The Matchbook Diaries

War Poets

I savor contempt the way people savor wine.  I hold it in my mouth, move it around with my tongue, feel it, linger over it, and swallow the poison.  When I was too young to fight back, I did not fight back.  I’ve made up for it ever since.  Whilst being a Valkyrie is a virtue, going to war with everything tends to be a very ineffective lifestyle. Furthermore,  to hold my mother in contempt does not hold her accountable.  I don’t have that power, and it is certainly power I’m attempting to access with my chalice of malice.

My father’s mother was a very small person – 4 feet and 11 inches or 149 centimeters and change.  She was a writer, in secret, no one knew except for me that she routinely got published writing romances in the 50’s and 60’s in the United States.   All of her writing was done in the guest room, on a little typewriter that sat on a little desk.  The whole set-up looked like her.

My grandmother had this glamorous dressing table in her bedroom with a lacy skirt on it.  The surface was jammed with little dishes of make up and trays of perfumes, though she only wore Arpege or Joy.  The others were there for me – I got to sit there and spray dozens of perfumes and layer on all kinds of lipstick and paint my fingernails.  I was also welcome to splatter around all of her fine jewelry and wear anything I wanted.  Once she took a gigantic topaz and gold ring off of her finger and just gave it to me (and left all the rest to me later).  The stone is the size of a small ice cube – it’s one of my favorite rings though I almost never wear jewelry except for wood and rubber stuff I love.  She always told me I was the only other girl in the family, which was true – she had two boys, and my father and his brother had four boys among them, plus me.  It felt like a little club, she and I, both of us tiny women, both of us with big secrets.  I loved it that my grandmother enjoyed being a woman.  She was completely unlike my mother in every respect which was also a draw for me.  By the time I was an English  major in college I realized that she and I were very similar actually, not just in our gender.

My grandmother’s favorite children’s book, Big Dog Little Dog, travels around the world with me, but I deeply regret that I have lost the one book she actually ordered specially for me – a tiny edition of poems by Rupert Brook, a poet who died so young as to have only made the teensiest splash in the world.  Inside the unjacketed leather-bound book I admired the seriously dashing photo of the young poet.  Brook, around the time he was a student at Cambridge, went skinny dipping with Virginia Woolf, another hero for me.  Brook had secrets of his own, including the fact that he was bisexual at a time when such things were certainly frowned upon.  Perhaps fortunately, he died at 28, a casualty of the First World War, on a French ship, from sepsis arising from a mosquito bite.  He was buried rather romantically in Greece right near the ship where he died. (Most people think he’s a crap poet.)

Brooke was called a “war poet”, of whom it is written, “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”  Many people think Rupert Brook’s main claim to fame is his famous friends and gorgeous face.  But for me, as for my grandmother before me, he has written one of my very favorite poems – The Great Lover.  My grandmother’s favorite line, and mine, is “the little dulling edge of foam that browns and dwindles as the wave goes home”  The Great Lover is his poem, the one that my grandmother and I share.  I’m The Great Hater, so I cling to the poem about my antithesis.

There is beauty in the strength of a warrior.  I have the immense fortitude of a warrior.  Warriors, though, wade into dangerous territory using their passion to fight for things, or against them.  It’s hard to stop fighting. 

God has mastered the art of forgiveness as well as the art of war.  It’s necessary to understand both sides of that story.  I have spent a great deal of my time studying power and how to wield it.  There is a holy story about King Solomon being called to adjudicate between two women fighting over an infant boy.  Both women are sex workers, they give birth to baby boys at the same moment, alone, with no partners, just one another.  They sleep, and in the night one woman rolls over and smothers her own child.  So she steals the living child of the woman beside her and leaves her own dead son in his place.  The foregone conclusion of that swap is the horror and outrage that inevitably follows, and both women seek an audience with the King, accusing one another.  After listening to their very sad story the king says, “Bring me the boy.”  The infant is brought to him.  Then he says, “Now, cut him in half, give one half to each woman.”  The two women in front of him are provoked instantly – one saying, “Do it, then neither of us will have him!”  The other says, “Please, don’t kill him!  Give him to her, but please don’t kill him!”  The King delivers the living baby to his real mother and the problem is equitably resolved.  There is infinite wisdom in the depths of this story.

