way seasons have come to embody mood, themes of death and rebirth in western art,music and literature. The second poem below, is one of the ones I came across during that time; I liked it but wound up not posting because, well, next to the powerfully written Wallace Stevens one - this one seemed to fade.

I kept the poem anyway - there was just something so intimate and evocative about the protagonist's observations on his lover's hair.

So I sat on it until last month, I opened an anthology of poetry and came across the Li Young Lee one and loved it. I read it over and over again running the different strands of thought through my fingers and luxuriating in the cadences of it and in the way the alliterative hiss of the 'h' sounds brought to the reader's ear the 'music of comb'. Yes, this was love but not the callow love of youth but a love that has lasted 'half a hundred years', a quiet unexpressive mellow love.

The two poems circle around the same theme of sensual love but do it by honing in on the small details of light, colour and daily life - showing that where love is present - even the daily ritual of hair combing is imbued with a certain beatific light.

The culture we live in today prizes youth and the way love is portrayed in most popular films and fiction is the brash red-hot love of youth, easily given over to rash deeds and words - just think Romeo and Juliet.

It's comparatively rare to see graceful portrayals of love grown old and gentle - Up (the Pixar movie) was a surprise precisely because in the first ten minutes of the film, the main characters meet, fall in love and grow old together. It was gracefully done and one of the ways the film makers showed the passing of time and their aging, was to have her hair change - step by step - from a child's short flippy brown bob, to long and wavy - a young woman's hair - then finally, grey and coiled into a neat bun.

Her hair changed but their love didn't and it was beautiful in this age of quick and easy no fault divorces, to watch their lives intertwine and their commitment to each other even in the face of hard times. They faced money problems, fertility issues, the narrowing of options in life - all the problems that beset modern marriages, in short and they faced it together.

So it is in the Li Young Lee poem, where his father watches his mother comb her hair - and even though it is not explicitly said - their love is as glimmeringly clear as silver strands in a waterfall of black hair.


Early in the morning

While the long grain is softening
in the water, gurgling
over a low stove flame, before
the salted Winter vegetable is sliced
for breakfast, before the birds,
my mother glides an ivory comb
through her hair, heavy
and black as calligrapher's ink.

She sits at the foot of the bed.
My father watches, listens for
the music of comb
against hair.

My mother combs,
pulls her hair back
tight, rolls it
around two fingers,pins it
in a bun to the back of her head.
For half a hundred years she has done this.
My father likes to see it like this.
He says it is kempt.

But I know
it is because of the way
my mother's hair falls
when he pulls the pins out.
Easily,like the curtains
when they untie them in the evening.

-- Li Young Lee


The Snow Is Deep on the Ground

The snow is deep on the ground.
Always the light falls
Softly down on the hair of my belovèd.

This is a good world.
The war has failed.
God shall not forget us.
Who made the snow waits where love is.

Only a few go mad.
The sky moves in its whiteness
Like the withered hand of an old king.
God shall not forget us.
Who made the sky knows of our love.

The snow is beautiful on the ground.
And always the lights of heaven glow
Softly down on the hair of my belovèd.

–Kenneth Patchen

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