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.