Monday, December 26, 2005

Poem of the Week 12/26/2005: A Plain Song for Comadre

A Plain Song for Comadre*

Though the unseen may vanish, though insight fails
And doubter and downcast saint
Join in the same complaint,
What holy things were ever frightened off
By a fly's buzz, or itches, or a cough?
Harder than nails

They are, more warmly constant than the sun,
At whose continual sign
The dimly prompted vine
Upbraids itself to a green excellence.
What evening, when the slow and forced expense
Of sweat is done,

Does not the dark come flooding the straight furrow
Or filling the well-made bowl?
What night will not the whole
Sky with its clear studs and steady spheres
Turn on a sound chimney? It is seventeen years
Come tomorrow

That Bruna Sandoval has kept the church
Of San Ysidro,** sweeping
And scrubbing the aisles, keeping
The candlesticks and the plaster faces bright,
And seen no visions but the thing done right
From the clay porch

To the white altar. For love and in all weathers
This is what she has done.
Sometimes the early sun
Shines as she flings the scrubwater out, with a crash
Of grimy rainbows, and the stained suds flash
Like angel-feathers.

Richard Wilbur 1956

*Peasant woman (Spanish); also, midwife, god-mother, neighbor. Plain song: or plainsong; the unisonous vocal music of the early Christian Church; also, any simple melody.
**Village in San Diego County, near the Mexican border.

What a remarkable story this poem tells; what a difficult and singluar thing this Bruna Sandoval has done! To keep the church sparkling and alive, to keep her faith and holiness intact for seventeen years, why, are truly admirable. Why, you might ask, is this so striking? I would answer that change is so constant, so inevitable, that maintaining stability is a feat. "A Plain Song..." discusses weighter issues than mere constancy; rather, it addresses true holiness and devotion in both cosmic and personal terms.

It begins generally, putting forth the abstract (but very real) idea of truly holy things. Human conditions fail; our unseen parts (beliefs, emotions, trust, etc.) "may vanish," and our insight and rationality may disappoint, evoking in doubter and downcast saint the same complaint. I take this complaint to be the complaint of avbsence, of Godlessness. Because their flimsy human intuitions fail, they lose faith in God. The narrator then rejects their faithlessness, asking, "what holy things were ever frightened off / by a fly's buzz, or itches, or a cough?" Authentic holiness is not so fragile.

Holy things are, instead, "more warmly constant than the sun," prompting the elements of nature to reimagine themselves "to a green excellence." Here the poem nods to inevitable trials en route to holiness, noting the "slow and forced expense / of sweat" and the dark that comes "flooding the straight furrow / or filling the well-made bowl." Importantly, the darkness interacts with the artifacts of human toil, the furrow and the bowl. The poem achieves a wonderful balance between a cosmic sanctity and a personal simplicity. The next lines mingle the two, stating, "What night will not the whole / sky with its clear studs and steady spheres / turn on a sound chimney?" Planets and chimneys sit side by side in the poem's vision of holiness, perhaps signifying the spirituality in everyday things.

I have talked a lot about holy things without actually discussing what they are, though I hinted that they might be the simple things in life, the relics of our hard work. Enter Bruna Sandoval, seventeen year church caretaker, and example of one who lives in holiness. Her spirituality is not in question; the final lines establish it in stating "Sometimes the early sun / Shiines as she flings the scrubwater out, with a crash / Of grimy rainbows, and the stained suds flash / Like angel-feathers." We may look at her specific case, then, to uncover what constitutes holiness and perhaps what we can do to capture it as well.

She is holy simply and purely by seeing things "done right;" sweeping the altar, cleaning the saints, polishing the candlesticks, and doing the laundry. She has not had any prophetic visions to solidify her faith, and so we should not expect any, the poem perhaps implies. What we have, then, is a surprisingly simple vision of holiness: hard work and faith. An acceptance of the simple things. A revaluation of space. She sustains a constancy by appreciating her space; I suggest that she sustains this holiness by folding it into her surroundings. She has done this "For love and in all weathers." Simply remarkable.

Finally, then, I question whether this is possible; I would answer yes, but, like for Bruna Sandoval, it takes a lifetime of hard work, love, and meditation. More purely, it requires a faith and appreciation of our surroundings difficult to find. I think that it admires a way of life that most cannot fulfill. Positively, though, it suggests that, with work similar to Bruna's, we can find some kind of this balance, if internal. I would actually argue, too, that the crucial pieces of Bruna's constancy are internal: the kind of peace that comes with a job well done and a reinvigoration of space. These are the truly holy things in our lives. They are perhaps not the only ones, but "A Plain Song for Comadre" concerns itself with them so that we may as well.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Poem of the Week 12/19/2005: Aubade


Cold snap. Five o'clock.
Outside, a heavy frost - dark
footprints in the brittle
grass; a cat's. Quick coffee,
jacket, watch-cap, keys.
Stars blaze across the black
gap between the horizons;
pickup somehow strikes
its own dim spark - an arc -
starts. Inside, familiar
metal cab, an icebox
full of lightless air,
limns green with dash-light. Vinyl
seat-cracks, cold and brittle;
horn ring gleams, and chrome
cuts hard across the wrist
where the sleeve falls off the glove
as moon-track curves its cool tiara
somewhere underneath your sleep
this very moment, love --

Richard Kenney 1985

A friend asked me a disarmingly simple, interesting question yesterday: would I rather read a poem about something or experience that thing myself? It caught me so off-guard that I couldn't properly answer. I stuttered and incomplete and scattered thought, but left realizing that I hadn't actually given that issue any thought before. I love reading poetry, and that was enough for me. But reading critically means reading life carefully as well, and slowing down enough to notice whether our actions and assumptions are problematic. His question prompted me to think about whether it can be insulating to read. The question's, at its core, asks whether reading inhibits living, or perhaps substitutes for it.

All I could offer, at the time, was my idea about one of poetry's great faculties. Let's see if I can articulate this. Something happens; say, a child somersaults from an ottoman to the floor. If everything that happened that hour in that particular room, including the kid's acrobatics, was somehow translated into a physical loaf, and if you sliced infinitely thin pieces and peeled off one slice, you would have a complete, 3-D representation - complete with smell, sound and taste - of exactly what happened that moment. Are you following? Now, put a bunch of those together and you have my jelly-loaf.

Poetry can move in, take a slab from the loaf (i.e. from time and life) and compress it onto a page, leaving one chunk of time combed and waiting in front of one. The poem somehow translates the child's somersault to a page without changing its essence. Poetry, in that way, is life.

As such, I think that it can offer experiences that are lost to us, normally inaccessible, or especially revealing. By slowing down on times that often flit by too quickly to notice, poetry can allow us a kind of contemplation not usually possible. Then, too, it has a very selective lens; poets write about things that, even if common, have a special significance, even if it is the specialness that brings us a greater appreciation of our everyday experiences. If it portrays a "typical" experience, along the lines of "Aubade," it may also give us an opportunity to empathize with an Other, or connect our similar experiences to the Other's.

For "Aubade," I want us to notice how precisely the poem draws the morning. It immediately takes us into one moment, beginning with the statement "cold snap." An "aubade" is a morning song, often of a parting of lovers, and this is, to me, a wonderful example of this. There is no bittersweet denial of the dawn a la Romeo and Juliet; rather, this is a regular man going about his regular life, thinking of his love. The first five lines or so capture the chilly air and the surrounding environment. The choppy syntax (those five lines have eight caesuras - pauses in the middle of a line - not to mention three end-stops; punctuation at the end of a line) transmits the freezing air, as if it is so cold outside that the speaker can't quite put a sentence together.

One of the things the poem does brilliantly is relay early-morning mode. Many of you, I am sure, know the feeling: you are so tired that all you can do is mentally move from one thing to the next. It is not really possible to out-think oneself in the morning, much less think at all (for some haha). We also get the feeling that there is a kind of ritual in this man's morning. He does his usual "thing," checking his possessions off almost list-like, noting "Quick coffee / jacket, watch-cap, keys."* The next line, "Stars blaze across the black / gap between the horizons," hands us a new take on the sky; I have never heard the great scope of the sky described as a gap between the horizons. The unusual comment, though, lets us into someone else's way of looking at the world, if only for two lines.

If the earlier lines introduce us to the narrator, presenting us with artifacts from his world and his casual, everyday observations, the next outline his surroundings. The lines, "an icebox / full of lightless air, / limns green with dash-light" literally trace his pickup truck. To "limn" means to outline in clear, sharp detail ( Again, Kenney is careful to etch the important details of this very normal morning.

The narrator, too, limns his pickup truck, again listing his possessions. I think that this is kind of like setting a stage with props; perhaps Kenney is implying, in having the narrator pay so much attention to his physical world, that space is important to who we are. I would agree with that whole-heartedly. Even if things don't make us, they can certainly make us comfortable. And I don't mean extraneous things, but one's familiar watch-cap, the known cracks on the vinyl, the aged and geometric metal cab of a pickup: these things serve as touchpoints in our day-to-day wanderings.

After the choppy lists and notes about the external, the syntax suddenly shifts in the final six lines. The only time the narrator leaves early-morning mode is thinking of the moon and of his love. The last lines are wonderfully constructed: layered, repeated images, balanced, tense emotion, and a remarkable use of enjambment roll the poem to its sudden and beautiful conclusion. It occurred to me about half way through this close-read that there are a lot of arcs in the poem, leading to the final (and privileged) arc of the moon. The final lines cycle these arcs, first in the gleam of the key-ring, then in the chrome cutting the wrist (a beautiful example of onomatopoeia, sound words), and finally in the moon-track's cool tiara. These arcs perhaps imply a sort of cradling, being held.

Then, too, the tenderness of the moon-track (what could be softer than a moonbeam?) contrasts sharply with the cold cut of chrome or even the chilly, fragmented opening lines. This gentleness sets the end of the poem apart as a special moment, a great in-breath. The final hyphen freezes it at that, then, crystallizing the emotion at it's peak, emphasizing the importance of the lover by having "love" conclude the poem, and truncating the slab of time very suddenly and specifically. It never exhales.

