Monday, October 29, 2007

Three Poems by Jane Cooper


Rock climbing

by Jane Cooper

Higher than gulls' nests, higher than children go,
Scrambling and dangling to survey the sea,
We crest the last outcropping strewn
East of this island.

Now pell-mell, now stopping to pinch a finger
In an open fissure down which no sun glints,
Where water gnaws and subsides, we comb
As the tide rises

Each rock that locks us in a partial vision
Of the expanding, curved and eye-reflecting blue
Which liberates but still hangs over
Our minds' breathing.

As yet the gleams are steep and unexpected:
We study lichens like a dying scale.
Silver as fishes; here crisp moss
Moist in a crevice;

Then even lichens powder, and the rocks
Give way to sunny tables, dry escarpments,
Each with its different texture, pocked
Or smoothly sloping

Down to the pitch where barnacles or stain
Dark as a rust line show the heaving power
Of water's shoulders, raised at night,
Then wrested over.

And now the last rock! piled hugely up
And shoved to end a sprinkle like a jetty
Of little boulders in the green-brown
Irregular surface

Where seaweed shaped like coral swimming, kelp,
Pebbles and broken shells of clam or crab
All shine or flicker up as down-watching
We kneel and wonder.

Now balancing, laughing, brisk as children who
Spread out their arms and toe along a pole
We skip from top to top, lift knees.
Come out at angles

Until we have scaled it! stand aloft at last
With all the ocean for our freedom and
Our meditation, all the swing
Of limbs for glitter.

Warmed by the sun, tingling, with tired calves
And eyes of exultation we address
The father of our knowledge, shrouded
Faintly beyond us

At the lost line where wind is turned to water
And all is turned to light, dissolved or rinsed
To silver where our eyes fish (gulls
Sailing and falling

Out, out. . . .) And now the seabirds call
Far off, recalled by memories like hunger,
Screech and return, flying the tides
Of pure air inwards

To where their nests are, intimate and cold;
While standing on those cliffs we slowly rest
And looking back to hillsides build
Imaginary houses.


************

The above hits a note of hope and happiness in achievement (any
achievement you want to make the climbing a metaphor for, plus
sheerly loving the world of nature) that sings to me.

I took the poem from Florence Howe and Ellen Bass's _No More
Masks_. It was published in 1973 and at the back we read

        Jane Cooper, 1924

        "Jane Cooper writes, 'In my twenties I wrote a book of poems --
perfectly serious work -- but was sufficiently torn between my concepts of 'poet' and 'woman' that I
never tried to publish. Teaching brought me back to poetry through a different door.'

        Her first published book of poems was _The Weather of Six Mornings_;
it was "the Lamont selection of American Poets;" she had grants from Ingram Merrill and
Guggenheim Foundation; taught at Sarah Lawrence [I wonder what the pay scale was] and was
said at the time to be working on collection of poems that will include 'both new poems
and some of those old, early, angry pieces.'

Hotel de Dream
 
Justice-keepers! justice-keepers!
for Muriel Rukeyser and James Wright
 
 
 
Suppose we could telephone the dead.
Muriel, I'd say, can you hear me?
Jim, can you talk again?
 
And I'd begin to tell them the stories they loved to hear:
how my father, as a young boy, watched Cora Crane
parade through the streets of Jacksonville with her girls
in an open barouche with silver fittings;
how the bay haunches gleamed as they twitched off flies,
polished hooves fetched down smartly into the dust,
ostrich feathers tickled the palates of passers-by.
 
Muriel, I'd say, shall we swing along Hudson Street
underneath the highway and walk out together on the docks?
 
.the river would be glittering, my grandmother
would be bargaining
with a black man on a dock in Jacksonville;
grapefruit and oranges would be piled up like cannonballs
at the fort in Old St. Augustine. . . .
 
I'll never put you in a nursing home, you said early that year,
I promise, Jane, I'll never put you in a nursing home.
 
Later Cora Crane showed her dogs right next to my aunt's.
They had a good conversation about bloodlines
amidst the clean smells of kennel shavings and well-brushed dog
but never, of  course, met socially
although she had dined with Henry James.
 
Jim, I'd say, remember that old poem "The Faithful"
you helped me by caring for? How what we owe to the dead
is to go on living? More than ever
I want to go on living.
 
But now you have become part of it, friends of my choosing years,
friends who magnificent voices
will reverberate always, if only through machines,
tell me how to redress the past,
how to relish yet redress
my sensuous, precious, upper-class,
unjust white child's past.
 
 
 
Being Southern
 
1
 
It's like being German.
Either you remember that yours was the defeated country
(The South breeds the finest soldiers, my uncle said,
himself a general in one of his incarnations)
or you acknowledge the guilt, not even your own guilt, but
 
Can any white person write this, whose ancestors once kept slaves?
 
2
 
Of course there were "good" Germans.
 
My father was still under 30, a passionate Wilsonian, when he was named a delegate to the 1916 Democratic Convention. By the end of the first evening he had discovered that eleven of the other Florida delegates were members of the Klan, he couldn't answer for the twelfth, he was number 13.
 
Only a few years later he argued for, and won, token black representation on the Jacksonville school board.
 
And my aunt as a girl went into the sweatshops to interview Cuban cigar workers, all women. She found the first Girl Scout troop in the South for, as she put it, colored children. True, it was segregated. But it was the first.
 
Take your guilt to school. Read your guilt in your diplomas or the lines of the marriage ceremony. Face your guilt head-on in the eyes of lover, neighbor, child. Ask to be buried in your guilt.
 
Of course they were paternalistic. I honor their accomplishments. What more have I ever done?
 
When is memory transforming? when, a form of real estate?
 
 
3
 
Transplanted "north" in 1934 I never questioned
a town that received its distinguished refugees
with a mix of pride and condescension: the specialist in Christian iconography
in her man-tailored suits, Einstein like a disembodied spirit
pacing our leafy sidewalks. Only because my best friend lived next door
would I glimpse him, sometimes at twilight, tuning his violin
as his back yard filled up with tents
 
But why can't I remember the actual men and women who slept in those tents, among patches of ragged tigerlilies? the children with skinny arms, who would soon be passed along. . . ?
 
All he could vouch for. Not famous. At their backs
the six million.

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