Sunday, March 26, 2006

Poem of the Week 3/27/2006: from Mont Blanc

from Mont Blanc

Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni*

The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark--now glittering--now reflecting gloom--
Now lending splendor, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of waters,--with a sound but half its own,
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume
In the wild woods, among the mountains lone,
Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.

*Through the Chamouni valley flows the river Arve, which originates in a glacier on the mountain and empties into Lake Geneva, from which flows the Rhone, which reaches the Mediterranean.

Percy Bysshe Shelley 1816

This poem was shown to me about six months ago, and I haven't been able to get it out of my head since. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing ever, period. Please, I entreat you, read it out loud. Shelley is a master of language; the words will come out shaped like rivers. It is enough to merely read this stanza, for the words are beautiful without the meaning. On top of that, though, sits Shelley's theory of mind. He engages epistemological (the philosophy of how we know what we know) theory in his treatment of the river, using it as a symbol for the human mind.

The words reflect the natural phenomena they describe. The first line is expansive, but Shelley channels it "through the mind" in the next stanza by organizing "the everlasting universe of things" in a stream of thought. This river is vibrant and energetic, reflected in the repetition of the "r" sound, the round word "roll," and the iambic rhythm of "and rolls its rapid waves." Shelley then slows us down with three even dashes. In the third line, one senses a river's repeated leaps. The structure, like that of a river, is constant; there is a set of four "nows" and four stops, of which the first three are dashes and the last a comma. But just as a river's water is constantly replaced, so the description of the flow of thought changes. Dark and magical diction reveals that "the everlasting universe of things" is rich and varied, per a Romantic sense of mysticism. "Dark," "glittering," "gloom," and "splendor" emphasize a mysterious, glorious train of things through the mind.

The winding rhyme scheme also recalls the twisting of a river; "waves" and "raves" almost encircle the stanza, while "things," "springs" and "brings" bubble up within five lines. Shelley plays with rhythm in much the same way, darting between iambic (unstressed, stressed), trochaic (stressed, unstressed), and even spondaic (unstressed, unstressed) tropes.

The next three lines or so are syntactically twisted, as if caught in an eddy. Shelley creates a circle of language with the early prepositional phrase "from secret springs." He gives us an origin of water before even mentions water, tying the end of the phrase to the beginning. We thus have to untangle "Where from secret springs / The source of human thought its tribute brings / of waters." It becomes, "where it brings its tribute of water (gotten from the source of secret things) to the mind."

So here we are at the mind. This dynamic river is actually the mind, the flow of thought. Shelley is adopting, perhaps, Kant's epistemological stance: that there are indeed outside objects our senses percieve, but the mind sorts and organizes them into ideas of color, shape, texture etc. The first lines may be summarized more philosophically as "random and chaotic things in the universe enter our mind through the senses, which channels and sorts their infinite variety."

If the river is a representation of the mind, then the first half of the poem establishes the mind's power. It picks its way through an infinite sea of data, essentially constructing the world. This would seem to be an almost arrogant claim, in fact, were it not for the later half of the poem. Close up, it sorts infinity, but zoomed out this great faculty is merely "a feeble brook" among other natural elements. Notice how the earlier description "The everlasting universe of things / Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves." sits in comparison to "with a sound but half its own, / Such as a feeble brook will oft assume." The later description diminishes the river by dropping action and active diction. Shelley peoples the second phrase with small words like "but," "such as," and "oft," while the original look at the river incorporates eternity and infinity.

Our river is suddenly dwarfed by the chaotic energy of the surrounding mountains and waterfalls. It is a small flash among powerful forces. In the world outside the mind loom "mountains lone," towering over our little rill. Its dark eddies seem peaceful compared to the battle between expansive woods and gusting winds, and it appears a trickle when set against "waterfalls around it [leaping] for ever" or the vast river that "ceaselessly bursts and raves."

Of course, Shelley rhetorically packs the other elements of nature with energy as well. He repeats the "w" sound to create a whistling gale through the final five lines, again playing with rythmn to provide a chaotic drumbeat of nature. Then, too, verbs like "leap," "burst," and "rave" strain off the page, their aural impact leaping, bursting, and raving out of the poem. I repeat them because there is no better way to describe it - they are the best possible words, the ripest, the most energetic.

It's important to note that Shelley does not deny the mind its power, merely to put it in perspective. The elemental forces in the second half of the poem do not diminish the beauty of the first. In the poem as in life, mountains and tempests remind us that we are small, take us outside ourselves long enough to remember that there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreampt of in the philosophy of men.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Poem of the Week 3/20/2006: Ancestor


I was going to say something,
and stopped. Her profile against the curtains
was old, and dark like a hunting bird's.
It was the way she perched on the high stool,
staring into herself, with one fist
gripping the side of the barrier around her desk
--or her head held by something, from inside.
And not caring for anything around her
or anyone there by the shelves.
I caught a faint smell, musky and queer.

