Monday, October 29, 2007

Poem of the Week 10/29/2007: from Duino Elegies

from Duino Elegies
Eighth Elegy

All other creatures look into the Open
with their whole eyes. But our eyes,
turned inward, are set all around it like snares,
trapping its way out to freedom.
We know what's out there only from the animal's
face; for we take even the youngest child,
turn him around and force him to look
at the past as a formation, not that openness
so deep within an animal's face. Free from death,
we only see it; the free animal
always has its destruction behind
and god ahead, and when it moves,
it moves toward eternity like running springs.

Not for a single day, no, never have we had
that pure space ahead of us, in which flowers
endlessly open. It is always World
and never Nowhere without No:
that pure, unguarded space we breathe,
always know, and never crave. As a child,
one may lose himself in silence and be
shaken out of it. Or one dies and is it.
Once near death, one can't see death anymore
and stares out, maybe with the wide eyes of animals.
If the other weren't there blocking the view,
lovers come close to it and are amazed...
It opens up behind the other, almost
an oversight... but no one gets past
the other, and the world returns again.
Always facing creation, all we see
is the reflection of the free and open
that we've darkened, or some mute animal
raising its calm eyes and seeing through us,
and through us. This is destiny: to be opposites,
always, and nothing else but opposites.

Ranier Maria Rilke 1922
Translated by A.J. Poulin Jr.

Following Shelley's Mutability, this section of Duino Elegies posits the same idea of our daily experiences--interrupted, fragile, dual. He writes, "it is always World," and that our destiny is "to be opposites, / always, and nothing else but opposites." Animals, he suggests, are more alive, more aware of the world moving around them. For animals, their presence is forward and pure, whereas our selves always get in the way. Always intrude.

He does pose a different kind of question than Shelley. While the latter says that there can be nothing more than purity, Rilke suggests another world behind this one: indeed that this world is a darkened reflection of what is really possible. He writes of "pure, unguarded space we breathe, / always know, and never crave." What is this space? Where can it be found? What would a place look like that is Nowhere, in which there are no "No"s? And so Rilke juxtaposes our present, transient condition with the possibility of something beyond Shelley's mutability, beyond Plato's becoming. He presents, as the title of one collection of Rilke's poems offers, at least a hint of The Possibility of Being.

Poem of the Week 10/22/2007: Mutability


We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly! -yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost for ever:

Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings
Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
One mood or modulation like the last.

We rest.—A dream has power to poison sleep;
We rise.—One wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:

It is the same!—For, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free:
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutablilty.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Shelley wavered throughout his life between skepticism and deep faith; interested in the philosophy of David Hume, he often treated human experience as closed from anything higher, closed from progression. Though I have read little Hume, Shelley treats life with a poet's sensitivity, noticing the difficulty of living purely.

This idea of change--Plato calls it Becoming, Blake, generation--is something that, I think, modernity does not teach us to believe in. For us, there is always more: more food, more fun, more parties, more advertisements, more songs (for me, more coffee). But is that true? Or is that more just more ending? More death?

Some might ask whether we ought to be disturbed by this, as Shelley, using words like "poisons" and "pollutes," clearly is. And it is a question--maybe that luminosity of clouds covering the moon is enough. Or maybe it is disturbing. It is certainly easy to feel what Shelley articulates in this poem.

Next week I will add to this theme from Rilke.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Poem of the Week 10/16/2007: The Alchemy of Sorrow

The Alchemy of Sorrow

One man lights you with his ardor,
Another puts you in mourning, Nature!
That which says to one: sepulcher!
Says to another: life! glory!

You have always frightened me,
Hermes the unknown, you who help me.
You make me the peer of Midas,
The saddest of all alchemists;

Through you I change gold to iron
And make of paradise a hell;
In the winding sheet of the clouds

I discover a beloved corpse,
And on the celestial shores
I build massive sarcophagi.

- Charles Baudelaire 1961, trans. William Aggeler, 1954

The topic of Baudelaire's great poem should be clear enough--transformative sorrow. However, I don't feel that this does the poem justice. So: read it a few times! This will be helpful with any poem. It can take a while to read it enough so that it rings clearly. Some poems teach patience and receptivity. I've been thinking of this often recently: the difference between a poem and a philosopical work. Both can be precise, have ideas etc, but the difference in form has an effect. For me, poetry helps defend against totally dogmatic thought, and against the pride of knowing things too quickly. Having an explanation does not mean knowing the thing! And a poem can reveal this!

