Tag Archives: Poetry

Survival Is A Style: Poems by Christian Wiman

In the June issue of Poetry Magazine Christian Wiman writes a lovely, thoughtful essay on the poems of William Bronk. Included is a poignant reflection on these lines from Bronk’s collection entitled Life Supports:

I thought you were an anchor in the drift of the world;
but no: there isn’t an anchor anywhere.
There isn’t an anchor in the drift of the word. Oh no.
I thought you were. Oh no. The drift of the world.
The World

This may be the saddest poem I know. As with other Bronk poems it sent me reeling through my own life grasping after my own anchors: my wife and my work, my God. Oh no.

And yet this minor poem brings me major peace. Why? Because it is beautiful, and beauty triggers an instinct for an order beyond the one it enacts.

I’ve spend the week reading Wiman’s latest collection of poems, Survival is a Style, and I shared on Twitter that it is the best one I have read so far this year. Throughout these pieces Wiman contemplates those very anchors that keep him sane and whole. Wiman grew up in a rural part of Texas under the influence of a strict, Christian family. His father died recently of a drug overdose, he has dealt with a crisis of faith, and he is always battling a form of blood cancer that, while not curable, at least is dormant for the moment. One of the most touching poems in the collection is entitled “All You Shining Stars” and describes a simple, spontanous day out with his family—his wife and three children, who are clearly his most important “anchors:

Three kinds of hair in the brush one love
has left on the kitchen counter.
Four kinds of cries when it occurs as one
to blow off school and go to the mountains.
And later, over the river, when the upturned duck
never turns over, five kinds of silence.

Always our elsewheres are also here,
like tributaries so intuitive they seem
almost incidentally literal, tiny trickles
in wildernesses too immense to enter,
the cold clefts and the drastic drops,
cliffs of unthinkable ice.

Three kinds of sleep in the hum home
down the dark valley back to New Haven.
Four kinds of dreams behind the headlights,
the world springing into being ten feet at a time.
Five kinds of time when one love wakes up
and wonders where we are, and one wonder
wakes up another, and another, and another.

A lot has been said about Wiman’s use of alliteration, and in this particular poem lines like “the cold clefts and the drastic drops,” as well as his use of numbers lends to the musicality of his verse. There is a sadness mixed with a type of gratitude for moments like these with his family. Similarly in the poem entitled “Baloney” a simple moment at a summer party with friends is captured eloquently:

Poolside, Belgian beer, the lightly ironized light
and splashy laughter of our perfect suburban summer
when from the water, from a child, comes something like
“Look alive, butt crack!”
“It was either that,” Matt says, “or a whippoorwill.”

Over shrimp and coconut rice that Annie made
I recall my dear donnish friend John
who asked that I please not “entertain company” in his bed.
And Samir, who also survived those years on beans, vagabondage,
and long letters that glittered with hopes and Helens,
wondered if I replied, “Will self-pleasure be ok?”

These verses are also an excellent example of Wiman’s charming and sharp sense of humor. The underlying sadness, in the form of nostalgia, still lingers in these lines but friends and his wife are his anchors here.

The longest poem in the collection entitled “The Parable of Perfect Silence” which is featured in Part III, brings together all of Wiman’s thoughts on family, faith, illness, sadness and hope. This poem reminds me of Robert Hass who also likes to tell personal stories in his longer form poems.

Today I woke and believed in nothing.
A grief at once intimate and unfelt,
like the death of a good friend’s dog.

Tired of the mind tracing back in the past for rescue
I praise the day.
I don’t mean merely some mythical, isolate instant
like the mindless mindfulness specialist
who at the terminal cancer convention
(not that it was called that)
exhorted the new year’s crop of slaughters
(ditto)
to “taste” the day, this one unreplicable instant of being alive.
(The chicken glistened.)
Nor do I mean a day devoid of past and future
as craved that great craze of minds and times Fernando Pessoa,
who wanted not “the present” but reality itself,
things in their thingness rather than the time that measures them.
Time is the table at which I sit and the words I type.
In the red-checked shirt my father’s mother used to wear
when she was gardening and which I kept
because it held her smell (though it does no longer)
there is still plenty of time.

