On New Year’s Day.

On New Year’s Day

Bless this my house under the pitch pines
where the cardinal flashes and the kestrels hover
crying, where I live and work with my lover
Woody and my cats, where the birds gather
in winter to be fed and the squirrel dines
from the squirrel-proof feeder. Keep our water
bubbling up clear. Protect us from the fire’s
long teeth and the lashing of the hurricanes
and the government. Please, no foreign wars.
Keep this house from termites and the bane
of quarreling past what can be sweetly healed.
Keep our cats from hunters and savage dogs.
Watch with care over Woody splitting logs
and mostly keep us from our sharpening fear
as we skate over the ice of the new year.

    Marge Piercy
(first published Akros, No. 4, Spring 1981)

Comments

  1. Mary Gill says:

    I love this…it really speaks to me♥♥

  2. Why on earth was it only foreign wars she didn’t want? Is a good civil war OK by her?

  3. Oh, come on. The poem was written in the US in 1981; there were no civil wars on the horizon, but plenty of foreign wars. Or were you joking?

  4. You might as well ask “Why kestrels? Why not pigeons?” It’s a poem, not an encyclopedia or a philosophical treatise.

  5. John Cowan says:

    Well, one factor would be that there were kestrels there, and not pigeons.

  6. Vas you dere, Cholly?

  7. John Cowan says:

    No, Herr Baron. But pigeons don’t normally hang out in the woods, either.

    Besides, kestrels are predators and pigeons are prey: the symbolism of pigeons would be wrong.

  8. Quite true. I should have checked my cuffs before making my off-the-cuff rejoinder.

  9. pigeons don’t normally hang out in the woods

    There have been cases of stool pigeons hanged out in the woods by whoever they ratted on.

  10. Mourning doves (which could be called pigeons in a pinch) hang out in the woods. But they wouldn’t have hovered crying.

  11. Wood pigeons hang out in the woods including the ones around our house. But perhaps wood pigeons don’t live in the USA.

    Marge Piercy was part of a Detroit-Cape Cod mafia of very nice 1960s radicals who were good friends of my late parents-in-law. I met her a few times without realising she was a well-known writer. Another one I liked a lot was the feminist writer Esther Broner.

    “Foreign wars”, as in the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the US equivalent of the British Legion, is an expression that isn’t used in Britain. That’s maybe why dearie found the phrase odder than it was to the US contingent.

  12. Odd; I guess to the Brits all wars (since the 17th century) are foreign wars.

  13. John Cowan says:

    The Veterans of Foreign Wars were founded in 1914. Before that, there had been separate veterans’ organizations for each war: the Grand Army of the Republic for the Union side of the U.S. Civil War, the United Confederate Veterans for the other side, the American Veterans of Foreign Service for the Spanish-American War of 1898, and the National Society of the Army of the Philippines for the Philippine-American War of 1898-1902. The latter two merged to form the VFW, which got a Congressional charter in 1936, making it a sort of quango.

    The American Legion, founded as the World War I, veterans’ organization, remains private. It engaged in small-scale armed conflict with the International Workers of the World in 1919, and has had running legal battles with the ACLU. Both are now perpetual organizations, with the VFW restricting membership to those who actually saw combat, whereas the AL has much wider membership, including members of non-military uniformed services and the relatives of veterans. However, both are experiencing shrinkages in membership. The Grand Army of the Republic dissolved in 1952 when its last member died.

    Note that veteran in AmE (vet for short; yes, it’s also short for veterinarian) means anyone who formerly served in the armed forces, regardless of their length of service.

  14. John Cowan says:

    World War II was certainly a foreign war for both the U.S. and the U.K., but their soil was not untouched by it. Some of the Battle of Britain was fought over land (indeed, some pilots who happened to live near air bases were billeted in their own homes early on, making them combat commuters), and in the U.S. there was Pearl Harbor, the bombing of West Coast Cities by Japanese submarines, and the Japanese fire balloon attacks, the last two pretty minimal.

  15. J.W. Brewer says:

    My twelve-year-old, who was looking over my shoulder, is dubious as to whether squirrel-proof feeders are a fit subject for poesie. I didn’t have the heart to start explaining about Detroit-Cape-Cod radicals and their distinctive aesthetic . . . (Actually, you could tell me that Pound has a whole delerious excursus about squirrel-proof feeders in one the sections of the Cantos I don’t know very well and I’d probably believe you.)

