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.

Friday, February 23, 2007

W. H. Auden, "A Lullaby"

The din of work is subdued,
another day has westered
and mantling darkness arrived.
Peace! Peace! Devoid your portrait
of its vexations and rest.
Your daily round is done with,
you've gotten the garbage out,
answered some tiresome letters
and paid a bill by return,
all frettolosamente.
Now you have licence to lie,
naked, curled like a shrimplet,
jacent in bed, and enjoy
its cosy micro-climate:
Sing, Big Baby, sing lullay.

The old Greeks got it all wrong:
Narcissus is an oldie,
tamed by time, released at last
from lust for other bodies,
rational and reconciled.
For many years you envied
the hirsute, the he-man type.
No longer: now you fondle
your almost feminine flesh
with mettled satisfaction,
imagining that you are
sinless and all-sufficient,
snug in the den of yourself,
Madonna and Bambino:
Sing, Big Baby, sing lullay.

Let your last thinks all be thanks:
praise your parents who gave you
a Super-Ego of strength
that saves you so much bother,
digit friends and dear them all,
then pay fair attribution
to your age, to having been
born when you were. In boyhood
you were permitted to meet
beautiful old contraptions,
soon to be banished from earth,
saddle-tank loks, beam-engines
and over-shot waterwheels.
Yes, love, you have been lucky:
Sing, Big Baby, sing lullay.

Now for oblivion: let
the belly-mind take over
down below the diaphragm,
the domain of the Mothers,
They who guard the Sacred Gates,
without whose wordless warnings
soon the verbalising I
becomes a vicious despot,
lewd, incapable of love,
disdainful, status-hungry.
Should dreams haunt you, heed them not,
for all, both sweet and horrid,
are jokes in dubious taste,
too jejune to have truck with.
Sleep, Big Baby, sleep your fill.



To end the week, one of Auden's last poems, this delicate self-elegy. My choices were dominated by the Auden of the hawk's eye view, of great truths of humanity and history. The truths here are no less great, nor certainly less humane, but this example serves to show the other end of the spectrum of Auden's voice - intimate, personal, profoundly compassionate while retaining a wise, deprecating irony. One can't but be charmed and warmed by the coddling description "naked, curled like a shrimplet" and the winning "Let your last thinks all be thanks ... digit friends and dear them all" (how utterly opposite in tone to Yeats' "Think where man's glory most begins and ends / And say my glory was I had such friends."). This compassionate nature clearly underpins all of Auden's work, but it is of moral value and effect that we encounter in his work not only a VOICE: incl. Man's Compassion for Man, but also simply the voice of a compassionate man.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

W. H. Auden, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats"

(d. January 1939)


He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instrument we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergree forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fasionable queys;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections;
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom;
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instrument we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.


You were silly like us: your gift survived it all;
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its saying where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw town that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.


Earth, receive an honoured guest;
William Yeats is laid to rest;
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beatiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.



This is, quite simply, one of the great elegies of English literature, and one of the most significant poems in the twentieth century. It gives an utterly original, riveting, and convincing account of the dissolution of an individual into the matter of history; at the same time, it gives a gloss of how history shapes and gives impetus to the individual. It sets the argument of the place of this individual as a poet, of poetry within history, the ambivalently qualified contention "poetry makes nothing happen...." It also pays homage to the courage of Yeats and poetry, whether they do good or not, or are foolish or not, in their steadfast vision of darkness as well as dedication to crafting some fruit out of darkness. Each of us, "In the prison of his days," is at the mercy of both time, history, and other forces scarcely understood by us, which rightly scare us. Those who struggle to pierce that dark by the burning of their own passion indeed deserve our praise.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

W. H. Auden, "First Things First" / E K, "Second Thoughts"

To celebrate Auden's birthday - February 21, 1907 - I'm posting a tribute/imitation/response I wrote a few years ago while studying his poetry in Oxford (where, of course, Auden himself went).


First Things First

Woken, I lay in the arms of my own warmth and listened
To a storm enjoying its storminess in the winter dark
Till my ear, as it can when half-asleep or half-sober,
Set to work to unscramble that interjectory uproar,
Construing its airy vowels and watery consonants
Into a love-speech indicative of a Proper Name.

Scarcely the tongue I should have chosen, yet, as well
As harshness and clumsiness would allow, it spoke in your praise,
Kenning you a god-child of the Moon and the West Wind
With power to tame both real and imaginary monsters,
Likening your poise of being to an upland county,
Here green on purpose, there pure blue for luck.

Loud though it was, alone as it certainly found me,
It reconstructed a day of peculiar silence
When a sneeze could be heard a mile off, and had me walking
On a headland of lava beside you, the occasion as ageless
As the stare of any rose, your presence exactly
So once, so valuable, so very now.

