Apr. 11, 2014

Pot Roast

by Mark Strand

I gaze upon the roast,
that is sliced and laid out
on my plate,
and over it
I spoon the juices
of carrot and onion.
And for once I do not regret
the passage of time.

I sit by a window
that looks
on the soot-stained brick of buildings
and do not care that I see
no living thing—not a bird,
not a branch in bloom,
not a soul moving
in the rooms
behind the dark panes.
These days when there is little
to love or to praise
one could do worse
than yield
to the power of food.
So I bend

to inhale
the steam that rises
from my plate, and I think
of the first time
I tasted a roast
like this.
It was years ago
in Seabright,
Nova Scotia;
my mother leaned
over my dish and filled it
and when I finished
filled it again.
I remember the gravy,
its odor of garlic and celery,
and sopping it up
with pieces of bread.

And now
I taste it again.
The meat of memory.
The meat of no change.
I raise my fork
and I eat.

"Pot Roast" by Mark Strand from New Selected Poems. © Knopf, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of a noblewoman whom the scholar Samuel Putnam called "the first modern woman": Marguerite de Navarre (books by this author), born in Angoulême, France (1492). Her mother, Louise, was extremely well-educated, and when Marguerite's father died a few years after her birth, Louise became the head of the household. She taught her children herself or hired the best tutors for them. Marguerite spoke at least five languages and studied literature. When she was a teenager, she was married off to a duke, Charles IV of Alençon, a man who was kind but basically illiterate. He had no interest in fostering his wife's contributions to the intellectual world of France. They were married for more than 15 years and didn't have any children, but then Charles died and Marguerite married again, this time to Henry II of Navarre. She gave birth to a daughter; and then, when she was 38, to a son, Jean, who died when he was a few months old.

Marguerite was so distraught that she wrote Le miroir de l'âme pécheresse (The Mirror of the Sinful Soul, 1531). It combined her mysticism with her strong ideas for political action within the Church. She was a Catholic, but she believed that the Church needed to be completely reformed, and that didn't go over well with everyone. After the publication of The Mirror of the Sinful Soul, one monk even suggested that Marguerite be put in a sack and drowned in the Seine. But her brother, Francis I, was the King of France, and he made sure that nothing happened to his sister.

Throughout her life, Marguerite advocated for religious reform, was sent on high-profile diplomatic missions, and continued to write. The French historian Brantôme said of Marguerite: "She composed most of these novels in her litter as she traveled, for her hours of retirement were employed in affairs of importance. I have heard this account from my grandmother, who always went with her in her litter as her lady of honor and held her ink-horn for her; and she wrote them down as quickly and readily, or rather more so, than if they had been dictated to her."

Her most famous work was the Heptameron, a collection of more than 70 short stories — stories about women and their relationships with men, and whether it was possible to be virtuous and also experience real love. They are stories of unplanned pregnancies, jealous murders, women locked up for life, corrupt monks, cheating wives, and unforgiving patriarchs. Jane Smiley wrote about The Heptameron: "It is clear from her book that freedom of conscience for women can lead anywhere — if your eternal soul is your own responsibility, and cannot be saved through reliance upon a corrupt church, then it is a short and slippery slope from there to all sorts of freedom, first of belief and thought, then of feeling, then of action."

Marguerite de Navarre had intended for The Heptameron to be a collection of 100 stories, but she died before it was completed. She said, "Never shall a man attain to the perfect love of God who has not loved to perfection some creature in this world."

It's the birthday of poet Christopher Smart (books by this author), born in Shipbourne, England (1722), who experienced a religious awakening that convinced him that he was a prophet. He began praying and preaching in the streets of London, and tried to follow the Biblical injunction to "pray ceaselessly," dropping to his knees whenever the spirit moved him, which embarrassed his family. They put him into an asylum, where he wrote the two poems for which he is best known: A Song to David (1763) and Jubilate Agno (first published in 1938).

It's the birthday of poet Mark Strand (books by this author), born in Summerside, Canada (1934). He spent his early childhood on Prince Edward Island, but his father worked as a salesman, and the family moved frequently. He originally wanted to be a painter, but when he went to Yale for graduate school he got much more praise for his writing than his painting. He said: "You don't choose to become something like a poet. You write and you write, and the years go by, and you are a poet."

He became the fourth national poet laureate in 1990, and he received dozens of angry letters when he announced that he would not write any poems for national public figures, even if the president's dog died. He said: "On the death of my own dog — if I had a dog — I'd be quite capable of writing about her demise. But the president's life is so detached from mine, it would be hard for me to internalize it."

His books of poetry include Dark Harbor (1993); Blizzard of One (1998), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; and most recently, Almost Invisible (2012).

Mark Strand said: "Poetry is about slowing down. You sit and you read something, you read it again, and it reveals a little bit more, and things come to light you never could have predicted."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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