As I hope that Baudelaire's does. It is a beautiful poem. A tip that may help sort out the poem: "Nature," in the second line, refers to man's own nature, I believe. It seems that there is a macrocosm/microcosm work here. In other words, Nature is internal and external. This may make sense of the final stanza, for if this is the case, the reader builds the sarcophagus internally, and the celestial shores are in his heart.

I recommend reading more Baudelaire; he's moving and insightful about existential anxiety, relational anxiety, relationship decay and more.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Poem of the Week 10/9/2007: ADAMAH


My name means:
anything made from clay.

I was dust until God
breathed in my nostril
and began talking to me

“This is Pison, the river
from the Land of Onyx,
these holes are your eyes,
these are the olive groves
I planted for you,
these are almond saplings,”

and I was addicted to his breath,
his voice, his shaping hand,
and that was love.

He have me the creatures to name
and soon it was bird flying,
snake crawling, ox lowing.

With him it was simple:
he was just The Name.

Because he was lonely
(I was not, I had him)
he made Eve from my rib:
I was jealous of his breath
writhing and glittering in her…

He planted a tree
at the center of the garden
and we ate its fruit.

When he was walking
in the cool of the day
we hid from him
and he tricked us asking:
“Who told you
you were naked?”

Then we covered our sex
with fig leaves, and he clothed us
with the skins of dead animals.

He drove us away from his voice
and yet we keep hearing it
but it is our own:
hoopoe, adder, bison.

So we came to the ocean
and fathomed it, to Ararat
and chartered it, and at last
we came to dust
and recognized in it
an alphabet, a braided law,
that had caused us, and God,
and we wept:

one thread of immortality
passed through us
but it is endless
so we belong to death.

From dust we made ourselves,
the vineyards, the walled cities,
and always we expected to wake,
that our eyes be opened,
that we know good and evil
as the serpent promised—

instead, just this long sleep,
omnipotence, this narrow valley
bounded by four rivers.

D. Nurkse 2006

This poem holds an indictment the human condition in the context of modern science. It asks the question: what has happened to man with the advent of science? What are the consequences of believing that we know everything? What kind of world are we left with?

I will have to write more about this poem, as it is so provocative--but not now! Again putting things off. Modern condition?

Poem of the Week 10/1/2007: Those Who Sit

Those Who Sit (Les Assis)

Dark with knobbed growths, peppered with pock-marks like hail, their eyes ringed with
Green, warty fingers clenched on their thigh-bones
Their skulls stained with indeterminate blotches
Like the leprous discolorations of ancient walls;

In amorous seizures they have grafted
Their weird bone structures to the great dark skeletons
Of their chairs; their feet are entwined
Morning and evening, on the rickety rails!

These old men have always been one flesh with their seats,
Feeling bright suns drying their skins to the texture of calico,
Or else, looking at the window-panes where the snow is turning grey,
Shivering with the painful shiver of the toad.

And their Seats are kind to them; coloured
Brown with age, the straw yields to the angularities of their buttocks;
The spirit of ancient suns glows, bound
In these braids of ears in which the corn fermented.

And the Seated Ones, knees drawn up to their teeth, green pianists
Whose ten fingers keep drumming under their seats,
Listen to the tapping of each other's melancholy barcarolles,
And their heads nod back and forth as in the act of love.

- Oh don't make them get up! It's a catastrophe ...
They rear up like growling tom-cats when struck,
Slowly spreading their shoulders... What rage!
Their trousers puff out at their swelling backsides.

And you listen to them as they bump their bald heads
Against the dark walls, stamping and stamping with their crooked feet,
And their coat-buttons are the eyes of wild beasts
Which fix yours from the end of the corridors!

And then they have an invisible weapon which can kill:
Returning, their eyes seep the black poison
With which the beaten bitch's eye is charged
And you sweat trapped in the horrible funnel.

Reseated, their fists retreating into soiled cuffs
They think about those who have made them get up
And, from dawn until dusk, their tonsils in bunches
Tremble under their meagre chins, fit to burst.

When austere slumbers have lowered their lids
They dream on their arms of seats become fertile,
Of perfect little loves of open-work chairs
Surrounding dignified desks.

Flowers of ink dropping pollen like commas
Lull them asleep, in their rows of squat flower-cups
Like dragonflies threading their flight along the flags
- And their membra virilia are aroused by barbed ears of wheat.

Arthur Rimbaud
translated by Oliver Bernard

Poem of the Week 9/24/2007: Strawberries

There were never strawberries
like the ones we had
that sultry afternoon
sitting on the step
of the open french window
facing each other
your knees held in mine
the blue plates in our laps
the strawberries glistening
in the hot sunlight
we dipped them in sugar
looking at each other
not hurrying to the feast
for one to come
the empty plates
laid on the stone together
with the two forks crossed
and I bent towards you
sweet in that air
in my arms
abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you
let the sun beat
on our forgetfulness
one hour of all
the heat intense
and summer lightning
on the Kilpartick hills*
let the storm wash the plates
Edwin Morgan 1965
*Upland plateau in the country of West Dunbartonshire, Scotland

Poems like this remind me that erotic art exists, and perhaps reveals the erotic origin of art? I have been thinking about that a lot recently; that art could be so erotic; what does that mean? A friend was talking about Rodin today, how sensual he is, and how sensual sculpture is. Anyways... that's a thought.

This poem achieves its eroticism with the slowmoving, tense enjambment (the lines do not finish with periods); the syntax is thus one long, slow caress. This poem is foreplay. Taught, simultaneously taught and drawn out--everything is implied, veiled, and this is what makes it erotic?

Poem of the Week 9/17/2007: from The Waste Land

from The Waste Land

V. What the Thunder Said
Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for the rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment's surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficient spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aetheral rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus
Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands
I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon - O swallow swallow
Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih

TS Eliot 1922


Due to catching up-time, commentary to come within a few days. Thank you all for your patience as I pull this scattered blog back together.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Poem of the Week 9/10/2007: from The Odyssey, Book VI

from The Odyssey, Book VI

But when the girl was ready to go home--
about to yoke the mules and fold the clothes--
gray-eyed Athena set her mind on still
another stratagem, so that Odysseus
might come to see the gracious girl who then
could lead him down to the town of the Phaecians.
The daughter of the king, as she was tossing
the ball to one of her companions, missed
her throw; the ball fell into a deep pool.
The girls cried out. Their shout was loud. They woke
Odysseus. And as he sat up, he thought:

"What misery is mine? What mortals must
I meet in this new land that I now touch?
Are they unfeeling beings--wild, unjust?
Or do they welcome strangers--does their thought
include fear of the gods? That cry I heard,
the cry that captured me, was tender--like
the voice of young girls--voice of nymphs who haunt
the steepest mountain peaks, the springs that feed
the rivers, and teh green of grazing lands.
Can men with human speech be here--close by?
But I must try--must see with my own eyes."

And now he burst out of the underbrush;
with his stout hand he bore a leafy branch
from that thick wood, to hide his nakedness.
He moved out as a mountain lion would
when--sure of his own strength, his eyes ablaze--
through driving wind and rain, he stalks his prey,
wild deer or sheep or oxen; he'll attack
a cattle-fold, however tight the fence
that pens the herd--the hunger's so intense.
So did Odysseus seem as he prepared
to burst into the band of fair-haired girls,
though he was naked, he was ravenous.
But he-his form was filthy, fouled with brine--
struck them as horrible; and terrified,
they scattered on the shore, one here, one there,
among the sandpits jutting out to sea.
The daghter of Alcinous was left
alone: her spirit had recieved the gift
of courage from Athena, who had freed
the limbs of the young girl from fear and trembling.

She did not flinch or flee. She faced him firmly.


It took me all four years of college to see why people have loved the Odyssey for thousands of years; these are strong, noble people living real lives. In a real way. I guess it is hard now to think of what it might mean to be a strong person, but the Odyssey presents us with situation after situation wherein Odysseus resists. Like Nausicaa, Odysseus is capable of standing still, restraining himself from pleasurable situations in favor of experience, of life.

This passage raises the question for me: how much strength does it take to face whatever situation you are faced with? Though Odysseus's willingness to experience is especially evident in his thoughts as he wakes up--I remember the line, "I must try--must see with my own eyes" from paper prompts about Odysseus and experience freshman year--I think who is really admirable is Nausicaa. As Odysseus enters, he is animal-liike, and presumably frightening. Homer emphasizes his disgusting, ravenous, fierce aspects, from the brine encrusting his skin to his starved body. He "stalks" towards the girls (a literary critic might say that his sexual starvation