Monday, December 25, 2006

Poem of the Week 12/25/2006: Sir David Brewster's Toy

Sir David Brewster's Toy

In this tube you see
At the far end a batch of
Colored-glass debris--

Which, however, grows
Upon reflection to an
Intricate pied rose,

Flushed with sun, that might,
Set in some cathedral's wall,
Paraphrase the light.

Now, at the least shake,
The many colors jumble
And abruptly make

The rose rearrange,
Adding to form and splendor
The release of change.

Rattle it afresh
And see its coruscating
Flinders quickly mesh,

Fashioning once more
A fine sixfold gaudiness
Never seen before.

Many prophets claim
That Heaven's joys, though endless,
Are not twice the same;

This kaleidoscope
Can, in that connection, give
Exercise in hope.

Richard Wilbur 2004

Wilbur offers us a sweet and simple poem about the joys of a kaleidescope--a fragmentary, collection of broken glass and shards of light. He starts the poem simply enough, with the humble description "tube" and "a batch of/ colored glass debris." However, when one turns it to the light, it reforms into a rose. The choice of "upon reflection" refers not only to the glass, but to the watcher--really looking at the light helps one find the beauty. Using "intricate pied rose" to describe the shape uses language to convey the delicacy of the kalidescope. The phrase's consonants dance along the tongue, reminding us of the beauty of the rose.

The rose is not only an apt image, but a reference to Christ, and to divine beauty. Wilbur heightens this connection by comparing it to a cathedral rose--the enormous stained glass mosaics in cathedrals (cf. Notre Dame, famously). Paraphrasing the light, these windows capture the glory of the world--paraphrase it. Beauty like this selects a piece of the holy world and presents it in a small way.

But, as one of my friends said (to whom in particular this poem is dedicated)--"This is just an idea. It’s transient. But I hope you can relate." The kalidescope demonstrates this, tentatively.... This world... is just an endlessly tumbling tube of beauty, if only we can see it, if only we can point it at the light. Infinitely varied, infinitely changing, each image shatters and reforms into something different, something else beautiful.

This is something that I think we forget as we get older, or that we struggle with. It's so easy to forget how beautiful the world is, to get caught up on the last image or excited for the next one, not willing to let the changes happen around us... But, when pointed to the light, what could be more beautiful than our revolving tube of the things of this world?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Poem of the Week 12/18/2006: Another Sonnet to Black Itself

Another Sonnet to Black Itself

Thou Black, wherein all colors are compos'd,
And unto which they all at last return,
Thou color of the sun where it doth burn,
And shadow, where it cools, in thee is clos'd,
Whatever nature can, or hath dispos'd
In any other hue: from thee do rise
Those tempers and complexions, which discols'd,
As parts fo thee, do work as mysteries,
Of that thy hidden power; when thou dost reign
The characters of fate shine in the skies,
And tell us what the heavens do ordain,
But when earth's common light shines to our eyes,
Thou so retir'st thy self, that thy disdain
All revelation unto man denies.

Edward Herbert 1620

I choose this poem this week because it is close to the shortest day of the year, and so the blackest day. He opens the poem writing about the mystery of black: how it contains all colors, yet conceals them when they are together. Black is the beginning and end of color, to Herbert. It is also the end of matter, for he refers to the color of charring when something as firey as a sun burns something. He further associates black and the sun with his discussion of the black of shadows; black is both the power of the sun and teh absence of it, the light and the dark, Black is all things (colors), and it is the destruction of things.

As Herbert points out, black contains much mystery, a fact I felt more acutely recently when the school's power went out. It was so strange to walk at night without light, and yet it is only within the last hundred years or so that our nights are so lit. Maybe less.

But anyway, with that taken, the second half of the poem becomes more potent. He writes that black allows us to see the stars, which foretell the future. In the daytime, the stars are hidden, and so we can't see the future. We know very little during the daytime, when light is everywhere. So now that there is always light (and few stars), we know less. Hm.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Poem of the Week 12/11/2006: from Duino Elegies: First Elegy

from Duino Elegies: First Elegy

And if I cried, who'd listen to me in those angelic
orders? Even if one of them suddenly held me
to his heart, I'd vanish in his overwhelming
presence. Because beauty's nothing
but the start of terror we can hardly bear,
and we adore it because of the serene scorn
it could kill us with. Every angel's terrifying.
So I control myself and choke back the lure
of my dark cry. Ah, who can we turn to,
then? Neither angels nor men,
and the animals already know by instinct
we're not comfortably at home
in our translated world. Maybe what's left
for us is some tree on a hillside we can look at
day after day, one of yesterday's streets,
and the perverse affection of a habit
that liked us so much it never let go.
And the night, oh the night when the wind
full of outer space gnaws at our faces; that wished for,
gentle, deceptive one waiting painfully for the lonely
heart--she'd stay on for anyone. Is she easier on lovers?
But they use each other to hide their fate.
You still don't understand? Throw the emptiness in
your arms out into that space we breathe; maybe birds
will feel the air thinning as they fly deeper into themselves.

Ranier Maria Rilke (trans. A. Poulin Jr.) 1922

I will write about this poem later, when my mind can sort a little bit about it. Some poems need to be lived with, digested, absorbed.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Poem of the Week 12/6/2006: To Autumn

To Autumn


Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.


Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.


Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

John Keats September 19, 1819

I know--it's not Autumn (indeed, we are full on along in Winter), but Keats felt right for today. His delicate, yearning stanzas and serene tone feel just right for this morning. Plus, notice the focus on age in the last stanza, and the quiet, tender grief that comes along with it. It seems as if the first stanza should be positive, for it is full of words like "sweet," "plump," and "ripe," but I sense some kind of tension or illness. Perhaps the opening of mist puts a damper over the exuberant abundance we find (the layers of flowers upon flowers). Also, it contains friendship and maturity rather than youth and romantic love. This seems to be the central tension in the poem--that between youth and age. "To Autumn" asks, what happens when youth is gone? What is there to love or mourn in age?

Keats achieves a tremendous amount of distance in the end of the poem. By positioning the animals and humans in different places--a hill, the sky, a hidden garden-croft--Keats puts their small noises far off. This has the effect of making both Spring and youth seem far away.

Though the poem asks us not to think of the songs of Spring, that Autumn (age) has its melody, too, one might argue that Spring is everywhere in the background here. There are flowers, bees, and brooks, and the sheep are identified as "full-grown lambs." Keats draws life in terms of Spring, which may place the emphasis on Spring nonetheless.

But who knows. Part of the achievement of this poem is Keats' ability to balance the beauty and abundance of Autumn with the poem's sad tone. "To Autumn" is like a psalm, a hymn, a lament: beautiful and tearing, ripe and sad. Keats has produced a poem of autumn, a poem of beauty and age. In it, there is a passing of grand poetic metaphors or gestures; these are replaced by a slow and solemnly beautiful three stanzas.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Poem of the Week 11/27/2006: The Sun Underfoot Among the Sundew

The Sun Underfoot Among the Sundew

An ingenuity too astonishing
to be quite fortuitous is
this bog full of sundews, sphagnum-
lined and shaped like a teacup.
                                                A step
down and you're into it: a
wilderness swallows you up:
ankle-, then knee-, then midriff-
to-shoulder-deep in wetfooted
understory, an overhead
spruce-tamarack horizon hinting
you'll never get out of here.
                                            But the sun
among the sundews, down there,
is so bright, an underfoot
webwork of carnivorous rubies,
a star-swarm thick as the gnats
they're set to catch, delectable
double-faced cockleburs, each
hair-tip a sticky mirror
afire with sunlight, a million
of them and again a million,
each mirror a trap set to
unhand unbelieving,
                                that either
a First Cause said once, "Let there
be sundews," and there were, or they've
made their way here unaided
other than by that backhand, round-
about refusal to assume responsibility
known as Natural Selection.
                                           But the sun
underfoot is so dazzling
down there among the sundews,
there is so much light
in the cup that, looking,
you start to fall upward.

Amy Clampitt 1983

Some explicatory notes: this poem tells the story of a (wo?)man walking into a bog and falling into a deep, marshy area of sundews. I don't know how this works, and I am too tired to look it up, but that is what I get from the poem. She falls, but, slightly afraid of dying, sees the sundews shining out. They are so beautiful, that it seems that she is falling the opposite way.

That is an incredibly crude explanation of this poem, but my hope is that this little summary will help you parse out the poem yourself. Maybe it will help? It is a beautiful poem - light imagery always gets me.

I chose it because it's snowing here, and I was amused at the juxtaposition. Goodnight!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Poem of the Week 11/20/2006: A Few Moments

A Few Moments

The dwarf pine on marsh grounds holds its head up: a dark rag.
But what you see is nothing compared to the roots,
the widening, secretly groping, deathless or half-
deathless root system.

I you she he also put roots out.
Outside our common will.
Outside the City.

Rain drifts from the summer sky that's pale as milk.
It is as if my five senses were hooked up to some other creature
that moves with the same stubborn flow
as the runners in white circling the track as the night comes misting in.

by Tomas Transtomer
translated by Robert Bly 2001

Robert Bly's interest is in poetry that is highly metaphorical; he is one of the most vocal members of the "Deep Image" school of poetry, which writes images that harmonize with the spiritual interior of a human. Much of his work has been translating poets such as Transtomer, Vallejo, and others whose names I cannot remember. He asks for a poetry that is almost Biblical in the symbolism of its imagery, I suppose.

