Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Poem of the Week 8/12/2009: Untitled Love Poem V

Untitled Love Poem V

Heavy curtains hang in the house
of the Woman of No Sorrows

lying in bed
feeling the long night's passing

a whole life in the arms of a goddess?
that was nothing but a dream

no lover has ever entered
the house of the Little Maid

indifferent waves and winds
punish the water chesnut

only dew and moonlight
can sweeten the cassia leaves

love is a total waste of time
you and I know that

but there's something about its madness
that opens the eyes and clears the mind!

Li Shang-Yin
trans. David Young

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Poem of the Week 8/12/2009: Triolet


I used to think all poets were Byronic--
Mad, bad and dangerous to know.
And then I met a few. Yes it's ironic--
I used to think all poets were Byronic.
They're mostly wicked as a ginless tonic
And wild as pension plans. Not long ago
I used to think all poets were Byronic--
Mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Wendy Cope

" (thank you Wikipedia)
A triolet (pronounced /ˈtraɪ.əlɨt/ or US: /ˌtriː.əˈleɪ/) is a one stanza poem of eight lines. Its rhyme scheme is ABaAabAB and often all lines are in iambic tetrameter: the first, fourth and seventh lines are identical, as are the second and final lines, thereby making the initial and final couplets identical as well.

Poem of the Week 8/5/2009: Waking Up Drunk on a Spring Day

Waking Up Drunk On A Spring Day

Life is a huge dream
why work so hard?

all day long I drink
lying outside the front door

looking up through the trees
in the garden

and one bird singing in the flowers

bird, what season is this?
"Spring! I'm a mango bird
and the spring wind makes me sing."

now I grow sad
very sad

so I have some more wine
and I sing
out loud
until the bright moon

what was I upset about?
I can't remember

Li Po
trans. David Young

I would really love to hear what you all think about this poem--why does Li Po get sad? Who is this character speaking in the poem? Is there a symbolic meaning to the drunken-ness?

Comment, feel free!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Poem of the Week 7/29/2009: An Upward Look

An Upward Look

Oh heart green acre sown with salt
by the departing occupier

lay down your gallant spears of wheat
Salt of the earth each stellar pinch

flung in blind defiance backwards
now takes its toll Up from his quieted

quarry the lover colder and wiser
hauling himself finds the world turning

toys triumphs toxins into
this vast facility the living come
dearest to die in How did it happen

In bright alternation minutely mirrored
Within the thinking of each and every

mortal creature halves of a clue
approach the earthlinghts Morning star

evening star salt of the sky
First the grave dissolving into dawn

the the crucial recrystallizing
from the inmost depths of clear dark blue

James Merrill

Poem of the Week 7/22/2009: I Know a Man

I Know a Man

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,--John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for
christ's sake, look
out where yr going.

Robert Creeley 1962

Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading argues that the most descriptive and accurate definitions are those that provide sight of exactly what is in front of one; he provides a definition of a canzone given by Dante: "A canzone is a composition of words set to music." This definition, Pound argues, works from what the audience can see or hear, so that when they hear a certian kind of music accompanied by words, they will know the canzone. No need to infer about the worldview, the meaning, or the greater category of music this form inhabits; the facts are legible, and that, Pound argues, is the most grounded form of knowledge.

So this is one idea about literature given by Ezra Pound, and while he is certainly open to literature of fact and that of abstraction, his idea does raise some interesting questions. First, is he right? There seems to be much literature of worth that is highly abstract and yet beautiful beyond measure, helpful, informative, etc; in one of Coleridge's works, for example, barely a fact remains in the poem, and yet one's encounter with that poem may be as moving or more moving than with Homer, who I regard as writing "legibly," from fact. Not that Coleridge can trump Homer; I am trying to say that they each have their value in whatever class they inhabit.

So it might do to test Pound's hypothesis, to observe it when one has the chance to do so--after all, I, for one, am still trying to work out how to read, and will happily take advice from and test Pound's theory in hope of learning a bit more. I regard this week's PotW, Robert Creeley's poem "I Know a Man," as a stellar example of a legible work, one whose facts are all entirely visible. And in testing Pound's theory for myself, the next step is to see what results from the careful and particular examination of a little conversation between friends.

