Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan

At 23, I’m still a huge fan of young adult literature. I just don’t consume as much of it as I used to. There’s something exciting for me about my favorite Y.A. authors crossing over to general fiction—which I’ve seen a lot of lately with authors like Meg Rosoff and Francesca Lia Block. Now cue in David Levithan, who wrote a book I enjoyed and reviewed for 50 Books a couple of years ago, titled The Realm of Possibility.

Levithan’s debut to the adult fiction world is The Lover’s Dictionary. It’s a novel written one definition at a time, A to Z, one definition to a page at 211 pages. Some of the entries are short, just statements. Some favorites:

celibacy, n. n/a.

exacerbate, v. I believe your exact words were: “You’re getting too emotional.”

vagary, n. The mistake is thinking there can be an antidote to the uncertainty.

Some of the definitions are full on stories… Think flash fiction or vignettes. My favorite is for offshoot, where he details going to a concert with his girl friend’s best friend. He feels like they’re doing something wrong if they discuss the one shared thing in their life (being his lover) without her being there, but they don’t have any other common ground, so the stories start flowing. At the end of it:

It wasn’t like we held hands during the concert. We didn’t go out for wine or
shots or milkshakes afterwards. But I liked that she was no longer entirely
yours. We had four hours of history without you.

I like the way that he captures the way two people come together, as well. All the little moments:

Cadence, n. I have never lived anywhere but New York or New England, but there are times when I’m talking to you and I hit a Southern vowel, or a word gets caught in a Southern truncation, and I know it’s because I’m swimming in your cadences, that you permeate my very language.

Sacrosanct, adj. The nape of your neck. Even the sound of the word nape sounds holy to me. That the hollow of your neck, the peak of your chest that your shirt sometimes reveals. These are the stations of my quietest, most insistent desire.

The ease that Levithan navigates with through his chosen (and tricky) format seems to be seamless. One moment, he’s throwing out statements about relationships that seem universally true in ways that hit you because of their humor or the eloquence or their perfect placement. The next moment, he’s fleshing out one couple’s particular details. I feel like in the wrong hands, the format would have felt like a gimmick. In this particular case, though, I feel like he delivers exactly what you need to know: all of the hard hitting moments and truths, good and bad, without the transitional fluff that usually carries you from one page to the next. That, or maybe I just liked it so much because I’ve been feeling too distracted to devote myself to anything that required an actual commitment of time and rapt attention. There’s no telling.

It’s a very modern love story. They meet online after he’s been on so many poor blind dates that he’s ready to cancel his subscription, just to realize he’s only got eight days left and there’s really no point in trying to pull out so close to the end of it. On the second to last day, that first e-mail is sent. Eventually they have to figure out whether or not they’re exclusive. They do all the typical get-to-know-your-partner things. Navigate through awkward silences. Get comfortable. She drinks too much. He’s insecure. Sometimes things happen in just the right way and they are momentarily awed by one another again. They decide to move in together. She cheats. They cope. There's also a small bit about a pregnancy that's alluded to in the beginning and once again at the end that we don't seem to have any kind of resolution for, unless I'm missing something. The storyline isn’t anything much in and of itself but I very much appreciated the way that it was delivered.

The one thing that I’m not too sure about is Levithan’s use of pop culture references. He writes about Vampire Weekend, throws out something about Green Day’s American Idiots tour in passing, etc. Maybe I’m just missing the genius of some of the bands he nods to, but I think I’d be more comfortable if he was using people/groups that have already proven they’d have lasting name recognition. I love Bon Iver right now, but you’re not going to find any of the characters in my short stories talking about them, you know what I mean? I don’t know. I guess I just thought it was ballsy. There was a Prince reference, however, that I liked:

non sequitur, n. This is what it sounds like when doves cry.

The only thing I would like better than this book as is if John Cusak could turn it into a one man stage act, which I think would be overwhelmingly appropriate.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White

I apologize for being a negligent 50 booker. Apparently, applying for graduate school and being neurotic about it consumed my entire life from January until April 15th. Now that I have a plan, I am going to read entirely too much to make up for being booked for the next two years solid. No pun intended.

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts took me four months to read. See above. This might also have something to do with the book being non-fiction, which isn’t exactly my genre of choice. The main character, being the man behind the memoir, was not a man I found to be very relatable: affluent magazine owner that screwed his investors over by kiting himself checks to stay in business. One thing follows another and after a string of good luck runs out, he winds up getting caught and being sent to prison. Not a bad guy, by any means, just a tad greedy and ego driven. He shows remorse, he makes positive attitude and life changes in prison, contemplates how to be there for his family from afar, etc. Essentially, he did the things you do while you’re in the can. Not very interesting.

While he isn’t riveting, the book itself still is. Neil White did his time in Carville, which was also home to the last group of people in the U.S. with leprosy, now termed Hansens disease. What this means is that you’re reading a novel about 130+ patients living with Hansens, the Catholic nuns that live with them, workers from the Bureau of Prisons that are itching to take the entire place over despite the ability to properly secure it, and a group of inmates that ranged from your typical tough guy to your white collar criminal. In other words, not your typical cast of characters. The two people that made the book for me were both inmates. “Link” was a former carjacker that liked to sit outside of the Popeye’s drive-thru so that he could steal a car AND fresh chicken. He injected plenty of comic relief into the middle of long over-sentimentalized passages about White wanting to reform and be a better man. The other was Doc, White’s Russian roommate that was serving time for charges related to a heat pill he’d created to aid in weight loss. While he served his time, he kept himself busy by reading free medical magazines that he subscribed to by duping the publishers into believing that he was a worker in the medical federal facility instead of an inmate put there for health related reasons. In their first exchange, Doc explains that he has recently come up with a cure for erectile dysfunction but laments that he’s having a hard time marketing it from inside the facility. Good stuff.

While the patients and inmates weren’t suppose to fraternize, White still managed to get in plenty of conversation with them when he could. In order to make his time “productive” he decided to take it upon himself to return to his roots in journalism and begin an investigation into the lives of the patients—into their lives both before and after being sent to Carville. (Most of the patients had originally been brought to Carville against their will, though they were still there at the time of the novel voluntarily.) In the process of doing so, he struck up a friendship with a woman named Ella that peppered his time there with valuable life lessons and motherly wisdom that I felt like a jerk for not being able to appreciate more.

I feel pretty guilty about this review. I wanted to like Neil White. I want to want to recommend his book to you, but not enough to actually do it. I think you should just read about Carville, instead, and get the history without the fluff that White brought with it.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Modern Love by John Keats

And what is love? It is a doll dress’d up
For idleness to cosset, nurse, and dandle;
A thing of soft misnomers, so divine
That silly youth doth think to make itself
Divine by loving, and so goes on
Yawning and doting a whole summer long,
Till Miss’s comb is made a pearl tiara,
And common Wellingtons turn Romeo boots;
Then Cleopatra lives at number seven,
And Antony resides in Brunswick Square.
Fools! if some passions high have warm’d the world,
If Queens and Soldiers have play’d deep for hearts,
It is no reason why such agonies
Should be more common than the growth of weeds.
Fools! make me whole again that weighty pearl
The Queen of Egypt melted, and I’ll say
That ye may love in spite of beaver hats.

I love John Keats' "Modern Love" because it makes me laugh. Its bitterness toward romantic love doesn't seem particularly Keatsian ("truth is beauty, beauty truth," yada yada, etc.) but it is pretty savage. Keats is bitching about the way that love clouds our perceptions, and creates "soft misnomers"--ordinary things are obscured by false visions of greatness. The comb becomes the tiara, "common Wellingtons" become "Romeo boots" (whatever those look like). But assigning such value to the trappings of love willy-nilly cheapens real love:

Fools! if some passions high have warm'd the world
If Queens and Soldiers have play'd deep for hearts,
It is no reason why such agonies
Should be more common than the growth of weeds.

