New Poem: Kidney Stone

I’ve been reading everything by Mary Karr, an incredible poet who doesn’t shy away from difficult topics: abortion, death, addiction, and a sassy and unapologetic sexuality. I posted a review of her book Viper Rum in a previous blog (find it here: Each encounter I have with Karr, as I have said in my blog, is like being hit by a truck. Her language is violent and demanding, not felt-board Christianity, but an honest telling of religious devotion under the pressure of post-modernity. Following her example, I have composed (and hopefully not failed, for now, we can call this the first draft) an intimate poem that doesn’t fear the immediacy of pain, healing, and the naked and decaying body of an alcoholic. I hope to achieve a kind of “disturbing toward self consciousness.” I hope you (enjoy?)

Kidney Stone

The doctor has prescribed pills
to breakdown the salt and minerals,
excrement emptied and spilled
from stomach to kidney. The residue of my soul
passing through the narrow urethra
is the dagger I imagine gashing open
Mother Mary, the thin blade crowning between her thighs.

So—this is being held against your will
at knife point. The doctor says
in three day’s time the stone will trench
a groove as it inches along
the spongy tube of my genitals,
and on a scale of one to hurt-like-hell,
it will be leaning toward a pain
competing with the majesty of birth.

On Tuesday, I’ll piss the Nile red. The small comet
my body creates traveling the distance
of 16 years of hard drinking, of the dark
tissue contracting in my guts, squeezing-through
the vats of poison chugged-down
to haul me off to dizzy sleep. In my dream,

the tiny rock slow-rolling through my dick
is the boulder the angel rolled back,
the slit in my bell-end doubtful as Thomas
in its opening and offering
of what WebMD calls amassed crystal,
the bloody diamond of 17 years sober,
the beautiful aftermath of birth,
the bottled-up and sealed kidney stone
displayed on the mantle,

a reminder of what it means
for the unillumined inside-places of the flesh
to be slashed open, pissed into light,
glossy with the glutinous liquid
gushed and nacreous as pearl.


Book Review: Viper Rum

On Keeping it Going:

A review of Viper Rum, by Mary Karr

In Mary Karr’s book, Viper Rum, readers are once again held against the knife’s bright edge. The poet has a reputation for presenting work that asks more from her readers than most poetry— to surrender a piece of themselves to her potent images, bone-sawing language, and always startling intimacy. Viper Rum is an incredibly demanding book— you’re guaranteed to take one on the chin, and frequently you’ll be kicked when you’re down.

The books opening lines might as well be a warning of what is to come: “All day we had run-ins with jungle snakes.” Every poem, to use the phrase from the title piece, is “hatching snakes.” Not surprisingly, they are the most venomous pythons, each threatening death from drink, cervical dilator and uterine currette, or crucifixion. The poems find resonance with each other, as words are repeated throughout the book, the sounds of “hissing,” the suffocation of a “cage,” “juniper” and “gin,” eyes stinging and “scalded of sight” or “unblinking.”

But the poems do not resist hope entirely—many of them uncage and rise with a “fiery mist.” In many of the more hopeful poems, Karr devotes most of her lines to the dark, gritty, and terminal life of addiction, but the moment before the poem’s doors shut, the reader is lightened by the “tired souls that could not stop rising.”

In the poem Limbo: Altered States, we get a taste for that furious threat of addiction. The poem begins with the speaker imagining dying in a bomb blast while flying in an airplane, but quickly reminds us how easy lingering on death demands some kind of straining toward comfort and escape:

And there’s the sliver liquor cart jangling

its thousand bells, the perfect doses

of juniper gin and oak-flavored scotch

The liquor cart, with its perfectly measured bottles of antidote, is headed right for the speaker, but brushes past as she slips into the reasons why she has to let it go:

I don’t miss drinking, don’t miss

driving into shit with more molecular density

than myself

More powerfully, this image has a counterpoint that helps to balance its strong negation and impregnates the poem with a compassionate human texture:

But I miss

the aftermath, the pure simplicity:

mouth parched, head hissing static.

How little I asked of myself then—to suck

the next breath, suffer the next heave, live

Then, returning to the cabin of the jumbo jet, Karr delivers us from her imagination, but not before reminding us of that familiar weight experienced as the body readjusts to the sea-level atmosphere. “Sometimes landing the head’s pressure’s enormous,” begins the final stanza, as the spirited cloud-life of flight touches down to the stony earth:

When my plane tilts down, houses grow large, streets

lose their clear geometry. The leafy earth soon fills my portal,

and in the gray graveyard of cars, a stick figure

becomes my son in royal blue cap flapping his arms

as if to rise. Thank god for our place

in this forest of forms, for the gravitas

that draws me back to him, and for how lightly

lightly I touch down.