This, moreover, at an hour when only to often
A smirking devil annoys me in beautiful English,
Predicting a world where every sacred location
Is a sand-buried site all cultured Texans do,
Misinformed and thoroughly fleeced by their guides,
And gentle hearts are extinct like Hegelian Bishops.

Grateful, I slept till a morning that would not say
How much it believed of what I said the storm had said
But quetly drew my attention to what had been done
—So many cubic metres the more in my cistern
Against a leonine summer—, putting first things first:
Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.


Second Thoughts

Awake, I lay trying to ball up my blanket warmth,
Listening to the idle patter of snow forming drifts
Till some pattern began to resolve in the static,
My mind a receptive fallow field or mine
Culling infinite variables from the precipitate white,
A chart of past and present, my frozen Zodiac.

Not the path I want to choose, but the prints remain,
The plow only drawing its scraping edge
To write roads familiarly traveled. I venture
That your ghost is the real occlusion of memory,
Tears forming a cataract towards the future,
A double-blindness, sullen grey and squinting white.

Expansive though it was, alone as it truly discovered me,
It re-formed a place of compact intimacy
Where the slightest budge need be shared, and, holding still
Your undulous province, bordering my frontier,
I silented an invocation of timeless peace
Written in the contour of our bodies together.

This, in a season where I routinely despaired
Of a writ of love beyond the rites of lust,
Entrapped by the air-castle, reciprocal appreciation
My ego gladly chartered, providing a flattering script,
Self-seduced in a pituitary pitfall
Deducing justice of dialectic by hormonal logic.

Troubled, I laid till a time for action
In other matters pushed these thoughts aside
And the sun turned my eyes away from their accumulation
—The drifts become deep enough to cover a man
But for the banks' high, stoic walls—second thoughts:
Water in winter is no use, without the heat to thaw.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

W. H. Auden, "Musée des Beaux Arts"

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.



This poem shows Auden's voice shading into something more intimate, or at least spanning between the hawkeye-view of the world and time and close-ups on specific scenes and individual suffering - the contrast between the two being the theme. It also shows the heavy irony that is at play in much of his work, his deadpan capturing of mundane, bathetic detail, as in the pitch-perfect "doggy life" and the torturer's horse's "innocent behind". I've also always loved the deft parenthesis enacted by the breaks of the final three lines, and the mimetic syntax of the final line, providing alternative purpose and then carrying on with action.

(Other paintings alluded to: Brueghel's The Numbering at Bethlehem, Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap, and The Massacre of the Innocents.)

Monday, February 19, 2007

W. H. Auden, "Spain"

Yesterday all the past. The language of size
Spreading to China along the trade-routes; the diffusion
Of the counting-frame and the cromlech;
Yesterday the shadow-reckoning in the sunny climates.

Yesterday the assessment of insurance by cards,
The divination of water; yesterday the invention
Of cartwheels and clocks, the taming of
Horses. Yesterday the bustling world of the navigators.

Yesterday the abolition of fairies and giants,
the fortress like a motionless eagle eyeing the valley,
the chapel built in the forest;
Yesterday the carving of angels and alarming gargoyles;

The trial of heretics among the columns of stone;
Yesterday the theological feuds in the taverns
And the miraculous cure at the fountain;
Yesterday the Sabbath of witches; but to-day the struggle

Yesterday the installation of dynamos and turbines,
The construction of railways in the colonial desert;
Yesterday the classic lecture
On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle.

Yesterday the belief in the absolute value of Greek,
The fall of the curtain upon the death of a hero;
Yesterday the prayer to the sunset
And the adoration of madmen. but to-day the struggle.

As the poet whispers, startled among the pines,
Or where the loose waterfall sings compact, or upright
On the crag by the leaning tower:
"O my vision. O send me the luck of the sailor."

And the investigator peers through his instruments
At the inhuman provinces, the virile bacillus
Or enormous Jupiter finished:
"But the lives of my friends. I inquire. I inquire."

And the poor in their fireless lodgings, dropping the sheets
Of the evening paper: "Our day is our loss. O show us
History the operator, the
Organiser. Time the refreshing river."

And the nations combine each cry, invoking the life
That shapes the individual belly and orders
The private nocturnal terror:
"Did you not found the city state of the sponge,

"Raise the vast military empires of the shark
And the tiger, establish the robin's plucky canton?
Intervene. O descend as a dove or
A furious papa or a mild engineer, but descend."

And the life, if it answers at all, replied from the heart
And the eyes and the lungs, from the shops and squares of the city
"O no, I am not the mover;
Not to-day; not to you. To you, I'm the

"Yes-man, the bar-companion, the easily-duped;
I am whatever you do. I am your vow to be
Good, your humorous story.
I am your business voice. I am your marriage.

"What's your proposal? To build the just city? I will.
I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain."

Many have heard it on remote peninsulas,
On sleepy plains, in the aberrant fishermen's islands
Or the corrupt heart of the city.
Have heard and migrated like gulls or the seeds of a flower.

