Friday, January 30, 2015

Poem For People That Are Understandably Too Busy To Read Poetry - Stephen Dunn

Relax. This won't last long.
Or if it does, or if the lines
make you sleepy or bored,
give in to sleep, turn on
the T.V., deal the cards.
This poem is built to withstand
such things. Its feelings
cannot be hurt. They exist
somewhere in the poet,
and I am far away.
Pick it up anytime. Start it
in the middle if you wish.
It is as approachable as melodrama,
and can offer you violence
if it is violence you like. Look,
there's a man on a sidewalk;
the way his leg is quivering
he'll never be the same again.
This is your poem
and I know you're busy at the office
or the kids are into your last nerve.
Maybe it's the sex you've always wanted.
Well, they lie together
like the party's unbuttoned coats,
slumped on the bed
waiting for drunken arms to move them.
I don't think you want me to go on;
everyone has his expectations, but this
is a poem for the entire family.
Right now, Budweiser
is dripping from a waterfall,
deodorants are hissing into armpits
of people you resemble,
and the two lovers are dressing now,
saying farewell.
I don't know what music this poem
can come up with, but clearly
it's needed. For it's apparent
they will never see each other again
and we need music for this
because there was never music when he or she
left you standing on the corner.
You see, I want this poem to be nicer
than life. I want you to look at it
when anxiety zigzags your stomach
and the last tranquilizer is gone
and you need someone to tell you
I'll be here when you want me
like the sound inside a shell.
The poem is saying that to you now.
But don't give anything for this poem.
It doesn't expect much. It will never say more
than listening can explain.
Just keep it in your attache case
or in your house. And if you're not asleep
by now, or bored beyond sense,
the poems wants you to laugh. Laugh at 
yourself, laugh at this poem, at all poetry.
Come on:

Good. Now where's what poetry can do.

Imagine yourself a caterpillar.
There's an awful shrug and, suddenly,
You're beautiful for as long as you live.

This wonderful, witty, brilliant poem by Stephen Dunn rambles along, inviting us to ramble with it, never being too frivolous or too serious.  There's little explaining I can do, so please, just read it.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence - Edward Bairstow (adapted from Habakkuk 2:20)

Let all mortal flesh keep silence
and stand with fear and trembling,
and lift itself above all earthly thought.

For the King of kings and Lord of lords, Christ our God,
cometh forth to be our oblation,
and to be given for Food to the faithful.

Before Him come the choirs of angels
with every principality and power;
the Cherubim with many eyes, and winged Seraphim,
who veil their faces as they shout exultingly the hymn:

This text is from an anthem written by Sir Edward Bairstow, adapted from the text of Habakkuk 2:20.  It's a text of Christ's coming, the history of which you can read about here.  Celebrating the coming of Christ as celebrating the coming of the offering which will liberate us seems a bit morbid, but the whole thing is a grand procession which will literally shake the earth into silence.

What thing captures for me is the "fear" of God that's a central part of much Christianity, particularly Old Testament texts.  The awesome power of God leaves us silent and trembling.  Divine creatures with many eyes, with wings, come and shout praises of the coming of the King of kings and Lord of lords.  It's terrifying and beautiful.  I imagine that the writers of these texts must have felt that the world was beautiful, often overwhelmingly so, but terrifying in equal measure.  That is the fear of God, to me.  It's to stand "with fear and trembling."  Despite this fear, we are being nourished by Christ's body (the offering) and are serenaded by a choir of angels.  It's a hard concept to grasp, but the piece of music which accompanies this text does so quite well.

Listen and enjoy.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Ruins of Timoleague Abbey - Seán Ó Coileáin

translated from the Irish by Tony Hoagland and Martin Shaw

I am gut sad.

I am flirting
with the green waves,
wandering the sand,
feeding reflection
into the seaweed foam.

That Shaker's moon
is up.
Crested by corn-colored stars
and traced by those witchy scribblers
who read the bone-smoke.

No wind at all -
no flutter
for foxglove or elm.

There is a church door.

In the time
when the people
of my hut lived,

there was eating and thinking
dished out to the poor
and the soul-sick in this place.

I am in my remembering.

