The Powerful Play Goes On

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“What will your verse be?”

Mr. Keating, Dead Poets Society

When I officially introduced my students to free verse last week, I knew that Walt Whitman would be on the menu. In my search for a shorter example, I came across the poem I first heard under the wise tutelage of Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society. Yes, I literally sat in his class at Welton Academy back in 1959. Really… Okay, so it was 1989 when I saw the film. It’s essentially the same thing.

I had picked a different poem initially and then stumbled upon O Me! O Life! Who cannot resonate with the words of Whitman in these early days of 2021? He opens with the two core questions we as humans wrestle with every day: who am I, and what is this thing called life? The backdrop of the world around us only magnifies these questions. How can life be anything but tragedy when I’m surrounded by “endless trains of the faithless” and our cities are filled “with the foolish?” And yet how am I any better? You don’t have to look too far to see the “objects mean” and the struggle, the failures, and “sordid crowds.” It’s far too easy to look back over the past year and label it “empty and useless.” Truly, what good can I bring to this world, this life? My insignificance feels crippling.

But Whitman doesn’t leave us like so many of Thomas Hardy’s novels. The answer comes.

Know that the greatest gift you have to give is yourself. The greatest thing to celebrate is the very fact that you are here and you have purpose. Despite what you see, LIFE EXISTS in the face of so much death, and you have a unique divinely-inspired IDENTITY, despite the forces that demand you conform to their image. This is no Brave New World! The powerful play goes on and you are invited, dare I say called upon to contribute your unique verse. Use your voice! Do not become overwhelmed by what you see. Speak! Sing! Raise a Hallelujah! Only you know what your verse will be.

And someone needs to hear it.

O Me! O Life! – Walt Whitman

From Leaves of Grass (1892)

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life

Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

An Ending and a Beginning

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January 1st has historically been a time for reevaluating one’s life and planning for the future with greater purpose and resolution. It’s that bridge suspended between years (although it begins the new year), linking the past and the future in a fleeting present. For me, it has become a reminder of loss and the fragility of life juxtaposed with new life, full of hopeful expectation. Four years ago today, I lost my mother unexpectedly. We spoke just after ringing in the new year, not realizing it would be our last goodbye. She passed away by three that afternoon as I was driving across the state.

I haven’t really written about the experience, but felt this pairing of poems would be a fitting tribute and start to 2021 at the deepening ground: a reminder of our limitations as mortals coupled with a celebration of life itself. We cannot fully see what is coming, nor fully understand what has passed. In the midst of days full of life and joy, the unexpected comes. And from nothing, even from the most chaotic darkness, an amazing something comes forth, unseen and unimagined.

This is the poetic paradox of life, the ability to fully live in the ever present shadow of death. Life is a series of deminutios and crescendos, more than simply “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” (Macbeth Act V, Scene V) We are perpetually invited to join the song, sung long before our lives. Rather than sit in silence, open your mouths and SING!

deminutio

Vincent H. Anastasi – 2016

burstingforth to light –
BLINDING – crocus piercing earth,
petal-lids still closed,

warm days u n f u r l
each fragile face to sun
and humming bees,

jubilant
in vernal breezes
and rich soil;

cruel frost,
winter’s shadow,
bites deep –

cold
harbinger
come

uncalled.

crescendo

Vincent H. Anastasi – 2020


unseen


the
something be-
comes;

passion’s
germen erupts,
finds voice,

crescendos:
transfiguration
birthed in death –

bare, blank, barren
flourish, fertile and filled
in that holy

manifestation
recalling eternity
in temporal space.

Deminutio is Latin for “diminishing” and the form used throughout the poem is a diminishing Haiku, beginning with the traditional 5-7-5 syllabic pattern, followed by 4-6-4, all the way down to 0-2-0. Crescendo is a “gradual increase in volume or intensity,” and the form reflects that transformation moving from 0-2-0 back to a full Haiku of 5-7-5.

