Happiness in a Broken World – Two Poems

The German Wooden Matchbox Toy Which Became the Source of a Linda Gregg Poem

The German Wooden Matchbox Toy Which Became the Source of a Linda Gregg Poem



















The fertility of the poetic mind! As my good friend and poet Liz commented to me today it is so surprising and wonderful the places a poet can be taken by an image. I had Liz’s comment on my mind when I came across Linda Gregg’s poem: The Beckett Kit in a pile of e-mails from a workshop I took with her at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival in January.

I have written about Gregg before mainly in relation to her former marriage to, and life-long friendship with, the American poet Jack Gilbert. But I had never registered this poem before. First off, the title is so arresting. And it helps condition the reader when the poem makes its surprising transition near its end.

And what a pleasure to discover how such a simple image of the match box toys could end up triggering a meditation on the fragility of happiness within a  world also filled with agony and horror.

As I re-read Gregg’s poem I was reminded of the poem Everything Is Going To Be All Right by the Irish poet, Derek Mahon. I need poems like his and Gregg’s to remind me to hold on even tighter to my joy and happiness in a broken world.

The Beckett Kit

I finally found a way of using the tree.
If the man is lying down with the sheep
while the dog stands, then the wooden tree
can also stand, in the back, next to the dog.

They show their widest parts
(the dog sideways, the tree frontal)
so that being next to each other
they function as a landscape.

I tried for nearly two months to use the tree.
I tried using it by putting the man,
standing, of course, very far from the sheep
but in more or less the same plane.
At one point I had the man almost off the table
and still couldn’t get the trees to work.
It was only just now I thought of a way.

I dropped the wooden sheep from a few inches
above the table so they wouldn’t bounce.
Some are on their backs but they serve
the same as the ones standing.
What I can’t get over is their coming right
inadvertently when I’d be content with any solution.

Ah, world, I love you with all my heart.
Outside the open window, down the street near the Hudson,
I can hear a policeman talking to another
through the car radio. It’s eleven stories down
so it must be pretty loud.
The sheep, the tree, the dog, and the man
are perfectly at peace. And my peace is at peace.
Time and earth lie down wonderfully together.

The blacks probably do rape the whites in jail
as Bill said in the coffee shop watching the game
between Oakland and Cincinnati. And no doubt
Karl was right that we should have volunteered
as victims under the bombing of Hanoi.

A guy said to Mishkin, “If you’ve seen all that,
how can you go on saying you’re happy?”

Linda Gregg from The New Yorker, May 5th, 1975

What a twist after the third to last stanza! Just after a moment of perfection – my peace is at peace – Gregg hits an opposite and bone-jarring note in the following stanza. She could have ended her poem in that moment of wonder but she opts to make that moment even more precious by the gritty reality that follows. Then the masterstroke of quoting from The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Talk about coming at it slant. It is as if she is asking herself how she could have imagined her moment of happiness after all she has seen and heard. Then I, as the reader, to get to make my choice. I choose with Mishkin.

The following poem by Derek Mahon (1941 – ) is a long standing favorite of mine. At times when it doesn’t feel that anything is all right or going right for me or the world this poem is a necessary tonic! There will be dying, but there is no need to go into that.

Everything Is Going to Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
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.

Derek Mahon from Selected Poems, Penguin Books, 2000

The poems flow from the hand unbidden. Yes. And when I think of Gregg’s poem in particular how true that seems. I would be very surprised if she had any inkling where her poem was going to go when she began meditating on a silly little tableau of trees, sheep a dog and a farmer from a matchbox toy. But she did and I am happier and sadder for it.



  1. Mary Elizabeth Nelson
    Posted April 12, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Trees, sheep, a man, rape, and dying… Poet’s live such rich lives. Thanks Richard.

  2. Richard
    Posted April 17, 2014 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Mary!

  3. AnnGW
    Posted April 12, 2014 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    thanks for these two (new to me) poems, Richard, the Gregg one especially. The angels I needed tonight.

  4. Richard
    Posted April 17, 2014 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    Dear Ann

    Thank you! So glad you enjoyed the poems. Happy they turned into angels! Best, R

  5. Heidi Garnett
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    Well, Richard, I also find the Gregg poem a bit jarring, as you put it, the last two stanzas somehow feeling tacked on, not as pretty and smooth as the others. But, perhaps, that’s exactly what she wanted and, when I think about it, that’s where most of the energy lies.

  6. Richard
    Posted April 17, 2014 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Dear Heidi: So appreciate your close readings of poems. I think you captured it well. The last verses have a very different tone and are in big contrast to the preceding ones. All best, R

  7. Posted April 18, 2014 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Your interpretation of “Beckett Kit” gives me an even greater appreciation of the poem. I will go back to Derek Mahon’s poem again and again. I’ve been in need of solace lately.

  8. Richard
    Posted April 18, 2014 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Dear Christine: So glad you found the blog! And thank you for your comments. It wasn’t until I went back and re-read the Beckett Kit that it opened up for me. The contrast between a state of inner peace and the “noise” of the world. I am so glad you like the Mahon and find solace in it. It is such a source of comfort for me. Glad you found solace init. And I hope other poems can provide that as well. Good to hear from you.

  9. Heidi Garnett
    Posted April 18, 2014 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    I actually find the Mahon poem quite frightening. There’s a sense of quiet desperation in it, this need to repeat everything is going to be all right. Normally, we don’t say such things to ourselves unless we’re struggling and the statement is set in future tense. In other words, things aren’t all right now, but they’re going to be–maybe.

  10. Richard
    Posted April 21, 2014 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    I had not felt this nuance now. But I do now. Thank you. But I still find great comfort from the poem but it is even more poignant when I realize how vulnerable it is to be human. There will be dying. How easily our world can break and in the breaking break us. So in those moments of fullness, of well being, I read this poem and give thanks!

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