By the frame of the door
is a crooked black bench.

It is oily with history
of the rumps of sages,
and the foot-sore
who lingered in the storm.

I am bent with weeping.
This blue dream
chucks the salt
from me.

I remember
the walls god-bright
with the king's theology,

the slow chorus
of the low bell,
the fully hymn
of the byre and field.

Pathetic hut.
Rain-cracked and wind-straddled.
Your walls bare-nubbed
by chill flagons
of ocean spit.

The saints are scattered.
The high gable
is an ivy tangle.
The stink of fox
is the only swinging incense.

There is no stew
for this arriving prodigal,
no candled bed.

My kin
lie under the ground
of this place.

My shape
is sloughed with grief.
No more red tree
between my thighs.
My eyes are milk.
Rage my pony.

My face has earnt
the grim mask.
My heart a musky gore.

But my hand. My hand
reaches through this sour air
and touches
the splendid darkness
of my deliverer.

Where to begin?  Firstly, the author.  Collins, as his name would likely be Anglicized, is of minor renown, and largely unknown in terms of biographical details, apart from his life dates, 1754-1817.  He was a teacher, and once educated as a priest.  He wrote in Irish, and this poem is presented in (captivating) translation.

Secondly, I think it's important to have some historical context about the translation of this poem into English.  From the translator, Tony Hoagland himself:

"The poem has traveled a long way. In 1951 a Cambridge scholar named Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson published A Celtic Miscellany, a collection of two hundred and fifty translations of verse and prose-extracts from the existing body of Celtic literature. Though Jackson drew from all six Celtic tongues (Irish, Scottish-Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton), his anthology mainly presents work from the dominant literatures, Welsh and Irish.
As a translator, Jackson’s primary aim was literal fidelity. He rendered poems as blocks of prose. He knew he could not retain the entangled grammatical constructions of the original Welsh, for instance, and that to strive for rhyme would cost all naturalness. Jackson also wished to correct for what he called “an intolerable whimsicality and sentimentality” in eighteenth and nineteenth century versions of the poetry, produced to gratify the appetite of English readers for the exotic mystique of Gaelic culture.
It’s in this form that my partner Martin Shaw, a Devon storyteller and mythologist, found Jackson’s texts, and began curiously dipping into their imagination and language. What happened after that is more mysterious. Jackson’s renditions, though meticulously faithful, are often windy and plain, especially in the poem at hand, “The Ruins of Timoleague Abbey.” It’s my impression that what Shaw did in his first drafts was to reach into Jackson’s text, seize a fistful of the structural narrative and its lyric flavor, pull it out, and recast it into the diction and rhythms of his poetic storytelling language.

Now, on to the poem itself.  It is the account of a visit to a ruined church, in whose plot the narrator's ancestors lie.  It's a romantic scene, to be sure, with the visitor abstractly thanking God, his "deliverer" for bringing him to this place.  The poem is also filled with some of the most evocative images I've read in a long time.  "Gut sad," "soul sick," and "it is oily with history" are some of my favorite small chunks of language.  My single favorite stanza is "I am bent with weeping. This blue dream chucks the salt from me."  What an image for crying that is!  That will stick with me forever, I think.

It's hard to read this poem without becoming sentimental for some imagined ruined place of one's own future.  In the return to this place, there is love, anger, and grief, followed by relief and thankfulness.  The reading of it is cathartic, and I can't help but wonder what place will inspire these sort of feelings in me at some point later in my life.

Lastly, I've found an image of the place itself.  I seldom do this, as I think the imagining of the words into a mental image is important, but I found the image too beautiful and informative to keep to myself.  Besides, it's far enough down this wall of text that I don't fear it coloring your reading until after you've formed your own mental picture.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ancient Music - Ezra Pound

Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm.
Raineth drop and staineith slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.

Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damn you, sing: Goddamm.

Goddamm, goddamm, 'tis why I am, Goddamm,
So 'gainst the winter's balm.

Sing goddamm, damm, sing Goddamm,
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.

I found this wonderful, funny poem from one of my readers, a colleague herself in poetry blogging, and simply had to share it with you, readers (also, I'd recommend following her daily poetry blog as well, because unlike mine, it really is daily).