All of that said, we can return to the question with which I began this PotW: reading or experience? I know that, for me, there are times when I do hole myself up with books, when a paper world is easier to live in than my own. But I usually get uncomfortable after a day or so of that, and go back into an emotional world. My dad once told me that one of his worries for me was that I would learn that it is very easy to lose one's emotions in work; ever since, I have been attuned to my own experiences reading, writing, and working. I would never sacrifice my own life and my own experiences to stay in and read. At the same time, though, reading is part of my experience of living. I suppose that it's like most things, then; if you don't overdo it, it can be wonderful. Reading enriches myself and (I am confident to say) others. I certainly hope so, at any rate!

And if this Poem of the Week has been somewhat less thesis-oriented, I think I like it better that way. I realized that a close-read is a close read, but I don't want the PotW to be an extra essay a week. I want it to be a forum for thought, for communication, and wherein my appreciation for and love of these poems can shine through. So I appreciate all of you who read this every week, or at least when you can. It really does mean so much to me! I hope that you are all doing well.

*for a picture of a watch-cap, go to this website, a random google find:

Monday, December 12, 2005

Poem of the Week 12/12/2005: Echoes


There is a timbre of voice
that comes from not being heard
and knowing .. you are not being
heard .. noticed only
by others .. not heard
for the same reason.

The flavor of midnight fruit .. tongue
calling your body through dark light
piercing the allure of safety
ripping the glitter of silence
around you
...... dazzle me with color
...... and perhaps I won't notice
till after you're gone
your hot grain smell tattooed
into each new poem .. resonant
beyond escape .. I am listening
in that fine space
between desire and always
the grave stillness
before choice.

As my tongue unravels
in what pitch
will the scream hang unsung
or shiver like lace on the borders
of never .. recording
which dreams heal .. which
dream can kill
stabbing a man and burning his body
for cover .. being caught
making love to a woman
I do not know.

Audre Lourde 1993

Reason # 2 I am leaving Blogger come winter break: I can't put in the poetic forms with spaces - for some reason Blogger's programming language doesn't absorb the blank spaces I put in. So, if you will, please imagine that the ellipses are blank spaces. if this is hard to do, you could past the poem into Word and replace them yourself... The form is important for this poem, so I had to provide some kind of indication of it.

Alright, anyway. I can't spend too long on this poem because it's finals week, but I will put forth a few observations. (Please note that I am going to go back over winter break and fill in the PotW holes. I know that I have said this before, but it keeps being true!) This poem is, in its way, a love poem. It runs more deeply than a simple love sonnet, however. I want to offer you the fact that Audre Lourde has labeled herself a "black lesbian feminist warrior poet." Thus, the speaker is probably a woman, and the first stanza probably recalls a minority's experience. In this light, then, the poem takes on a weightier social significance - discussing the difficulties of being in a persecuted group of people, extending this to the individual (perhaps personal oppression by society has closed off the speaker's lover), and then making it relevant to the human experience.

The first stanza empathizes with perhaps a specific you (the lover) or the general you (any unheard person). It opens, "there is a timbre of voice / that comes from not being heard." I find that the choice of the word "timbre" is powerful, for it means pitch, though aurally sounds like "timber!" the logger's call for a falling tree. Thus, the voice, un-listened to, is both tremulous and destroyed. That only those who are unheard "for the same reason" can understand beings up the thought that only similar experience produces empathy. Maybe empathy is the wrong word. Understanding perhaps? In terms of empathizing with a minority - there are things one can and cannot understand, but at any experience's core, I sincerely hope that there is something any different person can pick out and empathize with. We are all in the minority in some way or another; for me, people often can't understand my complex family situations. I have had to learn, however, that it doesn't mean that they can't empathize with pieces of it. Specific experiences will of course never translate, but many of the broader emotions transcend divorces, children, or boarding school. I wonder if the thought that "nobody can understand me unless they have been through what I have" is problematic. It is self-righteous and insular, to be sure. I do not mean to devalue the importance of knowing people who *do* understand your experience because their own are common. This is essential. However, limiting oneself to those people (or perhaps opening oneself up to only those people) can be a problem as well. Is that making sense? I hope so. Email me if you want to talk more.

The second stanza moves out of this socio-emotional realm, then, entering a dark and sensual one. The "tongue / calling [her] body through dark light / piercing the allure of safety / ripping the glitter of silence" expresses the thought that intimate interaction breaks down these fear-barriers. It allows for some kind of speech, or perhaps a connection that, in the moment, does not require one. Sexual intimacy may provide a kind of communication that is easier for the lover to engage in. This stanza does not limit itself to sensuality, though; it also demonstrates the narrator's understanding of her lover. The speaker picks up on her lover's defense tactic of dazzling "with color / [so] perhaps [she] won't notice." The erotic connection is not pure and transecendant, for it, too, includes self-defense tactics.

The lover impresses herself on the narrator, seen in the lines "your hot grain smell / tattooed into each new poem." This narrator, we are beginning to see, is smitten. Even though the lover won't talk, her partner is listening. Their relationship is unsure, balanced on the thin path between desire and choice (presumably the choice about staying together).

The final stanza, then, is a question, voicing anxieties and guilt. I will have to go into this later, for finals call! But, I hope you all have a lovely rest of your day!

Monday, December 05, 2005

Poem of the Week 12/5/2005: The Dowser

The Dowser*

With my forked branch of Lebanese cedar
I quarter the dunes like downs and guide
an invisible plough far over the sand.
But how to quarter such shifting acres
when the wind melts their shapes, and shadows
mass where all was bright before,
and landmarks walk like wraiths at noon?
All I know is that underneath,
how many miles no one can say,
an unbroken water-table waits
like a lake; it has seen no bird or sail
in its long darkness, and no man;
not even pharaohs dug so far
for all their thirst, or thirst of glory,
or thrust-power of ten thousand slaves.
I tell you I can smell it though,
that water. I am old and black
and I know the manners of the sun
which makes me bend, not break. I lose
my ghostly footprints without complaint.
I put every mirage in its place.
I watch the lizard make its lace.
Like one not quite blind I go
feeling for the sunken face.
So hot the days, the nights so cold,
I gather my white rags and sigh
but sighing step so steadily
that any vibrance in so deep
a lake would never fail to rise
towards the snowy cedar's bait.
Great desert, let your sweetness wake.

Edwin Morgan 1986

*Someone who searches for underground streams by holding a forked branch of cedar or hazel, which twitches when it is above water. A "water-table" (line 10) is the level to which underground water rises.

Oh isn't it exciting to find a poet one is drawn to? There is something about this poem that is mesmerising, though perhaps I am in a frame of mind to be lulled into a supernatural poem's world (I have the Rime of the Ancient Mariner perched atop my thoughts). This is another poem that would be helpful to read out loud; like P.K. Page's "Deaf Mute in a Pear Tree," "The Dowser" exists as an aural piece of art. My Norton Anthology tells me that Morgan has been noted for his creative use of form; I glanced at the MLA International Bibliography to see what kind of work is out there on him and found that he has written a lot of science fiction poetry. He is also a translator, which implies that he has a strong literary command of several languages.

I am interested, in this Poem of the Week, in discussing who the dowser may or may not be and how Morgan achieves the poem's rhetorical artistry. This control is achingly evident throughout the poem; the rhythm and rhyme shift almost organically throughout the poem, perhaps mirroring the seething desert sands. I will discuss this more at length.

In the title and the beginning, we learn that this is a dowser's take. He walks across the desert all day with a forked piece of cedar searching for underground water. Morgan, with the reference to Lebanese cedar, refers to the famous Cedars of Lebanon, out of which King Solomon's palace was entirely built. This helps establish a sense of place; this desert is Egyptian (a claim that the reference to pharoahs later confirms). So far, so good. He then refers to himself as a farmer; this could be confusing (I would hardly call dowsing harvesting water or growing it), but this may refer to the fact that his day to day job involves working with the land.

The next couple lines are perplexing to me. The dowser informs us that "I quarter the dunes like downs... But how to quarter such shifting acres / when the wind melts their shapes, and shadows / mass where all was bright before / and landmarks walk like wraiths at noon?" He first says that he quarters the dunes, digresses for a moment, and comes back asking *how* to quarter them. And then he never provides an answer, which indicates that he does not know how to geographically map the desert, or lay one's bounds across it. (This hole in logic is a good indication in any poem to keep that detail in mind. I usually take these little rends in the poetic fabric as indications that there is something that needs to be patched up. I will come back to this idea of "quartering" the desert). The land, like the dowser, thwarts its assumed identity, for it is a supernatural place. One might almost call it super-supernatural, for the wraiths here do not need the cover of night in which to wander about; they walk at noon.

What the dowser does know, however, is that beneath the sands, "how many miles no one can say, / an unbroken water-table waits / like a lake." Water, perhaps a symbol of fertility and life, exists in plentitude under the parched and choking surface of the earth. It is curious that he refers to the water table as "unbroken," for this means that he has actually failed at his job. If nobody has tapped this water table from the time of the pharoahs, he hasn't found an easy-to-tap place for the water, either.

The pharoahs' presence in the poem is a little odd, as well. After all, weren't we talking about harvesting water? I suggest that the dowser, in telling this story, reveals part of his function. The speaker appears to be an eternal, quasi-immortal being traversing a shifting, mysterious landscape. He is almost a catalouger of the desert, a historian of the sands. His reference to the pharoahs hints at the mythic, ancient knowledge he has of this place. Furthermore, he refers to his "ghostly footprints," and calls the desert to wake at the end of the poem. Thus, we may return to the idea of quartering the desert. To quarter something means to establish it, to find the way it lies. But, in an unstable landscape, this is not possible. Thus, its true shape may be internal, intangible. Thus, I suggest that "quartering" the desert means understanding it. His job is to search the desert, to experience it, and to recognise its value.

He describes his process of understanding the desert, saying "I put every mirage in its place. / I watch the lizard make its lace. / Like one not quite blind I go / feeling for the sunken face." He tracks the mirages and biological events in the desert, searching them out always with a belief in the sweetness, in the life-giving essence of the desert. Does this idea of his affection for the desert feel like a stretch? I think not - he accepts his trials there "without complaint", perhaps because he believes in the rightness of his actions. When he says "I tell you I can smell it though, / that water," he asserts his literal sensual belief in the goodness of the desert.