At the end, I kept expecting a reversal along the lines of "My Mistress' Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun," but, whatever those last lines mean, they are no reversal. The allusion seems to be to Cleopatra, who bet Antony that she could spend some really exorbitant sum on one meal, and then proceeded to melt a pearl in vinegar and drink it in front of him.

To be honest, I'm not sure what Keats' point is here. Perhaps, as Cleopatra has ruined something beautiful and valuable in an attempt to impress Antony, modern lovers have ruined love, which has no meaning unless they can reverse the process of degradation? The reference to beaver hats I do not understand at all. Whatever the notion, the pearl cannot come back, and so love has ruined love. How sad.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Morning by A. R. Ammons

I have a life that did not become,
that turned aside and stopped,
I hold it in me like a pregnancy or
as on my lap a child
not to grow or grow old but dwell on

it is to his grave I most
frequently return and return
to ask what is wrong, what was
wrong, to see it all by
the light of a different necessity
but the grave will not heal
and the child,
stirring, must share my grave
with me, an old man having
gotten by on what was left

Read all of "Easter Morning" here.

Happy Easter, everyone. Easter is a particularly poetic holiday, I think; its fundamental theme of rebirth and regeneration is a longtime poetic staple, and it makes natural images and metaphors easy. My favorite Easter poem is this one, by North Carolina's own A. R. Ammons, of which I have reprinted the first few stanzas above but you should really read the whole thing, which is excellent.

"Easter Morning" is a poem of movement. The first movement brings to mind the narrator of "The Road Not Taken," years on, regretting the loss of possibilities. Everyone of an adult age has "a life that did not come"--the set of choices that were not made, and the person that we might otherwise have grown up to be. This is the tragedy that no one tells you about: Life is full of possibilities, but they dwindle as you grow older. Ammons gives this alternate self a persona--a child, who never had the chance to grow--and suffers by its presence.

One thing I love about "Easter Morning" is its fluidity, and the Ammons' deftness in moving from one movement to another. The second movement, which recounts Ammons' perceptions of his family as a child, seems to follow naturally from the first, but the focus moves from the speaker himself to his family, many of whom have passed away:

the child in me that could not become
was not ready for others to go,
to go on into change, blessings and
horrors, but stands there by the road
where the mishap occurred, crying out for
help, come and fix this or we
can't get by, but the great ones who
were to return, they could not or did
not hear and went on in a flurry and
now, I say in the graveyard, here
lies the flurry...

Like Robert Lowell, Ammons finds the pattern of death in life. The passing of the "life that did not become" is a kind of death, and death itself is only another kind of change to "go on into." Ammons mourns the dead, and mourns the passing of his possible self, and shows them to be similar griefs. As if death were only another frustration of life's expectations!

From there, Ammons moves back into the present:

though the incompletions
(& completions) burn out
standing in the flash high-burn
momentary structure of ash, still it
is a picture-book, letter-perfect
Easter morning...

On this particular Easter morning, Ammons shares with us a vision of nature: Two birds, flying together, that part and then come back together. It is clear why this vision is appealing: One bird is the Ammons that is, and one that never became, coming back together after a brief separation. Is this wishful thinking; "a sight of bountiful / majesty and integrity" because it symbolizes something that Ammons cannot achieve? But there is no bitterness in the poem's end:

...the having
patterns and routes, breaking
from them to explore other patterns or
better ways to routes, and then the
return: a dance sacred as the sap in
the trees, permanent in its descriptions
as the ripples round the brook's
ripplestone: fresh as this particular
flood of burn breaking across us now
from the sun.

I think rather that it suggests that, contra the poem's earlier anxieties, death is a place where we are reunited with lives that "did not become." (In Roman tradition, the observation of birds was one of the most popular ways of predicting the future.) Easter is, after all, a celebration of resurrection; and though "the grave will not heal / and the child, / stirring, must share my grave / with me..." the vision of the birds suggests that they both might escape the unhealed grave and exist together.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Danse Russe by William Carlos Williams

If 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
against the yellow drawn shades,—

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

I have always found William Carlos Williams a bit hit or miss. He really took to heart Pound's Imagist ideas, which exhorted the poet to "see the thing as it is," which could result in some awfully dull poems. Even here, in "Danse Russe," there's something overly simple about Williams' attempt to both pay close attention to visual detail and avoid the complication of metaphor:

and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,—

But there is a wonderful human element to "Danse Russe," which isn't always present in Williams. Williams' naked mirror dance recalls a similar scene in Lawrence's The Rainbow, where Anna Brangwen dances naked and pregnant. (I think this might be an intentional allusion, seeing as how this poem was published only two years later and Williams wrote an elegy for Lawrence's death in 1930.) Just as Anna revels in her ability to bear child, Williams calls himself the "happy genius of [his] household."

This is the paradox of "Danse Russe," that in his nakedness Williams sees both himself as isolated and as connected to his family. His wife and child are not present, asleep, and he affirms the singularity of the self:

"I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!"

I love the irony of the joy that comes from loneliness. As a medical doctor, Williams would have been highly attuned to the body as a symbol of the self, and how unique each body is. But the best part of the poem are those two last lines:

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

"Genius," here, does not mean a person of uncommon intelligence, but the Latin "genius," which is a kind of lesser god that inhabits each person and thing. A man's soul is his genius, but each place has a genius too, and each family. His use of this word emphasizes his dual function, his body and spirit both belonging to him and to a greater unit, and his joy in this seeming contradiction.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

I don't love Slaughterhouse-Five. I think my kids will like it, and so I am thinking about teaching it to them with the five weeks we will have left in the school year, but in general it doesn't really give me the same thrills as it does other people. It's remarkably unsubtle and its characters razor-thin. (Is that thing about Billy Pilgrim's "tremendous wang" meant to balance out his pusillanimity, which is just about the only character trait he has?)

If you have not read it, the basic idea is that Billy Pilgrim, an American serviceman who witnesses the bombing massacre of the German city of Dresden, has two personal peculiarities. One is that he becomes "unstuck in time," meaning he travels back and forth to segments of his life unwilling. The other is that he is later kidnapped by a race of aliens who see all moments of time at once. Neither is related.

What it does well: At one point, caged in an alien zoo, Billy has a chance to study alien books. The explanation the aliens give him may as well be a description of Slaughterhouse-Five:

Billy couldn't read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out--in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy commented that the clumps might be telegrams.

"Exactly," said the voice.

"They are telegrams?"

"There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you're right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message--describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn't any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.

Slaughterhouse-Five is, by virtue of Billy's unstuckness, a Tralfamadorian book, one that collects a series of moments in Billy's life and shuffles them so they become like these "clumps of symbols." In that way the structure of Slaughterhouse-Five cleverly emphasizes its themes. I believe that Vonnegut wants us to notice this similarity.

But this is also problematic. The Tralfamadorians insist that there is no particular relationship between these moments, but that they create a singular impression when taken together, and yet you can't say that about this (or maybe any) book. Fifty Booker Billy (not Pilgrim) notes a parallel he finds between a character's cruelty to a dog and man's cruelty at Dresden, but in Tralfamadorian books, there are no parallels. In fact, the very way that Billy's unstuckness parallels the Tralfamadorian experience of time ensures that Slaughterhouse-Five is not Tralfamadorian. We go on looking for patterns, partly because that is our human instinct, and partly because Vonnegut quite clearly puts them there.

Fifty Booker Billy writes that he sees a line between the "destined and random" and the merely "cruel." Passages like this make me wonder:

"It had to be done," Rumfoord told Billy, speaking of the destruction of Dresden.

"I know," said Billy.

"That's war."

"I know. I'm not complaining."

"It must have been hell on the ground."

"It was," said Billy Pilgrim.

"Pity the men who had to do it."

"I do."

"You must have had mixed feelings, there on the ground."

"It was all right," said Billy. "Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does. I learned that on Tralfamadore."

