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A Bittersweet Consolation on the Anniversary of my Mother’s 99th Birthday

It’s been a hard year. First, our dear corgi, Gwen, died after a difficult illness.

Dear Gwen when she was enjoying the sun in fall.

Most tragically, my oldest beloved brother, Bob, died of cancer two months later.

With my beloved brother, Bob, the last time I saw him alive in July, 2021. We were on Mt. Holyoke with Mt. Tom in the distance. It was a glorious day. Everything was glorious with him.

My son broke his tibia in two places. Not a tragedy, but a challenge for a young man who loves to walk.

In sum: a difficult time. I’m an optimist by nature, but this year has challenged me mightily.

Then in December, my daughter asked if we had any books that needed to be bound properly as she was to attend a workshop on bookbinding and conservation. Did we ever! Coming from a family nick-named “the Morrison writing factory” by my mom Joan, we had books galore–many tattered, with spines falling off and pages torn and ripped. I pulled a number out, assuring her, “There are more, if you like!”

I flipped through the pages of one book, Approaches to Poetry (1935), and– lo and behold–a loose notebook page fell out. It had writing on it. A poem. Of Joan’s? Yes! She must have been about 16 or 17 when she wrote this.

Found December 2, 2021 in Approaches to Poetry

I will make you brooches and toys for your delight

Of bird song at morning and starfire at at night

I will make a palace fit for you and me

Of green days in forests and blue days at sea.

 

I will make my kitchen and you shall keep your room

Where white flows the river and bright blows the broom

And you shall work your linen and keep your body white

In rainfall at morning and dewfall at nite.

 

And this shall be for music when no one else is ware

The fine song for singing, the rare song to hear

That only I remember, that only you admire

Of the broad road that stretches and roadside fire.

Page 1 of the newly discovered poem followed by the start of some prose about hiking which she is clearly editing several times.

Later, as I told my husband Jim about all this, I lifted up yet another book–World Literature (edited by E. A. Cross, also 1935)–of my mother’s I had held numerous times. I opened it to gaze within, seeing her inscription: “Joan Wehlen October 26, 1938 U-High.” In the Table of Contents, she had transcribed this famous quote from Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” Coming from a family with socialist leanings in the wake of the Depression, this sentiment must have resonated. She also had transcribed the word “Hrunting”–the name of the sword loaned to Beowulf by Unferth.

I flipped through and this fell out from among the pages of Cicero:

“Cavalier Poet to his Lady”

How could this be? I had heard my parents joke about this poem many times. “Cavalier Poet to his Lady” was inspired by the metaphysical poets and Carpe Diem poems from the early 17th century. In fact, I had transcribed a slightly different version years ago. This one seems to have been edited with a date included–maybe 11-24-78 (?)–though my earlier transcription dates it as December 13, 1941. She clearly returned to this poem, perhaps in hopes of publishing it late in life.

Since it was originally written 6 days after Pearl Harbor, Carpe Diem must have been on everyone’s minds. Here is this newly discovered version, in all its humorous glory.      

     Cavalier Poet to his Lady

         And why so great a fuss about a thing

         So quickly done and soon forgotten?

         Indeed, you set upon yourself a price

         That others will not thereon set.

         You in your grave when you are lying sweetly rotten

         May gloat o’er your preserved virginity

         But none will want it yet.

 

         Yea, sweetheart, if thou canst not love

         Yet in humility do what you can

         To light the path from birth to grave

         And cheer the heart of man.

My mom has certainly cheered my heart! And I hope this story has cheered yours. I feel that Joan knew I needed her consoling words at this, her 99th birthday and the day before the darkest day of the year. May it only get brighter from now on.

Page 2 of the sheet with the newly discovered poem and some edited prose about hiking

 

Song of the Lark

 

Song of the Lark, by Jules Adolphe Breton (France) 1884

The Song of the Lark was one of my mother’s favorite paintings. This poem in The Ekphrastic Review is inspired by both my mother and that beautiful work of art at The Art Institute in Chicago. She even writes about it in her diary on Sunday, May 30, 1938 (age 15):

. . . Friday night Mom and I went to Lake View to see Il Trovatore—given by American Opera Company. Mom went to sleep during it and I had to hold my eyelids up! Are we cultural!

Mom and I went downtown and I got me a new peasant—dusty pink—dress. I look like the Song of the Lark or something. It’s a dirndl and awfully cute.

 

 

“Another Troy” is Finalist for Literary Award

Another Troy has been chosen as a finalist for the 2021 Eric Hoffer Award!

I’m so delighted that Another Troy has been recognized yet again, chosen as a finalist for the 2021 Eric Hoffer Award! Congratulations to my mother Joan, whose verse I edited in this chapbook published by Finishing Line Press.

“Another Troy” Wins Literary Award!

I’m delighted to announce that Another Troy won the Gold Medal for the 2021 Human Relations Indie Book Awards. The book won in the category of Wisdom Poetry. Despite her youth, my mother, Joan Wehlen Morrison, wrote wise poetry. As she ponders shortly after the start of World War II, “Did I Make the World?”

