Category Archives: Poetry

He Held Radical Light: A Memoir by Christian Wiman

“Awe without an end ends in dread, for however much the mind is lit by the fires of that eternal elsewhere, we inevitably fall back into this singular being that, though it matters so much to us, matters not at all in the furnace of infinity.” —Christian Wiman

Wiman’s memoir is an interesting addition to my list of “auto” books—autobiography, auto-fiction, letters–that I have read this year.  He Held Radical Light, which title is taken from an A.R. Ammons poem,  covers only a few years in Wiman’s life, when he was editor of Poetry magazine, fell in love with and married his wife, and was diagnosed with cancer.  He uses personal anecdotes about the poets he meets, their poetry and his own reflections on and struggles with the meaning of art and faith to describe these eventful years in his life.

It is actually towards the end of this short book, when he is debating whether or not he should leave his position as editor at Poetry and take up an offer from the Yale School of Divinity, when he articulates the overarching themes or questions he is exploring.   He writes, or asks: “What does an authentic life in poetry look like?”  and “What does an authentic faith look like?”  He looks to the many famous poets he has met for the answer to his first question.   The book opens with Wiman’s vivid memory of meeting the poet A.R. Ammons while an undergrad at Washington and Lee University in Virginia:

I was a virgin when I heard Ammons read.  A virgin of poetry readings, I mean, though the experience was probably more memorable and momentous than the other one.  It occurred to me that Ammons might have been equally innocent, and equally confused, as ten minutes into his reading he suddenly stopped and said, “You can’t possibly be enjoying this,” then left the podium and sat back down in the front row.

The poet was coerced into going on for a bit more until he put a definitve end to the reading.  Wiman finishes his Ammon story, “Enough,” he muttered finally, and thudded his colossal body down beside his wife like the death of faith itself.”  The poet Donald Hall, who becomes a personal friend to Wiman, doesn’t have much better advice about what it means to live an authentic life in poetry.  Over lunch one day Hall says to him, “I was thirty-eight when I realized not a word I wrote was going to last.”  And Mary Oliver, whom he meets at a reading while editor at Poetry, puts a copy of Spenser’s Faerie Queene into her bag and says to Wiman, “I’m not young.  I want to spend what time I have left with masterpieces.”

So why do poets continue to write, how do they deal with the fact that, as Wiman realizes, “Nothing survives.”  He includes in this memoir a number of powerful poems whose central theme is death to remind us that, even if they are only ephemeral, they give us some shared language and meaning to contemplate:

Jack Gilbert,  “They Will Put My Body into the Ground”

They will put my body into the ground
Chemistry will have its way for a time,
and then large beetles will come.
After that, the small beetles. Then
the disassembling. After that, the Puccini
will dwindle the way light goes
from the sea. Even Pittsburgh will
vanish, leaving a greed tough as winter.

From the last lines of Mary Oliver’s “White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field”

maybe death isn’t darkness, after all
but so much light wrapping itself around us—
as soft as feathers—
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light—scalding, aortal light—
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.

And from Philip Larkin’s “Aubade”

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realization of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Finally, Wiman, as a poet and as a man who was quite possibly facing his own death, gives us hints of what he thinks it means to have an authentic faith.  As someone who spent many of my formative years under the yoke of Catholicism, it was refreshing for me to read about a man whose faith isn’t necessarily intertwined with any particular form of organized religion.  Wiman writes, “I have never felt much confort in the notion of heaven or eternity, mostly because I can’t conceive of these things.  But even more than that, Christianity entails—or at least it ought to—a scouring of the self, the individual ego, and as I said above, most of our notions of eternity and/or heaven amount to nothing more than a dream of the self’s survival.”  He ends his book with a comment about faith and Steven Wallace’s death: “There is much argument over whether or not Steven’s converted to Catholicism on his deathbed.  I yawn just pondering it.  Not because it doesn’t matter, but because the claim of God is too individual, intimate, and inarticulate to admit of this kind of schoolbook speculation.”  Through his anecdotes, his poetry and his personal reflections  in He Held Radical Light Wiman certainly gives us something to consider as far as poetry and/as faith.

