Black bear eating from my apple tree, August night, 2012

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Haunting Cemeteries

The poet Baudelaire's cenotaph, Montparnasse Cemetery Paris. A cenotaph is an empty grave. Baudelaire is actually buried in a different division of the same cemetery.
For as long as I can remember, I have loved visiting cemeteries. Growing up on the East Coast, the graveyards there tend to be pretty old, and as a history buff, I would love to read the inscriptions and see the beautiful statuary. Out here in the West, the graves are not so old, however, where I live here In Laporte, many Native Americans are buried all around us, in unmarked places. This area was a large gathering place for many tribes, including the Arapaho and Cheyenne, who were welcomed by Anglo fur trappers who made their living here. Many of the trappers would take their skins to Fort Laramie, to the east, to trade for other goods. These men often married Lakota and Dakota women from that area, as females tended to be scarce out here, and brought them home to Laporte, back then known as the town of "Colona." Colona was a thriving town and community long before Fort Collins existed, and we have a fascinating history. (I'll save that for a future blog post.)

But what does this have to do with cemeteries? Well, it was a practice with some Native Americans to erect scaffolds high up in the old cottonwood trees and leave their dead on them, so that nature could take its course. Once the body became mummified, they'd retrieve the bones and bury them someplace else. So my entire neighborhood might be a giant graveyard.

This month, NPR, National Public Radio, has been doing pieces on interesting cemeteries around the world, in a program called "Dead Stop"--"A summer road trip visiting strange, funny, historic and notable gravesites and cemeteries." This is right up my alley, and I've enjoyed each and every one of their installments.

Old grave (note the symbols of the hour glass and skull) in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Ephrata, PA.
Holocaust Memorial to those buried in unknown places, Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris
Possibly the oldest graveyard I've ever seen (I haven't gotten to the pyramids yet)--"The Alyscamps" in Arles, France. This was a Roman stronghold, and these are their empty sarcophagi.
To this day, I always check out the local cemeteries when I travel. To me they are not somber places, but quiet, reflective spaces where you can imagine the lives of those who went before you, read enigmatic inscriptions, and consider your own mortality and hopefully decide to make the most of the time you have left. Here are a few pics of some notable cemeteries I've seen. I hope that you'll consider a stop at the churchyard, graveyard, cemetery, mausoleum, or whatever you call it, the next time you're in a strange town.
Wild Bill Hickock's grave, Deadwood, South Dakota

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Poetry Corner: T.S. Eliot

Copyright free pic from Wikipedia

Blog posts for me tend to come out of nowhere, or in this case, from an interesting conversation I recently had with a friend. We were discussing how it is that people in modern society seem so distracted by so many things--facebook, email, youtube, television, paying bills, refinancing mortgages, looking for work, etc. It brought to mind the famous poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," by T.S. (Thomas Stearns) Eliot, written, I believe, in 1915. When you read it, you realize that it's really a very modern poem. More in a minute...

(T.S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, where I lived for over a decade, so we locals knew quite a bit about him. Most people know his most famous work, "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," which was the inspiration behind Andrew Lloyd Webber's hugely successful musical, "CATS.")

It happens that right now, we're experiencing peach season in Colorado. You may know that Georgia is famous for its peaches, but Western Slope Colorado peaches are just as delicious, if not more so. We buy "seconds" at the farmers' market, so they're overripe and decadently juicy. I was up late a few nights ago and wanted to eat one at my desk, but no napkins were handy, and I knew that once I bit into the fruit it would be a runny mess. And then I remembered the famous line from "Love Song"--"do I dare to eat a peach?" I immediately jumped up and grabbed some toilet paper and took a huge bite.

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," a poem about a "modern-day" man who is completely unable to take any kind of decisive action in his life, is a classic. Read it and ask yourself if you too are not sometimes immobilized by your mundane choices. Do you put off making big decisions, or taking big risks, because you are busying yourself with trivial distractions? And do you tell yourself, perhaps falsely, that the reason you can't make a tough choice is because you're way too "busy?"

Here's the poem, courtesy of

   S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
     A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
     Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
     Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
     Non torno vivo alcun, s'i'odo il vero,
     Senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
[They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!"]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!"]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
     So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
     And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
     And should I then presume?
     And how should I begin?

          . . . . .

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

          . . . . .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep… tired… or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here's no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
     Should say: "That is not what I meant at all.
     That is not it, at all."

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
     "That is not it at all,
     That is not what I meant, at all."

          . . . . .

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.