"Black God on the black cross, white Christ upon the tree./Sloe-eyed God whose hands are yellow./Red Sun whom the red men follow./Brown-skinned Jesus by the sea./Who, in heaven, fashioned me?"
Cleaning my desk one snowy day, I found yellowed notes I had hurriedly scribbled on scraps of paper. The third line of McNeill's poem was on the first tattered page. Reading it again, I was reminded of the times I had heard McNeill recite her work.
I read the next note.
"As an 'older' student, I consumed Romantic poetry, especially enjoying William Blake. I traveled through the proverbial realms of gold. I visited Coleridge's Xanadu and after sampling additional servings in graduate school, I thought Coleridge might have traveled to Xanadu on puffs of opium. I wandered, 'lonely as a cloud' with Wordsworth and pondered Keats' enigmatic statement about truth and beauty triggered by a Grecian urn. I savored Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind.' It was, however, during my reading of Shelley's sonnet 'Ozymandias' that I felt as insignificant as I still do when gazing up into the infinite expanse of heavens on a starlit night. As one new to great literature, I was surprised at the strange pronunciation of 'Juan' in Lord Byron's poem 'Don Juan.'
"Sampling a dab of this and a dollop of that, I acquired a taste for stream-of-consciousness prose even as one acquires a taste for bleu cheese. Stream-of-consciousness appealed to me because our fragmentary thoughts can jump forward into the future and back into the past and land once again into the present - and all within a split second. Virginia Woolf and others in her genre spoke to me.
"My diet of words helped me to understand a little better human motivation and behavior. It was odd, though, for the more I read and the more I learned, the less I felt I knew. I observed those who pretended to know more than they could possibly know, and I marveled at their unabashed display of self-esteem. I grew to recognize the comfort-inducing results of making others think we have knowledge we really lack. At some point, then, during my devouring of words (we are what we eat), I began to understand the utter ignorance of self-delusion, of pretending to have a sure knowledge of facts that are forever withheld from us mortals. We humans often pretend to know what we do not know and often pretend to believe what we sometimes doubt.
"I later was served the works of Poe and Melville and Hawthorne, writers whose works reveal the dark side of nature."
When I first read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," I didn't know one day I would be teaching a linguistics class, explaining why Eliot called upon poetic license when using "I" instead of "me" in his first lines, despite his breaking of usage rules.
In retrospect, I think my students' thoughts must have drifted out the windows and floated 'lonely as a cloud' over the West Virginia hills.
My tattered notes written so long ago brought back memories of literature that helped to form part of my philosophy. In her poem "Reflections Without Color," the late Louise McNeill broadened my perspective. Thanks to Phyllis Wilson Moore, who found, scanned and e-mailed the poem to me, I was able to read it again. Recently, though, I found my copy of a chapbook containing Pease's poem, which has stood the test of time.
Contact writer Dolly Withrow at ritew...@aol.com.