For those unaware, this gem from modernsit Ezra Pound is a parody of a middle English poem and song, which is the earliest piece of sheet music we have extant from the British Isles, "Sumer is Icumen In" which celebrates summer.  A recording of it is attached below.  

I imagine this Pound parody captures the feelings of many of my fellow New Englanders today, as they dig themselves out of the continually falling snow.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Snow-Storm - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden's end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind's masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer's lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer's sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

In every fanciful way, Emerson describes a snow storm, and how it creates fantastical winter landscapes.  The snow doesn't care about the farmer's sighs, but creates a "frolic architecture."  It's a lovely poem, and I have little to say other than enjoy.  For those of you also experiencing stormy weather, as I am, in these next few days, stay safe and warm.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Angellica's Lament - Aphra Behn

Had I remained in innocent security,
I should have thought all men were born my slaves,
And worn my power like lightning in my eyes,
To have destroyed at pleasure when offended.
- But when love held the mirror, the undeceiving glass
Reflected all the weakness of my soul, and made me know
My richest treasure being lost, my honour,
All the remaining spoil could not be worth
The conqueror's care or value.
- Oh how I fell like a long worshipped idol
Discovering all the cheat.

On the subject of the poem, the titular Angellica, I have to wonder if it's an allusion towards the Angelica of the Roland stories, though the places don't quite seem to fit (Roland's love for Angelica was unrequited, not the other way around).  Regardless, we don't need biographical details of the titular character to look at the poem.

To summarize the poem, "Before I fell in love, I thought myself powerful and immune, and now that I have fallen in love, I see my true self, my weaknesses, and my self-image, like an idol, falls."  Love shows us the weakness inherent in ourselves, that we'd rather not see, and the act of falling in love can totally crumble our self-image.  For Behn, she thought herself a queen, wielding supreme power over men, able to dash their hopes "at pleasure when offended."  When she fell in love, that image "fell like a long worshipped idol."  She had constructed and worshiped a false self, and its fall was deeply painful.

I suspect however that this fall was fortunate, and was liberating in some way.  Love is the "undeceiving glass," that mirror which "reflected all the weakness of [the] soul."  She had lost her honor by constructing this false idol, this false self, and love had shown it to her.  Whatever plunder she could have gained when she wielded her false power couldn't be worth it, having known love.  At its core, this poem is a liberation, albeit painful, from false self image due to the true reflection of self that love provides.

Aphra Behn is very much a poet worth knowing about.  While little is known about her in the way of biography, we do know she was a 17th century English dramatist, and sometimes agent of the state in the field of intelligence.  

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Church Monuments - George Herbert

While that my soul repairs to her devotion,
Here I intomb my flesh, that it betimes
May take acquaintance of this heap of dust;
To which the blast of death's incessant motion,
Fed with the exhalation of our crimes,
Drives all at last. Therefore I gladly trust

My body to this school, that it may learn
To spell his elements, and find his birth
Written in dusty heraldry and lines;
Which dissolution sure doth best discern,
Comparing dust with dust, and earth with earth.
These laugh at jet, and marble put for signs.

To sever the good fellowship of dust,
And spoil the meeting. What shall point out them,
When they shall bow, and kneel, and fall down flat
To kiss those heaps, which now they have in trust?
Dear flesh, while I do pray, learn here thy stem
And true descent: that when thou shalt grow fat,

And wanton in thy cravings, thou mayst know,
That flesh is but the glass, which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust. Mark, here below,
How tame these ashes are, how free from lust,
That thou mayst fit thyself against thy fall.

The inevitably of time is the core message of this poem, but rather than being a terrifying thing, I get a comforting tone from this poem.  The ashes to which all things are reduced are here to be examined.  The jet and marble which mark our graves too will be reduced to dust, and all shall mingle together in the end.  Herbert entrusts his body to the earth at death, to learn its way, "to spell his elements, and find his birth written in dusty heraldry and lines."  He finds comfort in learning of his fate.