This is an example of one of the more unburdening poems, the touch of lightness we all deserve but rarely feel, as the earth, growing large in our windows, seems only a massive rock of weight. But contrast that with another poem, Dead Drunk (or the Monster-Maker at Work), and you experience that prison-heavy, ball-and-chain effect, of the work as a whole. It opens with “Tom” passed out behind a bar in a pile of snow, and tells of the frostbite and consequence of his addiction: “But once the surgeon sawed away/ his frost-black hand and feet, / Tom could no longer stand”. But Karr doesn’t stop by demonizing his drunkenness, instead, she reminds us how deeply human the situation is by reminding readers of the lusty sexuality that inhabits all of us, with the line continuing, “nor hold a doorknob, / nor, when lonely, fondle his lower parts.” The poem is powerful and convicting. Karr manages this conviction, after telling of Tom sent to rehab and then released, of Tom back out in the world, begging enough “to keep a pint between his knees,” asking the reader to consider their own part in Tom’s death. After a medic comes to Tom’s side, drunk once again, and the medic doesn’t mind “Tom’s pants were wet”, we are shown our own involvement:


was all the grace there was, unless you count

the patient janitor who once stubbed out his smokes,

other maniacs who cut his meat, the coroner

who shook her head and said, please God, above the corpse.

And you, dear reader, if you drove past

Tom’s original post in the snow, you might have stopped

and heaved him up whole.

But for Karr your involvement is not enough, “That tale’s / unwrit: We cannot make it so.” Like the thief who teases Jesus at the crucifixion there is no paradise for Tom, “So let us stand in company and grieve that fact.”

Viper Rum is an honest telling of addiction, death, and grace. In it, people, speakers, and bystanders are all linked into the network of our grizzly life. And at the center of that life is human longing. Animistic Anatomy, if you’d like, a more hopeful poem, reminds the reader of their fiery soul, even Tom’s fiery soul. The speaker, imagining her after-death autopsy, shows us a horrid depiction of the body being violated “by the undertaker’s whirling saw”, but says “I only shine inside at death.” But the speaker, still alive, maybe Karr herself, anticipates that death as, no matter how gore-filled and final, a breach, the soul’s rupture into the unnamable:

How I long to be opened

and laid bare this way, weighed and measured,

illumined, my soul at last uncaged from ribs, rising.

This rising is what the book is truly about, the journey of the poet going from dead drunk on the bathroom floor, “shirtless/ in flimsy underpants”, to the woman she becomes, we all become, in the final poem, Chosen Blindness, when she reunites with her son, ends up in a church, singing from a hymnal:

Index finger

underling each word as we struggle

to match up our voices, hold the beat,

find the pattern emerging, feel the light

that glows in our chest, keep it going.

Personal Essay: You Got Paw prints on my Clothes

For one of my classes, I have to write a personal reflection on the quarter. I think I’m supposed to have limited my scope and focused on how it went with the class, but how can I? Why would I want to write less?

You Got Paw Prints on my Clothes

Grateful. The whole spectrum from thanks to praise shining with excess in writing that word. As I sit, here at the coffee shop, watching cars speed through my field of vision, I think about the quarter drawing to a close, how last time I tried to take this course I ended up flaking out, failing to write the final essay I couldn’t get excited about. I think about the way life unfolds, the way the mud stays muddy, and how the ups and downs live inside the body and make it tumble forward, from day to day, like laundry spinning in a dryer. There are moments though, when the timer goes off and you get to wear the warm skin of yourself and stand there, swaddled in the garment of your own body, your barefooted-on-the-tile feet sensing that something at your center has started to thaw.

Reflecting. It reminds me of the tricks of light we used to play on the dog. Sunlight come in from the window bounced off and shown aglow on the rug, and the dog going full speed ahead, trying to catch what isn’t there. My dog died this quarter, bringing up the total to three. It’s the death I had the most difficulty accepting, still haven’t come clean through to the other side of grief, sadness still spinning in the rinse cycle. Would you believe that I believe, if he could talk, my dog could quote poetry? Coleridge, nonetheless. In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree…SIT. He must have heard it a thousand times and no doubt he could parrot it if you asked him what most got on his nerves. He wasn’t the one for poems, but he listened with the full enthusiasm that you’d expect from holding before him a spoon of peanut butter.

