Tag Archives: 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

in the kitchen it is cold: Requiem for Ernst Jandl by Friederike Mayröcker

Friederike Mayröcker and Ernst Jandl lived together from 1954 until Jandl’s death in 2000. They were lovers, companions, friends and creative partners; as we read Mayröcker’s elegy to Jundl the feeling of being lost and bewildered without him pervades her text. In a partnership that spans more than forty years, it’s fascinating to see what images and thoughts she brings to her poetic reflection on their time together. After spending so much of her life and her passions with him, how could she possibly choose what to write about in order to honor properly their memories?

One of my favorite pieces in the book is a reflection on a poem fragment that Jandl writes that is stuffed, with many other literary fragments, into his desk. In the winter of ’88 the two are painstakingly excavating the contents of his desk and Mayröcker recollects:

Afternoon after afternoon, actually the entire
winter of ’88, we are absorbed in
viewing, approving, conserving what
has been written down. And then, suddenly,
one day I come across four lines
dashed off in pencil:

in the kitchen it is cold
winter has an awful hold
mother’s left her stove of course
and i shiver like a horse.

She goes on to connect the poem to her current state of grief over Jandl’s passing:

The last line, which informs of the most
profound abandonment, aloneness, exclusion
seeking solace in an attempt
to identify with that mute creature—a carriage
horse in winter’s cold depths, standing
in one place for hours, head hanging, in no
one’s care, waiting for a human to get it
going—is so poignant.

And it is the very last line of the poem that haunts Mayröcker:

This line: mother is not at her stove:
conveys the damnable utterly graceless
transience and finiteness of this life, mother
is not at her stove—where did she go.

I’ve read two other books on grief recently: Will Daddario’s To Grieve and Max Porter’s Grief is a Thing with Feathers. Of all these, Mayrocker’s text elicited the most emotional response from me. Her multifaceted response to grief in all its forms—emotional, philosophical, social—struck a nerve.

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Filed under German Literature, Poetry, Seagull Books

Here of a Sunday Morning: The Poetry of A.E. Housman

“On the Teme”, one of William Hyde’s coloured illustrations to A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1908)

I am very familiar with Housman’s academic writing on classical subjects, but George Steiner’s discussion of Housman promoted me to read his poetry.  I have been reading a few poems a week from The Wordsworth Poetry Library edition I bought and here I offer two of my favorites so far.  They are from A Shropshire Lad collection.

XXI
Bredon Hill

In summertime on Bredon
The bells they sound so clear;
Round both the shires they ring them
In steeples far and near,
A happy noise to hear.

Here of a Sunday morning
My love and I would lie,
And see the coloured counties,
And hear the larks so high
About us in the sky.

The bells would ring to call her
In valleys miles away:
‘Come all to church, good people;
Good people, come and pray.’
But here my love would stay.

And I would turn and answer
Among the springing thyme,
‘Oh, peal upon our wedding,
And we will hear the chime,
And come to church in time.’

But when the snows at Christmas
On Bredon top were strown,
My love rose up so early
And stole out unbeknown
And went to church alone.

They tolled the one bell only,
Groom there was none to see,
The mourners followed after,
And so to church went she,
And would not wait for me.

The bells they sound on Bredon,
And still the steeples hum.
‘Come all to church, good people,’—
Oh, noisy bells, be dumb;
I hear you, I will come.

XIV
There pass the careless people
That call their souls their own:
Here by the road I loiter,
How idle and alone.

Ah, past the plunge of plummet,
In seas I cannot sound,
My heart and soul and senses,
World without end, are drowned.

His folly has not fellow
Beneath the blue of day
That gives to man or woman
His heart and soul away.

There flowers no balm to sain him
From east of earth to west
That ’s lost for everlasting
The heart out of his breast.

Here by the labouring highway
With empty hands I stroll:
Sea-deep, till doomsday morning,
Lie lost my heart and soul.

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Poetry