When I awaken and head toward the front room, March welcomes me with its full moon casting a silver path on the Pacific. What a day to begin a challenge. Willpower is a gift; like many I’m sure, my resolve is strongest in the morning, my intentions pure and undeterred by the toll the day takes. In January I resolved that I would memorize a new poem each month. For a quick second, I almost set a poem-a-week goal, but I know my limits.
“Ithaka” by C.P. Cavafy became January’s quest. Do you know it? I was inspired by a book I had just finished, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn. He talks about Cavafy’s poem, one I’d never heard of, describing how he, Daniel, presents it to fellow cruise-goers when they are unable to culminate their reliving of the epic journey in the modern day, unable to actually visit the home Odysseus had been seeking.
Ithaka gave you this marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you,
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
You will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
In these last six lines, I hear: The destination is not the thing; it’s the journey. That’s my January—that’s my “take-away.”
February brings me to Edna St. Vincent Millay. It’s chance and maybe the climate of #metoo. Millay represented the “new woman” and a “spirit of nonconformity.” With the Poem-a-Day in my inbox, I chose “Alms.” Rhyme makes memorizing so much easier. I’ve told my students that; I wasn’t lying. “First Fig” became my go-to performance poem to introduce National Poetry Month. I planned the props well, the slim Hanukkah candle shaved, the wick emerging so top and bottom became indistinguishable, the Bic lighter, both stashed and ready in my top right-hand desk drawer. When I lit the candle “at both ends,” the flames rose triumphantly, the middle schoolers gasped appreciatively, and it was easy to see “it would not last the night.” “Alms” lacks that drama as winter freezes love that used to be and the narrator resigns herself to what has been lost. “But it is winter with your love;/I scatter crumbs upon the sill,/ And close the window,— and the birds/ May take or leave them as they will.” But there’s some quiet power in her surrender, acknowledging what is true at the core of us: “My heart is what it was before,/A house where people come and go.”
Now it’s March; the calendar says Daylight Savings time will begin and the first day of Spring falls on the 20th. I retired last June after 34 years in one classroom or another, more counting the time I spent as a student in preparation, often double-time as both, my candle bright at both ends. I have been hibernating since then, knowing I should care about finding my next thing, knowing I still have so much to do, but not feeling the push to do— at all. Tom Romano introduced me to Piercy’s poem when I participated in his multi-genre writing class at the University of New Hampshire. At the start of each morning session, he’d read a poem without ceremony, letting the words sit with us in the summer sun. “To Be of Use” returned to me when I began heard the clarion call of industry as March approached. “The work of the world is as common as mud,” Piercy says, “But the thing worth doing well done/has a shape that satisfies…”
The moon has disappeared, and the sun struggles against a deep, dark bank of gray, but day will come, and change. It’s time to get my hands dirty.