I am not sure if I would want to write a paper on this idea, but I have "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" on my mind, which is a poem of the imagination. One can't take it literally (I am having to learn), and so to read it, one has to simply open oneself up to it. This poem works in some of the same ways - we have a wandering, quasi-immortal creature telling us his lonely story and a spectral, shifting landscape. The way to take important thoughts away from it is to throw your imagination into it full-force. Imagine his steps sending out vibrations meant to wake the richness of the desert, the deep black of his skin against the whiteness of his rags, his hot and cold nights, and the well-worn cedar from far away he carries around. Even writing that, more questions come up - how did he get this cedar branch? How have his rags stayed white in the dusty, sweaty desert? Just somethings to think about.

I have a lot more to say about this poem - what if it is an allegory for love, for trying to get to know a person and loving them wholeheartedly? Morgan has a rich (and breathtaking) array of love poems - read "Strawberries" if you come across it - or email me and I will email it to you. At any rate, I have to leave this where it is for the shifting sands of calculus.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Poem of the Week 11/28/2005: My Grandmother's Love Letters

My Grandmother's Love Letters

There are no stars to-night
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 trembles as birtch 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.

Hart Crane 1926

Hello Friends and Family - I am sorry that I never finished the last poem of the week; this one may not be completed either, for finals are beginning to bear down. But I will update you all over my Winter Break as to which poems I have finished (there will be many, I hope). Anyway, on to "My Grandmother's Love Letters". The poem is a journey rather than a circle, a process instead of a cross-section of time. This episode tells of a failure to connect with the past, or of a failure to hold on to a person. It deals with dissolution, though not harsh or nihilistic dissolution. Rather, it concerns a sad ending, something just out of reach. Also, I just noticed that the structure of this poem is rather like Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "conversation poems", wherein he begins discussing the surrounding natural world, goes into a thoughtful tangent, and returns to the natural world with a new perspective.

The first three stanzas establish the delicacy of the situation, the necessity to tread softly and carefully around the grandmother's precious memories. The narrator begins with a clean slate of sorts in discussing her surroundings. She contemplates, that "there are no stars" and that the rain gently encloses her. This establishes the privacy and openness needed to look so intimately into the past. (I am choosing a female narrator, but there is no indication one way or the other, so you are free to select whomever you like; I like the idea that these letters are a woman's inheritance, but it does not matter. Pick for yourself.) This kind of blankness, she seems to be saying, effaces the outside world, encouraging interiority. There is safety and gentleness in the image of a "loose girdle", as if the weather will clothe and protect the sensitive inner world.

This natural space, she notes, even provides enough breathing room for something very special, Elizabeth's love letters. Setting the name "Elizabeth" alone in its line emphasizes the grandmother's singularity and importance. One must hold on to the letters to hold on to her, at least while they survive. They are "liable to melt as snow", revealing the delicacy of looking at her grandmother's love letters. The diction here is again soft and careful and quiet. Words like "pressed," "brown," "snow", and indeed "soft" itself reiterate that this is a private intrusion.

The next lines, "over the greatness of such space / steps must be gentle", voices, refrain-like, this same idea. That there is a "greatness" to this space implies both a vastness and an extraordinariness to the past and, even more, to age. The next two lines are almost painfully aware of the grandmother's decrepit state; the "white hair" is an obvious link to old age while the trembling tree limbs connote muscular deterioration. These references to old age add another dimension; this situation is not simply delicate because it is so ephemeral, but perhaps because experience (of any variety) deserves respect.

***Alright - I have to leave you here. So that you have some clue to my thoughts about the somewhat surprising end of this poem, I will sum up the rest of my thoughts on "My Grandmother's Love Letters":

~The first part of the fourth stanza is odd, for it reads like a conversation while it is only one person. This approach reveals the narrator's self-doubt. Perhaps the love letters are too important to attempt to understand. Reading the letters *requires* so much imagination and such deep empathy that to fall short is to melt the letters like snow, to clomp and stamp all over a person's identity and life.
~The end of the poem, then, reflects this defeat. The narrator believes that she (the speaker) cannot let go of enough of herself to fully experience what her grandmother did. She would distort her grandmother's memory.
~Thus the rain, once a protector of the inner self, serenely mocks the narrator's self-ishness, not because the rain is bad, but because the narrator realizes that she cannot take advantage of the open environment.

Okay - pieces of that may change tomorrow, for I am very tired now, so until next update...***

Monday, November 21, 2005

Poem of the Week 11/21/2005: Losing a Language

Losing a Language

A breath leaves the sentences and does not come back
yet the old still remember something that they could say

but they know now that such things are no longer believed
and the young have fewer words

many of the things the words were about
no longer exist

the noun for standing in mist by a haunted tree
the verb for I

the children will not repeat
the phrases their parents speak

somebody has persuaded them
that it is better to say everything differently

so that they can be admired somewhere
farther and farther away

where nothing that is here is known
we have little to say to each other

we are wrong and dark
in the eyes of the new owners

the radio is incomprehensible
the day is glass

when there is a voice at the door it is foreign
everywhere instead of a name there is a lie

nobody has seen it happening
nobody remembers

this is what the words were made
to prophesy

here are the extinct feathers
here is the rain we saw

W.S. Merwin 1988

This poem is a reflection poem. It is meant to be read and meant to be thought about - one of those poems that follows you around and springs on you as you read the paper, as you sit in class, as you surf the internet. It has a clear and deep cry, one that resonates on many levels. I remember being much younger and being so happy to hear of the scholars compiling language tapes of dying languages. To me, for whom language is as important as almost anything (as it is, surely, to many; we learned in my AP Human Geography class that language is the #1 feature by which a culture identifies itself), the idea of losing my language is akin to losing an arm or a leg or a lung. On a little journaling explosion on Halloween, I thought a lot about what poetry means to me, and I wrote that sometimes, when I am reading, the poem fills me up until I can no longer tell what is hand and what is word. Even that thought spilled out as a jumble of poem and self - "You Begin" by Margaret Atwood is one of my deep-rooted poems, as I think I mentioned last time. But I am rambling.

The poem illustrates language as a key component of identity. Language, after all, provides structural expressions of our selves, our cultures, and our beliefs. In Merwin’s “Losing a Language,” the narrator reflects on language as spiritual, emotional, cultural, and personal. It ties humans to place; without it, life is dull, cold, and brittle.

The form, to begin, implies dissolution, endings, and disintegration. After all, Merwin uses no punctuation and no capital letters, save the first. This seems an almost half-hearted attempt to employ English grammatical conventions, a gesture that he is aware of them, even if they rust unused. His choice here reflects the grandparents' decision to not say the things that they know. The visual form even looks like it is falling apart. Made only of short, unrhymed couplets, the poem seems to be barely holding together, just as a language slips away.

The first line establishes language as a living being, or almost. Breath leaving a sentence at once implies a spoken phrase and a breathing, animate one. It is a delicate being, and suffers when the old choose not to say it. Merwin writes that they "could say" the words, signifying that they do not. The line "they know now that such things are not to be believed" is interesting, for it seems to say that language and meaning require faith; words here are almost a spiritual entity.

Then, too, that "the young have fewer words" implies that they have less; their language (and presumably lives) are streamlined. The third couplet builds on this thought, implying that, as language is compressed, certain elements of it are squeezed out. Since "many of the things the words were about / no longer exist," the death of language accompanies death of meaning, culture, and experience, listed in the next couplet. With the fading of the words, so, too, has the mystical experience of "standing in mist by a haunted tree." To me, this line connotes reflection, the unknown, deep-seeded faith, and a tingle of fear. It reminds me of a feeling I get in certain places, the sense that everyone who has ever walked across those bricks or laughed on that bench or waited beneath the tree is actually there, embedded invisibly in the place. Losing the experience of a place through language is to lose every story that has ever unfolded under the haunted tree.

The narrator next notes that that there was once a “verb for I”. Its loss implies a dissolution of a version of self wherein change is acceptable. And it provokes the thought of how one would use the verb for I. Could one "I" things? This action recalls the interior application of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: that, in experiencing things, seeing them, or interacting with them, one necessarily affects them, at least to the self.

Next, Merwin folds in a sense of disrespect in losing the language, writing that "the children will not repeat / the phrases their parents speak." We learn, however, that they are only following "somebody [who] has persuaded them / that it is better to say everything differently." It seems almost scornful to speak "differently," for "differently" implies that it is preferable to speak in *any* other way than in the ancestral language. Furthermore, the ambiguity of the noun "somebody" allows this convincer to be anyone from a child on the playground to the media to society itself.

The children listen to this somebody, then, "so that they can be admired somewhere / farther and farther away." To begin, this motivation seems hollow against the power and spirituality of the haunted tree and the verb for I. I find that the idea of admirability, or (more plainly) coolness, attached to linguistic pressure fascinating, because it touches on so much human motivation. We are social creatures, first and foremost; a child will adopt its peers' accent instead of its parents', if the accents are different. The narrator also suggests that coolness is insular, for it goes hand in hand with the kids being "farther and farther away." This is the first time, too, we get the sense of foreginness the end of the poem is so conscious of.

Before this continues, note that the the narrator is actually a "we", and not in the "royal we" sense of the word, but in the communal, societal sense of it. A group of people is relating its deep and ubiquituous ache. I know that the "we" could simply be one person telling her experiences, but the communal idea works well within the poem and, to me, has a stronger impact.

The line "where nothing that is here is known" moves the speakers to a foregin place. It reminds me of a line from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, where the wise, ancient character, when asked how he learned the news from far away, replies "Everything is known." To me, this has always meant (on one level, at least) that human knowledge is held in a larger consciousness, and, if we can teach ourselves to sense it, we may draw from it. In this sense, losing a language entails a diminishment of the human consciousness, for, with the loss of the verb for I and the haunted tree, for example, the amount known in the world lessens. Of course, that is a very personal connection; it was probably not an intentional allusion, but it works within the frame of the poem and enriches my read of it. Just a little justification.

At any rate, the next line "we have little to say to each other" shows that the connection within a community fail as does a language. Not only do the group-members (family, town, society, culture) have little to say to one another, content-wise, they have literally little language with which to say it. Only scraps of a foregin language remain for them to use.

