Poem as…:The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin by Geoffrey Hill

Geoffrey Hill intended the Book of Baruch to be published posthumously and he worked on this collection of poems right up until his death in 2016.  The book contains a sequence of 270 numbered poems with no titles.  It is the most erudite, difficult and engrossing volume of poetry I have ever read, which statement I do not make lightly.  Even though it is a fairly slim volume it has taken me about two weeks to read and absorb Hill’s thoughts, reflections, aphorisms and cultural references.   I have spent hours chasing down references to various politicians, poets, artists, and even rappers that Hill writes about.  These were all of the things occupying his mind as he nears the end of his life.

In the poem numbered 190 he describes this collection which evolves and grows every day as his own time gets shorter: “This, it is becoming clear, is more a daybook than ever The Daybooks were: il mestiere di vivere that secures its own private consistory and guards the door, admitting neither rich nor poor to the designs and details of poetry which are the very devil to portray without favour or fear.”  This short verse is typical of Hill’s reference to other poets or works of art.  The Job or Work of Living is the title of Italian author Cesare Pavese’s Diary in which the author recorded notes about his thoughts and feelings on a variety of subject between 1935-1950. Hill forces his reader to think deeply about the various connections he is making between different forms of poetry.

Hill composes poems involving a dizzying number of poets from Milton to Hopkins to Celan to Desnos and many others he admires: “Some deep poets are like divers with the bends.”  He also has no patience for false poets, those he calls poetasters: “Those who poetaste are not like novices at the piste, learning how to coordinate brain, knee, writs.  To me, they present themselves as a despised caste, breeding on, off, their own waste; ignorant as to why wreaths of myrlte and laurel invest Milton’s bust.”

Many of Hill’s best verses, especially toward the end of the collection, are his “Poem as…” thoughts.  Some are short yet so profound it feels like a punch in the gut (or the knee):

The poem begins as a small tight maelstrom somewhat at knee-height, not quite touching your shins.

Poem as posthumous running sore.

Poem as equity release—whatever that is.

Poem as no less an authority on history than whom.

Poem as Samson dozing post coitus with coiffure of unshorn hair.

Poem as neuro-linguistic programme with close attachments to the absurd.

And one of my favorites:

Poem to restart pumping system for self-esteem sewage and rage of heart.

And Hill’s expertise and talent with metaphor especially come through on his longer verses about poetry.  Once gain he forces the reader to look at objects and concepts and poems in a completely novel way:

Poem as scimitar-curve, shear along sheer, a ‘Tribal’ class destroyer, veteran of the North Cape run, bearing down on a submarine that has struck and already gone from the scene, leaving sea-rubble wretchedly a-swim, thickslicked in oil.

And:

In poetry, ignorance can sometimes work things to the good, as a form of muse-inducing narcolepsy in which, entranced, you retain evidence of the tombs among which you have danced: mots, etes-vous des mythes et pareils aux myrtes des morts?

Finally, I have to say a word about Hill’s sense of humor which, as far as I can tell, has not been discussed very much.  He is especially adept at turning his biting sarcasm at current affairs:

Foghorn Leghorn and Roadrunner are a particular kind of winner. While their winning is not gaining anything, neither can happy idiocy every fail. All is back on track ready for the next reel, for you ‘bit of a laugh’ philosophe.

Rid us—somebody—God—of callous ignorant administrators, lords of public want, sinecurists of their own failures, bearers of no brunt, inimical to dissent.

And poets, and poetasters, are not above his ridicule either:

Most poets are less capable than those who at airports x-ray our tits and our boots and happily leave us to scrabble.

A dear, kind friend has sent me Hill’s Broken Hierarchies as well as some of his essays and other writings.  I will be occupied (or obsessed) will Hill for a long time to come.

 

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Ars Adeo Latet Arte Sua: Infinity by Gabriel Josipovici

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pygmalion is an artist who cannot find a wife that matches his ideal of what a perfect woman should be. So as an artist and sculptor he decides to make his own “woman.” Ovid says that the figure of a woman he sculpts is so flawless that one would think she is alive: ars adeo latet arte sua. (The art is especially hidden by its own skill.) In other words, the brilliance of Pygmalion’s art hides the fact that his sculpture is indeed art and not a real woman. Isn’t this the kind of seamless perfection towards which all artists or creators strive?