The most beautiful line, one that I think will stick with me for a long time, is this: "flesh is but the glass, which holds the dust that measures all our time; which also shall be crumbled into dust."  All things, come from dust and to dust return, and our bodies, the hourglass of our time on earth, that too shall be dust.  Why should we know this?  "Mark, here below, how tame these ashes are, how free from lust, that thou may fit thyself against thy fall."  It's to prepare oneself.  To fit yourself against your inevitable death.  Somehow though, this is a comfort to me, and I hope it will be to you as well, reader.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Poem, on the Supposition of an Advertisement Appearing in a Morning Paper, of the Publication of a Volume of Poems, by a Servant-Maid - Elizabeth Hands

The tea-kettle bubbled, the tea things were set,
The candles were lighted, the ladies were met;
The how d'ye's were over, and entering bustle,
The company seated, and silks ceased to rustle:
The great Mrs. Consequence opened her fan,
And thus the discourse in an instant began
(All affected reserve and formality scorning):
"I suppose you all saw in the paper this morning
A volume of Poems advertised - 'tis said
They're produced by the pen of a poor servant-maid."
"A servant writes versus!" says Madam Du Bloom:
"Pray, what is the subject - a Mop, or a Broom?"
"He, he, he," says Miss Flounce: "I suppose we shall see
An ode on a Dishclout - what else can it be?"
Says Miss Coquettilla, "Why, ladies, so tart?
Perhaps Tom the footman has fired her heart;
And she'll tell us how charming he looks in new clothes,
And how nimble his hand moves in brushing the shoes;
Or how, the last time he went to May Fair,
He bought her some sweethearts of gingerbread ware."
"For my part I think," says old Lady Marr-joy,
"A servant might find herself other employ:
Was she mine I'd employ her as long as 'twas light,
And send her to bed without candle at night."
"Why so?" says Miss Rhymer, displeased: "I protest
'Tis pity a genius should be so depressed!"
"What ideas can such low-bred creatures conceive?"
Says Mrs. Noworthy, and laughed in her sleeve.
Says old Miss Prudella, "If servants can tell
How to write to their mothers, to say they are well,
And read of a Sunday The Duty of Man,
Which is more I believe than one half of them can;
I think 'tis much properer they should rest there,
Than be reaching at things so much out of their sphere."
Says old Mrs. Candour, "I've not got a maid
That's the plague of my life -a  young gossiping jade;
There's no end of the people that after her come,
And whenever I've out, she is never at home;
I'd rather ten times she would sit down and write,
Than gossip all over the town every night."
"Some whimsical trollop most like," says Miss Prim,
"Has been scribbling of nonsense, just out of a whim,
And, conscious it neither is witty nor pretty,
Conceals her true name, and ascribes it to Betty."
"I once had a servant myself," says Miss Pines,
"That wrote on a wedding some very good lines."
Says Mrs. Domestic, "And when they were done,
I can't see for my part what use they were on;
Had she wrote a receipt, to've instructed you how
To warm a cold breast of veal, like a ragout,
Or to make cowslip wine, that would pass for Champagne,
It might have been useful, again and again."
On the sofa was old Lady Pedigree placed;
She owned that for poetry she had no taste,
That the study of heraldry was more in fashion,
And boasted she knew all the crests in the nation.
Says Mrs. Routella, "Tom, take out the urn,
And stir up the fire, you see it don't burn."

The tea-things removed, and the tea-table gone,
The card-tables brought, and the cards laid thereon,
The ladies, ambitious for each other's crown,
Like courtiers contending for honours, sat down.

If I'm honest, I initially chose this poem because of it's hilariously wordy title, but after reading it through several times, I find that the title fits the subject matter perfectly, and its humor has only increased in my eyes.  It's worth noting that Elizabeth Hands herself was a servant, so these lines, we can imagine, are likely the sort of thing she was anticipating upon the publishing of her poetry.  In this poem, we are given a glimpse at the sort of people for whom she likely worked: chittering, sanctimonious, elitist, awful.