I have a hard time finding Vonnegut distancing himself from this fatalism, which I find very bleak. Nor do I agree that if this were true it would make everything "all right." But it seems to give Billy a sense of calm acceptance, and, as Fifty Booker Billy has noted, it's not hard to wonder whether Slaughterhouse-Five was written in order to give Vonnegut, who also was present at the bombing of Dresden, a similar way of coping.

Buckshee by Ford Madox Ford

I think God must have been a stupid man
To have sent a spirit, chivalrous and loyal,
Cruel and tender, arrogant and so meek,
Gallant and timorous, halting and as swift
As a hawk descending -- to have sent such a spirit,
Certain in all its attributes, into this age
Of our banal world.
He had infinity
Which must embrace infinities of worlds,
And had Eternity
And could have chosen any other age,
He had Omnipotence
And could have framed a fitting world and time.

But, bruised and bruising, wounded, contumacious,
An eagle pinioned, an eagle on the wing;
A leopard maimed, a leopard in its spring,
A swallow caged, a swallow in the spacious
And amethystine, palpating blue:

A night-bird of the heath, shut off from the heath,
A deathless being daubed with the mud of death,
A moth all white, draggled with blood and dew,
'Haitchka, the undaunted, loyal spirit of you
Came to our world of cozening and pimping,
Our globe compact of virtues all half virtue
Of vices scarce half-vices; made of truth
Blurred in the edges and of lies so limping
They will not stir the pulse in the utterance...
From a New World that's new and knows not youth
Unto our France that's France but knows not France,
Where charity and every virtue hurt you,
Oh coin of gold dropped into leaden palms,
Manna and frankincense and myrrh and blams
And bitter herbs and spices of the South...

Because God was a stupid man and threw
Into our outstretched palms, 'Haitchka, you.

Ford Madox Ford is one of my favorite writers, but he is not particularly renowned as a poet. That's too bad, I think, because "Buckshee" is one hell of a romantic poem. Ford explains the title this way:

Buckshee, derived from the universal Oriental backschisch, has no English equivalent. It is a British Army word and signifies something unexpected, undeserved and gratifying. If the cook at dinner time slips three extra potatoes into your meat-can those are buckshee potatoes; if for something you are paid in guineas instead of pounds, the odd shillings are buckshee; if you are a little Arab boy alongside a liner and a passenger throws half a crown instead of a florin into the shark-infested water for you to dive after, the odd sixpence is buckshee backschisch. Or if you have given up the practice of writing verse and suddenly find yourself writing it -- those verses will be buckshee.

The implication is, of course, that Ford's lover 'Haitchka (and I'm not sure who this is, except that it is someone that Ford lived with in France) is buckshee--that he does not deserve her, and yet he is elated to have her anyway.

Not only is Ford not deserving of her, but the world is too. She is a being out of time, cast by an idiot God "into this age / Of our banal world." She is "a night-bird of the heath, shut off from the heath," or "a coin of gold dropped into leaden palms."

What strikes me also about this poem is that Ford's characterization of 'Haitchka does not come off as universally positive: She is "bruised" but also "bruising," "tender" but "cruel," "meek" but "arrogant." Though she is a "spirit / Certain in all its attributes" those attributes are paradoxical, but I think that the poem strongly implies that Ford values her for her apparent contradictions. The world that might have been created by God's omnipotence would have accommodated those contradictions; if they seem irreconcilable in our world it is not her fault but ours.

I love "Buckshee" because it is a different side of Ford from the one we read in The Good Soldier and Parade's End, in which love is so poisonous and adultery reigns. It is nearly impossible to imagine any character from those novels saying these things about any other, but it's nice to know that Ford himself could write them.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Obit by Robert Lowell

Our love will not come back on fortune's wheel—
in the end it gets us, though a man know what he'd have:
old cars, old money, old undebased pre-Lyndon
silver, no copper rubbing through... old wives;
I could live such a too long time with mine.
In the end, every hypochondriac is his own prophet.
Before the final coming to rest, comes the rest
of all transcendence in a mode of being, hushing
all becoming. I'm for and with myself in my otherness,
in the eternal return of earth's fairer children,
the lily, the rose, the sun on brick at dusk,
the loved, the lover, and their fear of life,
their unconquered flux, insensate oneness, painful "It was...."
After loving you so much, can I forget
you for eternity, and have no other choice?

"[I]n the end, it gets us"--well, what gets us? Well, death, for one, as in "obituary," and "obit," the Latin word that means "he dies." But "Obit" isn't so much about death as it is the Life-in-Death that precedes it:

Before the final coming to rest, comes the rest
of all transcendence in a mode of being, hushing
all becoming.

"Obit" gives us two models of passing time: A cyclical one, as in "the eternal return of earth's fairer children, / the lily, the rose, the sun on brisk at dusk," and the linear one in which things decay and do not return. "It," then, is the Second Law of Thermodynamics again, the inevitable entropy of things large and small. The "rest of all transcendence" may be the end of all life's transcendent moments, or the negative transcendence--that is, the moving past and away--of life all together. In either case, the pathos of "Obit" is that what is wished for (the return of "old cars, old money... old wives," etc.) is not what will be met. (Oh, and that word "obit" literally means "he meets"...) Love will never "come back on fortune's wheel."

Brent, who asked me to write about it, loves this sonnet of Lowell's for the last lines, the volta. They become somewhat unnerving when we come to find that this poem was not written on the death of a loved one, but on Lowell's divorce from his wife. That makes it sort of creepy, but it also emphasizes the deathlike pain of loss, which must be lived with.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

No Second Troy by William Butler Yeats

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?

I could have chosen one of any number of Yeats poems, some wonderfully sweet, some horrifying. This one is perhaps not among his best (though it is great) but I have chosen it because I thought that it made a nice companion piece to yesterday's poem, "Helen."

"Helen" is about Helen of Troy specifically, "No Second Troy" only uses her as a point of reference. Both have similar outlooks, however, choosing to portray Helen (and, in Yeats, others like her) as the cause of great violence. Yeats goes two steps farther: One, he blames Helen directly for the carnage ("Was there another Troy for her to burn?"); two, he assumes that this aspect of Helen's identity is so clear that he can use her as a metaphor for his troubled relationship with Irish revolutionary Maude Gonne.

But I do not think that this poem necessarily has to be read as a historical artifact. I love the bitterness of "No Second Troy" because I think it is a universal bitterness for those of us who have been wronged in love. I can identify with Yeats' sense of love and admiration for the woman who has "beauty tightened like a bow"--a wonderful phrase that manages to perfectly capture a certain sort of beauty and a tendency toward irritability and violence--but also the paradoxical sense of antipathy:

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught ignorant men to most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?

Of course, few of us have ex-lovers whose savagery has sociopolitical aspects too, as Gonne and Helen had, who would have "hurled the little streets upon the great."

But the strangest thing about "No Second Troy" is the way that Yeats comes to terms with his relationship, saying quite plainly:

Why, what could she have done, being what she is?

Is this fatalism? Is it even forgiveness? Is it closure, or reconciliation, or something more bitter and deeply disturbing? If Yeats' femme fatale can only be what she is, what must the rest of us be?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Helen by H.D.

All Greece hates
the still eyes in the white face,
the lustre of the olives
where she stands,
and the white hands.

All Greece reviles
the wan face when she smiles,
hating it deeper still
when it grows wan and white,
remembering past enchantments
and past ills.

Greece sees unmoved,
God's daughter, born of love,
the beauty of cool feet
and slenderest knees,
could love indeed the maid,
only if she were laid,
white ash amid funeral cypresses.

I love H.D.'s "Helen" because it makes me laugh. Perhaps that is not the most appropriate reaction to such a bitter poem, but I think there's something fundamentally funny about Helen--"the face that launched a thousand ships," admired and adored by all for her beauty--being universally hated, for exactly the same reasons.