I read this poem as an articulation of man's subconscious. This subconscious is scattered, complex, growing, unknown, much like the imagery and form of this poem. Transtomer opens with an image establishing, on one level, the smallness of man: "the dwarf pine." He personifies the tree, for it holds its poor head up, "a small rag." The pine is usually a tall tree, but, as I remember, a dwarf pine is a species that cannot grow much higher than the height of a man (please somebody correct me if I am wrong!). Thus, in this image is the idea of something stunted, limited, meager. With the pine, "what you see is nothing compared to the roots."

This line, though, offers a second interpretation of the tree. It may not merely be a humble human, but man's visible, or conscious thoughts. What we see of what we think, for most, comprises little of actual existence. Most of existence, the subconscious, is a tangled web of roots. Like the subconscious, the roots are unknown and complex, "widening [and] secretly groping." Looking deeper into the image, we find that roots feed a tree, which implies that subconscious feeds us.

Speaking of subconscious, sleep is taking over my brain. I will finish this tomorrow, I hope. It is beautiful; I hope you all agree.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Poem of the Week 11/13/2006: No Tears

No Tears

Roses, Christ knows how they got to be so lovely,
green skies over the city
in the evening
in the ephemeral of the years!

The yearning I have for that time
when one mark thirty was all I had,
yes, I counted them this way and that,
I trimmed my days to fit them,
days, what am I saying days: weeks on bread and plum mush
out of earthenware pots
brought from my village,
still under the reselects of native poverty,
how raw everything felt, how tremblingly beautiful!

What good is the luster conferred by European pundits,
the great name,
the pour le merite,
people who shoot their cuffs and tool on,

it's only the ephemeral that's beautiful,
looking back, the poverty,
the frowstiness* that didn't know what it was,
sobs, and stands in line for its dole,
what a wonderful Hades
that takes away the frowst,
and the pundits both--
please, no tears,
no one say: oh, I was so lonesome.

Gottfried Benn 2006
*Hot stuffy fustiness.

It would do one good to ask why Benn opens the poem with the image of a rose; roses are a symbol of Christ (not so subtly associated in this poem), but they, again obviously, have thorns. Beauty and pain go together, the first lesson of the rose.

That is certainly how the narrator feels in this poem; he longs for his time of poverty, the kind of romantic simplicity of a life without too many goods. In what I find to be the best line of the poem, he calls this, "the rushlight of native poverty." That is, this kind of poverty lights softly, intimately, beautifully. And the rush goes out in an instant, unlike the steady, green throb of city lights in the opening section.

Essentially, this poem is concerned with many of the things I am thinking about now: simplicity, modernity, loneliness, beauty, and the sky. It is perhaps not as dense as it could be, but why make it so? It speaks to me. Modern society is lonely, harsh, tearful. We of course must question a romantic notion of the past, but this seems to be authentic. My best friend and I were recently talking about idealizing certain moments of high school, even, because it was so raw and new. Life was less clogged, then, I think. Perhaps that is what Benn is talking about.

He almost implies some kind of force or violence in the modern world when he writes of "people who shoot their cuffs." This is the harshness that seeks glory, a great name, some kind of masculine, lustrous permanence.

Modernity even turns the "native poverty" into something sad and broken. Only in cities do long lines of homeless stretch out over the city, perhaps because the modern world requires so much of us. It tires us, breaks us, makes us cry.

To be in a place of poverty and simplicity, now that's a different story. There is real beauty, and so real connectedness with the world. Rather than the mass-produced, buzzing fluorescent lights all around the modern world, a simple world is intimate, personal, ephemeral: a tiny lit reed flickering in the night.

I don't mean this to be a rant, but I stumbled on this poem exactly at the right time for myself. It's funny how that happens.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Poem of the Week 11/6/2006: Proust in the Waters

Proust in the Waters

Swimming along the bar of moon
the yellow scattered sleeping
arm of moon
on Balsam Lake

releasing the air
out of your mouth
the moon under your arm
tick of the brain
submerged. Tick
of the loon's heart
in the wet night thunder
below us
knowing its shore is the air

We love things which disappear
and are found
creatures who plummet
and become
an arrow.
To know the syllables
in a loon sentence
shift of preposition
that signals meridian
west south west.
The mother tongue
a bubble caught in my beak
releasing the air
of a language

Seeing no human in this moon storm
being naked in black water
you approach the corridor
such jewellery! Queen Anne's Lace!
and slide to fathoms.
The mouth swallows river morse
throws a sound
through the loom of liquid
against sky.

Where are you?

On the edge
of the moon bar

Michael Ondaatje 1984

This strange and dreamy poem is concerned with language, connection, fragmentation, time, and solitariness, I think. It traces the location of another person, finding her through a web of moonlit shards. We have an interesting unity between water, loon, moon, and human. My thinking is muddy, but this poem is not! It is clear and luminous, even. Sometimes these things plant themselves in your mind; you read them over and over, and the meaning only unfolds after time. These are the poems that you live, that you act out, that you must wait for. Poetry and life go together, remember?

Even writing that loosened my thoughts a bit; the end is a coming together. The only instance of actual, spoken dialog in the poem (the other words are merely "releasing the air," "a bubble caught in my beak," and "the river morse." It is as if the two people are learning to talk, or perhaps finding their words among lunacy (of love?). I think I picked this poem because of the moon, the fragmentation, and the beautiful language.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Poem of the Week 10/30/2006: Megan


Megan, my dog,
You freed me from that churning water.
You turned and came back to me
as I screamed for you.

You glided to me over the sharp rocks
like a ballerina
getting ready to dance,
and you pulled me to shore.

You gazed into my eyes,
and comforted me
as I cried for my father.

Megan, thank you.

Sibella Campbell
Grade 3 - Northern Lights ABC

Poetry is right language, Howard Nemerov writes, and this is true whether you are 9 or 19 or 109. The first stanza of this poem is spectacularly right language. Without the first and last lines, this poem could be as good as many of the poems written by people four or five times her age; the tightness and clarity of language make it strong and powerful.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Poem of the Week 10/23/2006: Variations on the Word Sleep

Variations on the Word Sleep

I would like to watch you sleeping,
which may not happen.
I would like to watch you,
sleeping. I would like to sleep
with you, to enter
your sleep as its smooth dark wave
slides over my head

and walk with you through that lucent
wavering forest of bluegreen leaves
with its watery sun & three moons
towards the cave where you must descend,
towards your worst fear

I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center. I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands
to where your body lies
beside me, and you enter
it as easily as breathing in

I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.

Margaret Atwood 1987

This one is a bit of a ramble, but that's how it fell out tonight.

The last line of this poem seems a little incongruous to me; while the rest of the poem is an elaboration on tenderness and togetherness, the last line implies some kind of dependence. It privileges the sleeper. Other than that, though, I find this poem beautiful. Atwood plays with rythmic cycles and abstract imagery in portraying intimacy. Oh, it sounds so dry to say it that way. Let me instead point out the gorgeous eroticism. The speaker opens innocently enough, for "sleeping" implies inactivity. However, when she says, "I would like to sleep with you," suddenly we are aware that one of the variations on the word sleep is sexual. The narrator says that she wants, "to enter your sleep as its smooth dark wave slides over my head," evoking images of sheets moving, perhaps, or bodies. Even the sound of the phrase "smooth dark wave" is sultry and soft, its oooo sound cooing arousal, and the low "a" sounds singing along with the act of love.

At this point, however, the speaker pulls back, entering a weaker dream world of "a watery sun and three moons." Here she says that she wants to follow him into a cave where he must meet his deepest fear. Elaborating on this in the next stanza, she says that she would like to present him with "the silver branch, the small white flower, the single word that will protect [him]." Is this love? A vagina (a long thin branch with a small round flower)? Physical presence? A body? A mere dreamlike, mythic token of affection? Hm...

however, is this a departure from the erotic imagery? Perhaps these are merely her thoughts while lovemaking, the loving impulse. As she writes, she continues to use enjambment, which implies sexuality, stringing our energy over one line to the next, and repetition, moving the sentences one after the other like two bodies. As the third stanza moves on, the reader almost runs out of breath running from line to line, all the while accumulating the image of a flame in two cupped hands - perhaps this flame is her orgasm, perhaps just her delight?

The stanza ends with an in breath; literally, its last two words are "breathing in," and after this climax, the poem falls back into tenderness.

Perhaps we may see the entire poem as a breath, the inhale starting from a place of peace, of rest, of sleep, moving and inhaling and building to a climax, and then, finally, releasing, relaxing, breathing out.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Poem of the Week 10/17/2006: Of Mere Being

Of Mere Being

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

Wallace Stevens 1957

Monday, October 09, 2006

Poem of the Week 10/9/2006: To the Roman Forum

To the Roman Forum

After my daughter Katherine was born
I was terribly excited
I think I would have been measured at the twenty-five-espresso mark
We--Janice, now Katherine, and I--were in Rome
(Janice gave birth at the international hospital on top of Trastevere*)
I went down and sat and looked at the ruins of you
I gazed at them, gleaming in the half-night
And thought, Oh my, My God, My goodness, a child, a wife.
While I was sitting there, a friend, a sculptor, came by
I just had a baby, I said. I mean Janice did. I'm--
I thought I'd look up at some very old great things
To match up with this new one. Oh, Adya said,
I guess you'd like to be alone, then. Congratulations. Goodnight.
Thank you. Goodnight, I said. Adya departed.
Next day I saw Janice and Katherine.
Here they are again and have nothing to do with you
A pure force swept through me another time
I am here, they are here, this has happened.
It is happening now, it happened then.