It reads like an overheard conversation, as if while attending to her ladies, Hands wrote the poem in her mind.  Some of the ladies think that a servant has no place writing poetry whatsoever, and that it is above such "low-bred" folk.  Others are more sympathetic, but are still patronizing and condescending in their appraisal of the capabilities of the working classes.  For example, one thinks only that a serving lady could write gag-worthy (in my opinion) poems about Love because Tom the footman brought her some sweets.  One says that a servant wrote some nice lines of poetry on the occasion of a wedding, to which the response is (paraphrased) "why didn't she write something useful like how to warm up cold veal?"  Other ladies still just divulge into gossip about how much they wish their servants wouldn't gossip.  Really, I'm reminded of the television program The View and how much I hate it.

The poem is certainly funny, and I'm glad that these miserable, shrill society ladies are remembered in a servant's poem, so that they can be rightly mocked for the rest of time.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Ocean - Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Ocean has its silent caves,
Deep, quiet, and alone;
Though there be fury on the waves,
Beneath them there is none.
The awful spirits of the deep
Hold their communion there;
And there are those for whom we weep,
The young, the bright, the fair.

Calmly the wearied seamen rest
Beneath their own blue sea.
The ocean solitudes are blest,
For there is purity.
The earth has guilt, the earth has care,
Unquiet are its graves;
But peaceful sleep is ever there,
Beneath the dark blue waves.

The ocean is a frightful place, unfathomable, where many people have gone and few returned.  Yet there is something sacred, almost inviolable, about its peace and alien quiet, in those very depths.  "Peaceful sleep is ever there, beneath the dark blue waves."  Fearful and peaceful all at once, the dark deep ocean here is death, the afterlife.  We cannot know it, and what truly occurs there is beyond our scope.  We fear and revere it, and mourn those who have gone there.  The language of the poem is simple and clear, with a lilting cadence and simple rhyme scheme.  It fits the calm ascribed to the depths, and puts me at peace.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Truant - Margaret Hasse

Our high school principal wagged his finger
over two manila folders
lying on his desk, labeled with our names -
my boyfriend and me -
called to his office for skipping school.

The day before, we ditched Latin and world history
to chase shadows of clouds on a motorcycle.
We roared down rolling asphalt roads
through the Missouri River bottoms
beyond town, our heads emptied
of review tests and future plans.

We stopped on a dirt lane to hear
a meadowlark's liquid song, smell
heart-break blossom of wild plum.
Beyond leaning fence posts and barbwire,
a tractor drew straight lines across the field
unfurling its cape of blackbirds.

Now forty years after that geography lesson
in spring, I remember the principal's words.
How right he was in saying:
This will be part of
your permanent record.

A friend of mine posted something interesting the other day about a concept in philosophy and psychology, a dichotomy between a "true" and "false" self, the true self being the one which experiences things directly, living with a degree of spontaneity, and experiences the feeling of being alive.  The false self is dead and empty, it's the appearance of reality, the facade each and every one of us builds in order to cope with daily life most of the time.  While I disagree with that concept to some degree, I think most of us know the experience of putting up some sort of "false" face, of denying ourselves the potential spontaneity of existing.

This poem captures the joy and lasting value of that spontaneous living.  The principal was right, that day did go on Margaret Hasse's permanent record, in that she will never forget those feelings of joy and wonder.  The actual school consequences of their little escape?  Who knows.  Not important.  What was important was that experience, that marvelous freedom to revel in a pointless but formative adventure.  The facade of student was dropped in favor of clouds, birds, and flowers.

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Lover - Amy Lowell

If I could catch the green lantern of the firefly
I could see to write you a letter.

I remember hearing somewhere, I unfortunately cannot remember where, that the space between a poem's title and its body is like taking the step between the dock and the boat.  That seems appropriate here.  The title informs the "you" of the poem's text, presumably "a lover."  A sense of longing permeates the poem.  Sure, one can catch a firefly, but its light?  Its green lantern?  It will quickly go out, ephemeral as fireflies are.  Lowell wants to write a letter, but can't see to it, the firefly's lantern being unobtainable.

Extreme short form poetry like this is attractive to me for its density of meaning and cleanness of form.  Lowell says what she needs to say with no more than twenty words.  And here I am, rambling on about it.  I'm sure there are many interpretations possible from these twenty words; I only offer my own.  I'd love to hear what you think about it, reader.  Don't be shy.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Winter Trees - William Carlos Williams

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.