I've always thought of the story of Helen being problematic. In a nutshell, the Trojan prince Paris abducts Helen, the wife of King Menelaos of Sparta, and takes her back to Troy, sparking the Trojan War, which leveled Troy and killed thousands. Helen's complicity in this act depends on which account you read--did she go with Paris voluntarily, or was she kidnapped? Clearly, different answers to this question tend to cast Paris, Menelaos, and the whole affair in a different light. But then again we ask this question with modern minds, which grant more autonomy, and therefore more responsibility, to women.

The irony of "Helen" is that, through the modern lens, Helen becomes not a feminist icon but a villain. (And see how subtly H.D. suggests that it is no living Helen that Greece reviles, but a statue: "still eyes" in a "white face," "white hands," "wan and white," "cool feet," like marble, etc., allowing us to see her through the clarity of the present.) If Helen is granted personhood, and not a thing belonging to Menelaos (which, I know, is simplistic and reductive), then it becomes fair to ask whether or not she's responsible for war. Her beauty becomes violent, her smile insidious. There is something deeply felt about this hatred of beauty, which has something malevolent about it, especially to those who possess it. (Or is that just me?)

The poem ends a bitterly as it began, stating that the people of Greece could love Helen for her beauty if only it ended up where all beauty does, in the ground ("only if she were laid, / white ash amid funeral cypresses"). There her whiteness has not the quality of marble, but of death. But Helen, memorialized, cannot die, and her beauty cannot fade, and so they go on hating.

Tomorrow: More Helen of Troy!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Today's poem goes out to my friend Chloe on the anniversary of her birth, though as she is camping today she will not be around to read it. Her favorite poem is "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver, which I have never read before she sent it to me, so perhaps this will be a little more "off the cuff" than usual.

My first reaction to "Wild Geese" is how much of the Transcendentalist shines through it, and how it seems as the opposite of Robert Frost's "Desert Places." Frost affirms our innate separateness from nature, that it belongs to itself and we to ourselves only, and Oliver writes as if to provide a balm to the pain that that sense of separation brings. It opens with a rejection of the very religious (and as much Buddhist as Christian) idea of enlightenment through suffering or self-abnegation:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

Rather, Oliver tells us, we ought to indulge our instincts, which tell us to seek the pleasure of human contact:

You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

The next line, "Meanwhile the world goes on," would seem to paradoxically suggest that we are not integral to the world's functioning, but that's not what Oliver is saying. Instinct is the key: Oliver presents geese as the poem's guiding symbol not only because they represent great natural beauty, but because geese instinctively, without ever being taught, return to their "home" every year through migration. In the geese Oliver sees a natural tendency toward order and interconnection with other creatures, an interconnectedness we share, as our body also is a "soft animal." We too have a "place / in the family of things."

So, Chloe, wherever you are camping, though it is probably as wet and horrid as it is here in the city, I hope there are geese, and I hope that when you see them you heard the world call to you, "harsh and exciting," as it does to them. Happy birthday.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

After great pain a formal feeling comes by Emily Dickinson

After great pain a formal feeling comes--
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions--was it He that bore?
And yesterday--or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow--
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

Okay, I admit, I dropped the ball--there was no poem yesterday. Forgive me. It was the first day of spring break here in New York City and I was too busy with my celebrations to post a new poem. But it's a dreary, wet Saturday now and it seems appropriate to pull out one of Emily Dickinson's bleak little poems.

I don't love Dickinson, for reasons I can't quite explain--something about her poetry is very muted, and avoids the verbal pyrotechnics that characterize some of the other poems I've written about. Very rarely does she produce any single line that shocks or resounds, and this poem, "After a great pain a formal feeling comes," is probably as flashy as she gets.

But I do admit that she expresses a great psychological depth. I love "After a great pain..." because of its keen observation and description of a feeling that is familiar but not necessarily commonly described in the annals of poetry: The feeling of numbness that follows agony. It is a "formal feeling," one unmarked by passion, "ceremonious," "mechanical," "wooden"--and my favorite description, "a quartz contentment, like a stone." ("Quartz" is such a vivid metaphor, but the seemingly paradoxical word "contentment" is even better.) Generally speaking, poets love agony, with its high melodrama and potential for exclamation points, but I can't think of any other poems that express this particular feeling.

Dickinson expresses a sense of wonder at the disappearance of pain, even going so far as to wonder if it was Christ that took it away, as on the cross:

The stiff Heart questions--was it He that bore?
And yesterday--or centuries before?

Though Dickinson's religious sentiments are something of a mystery, I don't think this is a serious question. Rather, Dickinson is doing what she does best, mapping out the details of human psychology through metaphor, finding in Christ's assumption of all human suffering a macroscopic pattern that describes the strange vanishing of individual griefs. It is not a particularly flattering reference, actually, because nothing is really alleviated. Sadness gives way to the sadness of no sadness; agony gives way to the agony of no agony. Life without the intensity of pain is closer to death, which echoes after the end of the almost perfect last stanza:

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow--
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Love is Not All by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

After the last week's poem and their headiness, their complexity, and their idiosyncrasy, there is something remarkably--I don't know, simple?--about Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Love is Not All." There are no tricks here, no sprung rhythm: that's a standard Shakespearean sonnet.

I love "Love is Not All" because it is seems to me the other side of heartbrokenness, the words of a Catullus in middle age. A therapist once told me that when relationships end, we go through a process not unlike the stages of grief when someone dies: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. When hearts are broken the thought of one day finding acceptance isn't always a happy one; to feel nothing seems hardly preferable to feeling heartbroken. And yet, Millay shows us, past love has immense value even when we are long past loving.

For the first thirteen and a half lines of the sonnet, love is no grand thing: It is decidedly non-useful, as it cannot feed us, or quench our thirst, or provide shelter, or rescue, or health, and yet we destroy ourselves trying to get it:

Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.

This is what the ancients meant when they said "love conquers all." And I hear echoes of it in yesterday's poem from Aiken:

...Loved without reason the laughter and flesh of a woman,
Enduring such torments to find her!

The standard Shakespearean sonnet has a two-line volta that turns everything that was said before around, or casts it at a new angle. (For example, the last line's of Shakespeare's "My Mistress' Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun" ends, "And yet, by heaven, I think my love is rare / As any she belied with false compared.) Millay's one deviation--and a subtly devious one it is--is that she saves the reversing effect of the volta for the very end, the final six syllables: "I do not think I would." After expending so much effort diminishing love, those six words somehow manage to lift it up again.

I memorized this poem some years ago because it was a comfort to me at the end of a long relationship in which I agonized over the idea that so much time--a thing of which we have so little--had been wasted. I cannot tell you what useful remains to me of that time in my life, but I agree with Millay. I wouldn't change it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tetelestai by Conrad Aiken

How shall we praise the magnificence of the dead,
The great man humbled, the haughty brought to dust?
Is there a horn we should not blow as proudly
For the meanest of us all, who creeps his days,
Guarding his heart from blows, to die obscurely?
I am no king, have laid no kingdoms waste,
Taken no princes captive, led no triumphs
Of weeping women through long walls of trumpets;
Say rather I am no one, or an atom;
Say rather, two great gods in a vault of starlight
Play ponderingly at chess; and at the game's end
One of the pieces, shaken, falls to the floor
And runs to the darkest corner; and that piece
Forgotten there, left motionless, is I....
Say that I have no name, no gifts, no power,
Am only one of millions, mostly silent;
One who came with lips and hands and a heart,
Looked on beauty, and loved it, and then left it.
Say that the fates of time and space obscured me,
Led me a thousand ways to pain, bemused me,
Wrapped me in ugliness; and like great spiders
Dispatched me at their leisure.... Well, what then?
Should I not hear, as I lie down in dust,
The horns of glory blowing above my burial?

I have not, as Harold Bloom suggests any lover of poetry should do, memorized many poems. However, I felt compelled to memorize the incredible first stanza of Conrad Aiken's self-elegy "Tetelestai," the remainder of which you can read here. (Being both sound in mind and body, I did it while on the treadmill at the gym.)