And with Wiman and Hass we are never quite sure where the poet is going—there is always a twist, a surprise, something very unexpected thrown at us: words like “unreplicable” and phrases like “The chicken glistened.” And finally, the plot, if one can call it that in a poem, as Wiman moves in between topics or stories involving his grandmother, his father trying to catch a rat, his diagnosis of cancer and a myriad of other snapshots of memory.

As I was lingering over his collection all week, it occurred to me why it struck such a cord and Alex Caldiero’s poem came to mind: “Poetry is wanted here.” I began to think about my own anchors that have gotten me through the past few months and, just when we thought things couldn’t possibly get worse, the last week. I’ve never been so exhausted in my life—physically, mentally,emotionally. But I have wonderful anchors—my family, friends, fellow readers, students, colleagues, my cats, and poetry, lots and lots of poetry—whose love and support and wisdom and kindness keep me going for another day.

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Filed under American Literature, Poetry

La Jeune Parque by Paul Valéry

In Roman myth the three Fates— Parcae in Latin Moirai in Ancient Greek are referred to as sisters: Clotho, the youngest, is the spinner of a person’s life thread, Lachesis measures the final thread of life, and the dreaded Atropos cuts the thread of life.  Because of their absolute and unpredictable authority over all life—even Jupiter is subjected to their decisions—they are feared and rarely spoken about except in passing references.

In Petronius Satyricon, the three anti-heroes of this Ancient Roman novel visit a freedman named Trimalchio who has become filthy rich through his investments in shipping.  Trimalchio himself, as well as his sprawling house, is opulent and tacky.  His villa would be the perfect feature for the Roman version of MTV Cribs. The visitors to his home view a large mosaic installed in his dining room that features  the three fates spinning and measuring out the thread of Trimalchio’s life: praesto erat Fortuna cum cornu abundanti copiosa et tres Parcae aurea pensa torquentes.  “And right there in front of us Fortune was depicted with her horn of plenty and the three Fates spinning their golden threads.”  This is by no means a usual piece of artwork that would appear in any Roman’s home, but Trimalchio is a man obsessed with death and his own mortality.

And Vergil, when describing the hardships that his epic hero Aeneas will suffer, concludes (with the cleverly syncopated verb volverunt) : Sic Parcae volvere  (And that’s how the Fates roll.)

So why does the Paul Valéry write an entire poem about Clotho, the youngest of these fates? After a successful career as a poet he suddenly takes a break from publishing his works for more than 20 years.   La Jeune Parque, a poem as perplexing and enigmatic as the Fates themselves,  is the first piece of writing that he publishes after this extended period of silence.  The 512 line poem, written in Alexandrine rhyming couplets,  is dedicated to his friend Andre Gide, who comes up several times in Valéry”s first part of his first Cahiers/Notebooks.   He oftentimes remarks about his fondness for Gide, but he also likes to complain that in his own Diaries Gide writes incorrect things about him and misunderstands him.  Valéry also doesn’t like the sentimental and moral nature of Gide’s Diaries which are very different from Valery’s own Notebooks.  In Cahiers 1 “Ego,” p. 236 he writes: “Gide is an old tart. His Diary seeks to give value to his slightest moment. What an Anti for me!  Just as I’ve got an obsession for exhausting, for not-repeating, for having done with what seems to cost nothing—as with what is purely and simply exceptional—so he does the opposite—and so on.”

The best way, I think, and really the only way, to make any sense of La Jeune Parque is to read it alongside the poet’s Notebooks.  Valéry, who woke up at 5 a.m. every day for most of his adult life to think and write in his Notebooks,  is very much obsessed in the first part of them with intellect and what he can contribute to society with his thoughts and his intellect.  His writings and his observations were, he felt, his real life’s work and his job as a civil servant, which he needed to support himself and his family, was just a way of making money.  A lot of his time is spent in solitude contemplating his intellectual pursuits and figuring out who he is: “In a positive manner, intelligence is something like hunger, thirst, need—something seeking, demanding to work—to function , and it ruptures my sleep, worries my being and wakes me up too early every morning, whether or not I’m tired (Cahiers 1, p. 187).

