Reading through Brian Teare’s Companion Grasses reminds me of the fond times I’ve spent at art museums with my boyfriend. This fondness has a hard edge, however, because this activity always feels to me like it will end in some dangerous discovery; thus it is at the same time coldly arduous and warmly aromatic, like the mouthfeel and digestion of a liquor poured neat. I think that Companion Grasses feels like a walk through a museum because of the way its stanzas so often snap the eyes quickly from the end of one line to the start of another (as eyes from one painting to the next), and groupings of words stand like separate pieces in each others’ midsts. In one section, Teare quotes and interprets texts from authors Dickinson, Emerson, Fuller, Thoreau, et al. (a grouping largely of transcendentalists). These antiquated philosophies, which at the time, rejected traditional ethics and reason, and the brink of discovery which characterizes Teare’s now contemporary poetry feels liberating yet traditional — standardly essentialist, yet enticingly muted, like the stirring of the “coastal prarie” (37) that he recreates in the biology and place of his work.
This time last year I was in ENGL 201, and it was the first time I shared any of my poetry with other people. One poem that my professor shared with us was “Half-Sized Violin” by Yehuda Amichai. It’s easily one of my favorite poems, and I’ll explain why. The meaning I gather from it, along with the time lapse from childhood to adulthood are the two main characteristics that draw me to this piece. However, the mystery behind this piece I think is the reason why it stays so fresh in my mind.
If you go online, you can find dozens of poems by Yehuda Amichai, a revered Israeli poet. Yet, “Half-Sized Violin” is hidden within the abyss of the Google, which I thought was supposed to give me 86,300 USEFUL results in 1.02 seconds. I managed to uncover three leads. “Half-Sized Violin” was printed here, in an August 1996 issue of The New Yorker. Funny, because a few months ago I seized a student discount offer and now I receive issues of The New Yorker at my front door. Honestly, I still prioritize online news and social media to stay informed, but the cartoons only require a spare 30 seconds to enjoy. Anyway, once I located the poem online, I could barely make out the words. I’ve transcribed it below, but as a caveat, the poem I’ve included may vary from Amichai’s actual one.
I read up on Amichai. His background in Judaism fuels his poetry’s commentary on God. To quote one of his lines from a JSTOR article, “God remains like the fragrance of a beautiful woman who once passed them by and whose face they never saw.” Scholars comment on Amichai’s “impudent” relationship with God. He interests me. (That’s Amichai, I mean.)
I think the most brazen thing about this poem is Amichai’s portrayal of God as a child, “pat-patting” the sand, as if carelessly toying with the fate of mankind. The speaker also introduces his own childhood experience, in which his elders threw a half-sized violin at him, along with feelings and emotions that are too complicated to bear, so they lesson the burden by placing their faith in the hands of a boy on the playground.
I’m curious to know what you may know about Yehuda Amichai. Are you familiar with him, his work, or this very poem? I’d also like to hear some thoughts about the second stanza. When I return to this poem, there’s always something new to unpack. But, I always sense the same gratification of learning to rely on my individuality “dress and undress all by myself,” as well as the crippling uncertainty of larger forces at play.
I sat in the playground where I played as a child,
The child went on playing in the sand His hands went on
making pat-pat then dig then destroy
then pat-pat again.
Between the trees that little house is standing
where the high-voltage hums and threatens
On the iron door a skull and crossbones: mother
old childhood acquaintance.
When I was nine they gave me
a half-sized violin and half-sized feelings.
Sometimes I’m still overcome by pride
and a great joy; I already know
how to dress and undress
all by myself.
A Quoi Bon Dire?
Seventeen years ago you said
Something that sounded like Good-bye;
And everybody thinks that you are dead,
So I, as I grow stiff and cold
To this and that say Good-bye too;
And everybody sees that I am old
And one fine morning in a sunny lane
Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear
That nobody can love their way again
While over there
You will have smiled, I shall have tossed your hair.
The title of this poem is in French, and the best translation I could come up with (by way of a French speaking friend) is “What’s the good of saying?” After reading the poem in it’s entirety, I feel as though the title is especially relevant to my interpretation of it’s content.
The speaker is lamenting the loss of someone – I hesitate to comment on the relationship because after reading it through several times, I still can’t decide whether it’s a lover or a friend or a family member. During my first read, I thought for sure that the “you” was some guy she was in love with who died tragically while they were still young. That’s an easy enough interpretation – poets have been writing about their dead lovers since poetry was invented. However, I did a little snooping on the internet about Charlotte Mew and found out that she lived a pretty tragic life. Three of her siblings died when she was still a child, another two were committed to psychiatric hospitals and stayed there for the entire lives, and her last remaining sister, Anne, whom she seemed inseparable from, died from cancer later on in life. Following Anne’s death, she committed herself to a nursing home for treatment from delusions, but ended up committing suicide there within a year.
While I know some people will argue that researching a writer’s background is not always the best idea before reading their work, I find it hard to separate the two. You could certainly read this poem and interpret it without knowing about Mew’s life; however, after reading the poem once, and then reading up about her life, I found my perception of the poem to be changed entirely. First off, she was surrounded by death for almost the entirety of her life. The “you” in this poem who everybody thinks is dead but her could be anyone. I can’t limit my interpretation to a lover, as I did upon my first read. Yes, she does say in the final stanza “And one fine morning in a sunny lane/ Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear / That nobody can love their way again” However, I don’t think those lines are enough to prove that she is 100% talking about a lover. I think that the image itself is more a symbol of human connection, and the ways in which our relationships are fleeting despite the promises we make.
There’s a sense of hopelessness that stains the poem; the “you” is dead, and she’s convinced that they are still alive. Worse yet, she’s growing older and watching the world change without the person she is mourning for with her. Going back to my original translation of the title, she seems to have given up . She watches people from the sidelines, and remains removed from real human interactions. She prefers to stay in a fantasy world where the dead are still alive. “What’s the point”, is the idea that I gathered from this poem. She has already experienced the greatest human connection of her life, and knows in her heart that the decay has set in beyond repair.