Friday, October 31, 2008

Poem of the Week 9/16/2008: A Season in Hell

A Season in Hell

A while back, if I remember right, my life was one long party where all hearts were open wide, where all wines kept flowing.

One night, I sat Beauty down on my lap.—And I found her galling.—And I roughed her up.

I armed myself against justice.

I ran away. O witches, O misery, O hatred, my treasure's been turned over to you!

I managed to make every trace of human hope vanish from my mind. I pounced on every joy like a ferocious animal eager to strangle it.

I called for executioners so that, while dying, I could bite the butts of their rifles. I called for plagues to choke me with sand, with blood. Bad luck was my god. I stretched out in the muck. I dried myself in the air of crime. And I played tricks on insanity.

And Spring brought me the frightening laugh of the idiot.

So, just recently, when I found myself on the brink of the final squawk! it dawned on me to look again for the key to that ancient party where I might find my appetite once more.

Charity is that key.—This inspiration proves I was dreaming!

"You'll always be a hyena etc. . . ," yells the devil, who'd crowned me with such pretty poppies. "Deserve death with all your appetites, your selfishness, and all the capital sins!"

Ah! I've been through too much:-But, sweet Satan, I beg of you, a less blazing eye! and while waiting for the new little cowardly gestures yet to come, since you like an absence of descriptive or didactic skills in a writer, let me rip out these few ghastly pages from my notebook of the damned.

Arthur Rimbaud Translated by Bertrand Mathieu

Happy Halloween*
There were a lot of choices for this week's PotW--many writers have treated of Hell, of course (think Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Blake, Joyce--indeed all great epics following the Western tradition ought by right to have a passage to the underworld)... there could be an entire anthology of Hell, perhaps put together by a Beat or a Blakean? It would be a fabulous anthology.

At any rate, I picked this one because it treats a sort of interior Hell, addressed to the devil, yes, but it is remarkable that the narrator discusses his own abuse of his life. It also includes, darkly, some hope, which is perhaps an older meaning of Halloween; to enter the darkness in order to purge and to balance. The same thing happens in The Orestia. At the end (stop here if you haven't read it), Athena orders mankind to pay its debt to the Furies, to treat them properly, to give them some life still.

* (the posting date, not the fake chronological one)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Poem of the Week 9/8/08: Byzantium


The unpurged images of day recedes;
The Emperor's drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night-walkers' song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades' bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the star-lit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

At midnight on the Emperor's pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

Astraddle on the dolphin's mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

William Butler Yeats

How does one begin to look at this poem? The opening stanza holds the line "all man is," and I think that would be an excellent question with which one might approach the poem. What is Yeats' vision of man, and if you find that it shifts or that it is nearly impossible to parse or pin down, then are there any perspectives that might shed light on man (fleshly, subconscious/mystical/visionary, mythic, violent, emotional, thoughtful etc)?

some notes of my own:
Yeats is placing his mythic Byzantium in the same category as Blake's Jerusalem or the great cities of the Old and New Testaments--real places in the worldly sense, but perhaps as well enormous landscapes inside the human being. So if there are aspects of blood and mire and violence in this poem, dolphins and golden birds and peace, then these are all characters in a vast subconsicous network, communicated to Yeats the poet, or perhaps in a way chosen by him to represent what man's inner experience is touched with from time to time.

Perhaps it will be helpful to read the beginning of this poem as a kind of movement from waking consciousness to a remembered draming consciousness; it opens with the receding of "the unpurged images of day," which leaves us what?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Poem of the Week 9/5/05: Heredity


I am the family face;
Flesh perishes, I live on,
Projecting trait and trace
Through time to times anon,
And leaping from place to place
Over oblivion.

The years-heired feature that can
In curve and voice and eye
Despise the human span
Of durance -- that is I;
The eternal thing in man,
That heeds no call to die

Thomas Hardy

It's the small things, right? Like the strangeness of looking into an old photograph, or one's mother's face, and seeing oneself.

ps Thank you to my grandmother, who introduced me to this poem.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Poem of the Week 8/25/2008: Tristia


I have taken to heart the lesson of goodbyes
In bareheaded laments in the night.
Oxen chew, waiting lengthens,
The last hour of the watch in the city.
And I bow to ceremonial cock-crowing nights
When lifting their lading of grief for the journey
Eyes red with crying search the horizon
And singing of Muses blends with the weeping of women.

Who can know from the word 'goodbye'
What kind of separation lies before us,
Or what the cock's clamour promises
When a light burns in the acropolis
And in his stall the lazy ox chews:
Why the cock,
The herald of new life,
Beats on the city walls with his wings?

And I like the way of weaving:
The shuttle comes and goes, the spindle hums,
And -- flying to meet us like swan's down --
Look, barefooted Delia comes!
Oh how meagre the basis of life,
How threadbare the language of elysium!*
Everything existed of old, everything recurs anew,
The flash of recognition is all that we welcome.

So be it: a translucent manikin
On a clean clay plate --
A squirrel's stretched-out skin:
Bent over wax, a girl examines it.
Not for us to guess at Grecian Erebus:**
For women wax, what bronze is for men.
On us our fate falls only in battles;
Their death they die in divination.

