Saturday, July 23, 2016

`Read and Write Without a Shadowed Care'

I’ve become the old guy who would sit on the park bench in the afternoon sun, feeding the pigeons and squirrels, except I have to work and don’t have time for idleness. Nor do I understand the notion of retirement. Golf? You’re kidding. I’m happiest when working, even if only pulling weeds or writing about faculty retirements. I’m fortunate: I enjoy my own company (a rare gift among humans) and enjoy what David Solway in Installations (Signal Editions, 2015) calls “The Art of Thinking”:

“. . . never disappointing the admiring gaze
and the confident patience
of the one who waits and watches.”

Solway’s poems often begin in observation and contemplation. He is not a notably meditative poet – probably too easily riled -- but certainly is more spectator than actor, which is only right for a poet. He uses lines from Book III of Keats’ Endymion as the epigraph to his own poem of the same name: “But the crown / Of all my life was utmost quietude: More did I love to lie in cavern rude.” Solway’s “Endymion” sent me back to Keats’, where I found this a few lines later:

“I would watch all night to see unfold   
Heaven’s gates, and Aethon snort his morning gold  
Wide o’er the swelling streams: and constantly          
At brim of day-tide, on some grassy lea,
My nets would be spread out, and I at rest.”

Aethon snorts because the Greek aithôn can mean “burning” or “shining,” but as an epithet it usually is applied to horses. Solway’s poem is a drawn-out double entendre, and not his best work. Better is a poem addressed to another Canadian poet, “A Letter to Robert Melançon on His Retirement.” Solway pays homage to Melançon’s Le Paradis des apparences (2004), translated into English by Judith Cowan as For as Far as the Eye Can See (Biblioasis, 2013). Melançon taught at the University of Montreal for thirty-five years and retired in 2007. In the poem’s final lines, Solway writes:

“And then, when time can spare you for the task,
you’ll pledge your lines beside the wooden shrine
of our Lady of Abundance, and find
you need not trade the freedom of your days
for all Arabia’s wealth or all the tomes
of Pergamum and Alexandria,
once self-sufficient on your Dunham farm,
once in your element of pastoral
where you may school the clamour of the age
and quell the dictates of eternity,
to plough and seed and reap without a hitch
and read and write without a shadowed care.”

Friday, July 22, 2016

`A Summer Afternoon’s Supreme Iambic'

Reading outdoors in Houston this time of year invites melanoma, heat stroke and, of late, the Zika virus. According to the semi-mythological heat-index, the temperature at noon Thursday was 110° F. Even skinny people in repose were sweating. A woman I know was waiting for the campus shuttle bus, in the sparse shade of a live oak. Normally proper and demure, she whispered, “Even my underwear’s dripping,” which was far more than I wanted to know. But I was returning to my office from the library and found a bench in the shade of a building, and decided to defer the afternoon’s work for a few minutes. I’d felt an urge to read L.E. Sissman again. He was a favorite of mine and of my late friend D.G. Myers, who, like Sissman, died of cancer, though I haven’t been able to read his poems since David’s death almost two years ago. In Sissman’s first collection, Dying: An Introduction (1968), I read “Dear George Orwell, 1950-1965 [Sissman was well aware that Orwell died in 1950],” including these lines:
“But always in the chinks
Of my time (or the bank’s),
I read your books again.
In Schrafft’s or on the run
To my demanding clients,
I read you in the silence
Of the spell you spun.
My dearest Englishman,
My stubborn unmet friend.”

That’s how we read certain writers, just as we seek the company of certain friends for reasons we may not understand. Few human capacities are more important than friendship, with its mingling of intimacy and trust, reliance and autonomy, and I know from experience that writers frequently grow into unmet friends. Reading Sissman again felt like the impulse to renew a friendship that had grown a little stale from disuse. As Johnson told Boswell: “A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair.” Another book I had with me was Robert Melançon’s For as Far as the Eye Can See (trans. Judith Cowan, Biblioasis, 2013), one of my favorite recent poetry collections. Here is 120 from that collection:

“The reader who’s lifted his eyes from his book
perceives the sky above as the true ocean,
the immense expanse of blue enclosing

“the whole earth, at whose end we might tumble
out of everything, should we ever find that end.
An enormous white cloud appears as

“the crest of foam on a wave; it breaks and
streams in tatters while a pair of gulls fly through
the hollow space where blue ebbs and flows.

