“Years are not a life…” and My Poem “Hope Against Hope”
July 22, 2012
My maternal grandmother, Marjorie Burgess Perry, was a funny woman.
I remember one story she told about her friend Ruthie, who got her hand caught in a meat grinder. I think the lesson there was about paying attention to what you’re doing in the moment.
Another time, she was sitting in her kitchen in East Providence, and had some advice to impart.
“I know I shouldn’t smoke,” she said, lighting a cigarette. “But my doctor said I need to stop drinking. And at my age, I can’t have sex anymore.”
She took a deep drag, exhaled, and quipped, “You have to have one vice.”
After she died, inevitably, at the hands of that one vice of hers, I found a few of her journals and a draft of a letter she wrote to me.
I’m not sure any of us knew the side of her that she poured into her writings. She was passionate, profound, and philosophical.
One of the phrases in her journals that struck me was “Years are not a life.”
A short time later I was working on a long poetic sequence called “Providence,” which attempts to tell the story of the European settling of Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations, King Philip’s War, the arrival of Portuguese in southern New England, and a bit of my family’s history there, which extends to 1637 in Sandwich, Massachusetts.
I used the phrase in one of the poems from the sequence, which was later published in Terrain.
Here is my poem, “Hope Against Hope”:
My mind is a slate gray sky
about to open up over the capitol. In the distance,
electricity grounds itself to Rhode Island’s terminal moraine,
and Narragansett Bay is alive with activity.
The city is like a tree, grafted to increase yield:
the scion of this hybrid is Freedom and the stock, Hope.
Did Roger Williams have this in mind, on the day
he was expelled from Massachusetts Bay Colony
and exiled to “Rogue’s Island?”
My mind is bent to the future
like a fly buzzing against a table lamp,
guided by some unknown power to the light.
Spruce-trees freckle Rhode Island’s low hills,
like “Indians” on horseback overlooking a settlement
in some old western. Years are not a life,
trees come down with heavy snow or summer storms,
others are cut to fuel fires in cast-iron stoves,
or are cleared for houses on subdivided acres.
Providence is an article of faith
as much as of divinity. Maybe a life is determined
in the balance of past, present, and future.
Providence, in the immutable language of trees:
Tulip-trees heavy-laden with their “magnolia” blossoms;
post oaks, twisted and stunted, like worried warriors;
ash, hickory, hope; willow, red spruce, blood;
poplar, pine, providence; sandy loam, eelgrass, freedom;
arrow-arum, water weed, Wampanoag; hope against hope.