Once again, William Butler, it is the dead of winter. The brooks here are icing over, and airports in the deep south are closing due to icy conditions. The snow that fell last week has become a disfiguring one, trampled and soiled and half-melted, only to freeze again into a grotesque parody of the idea of snow, with all its tired, lovely symbolism of purity. As I do each year on this day, I’ve reread Auden’s poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” and it’s brought tears to my eyes, as it always does, with its stark and terrible beauty, making me want to strike up a conversation with it, and with you.
It has been a dark, cold day. The wolves of my anxiety have been hunting the forests of my mind again. The President is addressing the nation, and all day there have been shouts and murmurs about minimum wage and economic disparity. The peasant rivers on this side of the Atlantic seem not so much untempted as just complacent enough. I wonder what it will take for people to get angry enough to demand justice. I wonder whether justice has anything to do with $10.10 per hour, when the fashionable quays of the upper one percent remain unshaken by the slow surging tide of grinding poverty that skims their margins.
Like you seventy-five years ago, my grandfather lingers among nurses and rumors still, his Parkinson’s just strong enough not to be merciful, the provinces of his body in sluggish revolt, the squares of his mind ebbing and flowing with a thousand scraps of thought. What he will become, I do not know.
Did you find happiness, William Butler? What would you think of the way your words have echoed down through the years, of how they’ve been modified in the guts of the living?
It’s silent now, but tomorrow will be full of noise and importance. Tomorrow is my oldest son’s birthday–Finn, the boy with an Irish name and an Irish temper. His name means “fair-haired” and mine means “raven-haired,” and this is true of us. He will turn seven, seventy-five years and one day after your death. If history is a spiraling gyre, then he is preparing to enter this world as you are leaving it. If language has power, then he must have absorbed at least a little of the terrible beauty of your words, since they flow through my thoughts like blood through my veins. Tomorrow I will be a seven-year-old mother. I’m baking dozens of chocolate chip cookies now, which accounts for the disjointedness of my thoughts. Every ten minutes, the timer on the oven beeps. I wonder if you sometimes had to snatch writing time in ten-minute increments, too. Tonight, I am thinking of you. Tomorrow, I will be surrounded by a swirl of ravenous first graders. Perhaps the beauty of a life, like the beauty of a poem, is in its contrasts.
If that’s the case, then I’ve had a beautiful day, William Butler. This morning I cleaned house. Then I went to my first swordfighting class, as giddy as a kid on Christmas morning, because my inner ten-year-old is finally realizing a dream. I am learning to hack people with swords. This makes me happy. Then I went to lunch with my super-cool bioarchaeologist friend, and heard her presentation on medieval combat trauma. It was purely coincidence that these things happened on the same day, but they dovetailed and riffed on each other and argued with each other in marvelous ways.
Today I learned something. I learned how to strike with a sword, a blow that could cleave flesh and bone. And then I saw pictures of centuries-dead casualties, piled in mass graves. I had not thought death in battle had undone so many women and children. Did you know, when you lauded Irish heroes, that much of the warfare of the middle ages pitted trained, armed mercenaries against peasants? The poor have always been accustomed to suffering of one kind or another, it seems. I don’t know if we can claim to be more advanced now, when we kill them more slowly.
You may think this is all silly. It is, but my nation, like yours, has hurt me into writing, too. And like Ireland, we still have our madness and our weather, our ranches of isolation and busy griefs and the raw towns that constrain us and pull us back again and again. But words, if nothing else, survive.
So you’ve been laid to rest now these seventy-five years. The nightmares are perhaps a little different now, but not so much that you wouldn’t recognize them. Nations sequestered in hate, intellectual disgrace, locked and frozen seas of pity–they’re all still here, William Butler, and I don’t know if that will ever change.
But that’s what you’re for, you poets. You find the beauty in it all, and persuade us that it’s worth the ugliness. Sometimes, the most magical among you even manage to persuade us that the ugliness itself is beautiful. And this is what will heal us.
The cookies are almost finished. It’s been a day of strange contrasts for a toilet-scrubbing pacifist warrior princess. This day always feels a little strange to me–a little rarefied, as if the imagined ground of this moment in the year is hallowed, as if this day is not merely a day but has somehow come disjointed from the year just enough that a glimpse of something else shines through the cracks. Tomorrow will have its own magic, the magic of twenty first graders with too many chocolate chip cookies. But for tonight, I cling to Auden’s poem and the cloak I’ve fashioned of your mythologies, and when my little blond soldier is fast asleep, I will stand by his bed as your words dance across my mind–“I sigh that kiss you/For I must own/That I shall miss you/When you have grown.”
Goodnight, William Butler Yeats, wherever you are.