The next two lines actually appropriate the new owners' language system, for the speakers call themselves "wrong" and "dark". Not only has language dissipated, but people's sense of self-worth has crumbled as well. Also, the word "owners" begs the question: owners of what? They may own language, power, the old culture, the sway of children's minds, the building in which the speakers live etc. Ownership implies a kind of slavery, almost; this read works well with "wrong" and "dark," and implies that their minds are now slaves to the new language.

I was talking with my housemate last night about the line “the day is glass,” and, having slept on the conversation, have come to the thought that this is the central metaphor for a life without one’s own language. Day is still visible and clear, but it is insulated, brittle, cold, and sharp. Gloria suggested that glass implies television, which in turn connotes passivity. The day is no longer a space in which to live; it is an ailing region in which life flies by without truth, without reality. Even the neighbors are estranged, for "when there is a voice at the door it is foregin", and "everywhere instead of a name there is a lie." With this line, I am imagining scraps of understanding fluttering overhear cloaked in the new language while the rest of life whirls about, blurred and confused.

The poem ends with a hearbreak like shattered glass, with the kind of knowing ending that is so tragic. The lines "this is what the words were made / to prophesy" tells us that this culture had an entire set of creation and apocalyptic myths. They new it was coming, and yet that doesn't make it any easier for the inhabitants. The end of the poem feels like a true end, and as wretched as one as well. Not all endings are grevious, of course; most lead into new and brighter things. With this poem, however, the end of a language is an extinction. It is the termination of a species, of thousands and millions of years of buildup, of consciousness, of experience and emotion and love. That the poem ends looking to the past, to "the rain we saw", signals that there will be no future. The language is lost, and a silent, aching grief has taken its place.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Poem of the Week 11/14/2005: From "Europe: A Prophecy"

From "Europe: A Prophecy", Plate 9(b)

There stand the venerable porches that high-towering rear
Their oak-surrounded pillars, form’d of massy stones, uncut
With tool, stones precious; such eternal in the heavens,
Of colours twelve, few known on earth, give light in the opake,
Plac’d in the order of the stars, when the five senses whelmed
In deluge o’er the earth-born man; then turn’d the fluxile eyes
Into two stationary orbs, concentrating all things,
The ever-varying spiral ascents to the heavens of heavens
Were bended downward; and the nostrils golden gates shut
Turn’d outward, barr’d and petrify’d against the infinite.

Thought chang’d the infinite to a serpent; that which pitieth;
To a devouring flame; and man fled from its face and hid
In forests of night; then all the eternal forests were divided
Into earths rolling in circles of space, that line an ocean rush’d
And overwhelmed all except this finite wall of flesh.
Then was the serpent temple form’d, image of infinite
Shut up in finite revolutions, and man became an Angel;
Heaven a mighty circle turning; God a tyrant crown’d.

William Blake 1794

I don’t usually choose poems that we are working on in class for the Poem of the Week, because it seems unfair, too easy. I don’t want to report on class, I want to look at them without any outside influence. This excerpt from Blake’s marvelous Europe: A Prophecy is an exception, though, because it is among the most beautiful things I have ever read, if not the most beautiful thing. Right up there with the end of The Great Gastby, the end of Love in the Time of Cholera, “You Begin” by Margaret Atwood, and the Thirteenth Book of Wordsworth’s The Prelude. I write those down because you should all take a look at those if you get a chance – they are all breathtaking, literally. When I first read this passage, I had to stop and read it five or six more times; I was awestruck, literally, but didn’t have an idea concerning the swirling celestial imager’s meaning. Thanks mainly to class and (to some extent) an accidental ownership of several critical works on Blake, I have basically been able to parse out what he’s saying. It is no less beautiful than the words themselves.

Here goes.

The poem opens discussing a Druidic temple in “golden Verulam”, a reference that I have not included above. Its specific character is relevant in discussing this small portion of text, and it may ease any confusion about what the “oak-surrounded pillars” and “venerable porches” refer to. The important piece to know is that it was built, if I am reading it correctly, when man was first brought into physical form. A translation of the first several lines would read “they placed in the shapes of constellations twelve stones of colors unknown to man at the time when the sensual world flooded man”. Blake uses the word “whelm” to point out that man was overcome with the five senses, losing his balance with the universe. They flooded him in a “deluge” and limited his sight. “Fluxile eyes” indicates that the eyes were, at one time, capable of seeing more of the heavens. Now, they are reductive and “concentrate all things”. This is, essentially, a description of the Fall from Eden.

Blake, we learned in class, read man’s fall from Eden as a tumble from the infinite to the finite. Our senses limit us, contain us, yes, though they are by no means bad, as a glance at this passage might lead one to believe. Rather, they can be expanded upon and taught to see, hear, feel, taste, and touch infinity in the particular. Organized religion, however, suppresses the senses’ capability to feel the joy dancing through all the earth. This passage clearly demonstrates that Blake appreciates the senses; nostrils have “golden gates” and the eyes are “orbs”. Sensuality seems negative here because it has been shut to the greater spiritual world, seen when Blake writes, “the ever-varying spiral ascents to the heavens of heavens / Were bended downward”. The onset of Druidic religion shrinks man’s world and stifles the infinite, that which is most awful (in the old sense of the word: awe-full).

That is the first stanza. The second is decidedly more obscure and difficult. Blake continues discussing Druidism, the senses, and infinity; looking at these elements can help us understand the second part. The infinite, in the first line, is turned into a serpent, “that which pitieth”. The serpent is a symbol of the Druids, and “thought” is presumably human thought following the fall into a finite sensual realm. Thus, Druidism is the product and symbol of the fall.

With the rise of religion, man flees and enters darkness. He takes himself away from higher thought and enters “the forests of night”. “Night” signifies an ending, a clot inhibiting higher thinking. Once he flees, then, the “eternal forests” get divided; the fall of the land follows the fall of man. That the earths spin in “circles of space” suggests containment, limits, and bindings.

The next piece, “That line an ocean rush’d / And overwhelmed all except this finite wall of flesh” treats the nature of man and recalls the flood-imagery from the first stanza. “That line” is necessarily ambiguous; to me, it implies a boundary line, the line drawn between infinity and the finite self, though it could be any number of different things. In class today we discussed that there is a kind of unknown sitting at the heart of Blake’s work that makes it so fantastic. I think that we get used to pinning things down and knowing for sure, so not-knowing and not being able to restrict ourselves to a single definition is an experience well-worth having. It requires a certain confidence in the self, I think, or perhaps a willingness to be small or insignificant. To acknowledge that one lies beneath greater understanding breaks down ego, allowing us greater mobility. Even seeing that one is in this cave, a metaphor Blake often uses, will allow one to discover exits or chinks in the ceiling.

The final three lines comment upon the negativity of man’s fall from grace. The temple formed mocks the fettered consciousness of man, standing as an altar to violence (the temple at Verulam was a sacrificial temple, so we learned in class today that Blake suggests that the fall somehow leads to sacrifice and thus violence). I don’t agree with the critics I have on hand about the he closing lines, “man became an Angel; /Heaven a mighty circle turning; God a tyrant crown’d.”. They claim that it simply extends the connection between the Edenic Fall and the rise of the Druids. I say that the final lines are much richer than this. Man becoming an Angel is not a positive comment that he is returning to a state of grace; Angels in Blake’s work are often agents of destruction and oppression (though they are by no means limited to that position). In this case, man would become an agent of his own destruction, for it is he who enacts the suppressive forces. More ominously, too, is the idea that Heaven itself gets constrained when turned into a circle. I want to point out here that heaven only seems a circle to man - the fall has made heaven like a circle, has made the eternal realm of God (is this what heaven is? any ideas?) finite as we percieve it. Instead of stretching endlessly, it twists back into itself, existing only as the tight circle that man’s puny senses can perceive. The fall perverts God for man as well; He is no longer a joyful loving creator, but a constructed “tyrant crown’d”. This label relates the corruption of organized religion permeating 18th Century Britain, for priests were easily as oppressive as the government.

Before I finish up, I think that I ought to clarify the view of the senses, for I have been rather vague about their position. The senses, to Blake, are God-given gifts, though they do evidence our separation from the infinite world. They ought to be rejoiced in, however, and only tend to limit us when limited themselves. Denying the pleasures of the body distances man even further from the infinite, and it is only in experiencing the world that we can reclaim part of our original heritance. It is poetry and the poet’s job to enlarge the senses; engendering paradox is one way of doing this, as is living with every atom, really feeling life.

If I am have rambled from time to time in this PotW, it is only because Blake, above all, invites us to think. This is, perhaps, our duty to the infinite, another way of embracing the joy of the senses. We can and indeed should experience the infinite through our senses. They perceive the “ever-varying spiral ascents to the heavens of heavens” and rejoice in them.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Poem of the Week 11/7/2005: Deaf-Mute in the Pear Tree

Deaf-Mute in the Pear Tree

His clumsy body is a golden fruit
pendulous in the pear tree

Blunt fingers among the multitudinous buds

Adriatic blue the sky above and through
the forking twigs

Sun ruddying tree's trunk, his trunk
his massive head thick-knobbed with burnished curls
tight-clenched in bud

(Painting by Generalic.* Primitive.)

I watch him prune with silent secateurs

Boots in the crotch of branches shift their weight
heavily as oxen in a stall

Hear small inarticulate mews from his locked mouth
a kitten in a box

Pear clippings fall
soundlessly on the ground
Spring finches sing
soundlessly in the leaves

A stone. A stone in ears and on his tongue

Through palm and fingertip he knows the tree's
quick springtime pulse

Smells in its sap the sweet incipient pears

Pale sunlight's choppy water glistens on
his mutely snipping blades

and flags and scraps of blue
above him make regatta** of the day

But when he sees his wife's foreshortened shape
sudden and silent in the grass below
uptilt its face to him

then air is kisses, kisses

stone dissolves

his locked throat finds a little door

and through it feathered joy
flies screaming like a jay

P. K. Page 1985

* Ivan Generalic (1914-1992), Croatian painter in a "native" or "primitive" stlye
** boat race

Hello! I was delighted last night to find P.K. Page in my Norton Anthology; I had read this poem before, but hadn't really appreciated it until yesterday. The music of the poem is round and thick and crisp, like a pear. Read it out loud - you are meant to feel the words come rolling off of your tongue.