Don’t Miss the Divine Intrusions

Photo by Sarah I. Anastasi

Last week I willingly missed a moment. I neglected the divine intrusion for a bowl of gruel (not literally – just a bowl of Panda Puffs cereal) before heading up to my bedroom to teach English all day. I slept in, forgetting that I would have to dig out from the snow – most importantly, excavate the end of our drive. My wife and twelve-year-old son joined me in unearthing the cars and clearing the driveway as a whole; my job was the heavy ice wall at the end of both our drive and our neighbor’s drive.

Our job began before sunrise, and once the sun started to dispel the darkness and warm the day, the sky came alive with a divine intrusion. My wife called to me: “Have you seen the sky?”

I kept shoveling.

My son echoed, “Mom asked if you saw the sky?”

I looked up briefly and returned to clearing my neighbor’s drive.

For someone who loves nature, poetry, and beauty; for someone who intentionally looks for Red-tailed hawks as I’m driving down the highways; for someone who fully expects these sacred moments to interrupt my day, I chose to be like Martha, and rather than sit at Jesus’s feet soaking in a divine visitation, I kept doing the chores.

May this poetic reflection remind you to take the time to savor the divine intrusions this Christmas, a time when we intentionally stop to celebrate the Greatest Divine Intrusion in history. Expect the sunrises and find the cathedrals hidden in plain sight all around you with your loved ones! Merry Christmas!

Leadlight

Vincent H. Anastasi – 2020

The plows have left an ice-wall
at the top of the drive,
as they always do,
barricading the road
from the sudden intrusion
of any vehicle parked below.
The extra half-hour snooze
may cost me breakfast –
8:00 a.m. looms with responsibility.
Begrudging all that frozen beauty,
I pull on my boots
and collect the shovel from the side porch.

I begin the excavation,
left to right –
the slushy bottom layer
sticking to my shovel
with each square-foot I clear.
I rap the shovel’s sharp edge
on the pavement
and turn again to address
the ice mounds,
like molding mashed potatoes.

Clearing enshrouded cars below,
my wife calls,
something about the sky,
I think.
Rather than yell back, I continue
throwing the heavy snow,
one shovelful at a time,
to the small hills flanking
my neighbor’s drive.
Now my twelve-year-old son
repeats his mother’s call:
“Have you seen the sky?”

I pause just long enough
between rhythmic scoops
to catch the cotton candy sky
billowing like milkweed
through the white-sleeved,
black-branched armature
stretching between my neighbors’ houses.

Wonderstruck in my graveled drive,
my wife and son stop
to bask in the serenity
of this divine intrusion,
a moment of silence
beneath the stained glass canopy
held in the raised cames of leaden branches –
two travelers stopping by woods
on a snowy morning while I –
I turn like Martha,
task-driven to a fault,
to clear the gravel-speckled snow.

Make Some Time for Tea

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A few years ago, my wife, children and I put together a family Christmas album as a gift to our families, complete with original songs, popular covers, and literature readings by my daughter and young sons. Heavily inspired my musicians such as Branches out of California, Sleeping at Last, and The Muppets Christmas with John Denver, we covered songs such as Go Tell It On the Mountain, We Wish You a Merry Christmas, and I Saw Three Ships. I distinctly remember pushing this project off to the last minute and having to snag any free moment to pull someone up to the attic room to record their part for the songs. It features the vocals of the entire family, my daughter on violin, my eldest on guitar, and my second eldest on cello, not to mention the handful of percussion instruments played by everyone on the album.

This Christmas, may I offer you Afternoon Tea, one of the two original songs that appeared on the album. May you take time to pause with those you love to simply sit together by the tree sipping your favorite cup of herbal tea as you look out your windows at a world in the beauty of its seasonal slumber. Admittedly, that’s one thing I’m loving about the new “observatory” we put on to our house this summer. With ten windows in all, our back room is a cozy place to sit on the couch with a cup of tea (or coffee) and look out over the backyard down rolling down to the creek, especially after a fresh snow like we’ve had here the past two days, and just be still.

I have my cup of Yogi Soothing Caramel Bedtime tea in my hands, doctored with stevia and whole milk. Sit back, turn off the lights, and come share a drink with me!