"I Know a Man" does not stray at all, really, from the event of a conversation-- a conversation in which one man attempts to speak philosophically and sentimentally, and the other replies to go ahead and drive. It's a concrete experience--the attempt to make an abstract statement, to connect with somebody, and yet to Entirely Miss the Point! Which is not to think so hard, possibly. That's it, though we could talk about the syntax a little if I was a motivated person. ....

But here is the real point:

I was stopped for days in the middle of this blog, right before the last paragraph in fact, keeping on "slow roast" what Creeley's poem was a snapshot of; I couldn't recall a taste of this experience, you know? So I couldn't explain the poem other than technically, which can be tiresome. I was stopped, that is, until I really experienced it, that is, until I tried to philosophize with a friend I was trying to connect with instead of just listening and chatting, normally. I was all bent on interfering and look what happened! Exactly what robert creeley's poem promised would happen, no response, really at all. So perhaps Pound's observation does have something meaty to it, though it certainly demands something of its reader!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Poem of the Week 7/15/2009: Watch Repair

Watch Repair

A small wheel
Shivering like
A pinned butterfly.

Hands thrown up
In all directions:
The crossroads
One arrives at
In a nightmare.

Higher than that
Number 12 presides
Like a beekeeper
Over the swarming honeycomb
Of the open watch.

Other wheels
That could fit
Inside a raindrop.

That must be splinters
Of arctic starlight.

Tiny golden mills
Grinding invisible
Coffee beans.

When the coffee’s boiling
So it doesn’t burn us,
We raise it
To the lips
Of the nearest

Charles Simic 1974

This poem is a gorgeous, observant, sincere meditation on a small watch by the former poet laureate Charles Simic. We must wonder whether the watch is a cosmos or a strange pet, for it has both the echo of the universe and a personal, almost cute, character to it. Simic creates a cosmos by introducing a world of actors like the beekeeper-- number 12-- which makes the watch itself into a city or a town. Then, he hints at the universe at large with the somehow successful line, "splinters of starlight."

Then, Simic adds character to the watch using hints of activity, like the "hands thrown up in all directions." This clever line both puns on the hands of the watch and introduces the watchmaker's dynamic interaction with the watch itself. I think the coffee beans, too, add a cuteness that somehow makes the watch more intimate, heavily loud yet nearly infinitesimal in its whirring.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Poem of the Week 7/8/2009: The Skunk

The Skunk

Up, black, striped and damasked like the chasuble
At a funeral mass, the skunk's tail
Paraded the skunk. Night after night
I expected her like a visitor.

The refrigerator whinnied into silence.
My desk light softened beyond the verandah.
Small oranges loomed in the orange tree.
I began to be tense as a voyeur.

After eleven years I was composing
Love-letters again, broaching the word 'wife'
Like a stored cask, as if its slender vowel
Had mutated into the night earth and air

Of California. The beautiful, useless
Tang of eucalyptus spelt your absence.
The aftermath of a mouthful of wine
Was like inhaling you off a cold pillow.

And there she was, the intent and glamorous,
Ordinary, mysterious skunk,
Mythologized, demythologized,
Snuffing the boards five feet beyond me.

It all came back to me last night, stirred
By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,
Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer
For the black plunge-line nightdress.

Seamus Heaney

Poem of the Week 7/1/2009: The Flea

The Flea

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is ;
It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead ;
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two ;
And this, alas ! is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck'd from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
'Tis true ; then learn how false fears be ;
Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.

John Donne 1633

How ought we follow the argument of this poem? John Donne (or the persona of John Donne my professor called "Jack Donne," the lover and lusty scoundrel) writes of a flea who has bitten both himself and his beloved. Such a paltry thing, to be bitten by a flea, and yet in that flea bite the same thing happens as Renaissance folk believed would happen during sex, the mingling of blood. And so, the argument goes, the beloved ought not fear coupling with Mr. Donne.

The narration turns in the second stanza--it looks as if the beloved will smash the flea! The comedy shifts with the action, for suddenly this insignificant little flea is something sacred, "a marriage temple" holding not only its own life, but the combined life of the speaker and his lady. This, of course, is an attempt at seduction as well, evidenced in the beauty and erotic pull of the line, "clostr'd in these living walls of jet." Donne's comedy is born from finely juxtaposing actual desire with the guts of a flea.