He taught me what it means for the mouth to water, how to lick your lips like every bite mattered. I’m grateful for that. Poems are like peanut butter. They linger. Stick to the tongue, the gums. I’m grateful for the immense saving power of poetry. This is my sixth year in college, five years have passed; five summers, with the length of five long winters, and again I hear a low murmur, a trickling brook, moving through me. Sometimes it’s the clear river that carries me slowly downstream, the glassy surface in which everything is reflected, myself starfish shaped and upheld, floating. Other times it’s the wash cycle all over, the rapids dragging you along, rocky, a cyclone. I’ve been carried along all this time not knowing to what sea, what lake or pond, I’m heading for. I’ve seen people drown, half drowned myself with the narrow spout of a bottle of gin, been held and head-over-healed underwater for too long by an eating disorder.

Poetry is footing. It’s the momentary bank you end up washed up on, and dripping wet in your clothes, you lay down, chest heaving with new breath, and let the sun dry you. Then you river some stones, watch them skip and feel the child flaring inside you. It’s the distance that drives you to keep going, the number of skips and the ripples, first, their specific ringlets opening out, then the absorption, each ripple adding momentum and shape to the next, until they become one. In Tintern Abbey I confront the posture of “deep seclusion,” feel myself to be a boy in admiration of the chosen loneliness of the hermit who, “by his fire / [he] sits alone.”

During one lecture, the professor asked the class to read with more empathy. I’ll never forget that. Lately, I’ve been bringing to literature a way of reading synonymous to interrogation, as if I’ve dragged poetry to some closet to beat a confession out of it. But poetry would slip cyanide under its tongue before it tells you its final truth. Its the river that doesn’t end, held open to fresh meaning at all times. What I have felt in each poem and passage is a pact, the shaking of hands or knocking of gloves before you head back to your corner to wipe the blood off, get ready for another round. But it’s also the warm welcome. Like I’m the guest at a dinner party held by Dickens, and the whole table is set for fifty, Mr. Gradgrind on my left, Louisa on my right, Sissy Jupe sitting across from us, her raised-from-the-dead father beside her, and Merrylegs, wandering between the chairs, begging for scraps.

Maybe it’s the loss of my dog, maybe it’s the mastery of pacing balancing the images, of Dickens soliciting feelings foreknown but unexperienced. Both. I would not have wanted the circumstances of my life to be any different than they were when I read this passage:

Father, soon after they came home from performing, told Merrylegs to jump up on the backs of the two chairs and stand across them – which is one of his tricks. He looked at father, and didn’t do it at once. Everything of father’s had gone wrong that night, and he hadn’t pleased the public at all. He cried out that the very dog knew he was failing, and had no compassion on him. Then he beat the dog, and I was frightened, and said, “Father, father! Pray don’t hurt the creature who is so fond of you! O Heaven forgive you, father, stop!” And he stopped, and the dog was bloody, and father lay down crying on the floor with the dog in his arms, and the dog licked his face.


That will make the faucets run. I couldn’t stop my body from laying itself down on the rug and crying, feeling on my own face the ghost of my dog’s soft pink tongue. I never hurt my dog like that, sometimes I yelled and it drove him under the bed in my room, where he would wait, all packed in and barely fitting, until I would climb underneath and put my hand on his paw. “Pray don’t hurt the creature who is so fond of you!” And yet we do it all the time. Breaking promises, using unneeded words, driving drunk, eating a meal lovingly prepared for you and then going to throw it up. We forget the faces of those before us, how strange and similar that they are there at all. The empathy I have now for the poems, novels, and essays, is a covenant of compassion. Like the dog, bloody, still licking your face.

It is the irony, driven like a spike, into the dejection odes of Wordsworth and Coleridge, which persuades me to believe in the yes that great poetry achieves. In writing poetry about not being able to write poetry, Wordsworth and Coleridge surmount more than their attempted negation. They affirm life. Poetry acts as the sounding board and listening post of human experience, and in the poems I sense that there is in both of the poets a small child discovering a dusty harp stashed in the attic. The child may not know how to play, but I’ll be damned if they don’t make some music.

I’ll admit, I’m susceptible to the doubt that often accompanies any serious undertaking, like trying to be a poet. In a world where politics is regarded as the only way to roll back the stone and shine a little light in, art, it seems, has lost the grip it had on letting go and making space for new ideas, even of the most religious flavor, to emerge. The last thing I want to do is end up like a monk, bent over some manuscript, keeping house and never turning my attention to the world. I want to write poems that become offerings.

