"What power has love but forgiveness?" the aging poet William Carlos Williams asked in "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower." He was bed-ridden, being cared for by Flossie, his wife, whom he had married when she was very young. He proposed to her on the rebound from her older sister Charlotte, the pianist, who had turned him down.
In his later days, depressed by the House Un-American Activities Committee's probing of his life, by disappointment at not being able to hold the office of Consultant to the Library of Congress, to which he had been named--Williams underwent shock treatment. He began to confess to his wife Flossie, spoke of his infidelities (numerous). His doctor told Flossie not to believe a word of it, that he was just babbling. And that was the path the family chose to follow.
But according to Paul Mariani, Williams's biographer (A New World Naked), Williams was telling Flossie the truth. The poem attempts to evoke her youthful beauty on their wedding day. And he asks for her forgiveness. From the sound of "Asphodel," he had finally fallen in love with his wife, in old age. As Andre Breton put it, "Always for the first time / I hardly know you by sight..." (In French, bien sur!)
The line has incredible resonance. I love questions in poetry, and embrace poetry as a way questioning what life has to offer.
In these Days of Awe before Yom Kippur, the day of repentance, Jews as a community meditate on forgiveness. Our liturgy reminds us that "for sins against people, only those people can forgive." "For sins against God, only God can forgive." Now begins the hard work of sorting out what our transgressions have been, and asking forgiveness from the appropriate sources. Nothing is too small or to large to enter this field of spiritual meditation.
Forgiving ourselves is part of the process, perhaps the hardest movement-of-spirit.
May you have an easy fast, and may you be inscribed in the Book of Life!
Causes Marilyn Kallet Supports
Southern Poverty Law Center, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, ACLU, Amnesty International, Save Darfur.