Despite being a poem which depicts a moonrise in winter, this poem is really full of spring.  Fall completed ("attiring and disattiring" being the fall of the leaves from the trees), it's now winter, when the trees have wisely protected their buds so that they made wake in spring.  This preparedness against a sure thing is wisdom.  This is rather true of us in the winter time as well.  We have to attire heavily to go outside, de-attire when we come in, and so on.  We must prepare against sure things as well, and like the trees, be ready when the time comes.

On a day as cold as today (15 F, -10C) this poem felt fitting.  It's beautiful out, despite the cold, though, and the image of a moon sliding between slender, bare branches was irresistible.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Pact - Ezra Pound

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman -
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root -
Let there be commerce between us.

I had to post this poem because of my own personal feelings about Walt Whitman.  I've long been unable to stomach his poetry, finding it largely gag inducing, with his O!s and exhortations.  While I do not have a pig-headed father (instead a wonderful one), I can relate to pretty much everything else in this poem.  Even though I've never liked Whitman's poetry, I do recognize his tremendous achievements ("It was you who broke the new wood") and artistic talent.

I like the idea of moving on, of choosing to let go of bad feelings.  In the case of Pound and Whitman, Pound felt it silly that one poetic talent, though not contemporary with the other, should in some way detest the other.  It's a time for carving, for taking what came before and honing it, working with it, rather than against it.  "Let there be commerce between us."

Monday, January 12, 2015

I Don't Have a Pill for That - Deborah Landau

It scares me to watch
a woman hobble along
the sidewalk, hunched adagio

leaning on -
there's so much fear
I could draw you a diagram

of the great reduction
all of us will soon
be way-back-when.

The wedding is over.
Summer is over.
Life please explain.

The book is nearly halfway read.
I don't have a pill for that,
the doctor said.

This poem swings back and forth between lucidity (full sentences) and fragments of thought, seemingly unconnected, incomplete scenes.  There's a sense of desperation about it ("Life please explain.") and I can't help but feel that this poem is far out of the depth of my experience.  I don't know what it's like to need medication, to need a pill for that.  Despite my lack of experience, I think this poem could represent what mania is like.  The line, "The book is nearly halfway read" means that life is almost halfway over.  No pill to reverse aging, certainly.

I'm sure there are meanings I could try to extract from the scenes that open the poem up, the woman hobbling along, the idea of us being way-back-when, but I'm not sure I see the point.  There's no magic pill that can explain the poem to me, or that can give a correct meaning to these scenes.  It could very well be that these lines are meant to confuse, to seem muddled, as if you should be able to understand them but you're not able.

Friday, January 9, 2015

"Are you the new person drawn toward me?" - Walt Whitman

Are you the new person drawn toward me?
To begin with, take warning, I am surely far different from what you suppose;
Do you suppose you will find in me your ideal?
Do you think it so easy to have me become your lover?
Do you think the friendship of me would be unalloy'd satisfaction?
Do you think I am trusty and faithful?
Do you see no further than this facade, this smooth and tolerant manner of me?
Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground toward a real heroic man?
Have you no thought, O dreamer, that it may be all maya, illusion?

"I am surely far different from what you suppose" is the line that best sums this poem up.  This deals with expectations others have of others, and how reality is almost never in line with perception, particularly with regards to people.  Friendship and love are not the panaceas we so often hope they will be.  Things are not always as they seem.  "Have you no thought, O dreamer, that it may be all maya, illusion?"

The poem comes across as almost hostile in its warning, but I think it's out of a desire for the one approaching, the person drawn towards, to make sure that it is not out of selfish reasons.  Whitman is not saying that he is not trustworthy of faithful, but he asks these questions to make the one approaching question one's self.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner - Randall Jarrell

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

The best way I can paraphrase this poem is, "After my mother's death, I joined the army.  I was in the ball turret, six miles up, freezing cold.  I woke, as if from a nightmare, and was killed by enemy fire."  The last line can stand as it is.  It's a truly horrifying account of war, delivered with a sardonically humorous twist at the end.  You never think about the viscera cleanup that must come with war.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Thrice Toss These Oaken Ashes - Thomas Campion

Thrice toss these oaken ashes in the air,
Thrice sit thou mute in this enchanted chair,
Then thrice three times tie up this true love's knot,
And murmur soft "She will, or she will not."

