Julia or Her Clothes

Upon Julia’s Clothes

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.
Next, when I cast mine eyes, and see
That brave vibration each way free,
O how that glittering taketh me!
—Robert Herrick

In six lines with a simple rhyme scheme (AAA BBB), Robert Herrick creates a feeling of intense passion. But who is the passion for? Is it for Julia or for Julia’s clothes?

Herrick gives us no clue. Would he find the clothes as attractive without Julia? Is it she who gives the clothes the characteristics Herrick finds appealing? It could be he burns with passion for Julia, an exquisitely beautiful woman who moves with such grace in fine silk fabrics that she endows them with the qualities of liquefaction, vibration, and glittering that “taketh” him.

On the other hand, maybe Julia doesn’t inspire his desire. It’s just the way she dresses, her choice of fabric and color that sends him into a reverie of the sort of woman he’d like to see in such fine silks.

Though Herrick refers to her as “my Julia,” she may be only a fantasy or a woman he observed and fancies he’d like to possess. The poem says more about infatuation with an aspect of a person’s being than about the person herself. Having experienced intense infatuation more than once, I understand the possessiveness the feeling engenders. I’ve also experienced the disappointment of learning that appearance is often more appealing than the actual experience of knowing the object of my interest.

The poem is intriguing because it fosters wild speculation. Is there a short story or a novel in this poem? I wonder.

Islands of Retreat

I was in the third year of college when I read William Butler Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” The poem expresses Yeats’ desire to be in a place of peace, quiet, and simplicity to pursue his art. The tone of the poem resonated in a deep place within me.

“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” reminds me of Thoreau’s “Walden.” In further reading about Yeats, I discovered he was, in fact, influenced by Thoreau. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard evokes a similar experience in her description of a year spent in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley.

Relocating to another place for two or three months is appealing. Living in a small space, furnished with only the bare necessities, it is possible to relax and to enjoy the simplicity of life.

I planned last spring’s trip to San Miguel de Allende as a retreat. With no house to clean and no laundry to do for ten weeks, I could focus on writing.

For his retreat, Yeats sought an island in a lake. I lived in a studio apartment in a city. Yeats had the hum of the honey bees. I had the wail of the helote man. I didn’t plant beans. There was no place to garden. I bought fruit and vegetables at an organic farmers’ market. The neighborhood was quiet. I didn’t see or hear neighbors in the three other apartments in the building. It was as if I were alone on my own lake island.

A retreat allows one to see the world from a different vantage point. Yeats sought a retreat at Innisfree. Dillard went to Tinker Creek. I went to San Miguel. Distance facilitates perspective.

In San Miguel, I focused on writing. With writing, I get closer to understanding my life and the world around me. The more I write, the more I understand. The more I understand, the more insight I am able to incorporate into living a life of authenticity.

The insight gained from my retreat allows me to transport myself to that space whenever I want or need to be there. With a thought, I can arise and go to Innisfree, to San Miguel, or to any place of peace.


Amy Kermeth was a retired teacher from New York state who had been head of the lower school at the Albany Academy for Boys and who taught ancient history in the upper school. When Amy retired, she moved to Sonoma, California. I was librarian at the high school there. Amy volunteered in the library helping students with writing projects. Because she met her students in a small conference room in the library, we got acquainted and became good friends.

Amy’s sight was failing and, as time went on, she became blind. I began reading to her in her home on Wednesday afternoons over tea. I read from books we chose or from collections of poetry. Often I read letters from her sister, her niece, and her friends. I became a member of her family and of her circle of friends. A highlight of the time we shared was the arrival of the Albany Academy’s news paper, The Fish & Pumpkin, or the F & P, as Amy called it.

Amy read voraciously and she loved poetry. Her mind held a reservoir of poetry she could quote to fit just about any situation or occasion. Amy introduced me to a more exciting world of poetry than I had known. It was she who introduced me to Wendell Corey Johnson’s (1823-1892) “Heraclitus.”

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept as I remembered how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

Amy and I “tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky many times.” Though she has been gone for years, Amy’s pleasant voice, her “nightingales,” are still awake.

“What is the Grass?”

A 1959 Caedmon recording of Ed Begley, Sr. reading selections from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass echoes in my ears. I was 20 years old and Begley’s voice and Whitman’s poetry formed a major impact on my life. I still have the Signet Classic paperback copy of Leaves of Grass I bought for 75 cents. Dog-eared, with poems annotated, highlighted, and underlined, it is a relic of a lifetime infatuation with Walt Whitman.

[Click to see full-size images]

I wanted to write poetry and thought the best way to do that was to write poetry. Every morning, for several weeks, I copied small portions of Leaves of Grass, word for word, into a notebook. Like journaling, copying Whitman was a discipline. I don’t know what copying Whitman’s poetry into a notebook accomplished. The practice did not last long and I did not become a poet.