When La Jeune Parque begins, the youngest Fate (her never names her directly)  is depicted as a beautiful, and lonely, young woman waking up in the dark after a dream on a shoreline and torn by between passion and duty.  Her silence is punctuated by the fact that she not only addresses but personifies the stars:

Almighty aliens, unavoidable stars!—
Who willingly across the miles of time
Make something pure, higher than nature, shine;
Who into mortals plunge to the source of tears
These lofty glimmerings, these invincible weapons
And shooting pains from your eternal life,
I am alone with you, here on the point
Gnawed by the marvellous ocean, shivering, fresh
From bed; asking my heart what pain has woken it,
What crime committed by me or upon me?

The last line calls to mind Ovid’s Daphne who is trying to fend off Apollo’s unwanted love and who considers any form of romantic love or marriage a “crimen” (crime). An image of a snake is used to signify desire and passion that has bitten her and whose poison now torments her:

Coils of desires, towed by this snake! What a jumble
Of treasures that evade my greedy reach—
And what a dark thirst for limpidity!

So often in myth we encounter immortal forces like the Fates, the Hours, the Seasons, and women like Daphne, Semele and Dido and men like Aeneas who are given a job or a role they must fulfill.  They have duties and obligations assigned to them that they didn’t choose and things like desire, passion and love are inaccessible to them.  It’s a stroke of brilliance that Valery chooses a Fate, who didn’t choose her own Fate, to contemplate choices or lack of choices.  Valéry’s young woman herself cites as an example the oracle at Delphi who also had no choice but to carry out her assigned task:

I think, as he world’s rime turns gold, I weigh
The taste for death of the priestess at Delphi
Inside whom moaned a hope the world would end.

At the tender age of twenty-one Valéry has his own battle with the passions when he falls in love with an inaccessible woman.  He reminisces about it briefly in his Notebooks as a negative part of his life that he would rather forgot.  In Cahiers 1, p. 177 he writes, “The past as a chronological and narrative structure has less existence for me than for others. It seems that my being likes to forget what will only be a picture later on—and keep what can be assimilated into itself so completely that it’s no longer a past, but a functional element of virtual acts.” Memory in general is a concept that Valery despises and feels uncomfortable with. The young woman in his poem also expresses anguish over desire and the memories of desire:

The mind is so pure it never kneels
To idols: lonely ardour does flare up
And drive away the walls of its sad tomb.
Anything can appear with infinite waiting.

The Fate also begins to reminisce about a chance passionate encounter in the woods that leaves a deep impression on her. The young woman’s torment over passion, her early awakening, and her inner turmoil wax and wanes as she falls into a peaceful sleep and wakes up again. But like Valery’s experience earlier in his life, this passion is out of reach. And it’s not only desire and love that are out of reach, but, like other immortals, she can’t even choose death. Death, ironically for her, is something she controls and is all around her but it is out of the question as an option for herself:

But if my tender smell goes to your hollow head,
O Death, breathe in at last this regal slave:
Call me, undo these bonds!..And drive off hope
From me, so tired of self, in this doomed shape!

Finally, I have to say a word about the Bloodaxe Books dual language edition that is translated with an introduction and notes by Alistar Elliot. The text is notoriously difficult and Alistar’s notes are a necessity to understanding Valery’s poem and the etymological interpretations of his translation.

 

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Filed under Classics, French Literature, Literature in Translation

Pro Eto-That’s What by Vladimir Mayakovsky

Vladimir Mayakovsky had a long, tumultuous affair with Lilya Brik who was married to the poet’s publisher, Osip Brik.  The threesome spent a lot of time together, but in 1923, during a two month separation from Lilya, the poet wrote Pro Eto (About this) and dedicated it to her.   The poem is full of pain, anger, humor, lust, confusion and torment.  In addition to writing about his love affair, Mayakovsky also mixes in his harsh opinions about Lenin and his supposed attempt to implement socialist policies in the Soviet Union.  One of the most striking images that he uses in the first part of the poem is that of a telephone.  It’s an important symbol for both the separation and connection with his lover.  He begins the poem with:

She lies in bed.

While he…

On the table

is the telephone.

“He” and “she are my ballad.

Not terribly original you say.

And he continues his dramatic metaphor by focusing on a description of the workings of the telephone as sounds squeeze through its wires:

Squeezing miraculously

through the thin wire,

stretching the rim

of the mouthpiece funnel,

a thunder of ringings

bangs through the silence,

then the telephone pours out its tinkling lava.