         Here are we two and the night is white clouded

         And the dream-music drifting out the window

         Punctuated at the hour by themes broadcast

         And we return to Träumerei.

         I can hardly believe

         Even now the pulp of flesh is draining white

         In Poland, that there is any life anywhere

         Save this dream life of ours.

         Perhaps all this world is only ‘I imagine.’

         All mine.  I made it.

         (September 25, 1939)

Christmas is a Happy Day


TWO WATERCOLORS: ANN DANCING, AROUND A CHRISTMAS TREE 1932 , 1939 by
Waldo Peirce (American, 1884–1970)

My mother, Joan, wrote poetry starting at an early age. Her mature verse has recently been published in Another Troy. For holiday fun, here is one from when she was aged 10 in 1932. Enjoy!

Christmas

Christmas is a happy day,

Everyone so glad and gay.

Toys and dolls and boxes, too,

 A Merry Christmas to you and you!

Unlikely Partners: “Song of the Lark” and Bill Murray

“Song of the Lark” by Jules Breton

My mother grew up in Chicago and frequented the Art Institute of Chicago. She often wrote about the art there in her diary and poetry. The Song of the Lark, the painting by Jules Breton, was one of Joan’s favorites. Today, on what would have been her 98th birthday, I would like to share a moment from her diary and a brief interview with Bill Murray. This interview is one my husband shared with me today and brought a tear to my eye. Please give it a listen–Bill Murray is quite moving. And my mom’s diary entry belongs to a different mode of thought–still, the painting is very familiar to her!

Sunday, May 30, 1938 [age 15]

. . . Friday night Mom and I went to Lake View to see Il Trovatore—given by American Opera Company. Mom went to sleep during it and I had to hold my eyelids up! Are we cultural!

Mom and I went downtown and I got me a new peasant—dusty pink—dress. I look like the Song of the Lark or something. It’s a dirndl and awfully cute.

B.B.B.B. [Beautiful blue-eyed boy in Biology class] didn’t come Saturday as I told him not to. Vera got walked out on by a boy again. She’s going to start using Lifebuoy soap.

 

It Takes a Village to Edit Poetry

You can buy the book here

It really does take a village to edit poetry. My mother–Joan Wehlen Morrison–was an accomplished writer and teacher. It was only at her death that her diaries and poetry were found which she had written in the late 1930s and early 1940s as a teenage girl. I edited her diaries which were published in 2012 as the award-winning Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America. My next project became editing her poetry, just published as Another Troy.

But editing poetry is not the easy task you might imagine. First of all, there were hundreds of pages of poetry. The beloved secretary–and dear fast friend–of my parents, Beverly Smith, typed up Joan’s poetry. Not only did she do that, Beverly lived with my dying father after the death of Joan. While he napped, she typed. They ate together with the indispensable aid of Nicki, my father’s delightful and loving health care worker. So my first tribute is to Beverly, a quasi-aunt to me and my brothers. Her cheer and indefatigable nature helped my grieving father in his final days.

The bakery at Pompeii

Then there is my husband’s nephew, Leo. One of Joan’s poems, A.D. 79, is set the day Pompeii is destroyed. In the poem, a boy is reading Latin. My mother’s original cursive handwriting had to be teased out. Was that an “m” or an “n”? If so, what would it mean? “Non omnis moriar.” Leo, whose Ph.D. in Classics meant he was amply able to attend to my question, spent time laboring over the passage I scanned for him.

He wrote back:

“Non omnis moriar” is a famous bit of Horace, from Odes 3.30:

exegi monumentum aere perennius
re
galique situ pyramidum altius,
quod non imber edax, non Aquilo impotens
possit diruere aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum.
non omnis moriar…

I have made a monument more lasting than bronze,
taller than the royal site of the pyramids,
which neither corrosive rain, nor the powerless North Wind,
nor the endless chain of years and the passage of time
Will be able to rip from its roots.
Not all of me will die...”

Horace 3.30 is one of the loci classici for expressions of poetic immortality in Latin. The text above is quoted from Wickham’s 1901 Oxford Classical Text edition.

Leo and I exchanged a number of emails along these lines, plus he was doing research to double check the passage for me. I couldn’t have edited this poem successfully without his invaluable and much appreciated help.

The carbonized loaf of bread at Pompeii which grieves my mother in her poem about Pompeii.

Given my mother’s reflection on the depressing aspects of life when she was seventeen after the World War II had begun, Leo wrote how she was “emo-Grandma”! This has brought many a chuckle to our family’s lives.

Finally, last but certainly not least: Claudia Cutter. She is a dear friend of my daughter, Sarah. And she, along with Sarah, read the master draft of Joan’s poems (200 pages — much longer than the 50 page chapbook now published) and plowed through the verse, dog-earring their favorites. An English major, I trust Claudia’s impeccable taste. She did this while visiting us in my the family house of my husband Jim in Hull, Massachusetts during spring break. It sounds like a time of trees budding and flowers blossoming, but a dramatic snow storm had just hit. I hope the verse warmed Claudia’s and Sarah’s hearts–their work certainly warmed mine!

