Commonplace News Joshua Reyes

POTD: Life 14

Day 10. Today’s poem of the day is Life xiv.

Some things that fly there be,—
Birds, hours, the bumble-bee:
Of these no elegy.

Some things that stay there be,—
Grief, hills, eternity:
Nor this behooveth me.

There are, that resting, rise.
Can I expound the skies?
How still the riddle lies! 1

I really like the pace and rhyme of this one, too. And is that zeugma? Well, maybe something zeugma-adjacent. I’m not sure what to make of riddle though.

This poem is a Goldilocks and the Three Bears of time scales.

The first scale is too short. It is beautiful and buzzes and flits and flies. It’s easy to get lost even in such a short amount of time. These measures of time are the realm of the short-lived distraction.

It’s like a mosquito piquing at your ear while you sit down to concentrate on work: someone sends you a text message. Buzz. Buzz. You check a few stories on Instagram. Buzz. Buzz. More email comes in. Buzz. Buzz. You think about that casually callous thing you to your friend last night and are struck with horror. Buzz buzz.

None of these tiny episodes amounts to much on their own. But one-by-one they pile up. Before you know it, you’re left wondering where the day went.

The second time scale is too long. Great things can happen over large expanses of time. Gravity can crush nebulous clouds of gas to form planets and stars given enough time. Human civilizations rise and fall over these times scales. And if you spend all day planning for distant and uncertain eventualities, the world will march on without you. Same, too, if you are stuck mourning things that happened the past without looking up to the here and now and the future beyond.

The third time scale is just right. It’s person-sized. These periods of time might last a day, a week, a few months. I am totally biased, but a week is about as long as a cycle of weather. So let me expound the skies! That’s about as far as people plan ahead in their day-to-day. A week is how long it takes to study for that exam, or hit up the gym, or take your car to the mechanic, or get that thing at work done.

Life isn’t either/or, though. It’s both/and. We need to live life at all three of these scales to some degree. “Everything in moderation, including moderation,” they say. So, of course, read that text message. So, of course, contemplate the cosmos. And while you’re at it, save regularly for retirement, too. But also plan it out and remember to live most of your life somewhere in the middle.

Here’s hoping that we get things done.

  1. Emily Dickinson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Little, Brown, and Company. (1929) 

POTD: Nature 17

Day 9. Today’s poem of the day is Nature xvii.

Who robbed the woods,
The trusting woods?
The unsuspecting trees
Brought out their burrs and mosses
His fantasy to please.
He scanned their trinkets, curious,
He grasped, he bore away.
What will the solemn hemlock,
What will the fir-tree say? 1,2

This is a fun one! I’m not sure who the robber is. Is he the wind; is he Old Man Winter? He might have been me along with my hoodlum friends in high school. We spent a lot of time plundering and playing in the woods.

In any case, I like this poem a lot. It runs a good pace. There’s just enough rhyme mixed in to keep things moving. And I’ll never turn down an opening decked out with repeated wood.

The idea that hemlock is solemn makes me giggle. Imagine the face it made when hemlock killed Socrates. So of all the trees in the forest, maybe hemlock is the stickiest stick-in-the-mud. But the fir tree is a party tree. Always joyous, always bright!

This robber has hurt my friend the fir. Whoever he is, he must be stopped.

  1. Emily Dickinson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Little, Brown, and Company. (1929) 

  2. Always ahead of her time, Emily beat out Ylvis by about 80 years. If only the internet had existed back then, she would have gone viral. 

POTD: Life 101

Day 8. Today’s poem of the day is Life ci.

A face devoid of love or grace,
A hateful, hard, successful face,
A face with which a stone
Would feel as thoroughly at ease
As were they old acquaintances,—
First time together thrown.1

Since I’ve been thinking a lot lately about parenting and management and dealing with people generally, this poem speaks to me about the kind of people who are in charge of others.

It’s unfortunate, because I think the person with such a “hateful, hard, successful face” probably thinks that being respected is the same as being obeyed. If you are the person in the poem and I get this wrong, please excuse me. I don’t think we’ve ever met. But I have met other people who fit the description in this poem. They say things like, “Respect my authority.” What does that even mean?

When I was in a funny little program at UMass Boston for Critical and Creative Thinking, I wondered what respect actually was. Here’s what I came up with:

Respect is the willingness to learn from another; e.g., yourself, other people, or a situation. To respect something is to want to learn from it.

Basically respect assumes something else has value. If you don’t think another person has anything to teach you, then you can’t possibly be respecting them. I guess that’s what these hard, successful faces want—to feel like there’s something in them worthy enough for you to want to incorporate what they know into your own life.

Maybe they’re worried they can’t stand on their own, though. That’s why they need the force of authority to sell themselves.

Respect is most easily trod on a two-way street. Authority is necessarily one-sided, however. It’s easier to sell something when you’re also interested in buying, too. Be forewarned: being respectful is humbling. It admits that you don’t have all the answers and that others know things that you don’t. This aspect of respect can be uncomfortable, even scary.

But in the long run, respect is kind of selfish like a sponge. You get to absorb all the hard-fought lessons other people suffered to learn. And because I’m lazy, I love that.

So, if you’re in charge of another person—and even if you’re not2—, stop and listen to them. See what you can learn.

Respect.

  1. Emily Dickinson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Little, Brown, and Company. (1929) 

  2. For a while I used have a collection of mottos. One of them asked, “Who can you control?” The answer is “Just me, but only sometimes, and not well.” 

POTD: Time and Eternity 85

Day 7. Today’s poem of the day is Time and Eternity lxxxv.

They say that “time assuages”,—
Time never did assuage;
An actual suffering strengthens,
As sinews do, with age.

Time is a test of trouble,
But not a remedy.
If such it prove, it prove too
There was no malady.1

This one makes me a little sad, even if it’s usually true. This short poem calls out the wisdom of the saying “time heals all wounds”. It doesn’t. And while, this is probably not the original intent, I read Time and Eternity 85 as a call to action.

Sure, driftwood stranded in the middle of sea might strike a lucky ride on a current to somewhere sunny. That driftwood might wash ashore on a tropical paradise without paying the the expense of energy or intention. But more often than not, if you blindly go with the flow, you’ll end up in a giant pile of trash in the middle of the ocean.

Instead, we should be intentional in our living—especially when it comes to solving our problems. When you’re up to your neck in the water of life, pick a direction and start swimming. If you don’t like where you’re headed, change course.

  1. Emily Dickinson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Little, Brown, and Company. (1929) 

POTD: Love 31

Day 6. After a short hiatus, we’re back! Today’s poem of the day is Love xxxi.

The moon is distant from the sea,
And yet with amber hands
She leads him, docile as a boy,
Along appointed sands.

He never misses a degree;
Obedient to her eye,
He comes just so far toward the town,
Just so far goes away.

Oh, Signor, thine the amber hand,
And mine the distant sea,—
Obedient to the least command
Thine eyes impose on me.1

Powerful stuff. The ocean is raucous and strong. And yet the moon asserts her influence, measured and constant, from a distance. Imagine if a person could do that to you. Just imagine.

  1. Emily Dickinson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Little, Brown, and Company. (1929)