A screaming,

a ringing,

shots slammed into the wall

tried to blow it up.

The juxtaposition of silence with the noise of the phone reminded me of a passage in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in which he describes talking on the telephone for the first time and the person to whom he speaks is his beloved grandmother. The shock of hearing her voice without seeing her elicits an unexpected emotional response:

And because that voice appeared to me to have altered in its proportions from the moment that it was a whole, and reached me thus alone and without the accompaniment of her face and features, I discovered for the first time how sweet that voice was; perhaps indeed it had never been so sweet as it was now, for my grandmother, thinking of me as being far away and unhappy, felt that she might abandon herself to an outpouring of tenderness which, in accordance with her principles of upbringing, she usually restrained and kept hidden. It was sweet, but also how sad it was, first of all, on account of its very sweetness, a sweetness drained almost—more than any but a few human voices can ever have been—of every element of hardness, of resistance to others, of selfishness! Fragile by reason of its delicacy, it seemed constantly on the verge of breaking, of expiring in a pure flow of tears; then, too, having it alone beside me, seen without the mask of her face, I noticed it for the first time the sorrows that had cracked it in the course of a lifetime.

After this phone conversation the narrator immediately packs his things and runs how to his grandmother. When she is sick, he understands the severity of her illness when her voice changes and he can no longer understand her.  This tension that exists between hearing the loved one’s voice yet being separated is present in Mayakovsky’s poem as well.  As I watch the grim news with people dying alone from this horrible,  invasive virus, it’s become evident that the only way to say goodbye to sick loved ones is through a phone call.  Once again, the phone becomes a symbol for a state of limbo— somewhere between closeness and separation. 

Finally, both Proust and Mayakovsky both suffer from heart sickness, but only Mayakovsky succumbs to it by committing suicide.  There are haunting passages in Pro Eto that foreshadow his tragic end:

If I sacrificed a day

I sacrificed a year

To this dreary nonsense.

I too almost succumbed 

to this delirium.

It ate up my life

with its domestic murk

and the said:

“Go on, jump

from the first floor,

the pavement’s waiting.”

 

In 1923, after its original publication in the journal LEF, Pro Eto was presented as a separate edition with photomontages done by Aleksandr Rodchenko.  Mayakovsky, Lilya and telephones prominently appear in many of the photos.  

 

 

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Filed under Poetry, Russian Literature

Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt: Some Concluding Thoughts

My life, like everyone else’s in the world, has been completely upended this week. I’ve had to learn how to move all of my classes online and I’ve pretty much stayed in my house for the past week. The worst part about this has been my inability to focus on reading. But on the bright side my husband, daughter and I are safe at home and enjoying each other’s company and we are both still very lucky to have jobs. I have found my friends on Twitter, especially those in the literary community, to be particularly soothing at this time. Naveen from Seagull Books has reminded us many times that it’s the books that will save us. Just today he wrote, “Yes. We need compassion. And that old fashioned love for everyone around us. So yes. Books.” I decided to ease my anxiety by forcing myself to concentrate on what has been one of my favorite books since last spring, Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets which I finally finished last night.

Lives of the Poets, at nearly 1,000 pages, is an impressive survey of more than 300 English language poets spanning the last 700 years. Each of the 64 chapters, which proceed in chronological order, have brief biological sketches of poets including their places of birth and their educational backgrounds. What is astonishing about the book is the cumulative nature of poetry and how Schmidt connects poets and generations of poets together. Schmidt lays out his intentions for his survey of these poets in the second chapter:

Poems swim free of their age, but it’s hard to think of a single poem that swims entirely free of its medium, not just language but language used in the particular ways that are poetry. Even the most parthenogenetic-seeming poem has a pedigree. The poet may not know precisely a line’s or a stanza’s parents; indeed, may not be interested in finding out. Yet as readers of poetry we can come to know more about a poem than the poet does and know it more fully. To know more does not imply that we read Freud into an innocent cucumber, or Marx into a poem about daffodils, bu that we read with our ears and hear Chaucer transmuted through Spense, Sidney through Herbert, Milton through Wordsworth, Skelton through Graves, Housman through Larkin, Sappho through H.D. or Adrienne Rich.

