Monday, June 11, 2007

Some treasures from my recent reading

The Open Window [excerpt: one poem from a series]

Such doors.

The window falls
below the knee and rises higher than the raised hand.

Wittgenstein, determined to find
the window's perfect proportion, decided on ten to one,
height to width

but like a coastline,
a window is infinite, its perimeter
increasing forever without ever surpassing its frame

has everything to do with sight as exceeding. For centuries
they thought light

was something that flew out from the eye, the reaching child

for centuries thought light

had everything to do
with a windowsill on which sits a shell.

(Cole Swensen, from The Glass Age)


From the Vacuum Tube

Toward the painting Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768

In a carnival tent, near a village square,
on planks purpled by beef blood and a swirl
of velvet show cloths, a crystal tube shimmers,
long as a chimneysweep's leg. At its top, a coin
and feather wait, their brass clip catching the light
as a crowd gathers. And then they are falling together —
the guinea, the feather — through the airlessness,
through the vacuum space the silent crowd
seems almost to increase, each stunned breath sucked
in, in. When they land together on the tube's
glass floor — the feather, the coin — when they settle
simultaneously, someone curses the devil, someone
bites the coin, someone clips it again
in the tube's slim throat, and the falling
continues, guinea and feather, through the seconds
and days, through the decades,
until Wright of Derby pockets the coin, plumps

the feather to a white bird. He has painted
the glass — more bowl than tube —
and the slender pump, the solemn crowd,
one moon at the window, one moon
in the breast of the dying bird, slumped
on the bowl's glass floor. A girl hides her head
in a candlelit hand. A man looks up to an opening wing,
imagines the lifeless weight of the bird
falling on through the airlessness. No papery sway,
no tumble, just head and breast and tail and wing
falling together simultaneously — a movement so still
in its turbulence, he can find in his world no
correspondent: not the wavering journeys of snow
or sound, not the half-steps of dust or moonlight —
and the bird not beauty, the movement not fear,
although there in the candle's copper light, both
fall equally across his upturned face.

(Linda Bierds, from The Seconds)


All the Ghosts

Their dream decelerates our spinning planet
one millimeter-per-second per century
until they have matched velocity with us
and can stride into our lives and live again —

a matter of eons, nothing to them, so patient,
since the massed wish of all the dead
is only the slide of a hem across a floor,
or the difference on your face of milder air.

It is their fate, they murmur. It is anyway their way
to shun the theatrical or gothic gesture.
They would not rattle chains if chains could hold them.
It is the wind, so much stronger, that slams doors.

They are heard, if ever, in the dramas of your dreams
where you cannot tell still voices from your own,
intervening, if at all, in the neural substrate,
shunting a lone election Maybe or Maybe not.

Theirs are evasive and oblique persuasions,
stone by stream, for example, snows on outer planets,
undetected constants haunting physicists,
eddies where time runs sidelong or remembers.

Their delight is yielding, wind within the wind,
to faint velleities or fainter chances,
for they find among death's consolations, few enough,
the greatest is, to be mistaken for what happens.

When your eyes widen, they are surging to observe
the evening's trend to mauve, and all you have chosen
so slowly you are unaware of choosing.
And you may feel them feel, amused or touched

(history has not been long enough to decide which)
when your blunt patience emulates their own,
when you sense, like them, all fate might well be focused
in the exact glint of a right front hoof uplifted,

when you wait, as they must, for that crisis of precision
when it will make all the difference in the world
whether a particular petal's side-slipping fall
hushes the rim of a glass, or misses.

(James Richardson, from The Best American Poetry 2005)


Burlap Sack

A person is full of sorrow
the way a burlap sack is full of stones or sand.
We say, "Hand me the sack,"
but we get the weight.
Heavier if left out in the rain.
To think that the stones or sand are the self is an error.
To think that grief is the self is an error.
Self carries grief as a pack mule carries the side bags,
being careful between the trees to leave extra room.
The mule is not the load of ropes and nails and axes.
The self is not the miner nor builder nor driver.
What would it be to take the bride
and leave behind the heavy dowry?
To let the thin-ribbed mule browse in tall grasses,
its long ears waggling like the tails of two happy dogs?