“Afternoon Tea” from An Anastasi Christmas by Vincent H. Anastasi 2015

Afternoon Tea

Vincent H. Anastasi – 2015

Come share a drink a with me
of afternoon winter tea
it calms me down
it calms me down

Outside the snow lies deep
I’m drifting now into sleep
it calms me down
it calms me down

And still there’s plenty more to do
but I will steep some tea for two –
Afternoon tea

Clouds of the richest cream
unfurl under herbal steams
it calms me down
it calms me down

Outside the sun’s setting slow
the warmth of the tea let’s me go
it calms me down it calms me down

And still there’s plenty more to do
but I will steep this time with you –
Afternoon tea

Still there’s plenty more to do
but I will steep some time for two –
Afternoon tea

Time to Hear the Christmas Bells

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On our most recent shopping excursion, my wife shared with me that classic Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem Christmas Bells. I’ve been familiar with the poem for years, more through the variety of interpretations the poem has experienced in song, but the power of Longfellow’s words themselves ring loud and clear. As I sat in the van listening intently once again to those beautiful words penned during the unrest of the American Civil War, I drank deep of the hope Longfellow pens in those final stanzas.

As we head full steam into this Christmas season, may your hearts soar ever upward, set free from the crippling weight of this world below as you meditate on these words (and listen to the AMAZING rendition below by The Branches). Though “hate is strong, / And mocks the song / Of peace on earth, good-will to men” remember that “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; / The Wrong shall fail, / The Right prevail, / With peace on earth, good-will to men.” Amen and amen!

Christmas Bells – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
    And wild and sweet
    The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
    Had rolled along
    The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
    A voice, a chime,
    A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
    And with the sound
    The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
    And made forlorn
    The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
    “For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Overcoming Infamy

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“No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, from His Address to a Joint Session of Congress, December 8, 1941

Remember. One of the most challenging combinations of three syllables in the English language. How easily we forget. How much we’ve forgot. How little we value what we have. As Thomas Paine once said in The American Crisis, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.”

In remembrance of those who gave their lives not just on this date seventy-nine years ago at Pearl Harbor, but throughout all of World War II and every other major American conflict, and in remembrance of all who continue to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in the defense of one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all, we place this hard stop on the day to deepen, and we pledge to overcome infamy whatever the cost.

Overcoming Infamy

Vincent H. Anastasi 2020

A Found Poem from “Pearl Harbor” by the History.com Editors, Accessed December 7, 2020

Seventy-nine years ago,
Sunday morning skies darkened
as the thunder of hundreds
of Japanese fighter planes
unleashed a rain of bullets and bombs.
The irresistibly easy target,
the unexpected sudden destruction,
the deceptively simple plan:
cripple a nation
and expand dominion
throughout the South Pacific.

Arizona exploded and sank.
Oklahoma lost her balance,
rolled onto her side
and slipped underwater.
California, Utah, Maryland,
Tennessee, West Virginia, Nevada,
Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania
all sustained significant damage.
2,403 sailors, soldiers, and civilians killed;
the confidence of a nation shaken
on a day which still lives in infamy.

Today we stand on familiar shores,
awakened by the sudden and deliberate attack,
the premeditated invasion,
the dominion seeking to silence
the will of the people.
No time to wait too long,
no cost to defend liberty too high,
but we will make sure, hold fast,
and win through to absolute victory
that this form of treachery
shall never endanger us again.

The Gardens of the Grave

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Driving out to pick up my weekly order of organic whole milk and grass-fed beef this afternoon, I was struck by the relevance of a song I recorded back in 2012 with my sons for our Full Fathom Five EP: “Gardens of the Grave.” In a time when I have intentionally limited my consumption of media (and at times food), the words of the song rang strikingly true.

We are surrounded by the gardens of the grave.