This book has had two very personal effects on me which I will focus on in my post. First, Michael Schmidt has made me feel more grateful than I have ever been to have studied classics and have degrees in Latin and Ancient Greek. One of the most obvious threads that emerged for me in the course of reading this book is how much the English language poets have drawn on the materials, language, themes, etc. of the ancient poets. From the earliest instances we have of English language poetry through the 20th century there is a robust tradition of poets using ancient sources. Some of the ones I’ve discovered have been profound and have further enriched my study and teaching of classics.

One of my favorite discoveries in Schmidt’s book is Chapman’s poem “Ovid’s Banquet of Sense.” I have long been familiar with Chapman’s translations of Homer, but he is a brilliant poet when he is composing his own verses. “Ovid’s Banquet of Sense” is a description of the Roman poet’s feast of senses that is triggered when he see Corinna bathing naked in her garden. Chapman explains that Corinna is a pseudonym for Julia, the Emperor Augustus’s daughter, who has walked into the courtyard where she proceeds to bath, play the lute and sing, all of which Ovid observes hidden by an arbor. His first sense that is stimulated by her is his sight:

Then cast she off her robe and stood upright,
As lightning breaks out of a labouring cloud;
Or as the morning heaven casts off the night,
Or as that heaven cast off itself, and show’d
Heaven’s upper light, to which the brightest day
Is but a black and melancholy shroud;
Or as when Venus strived for sovereign sway
Of charmful beauty in young Troy’s desire,
So stood Corinna, vanishing her ‘tire.

Oftentimes poets don’t necessarily dedicate an entire poem to writing about a classical theme, but instead weave allusions to ancient myths into their poems. Another favorite discovery from Schmidt’s book is the poet The Earl of Surrey and his poem “When Raging Love” is an excellent example of this type of classical allusion:

When raging love with extreme pain
Most cruelly distrains my heart;
When that my tears, as floods of rain,
Bear witness of my woeful smart;
When sighs have wasted so my breath
That I lie at the point of death:

I call to mind the navy great
That the Greeks brought to Troy town,
And how the boysteous winds did beat
Their ships and rent their sails adown,
Till Agamemnon’s daughter’s blood
Appeased the gods that them withstood.

And how that in those ten years’ war
Full many a bloody deed was done,
And many a lord, that came full far,
There caught his bane, alas, too soon,
And many a good knight overrun,
Before the Greeks had Helen now.

Then think I thus: since such repair,
So long time war of valiant men,
Was all to win a lady fair,
Shall I not learn to suffer then,
And think my life well spent to be
Serving a worthier wight than she?

Therefore I never will repent,
but pains contented still endure:
For like as when, rough winter spent,
The pleasant spring straight draws in ure,
So after raging storms of care
Joyful at length may be my fare.

And one more example of poets using classics, and another favorite discovery from Schmidt, is the Australian poet A.D. Hope. This is an example of a poet using a myth as a springboard in order to expand the voice of a character that we don’t hear from in the original, ancient sources. In his poem “The Return of Persephone” Hope gives us this myth from Persephone’s point-of-view:

Gliding through the still air, he made no sound;
Wing-shod and deft, dropped almost at her feet,
And searched the ghostly regiments and found
The living eyes, the tremor of breath, the beat
Of blood in all that bodiless underground.

She left her majesty; she loosed the zone
Of darkness and put by the rod of dread.
Standing, she turned her back upon the throne
Where, well she knew, the Ruler of the Dead,
Lord of her body and being, sat like stone;

Stared with his ravenous eyes to see her shake
The midnight drifting from her loosened hair,
The girl once more in all her actions wake,
The blush of colour in her cheeks appear
Lost with her flowers that day beside the lake.

The summer flowers scattering, the shout,
The black manes plunging down to the black pit —
Memory or dream? She stood awhile in doubt,
Then touched the Traveller God’s brown arm and met
His cool, bright glance and heard his words ring out:

“Queen of the Dead and Mistress of the Year!”
— His voice was the ripe ripple of the corn;
The touch of dew, the rush of morning air —
“Remember now the world where you were born;
The month of your return at last is here.”

