I really liked The Joy Luck Club; then I liked The Kitchen God's Wife even more; and The Hundred Secret Senses even more than that. Good Better Best. (The Bonesetter's Daughter, not so much; but that's okay.) In all these novels, Amy Tan has created so many moments of pure magic, you might find it difficult to choose a favorite, but for me it's easy: Chapter 12 in The Hundred Secret Senses: "The Best Time To Eat Duck Eggs."
In this chapter, Kwan tells Libby about the thousand-year duck eggs, buried years before in her previous life as Miss Moo, when she shared an understated romance with the peddler, Zeng who provided her with empty canning jars for storing the lime-cured eggs. Each week they exchange these tokens: a jar for Miss Moo and an egg for Zeng, until times get hard and food of any kind, including eggs, has become scarce. Even though Miss Moo no longer has any pickled eggs to share, kindly Zeng proffers the jar, this time not empty but filled with rice to see her through the lean stretch. She is overwhelmed by his generosity: "So heavy with feelings! Was this love? Is love rice in a jar, no need to give back an egg?" (181).
To answer Kwan's question: Yes! That's love, pure and simple, no strings attached, no angle, no need to give back an egg. Love in the open hand, wishing to help, wishing not to hurt. The same love described by Edna St. Vincent Millay in her tender sonnet:
Not in a silver casket cool with pearls
Or rich with red corundum or with blue,
Locked, and the key withheld, as other girls
Have given their loves, I give my love to you;
Not in a lovers'-knot, not in a ring
Worked in such fashion, and the legend plain—
Semper fidelis, where a secret spring
Kennels a drop of mischief for the brain:
by Kate Greenaway
(1846 - 1901)
Love in the open hand, no thing but that,
Ungemmed, unhidden, wishing not to hurt,
As one should bring you cowslips in a hat
Swung from the hand, or apples in her skirt,
I bring you, calling out as children do:
"Look what I have!—And these are all for you."
A few months ago, when I mentioned this sonnet on my daily blog, I knew that it deserved another, longer look. Millay is undoubtedly one of the the most-mentioned writers in my literary discussions, and always one of my top choices for desert island reading. I know you're supposed to say The Bible or Shakespeare, but I'd be more inclined to pack the sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay.
What I admire about "Sonnet XI" is its innocence and optimism, a poem to read when you fear that what you have to offer, the things that you hold out are not being accepted, not even when you say, "these are all for you." And what are those things? Not diamond rings so much as thoughts, ideas, values, dreams, favorite poems, past experiences, rice in a jar, cowslips in a hat -- all the things that add to up to your own particular way of being in the world. How sad the thought of offering honest companionship and getting the message, "Oh, no, you should be a different way than what you are."
This sonnet says that you deserve someone who offers you "Love in the open hand / no thing but that." However lovely the gifts and delightful the tokens, they should always be offered freely out of tenderness and a desire for your company -- just the way you are -- never as a way to control or "improve." And better yet, when you offer your affection and your deepest hopes and dreams, "ungemmed, unhidden, wishing not to hurt," they should be accepted freely -- not scrutinized or analyzed or held up against the light or laughed at or brushed aside or put on hold. Kwan's story says to avoid the selfish lovers who give "only enough to take back what they wanted from me" (181). Not all are as trustworthy and pure of heart as dear Mr. Zeng.
Take care of your heart.
Knowing, as I'm sure you do by now, that one of the imperatives for this blog is a poem for every poem, here are a few others to go along with Millay's sonnet.
First, this song by Donovan:
Your smile - beams like sunlight - on a gull's wing
and the leaves - dance and play - after you
Take my hand - and hold it - as you would a flower
take care with my heart - oh darling - she's made of glass
Your eyes - feel like silence - resting on me
and the birds - cease to sing - when you rise
Ride easy - your fairy stallion - you have mounted
take care how you fly - my precious - you might fall down
In the pastel skies - the sunset - I have wandered
with my eyes and ears and heart - strained to the full
I know I tasted the essence - in the few days
take care who you love - my precious - he might not know
words and music by Donovan Leitch (b. 1946)
British singer, songwriter, guitarist
sung by Joan Baez (b. 1941)
American folk singer, songwriter, activist.
Second, this childhood reverie:
I Shall Come Back
I shall be coming back to you
From seas, rivers, sunny meadows,
Glens that hold secrets:
I shall come back with my hands full
Of light and flowers....
I shall bring back things I have picked up,
Traveling this road or the other,
Things found by the sea or in the pinewood.
There will be a pine-cone in my pocket,
Grains of pink sand between my fingers.
I shall tell you of a golden pheasant’s
Will you know me?
composed at age 10 - 12, by Hilda Conkling (1910 - 86)
American child poet
And third, this long poem:
John Logan (1923 - 87)
American poet and teacher
I discovered "The Picnic" my Senior year in high school, in the anthology I have mentioned a few times before: Some Haystacks Don't Even Have Any Needle. I suppose it is the "apples in her skirt" in Millay's poem that brings to mind "the long, striped skirt" worn by the girl Ruth in Logan's poem, and "the loop where the blouse buttoned." Ruth is the poet's date for the school picnic; and although he admits that she was only "third on my list of seven girls," he is pleased to spend the day with her and finds himself falling in love for the very first time:
We went for our lunch away from the rest,
Stretched in the new grass, our heads close . . .
And our hands were together. She laughed,
And a breeze caught the edge of her little
Collar and the edge of her brown, loose hair . . .
I felt a soft caving in my stomach
As at the top of the highest slide
When I had been a child, but was not afraid . . .
Similar to the "cowslips in a hat," described in Millay's sonnet, Logan portrays Ruth sifting sea shells and offering them as a souvenir of the special day:
And Ruth played with some shells from the creek,
As I watched. Her small wrist which was so sweet
To me turned by her breast and the shells dropped
Green, white, blue, easily into her lap,
Passing light through themselves. She gave the pale
Shells to me, and got up and touched her hips
With her light hands, and we walked down slowly
To play the school games with the others.
Hanging Out in the Tree House Before the Prom
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