Kenneth Koch 2000

Koch's poem is not your typical ode, but I call it such because it ponders on/talks to a Classic object, examining that thing's interplay with a larger emotional or spiritual force. To understand the departure, let's look at the definition of an ode. My Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Theory defines it as: "A lyric poem, usually of some length. The main features are an elaborate stanza-structure, a marked formality and stateliness in tone and style (which make it ceremonious), and lofty sentiments and thoughts. In short, an ode is rather a grand poem; a full-dress poem" (608).

Now read the poem again.

This poem does not have a rigorous stanza structure, elevated diction, or pretensions of any sort. Indeed, it trades heavily in humility, in wonder, awe and love. So perhaps they are lofty thoughts, but I consider "lofty" to be something self-conscious. Lofty includes ego, and this poem is all about feeling small. It opens with the giddy, hilarious assessment, "I was terribly excited, / I think I would have been measured at the twenty-five-espresso mark."

His excitement surges through the poem, appearing in the scattered, jittery sentence lengths. The narrator feels such enthusiasm about his daughter that he forgets to punctuate his sentences in the first 7 lines of the poem. However, he is so scattered that he turns around in the next 12 and uses thirty punctuated pauses (that is, thirty commas, dashes, or periods). This is a lot.

Even more than the sheer number, however, the poetically brilliant but technically poor use of punctuation disjoints the rhythm of his sentences. He tells us, "When I was sitting there, a friend, a sculptor, came by / I just had a baby, I said. I mean Janice did I'm--" He doesn't even let himself finish the description of his friend Adya (a friend whose name he was too excited to tell us at first) before jumping into telling her of his daughter.

In the line above, it's also important to notice that he defers responsibility for "having" the daughter. He implies that he did little more than make love with his wife, while she carried the baby for nine months and gave birth to it herself, for he later explains, "Next day I saw Janice and Katherine. / Here they are again and have nothing to do with you." Of course, "you" directly refers to the forum, but one could read the line as a piece of interior monologue. The greatness of their coming has nothing to do with him, and this is exhilarating.

Reading "you" as a reference to the Forum makes Janice and Katherine small in comparison; just as the narrator had little to do with his daughter's birth, so his daughter and wife have little do with the Roman Forum. Koch thus sets up a comparison between the great and the small, the old and the new. The last three lines, "A pure force swept through me another time / I am here, they are here, this has happened. / It is happening now, it happened then," explain what this comparison ultimately achieves. By throwing our own greatness (the ego) against something far greater, and then dwarfing that great something against an even bigger thing, Koch gives us perspective. This is not only the perspective of humility, of which it certainly has some component, but the ability to see and love one's tiny place in the vast stretch of the present and the past.

Each of us is part of everything that was and is, but it is rare that we feel that. School, friends, petty problems: these things obtrude upon our sense of relativity, the idea that a single human or event is far smaller than we usually think. What is striking about this revelation is that it includes a deep sense of love - the "pure force" Koch includes in the end of the poem. Somehow, in singling out the small from the vast, we can love and appreciate the small that much more. Perhaps this has something to do with continuity/connectedness, perhaps with the love of a single, small person opening into the love of every person and thing. Perhaps this poem includes some lofty thoughts after all.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Poem of the Week 10/2/2006: The Season of Phantasmal Peace

The Season of Phantasmal Peace

Then all the nations of birds lifted together
the huge net of the shadows of this earth
in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
stitching and crossing it. They lifted up
the shadow of long pines down trackless slopes,
the shadows of glass-faced towers down evening streets,
the shadow of a frail plant on a city still--
the net rising soundless as night, the birds' cries soundless, until
there was no longer dusk, or season, decline, or weather,
only this passage of phantasmal light
that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever.

And men could not see, looking up, what the wild geese drew,
what the ospreys trailed behind them in silvery ropes
that flashed in the icy sunlight; they could not hear
battalions of starlings waging peaceful cries,
bearing the net higher, covering this world
like the vines of an orchard, or a mother drawing
the trembling gauze over the trembling eyes
of a child fluttering to sleep;
it was the light
that you will see at evening on the side of a hill
in yellow October, and no one hearing knew
what change had brought into the raven's cawing,
the killdeer's screech, the ember-circling chough*
such an immense, soundless, and high concern
for the fields and cities where the birds belong,
except it was their seasonal passing, Love,
made seasonless, or, from the high privilege of their birth,
something brighter than pity for the wingless ones
below them who shared dark holes in windows and in houses,
and higher they lifted the net with soundless voices
above all change, betrayals of falling suns,
and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.

Derek Walcott 1981

I have a new goal for the Poem of the Week. Instead of writing the extensive close-reads I have been doing, I hope to write about an interesting or important theme I pick up in the poem - a paragraph or two - and leave it at that. I do not like that I have left this blog so sadly unattended, for the wonderful poems are hung alone and unexamined. So, the next part of this is coming either late tonight or tomorrow morning.

The title indicates that this poem is about an illusory, ephemeral, or perhaps spiritual peace, introducing some of the central themes within the poem: time, etheriality, and peace. The central image for this poem - birds lifting a net of shadows to leave the earth in absolute light - implies the

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Poem of the Week 9/25/2006: from The Merchant of Venice

from The Merchant of Venice, Act 3 Scene 2

Madam, you have bereft me of all words.
Only my blood speaks to you in my veins,
And there is such confusion in my powers
As after some oration finally spoke
By a beloved prince, there doth appear
Among the buzzing pleased multitude,
Where every something being blent together
Turns to a wild nothing save of joy
Expressed and not expressed.

William Shakespeare

We are reading this play in my Shakespeare class, and this small exerpt leapt straight into my mind and hasn't left since. It is such a gem, a pure distillation of love. Oh gorgeous.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Poem of the Week 9/18/2006: from Love at Thirty-Two Degrees

from Love at Thirty-Two Degrees


Last night I threw my lab coat in the fire
& drove all night through the Arizona desert
with a thermos full of silver tequila.

It was the last of what we bought
on our way back from Guadalajara--
desert wind in the mouth, your mother's
beat-up Honda, agaves
twisting up from the soil
like the limbs of cephalopods.

Outside of Tucson, saguaros so lovely
considering the cold, & the fact that you
weren't there to warm me.
Suddenly drunk I was shouting that I wanted to see the stars
as my ancestors used to see them--

to see the godawful blue as Aurvandil's* frostbitten toe.


Then, there is the astronomer's wife
ascending stairs to her bed.

The astronomer gazes out,
one eye at a time,

to a sky that expands
even as it falls apart

like a paper boat dissolving in bilge.
Furious, fuming stars.

When his migrane builds &
lodges its dark anchor behind

the eyes, he fastens the wooden buttons
of his jacket, & walks

outside with a flashlight
to keep company with the barn owl

who stares back at him with eyes
that are no greater or less than

a spiral galaxy.
The snow outside

is white & quiet
as a woman's slip

against cracked floorboards.
So he walks to the house

inflamed by moonlight, & slips
into the bed wiht his wife

her hair & arms all
in disarray

like fish confused by waves.



beyond pheromones, hormones, aesthetics of bone,
every time I make love for love's sake alone,

I betray you.

Katherine Larson 2006

*a semi-demi God from Norse mythology; connected to the constellation Orion

THIS poem mentions one of my great fantasies that I have not been able to shut up about over the last couple of months. No, I am not talkiing about making love after looking at the stars, but seeing the stars as they are without light pollution. I love the idea of getting wasted in the desert and shouting at the moon, of the presence of a loved one when he is gone, of playing with ideas of warmth and coldness, warmth among coldness...

Monday, September 11, 2006

Poem of the Week 9/11/2006: Henry's Understanding

Henry's Understanding

He was reading late, at Richard's, down in Maine,
aged 32? Richard & Helen long in bed,
my good wife long in bed.
All I had to do was strip & get into my bed,
putting the marker in the book, & sleep,
& wake to a hot breakfast.

Off the coast was an island, P'tit Manaan,
the bluff from Richard's lawn was almost sheer.
A chill at four o'clock.
It only takes a few minutes to make a man.
A concentration upon now & here.
Suddenly, unlike Bach,

& horribly, unlike Bach, it occured to me
that one night, instead of warm pajamas,
I'd take off all my clothes
& cross the damp cold lawn & down the bluff
into the terrible water & walk forever
under it toward the island.

John Berryman 1972

ALSO see the March 2006 archive for another poem from The Dream Songs that I love love love. I really will write on this blog again, but it may not be for a while.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Poem of the Week 9/4/2006: Trane


Propped against the crowded bar
he pours into the curved and silver horn
his old unhappy longing for a home

the dancers twist and turn
he leans and wishes he could burn
his memories to ashes like some old notorious emperor

of rome. but no stars blazed across the sky when he was born
no wise men found his hovel. this crowded bar
where dancers twist and turn

holds all the fame and recognition he will ever earn
on earth or heaven. he leans against the bar
and pours his old unhappy longing in the saxophone

Kamau Brathwaite 1977

* Nickname of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane (1926-1967).

Monday, August 28, 2006

Poem of the Week 8/28/2006: The Embrace

The Embrace

You weren't well or really ill either;
just a little tired, your handsomeness
tinged by grief or anticipation, which brought
to your face a thoughtful, deepening grace.

