The Parentheses of Palms

The Parentheses of Palms

“Kneel to your load, then balance your staggering feet
and walk up that coal ladder as they do in time,
one bare foot after the next in ancestral rhyme.

Because Rhyme remains the parentheses of palms
shielding a candle’s tongue, it is the language’s
desire to enclose the loved world in its arms;

or heft a coal-basket; only by stages
like those groaning women will you achieve that height
whose wooden planks in couplets lift your pages

higher than those hills of infernal anthracite.
There, like ants or angels, they see their native town,
unknown, raw, insignificant. They walk, you write;

keep to that narrow causeway without looking down,
climbing in their footsteps, that slow, ancestral beat
of those used to climbing roads; your own work owes them

because the couplet of those multiplying feet
made your first rhymes. Look, they climb, and no one knows them;
they take their copper pittances, and your duty

from the time you watched them from your grandmother’s house
as a child wounded by their power and beauty
is the chance you now have, to give those feet a voice.”

Derek Walcott,
Omeros Chapter XIII, Part III

+ + +

Walcott continues to enchant. Still reading slowly, but maybe not slowly enough. I’ve not been re-reading as much as I like and not reading aloud as much as I should, perhaps. And yet, I also keep wanting to forge on, to find out what’s around the next bend.

It was this stanza that arrested me tonight:

“Because Rhyme remains the parentheses of palms
shielding a candle’s tongue, it is the language’s
desire to enclose the loved world in its arms”

But all of it is echoing in my heart. The rhythm of it. We’ve been talking about rhythm, watching videos that focus on rhythm. The rhythm of drums and mortars and washing in an African village, of bodhrans and step dancing in an Irish kitchen, of castanets and flamenco and Japanese drums. And here is the rhythm of work, hard work, hellish work, and how that is bound up in Walcott’s lines, I can see the back and forth of the women carrying coal on their heads, going up and down the terrible climb. And how he contrasts that harshness with the gentleness of those hands cupping that flame, the parentheses of palms, the rhyme that gentles the rhythm, that wants to hold all of the world’s hurts in loving arms.

We’ve been reading African folk tales and Africa Trek, a story about a small group biking across Africa. I’ve been reading poem after poem after poem, and a biography of John Adams and somehow they are all finding their own ways to resonate and echo off of Walcott’s verses, all creating this space in my mind where words and music and people and places want to come together. It’s rather like Miss Lavender Lewis’s Echo Lodge, which we’ve been reading about in Anne of Avonlea in the past weeks, those lovely silvery echoes that make even the most mundane sounds into pure gold. It’s not quite a poem, but it’s the impulse toward poetry, if you know what I mean, something that wants to speak but can’t quite find the words.

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