Tuesday Oct. 25, 2016

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Park Bench

There should be a park bench.
We’ll sit next to each other,

watching a man throw a tennis ball
to his yellow lab, sending

and retrieving the dog
whose loyalty to task is clear

to both of them. I’ll say something
to start, something I’ve wanted

to say for years, words I’ve never before
been able to put together,

and you’ll hear them perfectly,
my words like a child’s wooden blocks

you can hold in your hands,
turning them for their modest gleam.

What you say comes as a breeze
that sinks in my skin,

not warm, not cool, just
what I needed to feel and hear,

like bath water, like tea. Then
we sit, and the dog

lopes out again to retrieve
his ball. The man waits

for what he knows is coming,
and the breeze, if there,

moves between us, back
and forth, silently.

“Park Bench” by Albert Garcia from A Meal Like That. ©Brick Road Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

The birthday of Geoffrey Chaucer (books by this author), the first great English poet and author of The Canterbury Tales, is unknown, and so we instead remember him on the anniversary of his death, this day in the year 1400.

When Chaucer was a boy, his family lived in London. Little of his early life is known, the first glimpse of him coming in 1357 when he was a young page in a noble household. In 1359, Chaucer fought with the English army during the invasion of France, was taken prisoner, ransomed, and returned to England to spend the rest of his life in public service, becoming an esquire and a knight and fulfilling varied duties: comptroller for customs at the port of London, appointment as a commissioner of roads and as a forester, and engaging in secret diplomatic missions to foreign countries. Chaucer lived through several outbreaks of plague, including the Black Death, and witnessed the social and economic aftermath of the decimation of the English population.

Chaucer's great patron was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and third son of the king, and as John of Gaunt's power waxed and waned, so did Chaucer's fortunes. In 1366, Chaucer married Phillipa Pan, a "damsel of the queen's bedchamber," most probably becoming a father of two. From his writings, of which the only truly acid passage is an invective against nagging and scolding wives, it seems that Chaucer's married life was not particularly happy, that he was cynical about marriage and apparently in love with another woman.

It is also possible to glean from Chaucer's writing that he was not a particularly good administrator and far from thrifty with his own money, but that he was a well-loved man with many friends, including numerous contemporary poets, one of whom declared Chaucer "the firste [sic] finder [poet] of our fair language."

There is no sure dating of Chaucer's work, although his first major composition was probably his elegy for the first wife of John of Gaunt. Troilus and Cresyde, a tale of tragic lovers set during the siege of Troy is sometimes regarded as his finest. But it is The Canterbury Tales that is generally seen as Chaucer's masterpiece, as well as one of the finest English poems in existence.

Making a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral was common in Chaucer's time; miracle stories connected to Becket's remains sprang up soon after his death, and many would travel to the shrine in hopes of securing their own. Chaucer's pilgrims, 29 of them as well as Chaucer himself, include a noble knight and his lusty squire, a superficial prioress, a boisterous and opinionated widow, and an unemployable academic, who set out from the Tabard Inn, which operated along the thoroughfare leading out from the London Bridge to Canterbury from 1300 until its destruction in the 19th century. As the pilgrims begin their journey, they agree to a friendly competition, each of them telling one story, the best storyteller to be rewarded with a free meal upon returning to the inn. The tales are funny, touching, bawdy, and humorously vulgar, and it is unfortunate for modern readers that Chaucer apparently never completed them, so that we will never know which pilgrim was the winner.

The Canterbury Tales is among the first English literary work to mention the use of paper. Books of Chaucer's day were written by hand on scraped and stretched animal skins and a large Bible could require hundreds of animals to complete, making the distribution of written materials impractical and expensive. For this reason, none of Chaucer's writing was printed in his day, and it is likely that his manuscripts were only circulated among his friends and remained unknown to most people until well after his death.

The final record of Geoffrey Chaucer came on September 29, 1400, when he signed a delivery receipt for a large cask of wine. Although there is no formal record of his death or of how he died, it is possible he was murdered as part of a political intrigue. But 1400 was yet another plague year, and it is just as possible that Geoffrey Chaucer perished of a more natural agent. Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey in honor of his position as Clerk of Works, with only a leaden plate to mark his burial.

It's the birthday of poet and professor John Berryman, (books by this author) born in McAlester, Oklahoma (1914). He wrote a hundred sonnets based on an affair he had with one of his graduate students, and then he became famous for a book-length poem he wrote to a Puritan woman who'd been dead nearly three centuries.

That work, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, took him five years to compose. He was very meticulous about how he worked on it. He would draft a stanza of the poem in the morning and then stick it under a sheet of translucent paper so that he could see the stanza but not touch it. Then he would sit and stare at it for hours, making notes. When he felt sure he was ready to make the changes, he took out the stanza manuscript, wrote in the corrections, stuck it back under the translucent paper, and stared at it some more. Then, when he was satisfied with the changes, he would type it up. He did one stanza each day like this. After a stanza was done for the day, it was never revised again. His second marriage fell apart during the time he spent composing Homage to Miss Bradstreet, which begins:

"The Governor your husband lived so long
moved you not, restless, waiting for him? Still,
you were a patient woman. —
I seem to see you pause here still."

He struggled with alcoholism and depression, and part of his therapy was to keep a journal of his dreams. Many of his dreams made their way into his poetry cycle "Dream Songs." A batch of these poems, published as 77 Dream Songs (1964), won the 1965 Pulitzer Prize. He wrote nearly 400 "Dream Songs," all narrated by a middle-aged man named Henry. He wrote, "These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand. / They are only meant to terrify & comfort."

The first of The Dream Songs begins:
"Huffy Henry hid the day,
unappeasable Henry sulked.
I see his point, — a trying to put things over.
It was the thought that they thought
they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
But he should have come out and talked."

Berryman was a Shakespearean scholar and a professor at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His books include Love & Fame (1970) and Recovery (1973).

He wrote in "Dream Song 14":
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) 'Ever to confess you're bored
means you have no

Inner Resources.' I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®