We’re in the middle of Lent. I am awaiting the day that Easter arrives. Before sunrise I will stand in the dark with the other members of our parish, singing hymns, burning palm branches, anticipating the next season of Lent. We will all hold candles and jingle our keys. When the bell is struck and the lights come on, the priest will sing out and the smoke from our burned-out candles will rise and undulate under the skylight. In their slow whirl-pooling I will think I think about the speed and heat of the dryer, how Jesus returned to earth in clean garments, even after the gore. It will strike me as silly, imagining a certain kind of detergent that makes the fabric more luminous.

Fetch, I tell the dog, and then lob the squeaky toy across the backyard. He bolts, kicks up dust, runs face first into the toy and knocks it around before grabbing it with his mouth. Then, as if to say “no big deal,” trots with perfect posture, almost too regal, and drops the ball at my feet. Its strange how this is a gift for both of us, how his animal joy becomes my human happiness, how whatever I give he gives right back.

We could play fetch all day. He won’t get tired. He’ll always fall for the fake-it and hide-it behind your back. He will always lay the slobbery gift at my feet, look up at me with his tongue out and wait. During this game he will bark and jump up on me if I take too long to throw it, get his dusty paws on my t-shirt, drool all over my shoes and fingers. The gleam of dirt and saliva on the chew toy I hold in my hands will make them smell of pig-ear and earth. I will remember Manly Hopkins, how in Gods Grandeur, everything “is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; / And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell,” and I will think about when to put these stinking clothes in the wash, and decide to let the dirt linger a little longer. This is the covenant I have made with the earth. Then I’ll look down at the eager dance my dog is doing, and I’ll ask, fetch?

Yes, he will say, Let it fly just one more time.

New Poem: Louisville Slugger

This is a new poem I have been spending some time with lately, making edits, changing endings, fine-tuning the sound, the rhythm, and meter. I think I’ve got my first “mature” poem: A poem that leaves nothing out and includes only what it needs, has authority, passion, and a freshness of imagery to an old pastime. I hope you all enjoy.

    Louisville Slugger

    When you lifted that birch-cut, sawdust-finished
    Baseball bat, it was the Big Leagues you coveted
    And pretended—each time the weight of it

    Surprised you most, naming itself gravity
    In the way it made you take seriously
    That lightness of unburden taken for granted,

    A strange heavy you carry with you
    At all times. Who can say what density means,
    Or what is being written in the grains

    That sprawl, arch, narrow, and agree
    In the bat’s barrel? Some days you’d take swing
    After swing, knuckles stacked along its neck,

    Testing the grip you could get on things
    When what’s hoped-for seemed to hold itself
    In your hands. You practiced choking it up a bit

    For those slapped-at and reached-for
    Sac-flies, learned to trust the forgiving
    Sweet-spot that could bring a runner home.

    Or in the 9th, when the ball harps off to reach
    For the fences, the man on third ready
    For the touch-and-go and go-for-broke,

    As the ball sails in from the outfield, arrives
    At the plate—the catch, the slide—and dust settles,
    The word safe held open in the umpire’s arms.

      I welcome your thoughts

New Poem

My friend explained to me once what is was he loved about the line from a poem, “stares down at his shoes/ and thinks about the universe.” For him it was the phrases intense dilation on the meager lifeless laces and the sudden expansion and openess to the vast and mysterious. In that spirit, I wrote a poem that enjoys that plasticity poetry has, to accommodate the microscopic and the massive.


This morning, I was staring at the dark star
Of my halved grapefruit, thinking how it’s tiny center
Might hold the sixth dimension, or maybe
The seventh, and because the infinite
Reducibility of matter oversteps the boundary
Of my expertise, I thought of Wordsworth,
that anecdote in which he attempts to steady himself during the nauseating trip
Of the earth gliding on its orbit.
He hunkers up against an oak tree,
And br.acing it with his arms, mutters to himself
That he is rooted, that this tree is the center of things
He can praise, that every poem he will write
Is the whistle a traveler blows in a forest when lost

In my pocket is a little scrap of paper
Birch, fallen bark I found while walking to drug store.
Something in its bony greyness, the brittle
Weightlessness in my hand,
Suggests I consider my own place in the galaxy,
The distance travelled these last few hours
And the light years that outruns each of us,
As we speed ahead on the highway
Of space-time, never quite knowing,
Or arriving, wherever it is we go.

