The starlings are back. I don’t mean the clouds we normally see darkening the sky in late summer or early autumn, or the troupes that nervously strut about fields and lawns pecking at bugs with their stiletto beaks. I mean our starlings are back, our own pair along with their idiot child.
This year their arrival was earlier than usual. Monday morning, February 19, my wife looked out our bedroom window and said, “They’re back,” and I immediately understood. I joined her at the window and there they were, the two males perched in the dying ash tree near our garage, the female sitting on the edge of the garage roof, peering over the side inspecting the old squirrel hole along the roof line. Then, for the next several hours, they flew in and out of their annual summer home, carting out the refuse of the previous year’s nesting, carrying in assorted bits of dead grass and fluff they’d found in our dismal pre-spring yard.
For nearly a decade, the ritual was always the same. They’d arrive early, clean things up and build anew, and then disappear for as long as two weeks. We still don’t know where they go for that in-between time, maybe a short vacation to Hawaii to gather strength for the busyness after they return, or maybe to buy new furniture. Who knows?
Then sometime in early March, they’d come back, this time to begin the process of starling continuance: fertilizing eggs, laying eggs, hatching eggs, and then feeding the tiny, but seemingly insatiable, offspring.
As the young starlings grew, the parents would spend more and more time flying in and out trying to keep up with the demands of infant appetites. By cycle’s end, they seemed to spend every waking minute doing nothing but feeding the voracious brood of three or four or five. All day long, back and forth. And the raucous chirping of the nestlings would get louder and louder with each feeding, with every day’s growth, until finally, we could see them crowded together at the entrance waiting openmouthed for whatever morsels a parent brought them. Tweakie, our Siamese-calico cat, caused the only interruption to this feeding frenzy, climbing the willow tree on the beside the garage and squatting on the roof just above the opening. The parents would sit in the ash tree screaming bird obscenities or fly above, trying to drive her away. But Tweakie, catlike, would ignore them. Finally, bored with the game, she’d stretch leisurely and then saunter to the willow to climb down until the next day’s bird-baiting. The starlings would cluck and scold until eventually, convinced that Tweakie wasn’t just faking her departure, they’d recommence their non-stop airlift.
Then one day our backyard would be silent. No more feeding, no more squalling chicks—no more starlings. Like magic they’d all disappear. Only once did we get to witness the early flight lessons and departure of the young birds. All the other times, they either got them going too early for us to see, or they sneaked them out in the dead of night to avoid the interference of curious cats and humans. Where had they gone? Maybe to the seashore for a graduation party.
Sometime in mid-June, childless now, they’d return to start all over with a second set of young, this time not bothering to build a new nest, making do with the old.
Most people don’t care much for starlings and prefer to call them grackles, a far uglier name which, they feel, better suits the bird’s ugliness. But my wife and I have come to think of them as curiously beautiful creatures. Granted, their bodies are unbeautiful: short-tailed, colored a sort of mottled gray-black, with beaks like yellow needles. And they seem aerodynamically impractical: stubby wings on chunky bodies, like unwieldy Ford trimotors. Yet they fly as well as the noblest eagle. And they strut and fidget unbeautifully as they move along roadsides or forage in fields. But beauty’s in the eye of the beholder, and we’ve beheld them in the beauty of their familial devotion.
Also uncharacteristic, their songs and cries are surprisingly diverse, and even musical. When the female is ready to begin a new brood, she’ll sit high in one of our tall pines, cooing and gurgling in unpredictable patterns, all the while hoisting her wings like bellows and puffing out her breast feathers. We’ve watched her there, all by herself, warbling privately, oblivious to us and the rest of the world, perfectly content with herself and her approaching motherhood.
Then there’s the slow child. What other bird would take on the lifelong responsibility of caring for an offspring born a little short in the forehead? About four years ago, when they returned in the spring, there were three of them where always before they’d been two. They’d either fallen into a menagé a trois or one of their children was with them, a son or daughter either retarded or reluctant to leave home. We’d prefer to believe it’s the slow child lovingly cared for by unselfish parents, a child who’s been with them ever since that first arrival four years ago.
If ever mankind should finally go the way of the dinosaur, some people believe cockroaches will be next to dominate the planet. My wife and I think it may very well be starlings.
* * * * * * * * * * * * "Trees"
I mark the passage of my life with trees, blazing each with a deep cut to help me find my way back to my beginnings whenever I need to go there.
