Let us Live: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop

On a recent trip to New York City I found a pristine copy of the Library of America edition of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, prose and letters.  I have been absorbed in reading her poetry and essays ever since I discovered this little gem.  I have been sharing some of her poems on Twitter during the past week and I thought I would share a few more of my favorites ones here.

One of the best sections of poetry in the collection, I think,  is that of the uncollected and unpublished poems.  Some of the poems are complete but were never published, some of them are drafts that she intended to return to and some of them are verses jotted down on a pieces of paper that were never developed any further.  The first is a short one simply entitled “Dream”:

Dream—

I see a postman everywhere
Vanishing in thin blue air,
A mammoth letter in his hand,
Postmarked from a foreign land.

The postman’s uniform is blue.
The letter is of course from you
And I’d be able to read, I hope,
My own name on the envelope

But he has trouble with this letter
Which constantly grows bigger & bigger
And over and over with a stare,
He vanished in blue, blue air.

—late 1930’s-early 1940’s

The next poem is an example of one that was found among her notes and doesn’t have a title.  The natural imagery of which she is very fond seemed especially striking and sensual to me:

It is marvellous to wake up together
At the same minute, marvellous to hear
The rain begin suddenly all over the roof,
To feel the air suddenly clear
As if electricity had passed through it
From a bloack mesh of wires in the sky.
All over the roof the rain hisses,
And below the light falling of kisses.

An electrical storm is coming or moving away;
It is the prickling air that wakes us up.
If lightening struck the house now, it would run
From the four blue china balls on top
Down the roof and down the rods all around us,
And we imagine dreamily
How the whole house caught in a bird-cage of lightning
Would be quite delightful rather than frightening;

And from the same simplified point of view
Of night and lying on one’s back
All things might change equally easily
Since always to warn us there must be these black
Electrical wires dangling. Without surprise
The world might change to something quite different,
As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking,
Change as our kisses are changing without our thinking.

—late 1930’s-early 1940’s

And the final poem I wish to share must have been influenced by one of the most famous lines from the Roman poet, Catullus.  In Carmen 5 he begins, “Vivemus, mea Lesia, atque amemus” (Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love).  Bishop employs the gentleness of that hortatory subjunctive for her own carpe diem inspired poem:

For C.W.B.

I.

Let us live in a lull of the long winter winds

Where the shy, silver-antlered reindeer go

On dainty hoofs with their white rabbit friends

Amidst the delicate flowering snow.

All of our thoughts will be fairer than doves.

We will live upon wedding-cake frosted with sleet.

We will build us a house from two red tablecloths,

And wear scarlet mittens on both hands and feet.

II.

Let us live in the land of the whispering trees,

Alder and aspen and poplar and birch,

Singing our prayers in a pale, sea-green breeze,

With star-flower rosaries and moss banks for church.

All of our dreams will be clearer than glass,

Clad in the water or sun, as you wish,

We will watch the white feet of the young morning pass

And dine upon honey and small shiny fish.

III.

Let us live where the twilight lives after the dark,

In the deep, drowsy blue, let us make us a home,

Let us meet in the cool evening grass, with a stork

And a whistle of willow, played by a gnome.

Half asleep, half awake, we shall hear, we shall know

The soft “Miserere” the wood-swallow tolls.

We will wander away where wild raspberries grow

And eat them for tea from two lily-white bowls.

—1929

 

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We Each Create Our Own Labyrinth: Theseus by André Gide

When I teach my second year Latin students about ancient heroes, I always have to begin by explaining the distinctions between the modern and ancient concepts of the term hero.  Nowadays the word hero brings to mind first responders saving children from burning buildings,  a good Samaritan saving another person from drowning, and other selfless and kind acts.  Ancient heroes, however, are much more complex, controversial and are prone to carrying out acts of violence even if the end result is for the benefit of the community.  However, more often than not,  they are acting on their own behalf, they are seeking glory and honor and recognition for themselves.  Homeric heroes, for instance, are fighting at Troy for kleos, to be remembered and revered long after they are dead.  Hercules, Theseus and Jason save communities from various beasts and horrible monsters, but their true motivation is for glory and honor that comes with such brave acts.  But the ancient hero also suffers from loneliness, isolation and difficult relationships.