I didn't for a moment doubt you were dead.
I knew that to be true still, even in the dream.
You'd been out--at work maybe?--
having a good day, almost energetic.

We seemed to be moving from some old house
where we'd lived, boxes everywhere, things
in disarray: that was the story of my dream,
but even asleep I was shocked out of narrative

by your face, the physical fact of your face:
inches from mine, smooth-shaven, loving, alert.
Why so difficult, remembering the actual
look of you? Without a photograph, without strain?

So when I saw your unguarded, reliable face,
your unmistakable gaze opening all the warmth
and clarity of you--warm brown tea--we held
each other for the time the deam allowed.

Bless you. You came back, so I could see you
once more, plainly, so I could rest against you
without thinking this happiness lessened anything,
without thinking you were alive again.

Mark Doty 1998

Mark Doty draws upon his partner's AIDS-related death to craft this poem about that lover's visitation in dream. Written four years after the loss, it explores the concept of memory. Dream animates memory, giving the speaker some assurance that he hasn't lost his partner. "Loss" is not physical death; rather, it is the forgetting of a physical presence, forgetting of a body in motion, seeing a life instead of a photo.

The poem opens with such familiarity that we are instantly aware of the pair's love. In the first line, "You weren't well or really ill yet either," the speaker places his partner's condition between ill and well. Picking up on the subtlety of the face, the narrator remarks that it's "tinged with grief or anticipation," again demonstrating the visual intimacy of their relationship. His descriptions lend the partner a slightness, a delicacy, a lightness of form that brings into (soft) focus the couple's tenderness. "A little tired" doesn't make the lover seem haggard or worn; it gives him "a thoughtful, deepening grace."

This familiarity so makes it seem as if the lover is alive that the speaker notes in the next stanza that he "didn't for a moment doubt that [he] was dead," but that somehow that death doesn't matter. It is as if the lover had been out and about "-at work, maybe?-" and so, in this dream, death does not seem the most pressing issue.

Indeed, there seems to be an idea of progress and change in the speaker's grief, for the narrator notes that the couple "seemed to be moving from some old house / where we'd lived, [with] // things in disarray." As a metaphor for the changing nature of their relationship, or instead, the speaker's grieving process, this seems to be a signal that things are moving forward. The old house is cluttered with boxes, presumably of emotional junk, the kind of detritus that piles up over time and time.

But this healing: this is not the point. This is only the narrative, and without people, a thick and real human, narrative is merely an outline, a series of facts, of challenges, of events. Sure, the speaker could have thought of his partner, even remembered different realities, but nothing is so real as a person's "physical fact." Memory only takes us so far. This is one of the facts of mankind. Perhaps it is a blessing, for it forces us to see, really look at, one another, and prevents us from being haunted by a lost person's exact presence (if that made sense). This poem, on the other hand, wonders if the lack of this exact presence haunts us, if what really marks a person's departure is that we can never remember them fully...

Which is why this visitation in a dream is such a gorgeous compromise between the two - it is one night, and one night only: enough to assure the speaker that his lover is not lost forever, that there is the possibility of life again. This is closure: the lover's face looming up out of the dark, smooth and real.

Okay, this is all I am up for tonight.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Poem of the Week 8/21/2006: Geometry


I prove a theorem and the house expands;
the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling,
the ceiling floats away with a sigh.

As the walls clear themselves of everything
but transparency, the scent of carnations
leaves with them. I am out in the open

and above the windows have hinged into butterflies,
sunlight glinting where they've intersected.
They are going to some point true and unproven.

Rita Dove 1980

I take my friend Mark's point; this poem does deal specifically with the instant revelation of

More than a poem about strictly mathematic revelation, this poem is an incredible illustration of any kind of expansion of knowledge. Expansion by itself is a thin term, but say expansion with an exhale, sigh it and open your eyes; this kind of revelation is what Dove is talking about.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Poem of the Week 8/14/2006: To My Twenties

To My Twenties

How lucky that I ran into you
When everything was possible
For my legs and arms, and with hope in my heart
And so happy to see any woman--
O woman! O my twentieth year!
Basking in you, you
Oasis from both growing and decay
Fantastic unheard of nine- or ten- year oasis
A palm tree, hey! And then another
And another--and water!
I'm still very impressed by you. Whither,
Midst falling decades, have you gone? Oh in what lucky fellow,
Unsure of himself, upset, and unemployable
For a moment in any case, do you live now?
From my window I drop a nickel
By mistake. With
You I race down to get it
But I find there on
The street instead, a good friend,
X------N--------, who says to me
Kenneth do you have a minute?
And I say yes! I am in my twenties!
I have plenty of time! In you I marry,
In you I first go to France; I make my best friends
In you, and a few enemies. I
Write a lot and am living all the time
And thinking about living. I loved to frequent you
After my teens and before my thirties.
You three together in a bar
I always preferred you because you were midmost
Although now that I look back on you
What part have you played?
You never, ever, were stingy.
What you gave me you gave whole
But as for telling
Me how best to use it
You weren't a genius at that.
Twenties, my soul
Is yours for the asking
You know that, if you ever come back.

Kenneth Koch 2000

This is exactly the right poem to post today. Why? Because I am, officially twenty (subtle, Sarah). So there's a lot to think about for this poem. It is perhaps not the most difficult poem in the world, nor the most provocative, but it is clever and funny and energetic. It's not necessary to ask for much more than that in a poem, I think. My grandmother said two things that stick with me about poetry, particularly popular poetry.

One: all she'd want somebody to say of her poems is, "it's like that." No exploration of immense themes is needed. Just life.
Two: that popular poetry is necessary for people.

I have thought a lot about this, especially regarding my own thoughts and needs about poetry. I find that having read a good number of poems in my now-twenty years adds new ways of thinking, or gives me words to express feelings I'd otherwise struggle to explain. Lines rise to the top of my consciousness, and I often find myself saying "there's this line of a poem that describes what you're talking about." It's not meant to be pretentious, nor a way of showing off (though there is some pleasure in knowing these poems. And it's only the beginning. I am in my twenties! Anything's possible! See, there's this poem that... Oh, wait. You all just read it.)

What I mean to say is this; poetry provides shapes and beauty to the thoughts we have every day, helping us to sort daily floods of experience.

And today, my experience is being twenty. So it gives me a few things to think about. I love Koch's poem because it is so candid, and because, yes, it's like that. Eager, sprawling syntax and energetic diction underline what it means to be in one's twenties. Koch is even gentle with the mistakes that decade makes, understanding that one trades youth for wisdom.

The first, oh, thirty lines gallop from pleasure to pleasure, excited to even think of a woman! It is a time when the awful, necessary labor of becoming in the teens, and the first signs of bodily decay appear at thirty. Furthermore, everything on that oasis (wonderful island) is exciting; the narrator imagines being exicted over "A palm tree, hey! And then another / And another--and water!"

Stepping out of the imagined twenties for a minute, the narrator wonders where this decade has gone. He thinks of the unemployed, overqualified twenty-something, acknowledging one of the less-scintillating bits of being twenty. But true to the energy and optimism of that time, his thoughts gallop to better things, racing to find a nickel he dropped out of a window. Even there, a friend! I know this feeling - sometimes it is frustrating, but more often than not what a wonderful thing it is to have friends. Sounds silly to write, but so few adults have a lot of friends now. I hope to always have friends, but who knows. Maybe I am saying that because I am twenty.

The final section begins when the narrator talks of meeting twenty in a bar (along with her friends teens and thirties). He would definitely hit on twenty: the most supple, the most interesting, the most generous of those decades. Twenty will throw herself whole-heartedly into your arms, but she may not be able to tell you what to do from there.

I think this is right - the kind of bumbling, unknowing energy that races around being this age. I feel it now, milling on my bicycle, meeting friend after friend, being mauled by hugs constantly.

A final note: the last line. The speaker shows a kind of grudging acceptance that twenty is not going to come back, but that he would welcome lovingly that kind of energy once again, that kind of freedom and unknowingness. The world is just enough with us at this age.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Poem of the Week 8/7/2006: A Certain Slant

A Certain Slant

Etched on the window were barbarous thistles of frost
Edged everywhere in that tame winter sunlight
With pave diamonds and fine prickles of ice
Through which a shaft of the late afternoon
Entered our room to entertain the sway
And float of motes, like tiny aqueous lives,
Then glanced off the silver teapot, raising stains
Of snailing gold upcast across the ceiling,
And bathed itself at last in the slop bucket
Where other aqueous lives, equally slow,
Turned in their sad, involuntary courses,
Swiveled in eel-green broth. Who could have known
Of any elsewhere? Eve of out-doors,
Where the stacked firewood gleamed in drapes of glaze
And blinded the sun itself with jubilant theft,
The smooth cool plunder of celestial fire?

Anthony Hecht 2002

Monday, July 31, 2006

Poem of the Week 7/31/2006: Persimmons


In sixth grade Mrs. Walker
slapped the back of my head
and made me stand in the corner
for not knowing the difference
between persimmon and precision.
How to choose

persimmons. This is precision.
Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.
Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one
will be fragrant. How to eat:
put the knife away, lay down the newspaper.
Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat.
Chew on the skin, suck it,
and swallow. Now, eat
the meat of the fruit,
so sweet,
all of it, to the heart.

