Dec. 13, 2002

A Song for the Middle of the Night

by James Wright

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Poem: "A Song for the Middle of the Night," by James Wright from Above the River: The Complete Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

A Song for the Middle of the Night

By way of explaining to my son the following curse by
Eustace Deschamps: "Happy is he who has no children;
for babies bring nothing but crying and stench."

Now first of all he means the night
      You beat the crib and cried
And brought me spinning out of bed
      To powder your backside.
I rolled your buttocks over
      And I could not complain:

Legs up, la la, legs down, la la,
      Back to sleep again.

Now second of all he means the day
      You dabbled out of doors
And dragged a dead cat Billy-be-damned
      Across the kitchen floors.
I rolled your buttocks over
      And made you sing for pain:
Legs up, la la, legs down, la la
      Back to sleep again.

But third of all my father once
      Laid me across his knee
And solved the trouble when he beat
      The yowling out of me.
He rocked me on his shoulder
      When razor straps were vain:
Legs up, la la, legs down, la la,
      Back to sleep again.

So roll upon your belly, boy,
      And bother being cursed.
You turn the household upside down,
      But you are not the first.
Deschamps the poet blubbered too,
      For all his fool disdain:
Legs up, la la, legs down, la la,
      Back to sleep again.

Today is Santa Lucia Day. Santa Lucia, or Saint Lucy, lived in Sicily in the fourth century. Her name means light, and she became the patron saint of sight, and of the blind. By the year 1000, the veneration of Saint Lucy had reached as far as Sweden, where her feast day became the start of the Christmas season. In Sweden, it's a tradition on Santa Lucia Day for the eldest daughter of the house to usher in the Christmas season by putting on a white dress and wearing an evergreen wreath with seven lighted candles as a crown. In the old Julian calendar, December 13 was the winter solstice.

It's the birthday of poet James (Arlington) Wright, born in Martins Ferry, Ohio (1927). He was enrolled in a vocational program in school until a friend started to teach him Latin. That began for him a lifelong devotion to Latin poetry, which left its mark on his own poetry. He studied with John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College. He taught at the University of Minnesota and it was while he was at the university that he published the important book, The Branch Will Not Break (1963). The collection contains his most widely anthologized poem, "A Blessing," which ends with the lines: "Suddenly I realize/That if I stepped out of my body I would break/Into blossom." James Wright said: "My own poems are merely attempts to cure myself of glibness. Glibness is the worst thing that can happen -- and not only in the writing of verse."

It's the birthday of the German poet Heinrich Heine, born in Düsseldorf, Germany (1797). The son of a Jewish tradesman, he became a literary celebrity with the publication of his first book of poems, called Poems by H. Heine (1821). The collection Book of Songs (1827) spread his fame beyond Germany. Several of the poems were set to music by composers like Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert. When the Nazis occupied Paris in 1941, they attempted to obliterate all traces of Heine's grave in the Montmartre cemetery and his books were burned. He said: "The burning is but a prologue: where books are burned, people in the end are burned too."

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