In the run-up to the holiday season I find my mind turning again and again to a poem which, viewed in one way, reminds me of the words the priests utter to every penitent on Ash Wednesday, “Remember man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” The poem is Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Muldoon’s “The Loaf,” which contains a haunting image of extreme hunger and extreme hope, an image that stuns with the vision and patience it evokes.
In the second last stanza Mr. Muldoon writes, “When I put my eye to the hole I see one holding horse dung to the rain/ in the hope, indeed, indeed,/of washing out a few whole ears of grain/ with a wink and a wink and a winkie-wink.” I can only begin to imagine the supreme hunger and desperation driving someone to search for a seed of grain in a pile of horse manure, and I deeply admire the poet’s mastery in giving us an image wherein the seed and the fertilizer are so intimately joined. The cycle of growth – the ground wherein the grasses the horse ate took seed is fertilized with the animal’s waste – evoked that ‘dust – to – dust’ analogy in my mind.
Yet still I contemplate the poem. An image flickers to life in my mind when I jump back to the opening stanza (one ‘end’ of the poem) from that of the handful of dung in the second last stanza. “When I put my finger to the hole they’ve cut for a dimmer switch,” is what Mr. Muldoon wrote, but my mind “sees” a person, their finger in a hole in the levee to forestall the tide as much as possible, to give people time, give them a chance.
The poet’s use of the word “dimmer” and the tide in my mind’s eye point me to some lines from one of Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats’s towering poems, “The Second Coming,” (emphasis mine): “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”
This “vision out of the vast Spiritus Mundi” – this vision of anarchy, of innocence as flotsam in a raging sea of hatred – is balanced in my mind with that vision of the person with their finger in the hole in the levee, just as it is balanced by the vision of one who finds the seed for their daily bread in a steaming pile of horse dung.
So, who, besides the William Butler Yeatses and Paul Muldoons of the world are the people with their fingers in the holes in the levee? I believe that anyone who believes in the Truth and Beauty of their beloved soul, anyone who tends the flame of their beloved soul and lets it shine in the world is a person with their finger in the hole in the levee.
Consider this from Yeats’s “Paudeen”: “… thereupon I thought/That on the lonely height where all are in God’s eye,/There cannot be, confusion of our sound forgot,/A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry.”
I, for one, give thanks this holiday for each and every one of them – past, present, and future.
Barbara Butler McCoy, 2012
[[Photo: “Loaf”, “Leaves,” Barbara Butler McCoy, November 2012]]
[Bibliography: Davis, Wes, ed.. “An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry.” Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010]