Friday, April 30, 2010

Mementos, I - W.D. Snodgrass

W.D. Snodgrass (1926 - 2009) earned a special place with me through the title poem - Heart's Needle - of his first book, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960.  (There is more in his obit about W.D.'s place in American poetry.) "Heart's Needle" is addressed to his daughter and expressed both his love for her and his pain and anguish at what his divorce from her mother brought (and took) from their lives.  When I first read it, years before my own marriage and fatherhood, I could only relate to it in a superficial way.  When I read it again, more than a decade later and as the father of a ten-year old daughter in the aftermath of his own divorce, I could not finish reading it for the tears.  Many years after that, I wrote to W.D. regarding the furor from some critics over his poems in the voices of Hitler's companions in the last days in the bunker.   (I thought they didn't understand that "humanizing" vs. demonizing the Nazis served to remind us that the potential for evil and darkness is within each of us and not just in a select few.  And, that knowing and acknowledging that truth is one of the safeguards against a repetition of that era.)  I also took the occasion to thank him for "Heart's Needle".  W.D. was gracious enough to write back a very personal letter, with which he included a signed copy of his book "W.D.'s Midnight Carnival".  It initiated a correspondence that I treasure still.  Among other things, he told me that the daughter to whom he wrote "Heart's Needle" grew up to become a minister and that she performed the wedding ceremony for one of his marriages!) 

The poem here is one of two about how encountering physical reminders of past loves cause us to come to terms anew each time with what they meant - and mean - to us.  I was still in my 20s and unacquainted with the how it would feel - much later, post-marriage and divorce - when going through boxes of my own mementos.  I have yet to read a better poem that better captures the sorrow, regrets, and bittersweetness of such an occasion.  
Mementos, I

Sorting out letters and piles of my old
   Canceled checks, old clippings, and yellow note cards
That meant something once, I happened to find
   Your picture.  That picture.  I stopped there cold,
Like a man raking piles of dead leaves in his yard
         Who has turned up a severed hand.

Still, that first second, I was glad: you stand
   Just as you stood – shy, delicate, slender,
In that long gown of green lace netting and daisies
   That you wore to our first dance.  The sight of you stunned
Us all.  Well, our needs were different, then,
         And our ideals came easy.

Then through the war and those two long years
   Overseas, the Japanese dead in their shacks
Among dishes, dolls, and lost shoes; I carried
   This glimpse of you, there, to choke down my fear,
Prove it had been, that it might come back.
         That was before we got married.

--Before we drained out one another’s force
   With lies, self-denial, unspoken regret
And the sick eyes that blame; before the divorce
    And the treachery.  Say it, before we met.  Still,
I put back your picture.  Someday, in due course,
         I will find that it’s still there. 
                                                                                           W.D. Snodgrass - American

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