“I shall praise it”-Robert Hass

Failure to Launch: Shelley and the Religious Imagination

It is not often that a person with such a small voice as I have is capable of offering anything more than dumfounded awe at the works of the romantic poets, but, having read with empathy, I find little value in the difference between the way Shelley and Wordsworth, two very different poets, see the world. My quarrel here is not in the difference I know lies between them, Shelley being a pretty vocal atheist and Wordsworth a functional pantheist, but in the romantic poets failure to contribute any image that might clarify for the reader the difference between their spiritualties. I would never openly commit the transgression often committed by those studying at an university affiliated with a religious institution, by assigning a kind of universalism that that is implicit in the imagery employed by a poet. So this is not an essay trying to ascribe to Shelley a spirituality he does not know he is adopting, rather, it is a comment on the failure of his imagination to envision anything beyond the typical perceptions that religion grants to certain motifs in literature. I wouldn’t recommend reading this, and I would not feel bad if you didn’t, unless you have some previous interest in either the romantic poets, Shelley’s soul filled atheism, or are at all curious about the kinds of rhetoric that continue to obstruct the human intellects further barrier breaking when it comes to our way of speaking about mystery. If you’ve made it this far, enjoy.

Failure to Launch: Shelley and the Religious Imagination

While it might seem that the project outlined by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in their preface to Lyrical Ballads, opened up poetry to the sensed and felt experiences of common life, they have instead, as we shall soon discover, in some cases, kept poetry a secret, private endeavor, a personal experience that draws attention to the way the poet sees the world but does not clarify for the reader a way to see the world differently. If poetry is as Wordsworth claims, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (Lyrical Ballads 265), then the interpretive question that arises to the reader is: what is the value of poetry for the person other than the poet? For Wordsworth and Coleridge, their hope in publishing Lyrical Ballads was that the work “might be of some use to ascertain, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and the quantity of pleasure may be imparted, which a poet may rationally endeavor to impart” (263). Under this doctrine of poetic discipline, poetry is merely the affectation of a powerful experience contained within a rhythmic but common language meant to impart pleasure to its audience, a definition that falls short of the actual power that language, specifically poetry, possesses.

In a similar attempt to capture the purpose of poetry, Percy Shelley writes in his A Defence of Poetry that the poet, having an enlarged faculty to comprehend the beautiful, restrains and preserves in a poem “the pleasure resulting from the manner in which they express the influence of society or nature upon their minds,” and the poem succeeds when the poets pleasure “communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort of reduplication from that community” (839). If a reader is persuaded that the value of poetry to the poet lies only in its capacity to translate passion into form for the sake of pleasure, then poetry itself is restricted from surprising the poet, and therefore the reader, with new meaning.

In a later section from A Defence of Poetry, Shelley attempts to impart poetry with another, more transcendent quality: “[Poetry] awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehend combinations of thought. Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar” (844). If this is what the poetry of Shelley attempts to magnify, nowhere else in his oeuvre does his betrayal of this poetic endeavor show so clearly than in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.” Like Wordsworth and Coleridge, but perhaps with less despairing self-love, Shelley’s “Hymn” is concerned with the upsurge of powerful feelings that translate themselves into poetry.

Admittedly, it would be overstepping a critic’s boundary to argue that all the poetic works of Shelley have failed to capture what they have set out do; however, “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” as much as it attempts to nuance, refine, and recapitulate the ideas expressed in “Intimations of Immortality,” and “Dejection: An Ode,” it ultimately rests upon and represents a misfire of the imagination, regurgitating images of childhood, rainbows, wind, harps, clouds, visitations, and the inconstancy of poetic energy for which Wordsworth gives thanks, Coleridge praises, and Shelley ultimately worships. Keeping in view the context that this more biographical introduction announces, we will turn to Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” and seek to discover whether or not the poem succeeds in the project it attempts to accomplish—to ask if the poem advances the frontier of writing, contributes something fresh and previously unimagined, if there is in this poetic endeavor anything new.

