Wednesday, April 22, 2009

My Nightingale - Rose Auslander


My mother was a doe in another time.
Her honey-brown eyes
and her loveliness
survive from that moment.

Here she was---
half an angel and half humankind---
the center was mother.
When I asked her once what she would have wanted to be
she made this answer to me: a nightingale.

Now she is a nightingale.
Every night, night after night, I hear her
in the garden of my sleepless dream.

She is singing the Zion of her ancestors.
She is singing the long-ago Austria.
She is singing the hills and beech-woods
of Bukowina.
My nightingale
sings lullabies to me
night after night
in the garden of my sleepless dream.

---Rose Auslander

Rose Auslander's My Nightingale

Last night we looked at Dylan Thomas writing about his father; tonight we shift to Rose Auslander writing about her mother. Parents serve as emotionally charged and deeply reflective topics for poems. Besides giving us life, they infuse our lives with subtle characteristics that evolve significantly as we grow in mind and body. But Rose Auslander's My Nightingale is about more than a mother's continued presence, even after death, in her daughter's life. This poem came to me by way of Edward Hirsch's majestic Poet's Choice. Author of How To Read A Poem, and quite a talented poet, no one writes about poetry better than Edward Hirsch. Honestly, it's not even close. He is blessed with the ability to bring any poem—no matter how complex—to all people. The idea for my blog came after reading Edward Hirsch; I model my blog entries after the tightly written essays collected in Poet's Choice. Hirsch is a genuine student of poetry, searching every inch of the globe and trekking back deep in history to reveal great poems. His focus on women and war lead him to Rose Auslander and her poem My Nightingale, which Hirsch places on his “shortlist of the most radiant mid-twentieth century poems.” Who am I to argue with my idol, I agree.

What makes this poem radiant? The ghostly images that float through the poem bouncing from dreams to the harsh reality of WWII Germany. “My mother was a doe in another time.” Such a beautiful opening image. I see Auslander's mother as a doe stopping to lick the morning dew from grass in a fertile valley, even before “her honey-brown eyes / and her loveliness / survive from that moment.” The diction ending that first stanza is ominous; “survive from that moment” foreshadows tense times ahead. But first Auslander revisits memories to round out the description of her mother. “Half an angel and half humankind— / the center was mother.” The mother as a center is an idea that many of us can associate with. What Rose Auslander comes to find is that at her mother's center is “a nightingale.” This was the reply when Rose “asked her once what she would have wanted to be.” I find this answer to be very imaginative, almost with the unbridled imagination that children possess. As life goes on our minds fill with logic and statistics, striping the power of creativity from our minds and in its place inserting burdens. Just from that answer I know that Rose's mother was a fun woman.

“Now she is a nightingale. / Every night, night after night, I hear her / in the garden of my sleepless dream.” Beautifully haunting, those lines delicately combine conflicting images. Curiously, it is a dream that is sleepless and not a nightmare. Just as perplexing is the idea of a garden of sleepless dreams. Gardens, where life grows, has also become the spot where Auslander's mother resides as a nightingale. And just what is this nightingale singing? She is singing her family history and journeying through the sorrows that have befallen them, “singing the Zion of her ancestors.” These songs reverberate in Rose Auslander's garden of her sleepless dream. These songs keep her family alive. Sincere, yet strained with longing, these are not songs, Auslander terms them “lullabies.” But unlike lullabies putting children gently to sleep, these songs keep Rose Auslander awake. Now I see why her dreams are sleepless; who amongst us would be able to sleep with our deceased mother singing to us “every night, night after night.”

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