Forgiving my mother does not mean that what she did was OK.  It’s not OK.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean I feel nice feelings for her.  I don’t.  Nevertheless, my redemption is dependent upon my reply to every offense, including hers.  I will be forgiven as I have forgiven.  I have not forgiven, so I shall not be forgiven.  I withhold my own redemption from myself.  Forgiveness is not about contorting myself into excusing her.  Forgiveness walking away from that morsel of contempt I love to chew on in my “justifiable” self-righteous indignation.  Forgiveness is setting that hate-cud aside, no matter how much I wish to return to it.  My malice is forbidden.  My hatred cannot live unless I feed myself to it.  It dies when I stop hating, as there is no life in it.

This is the terrifying, absolute nature and truth of redemption: at the very core, redemption is 100% dependent upon my choice.  If I wish to be in the presence of holiness and love, then I am not going to be allowed to bring along my little suitcase of contempt.  I have to choose one or the other; like the women fighting over the baby,  I can’t have it both ways.  I often think, as I point that petty little finger of mine, of my real spiritual position – which is – I’m pointing at myself, pouring hate on myself.  I’d really like it if my spoken epitaph was like Brook’s – She loved.  But I cannot claim such.

This is Brook’s poem:
I have been so great a lover: filled my days
So proudly with the splendour of Love’s praise,
The pain, the calm, and the astonishment,
Desire illimitable, and still content,
And all dear names men use, to cheat despair,
For the perplexed and viewless streams that bear
Our hearts at random down the dark of life.
Now, ere the unthinking silence on that strife
Steals down, I would cheat drowsy Death so far,
My night shall be remembered for a star
That outshone all the suns of all men’s days.
Shall I not crown them with immortal praise
Whom I have loved, who have given me, dared with me
High secrets, and in darkness knelt to see
The inenarrable godhead of delight?
Love is a flame:—we have beaconed the world’s night.
A city:—and we have built it, these and I.
An emperor:—we have taught the world to die.
So, for their sakes I loved, ere I go hence,
And the high cause of Love’s magnificence,
And to keep loyalties young, I’ll write those names
Golden for ever, eagles, crying flames,
And set them as a banner, that men may know,
To dare the generations, burn, and blow
Out on the wind of Time, shining and streaming . . . .

These I have loved:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;
And radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;
And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,
Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon;
Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss
Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is
Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen
Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;
The benison of hot water; furs to touch;
The good smell of old clothes; and other such—
The comfortable smell of friendly fingers,
Hair’s fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers
About dead leaves and last year’s ferns. . . .
Dear names,
And thousand other throng to me! Royal flames;
Sweet water’s dimpling laugh from tap or spring;
Holes in the ground; and voices that do sing;
Voices in laughter, too; and body’s pain,
Soon turned to peace; and the deep-panting train;
Firm sands; the little dulling edge of foam
That browns and dwindles as the wave goes home;
And washen stones, gay for an hour; the cold
Graveness of iron; moist black earthen mould;
Sleep; and high places; footprints in the dew;
And oaks; and brown horse-chestnuts, glossy-new;
And new-peeled sticks; and shining pools on grass;—
All these have been my loves. And these shall pass,
Whatever passes not, in the great hour,
Nor all my passion, all my prayers, have power
To hold them with me through the gate of Death.
They’ll play deserter, turn with the traitor breath,
Break the high bond we made, and sell Love’s trust
And sacramented covenant to the dust.
——Oh, never a doubt but, somewhere, I shall wake,
And give what’s left of love again, and make
New friends, now strangers. . . .
But the best I’ve known
Stays here, and changes, breaks, grows old, is blown
About the winds of the world, and fades from brains
Of living men, and dies.
Nothing remains.

O dear my loves, O faithless, once again
This one last gift I give: that after men
Shall know, and later lovers, far-removed,
Praise you, ‘All these were lovely’; say, ‘He loved.’