On a Ray of Winter Light

George Seferis

(selections; trans. Keeley & Sherrard, from the Complete Poems)

Leaves like rusty tin
for the desolate mind that has seen the end –
the barest glimmerings.
Leaves aswirl with gulls
frenzied by winter.

The way the heart finds release
the dancers turned into trees,
into a huge forest of trees stripped bare.

My companions have driven me mad
with theodolites, sextants, lodestones,
with telescopes that enlarge things –
better if they kept at a distance.
Where will roads like this lead us?
But maybe the day that began then
has not yet died out
with a rose-like fire in a ravine,
with a sea ethereal at the feet of God.

Years ago you said
“Essentially I’m a matter of light.”
And still today when you lean
on the broad shoulders of sleep
or even when they anchor you
to the sea’s drowsy breast
you look for crannies where the blackness
has worn thin and has no resistance,
groping you search for the lance –
the lance destined to pierce your heart
and lay it open to the light.


I know there are some hardcore Rilke fans among the Poetry Wednesday faithful, but my favourite poet to read in translation is George Seferis. He’s firmly twentieth century, and so is all the more modern, bare, erotic. But he’s also rooted in the ancient traditions of Greece, and reading him, I imagine myself high above the Mediterranean, eating olives on a warm rock, and I could use that extra vitamin D of the mind these solstitial days.

It isn’t that I’m bothered by winter. Quite the opposite. Last week we had snow on the ground, and it was glorious, clean and white. But the temperature keeps spiking, and the days have turned gray and wet. “Green grass,” says my toddler, pointing through the window to the backyard. One day, when I am fifty and there are to be no more winters, ever, I’ll be the person harping on at parties about how my parents used to hire the farmer down the road to blow out our long country driveway after a blizzard. He had a snowblower that attached to a big tractor, and it shot snow forty feet into the air in an efficient fountain. If he couldn’t come right away, it would take my father all day to dig us out with the scoop on his little, two-ton tractor. There would be no school for days because the buses wouldn’t run reliably in the bitter cold. When spring came, often not until mid-April or May, it felt genuinely miraculous. But I digress. I would rather have Winnipeg’s purifying cold, frostbite warnings issued down to the second, and the white snow brightening the dark, a palette for the Christmas lights, than this unceasing in-between-ness.

I’ve been feeling in-between in general lately, restlessly but also gratefully. I am suddenly very visibly pregnant, and so there is the predictable element of waiting. This second time around, having a general idea of what I can expect from the first weeks, months, year of tending to an infant’s life, I feel both calm and resigned. So far, no one is dying, knock wood. Barring disaster, I will not have to pack up my belongings and move house, or country. We have all the stuff. There will be chaos as we adapt, but adapt we will, and perhaps one day I will be able to sleep a healthy number of uninterrupted hours again.

The reason I’m resigned, or really just wistful, is that I know how little time I’ll have for myself, again. To soften this lament, I should say that I’m honestly looking forward to having another baby, to re-doing the baby stage with, I hope, a little more confidence and less anxiety than the first time. Also, with less grief. But even now, with an almost-two-year-old, I feel myself reaching towards pursuits other than mothering, to find that my reach perpetually exceeds my grasp. A month ago, as a result of winning runner-up in a poetry contest run by a well-respected magazine that happens to be based here in town, I was invited by the outgoing editor to read at the opening night launch of the literary festival they were hosting. Would I be interested, she asked, in attending a dinner for the participating writers beforehand, at a nearby wine bar? Yes, I would. I got dressed up, and at dinner was seated next to a poet I admire, who happened to have her four-month-old with her at the table. We discovered that we have a few mutual acquaintances. (This is Canada, after all.) The reading took place in a gigantic, packed auditorium in a university building, and despite nerves and first-trimester nausea, I read well and did not throw up on the main attraction, a writer of (apparently) famous political comic novels. It was one completely out-of-the-ordinary evening, and I was very grateful for it, even as I found it a little disorienting to be completely disconnected from everything I do on a daily basis, i.e., diapers, cleaning rejected food off the floor, &c.

It’s not that I came home that night thinking, How can I do this more often? I’m not all that drawn to the spotlight. What I would like is to purposefully carve out some time for practicing being a person who is not only a parent. This sounds like such a stupid, basic desire, but I’m constantly thwarting myself by not pursuing it seriously. I’m not working right now, and don’t really want to be, but it’s hard to find motivation to move forward with my own projects, literary or otherwise, without a paycheque, or mentorship, or some source of external encouragement who is not my husband. Also, I think that in parenting my first, I’ve had a strong desire to do most everything myself, and I suspect this desire may be dulled a little by the time the second one arrives. I read an interview with Joan Didion, done when she was promoting Blue Nights, in which she says that after becoming a mother, she became “totally wrapped up in keeping some time free for myself,” and while I have that longing often, it’s all too easy to sink weakly into routine without realizing that I’m running dangerously low on spirit. With two children, I suspect it will only be worse. This winter, therefore, I am committing to finding a babysitter for two mornings a week so that I can get some time. Being a basic cheapskate, it’s my hope that paying for time will make me value it more.

I wish I could wrap this up in a pithy way by turning back to Seferis, but I’m not confident that he’d have been able to relate to anything I’m saying. Now, it’s snowing. Let me fiddle with my lodestone in peace.

For Poetry Wednesday.


One response to “Essentially

  1. Having a part-time job again has helped me to also come to the conclusion that an externally imposed structure is probably an inarguably positive thing for a person with my personality. As that translates into writing, it makes me think that a creative writing MFA may be my best hope. But at this point I will not even consider starting something like that until both girls are over age five (i.e., Elsa starts kindergarten), which is encouraging, because alas (I can hardly believe it) that time is not very far away. Several times now I’ve heard Barbara Kingsolver, in interviews, say that while her children were young she felt that the school bus was her muse, because it would come and take her children away, and that began her writing day. That idea has definitely impressed itself on me recently: the great hope of the school day (not the preschool school day, mind you, but the real one, with school buses). Plus, I’ve finally come to the conclusion/resignation (for myself) that the infant-through-preschool years have been a distinct phase of life when it was not a bad idea, after all, to put truly serious non-parenting endeavors on hold, even if sometimes I was doing that passively, getting sort of swamped in the mire being constantly needed, and at times losing touch completely with those solitary, non-parenting parts of myself. Sometimes I was so swamped I could not even think clearly or strategically about what might have made things better, like the words “regular babysitter,” (although I don’t think we could have afforded it during our ND years). That was not a happy thing that I would recommend to any friend, so I can’t stress enough how much I champion your idea of getting a regular babysitter. Grasp hold of your strategic self-care and problem solving ability while it is still in good working order and put the babysitter plan into place!

    In conclusion to my essay: I like the poem a lot–will check out George Seferis.

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