   Go burn these pois'nous weeds in yon blue fire,
These screech-owl's feathers and this prickling briar,
This cypress gathered at a dead man's grave,
That all my fears and cares an end may have.

   Then come, you fairies! dance with me a round;
Melt her heart with your melodious sound.
In vain are all the charms I can devise:
She hath an art to break them with her eyes.

"In vain are all the charms I can devise."  That's the key here.  No matter what Campion's narrator does, no ritual can make his love object love him.  I get the sense that he is so nervous in approaching this woman that he seeks to fortify himself, to somehow make himself immune to her gaze, but alas, those charms?  "She hath an art to break them with her eyes."

The superstitious love charms that make up the bulk of the poem are silly, and I imagine they were just as silly in Campion's time as they are today.  I'm struck by the similarity to our modern, "She loves me, she loves me not" a love stricken youth might murmur as plucking flower petals.  Even though deep down, that little voice in our heads tells us that these charms and tricks are useless, we hope anyways, reassured and comforted by ritual.  And as usual, all the confidence of a flower saying "She loves me" disappears at the first sight of her eyes.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Unfortunate Traveler - Billy Collins

Because I was off to France, I packed
my camera along with my shaving kit,
some colorful boxer shorts, and a sweater with a zipper,

but every time I tried to take a picture
of a bridge, a famous plaza,
or the bronze equestrian statue of a general,

there was a woman standing in front of me
taking a picture of the very same thing,
or the odd pedestrian blocked my view,

someone or something always getting between me
and the flying buttress, the river boat,
a bright café awning, an unexpected pillar.

So into the little door of the lens
came not the kiosk or the altarpiece.
No fresco or baptistry slipped by the quick shutter.

Instead, my memories of that glorious summer
of my youth are awakened now,
like an ember fanned into brightness,

by a shoulder, the back of a raincoat,
a wide hat or towering hairdo -
lost time miraculously recovered

by the buttons on a gendarme's coat
and my favorite,
the palm of the vigilant guard at the Louvre.

As regular readers of this blog know, Billy Collins is my favorite poet writing today.  I admire the effortless way in which he makes the every day into absurdity, the natural strength of his tone shifts, and the clear way in which he expresses what seem to me to be universal truths.  This poem is no exception to that trend, as it recounts his failed attempts to take pictures of famous objects on a youthful vacation in France.  Instead of capturing pristine photos of famous architecture, he has a series of amusing failures (if one can call them that) which become triggers to his treasured memories, everyday portals into his past.

This experience of travel is near universal, I'd wager.  I know that in my travels, I often took great pains to take "good" pictures, well-framed, clean shots, etc etc, but despite my best efforts, oftentimes, humorous little quirks would work their way in.  And certainly, our memory of places and people is more triggered by "a wide hat or towering hairdo" than by a perfect picture of a bit of architecture.  After all, which are you more likely to see day to day?

My favorite thing to do with this poem is imagine the scenario in which each described photo was taken.  It's pretty easy to imagine the scene with the guard at the Louvre blocking his photo, but a towering hairdo?  Maybe some tourist with an impressively tall coiffed head stepped in front of him as he lined up a shot of Notre Dame cathedral.  It doesn't much matter the scenario, but it's fun to imagine, and I think also to compare to our own failed vacation photos.

Monday, January 5, 2015

For the Climbers - Kevin Craft

Among the many lives you'll never lead
consider that of the wolverine, for whom avalanche
is opportunity, who makes a festival
of frozen marrow from the femur of an elk,
who wears the crooked North Star like an amulet

of teeth. In the game of which animal
would you return as, today I'm thinking
snowshoe hare, a scuffle in the underbrush,
one giant leap. You never see them
coming and going, only the crosshairs

of their having passed, ascending the ridge, lost
or not lost in succession forests giving way
to open meadow where deep snow
lingers and finally relents, uncovering
acres of lily - glacier yellow, avalanche

white - daylight restaking its earthly claim.
Every season swallows someone -
Granite Mountain with its blunderbuss
gullies, Tatoosh a lash on the tongue,
those climbers caught if not unawares

then perfectly hapless, not thinking of riding
that snowstorm to the summit, not thinking
wolverine fever in the shivering blood,
not thinking steelhead cutthroat rainbow
or the languid river that will carry them out.