The night has been trying to swallow the day (the darkness attempting to swallow the light). People have lost hope, mostly because they have misplaced their hope. The harvest of our misdeeds is ripe before us, whether we can clearly see it or not. We are slaves to fear, having been fed lies so long that we can’t even taste the difference between deception and truth, our tongues too coated with the sugary-sweetness of the deceit. And we have contracted a far more deadly disease than COVID.

Hope, love, and faith will never be found in the bounty of these gardens. We need saving from our gardens of the grave. No man can do it. No media can proclaim it. No political party holds a corner on the market. Religion itself will fail us. Seek the harvest of the empty tomb, watered from bloody wounds – a living harvest that never fails and never runs out.

“Gardens of the Grave” Track 4 from Full Fathom Five (EP) by Vincent H. Anastasi 2012

Gardens of the Grave

Vincent H. Anastasi 2012

Have you been to the gardens of the grave?
Have you been where the night swallows the day?
Have you dug in the earth where hopelessness is birthed?
Have you been to the gardens of the grave?

Have you been to the gardens of the grave?
Have you sown in the souls of the unsaved?
Have you planted the seed that will fruit with our misdeeds?
Have you been to the gardens of the grave?

Have you been to the gardens of the grave?
Have you tended the fears that keep enslaved?
Have you watered and fed those lies within your head?
Have you been to the gardens of the grave?

Have you been to the gardens of the grave?
Have you gathered the harvest it’s displayed?
Have you bundled in sheaths our ubiquitous disease?
Have you been to the gardens of the grave?

Now we feast on the gardens of the grave
Without hope, and without love, and without faith.
Though our bellies all are full, they are empty without You;
Come and save in the gardens of the grave!

Oh! come and save in the gardens of the grave!
Sow yourself in the tomb and water it from bloody wounds
And restore with the life in glory paid!

Oh! come and save in the gardens of the grave!
Sow yourself in the tomb; water it from bloody wounds
And restore with the life in glory raised!
Yes, come restore all these gardens of the grave.

THANKSGIVING

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Psalm 100

A psalm of thanksgiving.

Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth!
    Worship the Lord with gladness.
    Come before him, singing with joy.
Acknowledge that the Lord is God!
    He made us, and we are his.
    We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving;
    go into his courts with praise.
    Give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good.
    His unfailing love continues forever,
    and his faithfulness continues to each generation.

There’s really little to add to this quintessential psalm of thanksgiving from the Bible, but I will hazard this poetic response and call to gratitude. When we keep our eyes fixed on the right things, gratitude becomes the natural overflow of joy and praise to Him who holds all things, knows all things, and offers hope that baffles the simpleminded.

The poem began as a free-writing assignment for my creative writing students in which they were tasked to write a poem on the theme of thanksgiving/gratitude using the following five words: cornucopia, dressing, harvest, pilgrim, and feast. May your plates overflow with gratitude, may you never eat your fill of thanks, and may you savor the sights, smells, and sounds of life that surround you as you sit down to the feast that has been set before you, regardless of the times. Look into the eyes of those you love and remember together!

Thanksgiving

Vincent H. Anastasi 2020

Feast of free access,
gate key to the better
than brimming cornucopia,
quadruple-horned altar,
ever approachable refuge,
covenantal abundance
for every fugitive pilgrim.

Here we exchange yokes,
here heave heaviness
for a harvest-hope,
dressing of praise.
Soul’s incense,
fragrance of first-fruits
rising remaining seated,
let every expiration embers enflame
awaking latent fires
to burn the brighter blaze!

Deception: Are You Seeing With or Through the Eye?

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“This life’s dim windows of the soul / Distorts the heavens from pole to pole / And leads you to believe a lie / When you see with, not through, the eye.”

William Blake, from The Everlasting Gospel

Before we put a hard stop on life to celebrate Thanksgiving with our loved ones, perhaps we should squeeze in an appointment with an optometrist. William Blake, a poet with a keen sense of vision, warned us of the need for regular eye examinations. He knew just how easily we distort reality when we only see from our own limited perspectives. So how do we cure our myopic vision? How do we distinguish the truth from the lies?

