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Hope Is A Thing With Feathers…

Before my husband was killed in a motorcycle crash the three most important things in my life were my family, my career/students, and my books/blog/literary Twitter community. But the life I once knew has been shattered. Not just me and my daughter, but my beloved sister, brother-in-law, and twin nephews and my parents are all grieving. And the close friends whom we consider family share our sorrow.

I’ve been trying to do what feels like regaining my balance—figuring out what fits into this new and very different life I have now as I move forward.

And so I keep thinking, “Well now what?”

The introduction I wrote for a review on J.L. Carr’s book A Month in the Country also keeps running through my mind:

Hope is a thing with feathers, according to Emily Dickinson.

And Max Porter.

Hope floats, according to the film title.

Pope writes in his “An Essay on Man” that “Hope springs eternal.”

Pink, in her collaboration with Khalid “Hurts 2B Human,” sings that “hope flows away.”

In Aeschylus’s play, Prometheus says he gave to humans the gift of blind hope.

J.L. Carr’s character in his novella, a victim of shell shock and abandoned by his wife, muses:

“This is what I need, I thought—a new start and, afterwards, maybe I won’t be a casualty anymore. Well, we live by hope.”

And hope is the one thing, quite ambiguously, left in Pandora’s box of evils. Is hope also considered an evil? And, if so, should we be glad that it was held in the box? Or is hope a good thing, left behind in the box and now separated from evil?

Alan and I spoke about the myth of Pandora’s Box usually about once a year, in the autumn, when we would give an adapted version of it to our respective first year Latin students.

I wonder what he would say to me about it now.

I identify most with Aeschylus’s offering of blind hope.

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Six Years of Blogging and New Bookshelves

WordPress has reminded me today that I have been blogging on this site for six years now. A small and modest achievement compared to bloggers like Steve at This Space, flowerville, and Stu from Winston’s Dad.

However, there also seems to be a trend of bloggers declaring that the blog and blogosphere are dead, abandoning their blogs and moving on to the latest and greatest forms of media like Instagram, podcasts, and YouTube. I was joking with a writer on Twitter who said the next thing we know there will be literary TikToks.

But especially now, in the area of lockdowns and pandemic, the quiet, kind and interesting corner of the Internet that consists of literary bloggers has been a source of friendship and solace for me. This also includes the wonderful connections I’ve made on Twitter via the bookish and artistic communities. Many of us are in lockdown with only a few family members or even alone—for me the only people I’ve seen are my husband and daughter. Going to work and having social interactions with colleagues and friends has also come to a hault. We are social beings and loss of daily human contact with a variety of people feels like something we took for granted. I am particularly grateful these days for my blog, my book friends and my Twitter friends. And so I carry on with these primitive and so-five-years-ago media platforms despite what the other cool kids have moved on to.

In other news, my Mother’s Day gifts were three new bookshelves for my bookroom. My poetry collection was getting out of control and as my daughter quipped in a Mother’s Day poem she composed for me, “I admire that you count books by the stack.”

It was exciting, albeit exhausting, to load and organize my new shelves and I’ve come up with some new categories with which I have that grouped my books together. I have collected so many books from Carcanet that they now have their own section:

Carcanet Press Collection

And I have been very interested in reading the diaries and notebooks of authors. I’ve been captivated, for instance, by Paul Valéry’s Notebooks which were published in English in 5 volumes. So now I have a section dedicated to such notebooks and diaries:

Diaries and Notebooks

I’ve also collected quite a few titles from Ugly Duckling Presse which publishes some of most aesthetically interesting books and chapbooks:

Ugly Duckling Presse Collection

I described in a post back in January that one if my reading goals for this year is to read a series of books about music so they have been given their own section:

Books about Music

The rest of the poetry books are categorized by country/region— English, American, Italian, Latin American, Russian, etc.

English, American, Italian, Latin American, etc.
More American poetry, Robert Kelly and Michael Hamburger
Russian and French Poets and Poetry Magazines

And finally, I have a shelf of books for my read now stack that used to be covering and stacked underneath the coffee table:

The Read Now Section

Now I’m wondering if maybe these “gifts” were a bit self-serving so that we can all see, and use, the coffee table again.

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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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How to Pick up Women: Advice from Ovid’s Ars Amatoria

Yesterday I shared on Twitter a pick up strategy from Ovid that Pound alludes to in the Cantos.  I’ve had a request to translate a few more.  Here are some of my favorites:

 

From I.139-142.   A great place to pick up a pretty girl is at the Circus:

Sit as close as possible to your lady, nothing is forbidden in the Circus.

