by Phyllis Mannan
Swallows rose and fell against the blue sky in a haphazard pattern as I walked in our neighborhood. With sun shining on their white breasts, they looked like ashes spiraling above a dead fire—their flight magical and mysterious, as though they knew something I, on the ground, could not know. Like those birds, my hopes rise and fall of their own volition and often catch me by surprise. When I feel down, a word from a friend or a bouquet of yellow daffodils buoys my spirits. Reading and writing may also lift me to a more joyful place.
One of the strongest vessels for my hopes has been my writing. I began twenty years ago roughing out poems, taking poetry classes and, for ten years, meeting with a poetry group in Portland. I worked to hone my craft and later to publish my work. One of my early poems was so dark the teacher laughed when he read it, as though he couldn’t imagine such depths of despair. Yet, the poem held a sliver of hope:
Three Dreams of the Everlasting
Mud piled on my house. Mired.
I shovel it like snow until the ground
becomes a mountain range with me caught
in its center. It’s not the darkness
I mind, but the weight and mass,
the sheer formlessness, of mud.
In a gully I look long
at a tall bank of packed earth.
I want to slice it like bread
to make sandwiches for my children,
but it is fouled—top to bottom—
with unwound spools of grass.
In the cool underbelly
of my house, a dirt cellar
where thick girders span the floors,
I look, not for turnips, or even
but pale, oval Barlett pears.
The first two sections of this poem are based on dreams. In the first dream, my husband shoveled mud from our roof, a Sisyphean task in which mud piled up faster than he could remove it. I took on the shoveling in the poem because I knew the dream reflected my own fears and inadequacies. When I wrote the poem, our children had what seemed insurmountable problems, and I hadn’t learned to trust God and to separate the things I could control from those I couldn’t.
The image of mud piled on top of our house captured how I felt.
Though I altered the protagonist in the first section, the events in the second are just as they appeared in my dream. I looked at the bank of packed soil and felt sad I couldn’t use it to make sandwiches. The idea may have come from making mud pies as a child or from the story of Adam and Eve thrown from the Garden and forced to live from the dust of the earth. The notion of grass as a defilement might have been related to pulling weeds in my own garden.
The final section of the poem is based on a memory of my grandparents’ fruit cellar. When I was a child, my grandmother sometimes suggested I go to the cellar to get a jar of canned pears for lunch. Paradoxically, in the dream something that symbolized the heavens and eternity was stored underground, in the muck and mire.
In the end, the poem that seemed so dark actually expresses my faith that the troubles of this life will be replaced by something better. God has something good in store for us. This hope goes beyond a wish; it represents faith that what I want to happen will happen. Wishes are of this world; hope is embedded in my soul.
Like the flight of the birds on my walk, it’s magical and mysterious, beyond my bidding.