(Jane Hirshfield, from The Best American Poetry 2005)



Some things the book doesn't mention —
the way she would walk the walls daily
and compass the horizon, Brittany

beyond it, and beyond that, island upon
island to the edge of the world walled
like a garden. Or how she'd woken

that night, to hear his breathing turn
like a change in the weather, swell
of a slack sail, the first whisper of rime

on a ripened fruit's skin, and saw him
adrift in the sheets, straight and naked
as a needle. And saw the shape of his

dreams, something like a ship's bow-wave
going on ahead, and saw, because love
was different then, how he'd think of her,

if at all, as the catch and drag of her skirt,
life's element of resistance: the skin
of an apple to the teeth, frostbitten grass

to the feet, a horse's straw-sweet breath
in air, or hawk in crewel work: like
the thing he lacked. And how she'd be

the heavier for it, but for all that, how
they'd have twinned, his idea and hers,
like sail and wind, wind and wing,

if life had been different then. Or still
like tapestry and needle: the turning
under, and the stitching in.

(Jane Griffiths, from Icarus on Earth)


And one old one of mine, since Paul Muldoon particularly liked it:

Phoenix House

I. Community

I’d wanted to build it of aspen—
one wide wood united, like fungi,
interlinked by mingling roots—
a single whole, that would enclose and frame
our future home. But each trunk, taken alone
was too slender, too lithe to be planed.
We had to go with oak. I decided
better to dwell in than on it.

II. Commutative

The fire devoured all. Like any frame
of primitive joints and untempered beams
it was just a matter of time, the blaze
insatiable, its decadent, dancing tongues—
there was an ecstasy in it, some phantom glimmer
even as we watched all we’d ever owned
dissociate into memories and drifting smoke.
In the end, nothing was left
but a stone Buddha, seated amid the ashes,
that canny smile on his lips.

III. Communion

Building again, I’m coming to believe
that all our dreams and constructs are
is a reusing of materials. I think
I may have felt this way before.
The burns have healed, leaving
their crimson imprint, an autumnal birthmark
the shape of a pressed leaf.
Waking in the middle of life, I imagine
a half-birthed sloth, somewhere
high up in the vaulted canopy—
by magnificent instinct, pulling itself
into the amazing world.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Stephen Dunn, "Five Roses in the Morning"

March 16, 2003

On TV the showbiz of war,
so I turn it off
wishing I could turn it off,
and glance at the five white roses
in front of the mirror on the mantel,
looking like ten.
That they were purchased out of love
and are not bloody red
won't change a goddamned thing—
goddamned things, it seems, multiplying
every day. Last night
the roses numbered six, but she chose
to wear one in her hair,
and she was more beautiful
because she believed she was.
It changed the night a little.
For us, I mean.


I've moved into a new apartment, and now having achieved a new home, I've started looking beyond the present to the future once again. Part of that has been MFA programs, and part of looking at those has been embarking on some more varied reading. Feeling more studious in reponse to this, I've decided to revive TPQ once again, if only for sporadic updates.
I came across this poem in The Best American Poetry 2005, edited by Paul Muldoon (aha, now you see why I was curious!). In his introduction, Muldoon calls attention to the ethical responses in poetry post 9/11 and amidst the Iraq War. "Five Roses in the Morning" is humanely poised at the crossroads of outrage and exasperation, despair and solipsism, inconsequence and solace. As such, it seems to be a very honest working through - of the need for a small refuge in love and beauty, against the knowledge that personal acts of love, or the act of a poem, even if meaningful as a redemption of our humanity against the inhumanity taking place in the world, still only provide refuge for those already safe, may provide an illusional amelioration, but make no practical difference. The poem plays with both multiplying - of the "goddamned things" and the reflected roses - and casualties - "not bloody red" and the sacrifice of the sixth rose. Throughout, the value of these gains and losses is uncertain: the one rose sacrificed to make beauty - or rather, believed beauty - left the five roses, but these appear as ten. Added to natural human subjectivity and self-concern is the enabling skew of technology and global distance, the "TV ... showbiz of war" which can simply be turned off (though ghost images still haunt this speaker). The conclusion is an odd, yet authentic alloy of redemptive hope and the perspective of conscience which trebly qualifies such redemption: "because she believed she was. / It changed the night a little. / For us, I mean." One might argue that the union of these two scenes - exasperation at the war and a small moment of transcendence - implicitly evokes a sense of the tragedy of war being a tragedy of the exclusion of poetry, an exclusion of beauty, for those within the meaningless circus of ugliness as well as those watching, hands and feet tied, within the stands.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Philip Larkin, "Aubade"

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel
, not seeing
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

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 realisation 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.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

James Merrill, "Farewell Performance"

Art. It cures affliction. As lights go down and
Maestro lifts his wand, the unfailing sea change
starts within us. Limber alembics once more
make of the common

Lot a pure, brief gold. At the end our bravos
call them back, sweat-soldered and leotarded,
back, again back - anything not to face the
fact that it’s over.