This musicality, in fact, is somewhat ironic, as the narrator is discussing a deaf-mute. He could no more say these words than we could sit up and fly out the window. This tension indicates that examining tone will be fruitful for this poem, if you'll excuse the pun. The tone shifts from beginning to end, or at least appears to; whereas the deaf-mute is almost problematically represented in the first 15 lines or so, the narrator turns to him with more empathy in the final half of the poem by attempting to re-create and thus empathize with his experience.

Labeling him "deaf-mute" is akward right off the bat. After all, aren't we taught to look past people's physical characteristics and see what's inside? Naming him only as a "deaf-mute" seems to limit him. However, the view of this deaf-mute is more nuanced than an initial glance will reveal, even in the beginning. The speaker uses the words "clumsy", "blunt", "thick-nobbed", and "trunk" to describe him, which appear stereotypical and harsh. However, the poem's music softens these callous observations. By mixing "His clumsy body" with "a golden fruit / pendulous in the pear tree", he smooths out the label. Other lines reflect this technique. "Blunt fingers" move among "multitudinous buds" and his head is "thick-nobbed with burnished curls / tight-clenched in bud". We get images of primitivism mixed with those of fertility, richness and color. Though he moves "heavily as oxen in a stall", he uses sophisticated-sounding tools ("silent secateurs").

Part of me, though, wonders if the complicated language results from the narrator's childish desire to assert his own ability to say these words. These words do carry some kind of prejudice; it's odd that such a beautiful poem signifies bias. The tension sitting between the discrimination and the ripe imagery reflects the tension that appears at all levels of this poem. There is tension between the rich visual imagery and the word's aural cadence in "pear clippings fall / soundlessly on the ground / Spring finches sing / soundlessesly in the leaves". The lines, "small inarticulate mews from his locked mouth [sound like] / a kitten in a box" embody this contrast. On one hand, the narrator likens the deaf-mute to a soft, tender kitten, while on another he compares his attempt at communication to that of an animal. Thus, the deaf-mute is at once sympathetic and degraded.

The narrator's bias lifts somewhat as the poem continues, however; he begins to empathize with the deaf-mute by couching his observations in terms the man would understand and indeed by nearly swathing himself in the mute's consciousness. The line "A stone. A stone in hears and on tongue" represents the man's disability in a form he can understand. A stone, after all, exists as a visual and tactile object. It certainly makes no noise, linking it to his handicap. Again, though, we must ask ourselves if equating a man with a stone is problematic; stones, aside from being seen and not heard, are not intelligent. The phrase "dumb as a rock" springs to mind.

I would argue, however, that the view is not intentionally negative. Of course not; "Deaf-Mute in a Pear Tree" is, instead, about a "normal" human watching a liminal other. So of course there are positives and negatives; Page certainly picks up on the fact that the speaker is not trying to degrade the deaf man. There are indications in the second half of the poem that the mute has other, special perceptions as well. The narrator notes that the mute "knows the tree's / quick springtime pulse". The deaf man notices the smell of the pear tree's sap, a feat I doubt many could reproduce. More interestingly, though, is how images of water and sky are consistently mixed. The sky is "Adriatic blue" (in reference to the Adriatic Sea), "pale sunlight's choppy water glistens", and "flags and scraps of blue / above him make regatta of the day". The narrator, in imagining this other's senses, gains insights/perspective he might not have had without this encounter.

The speaker actually drapes himself in the deaf-man's consciousness when the wife enters. Before treating this, however, we must note the line "his wife's foreshortened shape"; this line could again encompass one of two views. "Foreshortened" may be a reference to how, from above (where the mute is standing), people look shorter. On the other hand, however, it could signify that the wife, too, is disabled. She doesn't uptilt her face, her shape uptilts "its face". This is precarious; the narrator straddles the line between empathy and prejudice.

While the previous line is potentially offensive, the line, "then air is kisses, kisses" is utterly empathetic. The deaf man's thought breaks through the narrator's, or perhaps occupies the speaker's consciousness, displacing it. It finally ascribes a delicate kind of beauty to the mute: a complex, bright emotion. That kind of tenderness truly humanizes him as well, making up for (in my opinion, though this is a value judgment) the previous references. It shows, to me, that the narrator has grown over the poem, to this point at least. The euphoric form at the end of the poem does persuade me some, though; the capital-less, cascading lines "then air is kisses, kisses / stone dissolves / his locked throat finds a little door" comprise the empathatetic pinnacle of the poem. They are as beautiful as the the emotion they describe.

The final couplet, needless to say, undermines this delicacy. Or rather, reimplements the tension found elsewhere throughout the poem. It is as if the narrator is shocked at the final sound, and his return to an animalistic description revives his prejudice. The period is absent, leaving the sentence hanging as are our jaws. The ending makes me wonder, is it possible to step outside of our prejudices (for they doubtlessly exist), to consciously shake them, or do we simply sedate them? Or is it that we have the tendency to be fascinated by monstrosity - the anthropologist/literary critic/professor René Girard would have something to say about prejudice. We are threatened by liminally similar others, as this disabled man is. He engenders both human and non-human qualities, making him threatening, according to Girard.

But - very few of you will care about/understand that thread, so I leave you here. Before I go, though, I want to say that I have been estactic to recieve feedback from you, either through email or comments. I am completely serious when I say that it makes my day. So thank you to all of you who read this and to those of you who commment (Tom and Gloria!).

Monday, October 31, 2005

Poem of the Week 10/31/2005: Death the Painter

Death the Painter

Snub-nosed, bone-fingered, deft with engraving tools,
I alone have been given
The powers of Joshua, who stayed the sun
In its traverse of heaven.*
Here in this Gotham** of unnumbered fools
I have sought out and arrested everyone.

Under my watchful eye all human creatures
Convert to a still life,
As with unique precision I apply
White lead and palette knife.
A model student of remodelled features,
The final barber, the last beautician, I.

You lordlings, what is Man, his blood and vitals,
When all is said and done?
A poor forked animal, a nest of flies.***
Tell us, what is this one
Once shorn of all his dignities and titles,
Divested of his testicles and eyes?

Anthony Hecht 1995

*Cf. Joshua 10.12-13; when Joshua asked the sun and moon to stand still, "the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies"
** Proverbial town (in England) known for its foolish inhabitants.
*** Cf. King Lear 3.4. 101 ff,. where Lear encounters Edgar, disguised in rags as a madman, laments, "Is man no more than this?" and says, "unaccomodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, fork'd animal as thou art."

Happy Halloween, all! I was going to pick a lovely, etherial poem for today until I realized that it's Halloween! So, I chose Anthony Hecht. He is one of my favorite poets: admittedly a little dark, but genuinely witty, insightful, and a master of form. I may at a future date write about his poem "A Certain Slant," for it is technically brilliant and draws heavily on an Emily Dickinson poem of same name (first line?). At any rate, I encourage you to check it out if you have the chance. Email me for it if you are so inclined!

But back to "Death the Painter." The poem comes from Hecht's collection "The Presumptions of Death" which go along with woodcuts by the American artist Leonard Baskin. I actually have this book, so I will hopefully scan the picture and send it along with the PotW or (somehow) manage to post it on my blog.

To begin, we can note that the title is deeply paradoxical; how can Death be a painter? Painters are artists, and few (if any) things are more destructive than death. It could appear, then, as if Hecht takes a grim satisfaction in representing the artistry of death. This irony leers out from the poem like a skeleton's grin from the page, and the poem's darkness is consuming. Actually, irony is probably the best word to describe this poem. Line after line, Hecht presents us with a Death who is deeply ironic.

In the first stanza, Death is "deft" and stalking. He asserts his power, saying that he "alone [has] been given / the powers of Joshua". It is interesting to think of death as a kind of stoppage of time; after all, when we die, time essentially halts as we know it. Death continues flexing his muscles when he calls humans "unnumbered fools" who he seeks out and arrests. By choosing the word "arrest", Death implies that he is in a police-like position of authority. The rhyme scheme, too, is stronger in this stanza than in the other two; there are only two rhymed sounds (abbbab), which gives it more force. Even the fact that Death is the narrator privileges him.

Irony saturates the second stanza. The first two lines, "under my watchful eye all human creatures / convert to a still life", are sleazy and backwards. "Watchful eye" implies a protector, and yet I doubt that many people see death as a protector, a safe haven. Also, the word "convert" makes it sound like we go willingly, that we march gently into that good night, somehow retaining the vestiges of life without its movement. And though it would be nice to think of one's own death as a conversion to a beautiful piece of art, I have to say that the thought is not comforting. Nor is it meant to be. That Death, with "unique precision" (an odd couple of words, though I suppose that death has a unique sort of power), will daub on white lead with a palette knife is disturbing as well. Though his tools are literally painter's tools, "white lead" could be reference either quicklime that people used to throw over graves or lead's toxicity, while the "palette knife" could be a thinly disguised weapon. It is rhetorically similar, at least. It is ironic as well that Death is a model student, a barber, and a beautician. These are such positive, community-based jobs. And death? Well, community-based (or rather involved, to continue the irony) he may be, but friendly? I should hope not.

Death even goes insofar as to mock us, condescendingly calling man "lordlings" and then asking him what he really is "when all is said and done". Even that familiar phrase halts us, asking us to pay attention to the idea that, at some point in life, everything will be said and done. Finished. Also, the allusion to King Lear touches on the reeling madness that this kind of question can lead to. It is a line of despair tossed in with grim irony and gloating power. The final three lines call on the reader to "tell us, what is this one / Once shorn of all his dignities and titles, / Divested of his testicles and eyes?". It is a sneer, for this is a question for which no human has a definite answer, believe though he might in an afterlife (or lack thereof). The diction is degrading; "shorn" implies a debasement, status as a prisoner. This action involves cutting, severing, so it is an apt choice for the severing that happens in death. The final line is perhaps the most powerful, for Death openly acknowledges that he will take those things that make a man. Testicles and eyes. Now, I don't mean to say that only vision and, to be crude, balls, make a man, but they certainly are key components in masculinity and indeed humanity. One of the most shocking things about coming to college was the absolutely alien visual landscape. To strip a human of sight is like tearing away one of the vestiges of home.