I remember a tall pine that once grew near the first house in my memory when I was about five. People who grow up in South Dakota probably develop this arboreal attentiveness early on, having so few trees to begin with. I don’t know if the pine was there when we moved in or if my father planted it sometime later, but I remember it as being always tall, or maybe I was so little. It was a short-needled spruce, and so thick with branches the eye couldn’t penetrate to the trunk, the lower branches wide and heavy and brushing the ground like a grandam’s skirt. My father must have loved that tree, for he took it with him through two house moves covering the majority of his life, at least that portion while I was around.
When I was eight we moved to a new house, and the tree came with us. Even in those days it had to be expensive to move a tree that size. But he did it without hesitation, and it flourished for the five years we lived there.
Five years later, when I was thirteen, we moved to the house across from the city park, and the tree came with us. Now this was no Christmas tree six or seven feet tall. Even when it was moved the first time, it loomed over the house and us, nearly thirty feet to the tip. I can still picture it, at least thirty-five feet when it made the final move. In all the years it was a part of my life, it was always tall and full, even during the invasions of tiny red spiders, infestations my father fought tooth and nail, winning each battle while he was there to fight. A few years ago, the last time I visited Mobridge, I noticed the tree was no longer there in our front yard, and I wondered when it had gone the way of all things, men and trees alike, wondered whether it had blown over in a South Dakota wind storm or if the new owners of that house on the park, feeling no familial devotion, had simply cut it down. Or if it had finally just died, giving up the ghost, as my father had.
During my teens, a silver maple outside my bedroom window umbrellaed over practically our entire back yard. The branches were white and smooth, heavy and protective, crooking upward like arms at the elbow, wonderful for climbing and perching on. Every year in May or June, the tree would do its thing, producing seedpods that popped cotton, and for weeks the air would be filled with summer snow.
It wasn’t only the silver maples that snowed in South Dakota. It’s been said by mean-spirited out-of-staters that the state tree of South Dakota should be the telephone pole. I’m not sure what it is, but it could very well be the cottonwood. They’re everywhere, growing like weeds in the dry South Dakota soil. The cottonwood is a soft tree, easily grown but easily broken. I remember them especially down along the Missouri River bottom, supplying the only shade to be found on the hot summer afternoons when I and my friends would hike down to the river to fish or to swim . . . or just to while away the hot South Dakota days. Every year, sometime in early summer, they too would spill their loads of cotton, filling the air and spreading their seed. Another tree peculiar to my hometown was the box elder. I’ve never lived anywhere else where there were box elders. I’ve never even seen a box elder anywhere except in Mobridge, South Dakota, and I’ve never regretted the loss. The box elder has some sort of symbiotic relationship with that wretched creature, the box elder bug. I don’t know what this bug’s connection to the tree is, but every summer there would suddenly be clouds of box elder bugs, locusts descending on Egypt. Like winged grasshoppers or ladybugs, they would fly with open carapace, wings chittering for short ungainly spurts, graceless as schoolboys in a grade school musical. They were black and red with narrow bodies about half an inch long, and they would be everywhere—mounding on window sills, crunching underfoot on sidewalks, diving down the backs of shirts and blouses, swooping into glasses of milk just before one’s swallowing (or, worse yet, just at the moment of one’s swallowing). I’ve never since seen a box elder bug, and I can live the rest of my life quite nicely if I never do. And the same goes for the box elder tree.
Apple trees. There weren’t many in Mobridge, but I and other young thieves in town had the best ones marked for our nightly summer raids. It wasn’t as though we were starving or that the fruit was especially delicious. Quite the opposite. These were crabapple trees, and the apples were appropriately named. Ah, but they were forbidden. We would make our late night, late summer assaults in silence broken only by an occasional giggle. We climbed their friendly trunks and smooth branches and stuffed those little green apples in pockets and shirtfronts until we had more than we could ever eat or want to eat. Usually, somewhere in the darkness of nine or ten o’clock, someone in the house would hear us and come out screaming, and we’d scramble down and make our stumbling getaway. Then we’d find some safe harbor in the darkness, deep in the honeysuckle bushes at the southeast corner of the city park or behind a billboard along the highway. We’d munch a few until we’d satisfied our appetites (appletites?) or our sense of adventure. The rest would be squandered on target practice at streetlights or nearby buildings . . . or each other. And the next day in various bathrooms around town, we’d all pay the price for our thievery.