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Filed under Essay, Nonfiction, Poetry

Kisses Come in Several Kinds: Jean-Luc Nancy Parodies Catullus

Catullus and Lesbia. Nicolai Abildgaard. 1809. Oil on canvas.

In one of his latest collections to be translated into English, Jean-Luc Nancy’s Expectations  explores the topic of literature and how it intersects with philosophy.  The essays in the book are divided into four categories: Literature, Poetry, Sense, and Parados.  Written over a period of thirty-five years, the themes covered in Expectation are some of Nancy’s favorites that he revisits throughout his career—Reasons to write, narrative, body as theater, Blanchot, etc.

My favorite part of the book is the last section entitled Parados, the Ancient Greek word for the piece of a tragic performance which is sung by the chorus as it enters the stage.  Parados can literally be translated as an “entrance” and this is exactly how Nancy uses texts as an inspiration for writing his own poetry.  He says about his compositions in this section of the book: “They arise, in all cases, from a specific request inviting me, directly or indirectly, to engage with literature.  Or to act as if I had.”

Nancy takes as his parados (entrance) what are arguably the Roman poet Catullus’s most famous Carmina,  5 and 7—the “kisses” poems—for writing this little gem I share today.  I have read it several times over the course of the last week and I see and feel something different—various memories are conjured up—every time I read it.  He takes a simple expression like a kiss and, in what is a deceptively simple poem, he calls our attention to such different contexts (cultural, familial, intimate) in which we have experienced this gesture (translated beautifully by Robert Bononno):

 

Let him kiss me with his mouth’s kisses
Thus sings the song of songs
Thus his mouth sings and enchants itself
As his demand so his expectation
Not kisses from another mouth
Except from the one she calls

The mouth of the other who loves her
She alone who knows
How to kiss with the kiss of her desire
For in her mouth is held
Completely breath soul perfume
and from her mouth exhaled
The thought the soft weight
Of clinging of joining of
Drinking eating believing oneself

Osculum the little mouth
That advances and arranges the gathered border of two lips
Perhaps quickly on another’s cheek or lips
Kiss kissed surprise surprised
Stolen stolen in this furtive kiss
So soft from the beign so light
Pulp airborne puff
And touch mouth

Visus Allocutio Tactus Osculum
Traced from the linea amoris
Later coming to Coitus
Gift of mercy
Where all mouths are joined
Kiss and kiss one another
Touch and touch one another
Put to bed and put one another to bed

Kisses come in several kinds
Osculum, Basium, Suavium
Kiss of a friend, child, parent
Kiss of peace, of decorum
Or foamy caress
That swells beneath the tongue

Kisses by the thousand like sand
In Libya or grains of wheat
Scattered to the lines of Catullus.

They resonate in several tongues
Their clicks go Kuss, kiss, kyssa
Κυνεω was the Greek name
Sounds like an adoration
Προσκυνεω
Almost a silent Φιλεω
But always mouth addressed
Exclamation of lip and fever
Breath always scent aroma
Breath moved by the soul
That tastes and breathes your own—
Oh, kiss me with your mouth’s kisses.

*Some notes that might help with the Latin and Ancient Greek: Osculum is the Latin, neuter, singular diminutive for mouth, so a “small mouth” is used for the word kiss; basium is the Latin word that Catullus uses to describe the passionate kisses he wants from his lover;  suavium is the neuter, singular form of the Latin adjective meaning ‘sweet’, so suavium is used for kiss to mean a “sweet thing.”  κυνεω is the Ancient Greek word for “I kiss” and Προσκυνεω, which is taken from the verb “I kiss” is “to worship” with the connotation of a respectful kiss.

The book is really worth purchasing for Nancy’s thoughts on literature and philosophy; unfortunately I have not captured his extraordinary prose in this post.  For my more extensive thoughts on some of his other books take a look at my posts on Coming and Listening.