They clung like burrs to the long expresses that lurch
Through the unjust lands, through the night, through the alpine tunnel;
They floated over the oceans;
They walked the passes. All presented their lives.

On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;
On that tableland scored by rivers,
Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever

Are precise and alive. For the fears which made us respond
To the medicine ad, and the brochure of winter cruises
Have become invading battalions;
And our faces, the institute-face, the chain-store, the ruin

Are projecting their greed as the firing squad and the bomb.
Madrid is the heart. Our moments of tenderness blossom
As the ambulance and the sandbag;
Our hours of friendship into a people's army.

To-morrow, perhaps the future. The research on fatigue
And the movements of packers; the gradual exploring of all the
Octaves of radiation;
To-morrow the enlarging of consciousness by diet and breathing.

To-morrow the rediscovery of romantic love,
the photographing of ravens; all the fun under
Liberty's masterful shadow;
To-morrow the hour of the pageant-master and the musician,

The beautiful roar of the chorus under the dome;
To-morrow the exchanging of tips on the breeding of terriers,
The eager election of chairmen
By the sudden forest of hands. But to-day the struggle.

To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle.

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The consious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
To-day the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

To-day the makeshift consolations: the shared cigarette,
The cards in the candlelit barn, and the scraping concert,
The masculine jokes; to-day the
Fumbled and unsatisfactory embrace before hurting.

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.



To celebrate the centennary of his birth, this week TPQ pays tribute to the great W. H. Auden (1907-1973). I unfortunately don't have a collection of Auden handy, but the selection in my anthology at hand has more than enough first-rate examples to fill out the whole week. I'm also no Auden scholar, so my comments will be brief. This first poem, "Spain", exemplifies Auden's political commitment and engagement with contemporary political and social issues, in his energetic response to the Spanish Civil War, as well as his conscience - in later life the poem was dropped from publication in collections of his work, in part for the line "The consious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder". The poem also exemplifies one end of the great range of Auden's voice - here he is beyond prophetic, canvassing History and Society from one end to another. This 'hawkeye view' is ingeniously structured in the incantations of "Yesterday" "Tomorrow" and "To-day" as a frame for the catalogue of all things temporal. The speaker pronounces upon all with a voice that is steadfast, impersonal yet filled with human conviction.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Richard Wilbur, "For C."

After the clash of elevator gates
And the long sinking, she emerges where,
A slight thing in the morning's crosstown glare,
She looks up toward the window where he waits,
Then in a fleeting taxi joins the rest
Of the huge traffic bound forever west.

On such grand scale do lovers say good-bye—
Even this other pair whose high romance
Had only the duration of a dance,
And who, now taking leave with stricken eye,
See each in each a whole new life forgone.
For them, above the darkling clubhouse lawn,

Bright Perseids flash and crumble; while for these
Who part now on the dock, weighed down by grief
And baggage, yet with something like relief,
It takes three thousand miles of knitting seas
To cancel out their crossing, and unmake
the amorous rough and tumble of their wake.

We are denied, my love, their fine tristesse
And bittersweet regrets, and cannot share
The frequent vistas of their large despair,
Where love and all are swept to noghtingness;
Still, there's a certain scope in that long love
Which constant spirits are the keepers of,

And which, though taken to be tame and staid,
Is a wild sostenuto of the hear,
A passion joined to courtesy and art
Which has the quality of something made,
Like a good fiddle, like the rose's scent,
Like a rose window or the firmament.


From Mayflies (2000)

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Paul Muldoon, "Long Finish"

Ten years since we were married, sine we stood
under a chuppah of pine boughs
in the middle of a little pinewood
and exchanged our wedding vows.
Save me, good thou,
a piece of marhpane, while I fill your glass with Simi
Chardonnay as high as decency allows,
and then some.

Bear with me now as I myself must bear
the scrutiny of a bottle of wine
that boasts of hints of plum and pear,
its muscadine
tempered by an oak backbone. I myself have designs
on the willow-boss
of your breast, on all your waist confines
between longling and loss.

The wonder is that we somehow have withstood
the soars and slumps in the Dow
of ten years of marriage and parenthood,
its summits and its sloughs—
that we've somehow
managed to withstand an almond-blossomy
five years of bitter rapture, five of blissful rows
(and then some

if we count the one or two to spare
when we've been firmly on cloud nine).
Even now, as you turn away from me with your one bare
shoulder, the veer of your neckline,
I glimpse the all-but-cleared-up eczema patch on your spine
and it brings to mind not the Schloss
that stands, transitory, tra la, Triestine,
between longing and loss

but a crude
hip trench in a field, covered with pine boughs,
in which two men in masks and hoods
who have themselves taken vows
wait for a farmer to break a bale for his cows
before opening fire with semi-
automatics, cutting him off slightly above the eyebrows,
and then some.