“Before picking up the thread of the sentence
Where he left off, this reader will have scanned
A summer afternoon’s supreme iambic.”

Melançon identifies that magical moment when, after being lost in a book, consciousness returns to our immediate surroundings and everything looks a little different, at once familiar and strange. The power of a book to induce self-forgetting ought to frighten us.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

`The Languor of the Heart and the Pang of Thought'

Wednesday’s post included a fleeting mention of Yevgeny Abramovich Baratynsky (1800-1844), a Russian poet praised and befriended by Pushkin and admired by Mandelstam, Zabolotsky, Shalamov and Brodsky. Wednesday morning, Norm Sibum wrote to me: “Say, in your travels, did you ever come across a Russian poet named Baratynski? Just wondering. He’s supposed to have been the Russian Leopardi and roughly contemporary to him.” When I wrote back, I assumed Norm was joking but I was wrong. He hadn’t yet read the post, and replied: “Christ, more synchronicity at work: I hadn't heard of Baratynski until last night.” Nor had I, but it appears to be a good time to discover a poet who remained a complete blank to us until two days ago.

Last year, Arc Publications brought out a slender edition of Baratynsky’s Half-light and Other Poems, translated by Peter France, and this year Ugly Duck Presse published the 584-page A Science Not For for the Earth: Selected Poems and Letters, translated by Rawley Grau. France in his introduction confirms Baratynsky’s kinship with Leopardi, saying: “. . . there is much in the clear-sighted, bleak vision of man and society in the Canti that reminds one of the poet of Half-light: the historical pessimism, the noia (something like Baudelaire’s spleen), the awareness of human fragility and ephemerality, but also the idealism and the vital honesty and magnanimity.”

Superficially, based on a single reading of France’s versions, Baratynsky seems like a stiffer, more formal and classically minded poet than Leopardi. The Russian’s world is muted and melancholy, less profoundly bleak than Leopardi’s. An English-language cognate might be Keats (“glut thy sorrow on a morning rose”). Here is France’s version of an untitled 1828 poem:

“My talent is pitiful, my voice not loud,
but I am living; somewhere in the world
someone looks kindly on my life; far off
a distant fellow-man will read my words
and find my being; and, who knows, my soul
will raise an echo in his soul, and I
who found a friend in my own time,
will find a reader in posterity.”

That’s the best any writer can hope for. The most fruitful writer/reader connections tend to be occult, after all, defying ready explanation. Why do some writers – often a wildly divergent assortment – elicit a tingling sense of kinship? Leopardi certainly does that for me. Go here to see Peter France’s coupling of Baratynsky’s “Autumn” and Pushkin’s poem of the same name. For a reader of English, the echo of Keats is inevitable. In his preface France writes:

“Pushkin is irresistibly attractive, Baratynsky is probably more of an acquired taste. When I first started to read him, he wasn’t exactly my type of poet -- too bleak, too aloof. Yet I began to feel (the translator's abiding illusion?) that I could find my way into his vision, his voice. I'm not sure now why I was originally drawn to translate his poems. Perhaps at first it was partly the challenge of the new.”

Encountering a new poet from another time and place can be disorienting. Am I getting Baratynsky or France, or some indeterminate mingling of both? How much am I missing? What remains of the original? What France gives me I like. There’s a clarity and occasional plain-spokenness about Baratynsky’s lines that’s attractive. I can’t say how “major” Baratynsky is. I’m too removed from the original. I’ll defer to Nabokov’s assessment in the commentary to his four-volume translation of Eugene Onegin (1964):

“If in the taxonomy of talent there exists a cline between minor and major poetry, [Baratynsky] presents such an intermediate unit of classification. His elegies are keyed to the precise point where the languor of the heart and the pang of thought meet in a would-be burst of music; but a remote door seems to shut quietly, the poem ceases to vibrate (although its words may still linger) at the very instant that we are about to surrender to it. He had deep and difficult things to say, but never quite said them.”

