|by Stewart Swan|
The Acadeny of American Poets sent me, as my "Poem-A-Day" gift, all wrapped up in the inky colors of last Sunday's print version of the comics, with a dark green stick-on bow, this:
To a Mouse,
by Robert Burns
On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November 1785.
Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,
O' what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murdering pattle.
I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which maks thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion
An' fellow mortal!
I doubt na' whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
'S a sma' request:
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,
And never miss't!
Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin!
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's win's ensuin,
Baith snell and keen!
Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.
That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou's turned out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld.
But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men,
Gang aft a-gley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy.
Still thou are blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!
It's been many an edition of Norton since I've read that, and what I'd give to hear Burns read it. More desires to be out of place and out of time! Even if the sky is that crystalline blue.
I can imagine myself understanding, being, the Mousie, my home and life upended, one moment cozy, warm, and safe, the next laid bare, torn apart, towered over. And my understanding is Burns' real gift, what makes us know he really was a sweet man, that his apology was sincere, that his field was that level.
He was only 26 at the writing, and already on intimate terms with the despondency of the turned-out, the homeless, the upset, the shock of it all.
"[O]f mice and men" and "best laid plans" went on to fame, of course, as if those were the lines that mattered. It's a perfect poem, to me, that can't be picked apart. I thought, first, this morning, of using only the first two verses, as they were "the best," and couldn't, because they were just some of the best parts of the best apology ever to a mouse.
I spent the evening, then the night, and much of this morning, in Hell. The pain belies description. When I slept, that weird sound which woke me was my scream. When I tried to walk to the bathroom without benefit of my much admired flowery cane, there had to be a change in plans, and a hail to Mary in hopes of making it back to the bed before the floor. I wanted to cry but my eyes were dry, so I made sore-throated crow calls, placing them just under the main musical line of an unplugged Jackson Browne CD. There are moments when he hides a drawn out throaty wail, and I remember that once I was a dancer, too.
In the box forwarded to me after my father died in July, a box which contained confused manila envelopes that, together, were called my "file," there were some of the sample photos taken of me at whatever age one is in when in the second grade.
I had a new mother, known for her dancing. She had been a real ballerina. I saw the pictures of her in beautiful costume, en pointe, en arabesque, her hair up, her lips full, and black, the way deep red lipstick photographs in black-and-white.
I'm gravity bound. Remember the Presidential Fitness Tests? The standing broad jump? Every year, I killed that evaluation, came in at the top of every fiery challenge -- except for the standing broad jump. I would think "leap," think "let go the earth and go," think "please, please, God, just one good jump," and then, kerplunck! A foot. Maybe 18 inches.
I loved baseball and tetherball. Kickball. I eventually became a very fine tennis player. It seems I require equipment, and opponents, for my body to get all airy and free from the Earth's insistence of me.
The day that those photos were taken -- of me in a multicolored short tutu and a plain black leotard and black capezio shoes -- my stepmom had yelled and yelled at me. Probably she just yelled once, but, not being a yeller, that one yell reverberated in my relatively empty head.
I had beat the crap out of a boy during recess -- in a tetherball match. The way I played, my hands took a beating and sometimes bled. Not the way her toes bled when she was breaking in a new pair of toe shoes, daintily staining the cotton stuffed into the toe, just ahead of that beastly metal insert, crimson, cranberry. Me, I clotted and had Harry Potter zig-zag scratches.
I needed to get home quickly from school because it was Picture Day for all of the hopeless little ballerinas in my twice-weekly class. I remember, somehow, that it was a beautiful day, and that I was skipping along the sidewalk. I had a big brown paper bag, the top all smudgy and crumpled. I wonder what was in it?
The boy I'd beat rode behind me on his bicycle and before I knew he was even there, he'd aimed his front wheel at the middle of my right calf -- California brown, muscled. And then, so quickly, pretty deeply gouged and bleeding.
I look for all the world, in those ballet picture proofs, like a happy tom boy, goofy-grinned, with hair that was weirdly blond and just a bit curly. All pointy elbows, but with excellent foot positions. (I believe that I was then doing nightly ankle-exercises at the behest of some bored military pediatrician.)
You never even catch a glimpse of my right calf and all that damage done.