Donna undresses, her stomach is white.
In the yard, dewy and shivering
with crickets, we lie naked,
face-up, face-down,
I teach her Chinese.
Crickets: chiu chiu. Dew: I've forgotten.
Naked: I've forgotten.
Ni, wo: you and me.
I part her legs,
remember to tell her
she is beautiful as the moon.

Other words
that got me into trouble were
fight and fright, wren and yarn.
Fight was what I did when I was frightened,
fright was what I felt when I was fighting.
Wrens are small, plain birds,
yarn is what one knits with.
Wrens are soft as yarn.
My mother made birds out of yarn.
I loved to watch her tie the stuff;
a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.

Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class
and cut it up
so everyone could taste
a Chinese apple. Knowing
it wasn't ripe or sweet, I didn't eat
but watched the other faces.

My mother said every persimmon has a sun
inside, something golden, glowing,
warm as my face.

Once, in the cellar, I found two wrapped in newspaper,
forgotten and not yet ripe.
I took them and set them both on my bedroom windowsill,
where each morning a cardinal
sang, The sun, the sun.

Finally understanding
he was going blind,
my father sat up all one night
waiting for a song, a ghost.
I gave him the persimmons,
swelled, heavy as sadness,
and sweet as love.

This year, in the muddy lighting
of my parents' cellar, I rummage, looking
for something I lost.
My father sits on the tired, wooden stairs,
black cane between his knees,
hand over hand, gripping the handle.
He's so happy that I've come home.
I ask how his eyes are, a stupid question.
All gone, he answers.

Under some blankets, I find a box.
Inside the box I find three scrolls.
I sit beside him and untie
three paintings by my father:
Hibiscus leaf and a white flower.
Two cats preening.
Two persimmons, so full they want to drop from the cloth.

He raises both hands to touch the cloth,
asks, Which is this?

This is persimmons, Father.

Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,
the strength, the tense
precision in the wrist.
I painted them hundreds of times
eyes closed. These I painted blind.
Some things never leave a person:
scent of the hair of one you love,
the texture of persimmons,
in your palm, the ripe weight.

Li-Young Lee 1986

"Persimmons" is one among many fruit poems that I have been noticing (also among these are Bishop's "the Ballad of Orange and Grape," Harrison's "A Kumquat for John Keats," and many, many pomegranate poems. This one concerns language, layers, looking beneath the surface, foreiginness and alienation.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Poem of the Week 7/24/2006: from Dying: An Introduction

from Dying: An Introduction

Outside, although November by the clock,
Has a thick smell of spring,
And everything--
The low clouds lit
Fluorescent green by city lights;
The molten, hissing stream
Of white car lights, cooling
To red and vanishing;
The leaves,
Still running from last summer, chattering
Across the pocked concrete;
The wind in trees;
The ones and twos,
The twos and threes
Of college girls,
Each shining in the dark,
Each carrying
A book or books,
Each laughing to her friend
At such a night in fall;
The two-and-twos
Of boys and girls who lean
Together in an A and softly walk
Slowly from lamp to lamp,
Alternatively lit
And nighted; Autumn Street,
Astonishingly named, a rivulet
Of asphalt twisting up and back
To some spring out of sight--and everything
Recalls one fall
Twenty-one years ago, when I,
A freshman, opening
A green door just across the river,
Found the source
Of spring in that warm night,
Surprised the force
That sent me on my way
And set me down
Today. Tonight. Through my
Invisible new veil
Of finity, I see
November's world--
Low scud, slick street, three giggling girls--
As, oddly, not as sombre
As December,
But as green
As anything:
As spring.

L. E. Sissman 1968

Pay attention to the way this poem builds: Sissman begins with lonely images in short, elegant lines, but starts to stack them as the years stack on one another. They are the images of memory and of the present, of the nostalgic and loving present into which the narrator descends. These images are like stair-steps into 21 years ago, when something clicked into gear and life began purring along. The poem works as a set of real images, but on a different level, they can be seen as memories as well. Layering the meaning of different elementsis typical of the poem, which is an allegory for the end (the autumn) of the narrator's life. Four earlier sections establish that the narrator is dying of cancer. He is, and yet the end feels as fresh and new as spring. It's not so bad, the dying. And knowing that he will die, he pays closer attention to the details around him, to the interconnectedness of his life. And there is something beautiful in the symmetry and slowness of this poem.

Ironic that he only slows down at the end of his life, is it not? This section is the slowest of the five in the original poem, and it represents a coming to terms with death, a realization of the beauty of the things that have slowly walked through his life like girls under street lamps. In the first half of the poem, the theme of death manifests itself in the various vanishings throughout the poem, whether the girls flickering under the streetlamps, the car lights dissolving away, or the leaves fallen from the trees. Even the concrete is old, pocked, worn.

These images provide gorgeous metaphors for the way people drift through our lives. "The ones and twos, / The twos and threes / Of college girls, / Each shining in the dark, " perhaps represent the numinous glow of now-gone loves. Nostalgia for love is like that, I think - sweet and warming and glowing in the dark, lighting us up for brief moments and then receding again, on its way once more.

This same richness, luminosity, and attention to detail appears in the treatment of car lights and night sky. Simultaneously unnatural and comforting, the green sky adds a dreamlike quality to the night. It is unusual, yet the color recalls pastures and country comfort. The doubled, paradoxical meaning behind this image is again characteristic of the poem; it reinforces that there is good in bad, that there is spring in november, that there is comfort in the unnatural. There is also beauty in leaving, as the car's receding headlights show. They flicker into being, shift, and fade out as quickly as they came. This is still beautiful, and it pulses in memory as surely as it did in life.

The second half of the poem moves into explicit memory, though it is as vague and fleeting as the rest.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Poem of the Week 7/17/2006: Darwin in 1881

Darwin* in 1881

Sleepless as Prospero back in his bedroom
In Milan, with all his miracles
Reduced to sailors' tales,**
He sits up in teh dark. The islands loom.
His seasickness upswells,
Silence creeps by in memory as it crept
By him on water,*** while the sailors slept,
From broken eggs and vacant tortise shells.
His voyage around the cape of middle age
Comes, with a feat of insight, to a close,
The same way Prospero's
Ended before he left the stage
To be led home across the blue-white sea,
When he had spoken of the clouds and globe,
Breaking his wand, and taking off his robe;*
Knowledge increases unreality.
He quickly dresses.
Form wavers like his shadow on the stair
As he descends, in need of air
To cure his dizziness,
Down past the ship-sunk emptiness
Of grownup children's rooms and hallways where
The family portraits stare,
All haunted by each other's likenesses.

Outside, the orchard and a piece of moon
Are islands, he an island as he walks,
Brushing against weed stalks.
By hook and plume
The seeds gathering on his trouser legs
Are archipelagoes, like nests he sees
Shadowed in branching, ramifying trees,
Each with unique expressions in its eggs.
Different islands conjure
Different beings; different beings call
From different isles. And after all
His scrutiny of Nature
All he can see
Is how it will grow small, fade, disappear,
A coastline fading from a traveler
Aboard a survey ship. Slowly,
As coasts depart,
Nature had left behind a naturalist
Bound for a place where species don't exist,
Where no emergence has a counterpart.

He's heard from friends
About the other night, the banquet hall
Ringing with bravos--like a curtain call,
He thinks, when a performance ends,
Failing to summon from the wings
An actor who had lost his taste for verse,
Having beheld, in larger theaters,
Much greater banquet vanishings
Without the quaint device and thunderclap
Required in Act 3.**
He wrote, Let your indulgence set me free,***
To the Academy, and took a nap
Beneath a London Daily tent,
Then puttered on his hothouse walk
Watching his orchids beautifully stalk
Their unreturning paths, where each descendent
Is the last--
Their inner staircases
Haunted by vanished insect faces
So tiny, so intolerably vast.
And, when they gave his proxy the award,
He dined in Downe* and stayed up rather late
For backgammon with his beloved mate,
Who reads his books and is, quite frankly, bored.

Now, done with beetle jaws and beaks of gulls
And bivalve hinges, now, utterly done,
One miracle remains, and only one.
An ocean swell of sickness rushes, pulls,
He leans against the fence
And lights a cigarette and deeply draws.
Done with fixed laws,
Done with experiments
Within his greenhouse heaven where
His offspring, Frank, for half the afternoon
Played, like an awkward angel, his bassoon
Into the humid air
So he could tell
If sound would make a Venus's-flytrap close.
And, done for good with scientific prose,
That raging hell
Of tortured grammars writhing on their stakes,
He’d turned to his memoirs, chuckling to write
About his boyhood in an upright
Home: a boy preferring gartersnakes
To schoolwork, a lazy, strutting liar
Who quite provoked her aggravated look,
Shushed in the drawing room behind her book,
His bossy sister itching with desire
To tattletale--yes, that was good.
But even then, much like the conjurer
Grown cranky with impatience to abjure
All his gigantic works and livelihood
In order to immerse
Himself in tales where he could be the man
In Once upon a time there was a man.