I may have made some sound--she stopped rocking
and pressed her fist in her lap; then she stood up
and shut down the lid of the desk, and turned the key.
She shoved a small bottle under her aprons
and came toward me, darkening the passageway.

Ancestor. . . among sweet- and fruit-boxes.
Her black heart . . .
Was that a sigh?
--brushing by me in the shadows,
with her heaped aprons, through the red hangings
to the scullery, and down to the back room.

Thomas Kinsella 1973

Two things strike me about this poem; the first is the portrait of the ancestor, and the second is the more universal feeling of grief, mystery, and respect for one's family history. Or perhaps family secrets. I guess that I'm interested in narrative focus right now; how does a poet balance a subject and speaker? "Ancestor" straddles narrator and speaker. Though we get a sense of the woman, we percieve the narrator just as acutely. Then, too, the poem deals with the past. What can we really know about those who came before us? The narrator carefully observes this woman, but says little about her. There are immense gaps in her person; we never learn where she was going or what she was thinking in this scene. With the present narrator's collection of observations and facts about his ancestor, Kinsella explores how humans sort and engage the past.

Kinsella starts this poem with a question for the reader, writing,"I was going to say something / and stopped." Why does the narrator stop, we ask? For me, this halt springs from the uncomfortable conundrum of wanting to know someone's secrets and simultaneously respect her privacy. I think that this is very human - do you know the feeling of intruding on someone's personal moment yet being unable to back out of the room for your fascination, fear that they'll notice you, or curiousity?

For the ancestor is certainly looking inward. She is "staring into herself," "her head held by something, from inside. / And not caring for anything around her / or anyone there by the shelves." The diction here already begins to hint at the ancestor's current state: unbalanced and sad. "Perched" here seems to connote a precarious position, which the anxious image of "one fist / gripping" underlines. She is lost, unkempt, as evidenced by the faint, musky smell coming from her.

This smell also underlines the mystery attached to this ancestor. All the narrator gives us (and perhaps all he sees) are small facts and actions, scattered evidence of her interior monolouge's existence. He, out of respect or ignorance, leaves it untouched, unvoiced. I could list the facts (she carries a bottle, she is a maid, she holds her hand in a fist, she shuts something in a desk), and we could infer that this woman is alcoholic, poor, determined, and secretive. Every little detail has to serve as an window into her being, for we have neither word nor thought from her.

The ellipses in the fourth stanza encapsulate the fine line between respect and ignorance. On one hand, the narrator could be leaving a moment of silence within the poem; the ellipses perhaps provide a pause of respect for the ancestor. However, they also suggest that something is missing, that something is cut or unknown. What are these things? Who is this woman? There is no way to know for sure, though we could make up some story about her illict affair or her dark plot to kill her mistress.

At heart, this is a poem of questions, facts, and how to deal with the past. The narrator looks for any sign about her situation, asking "was that a sigh?" but we never hear the answer. Which brings us to the larger question: how can we ever know the past? Because the narrator's ancestor is so vague, we can never really know what happened, and this seems to be indicative of humans everywhere. Like the ancestor in this poem, perhaps all we have of others are actions and facts. We have to piece people together from the scraps that filter down to us, or the moments frozen in a snapshot, a memory, a dream.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Poem of the Week 3/13/2006: [And, the Last Day Being Come, Man Stood Alone]

[And, the Last Day Being Come, Man Stood Alone]

And, the last day being come, Man stood alone
Ere sunrise on the world's dismantled verge,
Awaiting how from everywhere should urge
The Coming of the Lord. And, behold, none

Did come, -- but indistinct from every realm
Of earth and air and water, growing more
And louder, shriller, heavier, a roar
Up the dun atmosphere did overwhelm

His ears; and as he looked affrighted round
Every manner of beast innumerable
All thro' the shadows crying grew, until
The wailing was like grass upon the ground.

Asudden then within his human side
Their anguish, since the goad* he wielded first,
And, since he gave them not to drink, their thirst,
Darted compressed and vital. -- As he died,

Low in the East now lighting gorgeously
He saw the last sea-serpent iris-mailed**
Which, with a spear transfixèd, yet availed
To pluck the sun down into the dead sea.

