Living with Yes/No – Prose by Guy Gavriel Kay, Poems by Mahon and Szymborska

A Volt of Turkey Vutures July 15th, 2022 near Duncan, B.C. Overlooking a Dead Deer

She laughed aloud. It was good to feel laughter, to release it. To believe it was permitted. That many things might now, finally, be allowed.

We are vulnerable when we feel that way. But not, in truth, any more than we live curtailed, held back, enraged, afraid. Everything is, indeed, always changing. And not usually to be controlled by us, the children of earth and sky, with fortune’s wheel always nursing a future we cannot know.

Guy Gavriel Kay from All the Seas of the World, p. 302, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 2022

Something about the way the Canadian novelist and poet Guy Gavriel Kay sees the world in his novels reassures me. It’s a world I recognize, a world, as he says in his novel Under Heaven, that can “bring you poison in a jewelled cup, or surprising gifts. Sometimes you didn’t know which of them it was.”

I know for me I hold a fear of what can wrong when things are going well or when they are going badly to imagine the worst.  But to enjoy things when they are going well or to believe they will get better if I am worried, that feels like the healthiest answer. It’s why the epigraph above spoke so loudly to me when I read Guy’s most recent novel.


To feel vulnerable when happy, in love, kids doing well. To enjoy it, not sabotage it with what ifs. What nexts? Such a great reminder for me, this comment by Guy’s narrator. This one, after his female protagonist, Lenia, has just made love to her friend and business partner, Rafel and feels a joyful sense of freedom:

We are vulnerable when we feel that way. But not, in truth, any more than we live curtailed, held back, enraged, afraid. Everything is, indeed, always changing. And not usually to be controlled by us, the children of earth and sky, with fortune’s wheel always nursing a future we cannot know.

It is this kind of wonderful moment in Derek Mahon’s poem Everything Will be All Right where he writes:

There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

Those lines: There will be dying, there will be dying/ but there is no need to go into that, never lose their power for me. Be in the now with joy. And with the reference to dying, also to sorrow. And sometimes to both at once as my dearheart Somae and I have witnessed these past five days. We have seen a kettle of turkey vultures (see picture above) close overhead on and off during these past days and once they settle on the trees, they become a volt of turkey vultures. One day, as many as sixteen. Because of the rank smell I knew something large had died in the field just 100 yards in the field to the right of our house but wanted to admire the beauty of the great birds, not recognize the sorrow of why they were there. Yesterday Somae went to look and saw a half-eaten deer. Today I went with her and all that was left were bones, hooves and a little hair. The beauty of what was left, picked clean. This classic yes/no. Yes for the birds, No for the deer.

Not only was I struck by the epigraph quote for my blog post by Guy but also by the epigraph for his book which quotes two lines by Nobel Prize Laureate, Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012).

Heart of the swallow
have mercy on them.

I was not familiar with these lines but something in me soared with them. Heart of the swallow/ have mercy on them. The poignancy of this. All of us, not just some them, we need mercy every day.  Every minute that that wheel of fortune turns.

I looked on line to find the poem where the lines came from and there it was: a poem/song for lovers, for the lovers of Guy’s novel, with the implied fragility of love and joy in all our lives.

Commemoration

They made love among the hazel shrubs
beneath the suns of dew,
entangling in their hair
a leafy residue.

Heart of the swallow
have mercy on them.
They knelt down by the lake,
combed out the earth and leaves,

and fish swam to the water’s edge
shimmering like stars.
Heart of the swallow
have mercy on them.

The reflections of trees were steaming
off the rippling waves.
O swallow let this memory
forever be engraved.

O swallow, thorn of clouds,
anchor of the air,
Icarus improved,
Assumption in formal wear,

O swallow, the calligrapher,
timeless second hand,
early ornithogothic,
a crossed eye in the sky,

O swallow, pointed silence,
mourning full of joy,
halo over lovers,
have mercy on them.

Wislawa Szymborska, trans. Joanne Trzeciak, from Selected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska, W.W. Norton & Co., 2001

How the swallow in this poem becomes something transcendent, god-like. And I love this line: improved Icarus. A swallow seemingly timeless for these moments, aloft. And yet. And yet. As the lovers, too, will fall, so will the literal swallow. But for a moment give us this joy, this beauty.

And the last stanza. How it joins the joy and the sorrow:

O swallow, pointed silence,
mourning full of joy,
halo over lovers,
have mercy on them.

The pointed silence. Oh. Mourning full of joy. Oh. Notice, no comma after mourning. The two together. There will be dying. Mourning full of joy. ( To note: In another translation by Clare Cavanaugh and Stanislaw Baranczak this line is translated as mournful exuberance. I think I prefer the complexity and nuance of Trzeciak’s translation.) Then the final oh! Have mercy on them.

Have mercy on us. We will mourn yet (must) be twin to joy. Today I walk and live with my sweetheart, Heart of the swallow. Heart of the beloved. Heart of God. Have mercy.

 

5 Comments