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All Day I Loved You in a Fever: The Poetry of Robert Bly

I was first intrigued by Robert Bly’s poetry when I came across a description of his life and work in Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets. While browsing a used bookshop in New England a few weekends ago, I bought a slim, hardcover volume of his poetry entitled, “Loving a Woman in Two Worlds.” My copy is not only in fine condition, but it is signed and inscribed by the author with a little drawing.

Love poems can so quickly become oversaturated with sappy cliches about lovesickness and heartache. But Bly uses images of mature, sensual, deep, long-lasting love as his inspiration for his collection. His poems are brief and are usually set in nature:

At Midocean

All day I loved you in a fever, holding on to the tail
of the horse.
I overflowed whenever I reached out to touch you.
My hand moved over your body, covered
with its dress,
burning, rough, an animals foot or hand moving
over leaves.
The rainstorm retires, clouds open, sunlight
sliding over ocean water a thousand miles from land.

The sense of contentment and sheer, unadulterated joy comes through in his poem “A Third Body.” A relationship is more than two people, it is how they are together—their history, their jokes, their private moments—that Bly personifies as a third body in this poem.

A Third Body

A man and a woman sit near each other, and they do
not long
at this moment to be older, or younger, nor born
in any other nation, or time, or place.
They are content to be where they are, talking or
not-talking.
Their breaths together feed someone whom we do
not know.
The man sees the way his fingers move;
he sees her hands close around a book she hands
to him.
They obey a third body that they share in common.
They have made a promise to love that body.
Age many come, parting may come, death will come.
A man and a woman sit near each other;
as they breathe they feed someone we do not know,
someone we know of, whom we have never seen.

The final one I will share from this collection describes love as a secret. Not a secret as in an illicit love affair, but instead a love that is quiet and calm and very private which makes it stronger and “unworried.”

Secrets

I walk below the over-bending birches,
birches that arch together in the air.
It is an omen of an open door,
a fear no longer found in the wind.
Are there unions only the earth sees?
The birches live where no on else comes
deep in the unworried woods...
These sandgrains looked at by deer bellies.

In addition to being a talented poet, Bly was also an essayist and translator. I intend to explore more of his work in the coming year.

Signed and inscribed with a little drawing by Robert Bly

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Winter Vocative: The Poetry of William Bronk

My mother and business partner/friend Ken do not like winter at all—the dark, the cold, the short days. I found two poems by William Bronk about the positives of winter in the hopes that it might change their minds….a little.

The First is “Winter Light” which reminds us that we can’t appreciate the light without the dark, which is a good metaphor for life as well:

We see light but we live in the cold and the dark
-----winters anyway. We are aware
that that isn't all there is. We wouldn't have 
it otherwise. How should we not know
and be alive, not be deprived? I saw
this afternoon the whiteness under the dark
clouds and rejoiced that we know the light as much
and even more from gone than when it is there.

And from the same collection, Manifest and Furthermore a poem entitle "Winter Vocative":

Broken sky-mirror,
blue-shadowed snow,
June is far now,

hold while you can; show
bare of branch
stark of stalk:

ache us to know.

That last line...."ache us to know."  Bronk captures what I love about winter, the interesting sky, the beautiful snow.  

Do you send poems or books or quotes to people in your life too?

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Odi et Amo: Darconville’s Cat by Alexander Theroux

The first century B.C. Roman poet Catullus expresses his frustration and torment with his lover—an older married woman—in what is his shortest and, arguably, his most famous poem:

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?

nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

I hate you and I love you.

You may be wondering how can I feel this way.

I don’t know.

But that’s how I feel.

And I. am. tortured.

(Translation from the Latin is my own.)

That last word in the poem is especially striking. In Latin excrucior is specifically referring to the Roman form of torture by crucifixion. Who among us hasn’t felt that torment of mixed emotions when it comes to lost love? Alexander Theroux writes an erudite, funny, and tormented novel about these two opposite, conflicting emotions: “That which produces effects within one reality creates another reality itself. I am thinking, specifically, of love and hate.” Thus begins Theroux’s novel which takes the same ideas from Catullus’s “Odi et Amo” poem and uses 700 pages and 100 chapters to come to the same conclusion: love is torment.

