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THE FARTHERMOST VIEW

Selected Podpieces

THE CHIMNEY SWEEP

As I lay awake last night at three in the morning, casting around for something to think about other than my failures, mistakes, and sins, in the back, or at least the side, of my mind I was silently reciting Blake's “The Chimney Sweep,” which I had memorized many years ago because I had a recording of Gregg Brown singing Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, and since I loved his voice I listened to it over and over again, until smaller players and tinnier recordings replaced my little stereo and my vinyl records, and I never got around to replacing them.

Anyway, the first stanza – this is in Songs Of Innocence – begins, “When my mother died I was very young, / and my father sold me while yet my tongue / could scarce cry 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!” And suddenly, for no apparent reason, there at 3 a.m. in Orleans Mass. I realized that the little narrator wasn't saying he was too young to cry; he was too young to pronounce “Sweep” correctly. You see, in 18th century England, when Blake was writing, little unwanted boys were sold or apprenticed to master chimney sweepers, who would send them inching their ways up narrow chimneys to clean out the soot and clinkers. In the morning, when their workday began, the boys went out into the street to drum up business by crying “Sweep! Sweep!” But our little fellow still couldn't even pronounce his esses.

This was astonishing to me. That it had taken me more than forty years to understand a line of poetry! That poetry could lodge itself in your brain, and fester, and insert itself now and then into your daily or nightly thoughts, until it suddenly bloomed into a piece of enlightenment!

What a trip! I was filled with pleasure and joy. And as I lay marveling at the mysterious ways of mind and memory, it occurred to me that maybe my father, whose head was stuffed with poetry but who was unable to speak and unable to move without assistance for the last years of his life, wasn't lying in bed fretting about his condition or remembering his youth or wishing he could go to the bathroom by himself, but was silently reciting poetry, thinking about alliteration, or Denise Levertov, or cadence, or the pathetic fallacy, or zeugmas. And every now and then, without warning, he would suddenly understand another truth that previously he had seen only at a slant; and even as yet another ambulance pulled silently up to the loading dock below his window, a burst of pleasure, some literary endorphins, flowed into his slow heart.

I thought it might be a good idea to memorize, quickly, some more poems, so that I would have something to do should I find myself in a similar situation, some day in the no longer so distant future. And then I fell asleep.

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