You are gone. You’d caught like a cold their airy
lust for essence. Now, in the furnace parched to
ten or twelve light handfuls, a mortal gravel
sifted through fingers,

Coarse yet grayly glimmering sublimate of
palace days, Strauss, Sidney, the lover’s plaintive
Can’t we just be friends? which your breakfast phone call
Clothed in amusement,

This is what we paddled a neighbor’s dinghy
out to scatter - Peter who grasped the buoy,
I who held the box underwater, freeing
all it contained. Past

Sunny, fluent soundings that gruel of selfhood
taking manlike shape for one last jete on
ghostly - wait, ah! - point into darkness vanished.
High up, a gull’s wings

Clapped. The house lights (always supposing, caro,
Earth remains your house) at their brightest set the
scene for good: true colors, the sun-warm hand to
cover my wet one ...

Back they come. How you would have loved it. We in
turn have risen. Pity and terror done with,
programs furled, lips parted, we jostle forward
eager to hail them,

More, to join the troupe - will a friend enroll us
one fine day? Strange, though. For up close their magic
self-destructs. Pale, dripping, with downcast eyes they’ve
seen where it led you.


I don't have my Collected Merrill, so I can't post the source for this poem; and, since I got it from the internet, I believe it's missing a dedication - "For DK" if I remember, Merrill's friend David Kalstone. I don't know that I have much more to say about this outstanding elegy - the tone is delicately pitched, the language and imagery both surprising and fittingly dignified, even haunting. The poem is written in the Sapphic stanza, after the ancient Greek poet Sappho; it is dominated by trochees (long-short / stressed-unstressed) with certain optional spondees (long-long / stressed-stressed), giving the verse a falling rhythm (as opposed to the more typical iamb) which has been claimed as appropriate to mournful verse.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Medbh McGuckian, "She Which Is Not, He Which Is"

An elm box without any shape inscribed
Like a tool in the closed vessel of the world;
I will be flat like a dream on both sides,
Or a road that makes one want to walk.

My words will be without words
Like a net hidden in a lake,
Their pale individual moisture
My eyes will not be the eyes of a poet
Whose voice is beyond death;
This face, these clothes, will be a field in autumn
And the following autumn, will be two sounds,
The second of which is deeper.

The sky for me on any one night
Will be the successive skies over the course
Of a year, for time that I love
Will have cut up and entered my body;
Time will have gathered the roots
Of my last spring, floating rather
Than anchored, and thrust them between
The two planes of my cheek and brow.

Even now, his lips are becoming
Narrower and bloodless, ever-searching,
Razor-like; unforgettable time,
During which I forget time, a new sort
Of time that descends so far down
Into me and still stays pure.

I imagine his house as a possible setting
For the harmony between one drop of water
And another, one wave and another wave,
Where the light accustoms one to light
And each occurrence is a touch.

When we pass through some darkness,
The waiting has pulled us.
Without the help of words, words take place.

Compared with this absence, weighed,
Diluted in time presence is abandonment,
Absence his manner of appearing,
As though one received from outside
The energy to accept the swept room
As much as the sweeping.

Though each instant of light
Wipes away a little of it
We shall not lose the way
In which things receive it:

Carry me who am death
Like a bowl of water
Filled to the brim
From one place to another.


From Marconi's Cottage (1991)

I can't say for certain that this poem should qualify as an elegy, much as I can't say 'for certain' what many of Medbh McGuckian's poems are 'about'. Certainly her father's impending and actual death was a major force in this collection and the one after it; I considered choosing a number of other poems that arguably are more clearly elegies. What I love about this one, however, is its very puzzling nature - the final stanza seems to imply death as a character, perhaps even (one of) the poem's speaker(s) - is death then the "She Which Is Not"? Or, since the poem interrogates both time and absenve vs. presence, it seems that the dead could be "He Which Is" most present in the vacant life of the mourning titular "She". McGuckian's style is particularly suited to interrogating such issues - the limits of life, being, sense - for at a formal level they push the limits of syntax, sense, meaning, perception. In contrast to Muldoon's "Incantata"'s equivocation, McGuckian's verse seeks to talk about death, and what it means to the living, by a new way of saying.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Paul Muldoon, "Incantata"

In memory of Mary Farl Powers

I thought of you tonight, a leanbh, lying there in your long barrow
colder and dumber than a fish by Francisco de Herrera,
as I X-Actoed from a spud the Inca
glyph for a mouth: thought of that first time I saw your pink
spotted torso, distant-near as a nautilus,
when you undid your portfolio, yes indeedy,
and held the print of what looked like a cankered potato
at arm's length—your arms being longer, it seemed, than Lugh's.