He'd quite by chance beheld the universe:
A disregarded game of chess Between two love-dazed heirs
Who fiddle with the tiny pairs
Of statues in their hands,** while numberless
Abstract unseen
Combinings on the silent board remain
Unplayed forever when they leave the game
To turn, themselves, into a king and queen.
Now, like the coming day,
Inhaled smoke illuminates his nerves.
He turns, taking the sandwalk as it curves
Back to the yard, the house, the entrance way
Where, not to waken her,

He softly shuts the door,
And leans against it for a spell before
He climbs the stairs, holding the banister,
Up to their room: there
Emma sleeps, moored
In illusion, blown past the storm he conjured
With his book,*** into a harbor
Where it all comes clear,
Where island beings leap from shape to shape
As to escape
Their terrifying turns to disappear.
He lies down on the quilt,
He lies down like a fabulous-headed
Fossil in a vanished riverbed,
In ocean drifts, in canyon floors, in silt,
In lime, in deepening blue ice,
in cliffs obscured as clouds gather and float;
He lies down in his boots and overcoat,
And shuts his eyes.

Gjertrud Schnackenberg 1982

*The English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882), who developed the theory of evolution.
** In Shakespeare's The Tempest, the magician Prospero is the usurped and exiled duke of Milan; at the play's end, he is restored to his dukedom.
*** Cf. The Tempest, 1.2.395: "This music crept by me on the waters"
* Allusion to Prospero's words: "the great globe itself / Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve / And, like this insubstantial pagent faded, / Leave not a rack behind"
**Prospero conjures up a banquet and then makes it disappear with thunder and (as in the stage direction) "a quaint device"
***Prospero's final speech, the last line of the play.
* Darwin's home
**That is, playinc chess, as in The Tempest Act 5 Scene 1
***Prospero's book of magic helped him conjure a tempest. Darwin's book On the Origin of Species (1859) was equally powerful, culturally and scientifically.

1881 was a year before Darwin's death, and so this poem is about endings. It asks us all the question: what does one do when one's greatest journey is over? When the ship is docked and he is home, all he has are the memories of islands rushing up around him. Scientific diction widens the poem's scope, while revolving changes in scale make relevant the rest of the poem and concentrate the tone (more on this later). This is a poem exploring a singular time in life: when there is nothing left to experience. Life is over but death not there. So what one has to do, this poem shows, is wait, and remember. Schnackenberg's poem distills this moment and then explores its corners and crystals, examining his life and endings.

The poem opens with Darwin's sleeplessness at night. He gets up, feels sea-sick and lonely, and walks outside. Schnackenberg immediately draws a parallel between Darwin and Prospero. It is a sound comparison; both men were once great, and accomplished that greatness overseas. Plus, Darwin looks almost exactly as I imagine Prospero - great white beard, great white brows, shadowed, brooding eyes.... The poem opens with that link, and then the line, "all his miracles / Reduced to sailors' tales." Schnackenberg insinuates that whatever wonderful thing Darwin accomplished at the Galapagos is now a collection of "sound bites," the property of others who say what they like. I am reading Kundera's Immortality now, and this seems the same idea. Our memory is inevitably given over to the public, as are our works. Now that he is home and his work published, it is no longer his. It is the public's to digest and incorporate, not his.

Memory of that work has not left. Indeed, the first stanza teems with images and memories of the trip to the Galapagos. Darwin experiences seasickness, perhaps a signal that he was so accustomed to the boat that land is sickening, or perhaps evidence that his memory of the trip is so haunting that it touches him even now. Maybe it's just a heady sense of nostalgia. This stanza uses images of loss like those throughout the poem; "broken eggs and vacant tortoise shells," "ship-sunk," and "grownup children's rooms" reflect Darwin's lost experience.

In the second stanza, the island image stands for more than just memory - it signals Darwin's solitude in Downe and lasting connection with the Galapagos. Hee is truly alone in Downe, England. Who, after all, could imagine the heights of experiment and idea Darwin reached? Being so unbearably misunderstood perhaps influences the sense that everything will "grow small, fade, disappear." With nobody to understand, perhaps the experiences are unrealized, stifled. In part, this comes from my own belief that human ideas and experiences are meant to be shared, for they are best that way. I think it holds with the throbbing nostalgia in the poem; feeling alone/misunderstood/incomplete can total to a longing for a time of solidarity/understanding/completeness.

Aside from loneliness, this stanza treats mortality and memory. The islands saturate Darwin's thought. His ideas from his expeditions saturate his thought. The word "different," key in the discovery of the origin of species, pulses through lines 33-35, and yet even this recedes. Like "a coastline fading from its traveler," the experience fades, is pushed back by time and Nature, which brings all things to an end. For Darwin, the journey is everything, providing not only the core of his work, but the framework on which he understands his life. Only that journey ending could make mortality real.

Indeed, the voyage was so enormous in his life that anything else seems paltry. Darwin evades attending an awards ceremony. Schnackenberg compares him to "an actor who has lost his taste for verse, / Having beheld, in larger theaters, / much greater banquet vanishings." This again recalls Prospero, as does the request "Let your indulgence set me free." Those are Prospero's last lines, and some of the last Shakespeare himself ever wrote. Layering three seminal figures in Western imagination under one goodbye deepens it and lends an already-nostalgic term another coat of nostalgia. Schnackenberg also emphasizes the importance of his journey with the paltry activities he fills his later years with. Like backgammon. The only part of his life that retains some of the magic of his Galapagos trip is his experimentation with orchids. There, the scale zooms in and out, for the faces are "so tiny, [and] so intolerably vast" just as "the seeds gathering on his trouser legs / are archipelagoes" in stanza 2. The quick shifting of perspective is characteristic of his connection with the past, perhaps because of the radical flashes of insight from something as small as a bird beak or a beetle's shell could reveal such fundamental truths about the earth.

The fourth stanza - by far the longest - is almost a rant. After only one upswell of scientific nostalgia, Darwin takes control of the emotion. With more force than before, he says, "Done with fixed laws, / Done with experiments," and proceeds to appreciate something of his life: his son, an "awkward angel." Darwin goes so far as to denounce scientific prose, denounce "that raging hell / of tortured grammars writing on their stakes." Perhaps reminded of youth by his son, Darwin instead turns to memoirs, hoping to appreciate a different part of his life. He recognizes the goodness of his youth, the funness of mischief and mayhem. Gasp! Fun! Not in this nostalgia-soaked poem. But these memories turn out to be healing for Darwin, for he loses his earlier romantic illusions about the past and looks candidly at his vision of the world.

It is a world of infinite possibilities, and infinitely unrealized ones. Like Miranda and Ferdinand's chess game, it has endless closed developments and well-intentioned but distracted orchestraters. This metaphor either signals a sort of abstracted god, or the benign, lucky ramble of nature. The luck comes through in the pawns-to-royalty metaphor, for even the little lost pieces are "meant to be," in a way. This is Darwin's last thought before he feels he can turn back to the bedroom. What, then, is comforting about it? It seems to be the clearest view of his understanding of the world. Perhaps also he may leave it because, as for Prospero before him, the game is in someone else's hands. So long as he has a hold on his own life - through his memoir, through the fidelity of his memories, through his final lingering experiments, through his children - it is comforting to release the weight of the world into someone else's hands.

And so he journeys back once again, this small journey mirroring his larger one from the Galapagos to his home. He is ready to settle into dreamland, a magical place recalling Prospero's islands where the creatures, Ariel-like, jump from tree to tree in their efforts to stay alive. And that is the way of things - a constant shifting, leaping from island to island, and responsibility for present and understanding of the past flits from person to person, from era to era. We experience this in our own lives, the inevitable ebb and flow of nostalgia, of annoyance, of clarity, and eventually of returning. There is always a leaving, and things are never quite what they were, but is this not somehow the beautiful part? The poem hums with love as Darwin lays down on his pillow, old and restful, giving his consciousness to the motions of time.

So after everything, this poetic journey, what are we to do with greatness when it ends? What can we do, the poem replies, but set it free. Let the earth move on and lay down your head content to join where billions of others have gone. The world keeps turning, those young lovers sit at their chess-board, humming and moving the pieces as one species turns over its time to the other.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Poem of the Week 7/10/2006: The Victor Dog

The Victor Dog*

for Elizabeth Bishop

Bix to Buxtehude to Boulez,
The little white dog on the Victor label
Listens long and hard as he is able.
It's all in a day's work, whatever plays.

From judgment, it would seem, he has refrained.
He even listens earnestly to Bloch,
Then builds a church upon our acid rock.**
He's man's--no--he's the Leiermann's best friend,***

Or would be if hearing and listening were the same.
Does he hear? I fancy he rather smells
Those lemon-gold arpeggios in Ravel's
"Les jets d'eau du palais de ceux qui s'aiment." *

He ponders the Schumann Concerto's tall willow hit
By lightning, and stays put. When he surmises
Through one of Bach's eternal boxwood mazes**
The oboe pungent as a bitch in heat,

Or when the calypso decants its raw bay rum
Or the moon in Wozzeck*** reddens ripe for murder,
He doesn't sneeze or howl; just listens harder.
Adamant needles bear down on him from

Whirling of outer space, too black, too near--
But he was taught as a puppy not to flinch,
Much less to imitate his bete noire Blanche
Who barked, fat foolish creature, at King Lear.*

Still others fought in the road's filth over Jezebel,**
Slavered on hearths of horned and pelted barons.
His forebears lacked, to say the least, forbearance.
Can nature change in him? Nothing's impossible.

The last chord fades. The night is cold and fine.
His master's voice rasps through the grooves' bare groves.
Obediently, in silence like the grave's
He sleeps there on the still-warm gramophone

Only to dream he is at the premiere of a Handel
Opera long thought lost--Il Cane Minore.***
Its allegorical subject is his story!
A little dog revolving round a spindle

Gives rise to harmonies beyond belief,
A cast of stars. . . . Is there in Victor's heart
No honey for the vanquished? Art is art.
The life it asks of us is a dog's life.

