There are no stars tonight
But those of memory.
Yet how much room for memory there is
In the loose girdle of soft rain.
There is even room enough
For the letters of my mother’s mother,
That have been pressed so long
Into a corner of the roof
That they are brown and soft,
And liable to melt as snow.
Over the greatness of such space
Steps must be gentle.
It is all hung by an invisible white hair.
It tremble as birch limbs webbing the air.
And I ask myself:
“Are your fingers long enough to play
Old keys that are but echoes:
Is the silence strong enough
To carry back the music to its source
And back to you again
As though to her?”
Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand
Through much of what she would not understand;
And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof
With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.
About this poem
Introduced by a variety of writers, artists and other guests, the Scottish Poetry Library’s classic poem selections are a reminder of wonderful poems to rediscover.
Ryan Van Winkle on 'My Grandmother's Love Letters':
For the narrator Grandmother was always Grandmother. But after she's dead, the narrator finds her letters in the attic and she becomes 'Elizabeth'. Human. Flesh. A woman with a past, a present, and a predictable future. That Grandmother existed passionately in a past no less dramatic than the narrator's own present comes as a shock.
In families, where we feel we ought to know each other so well, we can always be surprised to find that our fathers can cry or that our mothers have scratched love before. All it takes is a something found: a love letter or a photo of an unknown gentleman with Grandma at the fair and suddenly we see that Grandmother wasn't always Grandmother. Grandmother was Elizabeth.
"There are no stars tonight," Crane begins, "But those of memory." Memory, to me, is the foundation of great poetry. The thing about the past is that once you start thinking about it, you have to come face to face with the distance you've put behind you and the distance (ever shorter) left ahead. You could read this poem as Crane striving to find a connection between him and his grandmother – a connection perhaps as thin as an "invisible white hair." Crane was a not-quite-closeted homosexual and the lines near the end could be the narrator saying how difficult it would be to explain his interpretation of love to a Grandmother for whom he will always be Grandson. This reading, however popular in queer criticism, misses the deeper, more universal, point. The poet is not merely describing a lack of connection but is realizing that you can never fully understand the weight of another person's interior life. This inability works both ways – for Grandmother and Grandson.
For instance, we see the difficulty in going back to the nostalgia of your memory in the penultimate stanza. There the narrator asks himself: 'Are your fingers long enough to play / Old keys that are but echoes / Is the silence strong enough / To carry back the music to its source'? The answer, to me at least, seems to be "no." The letters themselves are 'liable to melt as snow' and, like memory, are incredibly fragile.
Read more about Ryan Van Winkle