I love "Tetelestai" because its strong affirmation of the value of life. Not as cheery as Whitman, yet it has the Whitmanian sense of value in the smallest things, the smallest lives especially:

Is there a horn we should not blow as proudly
For the meanest of us all, who creeps his days,
Guarding his heart from blows, to die obscurely?

Reading Whitman often makes me feel like all human life is puppy dogs and buttercups, but "Tetelestai" is truer to my own heart's feeling, that to be a human being is often times a wretched, miserable endeavor. Haven't you felt this way?:

Say that the fates of time and space obscured me,
Led me a thousand ways to pain, bemused me,
Wrapped me in ugliness; and like great spiders
Dispatched me at their leisure...

Elsewhere in the poem is a litany of human guilt and impotence:

...I who was tyrant to weaklings,
Striker of children; destroyer of women, corrupter
Of innocent dreamers, and laugher at beauty; I,
Too easily brought to tears and weakness by music,
Baffled and broken by love, the helpless beholder
Of the war in my heart of desire with desire, the struggle
Of hatred with love, terror with hunger; I
Who laughed without knowing the cause of my laughter, who grew
Without wishing to grow, a servant to my own body;
Loved without reason the laughter and flesh of a woman,
Enduring such torments to find her!

And yet, like the sonnet's volta, Aiken declares, "Should I not hear, as I lie down in dust, / The horns of glory blowing above my burial?" Life is mean; life is petty; those of you waiting for it to settle itself into a neat order that exhibits its purpose and its grandeur shall be disappointed in this lifetime. And yet for all that, Aiken tells us, each life is worthwhile, and deserves its own exit music. (And note the little neatness of the "I," which we find twice at the end, the death, of each line...)

The title "Tetelestai" links the speaker with Christ, who speaks these words in the book of John: "It is finished." In the latter stanzas, Aiken makes this comparison explicit, calling himself "[t]he weakling / Who cried his "forsaken!" like Christ on the darkening hilltop!" Unlike "Poem on His Birthday," "I Am," and, to a lesser, or perhaps weirder, extent, "Shadows," I do not think that "Tetelestai" shares a vision of a Christian afterlife. "Press down through the leaves of jasmine," he writes, "Dig through the interlaced roots--nevermore shall you find me; / I was no better than dust, yet you cannot replace me..." Here death is an eradication.

And yet, by linking himself Christ, Aiken asserts the value of his own life and of others. Whatever Christ may have been, so we are, and whatever his value ours is, too. "Tetelestai," it is finished--but what is finished? For Aiken, the answer is, "something worth celebrating."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Howards End by EM Forster

Well, it is odd and sad that our minds should be such seed-beds, and we without power to choose the seed. But man is an odd, sad creature as yet, intent on pilfering the earth, and heedless of the growths within himself. He cannot be bored about psychology. He leaves it to the specialist, which is as if he should leave his dinner to be eaten by a steam-engine. He cannot be bothered to digest his own soul. Margaret and Helen have been more patient, and it is suggested that Margaret has succeeded--so far as success is yet possible. She does understand herself, she has some rudimentary control over her own growth. Whether Helen has succeeded, one cannot say.

Howards End is about two families. The Schlegel sisters, Helen and Margaret, are intellectuals, deeply interested in what they call "personal relations," and the life of the mind. The Wilcoxes, who own the titular country house, are pragmatic and businesslike, care little for "personal relations," and only value what is useful to them. If one of these sounds preferable to you, it sounds also preferable to me, and when I tell you that this novel is about the essential struggle between these two perspectives perhaps you will understand why I do not think Howards End is quite successful.

In short: Margaret Schlegel befriends the Wilcox matron, Ruth, who promptly dies and leaves Margaret Howards End, though it is written in a note to the remaining Wilcoxes who proceed to ignore it. Margaret then befriends the widower (and much older) Henry Wilcox, who, surprisingly, asks Margaret to marry him. Margaret, surprisingly, accepts. (Observant readers may note that this puts her on the path to inherit Howards End anyway, which is the only way the book could end, really.) The engagement is not conflict-free, and Howards End represents the stakes is in this allegorical battle: England, the world, the future, etc. In this passage Forster rhapsodizes over a hilltop view of the English countryside and coast:

England was alive, throbbing through all her estuaries, crying for joy through the mouths of her gulls, and the north wind, with contrary motion, blew stronger against her rising seas. What did it mean? For what end are her fair complexities, her changes of soil, her sinuous coast? Does she belong to those who have moulded her and made her feared by other lands, or to those who had added nothing to her power, but have somehow seen her, seen the whole island at once, lying as a jewel in a silver sea, sailing as a ship of souls, with all the brave world's fleet accompanying her towards eternity?

Though it sports some nice prose, I am ambivalent about this passage. It very tidily expresses the novel's entire theme, but to do so Forster, as he frequently does, stamps all over the book, showing his footprints. Was he this intrusive in A Room with a View?

The larger problem, for me, is that I simply don't buy the central plot point of the book's second half, that Margaret would accept Wilcox' proposal. Wilcox is a lout, dismissive to Margaret, disdaining of servants and the poor, valuing only what he can use or buy and throwing the rest on the mind's rubbish-heap. Margaret keeps insisting on his fundamental goodness, but I fail to see it. Forster's own opinion seems to be that the Wilcoxes are worthwhile because, as one character puts it, "They keep England going, it is my opinion." (I suppose Forster wrote too early to know how Mussolini was respected for making the trains run on time.)

But through a convoluted series of happenings, Wilcox is redeemed and all is set right. His redemption fails to redeem Margaret's poor judgment in marrying him, which in turn undermines Forster's regard for her sense of "personal relations." Thinkers and doers are reconciled, and you yourself may guess where they spend the rest of their happy days.

Help! A Bear is Eating Me! by Mykle Hansen

And when Marv Pushkin, the book's main character (I feel like calling him the protagonist gives him too much credit) says a bear is eating him, he doesn't mean in a metaphorical or existential sense. He means a bear is actually eating his feet. Fortunately for us, though, he's hopped up on enough painkillers and stimulants that he can (most of the time) coherently narrate these events. The book is largely a stream of consciousness rant, which, while funny at times, shows us a lot more of Marv's character than probably even he realizes or is aware of.

Marv is basically the worst. He's insecure, egotistical, selfish, mean, abusive, etc. He cheats on his wife, who he tries to douse with bear bait, demeans his employees, and is grossly arrogant. So when he tells us about how a bear surprised him when he stopped to change a flat tire in the Alaskan wilderness and how he climbed underneath his Range Rover (which he makes sure to impress upon us how expensive and awesome it is) to escape, we're not that moved when the jack slips out and the SUV falls on him, trapping him under the chassis. It's even hard to feel sorry for him when the bear starts to eat his feet. But along the way, he lets slip moments from his past that, while probably not excusing his terribleness, at least explain it a little bit. And when his coworker and his wife, who are probably also having an affair, find him and then leave him for another night, we feel genuinely bad for him.

Would I recommend it? Eh, it was kinda short and not as funny as I had hoped, but it was all right. I give it a 5.5/10

Shadows by DH Lawrence

And if tonight my soul may find her peace
in sleep, and sink in good oblivion,
and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower
then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.

And if, as weeks go round, in the dark of the moon
my spirit darkens and goes out, and soft strange gloom
pervades my movements and my thoughts and words
then I shall know that I am walking still
with God, we are close together now the moon’s in shadow.

And if, as autumn deepens and darkens
I feel the pain of falling leaves, and stems that break in storms
and trouble and dissolution and distress
and then the softness of deep shadows folding,
folding around my soul and spirit, around my lips
so sweet, like a swoon, or more like the drowse of a low, sad song
singing darker than the nightingale, on, on to the solstice
and the silence of short days, the silence of the year, the shadow,
then I shall know that my life is moving still
with the dark earth, and drenched
with the deep oblivion of earth’s lapse and renewal.