André Gide, in his short story “Theseus” reimagines the myth of the Greek hero Theseus and fills in the gaps where the ancient narratives are lacking.  Gide adeptly captures the pressure to perform that each hero experiences.  In the first chapter, Aegeus, Theseus’s father,  says to his son, “Your childhood is over.  Be a man.  Show your fellow men what one of their kind can be and what he means to become.  There are great things to be done.  Claim yourself.”  After Theseus defeats various, local monsters, he is eager to take on his biggest challenge yet, defeating the Cretan Minotaur.

In Gide’s story, when Theseus lands in Crete he visits the artist Daedalus who explains to him how his labyrinth works and the only way to defeat it.  This passage showcases Gide’s brilliance as a writer, an artist, and even a philosopher:

I thought that the best way of containing a prisoner in the labyrinth was to make it of such a kind, not that he couldn’t get out (try to grasp my meaning here), but that he wouldn’t want to get out.  I therefore assembled in this one place the means to satisfy every kind of appetite.  The Minotaur’s tastes were neither many nor various; but we had to plan for everybody, whosoever it might be, who would enter the labyrinth.  Another and indeed the prime necessity was to fine down the visitor’s will-power to the point of extinction.  To this end I made up some electuaries and had the mixed with the wines that were served.  But that was not enough; I found a better way.  I had noticed that certain plants, when thrown into the fire, gave off, as they burned, semi-narcotic vapors.  These seemed admirably suited to my purpose, and indeed they played exactly the part for which I needed them.  Accordingly I had them fed to the stoves, which are kept alight night and day.  The heavy gases thus distributed not only act upon the will and put it to sleep; they induce a delicious intoxication, rich in flattering delusions, and provoke the mind, filled as this is with voluptuous mirages, to a certain pointless activity; ‘pointless,’ I say, because it has merely an imaginary outcome, in visions and speculations without order, logic or substance.  The effect of these gases is not the same for al of those who breathe them; each is led on by the complexities implicit in his own mind to lose himself, if I may so put it, in a labyrinth of his own devising.

An interesting commentary for the 21st century where many are caught up in a labyrinth of their own choosing, a labyrinth composed of people and things that induce a “delicious intoxication” and are “rich in flattering delusions.”

Daedalus’s advice to Theseus is to keep hold of the thread that Ariadne will give to him and not let it go so she can pull him out of the labyrinth.  But the hero, who is used to fighting his own battles, doesn’t want to be tethered to anyone, especially a woman.  When he arrives in Crete, Ariadne throws herself at him and he views her as a silly girl whom he can use and toss aside.  Ancient heroes, in general, have a very hard time with women; they do not take well to marriage, settling down, domesticity.  In addition to Theseus and Ariadne, the relationships between Jason and Medea, Hercules and Megara end badly.

Gide, however, does linger on the story of one, special woman who is able to captivate Theseus precisely because she poses a challenge for him, the Amazon Antiope.  Theseus says of her, “An accomplished runner and wrestler, she had muscles as firm and sturdy as those of our athletes.  I took her on in single combat.  In my arms she struggled like a leopard.  Disarmed, she brought her teeth and nails into play; enraged by my laughter (for I, too, had no weapons) and because she could not stop herself from loving me.  I have never possessed anyone more virginal.”

Each person in the Theseus-Ariadne-Minotaur myth has his or her own unique point of view.  But, in the end, there really is no happy ending for any of them, is there?

This book has greatly piqued my interest in reading more Gide.  This slim volume that was sitting on my shelf also contains Gide’s Oedipus story, another interesting hero to explore.  Maybe in another post…

 

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When A Man Tells You He’s a Monster: The Ariadne Myth in Analicia Sotelo’s Virgin

Titian. Bacchus and Ariadne. Oil on Canvas. 1520-3.

In Greek myth, Ariadne is the daughter of Minos, King of Crete, and Pasiphae, whose horrifying union with the Cretan bull produces the legendary monster, the Minotaur. We don’t hear very much about Ariadne’s life in the ancient narratives until her encounter with Theseus; she immediately falls in love with this Athenian hero who is sent to defeat the Minotaur and release Athens from its obligation of sending seven men and seven women every nine years to Crete where they are locked in the labyrinth and devoured by the Minotaur. In her eagerness to capture his attention and secure his affections she stealthily offers him the tools to defeat the labyrinth and the Minotaur: a ball of thread and a sword. But through the act of helping this hero she also betrays her home and her family. Theseus professes his love and appreciation for Ariadne and takes her with him when he sails home to Athens. After a brief stop, however, on the island of Naxos, Theseus “forgets” Ariadne on the shores of the island and sets sail to Athens without her.