Rosalie and I have lived in our present home in New York for nearly two decades now, and there have been many trees through the years. Two dying maples in our front yard had to go a few years after we moved in. The wind at night would knock down dead branches and I’d find them scattered on the lawn the next day—bone-white where the bark had husked away, worm-eaten, dry and lifeless. I never learned what sort of insect did the damage, planting eggs that later emerged as fat, voracious maple-gluttons, but once they arrived, their malignancy was certain . . . but slow. The trees died from out to in, every year losing more limbs, every spring putting out fewer leaves, until they were green shadows of their former selves. We finally had them put to sleep—cut down, chopped up, carted away. Rosalie and I, that fall, went into a patch of wild saplings along the railroad tracks and pulled out three shapely youngsters, two to replace the old, one to increase the stock. The two, soft maples, have since shot up nearly thirty feet and are now standing guard near their predecessors’ disappearing stumps. The third, a hard maple half the size of its brothers, occupies a new position off to the left, satisfied that longer life is compensation for slower growth.
In our back yard were two ash trees, an odd tree with which I wasn’t previously familiar. The older they got, the later the leaves appeared in spring and the earlier they fell in autumn. It was almost like the trees became more weary with each year, too tired to produce new growth until coaxed by the strengthening sun, more than ready to lay down their leaves when the sun began to slip south. I took them down a little at a time, amputating dead limbs until there was little left except the central trunks. The one near the back street went first, finally down to six-foot trunk left for worms and ants to work on. The second, near the garage, lasted longer, but it too is now down to ten-foot trunk and one arm. My wife insisted we keep the trunk and arm to accommodate the swing that’s been there through three children and two grandchildren. Now the flat top of the trunk holds two brass squirrels and a bird feeder. The lone branch still supports the swing. We had at first planned to festoon the trunk by planting morning glories at the base, a garland of purple and rose and white to climb the trunk and disguise the dead thing with a mask of life. But this spring we got a nice surprise: there was life in the old girl yet. New sprouts kept forcing their way through the heavy bark, growing straight up along the trunk, thick with tiny, crinkly leaves, wrinkled like a newborn’s face after a difficult birth. We’re sure that by next year we’ll have a creature from a low budget horror movie, a green hulk resembling a monster more than a tree. I love the tall pines along the back of our property that guard us from invading eyes. This spring, after near-record rainfall, one of them lost its grip in the softened ground, and a windstorm one night half tipped it over. It now hangs at forty-five degrees across the other pines, partly supported by its neighbor’s branches, partly by a toehold in the now firm soil. I’m sure it must drive our neighbors crazy. They must look out at that crazy slant and wonder if and when I’m going to cut it down. Live and let live, I say, and as long as it stays if not upright, at least half right, I’ll leave it there. Besides, our neighbors need something to talk about, and better our trees than our love life.
I love the huge maple near our kitchen door that shades the entire house. I love the white and purple lilacs that grow out in back along the garage and near the pines. I love the cherry tree behind the garage, on whose fruit in late spring hundreds of hungry robins gorge themselves. I love much less the flowering crab on our east property line. Word of my past apple raids must have gotten to it through some arboreal collective unconscious. Every other year it flowers and produces thousands of small, inedible green apples that plop to the ground all summer long and make my lawn mowing a squishy nightmare. It’s either mow right over the apples or rake them in piles and bag them. But what does one do these days with bags and bags of rotting apples? I’m much happier with the tree in the off years, the loss of blossoms a fair tradeoff for the lack of apples. Next year will be blossomless, but the following year it will have to go the way of the dying maples.
One of my favorite trees shouldn’t be a tree at all. When we moved in, nearly twenty years ago, the previous owners had stuck a pussy willow branch in the ground next to the garage. It should have remained a bush, or so we thought. After twenty years’ growth and twenty years’ trimming, it now towers above our garage, no longer a bush, but a full-grown pussy willow tree. And each spring we enjoy its early display of silky catkins before they give way to summer leaves.
When we finally move again, I think I’ll take the pussy willow with me. Not the whole thing, mind you, just a twig to replant in my next life—to watch it grow from twig to bush to tree. I hope I have enough time left for one more willow tree. Besides, trees are meant for moving. My father, I’m sure, would understand.
* * * * * * * * * * * * "Identifying the Body"
In 1994 I was trying to think of ways to spur the memory for autobiographical purposes and I came up with this physiological cataloguing of injuries to one’s body as a way to get things bubbling. It struck me at the time that I probably have far fewer such injuries than most people, a condition more attributable to dumb luck than any caution on my part. I decided I should make note of each and every scar and deformity on my body and then tell how each came about, sort of an aid to the coroner in case my body should ever need to be identified by something other than my teeth. An inventory of identifying marks. It seems to me everybody needs to be able to identify his own body. And nobody can know as much about all those marks as the person whose body has them.
