Poems inspired by Charles Ives’ A Symphony: New England Holidays
By Claudia Castro Luna (Seattle Civic Poet)
From the onset the guiding principle behind these poems has been that in order to reflect Charles Ives’ musical sentiment — his inclusivity, his insistence incorporating strands of popular music from his childhood and his adult life, his interest in reflecting events happening around him — it was necessary to include a multiplicity of voices in the poetic lines.
The resulting effort includes snippets of overheard conversation and words from participants’ notes, who contributed in the All of Us Belong project. In addition, I use statements, phrases and words from American historical figures and lines from well-known poems and songs. I use italics whenever a voice other than my own enters each poem and list, at the bottom of each, the sources cited.
Guided by my own understanding of things and by the emotions and thoughts expressed by project participants, these poems work to reflect the rich, varied and difficult experience that being an American entails.
Winter’s taciturn realm asks nothing.
Crowned in hushed browns and somber greens,
it rules by turns with quiet song
then with pummeling winds obeying no one.
It will be dark soon everyday for months
Color hibernates, leaving behind
its essence to purr
in everything oblique light touches.
In the hush, it asks us to see, and see again,
to hear the echo of step
over moss covered ground,
to peek into ourselves
and consider roads not taken
and those taken and why.
Winter’s austere architecture
reveals in trees their armature
and in us a chance to behold
the dried reeds edging our heart.
A man named Washington
set for posterity an example
by willingly electing
a shade of retirement
over political might.
Winter winds do whip
the pubic madness of frozen filigree twigs,
but come summer each branch
will blush in apple glow.
Nothing is so simple as it first appears.
One minute violin strings coax
memories from their tenderest dens
and in the next, pluck
raucous joy at a winter’s barn dance.
What shows on the surface fallow,
conceals a gathering of creative force.
Slow cadence of winter days,
a tune by and by, to awaken.
Robert Frost – “roads not taken” from The Road Not Taken
George Washington – “shade of retirement” from Washington’s farewell address to the people of the United States
Overheard at Dorothy Day House – “It will be dark soon everyday for months”
Charles Ives – “winter’s barn dance” from score notes
Things begin and by chance
earn a different momentum.
Here, life’s flow widens a girl’s hips
and she listens closely to her heart
dictating course inside its soft cage.
There, the expanding hands
of a boy entering manhood clamor
to sculpt the arch of his life.
Young men and women
with the petal of their youth
still fresh on their cheeks
join armed forces, accept orders to march
into others’ bellicose dreams.
But even with noble intentions,
the rash spirits of war don’t
distinguish freedom from bondage,
liberty from tyranny, fear from greed.
War is equally mean to all
who enter its orbit.
You do what you are asked to do, a veteran says.
And the voices of the fallen and of the living
recoil yet on the threshing floor.
There is nothing left to give
that you have not in a war already sacrificed.
After the return, a little girl unknowingly
waves at the ghosts trailing
behind a Memorial Day parade
while adults pile obsequious gratitude
on those left heartbroken, legbroken, mindbroken
and alone to pick up shards of themselves
each day joining with the gold
of suffering the cracks on their bodies.
Getting on, getting on, afterwards,
that is what is all about.
And to continue to hope for a day,
as Mr. Douglass said, when war and bloodshed
shall be confined only to beasts of prey.
Mark Twain – “belicose dreams,” “rash spirits” from The War Prayer
Overheard at Compass Housing Alliance – “You do what you are asked to do,” “joining with the gold,” and “Getting on, getting on, afterwards, that is what is all about”
Abraham Lincoln – “The brave men, living and dead who struggled here” from the Gettysburg Address
Frederick Douglass – “when war and bloodshed shall be confined only to beasts of prey” from Why Should a Colored Man Enlist?
In New York a colossal woman raises
a burning torch, a promise to harbor
the tired, the poor, the homeless, the tempest-tossed.
In Seattle another woman fades,
homeless in a park, with the racing butterfly
of her child’s heart her only compass.
A pendulum swings, all over the land,
from the luscious forests of generous imaginations
to the ruinous bigotry that clipped
Emmett Till’s wings. Echoes of yesteryear’s
Ghost Dance over Wounded Knee,
that sideway shuffle call for ancestors’ aid,
beats time before us again and again.
Fruit plump on summer’s light
in a New England vale ripens
alongside Southwestern’s border
bruised and battered fruit.
4th of July fireworks bravado,
the feeling of loosing yourself in the jubilee
of the crowd after winning, collapses
under the crushing evidence
of the country that we’ve never been.
The sparks lighting up the sky then falling,
folding back into night,
are they a celebration, the best part of summer,
or more of a weeping?
Love and pain don’t strike
some over others with different strength.
We are equally susceptible to kindness
and to cold, and board together
the destiny of our shared country.
On an occasion like this,
from sea to shining sea,
is a good place to begin not end.
Emma Lazarus – "Give me your tired, your poor, (…) / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me” from The New Colossus
From participant’s notes at Mary’s Place – “woman/homeless in a park” and “the best part of summer”
Katharine Lee Bates – “from sea to shining sea” from America the Beautiful
Mark Twain – “On an occasion like this” from Fourth of July speech in Iowa, July 3, 1886
We are gathered here today
to observe, not so much the end of the Fast
which continues to this day relentless,
the way ancient glaciers dragged
boulders across centuries.
The rumbling mass of injustice
fueled by greed that you sought to starve César,
still careens under western and eastern skies alike
extracting widows, homeless, mourners, sufferers
in the lamentable social strife
in which we find ourselves.
Light wanes turning leaves fire and gold
revealing over horizon’s lip
the margins of our days.
Time it is to give thanks
for grandpa and grandma
sitting in the old living room sofa holding hands
waiting for their slice of apple pie
and for the cousins playing
their annual football game
in the park across the street.
We gather to acknowledge
our mothers’ lost hours,
lost on growing the alabaster
bones on which we stand.
We give thanks for ancestors
who came before us and lost,
for courageous walkouts
and for those who subsist
on malnourished minimum wage checks
for they will one day be relics
of our grinding, slow march
toward social justice.
If we in our days, put a fraction
of what bird puts into her song
we may yet reap a future
when injustice and war are the moraine
of our present, bitter, epoch.
We are gathered here today.
César Chavez – “We are gathered here today to observe, not so much the end of the Fast” from On Ending Fast, 1968
From participant’s notes Cascade Women’s Program – “grandpa and grandma”
Abraham Lincoln – “commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged” from Proclamation of Thanksgiving
These poems were read before each movement of Charles Ives’ New England Holidays as part of All of Us Belong, a project featuring artwork by members of Seattle’s homeless community.
Posted on February 2, 2017READ MORE BEYOND THE STAGE