The Roman poet Catullus writes an epyllion, his longest poem, Carmen 64, in which Ariadne is given her own voice and tells her own side of the story. When she is abandoned on Naxos, she immediately realizes her mistake in trusting this man who was supposed to be a hero. In Carmen 64.132-148 Ariadne speaks to a now absent Theseus and gives full vent to her anger, her heartache and her grief (translation is my own):

You treacherous and dishonest man, Theseus! Have you really carried me away from my father’s home and abandoned me on this deserted shore? Are you really being so forgetful and leaving me behind, completely neglecting the divine will of the gods, and carrying the curse of such false oaths back to your own home? Is there nothing that could change this decision of your cruel mind? Do you truly possess no mercy that would have allowed your ruthless heart to take pity on me? You certainly didn’t act this way when you were lavishing promises on me with your flattering voice. And you certainly didn’t act like this when you were giving me hope of a happy marriage and wedded bliss, all of which futile promises are now dispersed by the light winds. From now on may no woman ever put her trust in any man who makes promises; from now on may no women believe that the words of any man can be trusted. While a man’s mind is set on getting something and his mind eagerly longs to gain that thing, then he will swear to anything, he will promise anything. But as soon as the desire of his greedy mind is sated, he remembers none of his previous words, he cares nothing about his false promises.

Many of the poems in Analicia Sotelo’s new collection of poems, entitled Virgin, drawn on the plot, theme and point of view of the Ariadne and Theseus myth as it is described by Catullus. As I was reading Sotelo’s poems throughout the course of the last few days I was captivated by her interpretation of this myth for a 21st century audience. Ariadne’s rejection, self-doubt, and heartbreak are placed into contexts that make her story meaningful for a modern reader. In “Ariadne Discusses Theseus in Relation to the Minotaur,” Sotelo’s Ariadne, similar to the character we hear from in Catullus, also has a dire warning for other women:

When a man tells you he’s a monster,
believe him.

When a man says you will get hurt

leave…

Sotelo’s Ariadne also has trust issues after being abandoned by a lover. But, if she could do things over again, would she really be able to resist this man? Once again reminiscent of the laments expressed by Catullus’s Ariadne, Sotelo’s poem “Ariadne’s Guide to Getting a Man” incisively describes the tension that one suffers in a lost love, the alternating feelings of remorse and a longing to continue that human connection. Catullus’s Ariadne dreams of wedded bliss, Sotelo’s Ariadne remembers the feel of her lover’s body under her hands. The last line of this stanza is like a punch in the face when Ariadne is brought back to the reality of her situation when she remembers what love did to her mother:

Do you trust him? No, but everyone has left you
to take in the country air.
Three nights later you see him again—
his tall, crepuscular body separates itself from the lilies.
And you realize the body is not grotesque—that it is, in fact,
like a bolt of fine batiste gathered in your hand,
but first you must give up
a willingness to be right about the world.
Your brother is howling.
Your brother is howling
because your mother chose love and look where it left her.

And in one of my favorite poems in the collection Ariadne is viewed through the eyes of her brother, the Minotaur. Catullus’s Ariadne also expresses deep remorse for what she does to him even though he is a monster. Similar to Georgi Gospodinov”s novel The Physics of Sorrow and Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The House of Asterion,” Sotelo’s poetry shows pity for the Minotaur and she gives him his own story. After all, he, too, is a victim of fate. In “The Minotaur’s Letter to Ariadne,” Sotelo’s monster tugs at the heart strings:

Like a buttercup was your heart in my hand
in the field when we were children
Crown myrtle in your hair,
a gurgling song
Then you grew
delicate as an ox,
obstinate as a—It was you
who taught me metaphor,
said, Mother is a door
I said, What does that mean?
All those years I misheard the men
say, Your mother is a whore,
thinking it was
something that swung open
so almost anything could enter
Oh sister, do not go
Like a buttercup was your heart in my hand.

But through the raw emotions, self-doubt, grief and heartache, Sotelo does offer small glimpses of hope for the abandoned. In Catullus’s version, Ariadne is saved by the god Bacchus who finds her wandering the shores of Naxos and whisks her away to heaven where she also becomes divine. In Sotelo’s version, “Ariadne plays the Physician”, she attempts to heal her own wounds:

We must set this story straight
We must say there is another angle

to this foreign particle

lodged in my ribs like a small ivory
tiger or a Chinese lamp, the oil

coating my bones. Theseus,
you know you didn’t break me.