And if, in the changing phases of man’s life
I fall in sickness and in misery
my wrists seem broken and my heart seems dead
and strength is gone, and my life
is only the leavings of a life:

and still, among it all, snatches of lovely oblivion, and snatches
of renewal
odd, wintry flowers upon the withered stem, yet new, strange flowers
such as my life has not brought forth before, new blossoms of me

then I must know that still
I am in the hands of the unknown God,
he is breaking me down to his own oblivion
to send me forth on a new morning, a new man.

To my mind DH Lawrence's "Shadows" and Thomas' "Poem on His Birthday" are so alike in spirit and message that they seem companion poems. Lawrence preceded Thomas by some decades, of course, and his vision of afterlife is more idiosyncratic, but would you be surprised to read that wonderful line of Thomas', "Dark is a way and light is a place," in the clear, solemn stanzas of "Shadows?" Dark is the way:

And if, in the changing phases of a man's life
I fall in sickness and in misery
my wrists seem broken and my heart seems dead
and strength is gone, and my life
is only the leavings of a life...

"My wrists seem broken and my heart seems dead": I do not know what it is to be on one's deathbed, but that seems more accurate and more vivid than anything I might imagine. If you put an infinite number of emo bands in a room with typewriters, would they ever write a phrase so heart-rending?

But light, that place, greets us as the poem begins:

And if tonight my soul may find her peace
in sleep, and sink in good oblivion,
and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower
then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.

Lawrence, like Thomas and Clare, yearns for communion with God, and yet here is much more: here is a resurrection in God, and a sort of transformation toward divinity. I love "Shadows" because it uses such simple autumn imagery to describe this process, a trope so well-worn it is beyond cliche. Echoes here, too, of Macbeth, who says, "My way of life has fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf..."

And yet the simplest images have the most power, when they are done so well. Thomas' poetry suffers from its labyrinthine qualities; at times it is as much a mystery as the "brambled void" itself. Lawrence's clarity is, by contrast, shattering. As Thomas writes of the souls like "blackberries in the woods," Lawrence too gives us images of plants, grown from the soil where dead things are, not fruit this time but flowers:

and still, among it all, snatches of lovely oblivion, and snatches of renewal
odd, wintry flowers upon the withered stem, yet new, strange flowers
such as my life has not brought forth before, new blossoms of me...

I love that. Oblivion is "lovely," lovely because it belongs to God, and is his medium for the creation of a new spirit. Oblivion is not oblivion; it is something Lawrence tells us that we must pass through to emerge, new, from the other side.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Poem on His Birthday by Dylan Thomas

...Terror will rage apart
Before chains break to a hammer flame
And love unbolts the dark

And freely he goes lost
In the unknown, famous light of great
And fabulous, dear God.
Dark is a way and light is a place,
Heaven that never was
Nor will be ever is always true,
And, in that brambled void,
Plenty as blackberries in the woods
The dead grow for His joy.

There he might wander bare
With the spirits of the horseshoe bay
Or the stars' seashore dead,
Marrow of eagles, the roots of whales
And wishbones of wild geese,
With blessed, unborn God and His Ghost,
And every soul His priest,
Gulled and chanter in young Heaven's gold
Be at cloud quaking peace,

But dark is a long way.
He, on the earth of the night, alone
With all the living, prays,
Who knows the rocketing wind will blow
The bones out of the hills,
And the scythed boulders bleed, and the last
Rage shattered waters kick
Masts and fishes to the still quick stars,
Faithlessly unto Him

Who is the light of old
And air shaped Heaven where souls grow wild
As horses in the foam...

Death, death, death. Is there a poem that I have discussed this month that doesn't meditate at least indirectly on death? (Maybe "Dream Song 14?") I do not think it is because I am morbid. I think, rather, that the greatest poems are about death because death--our ultimate unsolvable question--weighs heavier on our minds than anything else. I have saved a few poems for this stretch to be discussed together, because they each give me some hope for existence beyond death. I include yesterday's, from "Song of Myself," in this group and today I continue with a passage from Dylan Thomas' "Poem on His Birthday."

The basic concept is familiar to us through all those cheesy greeting cards with the Grim Reaper on them: each birthday is more bittersweet than the last because it means that we are a year closer to death; as Thomas puts it in part of the poem not quoted here, he "[t]oils toward the ambush of his wounds." (What a great way to put it!) What Thomas did not know when he wrote it is that he had only four years to live, collapsing at the age of 39 in New York City's White Horse Tavern. He wrote this poem in celebration of his own 35th birthday.

I love "Poem on His Birthday" for this line, more than anything else: "Dark is a way and light is a place." Whitman's assertion that death is "different" and "luckier" does little to assuage the anxiety of anyone who doesn't have that Whitmanian peace of mind; to Whitman is seems so easy, as if he has never been anxious about death. In one short line, Thomas acknowledges the bitterness, the suffering, the lonesomeness of death, and assures us that at the end of that journey is a permanence (a "place," not a "way") in the presence of God. The anxiety remains--you can see the specter of doubt in the idea that "Heaven that never was / Nor will be ever," yet it is somehow "always true"--but how wonderful seems the other side of it:

And, in that brambled void,
Plenty as blackberries in the woods
The dead grow for His joy.

Note the echo of Whitman, for whom the dead grow out as grass. It wouldn't surprise me if Thomas were conscious of that parallel, though his vision of life-beyond-death is as Christian as Whitman's is Transcendentalist, and not really of the same stripe.

Thomas' legacy is still controversial. At his worst he could be incoherent, but I don't know who can read "Poem on His Birthday" and not be awed. It's relatively short, unlike "Song of Myself," and though I have selected the best portion to reproduce here I encourage you to read the rest of it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Song of Myself VI by Walt Whitman

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more
than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green
stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see
and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I
receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out
of their mothers' laps,
And here you are the mothers' laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken
soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the
end to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

I couldn't use all of "Song of Myself" here, because it's quite long (this is section six out of 52), and because as a whole it really defies commentary. Lives are spent unspooling its greatness. But this is my favorite section, and it provides some insight into the title Leaves of Grass, in which it was published.

The "myself" of the poem reminds me of Stevens' rabbit: it is colossal, and expanding. But unlike the rabbit, whose self obliterates the outside world, Whitman's self absorbs everything it touches. "I am large," he writes, "I contain multitudes." I don't think it's correct to say that Whitman is "narrating for all," as that implies that some sort of disconnect from his true self that isn't there. Whitman does, to me, really seem to be talking about himself, but his is a democratic self; the boundaries are conspicuously blurred. The democratic self requires a capacious understanding, and an ability to see things from multiple angles, and house multiple meanings.

I love this section of "Song of Myself" because of the way it extends that capaciousness to even the grass of the earth. The first half of the section gives us a wonderful treatise on grass, defining and redefining it, compounding its significance: It is simultaneously "the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven" and "the handkerchief of the Lord;" it is a "child, the produced babe of vegetation." This itself is childlike in its playful imaginativeness; the grass is permitted to be all these things. The grass has names like people, it grows with people, has no cultural divisions. And as wonderful as those lines are, they do not prepare you for that most wonderful line:

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Which might win a contest, if you held one, to determine the world's greatest metaphors.

The section shifts here, becoming unexpectedly a meditation on death. The grass becomes the living growth of dead bodies and so the democratic self, which emphasizes its deeply held connection to all things, is not afraid to die, because it resides elsewhere. This idea is developed more strongly in the next section, in which Whitman tells us, "I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash'd babe, and / am not contain'd between my hat and boot." In Emersonian fashion, Whitman affirms that as long as any life continues, all life continues. Though "Song of Myself" precedes Yeats' "Second Coming" by sixty years, the last lines of this section seem to me a reply to this:

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...