 

Once the book was accepted for publication, I had to narrow down which poems would be included. Sarah, my son John, and Jim all read the poems, indicating their favorites (I did as well, of course). Then I collated their choices. If a poem was chosen by all of us, I was sure to include it. Then I proceeded from there. I wanted the reading experience to make an emotional narrative for the reader. This had to be considered, as well as my determination to have them appear chronologically.

So, it may seem “easy”–editing poetry. Take it from me–it isn’t. But with loving friends and family, the task is much easier. I thank them all with deep love and abiding affection and thanks. And, last but certainly not least, little Gwen made working on Joan’s poetry even more delightful–I still can see in my mind’s eye our little corgi watchfully protecting my mom in the kitchen of my childhood home.

Noble Gwen

Pompeii Still Lives

A recent article reveals how the brain cells of a victim in Pompeii of the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79 were found intact. The devastation of that cataclysmic event impressed my mother, Joan, a historian and poet. At age seventeen Joan wrote a poem reflecting on the every day lives of those living in that now-famed, even infamous, Italian city. What caused her grief was the mundane nature of normal people whose lives were destroyed so suddenly. This poem and others can be found in Another Troy, her recently published volume of verse. Here is a section of the poem, A.D 79.

….A girl ran through the street, her cape flapping, scared.

A noise of query rose, then fright and then despair,

A mad race for the sea now black with wind,

Then captured by the ashes of hot death

And all the businessmen and little boys were dead.

I can stand the broken gods of Troy all lost

Or all the empty temples by the sea of Greece

Poets and the philosophers of ancient worlds all dead—

But not the loaves of bread at Pompeii

            ….still uneaten.                        (February 25, 1940)

Another Troy, a book of verse about World War II, is published

I am delighted to announce the publication of Another Troy— the recently discovered World War II poetry by my mother, Joan Wehlen Morrison, author of Home Front Girl. I edited these poems which tell a unique – and true — story as this teenager loses her innocence due to the impending war and its violent arrival. I’ll be blogging about Another Troy along with Home Front Girl on this website. Enjoy these reviews–I know I did! You can buy the book at the website of Finishing Line Press, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble.

Reviews

With growing solicitude at the coming of the Second World War, teenager Joan Wehlen Morrison struggled in her poems to understand the enormous realities of her time while also learning about love and romance, the passage of time, maturity – topics common to most of us at such an age, but topics troubled profoundly by the hatred and loss and violence of the 1930s and 40s. Reading these poems is remembering with nostalgia what it means to be young and setting out. Sadly, they also echo the deeper question that all of us – young and old alike – are today once again forced to ponder: what is to come of us in a world gone mad? In Another Troy, Morrison aches for answers, for truth, in the way only a teenager can.

–Steve Wilson, author of The Reaches

Did you ever own a notebook, and did you open it, perhaps at night, to write about the daily happenings of a world whose pace, magnitude, beauty, and violence staggered your imagination? If so, these poems are for you. Joan Wehlen Morrison’s Another Troy captures what it feels like to be an emerging political, intellectual, and romantic young woman in wartime—when, as William Carlos Williams famously wrote: “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/ of what is found there.” The poems in Another Troy see beauty and brokenness and honor both. “The moon is a bent feather in the sky” in one poem; “there is an empty orchard in Flanders/Rotting in the rain” in another. Tender and aware, these poems cannot help but imagine foreshortened futures, so that when Morrison writes that the “wind was like a boy’s breath,” we wonder if the boy is at war, and if he will live to see adulthood. In other poems, the poet scrutinizes her own life, imagining “this girl in the blue dress and Juliet cap — / I will be utterly disappeared.” Luckily for us, Morrison’s poems have not disappeared, and when she writes, “I am a moving window[,]” I feel lucky to have been able to glimpse the world through it.

–Cecily Parks, author of O’Nights and Field Folly Snow

Prepare to be charmed and enthralled by these beautiful, sincere poems full of artistry and verve. Joan Morrison, born in 1922, confronts the realities of war and love in witty and learned verse. “But darling, platonic as I know we are,/I fear, against all reason, I still want to be/Immensely Epicurean with you,” she writes. Her work transcends the passing seasons of a nation and a life.

–Tina Kelley, author most recently of Rise Wildly and Abloom & Awry (CavanKerry Press)

 

So Lonely in the Rain

Joan at summer camp on September 1, 1939. You can see what wrote exclamation marks after the date.

My mother’s book of poems, Another Troy, is forthcoming. Joan’s writings reflect on war and loss. Here is a journal entry about Memorial Day from when she was age 14 on May 30, 1937: “This is Memorial Day and it rained. Daddy and I went out for a walk and when it rained went under a tree near the statue of the Unknown Soldier. He looked so lonely there in the rain (the Soldier, I mean), and there wasn’t even a wreath to mark the day. It seemed so pitiful. So I picked a little flower from the tree and ran in the rain to lay it at his feet. And I’m sure he knew I did it and was glad that someone remembered him on this day. It was only a little flower, but I’m sure it meant as much as a wreath. I’m glad I did it, as I’m sure the Soldier is ….”

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