Sotelo’s collection includes additional, brilliant reworkings of myth. Another of my favorites is “South Texas Persephone” which is a rather sad commentary on marriage that uses inspiration from the Demeter, Persephone and Hades myth. I am glad to have encountered such a raw, emotional, and passionate collection like Sotelo’s that makes Greek and Roman myth accessible to and relevant for a current audience.

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String of Beginnings: Michael Hamburger’s Autobiography

String of beginnings, a lifetime long,
So thin, so strong, it’s outlasted the bulk it bound,
Whenever light out of haze lifted
Scarred masonry, marred wood
As a mother her child from the cot,
To strip, to wash, to dress again,
And the cities even were innocent…
—Michael Hamburger

Of all the autobiographies I’ve read this year, Michael Hamburger’s String of Beginnings has been the most intriguing to me.  Born in Berlin to a Jewish family, “It was the month of the year when Kafka left Berlin to die. It was the day, March 22nd, of Goethe’s death and his cry for more light.  The year, 1924, was one of relative stabilization after the failure of a Hitler-Ludendorff ‘putsch’ and the success of Schacht’s measures against an inflation so extreme that it had turned most Germans into undernourished millionaires.”  Hamburger describes the autobiography, however, as “intermittent” since it only covers the years of his life between 1924 and 1954.

Originally published in 1973 under a different title, A Mug’s Game, and reissued in 1991 as String of Beginnings, Hamburger discusses in an interview with Peter Dale his reasons for limiting the scope of this second edition of his autobiography and for not publishing a sequel:

At one time I had planned a continuation, but my publisher didn’t want another volume, not having done well with the first.  Also, it became clear to me that I couldn’t write a second book on the same lines, as a factual and chronological account.  I then planned an altogether different sort of book, organized by theme, rather than documentary sequence, and with more freedom of movement and association than the chronological presentation had given me.  It had also become clear to me that it is virtually impossible to write truthfully about living relatives and friends in a non-fiction book—or about one’s own life, for that matter.

In the first chapter of String of Beginnings, he also elaborates on his very strict approach to writing autobiography.  Hamburger feels that too many autobiographies read more like novels because of an author’s tendency to embellish the truth.  He says of this genre, “Neither the chronicler’s nor the novelist’s way is adequate, because too much of one’s life is beyond recall, and the experience that made us what we are lies neither in moments nor in recurrences, but in a fusion of both far too subtle to be retracted.”  Much of the text of his autobiography contains direct quotes from letters to friends, family and acquaintances or paraphrasing from diaries that he kept.  Hamburger never veers from his strict writing standards.

Despite the “chronological presentation” of  his autobiography there are three “strings” that he highlights throughout the book which, he implies, affect him for the rest of his life: writing his own poetry, interacting with other poets and traveling.  Although Hamburger is best know for his translations, especially those of Holderlin which he started work on at the age of fifteen, it is the composition of his own, original poems that occupies his mind more than anything else.  The original title of the book,  A Mug’s Game, was taken from a comment made to Hamburger by T.S. Eliot who was reflecting on the, oftentimes futile, life and career of a poet, “‘A mug’s game,’ T.S. Eliot called it, aware of the risk he shared with those whose persistence was a blind obstinacy, a waste of themselves and others.  Or wasn’t it—even at the worst?  Where even the best is for ever being reexamined and re-assessed, where any new development could be a falling-off or a final defeat, mightn’t it be enough to go on trying?”

And go on trying Hamburger did.  Before he enrolls in the army, he spends a few terms at Oxford where he kept writing poetry and subjecting himself to the feedback of other famous poets.  He knows that his biggest flow is that his verse is too mechanical and he is not really seeing enough of life will translate into good poetry: “Though I published early, and had made literary connections even at this time, without being award of looking for them, the only success I wanted was to write good poems…”  Furthermore, he admits that the influence of poets he worshipped, like T.S. Eliot, was too great on him and he had trouble finding his own voice: “It is easy enough in retrospect to see why it took me so long to write my own poems, good or bad.  All my responses were exaggerated, inwardly over-dramatized, as it were, and utterly unstable, because I was trying out one stance, one identity, after another.”