  16. It’s poetry in the sense of prose that is not right justified.

  17. Actually, you could tell me that Pound has a whole delerious excursus about squirrel-proof feeders in one the sections of the Cantos I don’t know very well and I’d probably believe you.

    It’s there, but it’s in Classical Greek mixed with Ancient Chinese (full of mistakes, of course), so it’s rarely recognized.

  18. John Cowan says:

    But perhaps wood pigeons don’t live in the USA.

    They don’t, indeed. Unlike the common or rock pigeon (the ancestor of domestic pigeons), they were never introduced here.

    dubious as to whether squirrel-proof feeders are a fit subject for poesie

    Having talked of Dr. Grainger’s “Sugar Cane”, I mentioned to him Mr. Langton’s having told me that this poem, when read in manuscript at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s, had made all the assembled wits burst into a laugh, when, after much blank-verse pomp, the poet began a new paragraph thus:

    Now, Muse, let’s sing of rats.

    And what increased the ridicule was, that one of the company, who slyly overlooked the reader, perceived that the word had been originally mice, and had been altered to rats, as more dignified.

    This passage does not appear in the printed work, Dr. Grainger, or some of his friends, it should seem, having become sensible that introducing even rats in a grave poem might be liable to banter. He, however, could not bring himself to relinquish the idea; for they are thus, in a still more ludicrous manner, periphrastically exhibited in his poem as it now stands:—

    Nor with less waste the whiskered vermin race,
    A countless clan, despoil the lowland cane.

    It’s there, but it’s in Classical Greek mixed with Ancient Chinese (full of mistakes, of course), so it’s rarely recognized.

    So that it could not be recognized, I think. “What might this column [in Scientific American, about counterfactuals] have been like if it had been written by a dog? I can’t say for sure, but I have a hunch it would have been about chasing squirrels. And it might have had a paragraph speculating what this column would have been like if it had been written by a squirrel.” —Douglas Hofstadter

  19. This is a good thread to start the year with, I think. In the spirit of “Keep this house from termites and the bane
    of quarreling” I will try to resist my half-hearted impulse to rise to the defense of very nice 1960s radicals everywhere and free verse.

    We have a couple of Squirrels-be-Gone feeders at our house. Our son Asa, who is by nature a questioner of assumptions, has asked us why we would rather feed the birds than the squirrels.

  20. Yes, my wife is always defending the squirrels from my speciesist attacks.

    It’s poetry in the sense of prose that is not right justified.

    I hope you’re not talking about the Piercy poem, which is very traditionally rhymed and metered.

  21. John Cowan says:

    In my quotation above, the characters in “I mentioned to him” are Boswell and Johnson respectively.

    My characterization of the American Legion’s membership above is inaccurate. While you do not have to have been in combat to join, you do have to have served during a recognized war: peacetime veterans are ineligible. Also, family members belong to auxiliaries, not to the Legion proper. American Veterans (or AMVETS) is a third organization which has no membership restrictions based on time or type of service.

  22. Here is Johnson’s review of “Sugar-Cane.” To some extent he urges the reader to look beyond the subject matter and so the grounds for proper subject matter for poetry so strongly felt in that post-Dunciad literary world. But he sees the fatal flaw in its matter-of-fact, almost natural-historical, treatment of slavery, which I imagine is why it was pretty much forgotten by the 19th Century. And only now revisited from a post-Imperial historical perspective.

  23. It’s poetry in the sense of prose that is not right justified.

    “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law”. Romans 3:28 fails to specify whether right or left justified. I suppose that is excusable, in that it was written before typesetting was invented.

  24. Romans 3:28 also appears to have been unaware of Chinese writing practice, where top or bottom justification may be needed to evade the law.

  25. John Cowan says:

    Chinese typography is done on a rectilinear grid without whitespace, so no justification is required.

  26. So the Chinese are alway justified, and thus will enter the Kingdom of Heaven by default.

  27. Romans 3:28 also appears to have been unaware of Chinese writing practice, where top or bottom justification may be needed to evade the law.

    Or of boustrophedon.