In the final stanza, Donne continues to frame the poem as a narrative, recounting the final step in the threesome -- somewhat flirtatiously, the mistress has killed the flea, has "purlp'd [her] nail in blood of innocence." It is seemingly the final word in the argument, the triumph of virginity and thwarted desire. Even Donne seems to admit it; why, he laments, would she have done such a thing, saying that she feels none the worse after all of the poem's pretty talk? And yet as he appears to die, he wins with the argument, "if it was so little, if it affected you so little, so exactly as much honor will you lose in making love with me." Triumph.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Poem of the Week 6/24/2009: Danse Russe

Danse Russe*

If I when my wife is sleeping 
and the baby and Kathleen 
are sleeping 
and the sun is a flame-white disc 
in silken mists 
above shining trees,-- 
if I in my north room 
dance naked, grotesquely 
before my mirror 
waving my shirt round my head 
and singing softly to myself: 
"I am lonely, lonely. 
I was born to be lonely, 
I am best so!" 
If I admire my arms, my face, 
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks 
again the yellow drawn shades,--

Who shall say I am not 
the happy genius** of my household?

William Carlos Williams 1917

*Russian Dance (french). Just before writing this poem, Williams had seen a performance in New York City by the Ballet Russes, a company led by the producer and critic Sergey Pavlovich Diaghilev.

**The pervading guardian spirit of a place.

This poem sits strangely with me, as some of the lines are completely uninteresting, while others I cannot shake from my head. So this interpretation situates the poem in Williams' development, and explores the value of the different parts of the poem--how the banal works with or against the supernatural to form a lasting impression for the reader.  

It seems to me the key to "Danse Russe" is the supernatural link between the speaker's naked, grotesque, wild dance in his room and the final lines of the poem, "the happy genius," or guardian spirit of the house. Without these images, it would be nearly sickly poetic, with the baby asleep, the poet lonely, and the body outlined like a dancer. And yet now the poem is transformed into the dance of banchees, and its meaning is not the impression of the surroundings, but of a dream almost coming alive. Indeed, perhaps Williams juxtaposes the banally poetic with the disturbing in order to offset the supernatural in the poem.

 Or perhaps he was just a young poet. After all, this is one of Williams' earlier poems; even early in his career, the poem shows a commitment to image over sentiment, form, character, mode, and most every other poetic device. The more heavy handed lines work towards this for sure -- "silken mists / above shining trees"--but it seems this poem rests its weight on the unsettling image in the middle. Somehow nudity waving its hands over his head conveys something very clear and impressive. It is not the character of the poet that leaps to mind, but a snapshot of him that twirls in our heads like, well, a ballerina.  Williams develops the poem by an image, and this poem is perhaps one of the earliest in his poetic projects to make clear how cutting and lingering that can be. 

Friday, July 10, 2009

Poem of the Week 6/17/2009: Archy Interviews a Pharaoh

Archy Interivews a Pharaoh

[Archy is a cockroach who believes he is the incarnate form of a free-verse poet. At night, he types on Don Marquis' typewriter, and converses with his friend, Mehitabel the cat. Mehitabel, in turn, claims to be Cleopatra's incarnation. Make sure you keep in mind the image of a cockroach jumping from key to key on the typewriter. No wonder there are no caps or punctuation from the little, one-key at a time fellow. --SES]

boss i went
and interviewed the mummy
of the egyptian pharaoh
in the metropolitan museum
as you bade me to do

what ho
my regal leatherface
says i

little scatter footed
says he

kingly has been
says i
what was your ambition
when you had any

and journalistic insect
says the royal crackling
in my tender prime
i was too dignified
to have anything as vulgar
as ambition
the ra ra boys
in the seti set
were too haughty
to be ambitious
we used to spend our time
feeding the ibises
and ordering
pyramids sent home to try on
but if i had my life
to live over again
i would give dignity
the regal razz
and hire myself out
to work in a brewery

old tan and tarry
says i
i detect in your speech
the overtones
of melancholy

yes i am sad
says the majestic mackerel
i am as sad
as the song
of a soudanese jackal
who is wailing for the blood red
moon he cannot reach and rip

