Albany Poetry 
Workshop Logo

Poem for the End of the Century

Delores McAnuff-Gauntlett

A Poem for the End of The Century

When everyone tested grief
and the notion of guilt vanished
an unborn child saw the world
days before its eyes were formed
as he surveyed a lifelong setting
in which sorrow was combined

This child for unknown reasons
cried aloud from the silence
of his mother’s womb
in anticipation to greet the world
and destine a journey as individual
as man

Then there was memory
and a time, when
like a flower, became satisfied
spreading petals
to break the fall of someone
who willingly dives
into nothingness

...and a child shall lead

January, 1997

Delores' questions:

Good Day, I viewed your writing exercise on-line and my participation is in reference to Poem for the End of The Century -by Czeslaw Milosz and the poem I created as a result.

APW Questions:

How does the author assess the passing of a century from a personal point-of-view?

Delores' rewrite based on your comments below:

A Poem for the End of The Century

When everyone tested grief
and the notion of guilt vanished
an unborn child sees the world
days before its eyes are formed
and surveys a setting
of sorrow and gladness
from which experience
will be consumed

Then there was memory
of a friend
being satisfied
to spread petals
hoping to break the fall
of one who dives
into nothingness

Delores McAnuff-Gauntlett
Sun Apr 20 13:21:09 1997

I loved the strong beginning of this poem. The idea of the unborn child seeing in the womb is very good. I liked the rewrite too as it pared the poem down to essentials. But I wasn't keen on the ending...nothingness. This is a personal reaction...but I think the poem is mainly positive and so the ending should be a 'something' of sorts. Not a nothingness. I hope you will not be offended by my comment! I hope to read more of your poetry. I just found this site today.
June Walker
Wolverhampton, UK - Sun Aug 5 23:45:51 2001
I think that the reason that this poem effects people is that it makes people think. It produces such powerful images, things that I think many of us have thought, but cannot fully express.He uses his own language. I am looking for any information, poetry or anything on Miloz please email me with any cites you have
Napa, Cali USA - Tue Nov 17 09:59:13 1998
Hi Delores, In my opinion the strongest part of the poem was at the beginning, "an unborn child saw the world days before its eyes were formed".

I would have preferred the first 2 lines to be other than an offshoot of Milosz's.

"in which sorrow was combined" left me wondering what it was combined with. Perhaps 'into which' may have been clearer.

I thought it was pretty plain why the child would have cried after you mentioned the combined sorrow, so "unknown reasons" confused me. (Of course, I do tend to be confused at times). In the same stanza, the last 3 lines are a bit loose. Prefer something like 'in anticipation of the world, and a journey as individual as that of man'.

The last stanza was too vague to get a grip on, or maybe my mind was too numb to grasp it.

I read the assessment of the passing of the century as a time to review our human experience and get on with the job ahead. Am I close?

Best, Josh.
Kitchener, ON Canada - Tue May 27 12:31:06 1997
Normally, i do not even read other peoples comments until i've come to my own opinions, but Maggie's catalog of complaint was a little too tempting to miss. I'm inclined to give Delores somewhat more slack that Maggie. Delores has chosen an incredibly ambitious approach to the 'end of the century' and if it falls short, i would not necessarily think it only suceeded in a few 'nice turns of phrase'. Indeed, the first slack i would give is to take the first line at face value (It could have been meant to be '...had tested grief', but the more interesting question concerns Maggie's suggestion that normalizes the signifier - tested and renders it 'known'/'experienced'. Intended or not, I think it more intriguing to take it as it is - an inversion of the usual appropriation of grief. Ordinarly, grief tests us - that is, we know or experience it and pass through its many trials. But, given Delores' rendering, it is grief that gets tested. What can that mean? How can we test grief? For that, we perhaps must look at a paradoxical question concerning grief itself. In nearly all western cultures, and in a great many non-western cultures, one of the central crises of grieving is at the moment the mourner must confront their blame for the events surrounding the death of a loved one with the deeper anger at the dead themselves for having died - the core figure in this drama is guilt and just where the locus of this guilt is to be found. The paradox is in the question, whom do the ceremonies of death serve; the living, or the dead? If we take Delores' inversion in the first line as intentional, then Maggies problem with the second line disappears. When it is the case that grief is universally tested - confronted with this paradox - the notion of guilt is, indeed vanished - as Gregory Bateson has noted, "a paradox something in which you choose sides - both sides." There is further evidence to support the thesis that we may take these seeming ambiguities at face value (whether intended or consciously given is entirely another question). Inversion is a mechanism employed throughout the piece. The view preceeds the instrument of viewing. Cries issues from the silence. The substantial is used to protect one from nothing. The child leads. Perhaps, the greatest inversion of all is the compelling placement of the beginning of the story at the end of the story - that is, the figure of the child as Christ is unmistakeable and now appears at the end of the millenium as much as at the beginning - 'memory and a time when...'. (for that reason, alone, i would also have to say, if i though the 'mother's womb' line should stay in the piece, then the gender further forces our attention to the identity of this child.).