The first half of Darconville’s Cat is Theroux’s exploration of “Amo.” Alaric Darconville, a peculiar, young, academic devoted to writing a book about angels, falls hopelessly in love with one of his students on the first day of his college Freshman English composition class. Darconville is ruthless in his judgement of the people he encounters in a small college town in the south. He is surrounded by silly, boring, poorly educated, shallow southerners and although Isabel Rawsthorne is one of them he convinces himself that she is somehow different. Thoreaux uses literary devices which we normally associate with love to lay out the progression of Darconville’s affair—one chapter is a love letter, another is a series of heroic couplets about love. “Knowledge is often used, mistakenly, in the sense of wisdom. Of such ideas let us soon hope to be rid, for no brainsick questions, mythical intricacies, or the froth of human wit can probe love—you cannot explain it. You point to it with a question exactly when it hasn’t an answer for you,” Darconville writes to a fellow academic about love. He continues, “Love, in any case, means union and what is not union is not love. You will either build a bridge or build a wall. In building a wall you remain the despicable crunchfist you always were, interested in neither projection nor equation but only in acquisition.”

On a quick sidenote, “crunchfist” might have stood out as a peculiar word that had to be looked up and is typical of Theroux’s wide range of vocabulary. Colluctation, concupiscence, and mendaciloquence are just a small sampling of the words he drops into his texts. And in places where he can’t quite find a word that fits he makes up his own. My knowledge of Latin and Ancient Greek helped me pick apart some of the archaic words he uses, but a good dictionary is a must if one is to attempt to read Theroux.

Like the sculptor Pygmalion, Darconville creates a vision of the perfect woman in his mind. Although she has thick thighs, isn’t very good at conversation and writes terrible English compositions for his class, he only sees her as perfection—his own Galatea without any flaws. He spends their time together taking her for romantic drives and picnics and he gives her A’s on her terrible essays. But even Darconville’s faithful cat, Spellvexit, knows that Darconville is blinded by his love for this girl: “Spellvexit, who despised philosophy, showed an utter disregard for Darconville’s neautontimoroumenotic pain and preferred to stay outside clacking his teeth at birds until all his blew over.” It’s not clear whether or not Darconville, who was previously enrolled in a seminary, is naive about Isabel or just stubbornly believes in her perfection. Theroux is a master of foreshadowing as he slowly leads us on the long decent towards hate: “Love is centrifugal, hate centripetal. Demons must hilarify as they watch while we are drawn to someone unable, or unwilling, to love us. It is easy to be cruel. One need only not love.”

The second half of Darconville’s Cat is an exploration of his attempts at hatred (his “odi”) and his torment when he sees Isabel for who she really is: young, immature, silly, incapable of loving him. Darconville accepts a position at Harvard University and moves north without Isabel who promises to marry him and join him in Cambridge once he is settled. A decrepit, ugly, misogynist eunuch who is some sort of pseudo-administrator named Dr. Crucifer tries to become Darconville’s mentor and foment his hatred not only of Isabel but also of love, women and relationships in general. Crucifer’s name itself is a nod to Catullus and the torture that Darconville suffers because of love. We get a good taste of Crucifer’s character in Chapter LXVIII entitled, “The Misogynist’s Library” which is an 8 page list of books in his library with titles like Adnil Notrub’s The Kept Woman Who Didn’t Keep Long and Waverly Root’s “Women are Intellectually Inferior.”

I say attempt at hate because, as I was happy to see, Darconville never truly embraces hate or revenge. As hard as Crucifer tries to convince Darconville to channel his hatred and ruin Isabel’s life, in the end he runs from all that ugliness. Yes, Darconville is tormented—so, so tormented. We feel that “excrucior” of Catullus as he flees to Venice and puts his energy into writing. It isn’t a happy ending for Darconville but in the end he avoids hate which is, in itself, a triumph, and heals his soul through his creative process, something to which I can especially relate.

It’s been speculated that Darconville’s Cat is autobiographical and nt the end of the novel the reader is also left with a good sense of Alexander Theroux’s own “Odi et Amo:”

Likes: big words, books, cats, fountain pens, cats, thick thighs, sarcasm, women.

Dislikes: the South, brevity, academia, weird recluses giving him bad advice, women.

Unfortunately Darconville’s Cat is out-of-print and copies are rare and expensive. I got lucky with an ex-library book at a book sale but it really ought to be reissued by a brave, small, literary press. Tough Poets Press has started to publish Theroux’s stories and Truisms. But Darconville’s Cat is even more worthy of a wider audience.