For my translation of Catullus Carmen 5 please see this post (a warning that my interpretation of this poem is not the standard “Carpe Diem” one that is found in textbooks—I received a lot of comments and complaints about my non-traditional reading of this poem):  https://thebookbindersdaughter.com/2016/12/29/let-us-live-and-let-us-love-my-translation-and-interpretation-of-catullus-poem-5/

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Filed under French Literature, Philosophy, Poetry

One Final Dante Post: A List of Helpful Resources

For my last post on the Divine Comedy I thought I would share of list of various resources—-translations, essays, books, etc.—that I found helpful and a joy to read along the way.

Translations:

The Divine Comedy, translated by Robin Kirkpatrick, Penguin: I started out with this translation, but I found it tedious and at times downright inaccessible.  But I still list it because the notes that go along with the text are excellent.

The Divine Comedy, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, Everyman’s Library: I have always loved Mandelbaum’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses so I switched from Kirkpatrick to this translation and found it much more accessible.  I’ve read that it is also very close to the Italian—he doesn’t take much poetic license, which is the exact reason why I like his Ovid so much.

The Divine Comedy, translated by John D. Sinclair: This was recommended by a fellow reader on Twitter and I am so glad I bought the complete set.  I will use this prose translation the next time I do a complete reread of Dante.  It also comes with the Italian text.

Dante in English, Eric Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds, eds., Penguin: This book is a nice way to sample different translations of Dante.  It also includes selections from different poems that have been inspired by the Divine Comedy

Vita Nuova, translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:  This is Dante’s poem about Beatrice and I actually read it before the Divine Comedy.  It greatly enhanced my reading of Paradise in particular.  This has been reissued recently by NYRB.

Dante: De Vulgari Eloquentia (Cambridge Medieval Classics), translated by Steven Botterill:  This is an essay, written in Latin by Dante, on literary theory.  It contains the Latin text as well as an English translation.  A crazy rabbit hole I followed because I was curious about Dante’s Latin text.

Books:

Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity by Prue Shaw:  A very informative book in which each chapter is a discussion of a different theme or thread in Dante—Friendship, Power, Life, Love, Time, Numbers and Words.

Reading Dante (The Open Yale Courses Series) by Giuseppe Mazzotta: This was one of my favorite resources, especially for understanding Paradise.  It is more like an extended commentary and helps to unpack the historical and theological ideas of Dante.  I also bought a copy that was signed and inscribed by the author that said, “May you continue on your own journey” which I thought was a very nice find.

Dante A Very Short Introduction by Peter Hainsworth:  Exactly what the title says, a very brief introduction at 115 pages.  I especially like his emphasis on how Dante is still relevant in the modern age.

Dante A Brief History by Peter S. Hawkins:  An excellent overview of Dante’s life and work.  This one has some very good black and white illustrations.  I especially appreciated Hawkins’s chapter on Beatrice.

Dante: Poet of the Secular World by Eric Auerbach:  An excellent discussion of the overall structure of Dante’s works that argues he was the first great realist writer.  This has been reissued by NYRB.

Introductory Papers on Dante: The Poet Alive in his Writings by Dorothy Sayers:  This, with the two books listed below, is a three volume collection of lectures given by Sayers on Dante.  And excellent, helpful introduction to Dante.

Further Papers on Dante: His Heirs and His Ancestors by Dorothy Sayers:  This volume contains essays that compare Dante to other authors who explore similar themes in their writing.

The Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement: On Dante and Other Writers by Dorothy Sayers:  This one comes with a fabulous bonus essay describing Sayers’s learning Latin from the age of six and why she thinks learning Latin is so valuable.  All of her points about learning Latin are still relevant today, I will be sharing this with my own students.

Essays:

The Cambridge Companion to Dante, Rachel Jacoff, ed.: As with other books in the series, this Cambridge Companion contains essays on a wide variety of topics covering the Divine Comedy, the Vita Nuova, Dante’s Theology, Dante and Florence, Dante and the classical poets, etc.