I have very few scars, probably far fewer than most people. I wonder what that says about my life—pretty dull maybe, fairly non-violent, or maybe just lucky.
My left eyebrow has a half-inch scar bisecting it, not even visible anymore it happened so long ago. I’ve already written about this incident in the first chapter. I got it when I was eleven or twelve and Bill Sherman and I were digging in the Indian ruins down near the river. The old shovel into the eyebrow bit.
Inside my right eye socket near the top of my nose, I have a tiny scar I got playing racquetball when I was about fifty-one or -two. Nothing very exciting about how I got it. Bud or Hubie, one or the other, hit a hard shot that hit my glasses and in the process cut my eye when the nose piece compressed the flesh before the glasses flew off. No big deal, but it left a small scar after the black and blue disappeared. It should be noted that I’d probably have lost the eye if I hadn’t been wearing glasses.
I also have a half-inch scar on top of my left thumb near the second joint. I was just home from Korea and working behind the meat counter in my father’s grocery store. My brother Bob was teaching me the finer points of butchering, and I either didn’t yet realize just how sharp butcher knives are or I didn’t care. I was twenty at the time, so it could have been either. Someone came in and ordered several cuts from a sirloin tip, a big sloppy pyramid of boneless beef cut from the top of the sirloin off the front quarter. I was in the process of cutting the steaks when the knife slipped and I cut myself deeply on the top of the thumb. Instead of just stopping and apologizing for the delay while I bound myself up, I went ahead with the steak cutting, trying to hold the cut to keep it from bleeding. I can still remember curling my left index finger over the cut and squeezing as hard as I could to keep the blood from flowing. Needless to say, that didn’t work, and I must have included a bit of my blood with the steaks I cut. Not a pleasant thought in light of what we now know about AIDS, but at the time we knew nothing about the dangers of transferring body fluids.
My left big toe has a scar running almost right through it side to side below the nail. One summer when I was about fouirteen, Billy Spiry, my bratty eleven-year-old neighbor, was mowing his lawn with a gas mower. I, to bug him, stood in his way and pretended not to see him coming. He, to show I couldn’t bug him, kept right on coming, right over my foot. I vividly remember the sound as the blade went through my shoe and the feel of it as it cut through my toe. Oh, did that smart, and oh, was I stupid. I don’t remember much about what happened after that except that Doc Spiry sewed the top up and bandaged it without charging my parents anything.
My right little fingernail is slightly deformed from having it smashed in a car door when I was about four. I was already in the back seat but the door was still open. I put my little finger in the frame at the back of the doorway, I can’t begin to imagine. Then someone, probably my mother, slammed the door. Oh, did that smart, and oh, was I stupid. I’m sure nothing much was done about it, since the fingers of little kids often get smashed flat and they seem to grow out of it. At least mine did, except for the nail, which to this day sort of bends down from the middle to the tip.
I have a blue dot just above my right knee slightly right of center. Many people must have at least one of these somewhere on their legs. And I’ll bet most everybody can say how it got there. Right, you guessed it—a pencil wound, number two lead. In grade school, probably third or fourth grade, somebody turned around and jabbed a pencil into my leg right through the pants. Probably some girl I’d been bugging and she got so angry she let me have it with the first weapon that came to hand, a good old Ticonderoga. I’m sure it must have hurt like hell, but I’d have been too proud to let some little bratfaced girls see my anguish. I have another one on my left arm, two inches above my watch. I must not have learned my lesson about angry girls. I still have not learned that lesson. It would be interesting sometime to do a poll on the number of people who have such marks somewhere on their bodies.
On my left knee, now nearly indiscernible, there’s a dime-size circle of wrinkly skin where I fell down on the sidewalk in back of Appleby’s house and skidded a short way, abrading the flesh from that spot. My sphincter contracts just thinking about it. It’s mostly faded away after all these years, and I can see it now only when I straighten my leg completely.
The only time a doctor has ever cut me open was for a double hernia when I was forty-eight. I’m sure the scars are still there, but I can’t find them through the pubic hair. These aren’t scars I’d want anyone to be looking for anyway.