  28. Sir JCass says:

    Actually, you could tell me that Pound has a whole delerious excursus about squirrel-proof feeders in one the sections of the Cantos

    I think I’ve found some of that missing Canto:

    And Nutkin came not by squirrel-proofing
    Nor Timmy Tiptoes;
    Came not by squirrel-proofing Screwy the Squirrel;
    Not by squirrel-proofing Sandy off Spongebob.
    Duccio painted not “Il trionfo dello scoiattolo” by squirrel-proofing.
    Squirrel-proofing slayeth the pup in the womb
    It hath brought palsey to the drey
    CONTRA NATURAM

    And Adams (John) said:
    What do they know of the constitution
    who know not the evil of goddam squirrel-proofing?

    ὕδωρ
    HUDOR et nux

    The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant’s cracked birdbath

  29. That’s the one!

  30. John Cowan says:

    thus will enter the Kingdom of Heaven by default

    Sure. You can tell because they speak a language in which everything not explicitly stated defaults to the contextually obvious thing, whatever it is.

    A nice example of a false friend: English justified vs. Scots justifeed ‘hanged’ < ‘punished’ < ‘

  31. they speak a language in which everything not explicitly stated defaults to the contextually obvious thing, whatever it is.

    This is merely one way in which a hearer can make an utterance understandable (to himself). “Language” does not default, and no particular language “defaults”. People default, or not.

    As Luhmann puts it, communication has three aspects: information, utterance, understanding (Information, Mitteilung, Verstehen). A hearer must pick and choose. For instance, what you mean by “contextually obvious thing” is not obvious to me from the context of your statement – and I claim that that is not because we are speaking English instead of Chinese.

    There is no way to assess whether a single utterance by a speaker to a hearer has been understood as intended – neither by the participants, not by an observer. Only over the course of several exchanges can speaker and hearer (and observer, if present, which he clearly is as I write !) get the impression that they are understanding each other.

    Proof: you may well feel that this response indicates that I have not understood what you intended to say. Or have understood it, but am being ornery by pretending not to have understood it. Or have understood something, but not what you intended to say. Have I gone off on a tangent ? You may feel that, but I don’t – not at this moment, anyway.

    The same considerations would apply even if you had only written “the cat is on the mat”.

  32. About tangents: you may feel that you what you are saying consists of smooth movement from one thought to the next. In other words, that it is continuous and (at least) first-differentiable. So when I follow your train of thought, it’s perfectly reasonable – unavoidable, even – for me to follow the tangents you yourself are following.

  33. “the Piercy poem, which is very traditionally rhymed and metered”: in terms of the end of each line, the rhyme pattern seems to be
    ABCDA
    EFGHG
    IJJKK

    I didn’t know that was traditional.

  34. I didn’t know that was traditional.

    I didn’t mean the exact pattern was traditional, just that it had rhyme and meter in a traditional manner and thus could not conceivably be called “prose that is not right justified.”

  35. But the syllables-per-line are all over the place too.

  36. To be clear: I don’t deny its attractions, I simply deny that they are the attractions of poesy.

  37. You’re kidding. You seriously read that and don’t feel it’s poetry at all, just because the syllables per line aren’t predictable? Does real poetry have to be exactly counted iambic pentameter with a regular stress pattern? I find that a bizarrely rule-oriented approach.

  38. John Cowan says:

    Before anyone asks, the meter is four-stress, which is a particular case of simple stress-verse, a paradigm distinct from (a) tetrameter foot-verse, (b) four-stress English ballad measures, and (c) the old alliterative line. Simple four-stress verse has, as its name indicates, four stresses per line with no constraints on the number of slacks, which brings it closer to free verse than any of (a), (b), or (c).

  39. dearieme, is hover-lover not a rhyme for you? and if you allow hurricanes-bane, would you consider gather-water? fires’s-wars?

  40. Stu, in geometry following a path (whether or not the path is smooth enough to have tangent lines) is a very different thing from flying off on a tangent. But perhaps this is a useless analogy.

  41. “is hover-lover not a rhyme for you?” No, it’s the sort of false rhyme that grates.

    “and if you allow hurricanes-bane”: I did so reluctantly, in case LH stuck out his tongue, made a rude gesture, and yelled that I had missed it. But to me it’s a false rhyme since I’d pronounce the windy interlude HURRYc’n.

    “would you consider gather-water? fires’s-wars?” Not even close. Stop it, you’re offending my delicate sensibilities.