on what are you brooding
with such a wistful
there in the silences
confide in me
my perial pretzel
says i

i brood on beer
my scampering whiffle snoot
on beer says he

my sympathies
are with your royal
dryness says i

my little pest
says he
you must be respectful
in the presence
of a mighty desolation
little archy
forty centuries of thirst
look down upon you

oh by isis
and by osiris
says the princely raisin
and by pish and phthush and phthah
by the sacred book perembru
and all the gods
that rule from the upper
cataract of the nile
to the delta of the duodenum
i am dry
i am as dry
as the next morning mouth
of a dissipated desert
as dry as the hoofs
of the camels of timbuctoo
little fussy face
i am as dry as the heart
of a sand storm
at high noon in hell
i have been lying here
and there
for four thousand years
with silicon in my esophagus
as gravel in my gizzard
of beer

divine drouth
says i
imperial fritter
continue to think
there is no law against
that in this country
old salt codfish
if you keep quiet about it
not yet

what country is this
asks the poor prune

my reverend juicelessness
this is a beerless country
says i

well well said the royal
my political opponents back home
always maintained
that i would wind up in hell
and it seems they had the right dope

and with these hopeless words
the unfortunate residuum
gave a great cough of despair
and turned to dust and debris
right in my face
it being the only time
i ever actually saw anybody
put the cough
into sarcophagus

dear boss as i scurry about
i hear of a great many
tragedies in our midsts
personally i yearn
for some dear friend to pass over
and leave to me
a boot legacy
yours for the second coming
of gambrinus


Don Marquis 1927

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Poem of the Week 6/17/2009: from As You Like It

from As You Like It

[Jacques and Touchstone]

A fool, a fool! I met a fool in the forest,
A motley fool; a miserable world!
As I do live by food, I met a fool
Who laid him down and bask'd him in the sun,
And rail'd on Lady Fortune in good terms,
In good set terms and, yet, a motley fool.
'Good morrow, fool,' quoth I. 'No, sir,' quoth he,
'Call me not fool till heaven hath sent me fortune:'
And then he drew a dial from his poke,
And, looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
Says very wisely, 'It is ten o'clock:
Thus we may see,' quoth he, 'how the world wags:
'Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more 'twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.' When I did hear
The motley fool thus moral on the time,
My lungs began to crow like chanticleer,
That fools should be so deep-contemplative,
And I did laugh sans intermission
An hour by his dial. O noble fool!
A worthy fool! Motley's the only wear.

William Shakespeare

In a speech about foolishness, we must wonder who Shakespeare truly casts as the fool. First, there is the man called "fool," the most obvious candidate; a second, intelligent glance, however, casts Jacques himself as the fool. Ultimately, I argue that the ultimate absurdity of the moment pulls Jacques, the man, and the rest of human life into fooldom.

What is the case for calling the man by the side of the road a fool? We can find socioeconomic and physical reasons. To begin, the word "motley" returns over and over in reference to the man, probably a dual reference. His messy clothes signal a low economic class, which could be due to some kind of mental disorder. Less tangibly, "motley" could refer to his demeanor, which could be as varied and patched together as his penniless clothes. After all, he seems to sing nonsense, obsessed with time and a sundial made from nothing more than a grubby stick in his pocket, hardly the artifacts of a sane man, after all.

And yet, this is not a comfortable reading! It takes the man's clothes and the loud words of Jacques at face value, and fails to listen to the "fool's" profound message treating decay and mortality; were we to side with the first interpretation, we would be the fools who failed to listen. But this is precisely what Jacques does. From a careful listen, Touchstone seems "contemplative," artistic, creative, and perhaps wise, meditating on life's impermenance. That Jacques guffaws for an hour, literally, makes him seem the fool to an intelligent listener.