That takes care of all outer marks, some visible, some not so visible. I’ve had very few broken bones, but I’m sure an x-ray would show a few. When I was twenty-one, working in New York in that Bulova Watch factory I earlier mentioned, I broke the first metatarsal on my left foot. In French, the word for left hand is “gauche,” which we’ve taken to mean awkward. I seem to have a very awkward, a very gauche left foot. It’s the same foot I sprained so bad in the state basketball tournament when I was seventeen. And it’s the same foot I would later do serious harm to in a home accident when I was fifty-five.
I never checked to confirm if anything was broken, but I’m reasonably certain something was. My foot tells me now when the weather gets strange, or when I’ve walked a golf course for too many holes or played too much racquetball. I get this little voice from my left foot screaming quietly, “What have you done to me, you idiot?” I was working in the yard of our house in Lakewood, moving concrete slabs from the side of the house around to the back. You ask, concrete slabs? Yes, slabs about four feet by two feet that were along the west side of the house as an old walk from front to rear. We no longer needed them since our side porch was so close to it. I was moving them out to the back—one at the base of the side porch ramp going to the back sidewalk, one to the steps up to the back deck, one at the end of the sidewalk by the garage. They weighed about five hundred pounds apiece so my method for moving them was to stand them upright, then walk them corner to corner. Obviously it would have made more sense to get someone to help me and between us we could have just picked the block up and either carried it to the new spot or put it on a wheelbarrow or some such conveyance. Bit I never do things sensibly. I’d rather do it by myself than ask for someone’s help. Actually it was fairly easy once I got a block upright. The trick was in getting it up. And therein lies the problem. I was doing exactly that, bending down with hands under one end of the block, then lifting with legs and back. Sounds remarkably like what I was doing with the oil drum back in the Bulova plant thirty-four years earlier, right?. I should have learned from that sorry experience, right? Wrong. Same thing happened with the block. I got it nearly all the way up and then I slipped a little and the weight of the block caused me to lose control. I scrambled to get out of the way once I’d let it go, but not in time. My left foot, my awkward left foot, wasn’t quick enough and the edge of the block crashed down and caught my left ankle, then pinned it against the edge of another block, first block on the inside, other block on the outside, bending my foot at a very odd angle. Naturally there was no one around I could call. Besides, I felt too silly to have wanted anyone to see the mess I’d made of myself. With the help of a little adrenaline, I somehow got the top block lifted again, enough for me to get my foot out from under it. And then I hopped around to the back door and inside to examine the damage, still hoping no one had seen me hopping. The skin just above the ankle bone was badly cut and the ankle was already starting to swell like a balloon. I bandaged the cut and iced the ankle, and the whole foot was by this time pounding like an African Zulu drum. I never did go to a doctor about it, because I just hate to go to doctors. But I’m reasonably sure I must have broken a few bones along with spraining the ankle. My arch aches now whenever I’ve been on my feet too long. Some mornings, after racquetball the day before, the whole foot protests my never going for x-rays. “Bah!” I say right back. “Foot, heal thyself. I don’t want to hear any more about doctors.”
Now that I look it over, my list doesn’t seem very long. Surely, most people would have a more extensive inventory of cuts and contusions and fractures. I guess if I ever do somehow get involved in an accident that leaves me featureless and fingerprintless, officials won’t have a whole lot to go on to figure out who I am . . . was. I guess I’d better avoid such circumstances and always carry proper identification.
* * * * * * * * * * * * "Poetic Ambiquity"
Although the term poetry is nearly impossible to define (as is evident whenever a poet talks about his craft), most poets agree on one poetic principle—that poetry says more than its prose equivalent, that poetry must get more miles per gallon than prose. I am not including in this generalization narrative poems, which, it might be argued, say the same thing as prose statements but say it in metrical form. Metaphoric language, symbolism, allusions, nearly all the poetic devices have helped the poet of any age to achieve this compaction of meaning. Modern poets, however, are often accused of an unfair obscurity in their poems, unfair because there are insufficient clues in the poem to allow the reader to solve the puzzle. Obscurity in a poem might be considered fair when, after a reasonable length of time and with a reasonable number of reference books, the reader is able to break the code and arrive at nearly the meaning the poet intended. Syntactic ambiguity is one device often used today to obtain a degree of obscurity. When used effectively this ambiguity expands and enriches the meaning of the poem; when the ambiguity becomes too diffuse, the poet has defeated himself—that is, he has failed in his primary task of communicating his ideas or feelings to the reader.