Maggie has a problem with 'lifelong setting', and offers only one possibility, that it might mean "as it surveyed the setting for its coming life." Here I would disagree for a reason equal to the one above, but opposite in its source. While the inversions used in the work create crisis in their confrontation, there is another large motion at work - the movement of return, of echo, of the Great Circle. The time of the first two lines most superficially approaches us from the future. Yet, in the lines that follow, and the associative links to the birth of christ, the future becomes something of an echo of the past - of another time when 'grief was tested' and 'guilt was vanished' - for, within christian doctrine, that is precisely what went on with the ordeal and sacrifice of Christ. And, if this shoots the temporal arrow in both directions at the same time, then perhaps 'combined' - though a bit awkward - is the term of choice. It was Yeats, of course who crafted this peculiar timepiece in the way which stands above all other attempts: "What rough beast...". But were any of us to be judged by that standard, our rocking cradles would still be a long way off!

Again, with the Christ figure substantiated, the gender pronoun 'his' serves to reenforce that image. Frankly, though, I don't see the need for the line at all "of his mother's womb". I see nothing else in the work that requires we precisely locate the incubator for this future child, on the one hand, or to invoke the virgin mother on the other. I seems to serve no purpose but as an afterthought and can, I think, be safely tossed.

I think the syntax of "in anticipation to greet the world" is horrible, given the relatively formal and hortatory treatment of the first stanza. "to greet" is particularly vernacular and grating. Followed by the term 'destine', it becomes almost vulgar. I would render it something such as 'In anticipation of the world to come', which would also have a few echos of its own and sustain the tone/meter of what preceeded it. Maggie's problem with the phrase again disappears with the thesis that the piece moves simultaneously in both directions - inclusive of the tensions between which become the 'present'.

On Maggie's next complaint, I entirely agree. The redundancy is pedantic, distractive and redundant. It would seem enough - and to the meter - to simply say 'and destine a journey as man'. Might use 'as a man' if you wished to underscore the individuation - the Christ who must suffer in the form of man - and/or 'the journey' if you wished to strengthen the universality and destined part of that.

The last stanza doesn't lose me at all, but I would assault your simile nonetheless. The contrast of the meter, the activity, the verticality of the last stanza - very modern in its look and feel - with the first two seems fitting and consistent and a good trick. In my reading - and the circularity of time within the work - I am very impressed by the resolution into the juxtaposition of the fragility and antiquity of casting petals and the vision into the void of the next millenium from which our fall must be broken with these familiar and most human of gifts and services. That is how i read it, and it is a pretty good ending I think. But 'like a flower' is not only awful - it seems a bit deceitful. First, it is an inappropriate metaphor as subject. A flower does not, cannot be satisfied (not in this context anyway), nor can it intentionally - let alone with implicit mercy - spread its petals to break a fall, especially into the next millenium! I believe the deceit is in the missing subject - the one you didn't wish to specify - "when he...". Why not just come out and identify - no need to be obscure here - let it be known. The 'became satisfied' seems a little weak and disjointed from the generosity of the act - but nevermind, its a small fault.

You can see why, now (unless i blew it entirely) I find your work - find another title for it - to be enormously ambitious. You begin by a few quick displacements on Miloz's original - but then seem to set out to actually attempt to do what he could not - to reveal the enigmatic, to unravel the intricate. Maybe the piece fails mostly because you could not finally overcome the fact that "This language is not for the people". Still, i applaud you for the attempt. There are choices of word, meter, structural things that need much work, i think. It remains a work still imprisoned in the stone from which you are chiseling it. A strong piece, nevertheless. Made me think a whole bunch - ouch!

This is why I started out saying I thought Delores' poem is incredibly ambitious -
red slider
Sacramento, CA USA - Sat Apr 5 01:45:08 1997
Poem for the End of the Century Deloris McAnuff-Gauntlett

There are some nice turns of phrase here:
“unborn child saw the world/days before its eyes were formed”
“willingly dives/unprotected/into nothingness”

But I’m not completely clear what your message is. Are you meaning that at the time of the new millennium, when guilt is a lost condition and grief a known condition, that the new generation (“unborn child”) will willingly advance unprotected into it, for better or worse? Faulkner said, in his Nobel Prize speech, that he believed that “man would not only endure, but prevail.” Is your message akin to this? Is yours an upbeat message?

In Stanza One --

line 1 When you say “When everyone tested grief” did you mean “After everyone had known [or experienced] grief” ??

line 2 when you say “and the notion of guilt vanished” did you mean “and the concept of ‘guilt’ had disappeared” ??

line 5 when you say “as he surveyed a lifelong setting” did you mean “as it surveyed the setting for its coming life” ??

when you say “in which sorrow was combined” did you mean “into which sorrow was folded (or incorporated)” ?

Stanza 2 line 3 Shouldn’t “his” mother’s womb -- be “its” mother’s womb ?? (the child had no gender in the first stanza)

When you say “in anticipation to greet the world” did you mean “in anticipation of greeting the world” or “in anticipation of the world that lay ahead” ??

When you say “and destine a journey as individual/as man” did you mean “destined to take a journey as individual/as man” or “destiny a journey as individual/as man”