Tag 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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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

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

Entrusting One’s Sleep to Another: Propertius 1.3

Auguste Jean Baptiste Vinchon. Propertius and Cynthia at Tivoli.

Sextus Propertius, a Latin elegiac poet of the Augustan age, is, rather unfortunately, not as well-known as other poets of this era. He was friends with the most famous men of his day including Vergil, Maecenas and Augustus. His talent as an elegist is evident in his four books of poetry which contain 92 poems. I was fortunate enough in graduate school to be in a program that appreciated his work and I took three different classes that focused on this poet. I admit that I haven’t looked at or translated his work in many years, but he seemed like just the thing to suit my mood this week.

In Poem 1.3, he visits his lover, Cynthia, while she is fast asleep in her bedroom. In his amorous and drunken state he is tempted to wake her with a showering of kisses, but holds off for fear of angering her. He, instead, watches her sleep. I find the images of the first 20 lines, comparing her to a sleeping Ariadne and a Bacchante, simple yet sensual and intimate. I offer here my translation of lines 1-20:

Cynthia seemed to me to be breathing softly and quietly while sleeping with her head on her entwined hands; similar to weary Ariadne as she was lying on the deserted shores while Theseus sailed away on his ship; or similar to Andromeda, finally freed from the harsh cliffs, as she was resting during her first sleep; and similar to a Bacchante, exhausted from her continual dances, as she collapses on the grassy banks of the Apidanus. As the slave boys were shaking the torches late into the night, I dragged my feet, drunk with too much Wine, into her room. Not quite yet completely out of my senses, I softly attempted to lie on the bed beside her. Although two relentless gods, Love and Wine, were driving me, seized with a double passion, to disturb Cynthia while she was sleeping and to slip my arm under her and to steal drawn out kisses, I did not dare to interrupt my lover’s rest for fear of incurring the reproaches of her anger with which I am all too familiar. Instead I remained fixed to my spot with my eyes intent upon watching her—I was like Argus, the 100-eyed monster, who kept a vigil over Io with her strange horns.

Propertius’s last few lines, in particular, capture the vulnerability and sensuality of one lover watching another while asleep. It reminds me of the intimacy and trust involved in the experience of sleeping beside another person as described by Quignard in his novel Villa Amalia:

Entrusting one’s sleep to another is perhaps the only real indecency.

To let oneself be watched while sleeping, feeling hungry, dreaming, growing erect or dilated is a strange offering.

She could see his eyes quivering beneath his lids, moving beneath the pale, fragile skin. She could see everything. She could see he was dreaming. Who was he dreaming of? Curiously, she dreamt he dreamt dreams that weren’t dreams of her.

It turned out that he too sighed in his sleep—just like his little daughter.

They both of them gave enormous sighs—like sighs of relinquishment.

Stuart Shotwell’s novel Tomazina’s Folly has, for me, one of the most tender scenes in literature as a woman looks through her lover’s private sketch book in which he has drawn erotic and caring images of his ideal marriage:

As she went on through the book she discovered that a conspicuously recurring theme was that of one spouse watching the other sleep: the wife, sometimes gloriously nude, sometimes fully clothed, either in bed herself or in a chair, watched her husband as he slept; and likewise the husband watching over his wife. There was a tenderness and curiosity and protectiveness in the expression of the watchers, as if they themselves could not sleep, but wanted their spouses to dream undisturbed.

Finally, Jean-Luc Nancy in The Fall of Sleep touches upon the reasons why falling asleep beside another person is an extension of an act of intimacy:

Sleeping together opens up nothing less than the possibility of penetrating into the most intimate part of the other, namely, precisely into his or her sleep. The happy, languid sleep of lovers who sink down together prolongs their loving spasm into a long suspense, into a pause held at the limits of the dissolution and disappearance of their very harmony: intermingled, their bodies insidiously disentangle, however intertwined they can sometimes remain until the end of sleep, until the instant joy returns to them as renewed for having been forgotten, eclipsed during the time of their sleep, where their agile bodies surface again after having been drowned at the bottom of the waters they themselves poured out.

Propertius’s poem ends with his lover waking up, accusing him of being in the embrace of another woman, and complaining that he wasn’t there to fall asleep with her. Cynthia’s wish for him is that he get a taste of his own medicine and that he also experience a lonely night without her in his bed.

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Filed under Classics, French Literature, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Poetry

I Hold You in Imagination: The Poetry of Elizabeth Jennings

I finally received in the mail today a volume of poetry by Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) that I have been eagerly awaiting for weeks. The edition, entitled “Timely Issues” is published by Carcanet Press, which has also printed the other volume I own, her “Selected Poems.” Jennings was very successful with her poetry in her earlier years, publishing her work in various literary magazines and winning awards and prizes. But as her life progressed, she was mentally and physically fragile and suffered from breakdowns which caused her to be hospitalized. Her illnesses, her deep Catholic roots, and the difficult love affairs in which she engaged pervade her poems. I find her poetry simple, yet profound, quite lovely, and even soothing. I include here in my post three of my favorites from the Carcanet collections; they need no commentary or analysis as I think that would ruin my post—they stand better simply, on their own.

About These Things

About these things I always shall be dumb.
Some wear their silences as more than dress,
As more than skin deep. I bear mine like some

Scar that is hidden out of shamefulness.
I speak from depths I do not understand
Yet cannot find the words for this distress.

So much of power is put into my hand
When words come easily. I sense the way
People are charmed and pause; I seem to mend

Some hurt. Some healing seems to make them stay.
And yet within the power that I use
My wordless fears remain. Perhaps I say

In lucid Verse the terrors that confuse
In Conversation. Maybe I am dumb
Because if fears were spoken I would lose

The lovely languages I do not choose
More than the darkness from which they come.

Remembering Fireworks

Always as if for the first time we watch
The fireworks as if no one had ever
Done this before, made shapes, signs,
Cut diamonds in air, sent up stars
Nameless, imperious. And in the falling
Of fire, the spent rocket, there is a kind
Of nostalgia as normally only attaches
To things long known and lost. Such an absence,
Such emptiness of sky the fireworks leave
After their festival. We, fumbling
For words of love, remember the rockets,
The spinning wheels, the sudden diamonds,
And say with delight, ‘yes, like that, like that.’
Oh and the air is full of falling
Stars surrendered. We search for a sign.

Assurance

My love, I hold you in imagination,
Either mine or yours,
And it is stronger than remembered passion.
It uses memory with all its force.

O the clocks go silent, time departs,
Now is forever here.
How delicate yet strong are our two hearts,
Mine beats for you now almost everywhere.

Only when my world is rent with storm,
Threatened by sadness or
Overcome by black words which can come
And threaten me with the inner, hideous war

Only then, I’ve lost you. O but fast
A little flash of sun,
A hurrying memory returns you blessed
And our great love is stalwartly at one.

In a wonderfully written and compelling article entitled “Clarify Me, Please, God of the Galaxies” Dana Gioia concludes about Jennings’s poetry, ” Her poems flash like meteors illuminating what it means to be human.”

What poetry is everyone else reading lately? I would love to have some new recommendations in the comments.

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Poetry