In “A Song of Myself,” Canto 6 (“What is the grass?”), Whitman poses a child’s question and responds he doesn’t know any more about the topic than the child who asked the question. He then proceeds to posit a number of guesses as to what the answer might be. After so many guesses, he begins to perceive an answer and suggests a conclusion.

Familiar with death from a young age, the reference to death  in the “What is the Grass?” canto appealed to me. My father was killed in an accident when I eight years old. My uncle died when I was ten. My grandmother died when I was 14. Two of my mother’s closest friends died about the time I was eleven—one committed suicide and the other was killed with two of her children in a flashflood.

I had no fear of death. In much the same way that Whitman guesses his way to a conclusion, I figured out that life goes on. Whitman’s confirmation of what I had experienced was reassuring: “They are alive and well somewhere, / The smallest sprout shows there is really no death….”

Funeral Blues

Auntie Beth died suddenly. Coronary thrombosis gives no warning. Driving to the funeral home, people on the sidewalks and in cars were happy, laughing, and enjoying life. “Don’t you know what a sad day this is?” I wanted to scream. “Can’t you see my grief?”

Any attempt to find words to express feelings related to the sudden loss of a loved one is futile since there are no words that can handle this moment in anyone’s life.

In the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, Matthew (John Hannah) and his partner Gareth (Simon Callow) are enjoying a festive wedding reception when Gareth suffers a heart attack and dies.

At the funeral, Matthew’s eulogy to Gareth is heart-wrenching. I began this post saying there are no words to express the sadness of sudden loss; but, W. H. Auden proves me wrong. Through Matthew, Auden captures the feelings of devastating loss in his poem, “Funeral Blues.”

With Gareth’s death, Matthew’s joy and his reason for living are gone. His loss is both public and private. He feels the world should acknowledge his pain and share his grief. “Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead / Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead, / Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves, / Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.” At the same time, Matthew’s loss is intensely personal. “He was my North, my South, my East and West, / My working week and my Sunday rest.”

No one but the bereaved can understand or feel the intensity of such sorrow, “For nothing now can ever come to any good.”


We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
—T.S. Eliot. “Little Gidding.” Four Quartets.

“To know the place for the first time” haunted me. I didn’t know where I read the words or heard them. I didn’t know who wrote or said them. How they found their way into my memory remains a mystery. They took up silent residency until they were needed. Roused from their slumber, the words clamored into my consciousness. I launched a search for their source. With that fragment and the magic of Google, I found T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

I’ve kept a journal for over thirty years. I recall struggling in the beginning to make the journal relevant. After several attempts, I created a persona to whom I wrote letters. John was wise and unconditionally loving, exhibiting the personal characteristics to which I aspired. I poured out my soul to him.

Four years into journal keeping, I came across Tristine Rainer’s The New Diary in which she talks about deciding on an audience to whom the journal is addressed. Rainer suggests that the audience should be the person the writer will become at some time in the future—a future self. It pleased me that John met Rainer’s criteria and that I created him intuitively.

Journaling is an exploration, a journey of self discovery accomplished through writing. The journey of self discovery is a cycle. The self, multi-layered and multifaceted, is discovered in stages or in waves of awareness. I discover myself at a particular level and then the journey of self discovery begins anew. The end of exploration is to know myself at a new level of awareness for the first time.

Having put my pen to the page, it is not possible to cease from exploration.

Déjeuner du Matin

Déjeuner du Matin is the first poem I learned in French. The poem is easy for first semester French students to understand and to learn. Poet Jacques Prévert’s simple language carries a dramatic punch. I was pleased to recite the poem because I felt, at the time, as though I were really speaking French even though the poem was the extent of my facility with the language.

My fascination with French began when I registered for the first semester of college classes. My adviser, Mr. Sydney Patzer, was an older man with white hair and a carefully trimmed mustache. Distinguished and quite dapper, he looked as though he stepped from a 1940s movie set.

“If you’re going to major in political science,” Mr. Patzer said, “you’ll want to study French, of course.”

The first class the first morning of my first semester of college was French 1. The instructor was Madame Ruth Parlé Craig. And, everyone called her “Madame.”

Bonjour, ma classe,” Madame said as she bustled into the room, arms full of books and papers. Rubenesque, with redish blonde hair streaked with gray and pulled back from her forehead into a tight roll at the base of her neck, she was dressed in a rust colored two piece suit. With short quick steps, Madame walked to the front of the classroom where she dropped her books and papers on top of the desk and pulled a class roster from the pile.

“Good morning, everyone,” she said. “This if French 1. I am going to call the roll. I ask that you sit in the same seat each time we meet. I have a photographic memory and take roll by doing a memory pattern. If you’re not in the same seat, you will not be counted as present.”