It brings to mind another, driving out to care
for six white-faced kine
finishing on heather and mountain air,
another who'll shortly divine
the precise whereabouts of a land mine
on the road between Beragh and Sixmilecross,
who'll shortly know what it is to have breasted the line
between longing and loss.

Such forbearance in the face of vicissitude
also brings to mind the little "there, theres" and "now, nows"
of two sisters whose sleeves are imbued
with the constant douse and souse
of salt water through their salt house
in Matsukaze (or Pining Wind), by Zeami,
the salt house through which the wind soughs and soughs,
and then some

of the wind's little "now, nows" and "there, theres"
seem to intertwine
with those of Pining Wind and Autumn Rain, who must forbear
the dolor of their lives of boiling down brine.
For the double meaning of "pine"
is much the same in Japanese as English, coming across
both in the sense of "tree" and the sense we assign
between "longing" and "loss"

as when the ghost of Yukihira, the poet-courteir who wooed
both sisters, appears as a ghostly pine, pining among pine boughs.
Barely have Autumn Rain and Pining Wind renewed
their vows
than you turn back toward me, and your blouse,
while it covers the all-but-cleared-up patch of eczema,
falls as low as decency allows,
and then some.

Princess of Accutane, let's no more try to refine
the pure drop from the dross
than distinguish, good thou, between mine and thine,
between longing and loss,
but rouse
ourselves each dawn, here on the shore at Suma,
with such force and fervor as spouses may yet espouse,
and then some.


From Hay (1998)

(Listen to Muldoon read this poem here:

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Theodore Roethke, "I Knew a Woman"

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek).

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing we did make).

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved).

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I'm martyr to a motion not my own;
What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways).


From Words for the Wind (1958)

The mode of today's love poem might best be described as 'adoration.' I had thought of posting something by Neruda, in the mode of 'passion', but I don't have access to a volume of Neruda. Anyway, perhaps better to stick to favorites in the English tongue, though it would be fitting to quote from a Romance language. Perhaps others will provide a few choice examples from that Spanish master of love poetry.
A bit like Cummings, Roethke sometimes verges on nonsense, his language rarely operating as literal reference. At the same time, he echoes traditional tropes of romantic devotion - enumerating his lover's exceptional qualities, boasting of the fervor of their passion - but the content of these tropes is something more evocative than referential or even hyperbolic description. Roethke's statements participate in a rarefied, almost fairy-tale world - the other plane which is the realm of love. Such sweet musing is supported by the sing-song cadences and rhymes. The poem expresses a love that has gone deeper than particulars of appearance or personality, to manifest the metaphysical influence the being of the other person has on the speaker: "(She moved in circles, and those circles moved)"; "I'm martyr to a motion not my own".

(More about Roethke here:

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

e. e. cummings double feature

my girl's tall with hard long eyes
as she stands, with her long hard hands keeping
silence on her dress, good for sleeping
is her long hard body filled with surprise
like a white shocking wire, when she smiles
a hard long smile it sometimes makes
gaily go clean through me tickling aches,
and the weak noise of her eyes easily files
my impatience to an edge—my girl's tall
and taut, with thin legs just like a vine
that's spent all of its life on a garden-wall,
and is going to die. When we grimly go to bed
with these legs she begins to heave and twine
about me, and to kiss my face and head.


i like my body when it is with your
body. It is quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,
i like, slowly stroking the, shocking fuzz
of your electric fur, and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh . . . . And eyes big love-crumbs,

and possibly i like the thrill

of under me you so quite new


From & [and] (1925)

The erotic contribution to TPQ's week of love poetry comes in the form of two poems by e.e. cummings, which appear next to each other in the Selected Poems I have, and which I couldn't choose between. Cummings is well know for his re-structuring of syntax, parts of speech, and punctuation, but does tend to be known as well for his erotic verse as he should. As shown above, I believe, his style allows him to write about sensuality and sex without being, on the one hand, flowery, cliché, or saccharine, or on the other ribald, explicit, or merely clever in his implications. His language is full of energy, jostling against itself, stripped of pretense or conventions, coming to new, stimulating arrangements. It displays experimental brinksmanship, the needful thrust towards the death of sense to articulate that experience which goes beyond language.

Post your favorite erotic verse below!

(More on e.e. cummings here:

Monday, February 12, 2007

John Donne, "Elegy: To his Mistress Going to Bed"

Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times, having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing though they never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven's zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breastplate, which you wear
That th' eyes of busy fools may be stopped there:
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now 'tis your bed-time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off, such beatueous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th' hill's shadow steals.
Off with your wiry coronet and show
The hairy diadem which on you doth grow.
Off with those shoes: and then safely tread
In this love's hallowed temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes heaven's angels used to be
Received by men; thou angel bring'st with thee
A heaven like Mahomet's paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these agnels from an evil sprite,
They set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Behind, before, above, between, below.
O my America, my new found land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my empery,
How blessed am I in this discovering thee.
To enter in these bonds is to be free,
Then where my hand is set my seal shall be.
Full nakedness, all joys are due to thee.
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be,
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta's balls, cast in men's views,
That when a fool's eye lighteth on a gem
His earthly soul may covet theirs, not them.
Like pictures, or like books' gay coverings made
For laymen, are all women thus arrayed;
Themselves are mystic books, which only we
Whom their imputed grace will dignify
Must see revealed. Then since I may know,
As liberally as to a midwife show
Thyself; cast all, yea this white linen hence,
Here is no penance, much less innocence.
To teach thee, I am naked first: why then
What needst thou have more covering than a man?


