We were fortunate to take a Viking cruise along the Danube in April 2018. The River, a route north and south along the Eastern European border, was a place that sadly I had had no connection whatsoever via history, culture, or education. Needless to say, travelling along the River of church spires, white washed villages with their terracotta red roofs, and stepped mountains where miles and miles of vineyards stretched on both sides to port and starboard, immediately made an impression on me from the first town of Budapest through an eight day trip upstream to Passau, Germany.
A view from the Viking River boat
I had the idea of time, space, the river as we strolled and became a rhythm, a perplexing trance, and as we were celebrating 30 years of marriage, I thought the theme right to explore this concept of slow time, where Keats’ Urn, had the view of looking into the past, “thou foster child of Silence and slow time,” I would look at the unraveling of slow time where as Einstein shared that some seconds are faster (or slower) than others.”
“If I could push to generation’s past
When to stroll or mosey were to walk
When days were longer, time was last
Where two in love could softly talk
Amid the volley of darting/twittering flocks
Hand in hand, meander down some grassy lane
When the world was devoid of clocks
If we could stay close, amid flowers lain
Like a cozy blanket beneath our thighs
The sun stood still…”
And then the heroic couplet to end the sonnet:
“Such days dare I dream to miss
And to/When to love was as simple as a kiss.”
The iambic pentameter would have to be there and the accompanying rhyme scheme must take shape. The concept of “down some grassy lane” was actually the kernel for the overall poem and came from the illustrated biography of Vincent Van Gogh which I had previously watched on the plane over from America. The main character, trying to do some detective work on the death or as he believed murder of Van Gogh, was walking down a grassy lane, strewn with this bright yellow hay or straw so often seen in his work. It was a lazy, afternoon walk seeming without objective, place, destination, and during a period when life in a village might offer such escapades.
But the Danube’s current was there also, a kindred spirit to the walk, in the theme but not letter. I also didn’t want to create an “Ode” to the Danube and have to then begin an historical themed, fact-ridden poem–“to the Edmund Fitzgerald.” But the thought impressed on me, throughout the journey through five countries (Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany) and visits to the river banks and quiet towns. Time, though we were moving felt like we were slowing down, because we hadn’t the stress of work, tasks, to-do lists, the answering of machines, noises from technology and the big city, no alarms, bells, whistles, clocks…only the sound of the river swooshing behind us, carrying us.
“Where time and space never abide
That carries one’s soul/space in its embrace”
“which carries eternity in its embrace
Where cities like stars upon the banks/space”
“The slow drift through time and space”
“At night, passing cities like stars in space.”
It was coming nearer the surface in its theme. And then the stanzas were further shapen.
“A quiet floating ferry, river wide/ Carrying eternity in its embrace.”
and “Where the arc of the sun, the only clock.”
Powerful images emerged. How would I now end it? With a kiss? With eternity? It was about time after all. “Clock” say it. “Clock” had such a finality to it.
Here is how the poem ended up, and written in the front pages of a book which I placed in the Viking River Cruise Ship library.
I had finished it on the last day in the last hour, and believe this helped it coming together. Interestingly, I had to ask Kay “What is the difference between a village and a city?” and she mentioned nonchalantly, “Cities have cathedrals, don’t they?” Therefore, the smaller idea of village where in fact, we did see “fires” at night on the river banks but wouldn’t readily attach to “stars” though might, and town with “lanterns” not lights which one would find in a larger city perhaps, began to develop. “Under the volley of twittering flocks” is still a very strong image that I hated to strip.
“A quiet floating ferry, river wide” felt like it came from a line from Coleridge. As one of my heroes, this kind of line, developing out of music, past study perhaps, and real life, pleased me. “Floating ferry” for consonance, and “river wide” for assonance fell right in.
“Tic toc” for me became emblematic of a higher level of thinking. What was a humorous throw away line at the very beginning, found itself at the very end, as if a jazz riff had suddenly and extemporaneously come out of nowhere, out of my soul upon the work, and boldly set it afire.
Using such a phrase, added so much life, voice, and tenor–as if Falstaff might utter it, that I laughed out loud. I could see him in the chair in the bar with one hand on his knee, the other pointing somewhere indiscriminately. I felt it raised the entire level of discourse.
If I could turn to generation’s past
When if to stroll or mosey were to walk
When such days were longer, marked time was last
Where two, alone in love, could softly talk.
I heard a story ’bout the Danube’s glide
At night, passing lanterns like stars in space
A quiet, floating ferry, river wide
Carrying eternity in its embrace
Such quaint days do I dare to dream to miss
In arms, sauntering down a grassy lane
When to love was as simple as a kiss
Then rest upon clover, a blanket lain
The unsteady river of life, tic toc
When the arc of the sun, the only clock.