Madame finished calling the roll then, without consulting the list, identified each student correctly. From that moment, I was in love with Madame, French, and tous les choses  françaises (everything French). Midway through the semester, I became a French major.

Coy Mistresses

“To His Coy Mistress” is an example of carpe diem, seize or pluck the day, poems about making the most of time. There is nothing coy about Andrew Marvell. He wants to get laid and leaves little doubt about his lustful desire.

I often say, “Had we but world enough and time,” to describe dismay at what I can’t control. Usually, it is a pleasant experience I want to last and to enjoy longer. Focusing on what I want rather than being in the moment is the opposite of carpe diem. Saying “I don’t have time” or “there isn’t enough time” is nonsense. I have all the time there is. When my time is up, that’s all the time there is.

A mistress need not be a human object. A “coy” mistress may a metaphor for an art medium whose inspiration an artist seeks. Writing is my mistress. Demanding, coy, and capable of cruelty, she expects me to sit alone in a room and to write.

Writing is my art, my love, my passion. I am willing to devote as much attention to my art as Marvell is to his lady. When my muse smiles on me it’s like a glimpse of Heaven.

I need my muse’s love while my willing soul still “transpires.” Therefore, I write to demonstrate worthiness of my muse’s attention. Dying with unwritten words still in me is an unpleasant thought. A “fine and private place,” the grave is no place to embrace a muse.

Making the most of time is good advice; but, it is possible to make time a fetish. I don’t like rushing from activity to activity. I don’t like the endless media stimulation and distraction of email, cell phone, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I want to be mindful of rather than frantic about what time I have.

Mindful use of time, thinking about what I do and why I do it is being present in the moment. Living mindfully eliminates worry about making the most of time.

Focusing on today is making the most of time. Being where I am when I am there is making the most of time. There is no need to outrun the sun.

A Bequest of Wings

A life is without books is unimaginable. The worlds created by Dickens, Bronte, Austen, Steinbeck, Irving, and a host of other writers enrich my life.

Emily Dickinson expresses her reverence for books as “a bequest of wings.” In another poem, the book is a “Frigate” and “the Chariot / That bears the Human Soul!”

Dickinson regards a book’s words as precious, capable of loosening the human spirit and granting liberty of mind. Opening a book is freeing a genie from captivity. The loosened spirit is free to soar. Life is bigger, horizons are broader, possibilities endless, and liberty unlimited.

Like Dickinson, my favorite books are “kinsmen on the shelf.” The wall above my desk is lined with shelves holding the books I’ve acquired over a lifetime of reading. Looking at my bookshelf is like looking at a family photograph. Each book is a collection of memories. I recall when I bought the book, why I bought it, and where I was when I read it. If the book was a gift, I recall who gave it to me. Each book transports me back to the experience of reading. I am free to reconsider its content and meaning. I am inspired to build on what I learned. And, I am free to take the journey at any time.

How would Dickinson regard the effect of modern technology on the book? What would she say of ebooks and Kindle? While I love the feel a book in my hands, I am no Luddite. My Kindle is handy.

But, Kindle does not provide all the benefits of a printed book nor does it provide all the benefits of modern technology. For example, most Kindle books lack an index linked to the book’s content and, unlike electronic books owned by some libraries, it lacks the option of full-text searching.

Emily Dickinson might say it comes down to a question of access. A book, whether printed or electronic, is “a bequest of wings.”

Annabel Lee

I was in the seventh grade. Priscilla Zwitzer, who taught at my school, was a friend of my family’s and a neighbor. Priscilla and her husband had an exquisite collection of classical music and spoken word LP recordings.

Priscilla and Martin had no children. Educated, well-traveled, and sophisticated, they were the parents I thought I should have been given. They let me have unsupervised access to their LP collection. I enjoyed countless hours of listening to classical music performances and poetry read by actors who created magic with their voices.

James Mason’s “Annabel Lee” was dark, morose, and appealed to my moody adolescent sensibilities. The tone and rhythm of the poem and the images of “high-born kinsmen” and “sepulchres” by the sea captured my imagination. “What’s a sepulcher?” I asked Priscilla. She smiled as she handed me a dictionary.

My seventh grade drama class introduced me to Poe’s short stories. We were given literary passages to prepare as dramatic readings. When I was handed the opening paragraph of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” I could not have been more pleased. My hours of practicing to sound like James Mason paid off despite the effect of puberty on the male voice. “That was very well done,” said Mr. Edwards, my drama teacher. “Dennis has set the performance standard,” he announced to the class.

It was many and many a year ago in a place beside a phonograph where I lived with no other thought than to be transported worlds away by the delights of poetry.

From the seventh grade to today, poetry has given me great joy and pleasure. Priscilla and Martin passed on years ago leaving me with the legacy of an incomparable gift.