Tragedy In the Context of Beauty. Or Maybe Vice-Versa.

Poetry Celebration: Ferlinghetti, part 3

Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem, “Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes” describes four people – two garbage collectors and an elegant couple -- stuck at traffic lights in downtown San Francisco. The contrast between the two pairs, the class divide, bridged and yet not bridged by the circumstance of a traffic light, is a critique of American classism.
At the stoplight waiting for the light
nine a.m. downtown San Francisco
a bright yellow garbage truck
with two garbagemen in red plastic blazers
standing on the back stoop
one on each side hanging on
and looking down into
an elegant open Mercedes
with an elegant couple in it
The man
in a hip three-piece linen suit
with shoulder-length blond hair and sunglassed
The young blond woman so casually coifed
with short skirt and coloured stockings
on the way to his architect's office

And the two scavengers up since four a.m.
grungy from their route
on the way home
The older of the two with grey iron hair
and hunched back
looking down like some
gargoyle Quasimodo
And the younger of the two
also with sunglasses and long hair
about the same age as the Mercedes driver

And both scavengers gazing down
as from a great distance
at the cool couple
as if they were watching some odourless TV ad
in which everything is always possible

And the very red light for an instant
holding all four close together
as if anything at all were possible
between them
across that small gulf
in the high sea
of this democracy.

“As if anything at all were possible” he writes, with a kind of meta-irony. It's ironic, because he's exposing that the appearance of the possibility of equality and democracy is not the reality. And at the same time it's unironic, achingly sincere: for the closeness with which are held is the reality, and it's the gulfs between us that are small, and merely apparent. Ferlinghetti thus calls us to a politics in which we notice that equality and democracy aren't real -- and yet are. Our aspiration must be to better live out, live into, live from, the reality of connection, care, respect, mutuality, oneness that we vitiate by ignoring. We are like fish who deny or fail to notice that we are submerged in water -- giving our lives a kind of dryness even as, in reality, we are soaked through.

Other of Ferlinghetti poems engage with paintings. Ferlinghetti himself is a painter, and his painting gives visual expression to his words. In turn, his poems sometimes give verbal expression to a painting, and he shows us a new way to see a well known art work. “Short Story on a Painting of Gustav Klimt” is Ferlinghetti’s meditation on “The Kiss.”
They are kneeling upright on a flowered bed
has just caught her there
and holds her still
Her gown
has slipped down
off her shoulder
He has an urgent hunger
His dark head
bends to hers
And the woman the woman
turns her tangerine lips from his
one hand like the head of a dead swan
draped down over
his heavy neck
the fingers
strangely crimped
tightly together
her other arm doubled up
against her tight breast
her hand a languid claw
clutching his hand
which would turn her mouth
to his
her long dress made
of multicolored blossoms
quilted on gold
her Titian hair
with blues stars in it
And his gold
harlequin robe
checkered with
dark squares
Gold garlands
stream down over
her bare calves &
tensed feet
Nearby there must be
a jeweled tree
with glass leaves aglitter
in the gold air
It must be
in a faraway place somewhere
are slient together
as in a flowered field
upon the summer couch
which must be hers
And he holds her still
so passionately
holds her head to his
so gently so insistently
to make her turn
her lips to his
Her eyes are closed
like folded petals
will not open
is not the One
Politically, socially, personally, and in all aspects of life, we find ourselves living amidst both beauty and tragedy – constant joy and constant sorrow. This is the fundamental condition to which both preachers and poets are always speaking, so it is that theme to which I return.

Unitarian minister Forest Church spoke of the twin realities of being alive and having to die. The tragic parts seem divided between those that are unavoidable -- old age, sickness, death – and the parts that leave us wondering whether maybe we could do better. The serenity prayer asks for the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. But it’s that “wisdom to know the difference” part that is so elusive. We never know. Ferlinghetti seems to be simultaneously calling for change and accepting our shortcoming as “the constipations that our fool flesh is heir to” – while also at the same time celebrating the beauty and joy of life in a way that is simultaneously earnest and ironic.

Benediction: "The World Is a Beautiful Place," by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don't mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don't mind a touch of hell
now and then
just when everything is fine
because even in heaven
they don't sing
all the time

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don't mind some people dying
all the time
or maybe only starving
some of the time
which isn't half bad
if it isn't you

Oh the world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don't much mind
a few dead minds
in the higher places
or a bomb or two
now and then
in your upturned faces
or such other improprieties
as our Name Brand society
is prey to
with its men of distinction
and its men of extinction
and its priests
and other patrolmen

and its various segregations
and congressional investigations
and other constipations
that our fool flesh
is heir to

Yes the world is the best place of all
for a lot of such things as
making the fun scene
and making the love scene
and making the sad scene
and singing low songs and having inspirations
and walking around
looking at everything
and smelling flowers
and goosing statues
and even thinking
and kissing people and
making babies and wearing pants
and waving hats and
and going swimming in rivers
on picnics
in the middle of the summer
and just generally
'living it up'
but then right in the middle of it
comes the smiling


* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Poetry Celebration: Ferlinghetti"
See also
Part 1: Some Ferlinghetti
Part 2: Ferlinghetti and the Good of Poetry

No comments:

Post a Comment