“Conversation with Dante” by Osip Mandelstam: a beautiful moving essay about the Divine Comedy.  The essay is included as part of Mandelstam’s Selected Poems published by NYRB.

“Dante Now: The Gossip of Eternity” by George Steiner: I actually found the Mandelstam essay because Steiner references it in his essay.  This essay is included in his book On Difficulty.

Dante: A Collection of Critical Essays, John Freccero, ed.: A nice collection of some of the most famous essays written about Dante in the 20th century.  It includes a copy of Mandelstam’s essay.

The Poets’ Dante: Twentieth Century Responses, Peter S. Hawkins, ed.:  A collection of essays by some of the most important 20th century poets including Pound, Yeats, Eliot, Auden, and Heaney among many others. (I did a previous post with a couple of quotes from this book.)

Dante Comparisons (Publications of the Foundation for Italian Studies, University College Dublin), Eric Haywood, ed.:  I know this is sort of an odd and obscure book to have searched for, but it promised an essay about Dante, Catullus and Propertius! In two previous posts I noted some of the similarities between sections of the Vita Nuova and the Divine Comedy and Catullus’s poetry so I was thrilled to find this unique collection of essays that covers this very topic.

Ancient Resources:

The Aeneid, Vergil: As I mentioned in my first post on Dante, an appreciation for the Aeneid will greatly enhance any reading of Dante.  I honestly don’t know how anyone could read The Divine Comedy and not be compelled to read Vergil as well.  My favorite translations are Robert Fagles, David Ferry and Robert Fitzgerald.

The Metamorphoses, Ovid: Dante actually makes more references to Ovid than to Vergil.  The two commentaries I used were very thorough with explaining Dante’s references to Ovid.  But reading Ovid’s epic poem will also greatly enhance one’s understanding of many parts of the Divine Comedy.  My favorite translation, as noted above, is Mandelbaum.

Achilleid, Statius translated by Stanley Lombardo:  I fell down a long, winding rabbit hole by reading and translating Statius, an author whose work I have not picked up in 20 years.  The Achilleid is a beautiful, unfinished epic that describes Achilles as a boy before he goes off to fight in Troy.  It is really not necessary to read any Statius to understand his role in the Divine Comedy even though this Roman poet guides Dante at the end of Purgatory and into Paradise.

Thebaid, Statius, translated by Jane Wilson Joyce:  This poem, about the destruction and havoc that Oedipus’s sons cause one another while battling over who will rule  Thebes, is long, lugubrious and dense.  Statius likes to go into great detail about obscure mythological names and references.  When I first translated this 20 years ago in a Silver Age Epic course in graduate school, I did not have the patience for it.  This time around I did find some stunning passages that I truly enjoyed.  But there is still a lot of very dense material that, at times, can be incomprehensible.

Pharsalia, Lucan:  I also translated this in my Silver Age Epic course and really fell in love with Lucan’s underappreciated work.  Since Dante mentions Lucan as being among the ancient poets in limbo I decided to revisit a few of my favorite passages—his description of Pompey and the witch scene.  The Loeb translation of this epic is very good.

Websites:

A series of lectures by Yale Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta.  If you don’t want to read his book I cited above, you can watch his series of lectures: http://www.openculture.com/2017/01/a-free-course-on-dantes-divine-comedy-from-yale-university.html

Digital Dante from Columbia University.  This was a great resource for looking at the Italian text and commentaries for the Divine Comedy.  This site includes illustrations of the Divine Comedy and readings of it  as well as a good historical timeline of Dante’s life: https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/

Finis.

Please let me know in the comments if there are other resources that I should add to my list.

I was feeling lost for several days when I finished Dante.  But I have decided on a new reading project that I am very excited about: Kafka!

