Some notes on a favorite poem

The poem drops us right in to its world: “Sundays too” — no day of rest in this life. Blueblack cold, so bleak and unyielding in its three beats, the color of crows, the color of mourning, of the awful hours predawn.

Those Winter Sundays

by Robert Hayden

 

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

 

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

 

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?

 

I am the man, shapeless in his clothes, only his hands in focus, their ache in the cracks, but the burden of the task for family perhaps oddly light or at least unquestioned. And I am also the guilt of the observer’s silence each and every one of those mornings.

I feel the consonants of “splinter,” of “break,” then the ah of warmth, a call. But I know too the chronic – of time, of constancy – nature of some anger. The isolation of “that house.” The speaker’s fear of it. Oh, and yes, indifference to “him,” who has done harm as he has done diligence.

But the polish: also, I imagine, blueblack, smoothed on what I also imagine to be cracked from cold and wear, the oil smell of it, the satisfaction of its coverage, and buffing the shoes to gleam. That subtle gleam, and how it fills the cracks, so temporarily, to make good what must be good, and kept good. For there is so little.

The vie of rhythms, struggle of emphasis: push of rhythm and withholding, anger and regret, the uncompromising cold, that house; even the banked fire’s blaze harkens as much of warmth as of rage.

But what gets me in the gut every time is that stutter: what did I know, what did I know. Again and most deeply felt, the regret yawning in the pause and restart. The loneliness of understanding and love felt in absentia and too late. The simple observation of the self’s guilt – the indifference, the inability to speak this particular rough and peculiar language of love. The language of love is complicated. The silences of it difficult too.

How many times have I failed to understand the languages of love? How many of you whom I have loved have thought me mute?

The father in the end some wayward priest, the worn clothes his vestments, the shoes and polish the body and blood. God as love so far away. Austere from harsh, from sere, or dry, dry as the kiss on a dead man’s lips. Are these sacraments the father makes redemptive? Are they enough? Does love require such exercises of expression? And the speaker’s ignorance of and then, too late, recognition of those expressions, is that redemptive?

My own father, terrifying in his, to me, inexplicable angers. When I was small he had made me a sandbox, which I loved, and a wooden swing, which he’d hung from the cherry tree and set with individually carved letters of my name, spelled incorrectly.

How we make of our own chapels lonely places.

Hayden a poor black guy from Detroit who went on to become the first US poet laureate. Me a working class white girl now a middle class, middle-aged white lady keeping company in poetry’s sacred spaces.

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