John Donne (1572-1631). Poem first published 1654.

To lead off this love-themed week in honor of Valentine's Day, a poem of seduction by the Metaphysical master of libidinal logic: John Donne. Donne is one of the great treasures of the English canon, one of the best poets not only on seduction and love, but also on spirituality and religion. Once you get accustomed to the manners of his phrasing (which are no more difficult than modernist or some contemporary writers) his work, though written 400 years ago, is energetic and utterly relevant.
"To his Mistress Going to Bed" is, for my money, one of the sexiest poems in English. In order to seduce his mistress, the speaker narrates such a seduction, praising her various attributes while also explaining how reasonable and right it is for her to be so liberal. His argument changes tactics several times, always with utter conviction, though the fact that the need to double-back shows that progress is not actually being made. The poem is always double-leveled, a narrated success (also of two levels thanks to the smattering of puns and double entendre) proven to be fictional by the use of its own fiction as a means of pursuing such success. The final couplet serves as an epigrammatic culmination for his cunning linguistic coercion. And yet, though all this saucy cleverness is delightful, I think the finest lines are the coyest, the direct object of his lust implied by the string of prepositions: "Licence my roving hands, and let them go / Behind, before, above, between, below."

Post your own favorite poems of seduction below!

(Read more about Donne:

Friday, February 2, 2007

Philip Larkin, "First Sight"

Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.

As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth's immeasurable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.


From The Whitsun Weddings (1964)

Shifting from thoughts of suffering and death, we end the week on birth and hope. Such sentiments are uncharacteristic for Larkin, who tends to keep a steady and ironic eye on the petty miseries and shortcomings of life. Here, however, he portrays such a state as being not necessarily permanent - that the world itself may hold a revelation in store. Despite the literal appropriateness of 'revelation' and the reverence in which this transformation is held, the paradise Larkin heralds is not heavenly, but here on Earth. Furthermore, it is not something awaited, but something that exists currently and is merely under cover. What is hoped for is a new means of perception, the melting away of one's cloak of sorrows, so that one is reaquainted with the sustaining beauty that waited all along.

(Read more about Philip Larkin:

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Derek Mahon, "The Snow Party"

(for Louis Asekoff)

Basho, coming
To the city of Nagoya,
Is asked to a snow party.

There is a tinkling of china
And tea into china;
There are introductions.

Then everyone
Crowds to the window
To watch the falling snow.

Snow is falling on Nagoya
And farther south
On the tiles of Kyoto;

Eastward, beyond Irago,
It is falling
Like leaves on the cold sea.

Elsewhere they are burning
Witches and heretics
In the boiling squares,

Thousands have died since dawn
In the service
Of barbarous kings;

But there is silence
In the houses of Nagoya
And the hills of Ise.


From The Snow Party (1975)

This poem provides a counterpoint to Wilbur. The mention of "barbarous" acts being perpetrated against humanity "Elsewhere" implicitly critiques the 'civilized' aestheticism of the snow party and the "silence" of poets who turn away from the ugliness of the world, ignoring it in preference for beauty. Ironically, this poem participates in such a bias as well, focusing on the aesthetic realm, its implicit ethical comment a form of "silence" as well. Choosing the poet Basho for a protagonist, Mahon seems to express a sympathy, or at least empathy, with the desire to use poetry for escape from the darkness of the world. But he remains concerned about the cost of the escape, about what ends poetry can serve. The poem itself is obviously far more subtle and delicately ambivalent than my clumsy explication.

(More about Derek Mahon:

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Richard Wilbur, "First Snow in Alsace"

The snow came down last night like moths
Burned on the moon; it fell till dawn,
Covered the town with simple cloths.

Absolute snow lies rumpled on
What shellbursts scattered and deranged,
Entangled railings, crevassed lawn.

As if it did not know they'd changed,
Snow smoothly clasps the roofs of homes
Fear-gutted, trustless and estranged.

The ration stacks are milky domes;
Across the ammunition pile
The snow has climbed in sparkling combs.

You think: beyond the town a mile
Or two, this snowfall fills the eyes
Of soldiers dead a little while.

Persons and persons in disguise,
Walking the new air white and fine,
Trade glances quick with shared surprise.

At children's windows, heaped, benign,
As always, winter shines the most,
And frost makes marvelous designs.