  42. empty: following a path (whether or not the path is smooth enough to have tangent lines) is a very different thing from flying off on a tangent.

    Yep, that’s why I wrote “follow a tangent” in my second comment. It’s also called integration,.The resulting line of thought is unique up to a constant.

  43. marie-lucie says:

    Whether the words in the poem rhyme or not depends on what dialect you speak. I was taught British English and remember when I first heard American students in Paris. I was amazed at how differently they pronounced “mother” and “water” from what I had learned to say. Of course, “gather” and “water” would not rhyme in British English, but the author here is American.

  44. John Cowan says:

    Hurricane-bane and hover-lover are perfect rhymes in most forms of AmE. Piercy was born in Detroit in 1936, so she probably has a Michigander/Northern Cities accent.

    Keats used to be called “the Cockney poet”, not because he spoke East Enderese, but because he was born in London and didn’t hesitate to use non-rhotic rhymes like thorns:fawns, contrary to the conservative practice of other 19th-century poets. Indeed, non-rhotic rhymes are, I think, still rare in English rhyming poetry, though light verse is more likely to have them: one of Asimov’s limericks rhymed Florida/torrider/corridor.

    Even in accents with both PRICE-smoothing (the tire/tar merger) and LOT-unrounding (the father/bother merger), fire would be [a] and war would be [ɑ], a substantial difference. I think that’s an imperfect rhyme in all accents.

  45. empty: follow a tangent

    The image I have is simple and a bit silly, but I still don’t think I’ve described it very well.

    Consider a line that is a distance function of time. Imagine a person at a given instant at a given point on the line, with their left shoulder against that point and about to move through an epsilon interval of time to the right. To do this, they look along the tangent and move by the corresponding vertical delta distance.

    At each instant of time, the left shoulder is at the origin of the tangent space. As velocity changes over time, the tangents spaces “rotate” or “roll”, and the shoulder rools with them. This is what I meant by “following the tangents”.

  46. Sigh. Switch “epsilon” and “delta”.

  47. John Cowan says:

    Gather/water can’t possibly rhyme in any dialect.

  48. “Can’t possibly” is a very strong claim for an issue of pronunciation. What kind of arguments would you use to justify it ? Would rhyming gather/water be incompatible with the conservation of energy ?

    Doesn’t a posh English pronunciation of gather (“gah-ther”) resemble one pronunciation of “water” ?

  49. John Cowan says:

    I don’t mean that it is metaphysically impossible, simply that there are no dialects that merge /ð/ and /t/, such that than/tan and weather/wettersound the same. Similar, perhaps, but the same.

  50. John Cowan says:

    “not the same”, that is.

  51. “There are no dialects [in which ...]” is also a pretty strong claim. Since no one knows everything, that claim – and similar claims to cover everything of a type that exists, including things not yet known or not yet existent – are acceptable only when taken as having a kind of probabilistic fudginess at the edges, a built-in “be reasonable, for God’s sake” codicil. That includes my claim that “no one knows everything”, which sensu stricto I cannot know.

    “Can’t possibly …” claims are attempts to eliminate all fudginess. Nothing wrong with that, so far as it goes. I do find it interesting, though, that to explain something (away) by invoking a “law” of physics is to circumvent the scientific requirement that evidence be presented when requested. I think that is one of the main functions of general statements – they allow you to formulate claims without presenting the evidence, at least until challenged.

  52. Another way to put it: generalizations are evasive strategies. To find them you must be inventive and otherwise resourceful. In Kultur der Ausrede, Fritz Breithaupt makes the case – to put it briefly here – that communication and cognition develop primarily in the course of searching for “excuses”, for ways to get around unpleasant requirements. Representation-of-reality theories of cognition, for instance, are implausible. Why would anyone want to represent reality ?

  53. Except, of course, in order to get around it. By postulating freedom instead of determinism. By postulating morality as God-given, so that you moralize with God on your side when trying to stop others from doing things you don’t approve of. By postulating laws of physics, instead of a divine meddler.

  54. I have seen wood pidgeons in the evergreen woods of southern Vancouver Island. They are brown, and coo.

    But since they are not listed in the index of Birds of Coastal British Columbia, they may well have been misnamed by my informant, or whomever informed him.

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