James Merrill 1972

*Long a trademark of RCA, the dog "Nipper" - here called "Victor" - was on the label of RCA Victor records, listening intently to a gramophone, with the caption "His master's voice." In the poem, passing reference is made to the jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, the classical composers Dietrich Buxtehude, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederick Handel, Franz Schubert, and Robert Schumann, and to the modernists Pierre Boulez, Ernest Bloch, Maurice Ravel, and Alban Berg.
** Cf. Matthew 16.18: ". . . upon this rock I will build my church"
*** In Schubert's song "Der Leiermann" ("The Organ-Grinder"), an old man cranks his barrel-organ in the winter cold to an audience of snarling dogs.
* The palace fountains of those who are in love with each other (French).
** The composer's works are compared to labyrinths executed in living boxwood plants, popular in eighteenth-century formal gardens.
*** An opera by Berg in which the protagonist murders his unfaithful wife beneath a rising moon.
* In King Lear, the mad kings says, "the little dogs and all. / Tray, Blanch, and Sweet-heart, see, they bark at me" (3.6.57-58). Bete Noire: a person or thing detested or avoided; in French, its literal meaning is black beast, whereas Blanche means white.
** The proverbial wicked woman, she was killed in the street; when the body was recovered for burial, dogs had eaten most of it, as had been prophesied earlier by Elijah.
*** The little dog (Italian).

Monday, July 03, 2006

Poem of the Week 6/3/2006: Dejection: An Ode

Dejection: An Ode

Late, late yestreen I saw the new Moon,
With the old Moon in her arms;
And I fear, I fear my master dear!
We shall have a deadly storm.
Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence


Well! if the Bard was weather-wise, who made
The grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spence,
This night, so tranquil now, will not go hence
Unroused by winds, that ply a busier trade
Than those which mould yon cloud in lazy flakes,
Or the dull sobbing draft, that moans and rakes
Upon the strings of this Aeolian lute,
Which better far were mute.
For lo! the New-moon winter-bright!
And overspread with phantom light,
(With swimming phantom light o'erspread
But rimmed and circled by a silver thread)
I see the old Moon in her lap, foretelling
The coming-on of rain and squally blast.
And oh! that even now the gust were swelling,
And the slant night-shower driving loud and fast!
Those sounds which oft have raised me, whilst they awed,
And sent my soul abroad,
Might now perhaps their wonted impulse give,
Might startle this dull pain, and make it move and live! 20


A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear --
O Lady! in this wan and heartless mood,
To other thoughts by yonder throstle woo'd,
All this long eve, so balmy and serene,
Have I been gazing on the western sky,
And its peculiar tint of yellow green:
And still I gaze -- and with how blank an eye!
And those thin clouds above, in flakes and bars,
That give away their motion to the stars;
Those stars, that glide behind them or between,
Now sparkling, now bedimmed, but always seen:
Yon crescent Moon, as fixed as if it grew
In its own cloudless, starless lake of blue;
I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!


My genial spirits fail;
And what can these avail
To lift the smothering weight from off my breast?
It were a vain endeavour,
Though I should gaze for ever
On that green light that lingers in the west:
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.


O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live:
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!
And would we aught behold, of higher worth,
Than that inanimate cold world allowed
To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd,
Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth
A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud
Enveloping the Earth --
And from the soul itself must there be sent
A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth,
Of all sweet sounds the life and element!


O pure of heart! thou need'st not ask of me
What this strong music in the soul may be!
What, and wherein it doth exist,
This light, this glory, this fair luminous mist,
This beautiful and beauty-making power.
Joy, virtuous Lady! Joy that ne'er was given,
Save to the pure, and in their purest hour,
Life, and Life's effluence, cloud at once and shower,
Joy, Lady! is the spirit and the power,
Which wedding Nature to us gives in dower
A new Earth and new Heaven,
Undreamt of by the sensual and the proud --
Joy is the sweet voice, Joy the luminous cloud --
We in ourselves rejoice!
And thence flows all that charms or ear or sight,
All melodies the echoes of that voice,
All colours a suffusion from that light.


There was a time when, though my path was rough,
This joy within me dallied with distress,
And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:
For hope grew round me, like the twining vine,
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.
But now afflictions bow me down to earth:
Nor care I that they rob me of my mirth;
But oh! each visitation
Suspends what nature gave me at my birth,
My shaping spirit of Imagination.
For not to think of what I needs must feel,
But to be still and patient, all I can;
And haply by abstruse research to steal
From my own nature all the natural man --
This was my sole resource, my only plan:
Till that which suits a part infects the whole,
And now is almost grown the habit of my soul.


Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind,
Reality's dark dream!
I turn from you, and listen to the wind,
Which long has raved unnoticed. What a scream
Of agony by torture lengthened out
That lute sent forth! Thou Wind, that rav'st without,
Bare crag, or mountain-tairn, or blasted tree,
Or pine-grove whither woodman never clomb,
Or lonely house, long held the witches' home,
Methinks were fitter instruments for thee,
Mad Lutanist! who in this month of showers,
Of dark-brown gardens, and of peeping flowers,
Mak'st Devils' yule, with worse than wintry song,
The blossoms, buds, and timorous leaves among.
Thou Actor, perfect in all tragic sounds!
Thou mighty Poet, e'en to frenzy bold!
What tell'st thou now about?
'Tis of the rushing of an host in rout,
With groans, of trampled men, with smarting wounds --
At once they groan with pain, and shudder with the cold!
But hush! there is a pause of deepest silence!
And all that noise, as of a rushing crowd,
With groans, and tremulous shudderings -- all is over --
It tells another tale, with sounds less deep and loud!
A tale of less affright,
And tempered with delight,
As Otway's self had framed the tender lay, --
'Tis of a little child
Upon a lonesome wild,
Not far from home, but she hath lost her way:
And now moans low in bitter grief and fear,
And now screams loud, and hopes to make her mother hear.


'Tis midnight, but small thoughts have I of sleep:
Full seldom may my friend such vigils keep!
Visit her, gentle Sleep! with wings of healing,
And may this storm be but a mountain-birth
May all the stars hang bright above her dwelling,
Silent as though they watched the sleeping Earth!
With light heart may she rise,
Gay fancy, cheerful eyes,
Joy lift her spirit, joy attune her voice;
To her may all things live, from pole to pole,
Their life the eddying of her living soul!
O simple spirit, guided from above,
Dear Lady! friend devoutest of my choice,
Thus mayest thou ever, evermore rejoice.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1802

What I am particularly interested in, in this poem, is the type of anguish Coleridge is feeling. It is not so much the howling eye of despair as a flattening of emotion, a dulling of the senses, a stifling of imagination. This, and I resonate with Coleridge on this point, is the worst kind of hurt. It is not so much hurt as deadness, and nothing is worse. The key distinction, for me, lies in that between "seeing" the moon and "feeling" it. And I do mean to write "feeling" the moon, for that is akin to experiencing it. To see something requires distance, for one has to be separate from something to see it. Conversely, to feel something necessitates closeness. Coleridge thus forwards that living within the full range of emotion is better than static realms of being. It is the difference between the infinity of self and the bounded nature of knowledge, if that is clear. To know something is to have it pinned to a rational definition, to have it tamed, dominated. But to feel it is endless.

This is just the start of a longer response to this poem. I am tiring slightly of continuous close-reads, so I will be picking some different poems. And not that I have run out of poetry by any means, but my Norton is giving up fewer shortish, emotion-packed poems. And though it is possible to interest myself in any poem, I don't in many of them. I will write what I will, and hopefully right soon.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Poem of the Week 6/26/2006: The Fall

The Fall

My father died.
I sat beside my mother
writing notes to the family.

She addressed, I sealed.
The responsibility was mine.
If I licked too long
our names would blur--
too quick and the card
might flutter out

where a stranger could see it.
From that high sofa
I could peek into the garden.
Apple blossoms whirled like snow.

What a long way home.
But we were home.
My thigh prickled against hers.

Dusk, and still a pile left.
Why did we have so many cousins?

I watched her severe white shoulder
for any sign of weakness.

Now it was night, May night,
the petals stopped twirling
in deference to darkness

and we'd left someone out
so important he'd be shocked,
he'd be horrified,
but who?
The uncle in Stockholm?
The niece in Australia?

It was past bedtime, a steeple said so,
and still my mother ruined her eyes
under that weak lamp
inscribing a single name
and names of distant cities.
Prague, Vienna, Tallinn.

A moth thudded softly
against the screen,
demanding to be let out.

Now my brother and I
play soccer so gracefully--
before we were sacks of bones,
puppets twitching to desire.

We dribble through each other
like smoke . . . the goal
marked by a shirt and a lunch box,
the score a thousand to nothing . . .

We rule this six-foot gap,
just the two of us.
Our father below
stumbles in his grave.

Nipple with a little brown circle
around it, and a hair--
I saw this in a mirror,
she dressing, he laid out:
the hair astonished me:
then it vanished
in my white cloud of breath.

A child whose father died
is following the body,
limping a little
because he skinned his knee in the championship game . . .

Something holds him back
but something draws him forward,
rivets him to the amber taillights
of the receding black Dodge.

Sometimes he slips in an extra step
or coaxes himself forward
pumping his arms, but discreetly,
so no one will guess the blood is hardly caked . . .