And while this is the more convincing of the arguments, I believe that it's interesting, at least, to take the man at his word and imagine that, if all of human life is rotting, falling away, and final, then is it possible for any man to not be the fool, of time at least? I admit, this feels attractive to write of and less so when really thinking about it--for, if true, wouldn't a wise man be the one who knows his enemies, knows of time, knows his death? It is a question of knowledge of one's ignorance, and one, I suppose, that you could land on either end of; I'm not hesitant to say that what lies between and fool and a wise man is understanding, yes, that strange idea we think we all have, and yet, most likely, have not.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Poem of the Week 6/10/2009: Take This Waltz

Take This Waltz

Now in Vienna there's ten pretty women
There's a shoulder where Death comes to cry
There's a lobby with nine hundred windows
There's a tree where the doves go to die
There's a piece that was torn from the morning
And it hangs in the Gallery of Frost
Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take this waltz with the clamp on its jaws

Oh I want you, I want you, I want you
On a chair with a dead magazine
In the cave at the tip of the lily
In some hallways where love's never been
On a bed where the moon has been sweating
In a cry filled with footsteps and sand
Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take its broken waist in your hand

This waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz
With its very own breath of brandy and Death
Dragging its tail in the sea

There's a concert hall in Vienna
Where your mouth had a thousand reviews
There's a bar where the boys have stopped talking
They've been sentenced to death by the blues
Ah, but who is it climbs to your picture
With a garland of freshly cut tears?
Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take this waltz it's been dying for years

There's an attic where children are playing
Where I've got to lie down with you soon
In a dream of Hungarian lanterns
In the mist of some sweet afternoon
And I'll see what you've chained to your sorrow
All your sheep and your lilies of snow
Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
With its "I'll never forget you, you know!"

This waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz ...

And I'll dance with you in Vienna
I'll be wearing a river's disguise
The hyacinth wild on my shoulder,
My mouth on the dew of your thighs
And I'll bury my soul in a scrapbook,
With the photographs there, and the moss
And I'll yield to the flood of your beauty
My cheap violin and my cross
And you'll carry me down on your dancing
To the pools that you lift on your wrist
Oh my love, Oh my love
Take this waltz, take this waltz
It's yours now. It's all that there is.

Frederico Garcia Lorca
trans. Leonard Cohen

Little Viennese Waltz by Federico Garcia Lorca
In Vienna there are ten little girls,
a shoulder for death to cry on,
and a forest of dried pigeons.
There is a fragment of tomorrow
in the museum of winter frost.
There is a thousand-windowed dance hall.

Ay, ay, ay, ay!
Take this close-mouthed waltz.

Little waltz, little waltz, little waltz,
of itself of death, and of brandy
that dips its tail in the sea.

I love you, I love you, I love you,
with the armchair and the book of death,
down the melancholy hallway,
in the iris's darkened garret,

Ay, ay, ay, ay!
Take this broken-waisted waltz.

In Vienna there are four mirrors
in which your mouth and the ehcoes play.
There is a death for piano
that paints little boys blue.
There are beggars on the roof.
There are fresh garlands of tears.

Ay, ay, ay, ay!
Take this waltz that dies in my arms.

Because I love you, I love you, my love,
in the attic where the children play,
dreaming ancient lights of Hungary
through the noise, the balmy afternoon,
seeing sheep and irises of snow
through the dark silence of your forehead

Ay, ay, ay, ay!
Take this " I will always love you" waltz

In Vienna I will dance with you
in a costume with
a river's head.
See how the hyacinths line my banks!
I will leave my mouth between your legs,
my soul in a photographs and lilies,
and in the dark wake of your footsteps,
my love, my love, I will have to leave
violin and grave, the waltzing ribbons

Federico Garcia Lorca
trans. unknown! (this version is all over the internet, yet with no translator. Of the few english versions I read, this was my favorite, however)

I am offering two versions of this poem today to give some material that might be interesting if anybody is curious about the role or effect of translation on a poem or form of art.


Sunday, May 31, 2009

Poem of the Week 5/23/2009: By the Sea

By The Sea

I started early, took my dog,
And visited the sea;
The mermaids in the basement
Came out to look at me.

And frigates in the upper floor
Extended hempen hands,
Presuming me to be a mouse
Aground, upon the sands.

But no man moved me till the tide
Went past my simple shoe,
And past my apron and my belt,
And past my bodice too,

And made as he would eat me up
As wholly as a dew
Upon a dandelion's sleeve -
And then I started too.

And he - he followed close behind;
I felt his silver heel
Upon my ankle, - then my shoes
Would overflow with pearl.

