To My Hurting Left Hand

To My Hurting Left Hand

Why has arthritis, a disease of wear,
attacked you, when the right, your counterpart,
has done the work? Oh, yes—I guess in golf
you gripped the club the tighter, and at night,
to love myself to sleep, I bade you grip
my stiffened nether member while I dreamed
of copulation with an unsteadily
imagined lady, whose obliging charms
opened the path, perhaps, to drowsy calm.

By day, exerting confidence, you held
the jar whose stubborn lid resisted all
my fingers’ strength, and helped lift rocks and art books;
still, you’ve been the lazy brother while
the dexter one has shaken loads of hands
and lifted tons of food on fork and spoon
up to my mouth (it’s true, you’ve done the wiping
at the other end, by some deep-seated
instinctive manual-labor delegation,
but was this work or an unmentioned pleasure?)
and written miles of lines, including these.

I grant you that, by some anomaly
of chance design, the keyboard Remington
and its word-processing successors set
beneath our hands assigned a number of
the most-stroked letters—a, s, e, and w
to the left, and these to the lesser fingers:
many a typo has flowed forth, and a strain
felt in the digits; still, is that a cause
for breakdown now? Or can the cause be guilt—
your guilt, left hand, for being sinister?

Although you wear a golden wedding ring,
you never were uplifted in a vow
or held a torch or pulled a trigger or
pointed to a star or city on a hill.
So suffer, if you must, though part of me—
a Cain demanding, as less-favored child,
attention long withheld. In this short time
remaining to us, help me clap, and pray,
and hold fast. Pained, I still can’t do without you.

~ John Updike,
and Other Poems

Daunt Books, John Updike, and Sainte-Chapelle.

This week, my last in Europe, I spent a few days in London where, per the recommendation of a lovely and knowledgeable friend, I visited Daunt Books for Travellers, a fantastic bookshop on Marylebone High Street. If you’d like to visit without shelling out for airfare, you can take a virtual tour of the shop at their website,

I spent a happy hour and fifteen minutes there before leaving with several gifts for friends, a new Daunt Books linen bag (free, with a 20£ purchase, so essentially impossible for me to have left without one) and a slim volume of poetry called Endpoint and Other Poems, the last collection of poems by American writer John Updike, who passed away in January of 2009. While on the Eurostar back to Paris, I read the whole collection, which included this sonnet, called “Evening Concert, Sainte-Chapelle”:

Evening Concert, Sainte-Chapelle

The celebrated windows flamed with light
directly pouring north across the Seine;
we rustled into place. Then violins
vaunting Vivaldi’s strident strength, then Brahms,
seemed to suck with their passionate sweetness,
bit by bit, the vigor from the red,
the blazing blue, so that the listening eye
saw suddenly the thick black lines, in shapes
of shield and cross and strut and brace, that held
the holy glowing fantasy together.
The music surged; the glow became a milk,
a whisper to the eye, a glimmer ebbed
until our beating hearts, our violins
were cased in thin but solid sheets of lead.

~ John Updike

The poem struck me the first time I read it with the power of its imagery, the fantastic mixture of senses, the rhythm and forceful, corporeal precision of its observations. Today, after waiting in a tremendously long queue, I visited Sainte-Chapelle, on l‘île de la Cité, and just by chance happened to have Updike’s book with me in my bag. Remembering the sonnet, I pulled it out and read it again, beneath the fantastic vitreaux he is writing about, surrounded at some moments by shush-induced silence, at others by rising voices and laughter.

The stunning vitreaux of Sainte-Chapelle, in Paris. [Photo: thorinside]

I think this is a great sonnet. Sainte-Chapelle is truly gorgeous and Updike masterfully integrates the visual experience of the stained-glass windows with the aural experience of music. He captures the power and weight of the vitreaux’s structure and the many black bars of lead which hold the thousands of panes of glass in place, and melds this with the simultaneous flow and structure of music, and the sheets of the black bars and notes which  underlie the glorious sounds of Vivaldi and Brahms. Within the sonnet,  all this melts together into a singular, magnificent and nearly frightening sensual experience, evoking both the grandeur and the limitations of the soul. But I wax unduly poetic where the poem–and the vitreaux–speak better for themselves.  Enough from me! Bonne Nuit.

On Dogs, Death and Poetry.

My best friend called today to tell me that her dog passed away, and though I don’t know if or when she’ll read this post, I wanted to write something and post a poem I’ve read many, many times, to let her know I’m thinking of her and Misty and sending them both thoughts of easiness, kindness and peace.

I’ve always loved dogs, and I think it’s remarkable, the attachment we feel for our four-legged friends. Hundreds of books have been written about “man’s best friend”, and I’ve been given a great many of them over the course of twenty-three Christmases and birthdays. Some of the stories in these books make me think we often do a better job loving our pets than we do our human companions. Perhaps this is because, with dogs, we’re able to give as we receive, able to love our pets with the constant, generous and unfailing devotion they show to us. For many reasons it is difficult, not to mention often inadvisable, to feel so unreservedly about other humans, and as we learn this (often the hard way), I think maybe we come to value our pets more, rather than less.

When I was much younger, probably around six or seven, I used to usher myself into the experience grief by imagining how I would feel when my dog died. I don’t know why, as a seven-year-old, I was interested in feeling that kind of sorrow; I don’t know whether I was trying to prepare myself for the inevitable loses I foresaw in the future, or whether something in the intense, hollowing sadness I felt appealed to me, however terrible, as a sensation, a broadening of experience, something I’ve always been interested in—early evidence of the writer in me, I think. It’s somewhat amazing to me that more than a decade and a half later, with all of the hard and sad experiences I’ve had since I was seven, including my own dog’s death while I was away at boarding school, that the death of a pet still packs such an emotional wallop.

It doesn’t matter that the losses I’ve experienced since I was a child far outstrip those I felt—or imagined for myself—when I was seven (though I wonder sometimes if they really do, since the losses of childhood seem to remain in a category of sense and memory altogether their own); understanding how complicated the world can be makes the simplicity of a dog’s affection all the more precious, and the loss of one all the more saddening and difficult.

To me, this poem (which is in an anthology called Good Poems, collected by Garrison Keillor) captures this kind of love perfectly:

Dog’s Death

She must have been kicked unseen or brushed by a car.
Too young to know much, she was beginning to learn
To use the newspapers spread on the kitchen floor
And to win, wetting there, the words, “Good dog! Good dog!”

We thought her shy malaise was a shot reaction.
The autopsy disclosed a rupture in her liver.
As we teased her with play, blood was filling her skin
And her heart was learning to lie down forever.

Monday morning, as the children were noisily fed
And sent to school, she crawled beneath the youngest’s bed.
We found her twisted and limp but still alive.
In the car to the vet’s, on my lap, she tried

To bite my hand and died. I stroked her warm fur
And my wife called in a voice imperious with tears.
Though surrounded by love that would have upheld her,
Nevertheless she sank and, stiffening, disappeared.

Back home, we found that in the night her frame,
Drawing near to dissolution, had endured the shame
Of diarrhoea and had dragged across the floor
To a newspaper carelessly left there.  Good dog.

~ John Updike