Perhaps I can best illustrate this use of ambiguity by examining a poem of E. E. Cummings, whose dislocated syntax and eccentric use of punctuation often serve as trademarks for his poetry:
The syntax of each stanza is identical; therefore, an examination of one stanza will serve for the entire poem. Each stanza consists on one complex sentence. The first line contains two coordinate, front-positional appositives in apposition with the pronoun subject “they” of the main clauses “they sell and they buy / and they die,” although in the first stanza the two nouns “the greedy the people” are not entirely coordinate as they are in the first lines of the other four stanzas. The adjective “greedy,” functioning as a noun meaning “the greedy ones,” is not equal to “the people,” for I do not think that Cummings means that all people are greedy. The meaning is closer to “the greedy people” or “the people who are greedy.”
The second line is a parenthetical modifier of the nouns in the first line. For several reasons, this line is syntactically the most difficult of the stanza. The reader first sees the “as if” as a subordinating conjunction introducing an adverb clause, “as can yes.” But unless Cummings has forced “as” to function as a noun subject of the verb phrase “can yes,” this line makes no sense. Examination of the syntax in the second lines of the other stanzas shows this reading to be correct. Even the rhythmic pattern is not parallel. The second “as,” read as the subject of “can yes,” would be accented, and “if,” read as part of the subordinating conjunction “as if,” would not be accented. Thus, the rhythm of the line would be “(as if as can yes).” Clearly this is not the rhythm of the parallel lines and should instead be read “(as if as can yes).” The rhythm of the line now suggests the possible parallel to a familiar syntactic pattern, “as clean as can be.” Read thus, “if” becomes an adjective, the quality of “if-ness,” the degree of which is compared to what the greedy people might (“can”) possess of “yes-ness.” Cummings seems to be setting up a pair of contrasting qualities to describe the kind of people referred to in the first line. Examination of the second lines of the other four stanzas supports this reading. The syntax of the line, then, has the adverb “as” modifying the adjective “if”; the second “as” becomes a subordinating conjunction introducing the adverb clause “can yes” with the understood subject “they”; the adverb clause modifies the adjective “if”; and the entire structure in line two modifies the two noun appositives in line one.
Lines three and four contain the three main clauses of the sentence, “they sell and they buy / and they die,” followed by the prepositional phrase “for because,” which adverbially modifies the three main verbs “sell,” “buy,” and “die.” Again Cummings has forced a word out of its normal function into a different form class, as he had done earlier with “if” and “yes.” Here, “because,” normally a subordinating conjunction, becomes a noun as object of the preposition “for.” The word is purposely vague, suggesting rational thought instead of emotion, suggesting that the greedy people live and die according to patterns they have coldly reasoned out. The effectiveness of this word lies in its surprise value and its suggestiveness to the reader. No concrete noun or paraphrase of what it connotes works nearly as well.
The last two lines consist of an adverb clause as sentence modifier, contrasting what Cummings feels is the correct way of seeing and living life with what he has said in the first four lines about the greedy people’s way of life.
The poem has a unity that is effective in communicating Cummings’ theme. Each stanza employs a parallel structure that reinforces the meaning of each separate stanza. Where the lines may be too obfuscated in one stanza, clues to the meaning and syntax are given in the equivalent lines in other stanzas. And just as the reader accustoms himself to this parallelism throughout the poem, Cummings plays with the language of the last stanza, surprising the reader with a pun and aptly concluding with one last succinct statement of theme. The last word of line four of each stanza contrasts directly with the last word of the stanza (because-Why, which-Who, seem-Be, until-Now, must-May). The reader observes this and expects this contrast to hold true throughout the poem. And it does, at least on one level. In the last stanza the auxiliary verb “must” has become a noun suggesting that “the timid the tender” live in the belief that they must conform to unbendable and unbreakable rules and conventions, either social or divine. The last word “May,” also an auxiliary verb, suggest the opposite, a permissiveness, or at least our ability to shape our own destinies to some extent. The joy we receive in the double meaning of “May” comes when our minds register that Cummings also means the month of May, “the earth in her splendor” giving the lie to the greedy, the chary, the busy, the cunning, the timid. Cummings’ theme is concentrated in that last word—spring, love, and joy of life.
Many readers of Cummings’ poems are put off by his lack of punctuation (or at least his erratic use when he does choose to punctuate), his lack of capitalization to indicate where sentences begin, his ambiguous syntax, and his changing the form class of words to main new meanings. I do not believe that his obscurity is generally unfair, however. He, like many other poets accused of needless obscurity, asks for our patience. The solution is usually there and, if the poem is inventive and true and honest and significant, is worth our time spent untangling its web.