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    • POEM: Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden (3/25/2010 10:15:00 PM)

      The key to this poem is the first two words: “Sundays too” – meaning, not only did my dad get up early in the bone-numbing cold to stoke the coal furnace during his work days, but ALSO ON WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN HIS DAY OF REST. Those three letters, “TOO”, convey a world of sacrifice and pain with an incredible economy of words. Also, the father was the only member of the family who had to be naked (put on his clothes) in the “blueblack” (pre-dawn) cold, since, because of his sacrifice, the other members of the family rose after the house was heated and were able to dress in warmth. (He only calls the rest of the family “when the rooms were warm”.) Describing the pre-dawn cold as “blueblack” is very telling – the saying “it is always darkest before dawn” is very true – so dark that the black is almost blue. It is also coldest just before dawn, since the earth has been without sun the longest. “Cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather” indicates that Hayden’s father worked outdoors in the cold all week, and that his hands were chapped and cracked from never being out of the cold. This makes it even more poignant that he also has to wake to cold, and work in the cold, on Sundays – much more so than if he worked in a warm office all week.
      To understand the first stanza, you must understand that, in the days of Hayden’s youth, homes in Detroit were heated by coal which burned out overnight and left the furnace, and the house, stone cold by morning. Thus every morning the coal furnace had to be “stoked” – banked with fresh coal and re-lighted. “Banked fires blaze” refers to a real fire, since the old furnaces burned hot with live coals. The line “hear the cold splintering, breaking” refers to the sound the coal furnaces made when the coal “caught” and pushed heat through the floor vents. It was an unmistakable cracking and snapping sound, accompanied by a cozy coal smell, which made it sound like the cold was actually “breaking”. The question about whether the man was a widow is easily answered by two references – one, “no one ever thanked him” and the other, “the chronic angers of that house” – he is clearly living in an unhappy marriage. “Chronic angers” uses, again, a great economy of words to perfectly convey the constant quibbling, sniping, and griping that chronically undermines a bad marriage. The child wouldn’t “fear” these angers unless they were between two adults – thus his father is definitely NOT a widow. His father’s unhappy marriage also makes sense of the last line: “love’s austere and lonely offices”. We must all face austere “offices” (used in the monastic sense of obligatory prayers said at various times during the day) – in this case, obligatory tasks that a man does out of love, even when he is lonely and unappreciated in his own home. His father’s uncomplaining sacrifice made a prayer out of these simple, thankless tasks. William Wordsworth said, “The best portion of a good man’s life is his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.” These are the best portion of Hayden’s father’s life.