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Filed under Essay, Italian Literature, Osip Mandelstam, Poetry

Engrossed, Selfsame, Directionless: The Poetry of Omar Cáceres

While at home today, feeling under the weather, while listening to the weather—pouring rain and loud, booming thunder from the remnants of a hurricane—-I reached for some poetry on my shelves.  The selections from Ugly Duckling Presse never disappoint.  From their “Lost Literature Series”, Defense of the Idol, first published in 1934, is the only collection ever written by Chilean poet Omar Caceres (1904-1943).  Due to typos in the original printing, he tried to burn every copy of his only book.  It is translated for the first time in English by Monica de la Torre.

I share two poems that are favorites, so far, in the collection.  His imagery, his language, his emotions, somehow controlled—not overwrought—struck a nerve:

Angel of Silence

1

I will remember her grand story,
her anguished panting that pulls cities apart.
Days pass by blindly like sleepwalkers,
like large propellers drunk on resolutions,
but time sings in a drop of water then…
I know she’s as far away as I want her to be mine.

Speed, then, leapt past the hidden horizon of things,
its uniform distance
on the trapezes of my scream.

So as to avoid crying, I remember, rain, your message
your great book I’d read without opening,
near the window whiplashing down
and crucifying my eyes on its black scars

The wind lurches forward with the sea, smoothing out its wrinkles
a gust of blue muscles, it gathers its perfumed ashes.

There I wait for her, alone
like the useless portraits,
multiplying the shadow’s waves

and her song won’t leave my window anymore.

Uninhabited Blue

Now, as I remember my former self, the places that I’ve inhabited,
that continue displaying my sacred thoughts,
I understand that sense, the plea with which all alien solitude surprises us,
is nothing but the proof of human sadness that remains.

Or, also, the light of the one who smashes his security, his
consecutiv’ atmosphere,
to feel how, upon returning, his entire being explodes within a great number
and to know that he “still” exists, “still” encourages and impoverishes
steps on the earth,
although he’s there engrossed, selfsame, directionless,
alone like a mountain saying the word then:
so that no one can console the one who suffers like this:
what’e seeks, those for whom he grieves,
what he loves, it’s all gone far away too, reaching itself!

The poet himself provides a description of his poems as an afterword in this edition.  It is equally as beautiful, and enlightening, as the language of his poems:

This is how I have lived.

My attitude, however, is not that of a nihilist, a narcissist, or someone who dehumanizes…

No.

It is the attitude of one who went too far into the heart of man and into his own heart; of one who is proud of his conceited hopes and who, all of a sudden, believing that he has the whole universe at his disposal in an unsurpassed enumeration, instead trips on the torn ubiquity of his I, while an index of revelations points to that stillness with its individual fire.

Hence my dreadful problem.

Those who have loved much, and who have reflected on the WHY of their suffering upon losing the objects of their love forever, they ought to understand me.

This, I didn’t write, as I said to a poet one day, “guided by the desire to WRITE LITERATURE,” such a common affectation in this land, but rather following irresistible urges: the need to define, by expressing them, my inner states of being and the TRUE situation of my I in space and time…

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Filed under Poetry, Spanish Literature

I Could Not Keep Your Hands in My Own: Two Poems from Osip Mandelstam’s Tristia

The Building of the Trojan Horse. Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo. 1760. National Gallery, London

What do Ovid, Dante and Mandelstam all have in common? All three men were exiled from their homes for political reasons and infuse their poetry with the sadness, pain and loneliness of that separation. I was reading Mandelstam’s essay on Dante in the NYRB edition of his Selected Poems when I decided to linger on his Tristia verses which are included in the collection. Tristia is the name that Ovid gives to his collection of writings that are composed Ex Ponto, in the Black Sea region to which place the Emperor Augustus condemned him to live out his remaining years. I have always found it extremely difficult to translate Ovid’s Tristia; gone is the vigorous, lively poet we know of from the Amores and the Metamorphoses and in his place we encounter a melancholy man desperately longing to see his home, his family and his friends once again.