From the first word of the title, the reader is invited to inhabit sacred ground and adopt a posture of religious devotion. The form of a “Hymn” that this poem establishes at the outset is, however, an ironic one. Shelly himself is an intelligent atheist, and as we shall see even manages to denounce the name of God and religion as this poem unfolds. This irony is a positive contribution, using the full force of language to amend and add layers of new meaning to the texture of a single word. As the poem starts to take its first steps, the reader encounters “The awful shadow of some unseen Power” that “Floats unseen amongst us” (Hymn 1-2), but the unfelt presence that is latent in the nonmaterial in-between-places of the world also has the power to disclose itself: “It visits with inconstant glance / Each human heart and countenance” (Hymn 6-7). The inconstancy of such experiences is the triggering event that inspires Wordsworth’s “Intimations on Immortality,” but, to Shelley, it is a visitation that is made more powerful and worthy of praise precisely because of the contingency in its sudden emergence and even more rapid disappearance—it is “Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery” (Hymn 11-12). To Shelley’s credit, this fresh insight is certainly a powerful overturning and celebration of Wordsworth’s lament, but it is accomplished in an economy of language that uses anything but fresh images. The opening lines from the second section of “Intimations” employ images that all make their way into Shelley’s first section: “The Rainbow comes and goes / And lovely is the rose / the moon doth with delight” (10-12). In “Hymn” the “hues and harmonies of evening” (8) are as vibrant as the rainbow, the “moonbeams” (5) that fall like water on the mountains also entice us toward “delight” (Intimations 12), and the “clouds and starlight widely spread” (Hymn 9) are like Wordsworth’s heaven “bare” in which the held reflection in the “Waters on a starry night / Are beautiful and fair” (Intimations 13-15). The opening sections of both poems frame the goal of their poetic projects: Wordsworth laments the absence of all he once did see, while Shelley celebrates the visitation of the unseen.

The second section of “Hymn” reframes in the form of a question what is implicit in the opening sections of “Intimations.” Addressing the “Spirit of Beauty” (Hymn 13), the speaker asks “where art though gone?” (15). The orator of “Hymn” is aware of what “Intimations” proclaims, “That there hath past away some glory from the earth.” (Intimations 18). Placing the poems side by side should register for the reader one set of accomplishments and another different set of failures by Shelley’s poetic imagination. Interwoven throughout the lines of this section are the visionary gleams, a deepening of the sense of paradox in the heart of a human being, and the stale assumptions of the form of that visionary visitation. By employing the language of contraries, Shelley illuminates the complexity of human life, asking:

Why fear and dream and death and birth
Cast on the daylight of this earth
Such gloom—why man has such a scope
For love and hate, despondency and hope? (21-24)

Articulated in these lines is the wild spectrum of human emotion, a curiosity and appreciation of the range of human expression. The “fear and dream and death and birth” seem to balance each other, contradict and also reaffirm; and, “the daylight of this earth” is crowded with “gloom”; while the tension between “love and hate, despondency and hope” permit for a bridge between reason and imagination the crossing over place that allows the “Spirit of Beauty” to emerge. But these visionary moments are also weighed down by their failure to launch beyond the privileged role that light and rainbows have as the event by which illumination and revelation become intertwined. The “Spirit of Beauty” declares as scared “with thine own hues” all that it “dost shine upon” (Hymn 14). Taking a step forward in adding to the complexity of human experience, Shelley simultaneously takes a step back, retreating toward the question: “Ask why the sunlight not forever / Weaves rainbows o’er yon mountain river” (18-19). In fact, in the next section, Shelley is bold to declare as Wordsworth has, “Thy light alone” is what “Gives grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream” (Hymn 32, 36).

As was the case in the last section, section three offers the reader that great leap toward the edge of some horizon where the new and still unimagined is waiting, but comes in tandem with the exhaustion of courage that paralyzes the limbs when the bottomless is glimpsed. With the candlelight of the enlightenment’s flame, Shelly investigates old dogmas, scrutinizes the accepted institutions, and asserts, “No voice from some sublimer world hath ever / To sage or poet these responses given” (25-26). To him, there has not been any adequate answer to the questions in section two, how the human can accommodate both love and hate, despair and hope; and the structures that claim to answer, “the name of God and ghosts and Heaven” (27), are nothing more than “frail spells” (28) incapable of conjuring the “Spirit of Beauty.” It is “Doubt, chance, and mutability” (31) that speak with the most clarity against the “uttered charm” (29) of religion and superstition. But this daring interrogation and accusation is not willing to risk breaking the covenant further, and looking as if it might transgress that pact, it then suddenly dissolves into romantic and religious language:

Thy light alone—like mist o’er mountains driven
Or music by the night wind sent
Through strings of some still instrument,
Or moonlight on a midnight stream,
Gives grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream. (32-26)

Here, the “celestial light” (4) of “Intimations” and its sunshine of “glorious birth” (16) brighten the darkening scene. The moonlight from “Intimations” returns and Shelley’s stream is another body of water “on a starry night” (Intimations 4). We are also introduced in these lines to three new images: wind, music, and instruments. It is sufficient to compare Shelley’s “Hymn” to section three of “Intimations,” a section filled with lambs bounding to the “tabor’s sound” (Intimations 20), cataracts that “blow their trumpets” (25), and a speaker who hears “the Echoes through the mountains throng, / The Winds come to [him] from the fields of sleep” (27-28), these examples showing the way in which Shelley’s language has found its footing on the previously harvested ground of the imagination by Wordsworth.