Even Lugh of the Long (sometimes the Silver) Arm
would have wanted some distance between himself and the army-worms
that so clouded the sky over St Cloud you'd have to seal
the doors and windows and steel
yourself against their nightmarish déjeuner sur l'herbe:
try as you might to run a foil
across their tracks, it was to no avail;
the army-worms shinnied down the stove-pipe on an army-worm rope.

I can hardly believe that, when we met, my idea of 'R and R'
was to get smashed, almost every night, on sickly-sweet Demarara
rum and Coke: as well as leaving you a grass widow
(remember how Krapp looks up 'viduity'?),
after eight or ten or twelve of those dark rums
it might be eight or ten or twelve o'clock before I'd land
back home in Landseer Street, deaf and blind
to the fact that not only was I all at sea, but in the doldrums.

Again and again you'd hold forth on your own version of Thomism,
your own Summa
that in everything there is an order,
that the things of the world sing out in a great oratorio:
it was Thomism, though, tempered by La Nausée,
by His Nibs Sam Bethicket,
and by that Dublin thing, that an artist must walk down Baggott
Street wearing a hair-shirt under the shirt of Nessus.

'D'éirigh me ar maidin,' I sang, 'a tharraingt chun aoinigh mhóir':
our first night, you just had to let slip that your secret amour
for a friend of mine was such
that you'd ended up lying with him in a ditch
under a bit of whin, or gorse, or furze,
somewhere on the border of Leitrim, perhaps, or Roscommon:
'gamine,' I wanted to say, 'kimono';
even then it was clear I'd never be at the centre of your universe.

Nor should I have been, since you were there already, your own Ding
an sich
, no less likely to take wing
than the Christ you drew for a Christmas card as a pupa
in swaddling clothes: and how resolutely you would pooh-pooh
the idea I shared with Vladimir and Estragon,
with whom I'd been having a couple of jars,
that this image of the Christ-child swaddled and laid in the manger
could be traced directly to those army-worm dragoons.

I thought of the night Vladimir was explaining to all and sundry
the difference between geantrai and suantrai
and you remarked on how you used to have a crush
on Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry, and Vladimir went to brush
the ash off his sleeve with a legerdemain
that meant only one thing—'Why does he put up with this crap?'—
and you weighed in with 'To live in a dustbin, eating scrap,
seemed to Nagg and Nell a most eminent domain.'

How little you were exercised by those tiresome literary intrigues,
how you urged me to have no more truck
than the Thane of Calder,
with a fourth estate that professes itself to be 'égalitaire'
but wants only blood on the sand: yet, irony of ironies,
you were the one who, in the end,
got yourself up as a retiarius and, armed with net and trident,
marched from Mount Street to the Merrion Square arena.

In the end, you were the one who went forth to beard the lion,
you who took the DART line
every day from Jane's flat in Dun Laoghaire, or Dalkey,
dreaming your dream that the subterranean Dodder and Tolka
might again be heard above the hoi polloi
for whom Irish 'art' means a High Cross at Carndonagh or Corofin
and The Book of Kells: not until the lion cried craven
would the poor Tolka and the poor Dodder again sing out for joy.

I saw you again tonight, in your jump-suit, thin as a rake,
your hand moving in such a deliberate arc
as you ground a lithographic stone
that your hand and the stone blurred to one
and your face blurred into the face of your mother, Betty Wahl,
who took your failing, ink-stained hand
in her failing, ink-stained hand
and together you ground down that stone by sheer force of willl.

I remember you pooh-poohing, as we sat there on the Enterprise,
my theory that if your name is Powers
you grow into it or, at least,
are less inclined to tremble before the likes of this bomb-blast
further up the track: I myself was shaking like a leaf
as we wondered whether the I.R.A. or the Red
Hand Commandos or even the Red
Bridages had brough us to a standstill worthy of Hamm and Clov.

Hamm and Clov; Nagg and Nell; Watt and Knott;
the fact is that we'd been at a standstill long before the night
things came to a head,
long before we'd sat for half the day in the sweltering heat
somewhere just south of Killnasaggart
and I let slip a name—her name—off my tongue
and you turned away (I see it now) the better to deliver the sting
in your own tail, to let slip your own little secret.