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

`One Wave in an Ocean of Millions'

Do young people still fall bookishly in love with Rossiya-Matushka, Mother Russia, and stay up too late reading Pushkin, Gogol and Tolstoy? Are they still smitten with Natasha Rostov or Prince Andrei? Saul Bellow wrote of his youth in Chicago with Isaac Rosenfeld: “We were so Russian, as adolescents, and perhaps we were practicing to be writers.” A writer I couldn’t read today on a bet, Dostoevsky, was my first crush, at age twelve. It had something to do with pervasive melancholy, an incipient spiritual light, the melodrama of everyday living and probably hormones. The Russians seemed to feel more than the people in my neighborhood. The affliction may be genetic. My middle son, who just turned sixteen, is teaching himself Russian, and War and Peace is calling to him. His closest friends at boarding school, his boxing partners, hail from Россия-Матушка.

I’m enjoying The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015), edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski. Chandler has already translated Pushkin and Leskov for us, and one of the last century’s great novels, Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, but he reminds us in his introduction: “Almost all Russians see Pushkin, rather than Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, as their greatest writer. Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Pasternak and Tsvetaeva are loved at least as passionately as Bulgakov, Nabokov, Platonov, Sholokhov and Zoshchenko.” I hadn’t known that Varlam Shalamov, author of The Kolyma Tales (trans. John Glad, 1980), described by Chandler as “a masterpiece of Russian prose and the greatest of all works of literature about the Gulag,” was a poet before he wrote his stories. Here is “Baratynsky,” written in 1949 and named for Pushkin’s contemporary Yevgeny Abramovich Baratynsky:

“Three Robinson Crusoes
in an abandoned shack,
we found a real find –
a single, battered book.

“We three were friends
and we quickly agreed
to share out this treasure
as Solomon decreed.

“The foreword for cigarette-paper:
one friend was delighted
with a gift so unlikely
he feared he was dreaming.

“The second made playing cards
from the notes at the back.
May his play bring him pleasure,
every page bring him luck.

“As for my own cut –
those precious jottings,
the dreams of a poet
now long forgotten –

“it was all that I wanted.
How wisely we’d judged.
What a joy to set foot in
a forgotten hut.”

In a note, Chandler writes: “This poem records a real incident. Shalamov describes how playing cards were made from paper, saliva, urine, a little chewed bread and a tiny piece of crayon.” The final section of the anthology is inspired: “Four Poems by Non-Russians.” Most interesting and most pertinent to our literary love of Mother Russia is “Learning the Letter Щ by Nancy Mattson, a Canadian-born poet who lives in London. Щ is the Cyrillic letter usually transliterated shcha. The sound resembles the English sh, but is prolonged: “It is basically a long, palatalized version of English’s `sh’ as in `ship.’” Mattson’s poem is a wash of Щ’s. See the final stanzas:

“I remember the shooshch
of my grandmother’s tongue and teeth
sucking her tea through a sugar cube
telling her stories in Finnish

“Hush now, it’s the one about her sister
in Soviet Russia, how she barely survived
on watery cabbage soup:   ЩИ
but was finally crushed     lost      she

the sound is a soft shchi
one wave in an ocean of millions
that receded but never returned”

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

`A Well-Stocked Head and a Better-Stocked Library'

“The ideal which grew up in the Renaissance and has not yet died away, that of the many-sided humane thinker with a well-stocked head and a better-stocked library, the ideal personified in Montaigne, Ronsard, Johnson, Gray, Goethe, Voltaire, Milton, Tennyson, and many more—that ideal was, in modern times, first and most stimulatingly embodied in Petrarch.”

Francesco Petrarca – Petrarch -- died on this date, July 19, in 1374, in Arquà, near Padua, one day before his seventieth birthday. It’s risky to judge the men and women of the past by the blinkered standards of the present. Our assurance of our rightness is self-serving and arrogant, nothing more. Given all of that, Petrarch still seems curiously modern, almost one of us. Gilbert Highet’s characterization of the poet in The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature (1957) articulates our notion of an educated person: “a well-stocked head and a better-stocked library.”