Well, Happy Halloween, all! Some business: keep checking old PotWs. I have been updating them and filling in some of the blanks. This will probably go on for a while, because I didn't actually close-read any of the early ones, and those are some of my favorites. I will let you know which ones I have finished. For this week, I went back and filled in "Skin Full" (10/10). Also, I actually went to school about twenty minutes ago (in the rain! oy vey) to try to scan in and present you with the woodcut, but alas - the library's tech room was closed. In good time, it will come. The woodcuts are really very interesting. They are at once beautiful, grotesque, and deeply ironic. As I read more of the poems, I may report back with the different ways Hecht plays with Death. Odd that in the end the author is the one who toys with death.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Poem of the Week 10/24/2005: Starfish


The stellar sea crawler, maw
Concealed beneath, with offerings of
Prismed crimson now darkened, now like
The smile of slag, a thing made rosy
As poured ingots, or suddenly dimmed --

I appreciate the studious labour
Of your rednesses, the scholarly fragrance
Of your sex. To mirror tidal drifts
The light ripples across or to enhance darkness
With palpable tinctures, dense as salt.

You crumple like a puppet's fist
Or erect, bristling, your tender luring barbs.
Casual abandon, like a dropped fawn glove.
Tensile symmetries, like a hawk's claw.

You clutch the seafloor.

You taste what has fallen.

Eric Ormsby 1990

Good evening friends and family! Those of you that know me may know that I love starfish, and so a poem about starfish is very exciting. This poem, however, has more going for it than my affection for sea creatures; Ormsby gives us a meaty, tightly coiled, sensual description of this starfish. His tense diction, image patterns, and consistent use of paradox present us with a starfish that is at once tenacious and physical.

Even the starfish's color is moving and luminous. He imbues it with energy in the first stanza, writing of its "prismed crimson now darkened, now like / a smile of slag, a thing made rosy / as poured ingots, or suddenly dimmed --". To begin, "prismed" is an interesting word choice. It is either a made-up (or perhaps composed if you want to be a little more poetic) adjective or a subject-less verb. In either case, though, its association with light adds energy to the starfish. A prism makes the starfish seem special, precious even. All of the descriptions in the first stanza, in fact, use light-based descriptions. "Slag" is a volcanic rock, which was once glowing hot, while "poured ingots" connote a cooling piece of metal or, more specifically, gold. The next description, "suddenly dimmed", points out another of the animatory techniques Ormsby employs; he shifts descriptions of the starfish, knitting different observations together with "now" and of course "suddenly". The starfish is indeed, as the first line suggests, stellar both in its luminosity and its energy.

Several things happen in the second stanza - To start, Ormsby continues with the light metaphor from the first stanza. The starfish has different "rednesses" and reflects tidal drifts as the light ripples across it "with palpable tinctures, dense as salt." This last description demonstrates the starfish's naturalness with its environment, for even its color repeats and indeed deepens the water patterns. Perhaps more compellingly, though, the narrator describes the starfish with distinctly odd word combinations. I have thought long and hard over what "the scholarly fragrance / of [its] sex" could be, but couldn't figure it out until I looked up some information about starfish. There are males and females (starfish are not hermaphrodites), so this probably isn't an issue of gender. A Google search, however, revealed that "at the time the eggs of starfish ripen, the male merely releases great quantities of sperm cells into the ocean water, and a tiny but sufficient number of them find and penetrate distant eggs". If you think about it, smell does nothing more than detect particles flying through the air and interpret them as "vanilla" or "shortbread." And so these creatures reproduce by letting particles go in the water, and their act of procreation could be kind of underwater fragrance. Calling this act "scholarly" is off putting as well; it could allude to the individuality of the procreative act for, though I don't agree, the word scholar can sometimes bring to mind a reclusive researcher. A final note about "scholarly fragrance" for a starfish: this image begins a chain of paradoxical images in the second half of the poem. After all, it is impossible for a human to smell underwater; try as one might, one's nose simply has no use underwater (Think about it). The fact that this paradox makes sense for this animal, however, establishes the starfish's alienness. Its "fragrance" is imperceptible to a human and yet works in its world.

If the above statement was paradoxical to an extent, the third stanza is rife with paradox. "Crumple like a puppet's fist" mixes a weak action (crumpling) with a strong image (the fist); fists generally "clench" or "tighten". However, if you have ever seen a starfish either on video or in real life, you may know what the narrator is talking about. Starfish skin does have a certain cloth-like quality, just like a puppet's fist might. And cloth certainly doesn't "clench." The paradox, perhaps more obviously, alludes to the starfish's simultaneous power and delicacy. Some starfish are so poisonous that they are deadly to humans, but starfish have no hard parts other than (sometimes) prickly skins.

There is tension, too, in the line "tender luring barb". Who has ever heard of a tender barb? I think the "tenderness" actually reveals the narrator's perspective. He sees the delicacy of the starfish's jutting angles as softly as we might see feathers on a bird. The next two lines lie in contrast with one-another. A starfish may be as casually abandoned as a "dropped fawn glove" or as rough and leathery as a "hawk's claw". It is important to note as well, though, that both images are those of fingers or feet. The shapes are carefully chosen to line up with that of a starfish. The word choices have appropriate textures, too; as my little 6-year old sister could tell you, starfish can be leathery and tough or as smooth as the softest velvet. I also love the choice of the word "tensile", for it implies a sinewy, mutable, coiled strength. Starfish have very unique vascular systems, so the internet tells me, but I would have thought the word apt anyway.

Until now, we have simply been discussing the rhetorical devices Ormsby gives the narrator to describe the starfish. We can look at what the starfish is by examining tone as well, though; it helps us understand both the narrator and the starfish itself. It seems, in the beginning, as if the narrator will simply discuss the starfish, albeit in beautiful, lyrical style. It fascinates him more and more, however, and the poem calls out to the starfish. By using apostrophe, the narrator establishes a relationship with the starfish. He ponders its color and its idiosyncrasies for a stanza or two, the sea star eventually takes hold of his imagination. Because the last two lines start with "You" and sit alone on the page, we see that the starfish almost consumes him. It has become the sole object of the poem; the "you" dominates the all-important final lines. Even without this privileged position, the statements have energy; "clutch" and "taste" are intensely physical verbs. In fact, the entire poem is devoted to the sheer physicality of this starfish - its unusual and powerful behavoirs, its scholarly sex, its luminosity. The final two lines reinforce this, for it is as if everything other than the starfish's movements have been stripped away, and we watch with the narrator, breathless.

It has been wonderful to spend some time with the starfish in this poem - I hope that you enjoyed it as much as I did. I encourage you all to go learn about starfish, for they are beautiful and fascinating. I tend to like celestial imagery in poetry, so I will leave you with the final fact that a sea star's scientific name is "Asteroidea". I like thinking that the starfish is some tensile, alien being that shot down from above and plunked in the sea.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Poem of the Week 10/17/2005: Prayer


Echo of the clocktower, footstep
in the alleyway, sweep
of the wind sifting the leaves.

Jeweller of the spiderweb, connoisseur
of autumn's opulence, blade of lightning
harvesting the sky.

Keeper of the small gate, choreographer
of entrances and exits, midnight
whisper travelling the wires.

Seducer, healer, deity or thief,
I will see you soon enough--
in the shadow of the rainfall,

in the brief violet darkening a sunset--
but until then I pray watch over him
as a mountain guards its covert ore

and the harsh falcon its flightless young.

Dana Gioia 1991

Hello friends and family! I am excited to bring you the poem of the week this week, because this one is so crystalline and tender. Sometimes spending too much time with one poet or set of poems will rub me raw; I have been working on Richard Hugo poem after poem for my Lit and the Environment class, and I am starting to ache with the cold vision of nature he presents. So I wanted to choose something a little more delicate.

That is not to say that this poem is fragile; perhaps delicate was the wrong word. It might be better to say that it is intensely personal and deeply affectionate. In this way, then, it asks us to read sensitively, with delicacy. After all, the narrator is sharing both his words to God and his thoughts about Him, adn these are some of the deepest pieces of a person. The poem calls to attention the sacred eddies swirling about us every day. It is obviously a prayer, and then immediately an unconventional one. Rather than saying "Dear God," as if he were writing God some sort of letter, the narrator offers the prayer to the tiny manifestations of God. These fragments are soft snapshots: a list dealing with sound, weather, and movement. The narrator's God lives in the details, big and small. While the other deified elements are commonplace but often unnoticed, lightning seems a surprising choice for its lack of subtlety. It seems large and almost too clichéd to be on the list with dewdrops and the "sweep / of the wind sifting the leaves." However, Gioia refines the vision by calling it a "blade of lightning / harvesting the sky." "Blade" recalls a blade of grass, which filgrees the imagery, and the observation that an electrical storm works like a scythe "harvesting the sky" is unique and sharply insightful.

The narrator then moves from examining God's place (for we get the sense that God was in all of the first two stanzas' components) to looking at his role in our affairs. He is "keeper of the small gate," a comment that confuses me some. I feel like I am missing a mythological, biblical, or autobiographical reference here that is thwarting my understanding. That said, the gate could mean some kind of passageway, perhaps between life and death, or maybe between stages of our lives? I would move to say that the gate does not lie between life and death, for much of the rest of the poem concerns itself with this division. By implying also that God is a "coreographer / of entrances and exits, midnight / whisper travelling the wires", the narrator expresses that, to him, God is graceful, has a fair amount of control over our lives (he is apparently not all in the details), and takes silent part in communication.

Now we arrive at the meatiest, most interesting part of the poem, in my opinion. By calling God a "Seducer, healer, deity, or thief," the speaker raises social and nature-of-God issues. Two of the labels the narrator gives God are straightforward and conventional: namely "healer" and "deity." These require little if any explication. Where this line gets interesting in the narrator's appellation of God as a "seducer. This label could be a social criticism - religion itself has a notoriously potent and aggressive tendency to convert the heathen (or even the occassional atheist). However, this reading doesn't fit at all with the poem's major thrust. If we are examining the narrator's vision of God, it is only paritally helpful in that it relays that this is an unconventional occurrence. "Seducer", with its sexual connotations, could mean that God is present in a lover, or that God acts as a lover. This in itself is somewhat surprising; there is such a Christian insistance on abstinence that to see Him as even possibly sexual is surprising. However, it does challenge the assumption that this is a Christian God (I will discuss this in more detail. For now, I only intend to point out how this narrator has a unique view of God).