Osip Mandelstam 1918
translated by James Greene

*In Greek mythology, Elysium was a section of the underworld, the great field which held the souls of heroes and those with virtue.
**In Greek mythology, Erebus or Erebos (Ancient Greek: Ἔρεβος, English translation: "deep blackness/darkness or shadow") was the son of a primordial god, Chaos, and represented the personification of darkness and shadow, which filled in all the corners and crannies of the world. He was the offspring of Chaos alone.
(Thank you Wikipedia for the information in the footnotes, which I have introduced)

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Poem of the Week 8/18/2008: Regarding Chainsaws

Regarding Chainsaws

The first chainsaw I owned was years ago,
an old yellow McCulloch that wouldn't start.
Bo Bremmer give it to me that was my friend,
though I've had enemies couldn't of done
no worse. I took it to Ward's over to Morrisville,
and no doubt they tinkered it as best they could,
but it still wouldn't start. One time later
I took it down to the last bolt and gasket
and put it together again, hoping somehow
I'd do something accidental-like that would
make it go, and then I yanked on it
450 times, as I figured afterwards,
and give myself a bursitis in the elbow
that went five years even after
Doc Arrowsmith shot it full of cortisone
and near killed me when he hit a nerve
dead on. Old Stan wanted that saw, wanted it bad.
Figured I was a greenhorn that didn't know
nothing and he could fix it. Well, I was,
you could say, being only forty at the time,
but a fair hand at tinkering. "Stan," I said,
"you're a neighbor. I like you. I wouldn't
sell that thing to nobody, except maybe
Vice-President Nixon." But Stan persisted.
He always did. One time we was loafing and
gabbing in his front dooryard, and he spied
that saw in the back of my pickup. He run
quick inside, then come out and stuck a double
sawbuck in my shirt pocket, and he grabbed
that saw and lugged it off. Next day, when I
drove past, I seen he had it snugged down tight
with a tow-chain on the bed of his old Dodge
Powerwagon, and he was yanking on it
with both hands. Two or three days after,
I asked him, "How you getting along with that
McCulloch, Stan?" "Well," he says, "I tooken
it down to scrap, and I buried it in three
separate places yonder on the upper side
of the potato piece. You can't be too careful,"
he says, "when you're disposing of a hex."
The next saw I had was a godawful ancient
Homelite that I give Dry Dryden thirty bucks for,
temperamental as a ram too, but I liked it.
It used to remind me of Dry and how he'd
clap that saw a couple times with the flat
of his double-blade axe to make it go
and how he honed the chain with a worn-down
file stuck in an old baseball. I worked
that saw for years. I put up forty-five
run them days each summer and fall to keep
my stoves het through the winter. I couldn't now.
It'd kill me. Of course they got these here
modern Swedish saws now that can take
all the worry out of it. What's the good
of that? Takes all the fun out too, don't it?
Why, I reckon. I mind when Gilles Boivin snagged
an old sap spout buried in a chunk of maple
and it tore up his mouth so bad he couldn't play
"Tea for Two" on his cornet in the town band
no more, and then when Toby Fox was holding
a beech limb that Rob Bowen was bucking up
and the saw skidded crossways and nipped off
one of Toby's fingers. Ain't that more like it?
Makes you know you're living. But mostly they wan't
dangerous, and the only thing they broke was your
back. Old Stan, he was a buller and a jammer
in his time, no two ways about that, but he
never sawed himself. Stan had the sugar
all his life, and he wan't always too careful
about his diet and the injections. He lost
all the feeling in his legs from the knees down.
One time he started up his Powerwagon
out in the barn, and his foot slipped off the clutch,
and she jumped forwards right through the wall
and into the manure pit. He just set there,
swearing like you could of heard it in St.
Johnsbury, till his wife come out and said,
"Stan, what's got into you?" "Missus," he says
"ain't nothing got into me. Can't you see?
It's me that's got into this here pile of shit."
Not much later they took away one of his
legs, and six months after that they took
the other and left him setting in his old chair
with a tank of oxygen to sip at whenever
he felt himself sinking. I remember that chair.
Stan reupholstered it with an old bearskin
that must of come down from his great-great-
grandfather and had grit in it left over
from the Civil War and a bullet-hole as big
as a yawning cat. Stan latched the pieces together
with rawhide, cross fashion, but the stitches was
always breaking and coming undone. About then
I quit stopping by to see old Stan, and I
don't feel so good about that neither. But my mother
was having her strokes then. I figured
one person coming apart was as much
as a man can stand. Then Stan was taken away
to the nursing home, and then he died. I always
remember how he planted them pieces of spooked
McCulloch up above the potatoes. One time
I went up and dug, and I took the old
sprocket, all pitted and et away, and set it
on the windowsill right there next to the
butter mold. But I'm damned if I know why.

Hayden Carruth

(this 200th PotW dedicated to MG).

Well, for the official 200th posting of the Poem of the Week, almost a month and a half late, please enjoy Hayden Carruth, a wonderful Southern poet who passed away a few weeks ago. This poem is, I think, quietly astonishing. (I do hope you finished it, though it is long). From its beginning it is simple and honest, moving from tale to tale in the classical American-story sort of way.

More interesting is that it seems to me that this simplicity is accompanied by some kind of deep respect for every thing and person in the story. What do I mean by respect? A kind of release of analytical thought about the chainsaws or the characters. Their stories are allowed to unfold according, roughly, to what happened. When Carruth stops visiting old Stan, he first says it merely as a fact that when Stan sewed up the hole in the bearskin, about that time, the narrator stops coming. No causal link, no superstition, just what happened, temporally. The speaker is then hesitant to provide a reason for stopping, saying that his mother was having "the strokes" at that point, and "I figured / one person coming apart was as much / as a man can stand." Again, this is a fact; what he figured, not what is somehow fully or abstractly true about the situation, but the much finer and more lovely facts of what happened.

Thus, in "Regarding Chainsaws" the meanings are truly shown and not told, which means that Carruth had to place an immense amount of trust in the things themselves to communicate. A chainsaw and a set of people are themselves trusted to hold the meaning. They do not say it, they do not emphasize or comment on it, or even feel about it; they simply happen, and Carruth's genius is first to see it, and then to let his seeing translate into the poem.

Wendell Berry gives a lovely account of Carruth in the article "My Friend Hayden," found: .