I thought of you again tonight, thin as a rake, as you bent
over the copper plate of 'Emblements',
its tidal wave of army-worms into which you all but disappeared:
I wanted to catch something of its spirit
and yours, to body out your disembodied vox
clamantis in deserto
, to let this all-too-cumbersomen device
of a potato-mouth in a potato-face
speak out, unencumbered, from its long, low, mould-filled box.

I wanted it to speak to what seems always true of the truly great,
that you had a winningly inaccurate
sense of your own worth, that you would second-guess
yourself too readily by far, that you would rally to any cause
before your own, mine even,
though you detected in me a tendency to put
on too much artificiality, both as man and poet,
which is why you called me 'Polyester' or 'Polyurethane'.

That last time in Dublin, I copied with a quill dipped in oak-gall
onto a sheet of vellum, or maybe a human caul,
a poem for The Great Book of Ireland: as I watched the low
swoop over the lawn today of a swallow
I thought of your animated talk of Camille Pissarro
and André Derain's The Turning Road, L'Estaque:
when I saw in that swallow's nest a face in a mud-pack
from that muddy road I was filled again with a profound sorrow.

You must have known already, as we moved from the 'Hurly Burly'
to McDaid's or Riley's,
that something was amiss: I think you even mentioned a homeopath
as you showed off the great new acid-bath
in the Graphic Studio, and again undid your portfolio
to lay out your latest works; I try to imagine the strain
you must have been under, pretending to be as right as rain
while hearing the bells of a church from some long-flooded valley.

From the Quabbin reservoir, maybe, where the banks and bakeries
of a dozen little submerged Pompeii reliquaries
still do a roaring trade: as clearly as I saw your death-mask
in that swallow's nest, you must have heard the music
rise from the muddy ground between
your breasts as a nocturne, maybe, by John Field;
to think that you thought yourself so invulnerable, so inviolate,
that a little cancer could be beaten.

You must have known, as we walked through the ankle-deep clabber
with Katherine and Jean annd the long-winded Quintus Calaber,
that cancer had already made such a breach
that you would almost surely perish:
you must have thought, as we walked through the woods
along the edge of the Quabbin,
that rather than let some doctor cut you open
you'd rely on sufusions of hardock, hemlock, all the idle weeds.

I thought again of how art may be made, as it was by André Derain,
of nothing more than a turn
in the road where a swallow dips into the mire
or plucks a strand of bloody wool from a strand of barbed wire
in the aftermath of Chickamauga or Culloden
and builds from pain, from misery, from a deep-seated hurt,
a monument to the human heart
that shines like a golden dome among roofs rain-glazed and leaden.

I wanted the mouth in this potato-cut
to be heard far beyond the leaden, rain-glazed roofs of Quito,
to be heard all the way from the southern hemisphere
to Clontarf or Clondalkin, to wherever your sweet-sever
spirit might still find a toe-hold
in this world: it struck me then how you would be aghast
at the thought of my thinking you were some kind of ghost
who might still roam the earth in search of an earthly delight.

You'd be aghast at the idea of your spirit hanging over this vale
of tears like a jump-suited jump-jet whose vapour-trail
unravels a sky: for there's nothing, you'd say nothing over
and above the sky itself, nothing but cloud-cover
reflected in the housand lakes; it seems that Minne-
sota itself means 'sky-tinted water', that the sky is a great slab
of granite or iron ore that might at any moment slip
back into the work-out sky-quarry, into the worked-out sky-mines.

To use the word 'might' is to betray you once too often, to betray
your notion that nothing's random, nothing arbitrary:
the gelignite weeps, the hands fly by on the alarm clock,
the 'Enterprise' goes clackety-clack
as they all must; even the car hijacked that morning in the Cross,
that was preordained, its owner spread on the bonnet
before being gagged and bound or bound
and gagged, that was fixed like the stars in the Southern Cross.

The fact that you were determined to cut yourself off in your prime
because it was pre-determined has my eyes abrim:
I crouch with Belacqua
and Lucky and Pozzo in the Acacacac-
ademy of Anthropopopometry, trying to make sense of the 'quaquaqua'
of that potato-mouth; that mouth as prim
and proper as it's full of self-opprobrium,
with its 'quaquaqua', with its 'Quoiquoiquoiquoiquoiquoiquoiq'.

That's all that's left of the voice of Enrico Caruso
from all that's left of an opera-house somewhere in Matto Grosso,
all that's left of the bogweed and horehound and cuckoo-pint,
of the eighteen soldiers dead at Warrenpoint,
of the Black Church clique and the Graphic Studio claque,
of the many moons of glasses on a tray,
of the brewer-carts drawn by moon-booted drays,
of those jump-suits worn under your bottle-green worsted cloak.