The night guard coming from his post,
Ten first-snows back in thought, walks slow
And warms him with a boyish boast:

He was the first to see the snow.


From The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947)

An offered gloss: Even within the most unnatural destruction and fear of war, beauty may blossom naturally, our recognition and appreciation of it a force of life and showing forth of our humanity. At the same time, these initial instincts might be seen to contain seeds of hubris, or to display an ignorance of the obliviating power of beauty, the way such transformation may be a form of elision, covering up, or death. Beauty is like snow, is a balm which ambivalently may both conceal and heal.

(More about Richard Wilbur, including audio:
(More poems by Richard Wilbur:

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Robert Frost, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
the darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.


From New Hampshire (1923)

It might seem an oversight to take up the theme of snow without mentioning Frost, especially this well-known poem. It's become commonplace that the poem expresses the speaker's temptation towards death; however, such a gloss often separates us from the poem rather than helping us to know it more intimately. For example, let us look again at the imagery used for death here. Yes, dark woods with the threat of being buried in snow; but the terms Frost actually uses convey a much more positive disposition towards death. In the first stanza, death is aligned with passivity and time passing in inaction ("stopping ... To watch"). The third stanza gives a description of ultimate calm and tranquility, approaching nothingness in a Buddhist negation of the self: "The only other sound's the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake." The steady iambic tetrameter rhythm and smooth sound repetitions throughout create the effect of a lullaby (culminating in the repetition of the final lines) ... death is not the terrifying black unknown but idealized as the perfect sleep, "lovely, dark, and deep". The speaker does not grudge being pulled back into the world by "promises"; though desiring relief (the poem does not depict suffering; it is only implied), he is resigned to life as well as death, knowing that the end will come in due course.

(More about Frost here:

Monday, January 29, 2007

Louis MacNeice, "Snow"

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes –
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands –
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.


From Poems (1935)

Last night was the first snow in New York for this winter, so I thought it would be appropriate to take such as this week's theme, beginning with what is likely MacNeice's best known poem. On the one hand, this poem can be taken as illustrating a certain metaphysical sensibility that we observed in "Train to Dublin" during TPQ's first week – MacNeice's embrace of the particulars of sense experience, "The drunkenness of things being various." His masterful control of diction and syntax is also on display here: such pairings as "collateral and incompatible" and "peel and portion"; the repetition of "World", itself made immediate by the absence of an article "the" or "this" etc.; and the excelling exuberance of the non-punctuated "On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands". The paradoxical independence and interrelation "collateral and incompatible" is consummated in the final line's "between", meaning both shared connection and separating division, reinforced by the mention not only of "glass" (with implicit immaterial reflections) but an unspecific "more" as well.
MacNeice's poem has a significant socio-political valence as well. Its imagery of division, difference and incompatability relate to the divisions within (Northern) Ireland. The mention of roses links back to the English Civil Wars of the Roses between the House of Lancaster and the House of York, represented respectively by a red and a (snow-)white rose. This allusion is channeled in part through Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (if I remember correctly) where the houses and their emblems are used to represent opposing groupings of students at Stephen's boarding school; Stephen who decides to reject his obligation to the Nationalist cause of Ireland. Snow, on the other hand, is the concluding image of the concluding story, "The Dead", in Joyce's Dubliners. In the Irish tradition more generally, of course, the rose is a Nationalist emblem of Ireland, as it remains the term of feminine representations ("an Irish rose"). Within this context, the latent violence within some of the imagery may become apparent: the snow and roses as explosions outside the window, with fire inside as well. MacNeice's poem has continued to be a significant reference point in subsequent Irish writing - see, for instance, Muldoon's "History" or Carson's "Snow".

(More about Louis MacNeice [1907-1963]:

Friday, January 26, 2007

Rihaku (Li Po / Li Bai), "Exile's Letter", translated by Ezra Pound

To So-Kin of Rakuyo, ancient friend, Chancellor of Gen.
Now I remember that you built me a special tavern
By the south side of the bridge at Ten-Shin.
With yellow gold and white jewels, we paid for songs and laughter
And we were drunk for month on month, forgetting the kinds and princes.
Intelligent men came drifting in from the sea and from the west border,
And with them, and with you especially
There was nothing at cross purpose,
And they made nothing of sea-crossing or of mountain-crossing,
If only they could be of that fellowship,
And we all spoke out our hearts and minds, and without regret.
And then I was sent off to South Wei,
smothered in laurel groves,
And you to the north of Raku-hoku,
till we had nothing but thoughts and memories in common.
And then, when separation had come to its worst,
We met, and travelled into Sen-Go,
through all the thirty-six folds of the turning and twisting waters,
Into a valley of the thousand bright flowers,
That was the first valley;
And into ten thousand alleys full of voices and pine-winds.
And with silver harness and reins of gold,
Out came the East of Kan foreman and his company.
And there came also the 'True man' of Shi-yo to meet me,
Playing on a jewelled mouth-organ.
In the storied houses of San-Ko they gave us more Sennin music,
Many instruments, like the sound of young phoenix broods.
The foreman of Kan Chu, drunk, danced
because his long sleeves wouldn't keep still
With that music playing,
And I, wrapped in brocade, went to sleep with my head on his lap,
And my spirit so high it was all over the heavens,
And before the end of the day we were scattered like stars, or rain.
I had to be off to So, far away over the waters,
You back to your river-bridge.
And your father, who was rave as a leopard,
Was governor in Hei-Shu, and put down the barbarian rabble.
And one May he had you send for me,
despite the long distance.
And what with broken wheels and so on, I won't say it wasn't hard going,
Over roads twisted like sheep's guts.
And I was still going, late in the year,
in the cutting wind from the North,
And thinking how little you cared for the cost,
and you caring enough to pay it.
And what a reception:
Red jade cups, food well set on a blue jewelled table,
And I was drunk, and had no thought of returning.
And you would walk out with me to the western corner of the castle,
To the dynastic temple, with water about it clear as blue jade,
With boats floating, and the sound of mouth-organs and drums,
with ripples like dragon-scales, going glass green on the water,
Pleasure lasting, with courtezans, going and coming without hindrance,
With the willow flakes falling like snow,
and the vermilioned girls getting drunk about sunset,
And the water, a hundred feet deep, reflecting green eyebrows
—Eyebrows painted green are a fine sight in young moonlight,
Gracefully painted—
And the girls singing back at each other,
Dancing in transparent brocade,
And the wind lifting the song, and interrupting it,
Tossing it up under the clouds.
And all this comes to an end.
And is not again to be met with.
I went up to the court for examination,
Tried Layu's luck, offered the Choyo song,
And got no promotion,
and went back to the East Mountains
And once again, later, we met at the South bridgehead.
And then the crowd broke up, you went north to San palace,
And if you ask how I regret that parting:
It is like the flowers falling at Spring's end
Confused, whirled in a tangle.
What is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking,
There is no end of things in the heart.
I call in the boy,
Have him sit on his knees here
To seal this,
And send it a thousand miles, thinking.


From Cathay (1915)

It would perhaps be an oversight not to include a poem that is itself foreign to the language in this week on travel. Like venturing abroad, translation allows a glimpse into another land, culture, and poetics. Pound's translations from the Chinese are among his finest work, Chinese ideograms being a main inspiration for Pound's own imagism - an attempt to create poetry by the arrangement of images carefully sculpted in words, involving a structure that is more pictorial / juxtapositional than narrative. After all, while travel is in once sense a journey, it is also an experience of distances and an overlaying of cultures. While "Exile's Letter" does present a story, its emotional effect is largely a function of the imagery and scenes presented—the regret of parting is expressed "like the flowers falling at Spring's end / Confused, whirled in a tangle." In this week's earlier poems, it was typically foreign scenes that would incite certain feelings and reflections in the speaker; here, however, it is more that the imagery and travel are invoked to express the speaker's feelings and fortunes. The exile that carries through the poem is not the distance from home, but distance from a friend. One need not travel the world to understand such a poem.

(More about Ezra Pound:

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Sinéad Morrissey, from "China"


Take up a screen before dawn and ready the inks.
There is a country which does not exist and which must be shown.
Steady the ingredients.


A tunnel of trees. My brother and I on the top
of an empty double-decker in Derbyshire.
the absence-from-home of summer
becoming a scab to be picked over. The bus pulled up

by a pub, as the greenery scratching
at the window ended and we were given a field
with a horse and a dog and a red child
in it, waving.

Sunlight was there like a wall
and halved everything. In my head I was singing
This is Happening This is Happening This is Happening.
A boy bounced his way down the aisle

and started smoking, when time
opened. Or stopped. Or almost stalled
and the boy and my brother and the bus and the world
disappeared on the prick of a needle – pop! – and I

sat sideways avoiding the gap.
And then I saw I was enormous
and in another kind of tunnel. That I was lost.
That there was no going back.


Conjure the Yangtze and the Yellow River
And bring them a matter of hours together
On the same train line and both of them seen
Through semi-darkness on a flickering screen
Which is and is not a window. Blow
Over the waters to buckle them. Add snow.