Until we met the solid town,
No man he seemed to know;
And bowing with a mighty look
At me, the sea withdrew.

Emily Dickinson

I guess my question with most Emily Dickinson poems is, what is happening? Which is a question of reading-- how are we to interpret what is going on? And how subjective is it? If it is subjective, will it reveal something about ourselves, and if it is objective will it reveal something about the world? In a way, I do not believe that the answer to this question is important, but I do think that investigating it is imperative. And to investigate, we must gather our impressions of the poem, which is another point about poetry (as I think of it)--the experience, subjective or whatever!--of reading and dreaming through emily dickinson's mind. 

These are a lot of questions, and with all of this I don't even know if there will be time right now to work out the poem for myself bit by bit. I can offer some ideas, I guess. To begin, there are some strange characters, and a strange landscape at play--the characters of the narrator, her dog, these strange frigates (warships), the sea, and some mermaids. All of these, I think, establish the dreamlike/mythic quality of the poem. And the arc of the story could be, roughly, a woman and her companion (one subordinate to her), and the various things that are interested in the woman, the ways they attempt to reach out to her, and then the one that does touch her, actually--the sea. What a sensual experience she paints in the middle stanzas, bringing not only the sea, but the reader's mind up with her. And then, when it sees her in some social context, or some more real, "solid" (certainly not watery) context, it recedes.

But this is the structural arc. It is so much like a dream that... how could anybody feel that they absolutely claim to understand what it is saying? For myself, it's such a lonely poem, and still charged, like a thundercloud I guess--the strength of the sea recedes against this woman, after knowing her and feeling her, recedes. The image of power and tension and loss... of love? I don't know, beauty perhaps. It is a tensile and lightly magnetic beauty, apparent in Dickinson's juxtaposition of images of delicacy with those of strength-- the sea lands on a woman like dew on a dandelion, and it, in its immensity, is as small and lovely as a pearl, has such beloved aspects as a silver heel, and yet it can bow with a mighty look... 

So that is my own quick and dirty interpretation. What is yours? No need to share unless you really feel compelled, I am hoping that you can ask yourself, reading carefully and examining even closer. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Poem of the Week 5/17/2009: The Sleepwalker's Ballad

Sleepwalker's Ballad

Green I love you green.
Green of the wind. Green branches.
The ship far out at sea.
The horse above the mountain.
Shadows dark at her waist,
She’s dreaming there on her terrace,
green of her cheek, green hair,
with eyes like chilly silver.
Green I love you green.
Under that moon of the gypsies
things are looking at her
but she can’t return their glances.

Green I love you green.
Green of the wind. Green branches.
The stars are frost, enormous;
a tuna cloud floats over
nosing off to the dawn.
The fig tree catches a wind
to grate in its emery branches;
the mountain’s a wildcat, sly,
bristling its acrid cactus.
But—who’s on the road? Which way?
She’s dreaming there on her terrace,
green of her cheek, green hair,
she dreams of the bitter sea.

“Friend, what I want is to trade
this horse of mine for your house,
this saddle of mine for your mirror,
this knife of mine for your blanket.
Friend, I come bleeding, see,
from the mountain pass of Cabra.”
“I would if I could, young man;
I’d have taken you up already.
But I’m not myself any longer,
nor my house my home any more.”
“Friend, what I want is to die
in a bed of my own -- die nicely.
An iron bed, if there is one,
between good linen sheets.
I’m wounded, throat and breast,
from here to here -- you see it?”
“You’ve a white shirt on; three hundred
roses across -- dark roses.
There’s a smell of blood about you;
your sash, all round you, soaked.
But I’m not myself any longer,
nor my house my home any more.”

“Then let me go up, though; let me!
At least to the terrace yonder.
Let me go up then, let me!
Up to the high green roof.
Terrace-rails of the moonlight,
splash of the lapping tank.”

So they go up, companions,
up to the high roof-terrace;
a straggle of blood behind them,
behind, a straggle of tears.
Over the roofs, a shimmer
like little tin lamps, and glassy
tambourines by the thousand
slitting the glitter of dawn.