Of the great big dishes of chicken lo mein and beef chow mein,
of what's mine is yours and what's yours mine,
of the oxlips and cowslips
on the banks of the Liffey at Leixlip
where the salmon breaks through the either/or neither/nor nether
reaches despite the temple-veil
of itself being rent and the penny left out overnight on the rail
is a sheet of copper when the mail-train has passed over.

Of the bride carried over the threshold, hey, only to alight
on the limestone slab of another threshold,
of the swarm, the cast,
the colt, the spew of bees hanging like a bottle of Lucozade
from a branch the groom must sever,
of Emily Post's ruling, in Etiquette,
on how best to deal with the butler being in chaoots
with the cook when they're both in cahoots with the chauffeur.

Of that poplar-flanked stretch of road between Leiden
and The Hague, of the road between Rathmullen and Ramelton,
where we looked so long and hard
for some trace of Spinoza or Amelia Earhart,
both of them going down with their engines on fire:
of the stretch of road somewhere near Urney
where Orpheus was again overwhelmed by that urge to turn
back and lost not only Eurydice but his steel-strung lyre.

Of the sparrows and finches in their bell of suet,
of the bitter-sweet
bottle of Calvados we felt obliged to open
somewhere near Falaise, so as to toast our new-found copains,
of the priest of the parish
who came enquiring about our 'status', of the hedge-clippers
I somehow had to hand, of him running like the clappers
up Landseer Street, of my subsequent self-reproach.

Of the remnants of Airey Neave, of the remnants of Mountbatten,
of the famous andouilles, of the famous boudins
noirs et blancs
, of the barrel-vault
of the Cathedral at Rouen, of the flashlight, fat and roll of felt
on each of their sledges, of the music
of Joseph Beuy's pack of huskies, of that baldy little bugger
mushing them all the way from Berncastel through Bacarrat
to Belfast, his head stuck with honey and gold-leaf like a mosque.

Of Benjamin Britten's Lachrymae, with its gut-wrenching viola,
of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, of Frankie Valli's,
of Braque's great painting The Shower of Rain,
of the fizzy, lemon or sherbet-green Rana
plonked down in Trinity like a little Naugahyde pouffe,
of eighteen soldiers dead in Oriel,
of the weakness for a little fol-de-rol-de-rolly
suggested by the gap between the front teeth of the Wife of Bath.

Of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, of Seurat's
piling of tesserae upon tesserae
to give us a monkey arching its back
and the smoke arching out from a smoke-stack,
of Sunday afternoons in the Botanic Gardens, going with the flow
of the burghers of Sandy Row and Donegal
Pass and Andersonstown and Rathcoole,
of the army Landrover flaunt-flouncing by with its heavy furbelow.

Of Marlborough Park, of Notting Hill, of the Fitzroy Avenue
immortalized by Van 'His real name's Ivan'
Morrison, 'and him the dead spit
of Padraic Fiacc', of John Hewitt, the famous expat,
in whose memory they offer every year six of their best milch cows,
of the Bard of Ballymacarrett,
of every ungodly poet in his or her godly garret,
of Medhbh and Michael and Frank and Ciaran and 'wee' John Qughes.

Of the Belfast school, so called, of the school of hard knocks,
of your fervent eschewal of stockings and socks
as you set out to hunt down your foes
as implacably as the tóraidheacht through the Fews
of Redmond O'Hanlon, of how that 'd' and that 'c' aspirate
in tóraidheacht make it sound like a last gasp in an oxygen-tent,
of your refusal to open a vent
but to breathe in spirit of salt, the mordant salt-spirit.

Of how mordantly hydrochloric acid must have scored and scarred,
of the claim that boiled skirrets
can cure the spitting of blood, of that dank
flat somewhere off Morehampton Road, of the unbelievable stink
of valerian or feverfew simmering over a low heat,
of your sitting there, pale and gaunt,
with that great prescriber of boiled skirrets, Dr John Arbuthnot,
your face in a bowl of feverfew, a towel over your head.

Of the great roll of paper like a bolt of cloth
running out again and again like a road at the edge of a cliff,
of how you called a Red Admiral a Red
Admirable, of how you were never in the red
on either the first or the last
of the month, of your habit of loosing the drawstring of your purse
and finding one scrunched-up, obstreperous
note and smoothing it out and holding it up, pristine and pellucid.