Which are the poet's expression of the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy conquers all. But Whitman's hope conquers even science! Brent, you wanted life affirming, so I leave you with this, one of the most life-affirming statements I know:

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

God's Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed.
Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

I love the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins because of the way it sounds. That sounds reductive, I realize, but though I have tried in the past week of poems to mine my way through deeper meanings, each of the poems I have chosen give me considerably auditory satisfaction. After all, a poem hits the ear far before it can be untangled in the mind. None of them, however, can match Hopkins for sheer musicality, which is the result of a fairly ordinary innovation that Hopkins called "sprung rhythm."

The idea is simple: Instead of counting all the syllables in a line, count only the stressed ones. The poem above, "God's Grandeur," is a typical sonnet, except the number of unstressed syllables varies. Each line, then, becomes wonderfully dynamic, tumbling over itself in the rhythm of human speech: "It will flame out, like shining from shook foil," or, "And though the last lights off the black West went..." This effect is even more pronounced, perhaps, in Hopkins' more famous "As kingfishers catch fire":

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name...

And then, a dash of enjambment, and a sprinkle of interior rhyme to taste.

Once we have appreciated the way these lines resound in our ears, then perhaps we can mine those deeper meanings. "God's Grandeur" displays great sincerity, but not much depth in the sense of irony or subtlety. The world, Hopkins tells us, is replete with the wonder of God, which in particular moments or places may flash "like shining from shook oil," or--ahem--secrete, like "the ooze of oil." And yet we are obstinate and heedless, and allow ourselves to become distant from God's creation, so that everything around us "wears man's smudge and share's man's smell." We can't even feel God's earth for the shoes on our feet.

But no matter. The sestet reminds us that God's grandeur cannot be depleted, and that it resides perpetually in nature, waiting for us. The last lines are a peculiarly Christian kind of hope, not totally dissimilar from the end of "I Am" but without any iota of doubt:

And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Brent and I once had a long conversation about whether it was possible to be completely orthodox in religious sentiment and to be a great writer. My point was that what we value most in literature is creativity and literature is what is strange, unusual, or surprising, none of which, by definition, orthodoxy is. (I say this as someone who is, for the most part, quite orthodox.) Hopkins' poetry often strikes me as the greatest of all orthodox poetry, or the most orthodox of all great poetry. Hopkins was a Jesuit priest, after all, and thought that poetry could be part of his vocation. I am not trying to devalue poems like "God's Grandeur," which is one of my favorites, but I would understand that for someone who is not religious, such a poem might seem beautiful but hollow. Such a sentiment one might find, in less glittering words, in any of the pulpits of the day.

And yet Hopkins followed up such poems with his "Terrible Sonnets," which sound far more like John Clare:

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light's delay.

Why include "God's Grandeur" instead of this sonnet? I don't know; it seems right to say that the Terrible Sonnet is more genuine, or if not that, more personal. Perhaps I've had enough of agony. Perhaps because, though the chronology is reversed, the sestet of "God's Grandeur" responds to the bitterness of the Terrible Sonnet. Maybe I just like the sound of it.

Friday, April 8, 2011

"No day shall erase you from the memory of time..." the memorial inscription planned for the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, taken from Vergil's Aeneid. Bad call, says author Caroline Alexander--these words describe the death of Nisus and Euryalus, two close friends who die together after having massacred a number of Rutulians:
The central sentiment that the young men were fortunate to die together could, perhaps, at one time have been defended as a suitable commemoration of military dead who fell with their companions. To apply the same sentiment to civilians killed indiscriminately in an act of terrorism, however, is grotesque.
David Post of the Volokh Conspiracy calls it "the Snarkest NY Times Op-Ed for 2011":
Sorry, but Caroline Alexander does not get to decide for the rest of us what those words on the inscription “mean.” Neither, actually, does Virgil (though he’s got a helluva better claim on it than she does). The words mean what we decide they mean. This notion that they’re somehow frozen forever in time, attached to Virgil’s tale, is ridiculous and the worst form of elitism. “No day shall erase you from the memory of time” strikes me as a perfectly appropriate sentiment for this memorial. That Virgil used these words for a different purpose is interesting and entirely irrelevant to whether they are appropriate.
Oh, please! (As Post writes.) Count me on Alexander's side here. The sentiment, taken alone, provides an appropriate memorial, but the sentiment was not written for the occasion. Rather, it was taken out of a work that has its own clear set of implications, some of which are rather grotesque for the most important civil memorial of our lifetime. Those who chose the quotation have consciously chosen the the association with Vergil; otherwise, why not write original words? Furthermore, it is unclear to me why Post's interpretation should be considered more valid than Alexander's, especially when Alexander has the added support of context. It isn't clear to me why quoting Vergil out of context is any better than quoting a living person--say, David Post--out of context. Those who died in the Twin Towers deserve a thoughtful memorial, and this isn't it.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts by Wallace Stevens

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur—

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten on the moon;

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter. The grass is full

And full of yourself. The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone—
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.

I am, generally speaking, a prose man. Though I love poetry, novels are my preferred reading materials, and so my strongest connection to Wallace Stevens' incredible "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" is to John Updike's Rabbit, Run tetralogy, to one of which it provides an epigram. I don't remember which book, and I don't remember which stanza of the poem, because the two complement each other so well. Updike's Rabbit Angstrom is an egoist, whose sense of self is so strong it overpowers his concern for those around him; Stevens' rabbit is experiencing a Rabbit-like moment in which its self has become the supreme thing in the universe. I don't believe that Updike wrote the first book with this poem in mind, but the connection is uncanny.

Stevens was, with Frost, probably the eminent American poet of the 20th century*, and gains a slight edge as his poetry is more typical of that century than Frost's. He deserves such eminence. Has anyone ever made eight common words sound as emphatic or transcendent as "Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk?" How subtly Stevens slips "green mind" in between two ordinary descriptors ("red tongue," "white milk"), as if it were nothing more than the rabbit's observation of colors. But the rabbit is more observant than that; it knows that the enemy cat has a "green mind" fertile with schemes, among them, making the rabbit his dinner.

Really there is no conflict between the two; they never actually interact. It isn't clear whether the cat even knows the rabbit exists. But one of these is certainly triumphant, its triumph an inner triumph: For whatever reason, in this moment the rabbit's sense of self becomes so strong that it seems to expand, obliterating the cat, sending it to the moon. The words are unusual but the feeling, I think, is familiar--that once-in-a-blue-sensation that you are invincible, can do no wrong, nothing can stop you, even death, whether you are actually challenged or not. Rabbit Angstrom has this feeling:

Becky, a mere seed laid to rest, and Jill, a pale seedling held from the sun, hang in the earth, he imagines, like stars, and beyond them there are myriads, whole races like Cambodians, that have drifted into death. He is treading on them all, they are resilient, they are cheering him on, his lungs are burning, his heart hurts, he is a membrane removed from the hosts below, their filaments caress his ankles, he loves the earth, he will never make their mistake and die.

The feeling may be, as it is in Rabbit's case, erroneous, but that doesn't make it less powerful. Who doesn't long to "feel that the light is a rabbit-light / In which everything is meant for you / And nothing need be explained?"

I love "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" because it provides a strong counterpoint to Frost's "Desert Places." Frost looks inward and sees a wasteland, but Stevens' rabbit finds glory and strength. You may argue which is the better poem, and which is truer, but not which gives more personal satisfaction.

*If you call Eliot British.

I Am by John Clare

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest--that I loved the best--
Are strange--nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil'd or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below--above the vaulted sky.

Poor John Clare. He was renowned but not rich, and poverty drove him literally mad. He wrote "I Am" in the insane asylum, where he spent the last 27 years of his life. I think I have never read such a harrowing description of sheer alienation and personal ruin: forsaken by friends, facing miseries alone ("the self-consumer of my woes"), mired in those two bitterest of places, "the nothingness of scorn and noise" and "the vast shipwreck of my life esteems." "I Am" unsettles me deeply.

