An American Four Seasons

Poems inspired by Charles Ives’ A Symphony: New England Holidays

 

By Claudia Castro Luna (Seattle Civic Poet)

From the onset the guiding principle behind these poems has been that in order to reflect Charles Ives’ musical sentiment — his inclusivity, his insistence incorporating strands of popular music from his childhood and his adult life, his interest in reflecting events happening around him — it was necessary to include a multiplicity of voices in the poetic lines.

 

The resulting effort includes snippets of overheard conversation and words from participants’ notes, who contributed in the All of Us Belong project. In addition, I use statements, phrases and words from American historical figures and lines from well-known poems and songs. I use italics whenever a voice other than my own enters each poem and list, at the bottom of each, the sources cited. 

 

Guided by my own understanding of things and by the emotions and thoughts expressed by project participants, these poems work to reflect the rich, varied and difficult experience that being an American entails.

 

Washington’s Winter

 

Winter’s taciturn realm asks nothing.

Crowned in hushed browns and somber greens,

it rules by turns with quiet song

then with pummeling winds obeying no one.

It will be dark soon everyday for months

Color hibernates, leaving behind

its essence to purr

in everything oblique light touches.

In the hush, it asks us to see, and see again,

to hear the echo of step

over moss covered ground,

to peek into ourselves

and consider roads not taken

and those taken and why.

Winter’s austere architecture

reveals in trees their armature

and in us a chance to behold

the dried reeds edging our heart.

A man named Washington

set for posterity an example

by willingly electing

a shade of retirement

over political might.

Winter winds do whip

the pubic madness of frozen filigree twigs,

but come summer each branch

will blush in apple glow.

Nothing is so simple as it first appears.

One minute violin strings coax

memories from their tenderest dens

and in the next, pluck

raucous joy at a winter’s barn dance.

What shows on the surface fallow,

conceals a gathering of creative force.

Slow cadence of winter days,

a tune by and by, to awaken.

 

NOTES:

 

Robert Frost – “roads not taken” from The Road Not Taken

George Washington – “shade of retirement” from Washington’s farewell address to the people of the United States

Overheard at Dorothy Day House –It will be dark soon everyday for months

Charles Ives – “winter’s barn dancefrom score notes

 

Decoration Spring

 

Things begin and by chance

earn a different momentum.

Here, life’s flow widens a girl’s hips

and she listens closely to her heart

dictating course inside its soft cage.

There, the expanding hands

of a boy entering manhood clamor

to sculpt the arch of his life.

Young men and women

with the petal of their youth

still fresh on their cheeks

join armed forces, accept orders to march

into others’ bellicose dreams.

But even with noble intentions,

the rash spirits of war don’t

distinguish freedom from bondage,

liberty from tyranny, fear from greed.

War is equally mean to all

who enter its orbit.

You do what you are asked to do, a veteran says.

And the voices of the fallen and of the living

recoil yet on the threshing floor.

There is nothing left to give

that you have not in a war already sacrificed.

After the return, a little girl unknowingly

waves at the ghosts trailing

behind a Memorial Day parade

while adults pile obsequious gratitude

on those left heartbroken, legbroken, mindbroken

and alone to pick up shards of themselves

each day joining with the gold

of suffering the cracks on their bodies.

Getting on, getting on, afterwards,

that is what is all about.

And to continue to hope for a day,

as Mr. Douglass said, when war and bloodshed

shall be confined only to beasts of prey.

 

NOTES:

 

Mark Twain – “belicose dreams,” “rash spirits” from The War Prayer

Overheard at Compass Housing Alliance – “You do what you are asked to do,” “joining with the gold,” and “Getting on, getting on, afterwards, that is what is all about”

Abraham Lincoln – “The brave men, living and dead who struggled here” from the Gettysburg Address

Frederick Douglass – “when war and bloodshed shall be confined only to beasts of prey” from Why Should a Colored Man Enlist?

 

Summer Sparks

 

In New York a colossal woman raises

a burning torch, a promise to harbor

the tired, the poor, the homeless, the tempest-tossed.

In Seattle another woman fades,

homeless in a park, with the racing butterfly

of her child’s heart her only compass.

A pendulum swings, all over the land,

from the luscious forests of generous imaginations

to the ruinous bigotry that clipped

Emmett Till’s wings. Echoes of yesteryear’s

Ghost Dance over Wounded Knee,

that sideway shuffle call for ancestors’ aid,

beats time before us again and again.

Fruit plump on summer’s light

in a New England vale ripens

alongside Southwestern’s border

bruised and battered fruit.

4th of July fireworks bravado,

the feeling of loosing yourself in the jubilee

of the crowd after winning, collapses

under the crushing evidence

of the country that we’ve never been.

The sparks lighting up the sky then falling,

folding back into night,

are they a celebration, the best part of summer,

or more of a weeping?

Love and pain don’t strike

some over others with different strength.

We are equally susceptible to kindness

and to cold, and board together

the destiny of our shared country.

On an occasion like this,

from sea to shining sea,

is a good place to begin not end.

 

NOTES:

 

Emma Lazarus – "Give me your tired, your poor, (…) / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me” from The New Colossus

From participant’s notes at Mary’s Place – “woman/homeless in a park” and “the best part of summer”

Katharine Lee Bates – “from sea to shining sea” from America the Beautiful 

Mark Twain – “On an occasion like this” from Fourth of July speech in Iowa, July 3, 1886

 

Autumn Thanks

 

We are gathered here today

to observe, not so much the end of the Fast

which continues to this day relentless,

the way ancient glaciers dragged

boulders across centuries.

The rumbling mass of injustice

fueled by greed that you sought to starve César,

still careens under western and eastern skies alike

extracting widows, homeless, mourners, sufferers

in the lamentable social strife

in which we find ourselves. 

Light wanes turning leaves fire and gold

revealing over horizon’s lip

the margins of our days.

Time it is to give thanks

for grandpa and grandma

sitting in the old living room sofa holding hands

waiting for their slice of apple pie

and for the cousins playing

their annual football game

in the park across the street.

We gather to acknowledge

our mothers’ lost hours,

lost on growing the alabaster

bones on which we stand.

We give thanks for ancestors

who came before us and lost,

for courageous walkouts

and for those who subsist

on malnourished minimum wage checks

for they will one day be relics

of our grinding, slow march

toward social justice. 

If we in our days, put a fraction

of what bird puts into her song

we may yet reap a future

when injustice and war are the moraine

of our present, bitter, epoch.

We are gathered here today.

 

NOTES:

 

César Chavez – “We are gathered here today to observe, not so much the end of the Fast” from On Ending Fast, 1968

From participant’s notes Cascade Women’s Program – “grandpa and grandma

Abraham Lincoln – “commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged” from Proclamation of Thanksgiving  

 

These poems were read before each movement of Charles Ives’ New England Holidays as part of All of Us Belong, a project featuring artwork by members of Seattle’s homeless community.

 

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Posted on February 2, 2017

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