Monday, October 15, 2012

We Brethren, Are

Tuesday morning, 6am.  My son woke me up and asked me to help him find a poem.  He had to memorize something for his English class, due today.  I went downstairs and got on the laptop. 

Of course, the poem he had to memorize was entitled, “Truth.”  Have you ever tried to do a search on one word?  I asked him the author (he forgot her name).  I asked him for the first line of the poem (he hadn’t memorized it yet, remember?).  I asked him for any identifying information, anything he could remember about the poem that might help me find it (the author was the first black woman poet named in the library of congress). 

Was any of this helpful?  NO.  After ten minutes, I took the computer into the kitchen so we could look for the poem while he ate breakfast.  We finally found this site:   I was able to skim over the title and first line of exactly ten poems.  When I hit number eleven, I could no longer resist and I clicked the link, knowing this was not the poem we were looking for.  This was the poem I clicked:

 I Died for Beauty, by Emily Dickinson

I died for Beauty -- but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb,
When One who died for Truth, was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly "Why I failed”?
"For Beauty", I replied.
"And I,  for Truth -- Themself are One.
We Brethren, are.” He said.

And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night
We talked between the Rooms
Until the Moss had reached our lips
And covered up -- our names.

I had to read those words a second time, just to make sure I’d read what I thought I’d read.  By the third reading, tears were streaming down my face and dripping off my chin. I promise you, I was not pre-menstrual.  This is just the way it is.  By the fourth reading, I was committing it to memory.

In the meantime my son was looking at me like I was a lunatic and, regrettably, my husband came downstairs hoping for some breakfast.  Sometime after that third reading he picked a bagel out of the trash and asked why I had thrown it away (It was moldy, but I couldn’t speak). 

Since I didn’t answer, he looked over at me and, being too wise to ask, silently handed me a napkin.  Then he went back to investigating the bagel.  After looking a bit more closely, he found the mold, held it up and asked if I thought he could still eat it.

“Don’t ask me about bagels when I’m reading poetry.”  I sobbed. 
“You’re so much deeper than me.”  He answered, throwing the bagel back in the trash.
“My heart is breaking,” I whispered.
“Is there any cereal left?” 

“No.”  I swallowed.  “Listen.  Let me read you this. ‘ I died… ‘”
Before I could go on, my son, who was reading the poem over my shoulder, stopped me and said, “Mom, that’s not the right poem.  Can we move on?” 
“No,” I squeaked.  ‘I died for beauty…”  I tried to say more, but my face was now a swampland of tears and phlegm and my napkin was soaked.  I choked up before I could get to the next words.

Bill mumbled something about people who are left-handed and gave me another napkin.
Matt said, “Mom, I have a bus to catch.”

I swallowed hard, minimized the page and kept looking.  We finally found Matt’s poem.  It’s not bad, but I won’t be memorizing it. The poem is

Truth, by Gwendolyn Brook

And if sun comes
How shall we greet him?
Shall we not dread him,
Shall we not fear him

After so lengthy a
Session with shade?

Though we have wept for him,
Though we have prayed
All through the night-years—

What if we wake one shimmering morning to
Hear the fierce hammering
Of his firm knuckles
Hard on the door?

Shall we not shudder?—
Shall we not flee
Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter
Of the familiar
Propitious haze?

Sweet is it, sweet is it
To sleep in the coolness
Of snug unawareness.

The dark hangs heavily
Over the eyes.

I offered to send the link to his phone, but he said he couldn’t read his phone in school because the teachers would think he was texting.  As I took the computer back to my office and connected it to the printer, we talked a little about the poem’s meaning.  Matt wasn’t convinced it was, “relevant to his daily life.”  However, I thought that second to last stanza was an almost complete description of his daily life.  I went a step further and suggested that we tape a copy of that stanza to the television where he plays the X Box, just so he could marvel in its relevance on a day to day basis. 

The printer coughed up the poem and I handed the paper to Matt.  He thanked me and five minutes later, he was in the yellow bus, on his way to school.  I started getting breakfast for the next set of children, all the while repeating the poem to myself and trying to figure out why a line like, “'Themself are One,--  We Brethren, are,' He said.” was still causing my eyes to swell with tears.
Ten minutes later, Bill came downstairs.  Matt had left his paper copy of the poem on the kitchen table.  Bill took the printout and copied/texted the whole poem to Matt so he could copy it onto a piece of paper and memorize it before English class.  I was too annoyed with him to suggest texting the link. 

Neither one of them ever asked about that first poem.  I suppose in the end, I’m grateful that Matt is memorizing Gwendolyn Brook’s Truth rather than Emily Dickinson’s.  Despite my melancholy streak, I’d much rather bash him for ignoring truth than mourn him for dying over it. 

Later that day, I was in the car with Reilly, my 11 year old.   She was stuck with me, so I told her to listen carefully and I recited the first poem.  After I got through it, congratulating myself that I was only slightly tearful, she said, “I hate it when you say things I don’t understand.”   So, I explained it to her as much as I could and, being a practical minded eleven year old, she said, “doesn’t that lady know that dead people can’t talk to each other?   How can she write a poem about truth and beauty if it includes talking dead people?”

Of course she was right about this, and I told her so.  I also told her that we don’t have to talk about poetry anymore.   

I’d planned on cleaning the bathrooms on Tuesday.   Instead, I ended up memorizing poetry alongside my son.  He got an “A.”  I got a red nose and further confirmation that yes, I am living in a house with seven other right-handed, left-brained people.   In case there was any doubt, I had my husband read this blog draft Tuesday evening.  When I asked for feedback he messed with his hair a little and then headed for the exit.  He stopped just outside the doorway and said, “Well, …I cleaned the toilet in the upstairs bathroom earlier.  The day wasn’t a complete loss.” 


  1. Isn't it amazing how something like poetry can pierce our emotional defenses and connect with something deep inside? Music does this for me many times. I remember several years ago I was running down a rugged path on a gorgeous Fall day, and listening to a song that made me eventually burst out in tears as I ran. There was something refreshing about the experience.

    I wonder if Adam ever returned to the site of the cherub and his flaming sword, on the East side of Eden, and just sat and wept over what he'd given up and lost? I suspect he still had a clear recollection of what perfection was like, perfect fellowship with God and Eve and nature itself, and the sight of Eden stirred it painfully, but he could not stop himself from going back to stare and feel it. Maybe those poems and songs put us in touch with that Adamic memory in our collective soul, and that's why we cry.

  2. I am also deeply touched by this poem. When I were at school more than 30 years ago, we were read a poem by Emily Dickinson, but it was a playful one about a bird. She wrote quite a few on nature. However, these "deeper" poems of her's really speak to one's heart. I have a few others on my blog that is also special. You can check it out at: look under "English poetry"