“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” is in many ways a poem that doesn’t acquire that escape velocity necessary for a rocket to transcend the last leg of earth’s atmosphere. Several times the poem has reached that upper ceiling, a task not easy to achieve by any means, but if Shelley has offered his reader any gift of rupture or escape, to unburden the yoke of our heavy world, it is in his engagement with the “awful LOVELINESS” (71) that discloses itself as the poem draws to a close, but has been with the reader from the outset, hidden in “awful shadow” (1), posing as a “phantom” (64), and “Outwatched with [him] the envious night” (67). In the end, Shelley does undress. He manages to take off the old garments of light, to shed the rainbow and the wind and nature’s music, but only to find himself more deeply rooted in the religious condition, converted to praise the wonder of youth, petitioning and bartering with the value of his vow, that this spirit might to his “onward life supply / Its calm” (80-81).

In the last sections, Shelley cannot help but fall into the Wordsworthian ideal of childhood. In section five he recounts an experience he had “While yet a boy [he] sought for ghosts” (Hymn 49). That curiousness to rediscover that which visited him in his youth, is synonymous with Wordsworth’s yearning for childlike wonder that drives the later sections of “Intimations.” For Shelley, this backsliding into the hope that accompanies the naivety of the child is his betrayal of the engaged and active imagination. Faithful to the imagery of Christ’s descent into this world is Shelley’s benediction that the “SPIRIT fair” (83) might descend and supply his life with the calm of consolation. But a further transgression is committed, as Shelley’s language in the final sections adopts a greater amount of religious language. Shelley, having gone through the vulnerable and difficult task of undressing the language of “God and ghosts and Heaven” does little to clarify and impregnate with new meaning his continual use of language typically associated with a priest or acolyte. The reader witnesses a kind of conversion of the speaker: “I vowed that I would dedicate my powers / To thee and thine” (60-61), the speaker says, recapitulating the vows of silence and celibacy of some Benedictine monk. Throughout the final sections the reader encounters “studious zeal” and “love’s delight” (66), “joy illumed” (68) and “hope that thou wouldst free / This world from its dark slavery” (69-70). This concentration on religious and redemptive language represent a failure of the poets imagination to escape the biblical language of the old testament. We might grant that Shelley meant something entirely different when he enslaved our world and at the same time primed it for liberation, but the trespass of the poet here lies in his inability to clarify and make distinct the difference between his enlightened understanding of the world and the uneducated and superstitious view of the human predicament.

Surprisingly, more sympathy is due to Wordsworth rather than Shelley. Whereas Wordsworth begins “Intimations” in a narcissistic fit of self-pity, the despair at least passes through the imagination and arrives in the end at a contentment with thankfulness: “Thanks to the human heart by which we live, / Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears” (200-201). Shelley, however, begins his poem in celebration of the free-willed “Spirit of Beauty,” and instead of contentment or continual praise, ends with the prayer-like petition that this spirit would “to [his] onward life supply / Its calm” (80-81).

In considering the comparison between the failing and yet more successful poem of Wordsworth, and the far more expressive and thoughtful, but still unsuccessful in creating any fresh image of the force that visits the human spirit, we can conclude that Shelley, in all his atheism and education, ultimately ends up making a pact with some elusive deity that still has not made itself distinct from the God, joy, or childhood innocence of Wordsworth or Coleridge. It is a lamentable fact, but Shelley does not achieve the groundbreaking event of extending the human alphabet to contain and name that “Spirit of Beauty” to which he has pledged his allegiance. The final lines of “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” represent this betrayal. Shelley, in section 3 of the poem, declared the “God and ghosts and Heaven” little more than “Frail Spells.” But in his final couplet, the resonating rhyme meant to inaugurate a new way of understanding the poetic imagination, relapses into that language of superstition and witchcraft: “Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind / to fear himself, and love all human kind” (83-84).

Works Cited
Shelley, Percy. “A Defence of Poetry.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen
Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 838-850. Print.
Shelley, Percy. “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed.
Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 766-768. Print.
Wordsworth, William. “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early
Childhood.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New
York: Norton, 2006. 308-312. Print.
Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 263-274. Print.