This idea concerning the creation of art came to mind as I was reading Josipovici’s novel about a composer named Pavone whose story is told to us by his longtime manservant, Massimo, after the artist has died. The narrative is told in a interview format, although we are never told why Massimo is being interviewed or by whom. The memories that Massimo has of his long-time employer are scattered and fragmented. The composer would have Massimo take him for long drives and would talk to him about his music, art, and his life. This fractured narrative is fitting for an artist whose work is considered flawless but who can’t quite describe what prompts such talent. We are given glimpses into Pavone’s life, from an early age as the only child of Sicilian aristocrats up until the time of his death. Sometimes the descriptions of his musical talent are bizarrely hyperbolic:

He said that he began to improvise at the piano at the age of three. I would rush upon any piano that happened to be around, he said to me, and I would beat it with my fists and kick it with my feet. But no one ever said to me: What are you doing? You will break the piano. No. Everyone was astonished, but they never told me to stop, he said. I am eternally grateful to them for that. All through my life, he said, I have rushed upon everything, music and poetry, women and food, with my fists and my feet flailing out, but no one ever told me to hang back. It is to that I owe my musicianship, he said, which is better than that of anyone in the world because it is an uninhibited musicianship.

But this still doesn’t fully explain his genius or his impetus for composing music. At other times Pavone, via Massimo, is more philosophical:

Music became too conscious at the beginning of the twentieth century, he said, it was necessary to return to its roots in the unconscious. Some people call this inspiration, a grand name for a simple thing. The root of the word inspiration is breath, he said, and all music is made of breath. If I have given anything to music, he said, it is that I have given music back its awareness of the importance of breathing, of breath.

A beautiful sentiment, but we are still non the wiser about the source of Pavone’s talent. Like many arts— that of Quignard’s character in Villa Amalia comes to mind—Pavone suffers a heartbreak which seems to be a catalyst for some of his best work. He has a tumultuous marriage with an English woman who leaves him and never contacts him again. In order to escape and make himself feel better, he takes a trip to Nepal which he believes is a turning point in his career. When his wife leaves he stays with Michaux in Paris and makes friends with the author’s cat and remarks, ” If only humans beings were as self-contained and undemanding as cats, he said, marriage would be a much more successful institution.” I don’t think Pavone truly understands cats or marriage. And the dissolution of this relationship and his travels don’t fully explain his artistic genius.

A childhood conducive to creating, heartbreak, travel—these are not unique things. Many artists have experienced these circumstances, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they will attain the level of talent that Pavone does. Pavone can go on and on, to infinity, trying to explain the source of his drive to create music. But, in the end, Ovid is right, the art is hidden by its own skill and there really are no words for it.

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Pone Subit Coniunx: Robert Hass and Vergil’s Aeneid

Robert Hass has been another American poet that I’ve discovered from literary Twitter.  My favorite poem in his collection Time and Materials is entitled “The World as Will and Representation.” In this longer poem, which is typical of the longer ones in the book,  Hass tells a very personal story.  He is thinking back to when he was a ten-year-old boy and his family’s morning routine during which time his father would give his mother a drug called antabuse which was supposed to prevent her from drinking.  “It was the late nineteen-forties, a time,/A Social world, in which the men got up/And went to work, leaving the women with the children.”  The boy’s father would ground the medication very fine into a powder and put it in his mother’s glass of water was so that she couldn’t spit the pills out.   The poet lingers on the vivid details of crushing the pills, handing her the glass and watching her drink.

The ending is incredibly powerful. The boy’s father leaves for work and the child is left alone with his mother:

“Keep and eye on Mama, pardner.”
You know the passage in the Aeneid? The man
Who leaves the burning city with his father
On his shoulders, holding his young son’s hand,
Means to do well among the flaming arras
And the falling columns while the blind prophet,
Arms upraised, howls from the inner chamber,
Great Troy is fallen. Great Troy is no more.
Slumped in a bathrobe, penitent and biddable,
My mother at the kitchen table gagged and drank,
Drank and gagged. We get our first moral idea
About the world—about justice and power,
Gender and the order of things—from somewhere.