Truth is rarely flamboyant, pretentious, or demanding. Truth won’t whore itself around so everyone can see it. That’s deception’s modus operandi. And while many seek corrective lenses in the press, the so-called litmus tests of truth (fact checked!), I have to agree with C. S. Lewis in That Hideous Strength: “They have an engine called the Press whereby the people are deceived.” If you haven’t read the novel, may I suggest you add it to your Thanksgiving Break “to do” list. At the least, read chapter 16, though you’ll have missed so much meat and truth, it would probably be like skipping a whole seven course dinner just to eat the tea cakes. Bottom line: we are struggling with That Hideous Strength in our time, though that has always been the struggle, hasn’t it?

And so we must become more discerning to avoid falling for the illusion of truth, no matter how convincing it appears or how loudly it’s proclaimed. My student teacher closed her tenure with my students offering them an exercise in prose poetry based upon the work of J. Ruth Gendler. Each student chose a characteristic or personality trait or abstract concept, and through personification made that trait come alive. For me, it was a welcomed opportunity to explore deception. You may be familiar with him, too. If not, perhaps this will help.

Deception

Vincent H. Anastasi 2020

In the style of J. Ruth Gendler

Deception is a used car salesman. He offers a lollipop with every sale he makes (his signature). In fact, you’ll rarely find him without the white stick of a sucker dancing about his lips.

On the wall of his dimly lit office (he claims it’s for ambience) hangs a framed, fading photograph from high school: the notorious pitcher, famous for his curve. Those days are, sadly, long gone, but he’s found new hobbies: juggling and playing cards. Now he’s notorious for his poker face.

Should you wander onto his lot, you’ll find him handsomely dressed in imitation Armani suits and sporting a knock-off Rolex watch. But from a distance, the sham is still quite impressive and nearly imperceptible.

He’s not much of a conversationalist, tending to retell the same stories over and over again. His vocabulary is quite limited and he always speaks rapidly, like he’s afraid of being found out before he finishes his tale or if he stops to take a breath. He may ask you about your past, but only to find fault with it somehow. He’s up on the latest gossip and will swear to the veracity of his story, though he’ll question the credibility of anything you say.

In the end, you’ll leave him feeling more confused and anxious than when you arrived. Even if he doesn’t trick you into buying a vehicle, he’ll still offer a lollipop or lemon drop before he steps outside to feed the gathering pigeons.

Longfellow’s Timely Celebration of Life

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“1ife: the quality that distinguishes a vital and functional being from a dead body”

from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/life

We have been duped into accepting something as life that by definition is not. Fear, the most infectious disease spreading across the globe, has crippled us. The prescription: isolation. Look at the empty stands of sporting events (where they install cardboard humans or pump in fake crowd sounds), note how many schools have shut their doors once again (despite the advice of the CDC), listen to the governors of state after state nearly mandating house arrest for this Thanksgiving holiday (and likely, if they have their way, on into Christmas and beyond): isolation at its finest. Is this life? We’ve been sold survival instead of life, and many have bought it.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of the noted Fireside Poets, speaks profoundly to our state of the union. Whether he was responding to the dark romantics like Edgar Allan Poe who wrote, “Is all that we see or seem / But a dream within a dream?” or whether he too had to combat the prevailing numbers (statistics) or narratives that suggested the futility and fragility of life, I don’t know for sure. But if he were alive today, I’m confident his advice to us would come from his poem A Psalm of Life. There’s such wisdom in these lines: a realization that things are not as they appear to be, that we are all dying (pandemic or not) but we are called to act in the living present, not simply be led like dumb driven cattle by the loudest voices of our time, and that our very lives lived fully in this battle of life (you know that it’s a battle not just a living wage, right?) will be an inspiration to others who come after us. The final stanza says it best, but I’ll leave that for you to savor.

“Take courage my heart, stay steadfast my soul, He’s in the waiting” ~ Kristene DiMarco

A Psalm of Life – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
   Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
   And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
   And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
   Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
   Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
   Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
   And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
   Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
   In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
   Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
   Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
   Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
   We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
   Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
   Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
   Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
   With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
   Learn to labor and to wait.