Madeleine L’Engle, also a Poet

Madeleine L'Engle and

With the release of the new move, “A Wrinkle in Time,” writer Madeleine L’Engle has come back into the cultural consciousness. Her Newbery award-winning book was first published when I was at an impressionable age, and helped fuel both my imagination and love of reading.

I haven’t seen the movie, but I understand that despite a strong cast headed by Oprah Winfrey, it is not doing particularly well at the box office. As I write this it has a long way to go to earn back the more than $100 million it took to produce.

L’Engle’s book was criticized for its liberal treatment of religious themes back in the 1960s. Ironically, this year’s movie has been criticized for not sticking closely enough to the book and watering it down its Christian references even further.

But I digress.

Today, in one of my used bookstore haunts, I was intrigued to discover a slender book of verse by L’Engle, entitled “The Weather of the Heart.” I hadn’t realized she also had written poetry.

And what a discovery! Chock full of verse about wonder and love and death and faith.

But the one that really jumped out at me was all too human, and startling in its honesty. Written to her husband while they were apart, it recounted an affair averted. It’s hard to say just how close she came, but because the poem is so honest, it results in a reaffirmation and celebration of fidelity.

It helps to understand the poem to know that L’Engle’s husband, Hugh Franklin, was a stage and television actor.

L’Engle’s poem doesn’t seem to be published on the internet, so I will set it down for you here. It is inspiring on many levels.

Lovers Apart

In what, love, does fidelity consist?
I will be true to you of course.
My body’s needs I can resist,
Come back to you without remorse.

And you, behind the footlight’s lure,
Kissing an actress on the stage,
Will leave her presence there, I’m sure,
As I my people on the page.

And yet–I love you, darling, yet
I sat with someone at a table
And gloried in our minds that met
As sometimes stranger’ minds are able

To leap the bound of times and spaces
And find, in sharing wine and bread
And light in one another’s faces
And in the words that each has said

An intercourse so intimate
It shook me deeply, to the core,
I said good-night, for it was late,
We parted at my hotel door

And I went in, turned down the bed
And took my bath and thought of you
Leaving the theatre with light tread
And going off, as you should do,

To rest, relax, and eat and talk–
And I lie there and wonder who
Will wander with you as you walk
and what you both will say and do …

We may not love in emptiness,
We married in a peopled place;
The vows we made enrich and bless
The smile on every stranger’s face.

And all the years that we have spent
Give the job that makes me able
To love and laugh with sacrament
Across a strange and distant table.

No matter where I am, you are,
We two are one and bread is broken
And laughter shared both near and far
Deepens the promises once spoken

And strengthens our fidelity
Although I cannot tell you how,
But I rejoice in mystery
And rest upon our marriage vows.

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Ancestor haiku

Charlie Barlow and his team

Generations tilled
to eke out a meager life. Now I
scribble in comfort.


Notes:  I have to go all the way back to England in the 1600s to find an ancestor who had a desk job.  To the best of our family research, my great-great-great (etc.) grandfather was a clergyman back in the old country, who had the poor judgment to raise the ire of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In those days it didn’t take much to get your head separated from the rest of you.  Heretics and troublesome free thinkers could easily meet the same fate.

My forebear wised up in the nick of time and caught one of next boats after the Mayflower to the New World.  We are not sure if he stayed in the preaching business in his new surroundings in the Connecticut Colony, but as far as we can tell, all of those who followed him were dirt farmers.  (Which probably seemed like a safer line of work back then.)

Several generations later, after my great grandfather Frederick Ball narrowly survived the Civil War, he came back  home to find Connecticut getting crowded.  So, he headed west for the promise of cheap land and opportunity.  He wound up in southern Iowa, got married, acquired some land, and raised a family.

One of his sons was my grandfather, and he, too became a farmer, moving to Missouri to chase opportunity.  When my father came along, he showed considerable mechanical aptitude and had hopes of going to school to study engineering.  But the Great Depression dashed those dreams.  Dad had to drop out of school before he finished high school.  To  help support the family he became a farmer.

And  who knows, except for a twist  of fate or two, I might have followed right along and farmed myself.

But  my father had a bit of a mid-life crisis in his 40s.  When I was in first grade, he sold the farm and went in with his brother-in-law and a neighbor to buy a Ford Tractor dealership.  It was his one big entrepreneurial gamble in life.  And for a few years, it looked like it might pay off.

But some lean times for farm prices and some skullduggery by the neighbor-turned-business-partner, and the operation went broke.  They had to sell out cheap, and Dad was forced to fall back on his mechanical skills to make a living.

What this meant for me was that I spent most of my formative years in the town rather than on the farm.  So, while there were centuries of agrarian instincts bred into me, it didn’t take me long to adapt to indoor plumbing, central heating, and really close next-door neighbors.

And I certainly didn’t miss getting up early to gather eggs, milk the cow, or slop the pigs.

Oh sure, I still hoed beans, bucked bales, and detasseled corn as a hired hand in the summer.  But that was a job — not a way of life.

Even if my father had never left the farm, odds are I would have eventually left anyway.  That was the demographic trend during the whole last half of the last century.  The kids went away to school or to a big city for work, and tended never to move back.

It’s been hard on the farming communities.  And I know it was hard on the old folks left behind as their kids fanned out across the country.

When I stop to think about how much different my life has been from the generations before I marvel.  I have no explanation for why my entire adult career has been all inside work with no heavy lifting.

My father’s body bore the marks of a hard life in harder times.  He was kicked in the head by an ornery horse, and had headaches for the rest of his life.  His leg was caught between a hay wagon and a wall, and he walked with a limp.  He even had a few scars from surviving what he believed to be a mild case of small pox.

If the American Dream involves working hard and ensuring your children have a better life, then my parents and their generation certainly did their part.

Further thoughts about pearls …

Oyster.shell

Usually, I have a pretty good sense about when I’m done writing a poem.

But, after I posted that last poem–the one about writing poetry–I wasn’t satisfied.  It just didn’t feel finished to me.

I didn’t like the ending.  I didn’t really like the photo I had taken to illustrate it.  It just wasn’t right.

So, I went down to the beach of Liberty Bay on the Puget Sound, and found an oyster shell.  It inspired me to write a final stanza for the poem.

I feel much better about it now.

As the Oyster Forms the Pearl

As the oyster forms the pearl,
So the poet pens the verse
As balm for the current ache
Born out of the ancient curse.

As the oyster feels compelled
To shellac the sandy grain,
So the poet feels the urge
To transmogrify the pain.

So the pearl grows rich and round
As its luster covers the sand.
So the verse unseen takes form
In its way, designed unplanned.

Sad the pearl that lies unseen
In the depths of the murky sea.
Sad the verse that dies unheard
In the heart ceasing to be.

So the diver frees the pearl,
Breaks the stony shell apart.
So the poet frees the verse
Ripped out of his broken heart.