The passage to which Robert Hass is referring occurs in Vergil’s Aeneid Book II when Aeneas is telling the story of how he escaped Troy with his father and son.  Aeneas’s father, Anchises, is paralyzed so he must carry him on his shoulders and hold his young son, Iulus, by the hand.  But, but, Aeneas also has a wife, Creusa (2.705-710 translation is my own):

I will carry you on my shoulders, your weight will not burden me.
As things happend around us, we will either be in danger together
or we will both reach safety. And let little Iulus walk beside me
and my wife follow behind.

After Aeneas successfully convinces his father to escape Troy, he tells the rest of the family servants to meet him outside the city at a Temple to Ceres. Aeneas also hands his household gods to his father for safekeeping. Aeneas then sums up their escape (II.721-725, translation is my own):

Having spoken these things, I covered my broad shoulders
with the pelt of a golden lion and lowered my neck
for the impending burden. Little Iulus took hold of my
right hand and followed his father by taking large steps;
my wife walks behind.

That last line in the Latin is striking: pone subit coniunx (the wife walks behind). Aeneas, busy with his father and son, loses Creusa as Troy is burning and he never sees her again. She is one of the characters in the Aeneid that is sacrificed because of Aeneas’s future in Italy where he is destined to marry another woman in a political alliance. Creusa, I think, also foreshadows Dido’s tragic fate.

In his poem, Ross describes the details of Aeneas, the Father, taking care of his father and young son, but he doesn’t specifically mention the detail of the hero’s wife. Creusa does linger in the background of Hass’s poem in the figure of the boy’s mother, “penitent and biddable.” Creusa, like the poet’s mother, is also a victim of “justice and power” and “the order of things.” Hass’s poem brings up so many questions: why was the boy’s mother drinking in the first place? What were the other circumstances of the family? And, most importantly, did this woman also, pone subit, walk behind?

 

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Filed under American Literature, Classics, Poetry, Vergil

Discovery and Insight: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

In the preface to the Penguin modern classics edition of Borges’s Labyrinths, Andre Maurois writes, “His sources are innumerable and unexpected. Borges has read everything, and especially what nobody reads any more: the Cabalists, the Alexandrine Greeks, medieval philosophers. His erudition is not profound—he asks of it only flashes of lightning and ideas—-but it is vast.”  This vast erudition is evident in the forty pages of essays that are included in this collection.  Argentine, Chinese, Spanish, German, American and ancient literature are all matters of interest for Borges.  His essay on Kafka’s sources was a particular favorite.  We always think of Kafka as being so unique, in a literary vacuum, without any predecessors.  But Borges argues that Zeno’s paradox against movement, the writings of Kierkegaard and Brownings “Fears and Scruples” all contain hints of which authors Kafka had in his mind.

The short stories felt to me like a journey through the labyrinth of Borges’s mind which was always thinking about language and literature.  At the center of almost every story is a book or a series of books or a library.  The Garden of Forking Paths begins with, “On page 252 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by the thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for 24 July 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th.”  The rest of the story is told by a Chinese professor of English named Dr. Yu Tsun.  Tsun is a spy who has been found out and is trying to get a message to his German commanders before he is executed.  Tsu takes the train to the village of Ashgrove where he meets up with an imminent Sinologist who happens to be studying Tsu’s famous ancestor.  Ts’ui Pen was a civil servant of the Emperor but gave up his position to write an immense novel and to construct a labyrinth.  The Sinologist realizes that Ts’ui Pen’s labyrinth, his “garden of forking paths” was the novel itself: “In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of the almost inextricable Ts’ui Pen, he chooses—simultaneously—all of them.  He creates, in his way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork.”  I suspect that the literary threads running through Borges’s mind might be described in the same way.