Evening. Beijing. And farewell to Mao's mausoleum
through the glass, ablaze in the nerves of the Square of Heaven
like everlasting Christmas. The bus forces us on:
another station, another train, another city, another season.
Advertising flickers in the waiting room. That night I dive like a child –
borne aloft by the train's engine, or like one born again in its mild
motion, the shunt and click of the carriages over the sidings
the soporific tenderness of a language I do not recognise –
and re-surface at nine, an hour beyond breakfast time.
The mine wheels, factories, fish farms, and allotments
battling for space between slack-blackened tenements
have receded now into the north. here the sky is unfolding the blue
cloth of itself on a new country, or on a country which never grew
old to begin with. Spinach, pak choi, cabbage greens, lettuce,
geese sunning themselves among shiny brown cowls of the lotus
and an echo-less emptiness, a sense of perspective too wide
and too high for the eye to take in. Two crows collide
in a rice field, then are flung backwards out of their war
as the train pushes on. We loiter like Oliver in the dining car.
Brunch comes as simmering bowls of noodles, under a film
of oil, and we sit watching the landscape unfurl like a newsreel
into history. By noon, foothills, are banking to the south.
By two, we're approaching a network of tunnels blasted out
of the Xi'an Qin Mountains. Blackness falls clean as a guillotine
on the children in pairs by the trackside, and then again
on the man and his son who will walk all afternoon into evening
before they are home. We enter Sichuan without rupturing
any visible line of division, though dinner at five is brimming with chillies:
dried and diced and fried with the seeds inside, while the extraordinary
Sichuan pepper balloons into flavour under our tongues. And all along
darkness is gathering itself in. i see a boy and a woman
lit up by the flare of a crop fire, but can no longer believe in them.
Windows have turned into mirrors the length of the train.
Hours pass, and there is only my white face, strained
in its hopelessness, my failure to catch the day in my hands like a fish
and have it always. The train descends from the soil terraces.
Electricity switches the world back on: town after coal-dusted town
streams by in the rain, revealing its backdoor self, its backyard frown,
until all converge in a dayglo glare at the end of the line and we merge
with our destination. We have been dropped to the bottom of somewhere
blurred and industrial, where the yellow of the Yangtze meets the green
of its tributary, the city with a name like the din of a smithy: Chongqing.


Ever been washed
by a crowd? My mother dragging me
to the cold water tap and
jamming my finger under it
the day I brushed it across

the cooker-top to see
if it was on, to numb it,
she said, but it wasn't
like that
at all. It was

winter, we were
baking in the kitchen and
I could still smell a scrap
of skin frying in the back-
ground when the cold

hit home – prodding
the length of my arm in a surge
of pain, an ironic
remedy of extremes.
And it was oddly

uplifting to be suspended
there with your body peeled
back to the nerve all
over again in a matter
of seconds, so disarmingly

alive. In four train stations within
fourteen days I turned my head
to a conundrum. After a night
and a day and a night of being carried
along in a capsule –

a bed, a quilt, a pillow, a night-
light, a table, tea, a window, a
radio – I'd uncurl onto
the platform, grey and
exhausted, as though I'd walked

the hours that divided us
from our origin. We were alone
the whole time, moving like
automatons from compartment to
dining car, then back

again, with only the fruit-
man to disturb our corridor
with his casual calling. The train's nose
under the station awning would steam
with exertion; we'd be cracking

our wrists, or avoiding
the press, or yawning, and then,
imperceptibly, finally noticing
the river of people, disgorged from a mile
of doors and flooding towards

the exit sign. There must have been
thousands of them, our shadow-
travellers, and we'd been marooned
in the midst of them. They'd have sat
upright all day and

all night on benches as hard
as amazonite, pressed five
to a row and room somehow for
rice pots and rucksacks and armfuls
of jackets, flasks,

blankets. Thirty hours
at a stretch and seeming as fresh
as if they'd just stepped out
of a ten-hour sleep
on a cloud —

and with somewhere to get to
fast: time to stare back
at me the way I was staring
at them, an extravagance.
I stayed to one side, watching

them flow like an out-
going tide into the maw of each
city, and saw myself
caught in the pulse of their
striding, my greenish skin hurled

under water and hammering I am
here you are real this
is happening it is
– as though touching
them might be possible.


One day, China met China in the marketplace.
'How are you, China?' asked China, 'we haven't talked in so long.'
China answered: 'This things we have to say one another,
laid end to end, and side to side,
would connect the Great wall with the Three Gorges Valley
and stretch nine miles up towards the sun.'
'It's true,' replied China. 'We have a lot to catch up on.'


From The State of the Prisons (2005)

In contrast to Bishop's question-posing, Szymborska's impossibility-enumerating, and Longley's captured vision, Morrissey's sequence struggles through multiple approaches to processing her experience on the Writer's Train across China in 2003. In 1, 3, and 9, for example, we find a mythic approach that seems to sympathize with the magical empire on its own terms, as well as its strangeness for the speaker. 2 opts for an analogue from past personal experience, using the more understood example of something closer to home as an avenue or template for understanding the new experience - a narrative structure of comparison and synthesis which is central to part 8. The focus on the subjective experience of travel through a foreign land (which exceeds what we have seen so far this week) is balanced by the more journalistic cataloguing of 5. The sequence's compound of strategies together conveys the bewilderment of trying to give some account of China in its entirety - as 9 implies, something which is impossible for China itself, as much as for the foreign traveller.

(More about Sinéad Morrissey: