Friday, May 30, 2008

Poem of the Week 5/5/2008: Black and White Stone

Black and White Stone

seeds a stone
in the air
The stone rises
an old man is asleep
If his eyes open
the stone explodes
whirlwind of wings and beaks
above a woman
who flows
through the whiskers of autumn

The stone falls
in the eye's plaza
in the palm of your hand
between your breasts
languages of water

The stone ripens
the seeds sing
They are seven
seven sisters
seven vipers
seven drops of jade
seven words
on a bed of glass
seven veins of water
in the center
of the stone
opened with a glance

Octavio Paz 1971
Trans. Eliot Weinberger

Perhaps what will help the understanding of this poem most is to know that it was based on a dream Paz had. The author's note is as follows:

"I was not a friend of Joseph Sima's, but in 1969 and 1970 I had the fortune of seeing him a few times always briefly, at the gallery Le Point Cardinal in Paris. His presence and conversation created an impression on me that was no less vivid than his painting. Two days before writing the poem and dreaming the dram that are the object of this note, I had recieved a letter from Claude Esteban, asking me for a text--perhaps, he hinted, a poem--in homage to Sima. I barely remember my dream, except for the image of an almost spherical stone--a planet? giant gourd? light bulb? fruit?--floating in the air, slowly changing color (but what were the colors that alternately lit up and grew dark?) spinning around itself and over a landscape of fine sand covered with eyes--the eyes of Marie Jose who slept at my side. The undulating yellow landscape had turned into eyes that watched the stone breathe, dilating and contracting, suspended in the air. Then I was woken by a voice that said "Sima siembra" ("Sima seeds"). I got up and wrote, almost embarassedly, the poem that Esteban had requested. Three days later I read in Le Monde that Sima had died. As the newspaper arrived in Mexico three days after publication in Paris, I had dreamed the dream and written the poem just when Sima died."

Oddly, the way Sima, somebody Paz obviously admired, will be remembered best through a poem of Paz's; it is at moments like this when I reflect on and trust Shakespeare's idea of art lasting longer than the person himself.

Some other thoughts that came to me are those pertaining to latin poetry; this poem's sensuality and mysterious but clear imagery seem, to me, like Nietzsche's woman. That is, they are beautiful and true yet lead one forward, their mystery never quite grasped, quite understood. Reading this poem, it is perhaps best not to treat it like something to be Understood, but rather something by which to be humbled, or something to marvel at, legs crossed on the floor.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Poem of the Week 4/28/2008: Death


Death calls my dog by the wrong name.
A little man when I was small, Death grew
Beside me, always taller, but always
Confused as I have almost never been.
Confusion, like the heart, gets left behind
Early by a boy, abandoned the very moment
Futurity with her bare arms comes a-waltzing
Down the fire escapes to take his hand.

"Death," I said, "if your eyes were green
I would eat them."

For what are days but the furnace of an eye?
If I could strip a sunflower bare to its bare soul,
I would rebuild it:
Green inside of green, ringed round by green.
There'd be nothing but new flowers anymore.
Absolute Christmas.

"Death," I said, "I know someone, a woman,
Who sank her teeth into the moon."

For what are space and time but the inventions
Of sorrowing men? The soul goes faster than light.
Eating the moon alive, it leaves space and time behind.
The soul is forgiveness because it knows forgiveness.
And the knowledge is whirligig.
Whirligig taught me to live outwardly.
Shoe shop. . . pizza parlor. . . surgical appliances. . .
All left behind me with the hooey.
My soul is my home.
An old star hounded by old starlight.

"Death, I ask you, whose only story
Is the end of the story, right from the start,
How is it I remember everything
That never happened and almost nothing that did?
Was I ever born?"

I think of the suicides, all of them thriving,
Many of them painting beautiful pictures.
I think of boys and girls murdered
In their first beauty, now with children of their own.
And I have a church in my mind, set cruelly ablaze,
And then the explosion of happy souls
Into the greeny, frozen Christmas Eve air:
Another good Christmas, a white choir.

Beside each other still,
My Death and I are a magical hermit.
Dear Mother, I miss you.
Dear reader, your eyes are now green,
Green as they used to be, before I was born.

Donald Revell

Does anybody have questions about this poem? I think that I could answer them, but that it is a poem that you all could puzzle out yourselves; he uses some basic college facts (it is a very collegy poem; Mr. Revell is a professor at the University of Las Vegas-Nevada), including the old idea that men are stars, the philosophic lynchpin that our perception shapes the world around us, that rationality is a mill that cannot itself learn, that must be informed by impressions. I think that Mr. Revell has read Blake-- these philosophic undertones align with Blake's.

At any rate, meditations on death are, I think, one thing poetry still has going for it, and one thing that many of us could do to think about a little more. Here, the lamentation is a measured one. That is, the thought of endings, and the grief for life that accompanies death (death's bride?), is cut by the funny tone of lines like, "Absolute Christmas" and by the playful wonder at Death, as well. Death is somebody who grows, who gets things wrong, who is so confusing that he must be forgotten; I take this to mean that man must push the thought of death away because simply he does not know what happens...

Revell also brings up questions of life, and death of course must do; with death, he wonders what the quality of life truly is. Are we ever born, he wonders, into a real and true place, or are we always drawn outward to pizza parlors and worry about our health in doctor's offices? Death calls us home, in a way, bringing the interior world to light again, the soul, the true home, whatever that means.

What does death demand of us? And how does Revell address it?I am grateful that Revell addresses the reader at the end of the poem, for, as a friend and I were discussing yesterday, death must necessarily be about oneself, and about life in general--the great grief of living lifts its chin, everything held in the eyes of a good old black dog.

Poem of the Week 4/21/2008: Your Hair of Snakes and Flowers

Your Hair of Snakes and Flowers

When I saw one of those men touch your hair,
I heard for the first time in many a year
the ancient battle trumpets and I saw
the banners of an army winding off to war
and felt that blind power urging me to knock
him out with one punch, send him tumbling to the floor.
If nobody had held me back, stopped me,
I would—God help me—have killed him on the spot,
stomped out his blood, and spit in it. I'm sorry,
but you must be aware your winding hair
is different now, a hornets' nest, a snakes' lair!
Yes, like a ball of snakes in a flower basket, dear.

HÃ¥kan Sandell
Translated from the Swedish by Bill Coyle

There would be all sorts of fun and easy ways to discuss this poem as the staging of epic in the modern world, how it stands at an intersection of traditional heroic poetry and modern love lyric. Then one could discuss the further intertwining of poet and translator, one language moving into another language.

But that is poetic wrangling, and I can't speak Swedish to compare the two anyway, so it seems that the implication of these intersections is that the battle of epic is a battle in one's own head, in one's own life. The great drums sound as the beating of a heart, the armies are energy and fury running down the arm, pulling the hand into a fist...

A final note: I don't think that it would be as good of a poem without the final line, when the speaker turns to his wife or girlfriend, and addresses her caustically and politely. Yes dear, he says, you are so sweet and dangerous.