And I watch
from the crest of the cedar
where I've been robbing
the songbirds' nests,
bits of shell in my pocket.

Yolk sticks to my shorts
and dries on my thigh.
I cannot speak, the owl might hear,
but I whisper, hurry.

As if he hears me,
the child stumbles and begins racing
and the gates close behind him.

The bells start tolling,
first mourning, then gloating.
I count noon, midnight, echoes,
until there are no more numbers
but only music,
and the breeze rocks me.

D. Nurkse 2002

I can't decide whether the viewed boy at the end of this poem is just a vision of himself or a real, different boy whose situation mirrors the speaker's own. Furthermore, I think it doesn't matter. In either case, the distance between the little limping boy and the yolk-stealer in the tree represents the speaker's emotional distance following the death of his father. "The Fall" tracks a boy's jarring fall into the first wilderness of adulthood. Nurkse filters grief over the loss of a parent through a child's mind, and we watch the speaker work through his daddy's death with denial, anxiety, and, eventually, grief.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Poem of the Week 6/19/2006: The Poems of Our Climate

The Poems of Our Climate

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations - one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.

Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one's torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

Wallace Stevens 1942

"The Poems of Our Climate" twists back on itself (I love poetry that does this), first offering its own perfect image, and then becoming frustrated with that perfection, that completion. It touches on so many things - let me see if I can straighten my thoughts. The image of the bowl, light, and flowers at once rests as an image of perfection, simplicity, beauty, and domesticity. The poem might easily reduce to "humans are always unsatisfied," but, since the flowers represent so much and the poem goes into more detail, we may discuss fragmentation, beauty, and complexity.

The opening image is breathtaking. Stevens draws out the perfection of the image with simple diction and trumpet-like consonants. The hard "c" opens the poem, echoed in the "k" sound in "pink," "carnations," "reflecting," and "cold, cold." Similarly, the "l's" and "t's" sharpen the image. Also helpful is the lucid diction. Stevens chooses words as literally straightforward as "clear," "snowy," and "pink and white." The only less tangible element is the image of "snowy air," but a little energy goes into the imagining of it, and the hazy room's flowers materialize.

Stevens must work hard to carve this image, because the rest of the poem hinges upon it. The discussion starts immediately; he writes, "one desires / So much more than that." So yes, there is a perfect bowl of perfectly radiant carnations, but we want more. Perhaps the narrator nods at the readers, asking us whether we would be content with a poem whose sole preoccupation was that image. Could we be happy with such simplicity?

Perhaps offering another description for further meditation, the narrator writes of it as "a bowl of white, / Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round. / With nothing more than the carnations there." Important in this description is that the narrator does not add anything to the image. There is "nothing more" than the flowers and bowl. This is what we are talking about, he reiterates.

The second section adds more stock to the argument that humans can't be satisfied with simplicity. The speaker offers a hypothetical, writing that even if "this complete simplicity" took away suffering and cleansed the self, "Still one would want more, one would need more, / More than a world of white and snowy scents." And when we think about it, yes, being cleansed sounds nice but not permanent. In fact, it sounds a little dull, or even stifling. No matter how clear the snowy air was, the purity would inevitably fade or stagnate.

Or at least the mind would, sitting in this unbearably perfect room with its flawless bowl of flowers. No matter how incredible this immediate reality, the mind wanders, wants to escape, go into the past, the future, other, more, beyond, back.

Stevens gives little more reason for the tendency to roam than that "the imperfect is so hot in us." This contrasts nicely with the cold porcelain, suggesting that perfection slows movement, while the imperfect moves us with convections of "flawed words and stubborn sounds."

This explanation, though, still leaves something hanging; it doesn't explicity treat why the imperfect burns us so, content to observe that it does, and embed the fragments of why within the poem. It's a good question - why might the imperfect move us so? I suggest that it has something to do with the infinitely unreachable ideal of perfection; when we see something incomplete, the tendency is to try to complete it. This may sound trite, but think about it, even in terms of this poem.

The reason I write this blog is because the "meaning" (though I hesitate to use that word - it reduces the poem to content only) is not immediately present. In some ways, then, it is incomplete without a reader's conscious input, for the meaning isn't spelled out on the page. It requires work, and this mingles the won concept with value.

I have another thought about the vase of carnations. If they represent beauty, then the never-resting mind might be a reaction to their beauty, a desire to replicate the perfection of the moment (Scarry 3).

But in any case, it's a wonderful poem, and I will fine tune this last bit later later later!

Monday, June 12, 2006

Poem of the Week 6/12/2006: Poetry

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all
this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that
feels a
flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician--
nor is it valid
to discriminate against 'business documents and

school-books'; all these phenomena are important. One must
make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
'literalists of
the imagination'--above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, 'imaginary gardens with real toads in them', shall
we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

Marianne Moore

I don't dislike poetry, and I don't think that Marianne Moore does either. I do dislike egotism, pomp, and I think one could definitely dislike being honest and genuiine. I am reading Unbearable Lightness of Being (novels are easier when abroad, because they don't require such intense alone time and concentration), wherein Kundera writes of characters who are in love, forever, inescapably in spite of themselves, and I think one might think of poetry or honesty that way.

Oh I do miss writing on this blog. I kind of can't wait to chip away at this great stock and process the trip through poetry...

love and love

Monday, June 05, 2006

Poem of the Week 6/5/2006: Portrait d'Une Femme

Portrait d'une Femme

Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea,
London has swept about you this score years
And bright ships left you this or that in fee:
Ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things,
Strange spars of knowledge and dimmed wares of price.
Great minds have sought you -- lacking someone else.
You have been second always. Tragical?
No. You preferred it to the usual thing:
One dull man, dulling and uxorious,
One average mind -- with one thought less, each year.
Oh, you are patient, I have seen you sit
Hours, where something might have floated up.
And now you pay one. Yes, you richly pay.
You are a person of some interest, one comes to you
And takes strange gain away:
Trophies fished up; some curious suggestion;
Fact that leads nowhere; and a tale for two,
Pregnant with mandrakes, or with something else
That might prove useful and yet never proves,
That never fits a corner or shows use,
Or finds its hour upon the loom of days:
The tarnished, gaudy, wonderful old work;
Idols and ambergris and rare inlays,
These are your riches, your great store; and yet
For all this sea-hoard of deciduous things,
Strange woods half sodden, and new brighter stuff:
In the slow float of differing light and deep,
No! there is nothing! In the whole and all,
Nothing that's quite your own.
Yet this is you.

Ezra Pound

I visited the Tate Modern today, and was so moved by the great artistic shapers of the 20th Century that I needed to honor that with the PotW. Unfortunately, I can't honor it with more than that for a bit. If you are craving more close-reading, I did work on the Ariel close read a bit. love to all!

Monday, May 29, 2006

Poem of the Week 5/29/2006: Lapis Lazuli

Lapis Lazuli*

(for Harry Clifton)

I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow.
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out.
Pitch like King Billy** bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That's Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

On their own feet they came, or On shipboard,'
Camel-back; horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus,***
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp-chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.

Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

*A deep-blue semiprecious stone. In a letter dated July 6, 1935, Yeats wrote, "Someone [i.e., the English writer Harry Clifton] has sent me a present of a great piece [of lapis lazuli] carved by some Chinese sculptor into the semblance of a mountain with temple, trees, paths, and an ascetic and pupil about to climb the mountain. Ascetic, pupil, hard stone, eternal theme of the sensual east. The heroic cry in the midst of despair. By no, I am wrong, the east has its solutions always and therefore knows nothing of tragedy. It is we, not the east, that must raise the heroic cry."
**At the Battle of the Boyne on July 1690, William III, king of England since 1689, had defeated the forces of the deposed king, James II.
*** Greek sculptor of the fifth centure B.C.E. In A Vision, Yeats says that only one example of his work remains, a marble chair, and goes on to mention "that bronze lamp shaped like a palm, known to us by a description in Pausanias."

William Butler Yeats 1936

You could write a teriffic paper on "Lapis Lazuli" and aesthetics. In case you haven't noticed over some of my last PotWs, I have become very interested in aesthetics (art theory - what is art, what is beauty, what can they do, how do we define them - also (in my opinion) a branch of philosophy devised for people who want to make talking about art official. Though isn't that what this blog is?). I became very interested in this Yeats poem for an entirely different reason, though. The National Library in Dublin has an exhibit running with a huge collection of Yeats' manuscripts and possessions, including the fantastic piece of lapis he writes about in this poem. I have put the picture I took of it up in the posting just below this one, in case you are curious.

The poem itself is long and difficult - I am so worked up from finishing it that we'll see how far I get through this PotW close read itself. As with all of the poems, I recommend reading this one out loud - the rhythm is rumbling and controlled, and the language is so interesting that it's easy to not pay attention to what the poem's saying. With this one, I went through the three stages of comprehension very apparently - the first read was an acceptance of the words, getting a feeling of what was there, then the subsequent three or four reads were much slower and denser, but it hangs together in the final read. The poem is so difficult because there are many gaps and contradictions. Yeats makes it hard to follow the conception of art. In this close read, I will try to direct you to the keystone words that help the poem fall into place.

However, it's bedtime in Ireland, so I hope that you will all bear with the rather thin PotWs of late... that's traveling and finals for you. I hope you are all well, and feel free to email me at any time. love and love

I didn't mean it to be so blurry, but it is hard to see on the little camera screen. It is a big chunk of lapis - about 10 in. tall, I would guess.