Green I love you green.
Green of the wind. Green branches.
They’re up there, two companions.
A wind from the distance leaving
its tang on the tongue, strange flavors
of bile, of basil and mint.
“Where is she, friend -- that girl
with the bitter heart, your daughter?”
“How often she’d be there waiting,
fresh of face, hair black,
here in green of the terrace.”

There in her terrace pool
was the gypsy girl, in ripples.
Green of her cheek, green hair,
with eyes like chilly silver.
Icicles from the moon
held her afloat on the water.
Night became intimate then --
enclosed, like a little plaza.
Drunken, the Civil Guard
had been banging the door below them.

Green I love you green.
Green of the wind. Green branches.
The ship far out at sea.
The horse above on the mountain.

Frederico Garcia Lorca
trans. John Frederick Nims

Friday, January 16, 2009

Poem of the Week 11/24/2008: Trismegistus


O Egypt, Egypt—so the great lament
Of thrice-great Hermes went—
Nothing of thy religion shall remain
Save fables, which thy children shall disdain.
His grieving eye foresaw
The world’s bright fabric overthrown
Which married star to stone
And charged all things with awe.

And what, in that dismantled world, could be
More fabulous than he?
Had he existed? Was he but a name
Tacked on to forgeries which pressed the claim
Of every ancient quack—
That one could from a smoky cell
By talisman or spell
Coerce the Zodiac?

Still, still we summon him at midnight hour
To Milton’s pensive tower,
And hear him tell again how, then and now,
Creation is a house of mirrors, how
Each herb that sips the dew
Dazzles the eye with many small
Reflections of the All—
Which, after all, is true.

Richard Wilbur

If there's one thing that intrigues me about this poem, it's the movement of the poem's attitude towards Hermes, its questioning and confusion, its doubts and beliefs, and its final longing for whole, magic world. From a statement that the great myths of a great man become no more than children's stories and fables, to the discussion of the modern world's division of nature from itself, the sky from the earth, and people from each other, the poem moves finally to a mustard seed of longing for that state. The final stanza offers the sense one perhaps had as a child questioning its life at night, staring at the world with such wonder and hope--Wilbur uses the word "awe" for this--but having to do it in secret. That, the poet proposes, is the burden of the modern world--that we cannot question in open, that in spite of all we believe to have come to know, that something is still missing, that there is still some desire for what has been lost, and a desire for a self-reflective whole. And what a way to end it! Wilbur's simple last line, "Which, after all, is true," relaxes the poem, opening its end and its call to the daily man, including a modern poet's voice with the voice of ancient longing, shall we say.

Poem of the Week 11/17/2008: Pura Vida

Pura Vida

(¡Pura vida! —Costa Rican phrase for "O.K." or "Great!")

Such heat! It brings the brain back to its basic blank.
Small, recurrent events become the daily news—
the white-nosed coati treading the cecropia's
bending thin branches like sidewalks in the sky,
the scarlet-rumped tanager flitting like a spark
in the tinder of dank green, the nodding palm leaves
perforated like Jacquard cards in a code of wormholes,
the black hawk skimming nothingness over and over.

What does the world's wide brimming mean, with hunger
the unstated secret, dying the proximate reality?
Con mucho gusto—the muchness extends to the stars,
as wet and numerous as larvae underground
where the ants in their preset patterns scurry and nurture,
and the queen, immobilized, pours forth her eggs
in the dark. We are far from oaks and stoplights,
from England's chill classrooms and Tuscany's paved hills.

For thought is a stridulation, an insect sizzling,
knit of the moment's headlines and temperate-zone quips,
viable in the debris of our rotting educations,
that thatch where peer-groups call each to each in semes
ecosystematically. Great God Himself
wilts with a rise in temperature, a drop in soil acidity,
a new language in its grimacing opacity.
The brain's dry buzz revives, a bit, as evening falls.

John Updike

I like to think of this poem as a heat-induced outpouring of thought--all of the strange words and categorizations of trees, insects, as well as other unusual vocabulary (stridulation), seem to erupt out of the speaker's brain in the heat, causing a special simmering contemplation about the world--the con much gusto of it all, the thoughts "viable in the debris of our rotting educations."

Though I must say the real reason for choosing the poem was the middle paragraph, and my great fondness for John Updike's poetry.