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Packing My Library

I spent the day sorting, cleaning and packing up many of the books in my library. My book room had become so crowded with books one could barely walk into it because of the volumes stacked on the floor. Since leaving my teaching career and life as a classicist behind, I’ve also had to face the reality that I needed to clear out most of my and my late husband’s Latin and Ancient Greek books. I had to be brutally honest with myself and admit that there is very little chance I will look at these highly specialized tomes ever again.

Grief and loss are sneaky things; they creep up on you when you least expect them. I shed so many tears today as I packed up those books. “But why,” I kept thinking. Why? I’m not one to attach sentimental value to things or objects so why were these books making me so emotional?

Walter Benjamin, in his essay “Unpacking my Library” points out, “I am not exaggerating when I say that to a true collector the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth.” I was hoping that our classics books, many of which are quite old, would find that new home, that rebirth with someone else.

A dear friend pointed out to me in the midst of my packing and cleaning, “Those books have really been weighing on you with all of their actual weight haven’t they?” The classics books in particular made me sad, not because I’m getting rid of them but because they have no real place to go. A famous used bookshop in Boston refused the offer of my collection because such books are “too difficult to sell.” The last vestiges of my former life. Not valuable to any one.

I wiped my tears and packed and cried some more. At the end of the day, though, the sense of calm and peace I felt with this project outweighed the initial melancholy. My massive collection of poetry, NYRB classics, and Seagull books are gleaming at me from their perches. And now I have space to add to my collections.

Habent sua fata libelli.

(Dear books each have their own fates.)

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The Endless Renewal of Desire

Fall used to be my favorite time of the year; a new year of teaching and meeting students, my birthday, our anniversary, Thanksgiving, Christmas and my late husband’s birthday all in succession. Now Fall has become my saddest, heaviest part of the year for the same reasons—none of these celebrations seem right without him. I haven’t just mourned the loss of his presence, but I’ve realized how deeply I feel the loss of who we were together in those moments. This fall has been especially tough as I try to shake this heavy melancholy which is juxtaposed with a strange sense of an uncertain future and being untethered. I’m weighed down but not weighed down at the same time—a bizarre uneasiness.

This weekend my daughter played alto sax in her school’s winter concert; she especially misses her dad on occasions like this when he isn’t there to see her perform. But she was so happy to be surrounded by our family and friends whom she invited to the concert and eagerly showed up to lend their support. This got me thinking about all of the people, from around the world, who have offered me comfort and love and hope. Just in the last couple of weeks I’ve gotten a card from a retired colleague living in Florida, texts from Alan’s former administrators, a package of coffee from a friend in Maine, an invitation to dinner from family friends, a DM from a friend in France who is himself very sick, a Google chat exchanging poems from a friend living in Canada, and a book from a translator in Prague who knows my love for Hungarian literature. Each of these gestures was done with the utmost care and concern. I’m so overwhelmed with gratitude that every time I reach out for support, literary Twitter is always there with kind messages and encouragement.

And so I’ve been slowing digging myself out of this slump, fighting on with every ounce of strength I have, feeling very fortunate and grateful to be surrounded by so many generous people. Poetry has also been a solace to me. I haven’t been able to focus on reading anything of great length but I have been able to concentrate on poetry. I would normally feel chagrined about the number of books I order, but it feels good to be collecting books again and sharing them on Twitter. So I thought I would do a series of posts on poetry and share my latest reading. In addition I’ve been slowly making my way through Paul Valéry Cahiers, which itself reads like poetry. His definition of beauty reminds me why I find such comfort in poetry:

Beauty

The more I see you, the more I want you. The more I want you, the more I create you—the more I create you, the less I know how to—Your impossibility, your necessity, your presence, struggle over my state of being.

If one of those factors is absent, the work is a failure—or non-existent. It has to create the need and satisfy it. And what is more, make it felt that neither the need nor the satisfaction were within our powers. Hence the endless renewal of desire.

Valéry is accurate about the necessity of poetry. And the necessity of all the people who love me and check in on me is also a thing of beauty. So I continue to fight that heaviness, some days better than others, but fight on I do. Writing and sharing these lines helps. More soon…

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