My favorite story in the collection, which I have read and taught with before, is The House of Asterion which gives a background story that is compassionate and sympathetic to the Minotaur.  He is lonely and isolated and wants to be put out of his solitary misery.  Borges is influenced by Ovid’s Theseus and Ariadne story, but gives us the Minotaur’s point of view.  He tells us that every nine years a group of men enter his home but fall and die on their own.  One of them prophesies Asterion’s escape:

Since then my loneliness does not pain me, because I know my redeemer lives and he will finally rise about the dust. If my ear could capture all the sounds of the world, I should hear his steps. I hope he will take me to a place with fewer galleries and fewer doors. What will my redeemer be like? I ask myself. Will he be a bull or a man? Will he perhaps be a bull with the face of a man? Or will he be like me?

The morning sun reverberated from the bronze sword. There was no long even a vestige of blood.

‘Would you believe it, Ariadne?’ said Theseus. ‘The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.’James E. Irby, the editor of this edition, sums up Borges’s writing in this collection best:  “His fictions are always concerned with processes of striving which lead to discovery and insight; these are achieved at times gradually, at other times suddenly, but always with disconcerting and even devastating effect.”  The effect is just as striking for the reader as for the characters in Borges’s stories.

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Filed under Essay, Literature in Translation, Short Stories, Spanish Literature

We all know how to talk, we just don’t know when: Language and Poetry

Last night I was reading Robert Kelly’s lovely new poem, Reasons to Resist, which he describes in the subtitle as “a motet.”  From the Latin word movere, “to move” a motet is a beautiful, unique style, I thought, for a longer poem which fittingly captures his ideas of music as well as language.  The one line I keep repeatedly coming back to is: We all know how to talk/ we just don’t know when.

I’ve been chasing this thread of language, words, and ways of communicating throughout the vast amounts of poetry I have been absorbing lately.

Jan Zwicky, in her incredible collection entitle Wittgenstein’s Elegies, imagines language as an ancient city, difficult to navigate, that demands effort:

Our language is an ancient city, maze of interlocking
streets and squares. To know it we must
walk it, crawl through sewers, feel our way
by night along the walls. Most answers squat
before us, humble questions. Where they tower,
not the single-minded cleavage of broad-avenued
baroque, but subtler mysteries
reach heavenward, anonymous: the master-builders.

And Alex Caldiero, whose poetry I’ve been obsessed with lately thanks to a blog post from Scott Abbott, reminds us that silence is also telling form of communication.  Silence is as powerful and extreme as shouting. From his collection Poetry is Wanted Here:

How we sound together
tells
more about who we are
than all the dialogs
of our lives
but
we settle for the uneasy
silence humans
mistakenly think
they have in common
w/ the beasts.

And from Caldiero’s collection Various Atmospheres:

We could try
to teach each other
our private wordings,
but with what words?

Or we could seek
a common denominator
in the number of our bones
or in the stances we take.

And then again
we could keep
the ancient solemn vow
of silence.

Italian poet Eugenio Montale contemplates words that betray our true feelings but agrees that silence reveals a deeper truth (tr. J. Galassi). From his collection Cuttlefish Bones:

You, my words, betray in vain the secret
sting, the gale in the heart that howls.
The deeper truth is that of a man who is silent
The song that sobs is a song of peace.

And German poet Helmut Heissenbüttel reminds us, in his poem Subjunctive about the complex grammatical structures that complicate language and communication (tr. Michael Hamburger):

up to the middle of the half
less than too little
least of all
as though as though
probably probably
took upon himself did not take upon
himself
undecided provisionally provisional

And, finally, a poem from Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, whose collection entitled the great enigma is extraordinary. His poem is about words on paper, written communication. Which can also turn into a form of silence. This poem, Lament, is translated by Robin Fulton:

He said aside his pen.
It rests still on the table.
It rests still in the empty room.
He laid aside his pen.

Too much that can neither be written nor keep silent!
He is paralyzed b something happening far away
although the wonderful traveling bag throbs like a heart.

Outside it is early summer.
Whistlings from the greenery—men or birds?
And cheery trees in bloom embrace the trucks that have come home.

Weeks go by.
Night comes slowly.
The moths settle on the windowpane:
small pale telegrams from the world.

 

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Filed under American Literature, German Literature, Poetry