New Poem: She Calls to Tell You

I don’t know my great grandma Beulah very well. I only see her on occasion, usually briefly. When I was a kid, I remembered making the long drive to Arizona, where she lived, to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary. If my memory is correct, my parents or grandparents, or someone, asked me to write a poem for her and my great grandfather. I remember reading it, unless I imagined doing so. I look back on that memory strangely, I still don’t know why a 10 year old would be asked to read a poem about people he hardly visited. What I do remember from the trip was the heat. My siblings and I, for the few days we were there, sat on the couch in our motel room, as often as we could, and ate cubes of ice from out of a bucket we had filled at the nearest machine. I still eat ice, in part because of what that memory means. I can still picture the beige bucket, our delight in imagining it as a bowl of popcorn we all shared as we watched cartoons, or complained excessively, when my father would interrupt our show to check the progress of golf tournaments. My great grandma, who I can’t remember as a child, is, to me, now, the sweet old woman who is a champion Wii bowler. She has trophies. She bowled a 300 to my 86 a few years ago. She must have been 97 years old then. Even though I love her, and she is my great grandma, I more so imagine her as my grandma Ginger’s mother. I know she literally is, but when I picture her I picture them together, my grandma still in her teens, fiercely independent as she is now, but entirely dependent on “mom” for her allowance, to sign permission slips for field trips, or to drop her off at school dances. My Grandma is lucky, and even though it is difficult, it is a beautiful thing when the roles change, and the person who gave you their life, their time, their love, finally needs from you all that they have given. I don’t pretend that this balance exists in all cases. I’ve know too many times where it hasn’t. But there is a certain sense that the balance of life and loss, of giving and receiving, hinges on that word “lucky.” W.H. Auden preferred this word over its synonyms: grace, fate, providence. What distinguishes Auden and others, lets say the religious and the irreligious, is the definite presence that stands behind words like grace, and the notable absence that stands(?) behind the word luck. But, by grace or luck, Auden gives us, as a great poet is capable of doing, language that blurs the lines between the two, that is, makes the distinction less than certain, more difficult to see: “The Grace of the Absurd.” Here we find the absurdity of Camus’s philosophy, that Sisyphus, whether he is ignorant or acting from a deep conviction of purpose and responsibility, continues to roll the boulder up the hill, even if at some point it will roll back down so that he can roll it up again; and the Christian notion of grace, the givenness of life. I also don’t pretend that this middle way is a total consolation. It is poetry, “a stay against confusion,” according to Robert Frost, but it does not mean that it itself is a resolution. That is why me must keep probing, keep digging deep into the well of meaning and, by chance or grace, see the mud that shines on our hands is more than mud, that it is also water and light. I can’t say for certain why we keep digging; I can’t even say why love is such a radical and riven thing; how it at once binds us and blinds us, holds us and hurts us, and by the reason of some unsayable, it is at all. Here is a poem to my grandmother, for her mother, because we are all connected in family of things.

She Calls to Tell You

She calls to tell you
It’s your great-grandmother,
She’s dying.

Right now, she says,
She’s in the comfortable decline,
Resting on a bed
Of morphine.

You part from her
With cordial words,
Can hear the hang up
In her voice,
As a steady silence
Introduces itself
On the other line.

What you want to say,
Could it be enough,
That she lived,
Lived to be one-hundred;

That she held in her heart
Endless memories,
A whole array of sunsets,
Each different
Depending on where you’re standing,
Or with who;

That she held once
The belief that a raindrop
Is also a rainbow
When the light is right,
And the boundary of eternal life
Is blurred to an instant.

You will wonder,
If in her hundred years
She learned
To let go,
If her hands opened,
Or her grip lessened,
If she gave in
To the loss that accompanies
Every living thing;

The child gathering
The dead leaves
Of language, words enough
To speak tenderly
That they were a child
In the first place.

You will wonder,
Is it enough
To say she lived;

If loss is loss
Until you let go;

If the hunger that persists
In the belly of dying creatures,
That keeps us,
Here at her bedside,
Awake this hour,
When the occasion
Of our own lives
Will not relent,
Or grant us mercy,
Mercy to hold tight
As her grip lessens,

As the long retirement
From her own body,
Forgetting self,
Forgetting feeling,
Forgetting the love
That stays with her now,
Tightens, holds her
Because she’s dying
In the first place.

I welcome your thoughts