Tag Archives: Poetry

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One of the best sections of poetry in the collection, I think,  is that of the uncollected and unpublished poems.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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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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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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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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