Tristia, literally meaning “sad things, sorrows, lamentations” is a fitting title for Mandelstam’s collection which he wrote in self-imposed exile while in the Crimea in the early 1920’s. The dire and desperate personal consequences of war and revolution drove him to this region of Russia which was more isolated from civil war. His time away from the north inspired him to produce these poems that are filled with images of separation, loss, darkness and exile. It is chilling that the poems also serve as a glimpse into the poet’s future which will include arrest, torture, and forced exiles to the Urals and Voronezh. He must have known, deep down in his soul, that his first, temporary, voluntary exile was a harbinger of tribulations to come in later years.

The first poem I share is numbered 116, and is filled with images of bees and honey. I see allusions to both Vergil and Tolstoy for whom the workings of a beehive are metaphors for the life and activity of humans working as a group. (I’ve written about this in more detail here.) Aeneas (an exile) encounters Dido (also an exile) and her fellow citizens building Carthage—they are as busy and industrious as an active beehive. Lucretius metaphorically uses honey to sweeten the rim of a cup of medicine from which his readers drink in his didactic poetry. And Tolstoy inverts Vergil’s beehive metaphor to describe the dying and deserted Moscow as Napoleon’s troops are marching on the city and destroying it. Mandelstam’s poem, I think, incorporates aspects of both Vergil, Tolstoy and even Lucretius—he reminds us of the energy of a beehive and the sweetness of its honey, but laments the death of such an active, supportive community:

Take from my palms, to sooth your heart,
a little honey, a little sun,
in obedience to Persephone’s bees.

You can’t untie a boat that was never moored
nor hear a shadow in its furs,
nor move through thick life without fear.

For us, all that’s left is kisses
tattered as the little bees
that die when they leave the hive.

Deep in the transparent night they’re still humming,
at home in the dark wood on the mountain,
in the mint and lungwort and the past.

But lay to your heart my rough gift,
this lovely dry necklace of dead bees
that once made a sun out of honey.

The line that keeps haunting me is “You can’t untie a boat that was never moored.”

The second poem I wish to share is numbered 119, also from the Tristia selections. I was naturally drawn to it because of the classical references and, in particular, I see allusions to Vergil Aeneid 2 in this poem:

I could not keep your hands in my own,
I failed the salt tender lips
so I must wait now for dawn in the timbered Acropolis.
How I loathe the ageing stockades and their tears.

The Achaeans are constructing the horse in the dark,
hacking out the sides with their dented saws,
Nothing quiets the blood’s dry fever, and for you
there is no designation, no sound , no modelled likeness.

How did I dare to think you might come back?
Why did I tear myself from you before it was time?
The dark has not faded yet, nor the cock crowed,
nor the hot axe bitten wood.

Resin has seeped from the stockade like transparent tears
and the town is conscious of its own wooden ribs,
but blood has rushed to the stairs and started climbing
and in dreams three times men have seen the seductive image.

Where is Troy, the beloved? The royal, the queenly roof.
Priam’s high bird house will be hurled down
while arrows rattle like dry rain
and grow from the ground like shoots of a hazel.

The pin-prick of the last star vanishes without pain,
morning will tap at the shutter, a gray swallow,
and the slow day, like an ox that wakes on straw,
will lumber out from its long sleep to cross the rough haycocks.

The penultimate stanza brings to mind the scenes in Aeneid 2 where Aeneas is making his way through the ruined city of Troy and witnesses the destruction of the palace and the death of King Priam. All this will result in the long exile of Aeneas—dawn and a new day will bring a completely different reality for the hero and his lost city.

This poem is especially reminiscent of Ovid’s first book of his Tristia which touches on his very personal losses suffered because of exile. He grieves over the distances that now separate himself and his friends, family and his wife. In Mandelstam’s poem the personal becomes that hand which he is not able to hold on to, and that haunting question, “How did I dare to think that you might come back?” The poem describes not just exile, but any personal loss—death, separation, estrangement—that results in grief.

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Filed under Classics, Osip Mandelstam, Poetry