Then, too, it is utterly surprising to think of God as a thief. Isn't He supposed to be benevolent and giving? Isn't He supposed to love us and cherish us? What could Our Father possibly steal from us? This assesment of God as a thief could imply several things. On a fairly basic level, this God could be stealing life from us when we die. In this way, he is the ultimate crook, stealing our most spectacular and singular position. He is also the ultimate culprit; people can (and often do) assign God responsiblity for death, destruction, natural disasters, disease etc. I guess that Uncle Ben was right, and "with great power comes great responsibility."

I also find it interesting that, while the narrator so desperately wants God to protect the "him" at the end of the poem, he acknowledges and even accepts his own death. This death, too, is peaceful and misty, occuring "in the shadow of the rainfall, / in the brief violet darkening a sunset --". I have to say that "the brief violet" is one of the more beautiful images I have come across. It acts within me like a pulse or a tug - death, from this description, is just a blink of richness and then a finality. No grand illusions about continuance or choruses of angels, just a dark petal falling and then night.

The final note of importance in this poem is how fiercely the narrator wants God to protect the unnamed boy. He asks Him to "watch over him / as a mountain guards its covert ore / and the harsh falcon its flightless young." Ore is a brilliant metaphor for a person, because it implies veins of wealth streaked in raw stone. Our richness intermingles with all of the other flaws and cracks and duller elements, but that makes it no less precious. The narrator again expresses his love for the boy by wanting God to fiercely protect him.

It strikes me now that, throughout this poem, the speaker avoids sinking into cliches or a sentimental mush. Sinking is quite easy to do when discussing death, God, and a dear love (i.e. the boy), so to avoid it is quite a feat. Well, I hope that you all found the poem as beautiful as I did, and that your next week is good! Check back this week for me catching up on old PotWs. I definitely don't have the time, but I am wanting to get serious about english, and want to flesh this project out.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Poem of the Week 10/10/2005: Skin Full

Skin Full

I laugh till my jaw unhinges,
we hold me in with ribboning fingers.
Moderation in moderation. Who said that?
It makes extraordinary sense to me.

You say that life is a three-legged race.
They show us the door and we have some difficulty,
bound like that from thigh to ankle.
The street is a blanket. We will sleep

with you on your front, me on your back.
The night will be endless and we will be endless,
layer on layer, infinitely warm.
I sing as we lie shoulder to shoulder

and tell you there is no such thing as anything
that is not a small circle. Now it is morning.
Can the bones we broke out of be mended?
My eyes . . . The sun picks over their embers.

Lavinia Greenlaw 1997

Hi friends and family! Apparently I am on a deconstructionist poetry kick - the last four poems have been modernist or post-modernist. They have certainly been abstract and difficult, but maybe my life has been that way. Or I am craving poetry so intensely (thanks to far too much math homework) that I am needing extreme jumbles of words to satisfy me. Plus, I have used up most of my comfort poems/poets, so I am getting to explore some new and different territory.

At any rate, this poem begins easily enough - the narrator comfortably addresses us, laughing and chatting away. The imagery is nearly cubist right off the mark, too, though. Body parts morph and separate in the act of laughing. This kind of deconstruction establishes both the strength of the emotion felt and the connection between the narrator and her date. After all, a laugh so hearty that it becomes jaw-unhinging is pretty powerful, and fingers "ribbioning" together is at once graceful and conective. The first stanza's message is clear as well; live all out. The narrator is explicit about this, agreeing with "moderation in moderation".

The second paragraph discusses relationships and, more specifically, these characters' relationship. The idea of life as a three-legged race is an interesting one. That we have to work with others is obvious, but it is perhaps a little more interesting to think that we have to be bound to them. A three legged race sounds a little enforced to me. The line "the street is a blanket" is odd as well; the best that I can do with it is to think that this poem is the story of one night. After all, the actions are very specific, and each stanza fits into the one-night theory. On this night, then, the couple decides to sleep on the street. The suddenness of the line makes the decision seem spur-of-the-moment, an extreme choice in an extreme night.

The third stanza has the most exuberance of any in the poem; its wheeling, drunken optimism saturates the four lines. That the couple will sprawl upon each other underlines their youth, energy, and spontaniety. The diction in this stanza is extreme as well. Literally, "infinite" and "endless" are so large as to be incomprehensible. I would actually pair the first two lines of the final stanza with the events in this one, for they finish one of the sentences.

Where the poem really is interesting, however, is in the final stanza. After the singing and the careening and the sleeping on the streets, bones are broken in the morning.

** again, I will tailor/finish the last two paragraphs later **

Monday, October 03, 2005

Poem of the Week 10/3/2005: House on a Red Cliff

House on a Red Cliff

There is no mirror in Mirissa

the sea is in the leaves
the waves are in the plants

old languages in thea rms
of the casuarina pine

parampara,* from
generation to generation

The flamboyant** a grandfather planted
having lived through fire
lifts itself over the roof


the house an open net

where the night concentrates
on a breath
on a step
a thing or gesture
we cannot be attached to

The long, the short, the difficult minutes
of night

where even in darkness
there is no horizon without a tree

just a boat's light in the leaves

Last footstep before formlessness

Michael Ondaatje 2000

*parampara - one following the other, succession (Sanskrit); the Hindu method of transmitting knowledge through a guru's answering a disciple's questions
** plant with flame-colored flowers

Hello All - sorry this one is late, but rehearsals go as they will (i.e. forever). I hope and trust that you are all doing well - it's been some time since we've had a meeting at the PotW site - for I do consider this a meeting place. If nothing else, your consciousness is meeting with that of the poem, and, if you read this respone, with mine. My lit professor was surprised that I thought about school stuff on my trip to Montana, but when better to think about ideas? We have to apply them - this poem of the week is just one way of practicing interacting with our environments.

My two lit classes this year are pushing me in a slightly different direction in terms of what poetry I like. We are examining so much of the social context of texts that I am starting to really appreciate when a poem or novel puts forth a strong sense of place, culture, or history. The very title of this poem suggests a place - specifically a House on a Red Cliff that we soon learn that it is in Mirissa - a town on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. This is the most solid assertion of place we glean from the poem, however. It might be better to discuss the "sense" of place, for Ondaatje stacks image on top of image and discourages exact specifity at every turn.

After all, "the sea is in the leaves / the waves are in the palms / old languages in the arms / of the casuarina pine". Nothing is where it is supposed to be - everything is contained. This is not, however, negative in the least; it is simply an interconnectedness of being. The past continues to the present, each generation learning from the last as a disciple learns from his master. "Parampara," the word describing this process, illuminates the idea that this is an exchange, but not tangible or laid out. It travels through the air, from ear to ear, based on personal experience and curiousity.

Nor is the containment restricting. The poem encourages throughout this sense of disembodiment; a house, usually a place of closure, ceilings, and walls is here "an open net," ready to catch someone or let her slip through the openings. This is why Ondaatje presents us with the lines "night concentrates... [on] a thing or gesture / we cannot be attached to". He wants to put forth the idea of ephemerality. This is somewhat ironic, actually, expressing an ephemeral thing through the long-lived vessel of poetry. Perhaps this idea can help, then, underline the concept that these actions, no matter how short lived, are still important.

Contrary to self couched in others (the sea in the leaves), the whispers of the past, and containers that don't restrict, Ondaatje says that there is still a point. Things are finite, and there is "no horizon without a tree". This could mean several things. Either there is always a bound no matter how far the eye can see, every vista includes nature, or simply that the landscape is tree-filled. I like to think, though, that the tree is actually a reference to the flamboyant that appears earlier in the poem. This way, everywhere one turns, there is a reference to the past, an artifact of perseverance (for the grandfather's tree flourished despite long years and fire).

I am realizing now that I am jerking you around a lot in this poem, first saying that it has a strong sense of place but that the place itself is mixed, then that it references images of containment that don't actually set boundaries (is this containment then? It may instead challenge our conventional methods of containment - i.e. the self containing identity, a house containing people, memories, or nostalgic ties) and finally that the world is actually bounded with images of perseverance. And I am about to jerk the meaning of this poem one more time by pointing out the closing line, "Last footstep before formlessness." This line seems to tend toward the dissoultion of self that (one could argue) exists in the rest of the poem. However, I think that it actually expresses a sense of identity through place.

This thought requires a little background on Ondaatje, not to mention that his personal experience has informed the narrator, even if Ondaatje is not the narrator himself. He grew up in Sri Lanka, moving to Canada to go to school and write. He often references the places he knew growing up, which I why I move to say that this poem is actually a story of home. All of the transitory images, the conflicting concepts resolve like beams of light if you think about the poem as an expression of a home. What is home, anyway? How does it connect with our identity? The answers to those questions are necessarily connected and immeasurably complex. Were someone to ask me about my deepest memories as a child (and perhaps how it feels to remember them), I might cite the poplar tree that got struck by lightning, a bonica bush in the rain, leaves against the sun, brown carpet, a Tonka truck, and flashes of my family. These images are varied and vague; if I mixed them with how I see myself now, how I understand my family history to have unfolded at home, and how that will affect me in the future, it might come out somewhat like "Red House on a Cliff."

If this discussion has been hard to follow, I apologise. The poem is difficult and scattered, requiring a more rigorous approach than I have given it here. This is one I may come back to and give a more comprehensive, argumentative treatment. Let me just leave you with the question of how identity gets tied to place. I think that, just as the selves, natural or otherwise, reflect each other within the poem, so do our selves enter and leave different elements of home. We become invested in them, momentarily losing our form by interacting with leaves, the casaurina pine, the house, the night etc. The last line, then, may also be the beginning of another of these encounters.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Poem of the Week 9/26/2005: Nevertheless


you've seen a strawberry
that's had a struggle; yet
was, where the fragments met,

a hedgehog or a star-
fish for the multitude
of seeds. What better food

than apple seeds - the fruit
within the fruit - locked in
like counter-curved twin

hazelnuts? Frost that kills
the little rubber-plant -
leaves of kok-sagyyz-stalks, can't

harm the roots; they still grow
in frozen ground. Once where
there was a prickley-pear -

leaf clinging to a barbed wire,
a root shot down to grow
in earth two feet below;

as carrots from mandrakes
or a ram's-horn root some-
times. Victory won't come

to me unless I go
to it; a grape tendril
ties a knot in knots till

knotted thirty times - so
the bound twig that's under-
gone and over-gone, can't stir.