Of how you spent your whole life with your back to the wall,
of your generosity when all the while
you yourself lived from hand
to mouth, of Joseph Beuy's pack of hounds
crying out from their felt and fat 'Atone, atone, atone',
of Watt remembering the 'Krak! Krek! Krik!'
of those three frogs' karaoke
like the still, sad basso continuo of the great quotidian.

Of a ground bass of sadness, yes, but also a sennet of hautboys
as the fat and felt hounds of Beuys O'Beuys
bayed at the moon over a caravan
in Dunmore East, I'm pretty sure it was, or Dungarvan:
of my guest appearance in your self-portrait not as a hidalgo
from a long line
of hidalgos but a hound-dog, a leanbh,
a dog that skulks in the background, a dog that skulks and stalks.

Of that self-portrait, of the self-portraits by Rembrandt van Rijn,
of all that's revelation, all that's rune,
of all that's composed, all composed of odds and ends,
of that daft urge to make amends
when it's far too late, too late even to make sense of the clutter
of false trails and reversed horseshoe tracks
and the aniseed we took it in turn to drag
across each other's scents, when only a fish is dumber and colder.

Of your avoidance of canned goods, in the main,
on account of the exceeeeeeeeeeeeeeeedingly high risk of ptomaine,
of corned beef in particular being full of crap,
of your delight, so, in eating a banana as ceremoniously as Krapp
but flinging the skin over your shoulder like a thrush
flinging off a shell from which it's only just managed to disinter
a snail, like a stone-faced, twelfth-century
FitzKrapp eating his banana by the yellow light of a rush.

Of the 'Yes, let's go' spoken by Monsieur Tarragon,
of the early-ripening jargonelle, the tumorous jardon, the jargon
of jays, the jars
of tomato relish and the jars
of Victoria plums, absolutely de rigeur for a passable plum baba,
of the drawers full of balls of twine and butcher's string,
of Dire Straits playing 'The Sultans of Swing',
of the horse's hock suddenly erupting in those boils and buboes.

Of the Greek figurine of a pig, of the pig on a terracotta frieze,
of the sow dropping dead from some mysterious virus,
of your predilection for gammon
served with a sauce of coriander or cumin,
of the slippery elm, or the hornbeam or witch-, or even wych-,
hazel that's good for stopping a haemor-
rhage in mid-flow, of the merest of mere
hints of elderberry curing everything from sciatica to a stitch.

Of the decree condemnator, the decree absolvitor, the decree nisi,
of Aosdána, of an chraobh cnuais,
of the fields of buckwheat
taken over by garget, inkberry, scoke—all names for pokeweed—
of Mother Courage, of Arturo Ui,
of those Sunday mornings spent picking at sesame
noodles and all sorts and conditions of dim sum,
of tea and ham sandwiches in the Nesbitt Arms Hotel in Ardara.

Of the day your father came to call, of your leaving your sick-room
in what can only have been a state of delirium,
of how you simply wouldn't relent
from your vision of a blind
watch-maker, of your fatal belief that fate
governs everything from the honey-rust of your father's terrier's
eyebrows to the horse that rusts and rears
in the furrow, of the furrows from which we can no more deviate

than they can from themselves, no more than the map of Europe
can be redrawn, than that Hermes might make a harp from his harpe,
than that we must live in a vale
of tears on the banks of the Lagan or the Foyle,
than that what we have is a done deal,
than that the Irish Hermes,
Lugh, might have leafed through his vast herbarium
for the leaf that had it within it, Mary, to anoint and anneal,

than that Lugh of the Long Arm might have found in the midst of lus
na leac
or lus na treatha or Frannc-lus,
in the midst of eyebright, or speedwell, or tansy, an antidote,
than that this Incantata
might have you look up from your plate of copper or zinc
on which you've etched the row upon row
of army-worms, than that you might reach out, arrah,
and take in your ink-stained hands my own hands stained with ink.


From The Annals of Chile (1994)