The number of  poets—famous, infamous and obscure—that he meets during his time at Oxford is astounding.  Hamburger argues, “To write about oneself is to write about other people…” and the “other people” whom he discusses most in his autobiography are poets.  He meets Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, David Gascoyne and Peter Hofler, just to name a few.  The  most intriguing writer of them all for me, however, was a close friend whom he simply refers to as “X.”  X is about ten years older than Hamburger and is an academic; they had a falling out over the publication of Hamburger’s autobiography so Hamburger keeps X’s identity a secret throughout the book.  But X’s impact on Hamburger’s career and life as a poet is inescapable and the entire autobiography would fall apart with the exclusion of this friend and fellow author.   (I’m still curious to know the identity of X and I’m sure that someone has figured it out.  So if you know his identity please leave me a comment!)

The final “string” that one follows through the thirty years of Hamburger’s life is that of traveling.  Even though he and his family emigrate from Berlin to London in 1933, he gets his first real experience of Europe when he is a soldier in the British army during World War II.  He is stationed in both Italy and Austria and his favorite activities in those places are those which take him away from tourist areas and off the beaten path.  After his first visit to Paris he decides that big cities are places he would rather avoid: “If I have no business in a large city, and no close friends, all I find there is ghosts—‘the soul of all those who have lived there.’ absorbed by walls.”  One of my favorite, amusing stories in the book is when he is traveling in Austria, after being released from the army, and he moves from one small town to the next.  In one of these backwater places he stays at a rather strange little hotel which he eventually realizes, after many days, is a brothel.   Italy becomes one of his favorite places to visit, especially the countryside around Florence and Fiesole: “What really captivated me about Italy was the least palpable of phenomena—the mere smells on the banks of the Arno, the precise colour of olive trees, silver-white-green-blue-grey, something about the landscape at Fiesole that I couldn’t describe. ‘Self-sufficiency of the landscape, architecture, people,’ I noted. ‘No need for transcendence.  How the sun melts the written word.'”

Michael Hamburger lived until the age of 83 and I am so sad that there is no autobiographical account of the years between 1955 and 2007.  How did his life evolve in his last forty years?  What other poets did he meet?  How did he view the development of his poetry?  To what other places in the world did he enjoy traveling?  And in his interview with Peter Dale he alludes to his marriage with poet Ann Beresford and some of the troubles they had over the years which I would also have been interested to learn more about.  Maybe some day there will be a thorough biography of Michael Hamburger which will continue with his string of beginnings.

For the extra curious, these are the editions of the books I’ve discussed in my post:

A Mug’s Game by Michael Hamburger. Carcanet Press, 1973.

String of Beginnings by Michael Hamburger. Skoob Books, 1991.

Michael Hamburger, A Reader.  Declan O’Driscoll, ed. Carcanet Press, 2017.

Michael Hamburger in conversation with Peter Dale. Between the Lines, 1998.

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Goethe’s Roman Elegies Translated by Michael Hamburger

I was just going to tweet the text of this poem, but Michael Hamburger’s translation of Goethe’s Roman Elegies is so sublime and beautiful that I decided it deserved a blog post instead.  I have been reading, along with his autobiography A String of Beginnings, the Michael Hamburger Reader from Carcanet Press.  In addition to his translations, this fabulous volume contains his own poetry and essays.  Hamburger, who began translating Goethe at the age of fifteen, comments about his poetry: “To reflect on the untranslatability and elusiveness of Goethe’s poetic work as a while is to go straight to the heart of his uniqueness, his staggering diversity and the extent to which many of his most original poems—especially the earlier lyrics—are inextricably rooted in their own linguistic humus.”

From Goethe’s Roman Elegies

V.

Happy now I can feel the classical climate inspire me,

Past and Present at last clearly, more vividly speak—

Here I take their advice, perusing the works of the ancients

With industrious care, pleasure that grows every day—

But throughout the nights by Amor I’m differently busied,

If only half improved, doubly delights instead—

Also, am I not learning when at the share of her bosom,

Graceful lines, I can glance, guide a light hand down her hips?

Only thus I appreciate marble;  reflecting, comparing,

See with an eye that can feel, feel with a hand that can see

True, the loved one besides may claim a few hours of the daytime,

But in night hours as well makes full amends for the loss.

For now always we’re kissing; often hold sensible converse.

When she succumbs to sleep, ponder, long I lie still,

Often too in her arms I’ve lain composing a poem,

Gently with fingering hand count the hexameter’s beat

Out on her back; she breathes, so lovely and calm in her sleeping

That the glow from her lips deeply transfuses my heart.

Amor meanwhile refuels the lamp and remembers the times when

Likewise he’d served and obliged them, his triumvirs of verse.

—Michael Hamburger, trans.

 

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