The weak overcomes its
menace, the strong over-
comes itself. What is there

like fortitude! What sap
went through that little thread
to make the cherry red!

Marianne Moore 1944


who are you,little i

(five or six years old)
peering from some high

window;at the gold

of november sunset

(and feeling:that if day
has to become night

this is a beautiful way)

e.e. cummings 1963

YES there are two poems of the week this week - I will close read the first one but both are for my sister. They are for all of you and for me too, but first they are for my sister. Well, e.e. cummings is both a repeat and a shout-out to my cast! Our play is soon, and I am so excited to watch them go up. Anyway, because I want my self tomorrow to like my self tonight, I am going to bed. I will have to do "Nevertheless" later - it's an incredibly rich and complex poem, and Marianne Moore is one of the most important poets of the 20th Century, so it would do everybody some good to read her poems. They are hard but beautiful. Enough lecturing for tonight! Goodnight! (Oh and by the way, this is late because I was in Montana on Sunday and Monday about 150 miles from internet. So sorry! I should have thought ahead and sent it out earlier. Ah! Goodnight!)

Monday, September 19, 2005

Poem of the Week 9/19/2005: Elemental


Why don't people leave off being lovable
Or thinking they are lovable, or wanting to be lovable,
And be a bit elemental instead?

Since man is made up of the elements
Fire, and rain, and air, and live loam
And none of these is lovable
But elemental,
Man is lop-sided on the side of the angels.

I wish men would get back their balance among the elements
And be a bit more firey, as incapable of telling lies
As fire is.
I wish they'd be true to their own variation, as water is,
Which goes through all the stages of steam and stream and ice
Without losing its head.

I am sick of lovable people,
Somehow they are a lie.

D.H. Lawrence 1929

Hello Friends and Family! I know that this is kind of bitter poem number two, but Mondays this year are feeling nice and cliché for me this school year (i.e. bad). I am not complaining, just explaining why the PotW is bitter on these particular days. But we proceed nevertheless!

This poem is perhaps a little more straightforward than your typical Poem of the Week; we don't often read a poem simply asking why people aren't a certain way. Well, the poems may ask that implicitly I suppose. A change is nice once in a while. I have found that this very frank style of poetry is beginning to appear more and more. Many people are familiar perhaps with Billy Collins? He uses this form all of the time, and (just off the top of my head) Eavan Boland and Paul Muldoon do to a lesser extend. It is a simple and more approachable form that still allows for most of the nuances of poetry. After all, within this poem we have imagery, word play, a subtle form, and some kind of question or proposition.

I think a good way to begin with this poem is by looking at the form. Its irregularity lends it a sort of casual nature that I think can be a little unusual in a poem. This relaxedness, in turn, adds to the poem's everyman tone. Each stanza break is important to notice as well, because each emphasizes certain lines. The first stanza break explains the title, stating, "and be a bit elemental instead?" Though we have an introduction to the title, what might this mean? Well, the narrator goes on to answer, right now, people are too full of these airy dreams. Everywhere they are pining for love when they should be a bit more, if you'll excuse the pun, grounded. We need to listen to the Beatles and get back to where we once belonged.

My favorite part of the poem sits at the next stanza break: the line "man is lop-sided on the side of angels." We are too much in love, to much wanting to love, and too much crafting ourselves hoping to be loved. This line is surprising, too. Angels usually take a more beneficient part in poems (see Richard Wilbur's "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World, Denise Levertov's "Cademon," or Brad Leithauser's "Old Bachelor Brother," to mention very few), so to think of this as negative is a paradigm shift.

And then the poem asks us just to be true and to be ourselves. Written like that, it sounds corny, because I think Lawrence is posing a bigger challenge than that. His use of the four elements (which are, incidentally, the four elements of which Aristotle believed man is made) and diction therein hints that this is a deeper truth. This is the root of being, the way of things. Fire, rain, air, and "live loam" all have a kind of energy in the poem; the sounds of the words beat within the text, adding a pulse to otherwise flat words. The vitality bursting through phrases like "steam and stream and ice" and "lop-sided on the side" and "live loam" concentrates the emotion. Actually, now that I think about it, controlling this energy is what Lawrence is asking us to do; go through the stages of life without losing ourselves. He achieves this feat in his rhetoric, for he addresses very emotional and powerful ideas in this piece without sinking into a sentimental quagmire.

I also want to point out how flat the word "lovable" seems after reading "Elementals." I mean, after talking about the elements, the bones and muscles of being, "lovable" comes out so pressed. It isn't as meaty or interesting as the fire, water, and earth that appears in the poem. Elementals is the right word for the title, I think.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Poem of the Week 9/12/2005: On a Return from Egypt

On a Return from Egypt

To stand here in the wings of Europe
disheartened, I have come away
from the sick land where in the sun lay
the gentle sloe-eyed murderers
of themselgves, exquisites under a curse;
here to exercise my depleted fury.

For the heart is a coal, growiing colder
when jewelled cerulean seas change
into grey rocks, grey water-fringe,
sea and sky altering like a cloth
till colour and sheen are gone both:
cold is an opiate of the soldier.

And all my endeavours are unlucky explorers
come back, abandoning the expedition;
the specimens, the lilies of ambition
still spring in their climate, still unpicked:
but time, time is all I lacked
to find them, as the great collectors before me.

The next month, then, there is a wondow
and with a crash I'll split the glass.
Behind it stands one I must kiss,
person of love or death
a person or a wraith,
I fear what I shall find.

Keith Douglas 1944

What is assuredly most striking about this poem is the apparent dissolution of a human being. And its rambling, directionless, disheartened rage. Or, as the narrator writes, his "depleted fury."

Starting at the beginning.

The line "the wings of Europe" is a pun on the WWII label "theaters." So we immeadately know that this is a man who is leaving the war, apparently "disheartened." Considering what he says next, though, "disheartened" may be an understatement. Disgusted, repulsed, dehumanized, frayed, or dismantled may be more accurate terms to describe the man who comes out of this war. The narrator calls Egypt a "sick land" full of "sloe-eyed murderers." The next line, "of themselves," however, brings under question exactly who these murderers are. Are they his friends? Egyptians? If the latter, "sloe-eyed" is a racial slur. Sloe, the book notes, is the dark fruit of the black-thorn, meaning that these killers had dark eyes. This image, however, becomes more gruesome (not to mention more politically correct), if one reads that these men are his friends. The darkness around the eyes may simply be rotting flesh. Both interpretations work with the following line that the men are "exquisites under a curse." The narrator may feel that these men are exemplary citizens upon whom government has laid the curse of military service, while they may also be his buddies now cursed with beetles (my friend Tim informs me that, left to nature, beetles are the creatures that will devour us. Not bacteria.) So, then, how are these corpses/enemies exercising his depleted fury? Perhaps the bodies would simply get his rage's tired heartbeat up again, or the Axis soldiers provide targets on which to empty his rage.

Anyway, the speaker surprises us again, when, after writing "the heart is a coal," he relays that it is actually growing colder. I find this image particularly poignant - what was once firey and impassioned now sifts away. This happens when his bright dreams blanche and crumble into rocks. And Douglas brilliantly continues this metaphor by saying that "cold is an opiate of the soldier." While war does evoke thoughts of physical coldness, Douglas implies that it is the spiritual chilling that really allows one to shut out the war. The tedium of war probably enhances this effect; by saying that the ocean and sky alter like a cloth until both lose "colour and sheen," Douglas implies that the narrator's repeated days in the war, like sun to cloth, have bleached any meaning.

This numbness is visible in the next stanza when the narrator refers to his actions as "unlucky explorers / come back, abandoning the expedition". This device takes what he's doing every day and wresting it from his identity. His actions can return because they once left. He is perhaps attempting to separate himself from the horrors of war. War certainly separates him from his goals - I read that he cannot pick "the lilies of ambition" because he is not at home. His aspirations probably never included fighting in the barren desert, for he gives no hint of patriotism in the text.

But now he has a chance, a little time. He is going home, if only for a month. However, it is in this last stanza that his complete dissolution becomes clear. His girlfriend does not stand in his imagination as the long-awaited refuge from hate and violence, but as one who could betray him, too. His fears about her hint at the psychological damage war can inflict on any of us; he fears that she may turn from love into death, or that she may not even be real. Like so many of his friends before her, we can presume, she may dissolve under his gaze.

The fears that resonate in the final stanza unearth what war has done, especially, to this individual. The poem can read almost like a list of atrocities the war has committed (killing friends, dulling the spirit, quelling dreams), so the fact that this offense closes the poem puts it in a place of special relevance. War has broken his trust. Even in she who he ought to love most. He can't trust her breath or her presence, because he knows how inconstant and fragile those are. This may be the hardest thing in the world - knowing that at any time, what you love and who you are can be taken from you. We have been talking a lot about liberty in my classes, and I think that this constitutes a serious breach of liberty. We are supposed to have a choice about where we are and what we do, and yet we can be sent somewhere else to take every choice a person will ever have away from him (for what else is death), and who knows if that person chose to be there anyway?

I chose this poem today because, frankly, it has been a grumpy-I-am-not-impressed-with-the-state-of-the-world day. Some days are just like that. We can't have beauty all of the time, because where does that leave us? I don't think it's possible. Doing an embittered PotW has helped, though, not least because it feels good to move out of the Romantic era and political rhetoric (where I am sitting in both lit classes right now. I love lit, but political rhetoric seems at once difficult to construct and depressingly easy to recognise. Ethos, pathos, logos. It's as simple as that. Sometimes slightly more entertaining, but only verry slightly.) So anyway. Here's to tomorrow improving on today, and also to peace!