Trumbull Stickney 1905

* A pointed stick for driving cattle and other animals
** In rainbow-colored armor

I think my time with William Blake is attuning me to apocalyptic poetry - poems that reach farther than a certain moment. Take this poem, for example. It is essentially Stickney's vision of the Judgment Day; one wonders what kind of vision he had that prompted him to write it this way. Though there are, I suppose, no real warm visions of the apocalypse, this is a particularly cold and lonely one. There is no visitation by a god, merely the wails of animals and a giant sea-serpent. Stickney also folds in imagery from Genesis, inverting it for the End of Days. We have all of the elements of a "typical" apocalypse - judgment, chaos, Biblical diction, but Stickney builds on it in his own way.

The first stanza, though, assembles traditional elements; it begins with "And," indicating that this is a continuation of some previously established story. The diction here is distinctly Biblical. "Ere," "the Coming of the Lord," and "behold" draw upon Biblical conventions. Furthermore, the syntax of "being come" is recognizably Old Testament, as well. This first stanza recalls earlier episodes in the Bible - we have a Man standing alone on the edge of the world, which conjures up the image of Adam cast out of Eden, or perhaps Satan standing on the brink of Hell in Paradise Lost. But this is neither Adam nor Satan; the Man waiting here is man with a capital M, the final representative of humanity, a figure vague enough to be any one of us.

The second stanza, then, begins to re-write the Apocalypse, for no Lord comes to judge, merely an "indistinct" wailing from all around. By withholding the source, Stickney puts the reader in the same, confused space as Man. All we know is that there is a roar coming "from every realm / Of earth and air and water." The internal rhyme between "come" and "dun," "water" and "louder," the mixed use of polysyndeton and asyndeton (excessive use of conjunctions, no conjunctions), and the structural rhyme in the stanza (a-b-b-a) build the roar's energy. Stickney rhetorically turns up the volume again with the diction - this noise is high and low; the use of "heavier" lends it an almost tangible quality.

It is no surprise, then, that the Man is terrified in the third stanza. He looks "affrighted round," and suddenly is surrounded by the noisemakers: "every manner of beast." Their wail is so constant that it becomes part of the scenery, blanketing everything like grass. We can't restrict the line "the wailing was like grass upon the ground" to that, however; like the word "heavier" the second stanza, this similie gives the cacophony a physical presence. If we could see it, it would ripple like grass, comprised of as many individual strands. Also, "grass" is usually a more peaceful image, conjuring fields and gardens. As such, it adds a note of hope to this din; this is perhaps the saddest part, I think, for it makes us remember what is lost forever. The Apocalypse is emphatically an end, which grass' peaceful connotations reminds us of.

Though we don't know if the animals are the only things producing this noise, we know that they contribute to it in force. Their presence contorts Biblical convention, twisting the naming of the animals in Genesis. This reference heightens the poem's terror, for it contrasts these tortured cries with Eden's scene of fecund delight. They have fallen far, indeed.

Then, too, the animals are the arbiters of judgment in Stickney's apocalypse. Because the syntax is so knotted in the fourth stanza (mirroring Biblical diction and the tortured scene at hand), it is hard to see the chain of causality. We may rearrange the lines to read "Since man weilded a cattle prod, and since he did not give the animals enough to drink when they were thirsty, the animal's anguish suddenly darts 'compressed and vital' into his side." Man is judged because he was controlling and cruel. Stickney draws upon Matthew 25: 30-46. (Matthew or Jesus or somebody - anybody know who?) says that the righteous will be saved, "(35) For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, (36) naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me." Those who treat Jesus' lesser creatures with respect will be saved, but those who trod upon those beneath them will be cast into hell. Stickney adapts this by eliminating God in the process; the animals are enough to judge Matthew.

As he dies, pierced by their anguish, he sees the final destruction of the world. Another animal - a sea serpent in iris armor - stabs the sun, bringing about the end of time. With the image of the sea-monster in rainbow armor, Stickney again inverts Biblical convention. In Isaiah and Job, the sea monsters Leviathan and Rahab exist as conquered beings. They represent God's power in His ability to destroy them. Since Stickney has, so far, effaced God from this Apocalypse, it follows that the final agent of destruction be something that could only exist if God didn't. Stickney again works against a concept of a loving, benevolent, God with the rainbow armor. The rainbow was supposed to be God’s covenant to protect man and beast. It signaled, even when a storm came, God would keep us safe. To put God’s symbol of protection on the monster destroying the earth openly mocks Gods’ promises and powers.