And still she did not speak, but turned again
Looking for answer, for anger, for command:
The eyes of Dis were shut upon their pain;
Calm as his marble brow, the marble hand
Slept on his knee. Insuperable disdain

Foreknowing all bounds of passion, of power, of art,
Mastered but could not mask his deep despair.
Even as she turned with Hermes to depart,
Looking her last on her grim ravisher
For the first time she loved him from her heart.

The second side effect of reading Schmidt’s book—something that I honestly didn’t think would ever happen—is that I’ve actually begin to appreciate and enjoy American poetry. The only American poetry I had read at any length are those assigned to me in my classes at school and university. But I’ve been reading Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, e.e. Cummings, Laura Riding, John Berryman, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, and Frank O’Hara, just to name a few. Schmidt has single-handedly managed to give me a new understanding of the poets of my own country while putting them in the larger context of the history of English language poetry.

Finally, it has taken me months to read Lives of the Poets, not because it is a difficult text. In fact, as one can tell from the quote I shared at the beginning of the post, Schmidt’s writing is engaging and his sense of humor comes through quite often. But I kept pausing to read more of the poems he mentions and I have ordered an obscene amount of poetry in the last several months. So a bit of a warning if you read this book—you will be tempted to buy loads of poetry books. But can one ever really have too much poetry, especially in these trying times?

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Filed under American Literature, British Literature, Poetry

Invitation to the Voyage: Selected Poetry of Charles Baudelaire

Beverly Bie Brahic is not only a talented poet, but she is also a gifted translator.  Her latest work, a series of Baudelaire’s poems selected and translated for this edition entitled Invitation to the Voyage, was chosen from the wide array of the French poet’s oeuvre.  Brahic describes her experience choosing, organizing and translating  of Baudelaire’s work in the introduction to this volume: “When I began to translate Baudelaire, it was as an exercise in reading, visceral, as translation always is. The sensuous poems—dreams of escape to an impossible, often tropical, elsewhere, visions of voluptuousness—drew me first for their descriptive and perceptual richness. But the sensual Baudelaire needs the bitter, compassionate, desolate Baudelaire…”

“I adore you like the starry night sky…” is a favorite from the collection and best illustrates Baudelaire’s tension between the passionate and the bitter:

I adore you like the starry night sky,
O vase of sorrows, taciturn beauty,
And love you all the more as you flee me,
As you appear, oh how ironically,
Rich jewel of my dreams, to increase the waste
Between my arms and the immense blue space.

I rise to the attack, mount the assault,
Like a choir of maggots after a vault,
And cherish, beast cruel and implacable,
Even the coldness that makes you more beautiful.

The beautiful coldness, the taciturn beauty—Baudelaire’s jarring descriptions are still perfect in Brahic’s translation.

My favorite in the collection is a poem entitled “The Cat” not only because of the juxtaposition of the sensual and the bitter but because of the unexpected twist in the poem. The title is almost deceptive:

Come, my fine cat, to my amorous heart;
Keep your claws sheathed,
And let me sink into your eyes that dart
Sparks of metal and agate mixed.

When my fingers can stroke at their leisure
Your head and your elastic
Back, and my hand gets drunk on the pleasure
Of your body electric,

It is my wife I conjure up. Her gaze,
Amiable beast, like yours,
Deep and cold as a spear, penetrates me,

And from her toes to her ebony hair,
A dangerous perfume, a subtle air,
Swims around her brown body.

And the most wonderful thing about the collection is that the prose poems and short essays are paired with the appropriate poems thematically. In “Invitation to the Voyage” he writes,

You now the fevers that assail us in our cold wretchedness, our nostalgia for the country we don’t know, the anguish of curiosity? There’s a land that resembles you, where everything is beautiful, rich, tranquil and honest, where the imagination has constructed and decorated a western China, where life is soft and sweet to breathe, where happiness is wedded to silence. We must go there to live, we must go there to die!

Yes this is where we must go to breathe, dream and while away the hours in an infinity of sensations. A musician has composed an Invitation to the Waltz; who will compose an Invitation to the Voyage, that we may offer it to the woman we love, the sister-elect?

Whether one is familiar with Baudelaire or not this is a lovely volume to have sitting on one’s shelves.  The poems also come with the original French facing the translation and since this published by Seagull Books the cover is a work of art.

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Filed under French Literature, Poetry, Seagull Books