You must excuse my taking a second poem for this week of elegies from Paul Muldoon—I did write a 60 page study of the matter. I've chosen "Incantata" as a counterpoint to "Ma": whereas yesterday's poem was a study in compression and obliqueness, implicating all that had been lost and the overwhelming emotion by a necessary silence, today's poem is an overflow of emotion and detail. It takes as its central trope of elegy, where a poem, in describing the lost beloved, creates a monument of presence to replace the absence that causes grief. "Incantata" enumerates all the things that have been lost, serving as a monumental record of the portion of life shared by the poet and his former lover. It does indeed culminate by imagining her presence, achieving some catharsis in that imagination.
The poem itself, of course, is insistent that such an achieved resurrection is imposible; all the time that it is incanting the details of their shared life, it also asserts the loss of that life, repeating "that's all that's left of...." Just before the poem's midpoint, the speaker explicitly states the impossibility of his project, even imagining that the lost beloved would be "aghast / at the thought of my thinking you were some kind of ghost".
Instead, Powers exhibits a steadfast belief in fate, such that she eschewed conventional treatment for her cancer, trusting instead in "all the idle weeds." The speaker is troubled by this stubborn notion, considering it likely to blame for the beloved's early death. This conflict is further dramatized by the poem's form: Muldoon follows a consistent rhyme scheme; and yet, his incredible ingenuity with rhyme allows for the widest range of reference imaginable within the space of each stanza and the poem as a whole. Even more, the poem's rhyme-sounds themselves have actually been imported from another poem—"Yarrow"—an elegy for Muldoon's mother which appears in the same volume. "Incantata" follows the rhyme-sounds in the exact same order (which cycles similar to a sestina until at the mid-point it is repeated in reverse order) as they appeared in "Yarrow", except that this time they are used within the aabbcddc stanza form. This arbitrary constraint seems a perfect analogue for fate; and yet, it does not confine the poet, but spurs him on to greater creativity and ingenuity.
In confronting the limits of death, the poem also confronts the limits of free will, at one level, and of poetic efficacy, at a more narrow level. The poem itself is equivocal: the beloved and all that went with her is lost, and yet they are present through the poem; that loss is irremedial, "a deep-seated hurt", and yet through art some solace is created. The fact that the final reconciliation is, and can only be, imaginary does not diminish its emotional impact and value. It is via the artistic medium of "ink" that the mourning poet and the lost beloved are linked.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Paul Muldoon, "Ma"

Old photographs would have her bookish, sitting
Under a willow. I take that to be a croquet
Lawn. She reads aloud, no doubt from Rupert Brooke.
The month is always May or June.

Or with the stranger on the motor-bike.
Not my father, no. This one's all crew-cut
And polished brass buttons.
An American soldier, perhaps.
_______________________And the full moon
Swaying over Keenaghan, the orchards and the cannery,
Thins to a last yellow-hammer, and goes.
The neighbours gather, all Keenaghan and Collegelands.
There is story-telling. Old miners at Coalisland
Going into the ground. Swinging, for fear of the gas,
The soft flame of a canary.


From Mules (1977)

This week we take a few of my favorite examples of one of my favorite forms—the elegy. I've decided to put TPQ on indefinite hiatus—though I love doing it, it takes up rather a large portion of time and energy which I feel the need of for the furthering of my own reading and the pursuit of my own writing. I'll probably still post a little something from time to time, and maybe take up regular updates when I go back to a student's schedule in another year or two... but, for now, a week of poems on death to sing the current incarnation of TPQ to a close.
To start this week (and to continue it, as you'll see tomorrow) I've chosen this poem by Paul Muldoon, his first certifiable parental elegy, arguably one of the major genres in his body of work. Here we have an example of an oblique approach to elegy: Muldoon's lost mother is hardly mentioned, her death only implied. The first eight lines of the sonnet portray the lost beloved's presence-in-absence, invoking objects that provoke memories, but in doing so fall short of the real life of the lost. The fact that the time 'recalled' here is in fact from before the speaker's own life and context—he can hardly say who she was before she was his mother—further dramatizes the objective separation of the other from the subject, as irretrievable as the past itself, or some idealized, impossible place out of time, that "is always May or June."
The sonnet's sestet shifts to enacting the beloved's disappearance through a delicate modulation of images that resonate with traditional tropes of death. First there is the diminishing of the waning moon. Muldoon then alludes to communal traditions of commemoration of the dead: "There is story-telling" and the poem stretches from the Irish parish of Coalisland to the Classical underworld of Hades, though at the same time implicitly referencing burial: "Old miners ... / Going into the ground." The final image of the canary-flame unites the diminishing light of the moon, the Classical movement underground of the miners, and an oblique allusion to death in the practical use miners made of the canary. In this case, the mother becomes a tender protector once more, as the first to cross over into death, a soft comfort lighting the way, a way which all must follow. This transformation is likewise embodied in the transformation-by-metaphor of the physical canary into the immaterial flame. At the same time, the the poem's pararhymes, approaching but never reaching a perfect chime, undercut any sense of closure, reflecting the way that possession of the dead beloved continually and inevitably escapes the elegist's attempts to make her present through the poem.