Press your leg as close to her leg as possible at all times.

With those close seats there are no boundaries, even if it annoys you,

So you pretty much have to touch your lady when you’re in the Circus.

 

From I.153-156.  And if she has a wardrobe malfunction make sure you help her:

If the hems of her skirt are dragging on the ground,

then gather them up and lift them from the dirt, and immediately,

as a reward for your attentiveness—if she allows it, of course—

your eyes will get a good look at her bare legs.

 

From 1.455-458. A little love note is always a good thing:

Go ahead and send her a letter with flattering sentiments,

and use this to explore her feelings and to test the road first.

 

From 1.505-506 and 509-510. Look presentable but not too metro:

Don’t curl your hair with the curling iron,

and don’t pluck all the hair from your legs.

A man is more handsome when he is not so fussy

about his appearance; Theseus, for example,

carried off Ariadne without spending any time

on his looks.

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Damnosa Quid non Imminuit Dies?: The Following Story by Cees Nooteboom

The first few pages of Nooteboom’s novella The Following Story called to mind the same eerie calmness one finds in Kafka’s Metamorphoses.  Herman Mussert goes to sleep in his apartment in Amsterdam but wakes up a hotel room in Lisbon where twenty years previously he had spent a few days with his lover.  Mussert recognizes the room but doesn’t know how here got there or which body he occupies—his current one or the younger one he had on his visit twenty years ago.  He decides to retrace his steps around Lisbon while remembering the events in his life that caused him to visit this city before.

When he was in his early thirties Mussert was a classics teacher at a high school; he loved teaching Latin and he was very successful at it.  In the first part of the book Nooteboom is writing about metamporhosis-–how his character’s life, his career, his loneliness have evolved over the past twenty years.  Mussert had an affair with a colleague, a fellow science teacher, Maria Zeinstra, whose obnoxious husband also works at the school and is having his own affair with a student.  The centerpiece and most clever piece of the narrative takes place in Mussert’s  and Marina’s  classrooms when they observe one another’s lessons.  While in Maria’s class Mussert learns all about beetles who use the carrion of rats to mate and reproduce.  Mussert also teaches a lesson on metamorrphosis, that of Phaeton borrowing his father Apollo’s  chariot and crashing it while carrying the sun.  “It is obvious from the start,” Mussert thinks, “that disaster will befall him, that Apollo’s foolish son will come crashing down with his golden chariot and fire-breathing horses.”  Nooteboom’s language is filled with striking images that foreshadow Mussert’s fate.

The catalyst for change in Mussert’s life is his love for Maria.  Life after Maria involves solitary nights with his books, his cat, a different career and an attempt to forget about his time with her.  His strange and sudden appearance in Lisbon brings all the stages of his metamorphosis back to him:

Ignis mutat res (fire changes everything), I muttered, but my matter was not to be changed by any fire. I had already changed. Around me there was burning and melting, other two-headed creatures came to life, but I had long since lost my other, so red-haired head, the female half of me had broken off.  I had become a sort of cinder, a residue.  My reason for being here, on this perhaps or perhaps not sought-after journey, could well be a pilgrimage back to those days, and if so I, like a medieval pilgrim, would have to visit all the sites of my brief hold life, all the stations where the past had a face.

In the second part of the book Mussert suddenly finds himself on a ship, sailing on the ocean, then on the Amazon river, which becomes an elaborate metaphor for his  voyage to the afterlife. Nooteboom’s narrative is filled with images of death and allusions to the underworld.  Mussert describes the last few days of his teaching career, during which time he was giving a lesson on the Crito and Socrates’s death, which ends suddenly and tragically.  Mussert’s fellow passengers on this trip, a priest, an airline pilot, a child, a journalist and an academic, all take turns telling tragic stories of loss suffered during their lives.  And Mussert thinks about his translation of Horace Odes, Book II, and in particular his translation of the lines: Damnosa quid non imminuit dies?  Time corrupts all. What has it not made worse?

As the ship makes its way down the river, the underworld and death metaphors become more obvious with Nooteboom’s stunning language:

The water turned a deeper, more disturbing shad of brown. Large pieces of wood floated on the surface. This was the throat of the great river, this was where the continent spat out its gut, this mud had been carried down from the Andes, through the wounded jungle guarding its last secrets, its last hidden dwellers, the lost world of eternal shadows, the tenebrae. Procul recedant somnia, et noctium fantasmata,  Protect me from bad dreams, the phantasms of the night.

Phaeton. Gustave Moreau. 1878

 

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