I like this poem, though it's difficult for me to explain why.  At its most basic, it's a series of imaginative exercises, putting oneself in the place of various animals seen along a (presumably snowy) mountain climb.  The descriptions flow freely from one to another, in and out of various skins, from environment to environment, like the "giant leap" of the snowshoe hare.

I feel like the hare, while reading this, "lost or not lost."  The moment in which I am able to orient myself is in the second to last stanza.  A sudden moment of clarity "Every season swallows someone."  At least one climber dies every year, and they're never thinking about all of these imaginative scenarios, these beautiful nature scenes, or of any fear, any animal instinct.  The climbers are caught "unawares then perfectly hapless."  The climbers are helpless against nature in the end, and yet we persist on climbing anyways.  In a way, I think Craft admires that tenacity.  Why else write this poem?

Friday, January 2, 2015

A Song: Lying is an occupation - Laetitia Pilkington

Lying is an occupation,
   Used by all who mean to rise;
Politicians owe their station,
   But to well concerted lies.

These to lovers give assistance,
   To ensnare the fair-one's heart;
And the virgin's best resistance
   Yields to this commanding art.

Study this superior science,
   Would you rise in Church or State;
Bid to Truth a bold defiance,
   'Tis the practice of the great.

In her little song, Pilkington offers a rather scathing account of how those who are in power got to where they are; they lied, and lied well!  Lying is a job, as the title claims, and those who are employed in such fashion rise in both Church and State.  Even "the virgin's best resistance yields" in the face of a well constructed lie.  One must wonder if that's related to her own marriage, though I generally try to separate non-biographical poems from the author's life.

I think it's fairly clear that this poem does not glorify lying, but rather is criticizing those who lie to further their ambitions.  The last two lines basically say, "Screw truth, if you want to be successful, lie your ass off, that's what the greats do."  This poem was written sometime between 1730 or 1750, most likely.  Are things much different today?  I think that this poem will resonate with anyone whose scruples have kept them from lying in situations which might have benefited them, or have seen others rise unjustly.  If we can still identify with this poem, I think it means that the world is not very different than it was when this poem was penned.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Decembert 31st - Richard Hoffman

All my undone actions wander
naked across the calendar,

a band of skinny hunter-gatherers,
blown snow scattered here and there,

stumbling toward a future
folded in the New Year I secure

with a pushpin: January's picture
a painting from the 17th century,

a still life: Skull and mirror,
spilled coin purse and a flower.

I think the way Hoffman visualizes and personifies his "undone actions" from the past years is charming and clever.  His characterization of them is both as something with agency (hunter-gatherers) and as fatalistic (blown snow).  The hunters move, but they know not where or why.  The reality is because Hoffman didn't complete his checklist, so these things have to be shuffled forward through demarcated time, but they don't know that.  And he secures it all in place with a pushpin, presumably to be blown about into the future at a later date.

The observation of the painting which accompanies this calendar work is unremarkable and bare bones (get it?).  We can read a lot into it if we want (coin purse representing fortune lost, flower for love, skull for death, mirror for self-reflection upon death, and so on) but I think we as readers should do as Hoffman's narrator does, and merely take notice of it.  He doesn't say if he finds it nice, or off-putting, or any other sort of emotionally charged viewing, he merely sees it.  Sometimes the description is enough, and it's up to us to draw our conclusions.

This may be a reach, and it is certainly me injecting my own sensibilities into the poem, but I get the feeling that Hoffman feels as I do about celebrating the New Year; it's largely pointless and an arbitrary celebration we stage out of a sense of obligation.  His undone deeds are moved because the calendar changed, not because he particularly cares or cannot possibly do them right now.  It's the same as New Year's resolutions.  If you need a change in date to strive towards some goal, you're probably going to fail.  I don't think we can reasonably extract that from the poem, but it fits my sentiments rather well, and so I thought I'd share.