I love "I Am" because it is one of the most lucid portrayals of mental illness that exist. Its clarity, given its subject matter, is almost astounding. To the mentally ill all is strangeness, and "even the dearest that I loved the best / Are strange--nay, rather stranger than the rest." And yet while alienated from reality Clare is not alienated from language. There is the forlorn implication that, Cassandra-like, his agony falls on deaf ears--"yet what I am none cares or knows"--and yet the poem is too powerful for us not to understand.

The imagery in "I Am" is overtly Christian ("the vaulted sky" connects heaven to the ceiling of a church) and its title itself connects Clare to God. It is tempting to read this as self-aggrandizement; after all, Clare spent his time in the asylum claiming to have written Shakespeare's plays and actually rewriting most of Byron's poetry, writing once to a newspaper, "I'm John Clare now, I was Byron and Shakespeare formally." (And you may note that "the nothingness of noise and scorn" owes a debt to Macbeth's "sound and fury, signifying nothing.") But Clare sounds too defeated in "I Am" to make that kind of claim.

Instead, let the title reflect the small hope that lies in the poem's last stanza. Isolated from people unwillingly, Clare desires to move willfully toward God, in death. This sempiternal existence, both in the ground and in the sky, "[u]ntroubling and untroubled," is a far cry from the weird reincarnation that he believed in. The title "I Am" validates the hope of this stanza, and insists that however battered and alone, John Clare will continue perpetually, as much "I Am" as God, and because of God. It is a weak echo of Tennyson's affirmation that "tho' much is taken, much abides," but stronger for its bluntness, as if they were the only words to which Clare could cling. "I Am" points to Macbeth, but only to guide the reader elsewhere. Macbeth's soliloquy is the utmost dejection, the literary center of nihilism. I love "I Am" because it steps to the precipice of that same abyss, and somehow turns away.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love would grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vaults, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball,
And tear our pleasure with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

It's been a trying day for this Fifty Booker, so I think today that I shall be satisfied with a poem that needs a little less explaining, one that so to speak wears its meaning on its sleeve. Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" is constructed of one incredible irony, but Marvell has taken no pains to make sure the girders are hidden.

The concept is timeless: The speaker, rebuffed by his lover for taking things too fast, reminds her that life is too short to put things off. It surpasses even "Ulysses" in its expression of life's brevity: "Had we but world enough, and time..." The end of that sentence is, for Marvell's speaker, "we could wait forever before we screw," but the apodosis is so lengthy and strung out that it causes the reader to think on what he might do, had he world enough, and time. It is possible to wonder whether the speaker is being sincere or just a horndog, but the real power in "To His Coy Mistress" lies in the fact that he is both; the poem manages to be both comic and quite grave. Those of you who know better than I correct me, but I can't think of any poem that accomplishes this feat so perfectly. (Donne wavers between two very similar registers, but rarely simultaneously.) That's why I love it.

Of course, it's also just a long string of really terrific pick-up lines. Not every gal or guy will respond favorably to this plea:

Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball,
And tear our pleasure with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life...

...But the worthwhile ones will.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter by John Crowe Ransom

There was such speed in her little body,
And such lightness in her footfall,
It is no wonder her brown study
Astonishes us all.

Her wars were bruited in our high window.
We looked among orchard trees and beyond
Where she took arms against her shadow,
Or harried unto the pond

The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas,

For the tireless heart within the little
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!

But now go the bells, and we are ready,
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.

"Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter"--rhyming, more or less metered--provides us some respite from the weirdness of Berryman, who teases us with promises of form. But also its elegiac form underlines what is impressive about it: how subtly it shows us the disconnect between the world of children and the world of adults. "Bells" is about the funeral of a little girl, but its slow, stately quatrains put it squarely in the perspective of the adult funeral-goer.

Not that the speaker doesn't try to enter her perspective, or the perspective she had in life. The middle stanzas are an attempt to enter the world of the little dead girl, isolated to a single memory of the girl chasing a troupe of geese. The vocabulary is Romantic, in the King Arthur sense: She "took arms" against them; they "cried in goose, Alas;" her wars were "bruited," a word that has a distinctly archaic flavor. Ransom packs so much in these phrases. There is the unmistakable sense of adventure that colors the games of childhood, but to express them in such terms is to speak as an adult about things that are, as a child, mostly ineffable. In other words, the girl may have experienced this sense of adventure, but she certainly never connected it to the word "Alas"--and despite what the speaker says, neither do the geese. Whatever our first impressions, the speaker is decidedly not admitted into the little girl's consciousness and is only guessing at things.

In death, she has become a "brown study" (another phrase severe in its maturity) and lost those hallmarks of childhood: "such speed," "such lightness in her footfall," her "tireless heart." In death, she has more in common with her onlookers, who like she are "sternly stopped." The speaker's reaction at this is remarkably cold, not grief but astonishment, vexation. "Bells" is an elegy strangely devoid of sadness, and what of it is there seems to be more over the loss of childhood than of a child. Grief peeks in at the edges, or is only implied, like a footnote.

I love "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" because it is a classic piece of misdirection. The goose bits are wonderful in their lightness (I love that they scuttle "goose-fashion") but they tell you far more about the speaker than the geese. The whole poem, in fact, is wholly not about what it seems. The stronger grief is that the girl's death presages our own, which, as we ourselves are so removed from her fleetness and mired in our own immobility, is unthinkably near. If we didn't know it were (thankfully) not based on the death any real person, it might conceal a heart of true selfishness. As it is, we might acquit Ransom of such cruelty by considering the real gravity of the allusion, which is plucked wholesale from Donne:

Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. . .

Monday, April 4, 2011

Dream Song 14 by John Berryman

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) 'Ever to confess you're bored
means you have no

Inner Resources.' I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

John Berryman's Dream Songs are as a rule exceedingly difficult, and frustrate those of us who value poetic unity. Their three stanzas apiece are the vestigial organs of poetic structure; they have no meter and only sometimes rhyme, but still those three stanzas suggest a semblance of coherence that rarely materializes. I have chosen "Dream Song 14" for today not because it is the best of them, though I do love it, but because it is one of only a handful of "Dream Songs" that seem to possess a central focus. I also considered Dream Songs 25 and 63, and the first Dream Song, which ends with this absolute sledgehammer:

Hard on the land wears the strong sea
And empty grows every bed.

But there will be poems enough for April with sentiments similar to those; I doubt that there will be any like "Dream Song 14." Its subject is boredom: "Life, friends, is boring." And certainly it is. As much as we would like to emulate Ulysses, the "untravelled world" rarely "gleams" for us--common folk and poets alike--because most things are, in fact, tedious.

In fact, isn't it the job of the poet (or to be generous, any creative mind) to create beauty out of tedium, to elevate life to art? Without Homer to make him a tragedy of them, Achilles' "plights and gripes" are probably petty stuff. "Henry" is the "hero" of the Dream Songs, but here Berryman confesses that he is awfully weary of the task of making art from life, which is merely one tedium becoming another. In other words, the poet is not up to the assignment. Berryman's distance both from his character and his poem is one of the great ironies of "Dream Song 14," and another is this acedia separates him from most of society, here represented by his mother, when it is his "inner resources" that should make the poet unique, not his lack of them. A third is that, despite his boredom, this poem shows Berryman at his most focused and least distracted!

And what to make of that dog, which has taken itself "considerably away?" Whatever it is, it leaves Berryman behind, taking its tail but leaving its "wag"--maybe alluding to the empty uselessness of Berryman's weird attachment to poetic form?

I love "Dream Song 14" because it is a superbly wrought poem that makes the entire exercise of poetry look silly. There are 384 other Dream Songs that belie the fact that Berryman had "no inner resources," but it's comforting to know that a poet of his stature could feel this way, as the non-poets among us do. Let's not embrace Berryman's sense of tedium too tightly--his life got to be so tedious that he threw himself off a Minnesota bridge in 1976. Let us acknowledge it, admire it, and then go back to that "flash and yearn."