More than the religious elements, the most striking element of the poem's end is the breathtaking, apocalyptic diction. If this is the end of things, what a way to go. The final dawn is "lighting gorgeously" the East as the sea serpent strikes the sun, plucking it from its resting place. There is something etherial about the word "transfixed," and "gorgeous," and "pluck," out loud, are nearly corporeal. Their robust, sensibile aspect heighten the power of this last moment, especially in contrast with the flatness of "the dead sea." But that, too, is a flat explanation. I think that I can't explain why the last stanza is so moving. We talk in my aesthetics class about how. in all discussion of art, we hit this wall where words fail. The only way I can even begin do it justice, I think, is to say that it carries the grief and beauty and energy that I imagine death does. A burst of light, a streak of color, a motion, and that's it. Beautiful.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Poem of the Week 3/6/2006: from The Dream Songs

from The Dream Songs*

Filling her compact & delicious body
with chicken pàprika, she glanced at me
Fainting with interest, I hungered back
and only the fact of her husband & four other people
kept me from springing on her

or falling at her little feet and crying
"You are the hottest one for years of night
Henry's dazed eyes
have enjoyed. Brilliance." I advanced upon
(despairing) my spumoni.--Sir Bones: is stuffed,
de world, wif feeding girls.

--Black hair, complexion latin, jeweled eyes
downcast . . . the slob behind her feasts . . . What wonders is
she sitting on, over there?
The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars
Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.
--Mr. Bones: there is.

*"[The Dream Songs are] essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr. Bones and variants thereof" [Berryman's note]. These poems were written over a period of thirteen years. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, fifth edition.

John Berryman 1964

If you have never had a chance to look over John Berryman's Dream Songs, I highly recommend it. They are a strange collection of despairing poems, often broaching the rascist, the heartbreaking, the worrisome, and even the psychotic. You can see a little of that in this one; Henry's friend talks to the blackface incarnation of Henry Mr. Bones out of nowhere, and Henry frets to himself over his ideal woman.

The first stanza captures Henry's literal appetite for this woman. He describes her with food words - the choice of chicken paprika is no coincidence, for that is a spicy food, and this woman is hot. Then, too, instead of fainting with hunger, he faints with interest. Hunger is so important in this stanza that it leaves its usual part-of-speech, becoming a verb. Then, too, the diction is tense and energized. Words like "compact" and "springing" tighten the diction, while the interesting &s and à add visual stimulus. The genius in this first section, though, is how Berryman dismantles any real sexual threat. The word hunger itself avoids a hyper-masculine sex-drive, for to be hungry is to be weak. The, too, "twice" stands alone, its lowercase first letter meekly nodding to the value of those two glances.

Henry reinforces this servility when he talks of "falling at her little feet." There is something askew in his imagined plea to her. To begin, he is hyper-detached from himself, speaking in the third person and giving his adoration to his eyes. Instead of enjoying things himself, "Henry's dazed eyes" relish the woman. Then, too, he lists time in "years of nights," alluding to the years and years of nights spent eating alone and, presumably, sleeping alone.

Despite this sad picture, Berryman creates a moment of hope for Henry by placing a line break between "I advanced upon" and "my spumoni." At the edge of line 10, we hope that Henry will really go talk to her. Instead, he despairs, turning from the hot woman to his cold ice cream. Henry's absent friend then enters, trying to console him by saying that, essentially, there are other fish in the sea. But the friend doesn't get it - he says that the world is full "wif feeding girls" as if the only special thing about this one is that she is eating.

Henry barely hears the weak comment though. He is too lost in thought about this fantastic, "jeweled" woman. We follow his thoughts as they trail off in ellipses, giving us space to imagine this Venus, to think of Henry hungering for her. Henry shows the innocence of his longing when he muses about her He ponders her genitals, thinking almost sweetly of their wonders. The next line, "the restaurant buzzes," signals the beginning of the end for this poem. The word "buzz's" sharpness acts like an alarm, begin to shake the image of this restaurant loose from Henry's dream.

As the place begins to disintegrate, so do Henry's hopes. He despairingly acknowledges the truth - that "she might as well be on Mars" for all that he will be able to speak with her. His final thought swivels inward, and he turns her unavailability into something that disintegrates his self-worth. The line "there ought to be a law against Henry"'s depressing tone contrasts with the matter-of-fact way in which Henry says it. It's almost a throwaway, and we get the sense that he has been repeating things like this for a long, long time.

The final line, Henry's friend's answer "there is," compresses the tragedy. Even Henry's friend dully acknowledges that, yes, Henry as a human is forbidden from the pleasures of this world. He is indeed barred from contact. Despite the rippling, engaging diction, Henry is insulated. He disassociates himself by using the third person, of course, but he fades out of being by the last line. He is so unimportant that he doesn't get the last say in his own experience.

I didn't mean to pick such a sad poem for today - I happen to love this one for its tightly wound images and slightly psychotic tone. Henry is a fascinating man, sad and lovely. I hope that you all will take a look at more of the Dream Songs - you can pick them up one by one or chip away at the work as a whole. Henry is worth spending some more time with, I think.