Petrarch wrote prolifically in Latin and Italian. Among the most amusing and modern-seeming of his Latin works is Invectives (trans. David Marsh, I Tatti Renaissance Library, Harvard University Press, 2003). “Invectives Against a Physician” was prompted by the illness of Pope Clement VI in 1351-52. The pope was being treated by a committee of physicians. Petrarch wrote to Clement suggesting he rely on a single, experienced doctor, which provoked one of the committee members to attack Petrarch. In his lengthy tirade, the poet says, “Your own wasted pallor comes from the chamber-pots you study every day,” but he’s just warming up:

“Against your weapons, laughter and silence and contempt would have sufficed. There was no need for words. But I could not be silent. Otherwise you might have held a celebration in some sewer–which to you would be like a Capitol–among the banging of bed-pans and the farting of the sick--for such would be your trumpets, such your cheering army—to celebrate the ruin of the Muses and the destruction of sacred studies.”

Another essay in Invectives, “On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others,” reads like a prescient preview of Montaigne, who wasn’t born until 1533. Petrarch can be as unexpectedly personal and free with his “I” as the Frenchman: “When I was in good health, I almost never let a day pass in idleness. I read, wrote, or pondered some learned question. I listened to others as they read, or questioned them when they were silent. I sought out not only learned men, but learned cities as well, so that I would return more learned and more virtuous.”    

Despite the amnesia pandemic, Petrarch is still with us. Section 55 of The Triumph of Love (1998) is Geoffrey Hill’s response to the final poem in Petrarch’s Canzoniere, a hymn to the Blessed Virgin, “Vergine bella, che di sol vestita.” Hill begins: “Vergine bella – it is here that I require / a canzone of some substance. There are sound / precedents for this, of a plain eloquence / which would be perfect.” The poem concludes:

Vergine bella, as you
are well aware, I here follow
Petrarch, who was your follower,
a sinner devoted to your service.”

About the poet’s death, Morris Bishop (Nabokov’s closest friend at Cornell) recounts a possibly apocryphal anecdote in Petrarch and His World (1963):

“According to an old story he was found, pen in hand, collapsed over his Life of Caesar. The story, of which the first extant record is dated fourteen years after his death, is now regarded as unreliable, being all too apt. It is at least possible, and fitting with all we know of his state of body and mind. I cannot willingly surrender the conviction that death found Petrarch reading and writing, praying and weeping. Nor the conviction that death gave him a kindly greeting, and that Petrarch responded with a welcome; for, as he said, what we commonly call death is in truth only the end of death.”

The story leaves us admiring Petrarch and his biographer.

Monday, July 18, 2016

`Their Temporary Heads of Yellow Crepe'

Sometimes, despite proverbial wisdom, you can judge a book by its cover. Take Compass & Clock (Swallow Press / Ohio University Press, 2016) by David Sanders. On the cover is Sunrise by Jeff Kallet, an arrangement of quadrilaterals -- some straight-edged, some ragged – a circle (which presumably accounts for the title) and a half-circle. What makes the grouping of shapes so pleasing are the colors – denim blue, pumpkin orange, black, newly poured concrete gray, moss green and a circle of red. Some artists have a gift for colors, contrasting them, bouncing one off another, creating symmetries and asymmetries that please the inner eye. In Kallet’s palette, yellow is most vivid, a deep yellow like egg yolks, aspen leaves in the fall, taxis and sulfur. The poets of such yellows are Klee, Matisse and Mondrian. Across a lifetime, each of us assembles a private library of associations with various colors. For me, yellow is soothing and suggestive of life itself – what green is for many. Alexander Theroux in The Primary Colors: Three Essays (1994) sees things differently. Of yellow he writes:

“It is the color of early bruises, unpopular cats, potato wart, old paper, chloroflavedo in plants, forbidding skies, dead leaves, xanthoderma, purulent conjunctivitis, dental plaque, gimp lace, foul curtains, infection and pus (`yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog's eye,’ sings John Lennon in `I Am the Walrus’), speed bumps, callused feet, and ugly deposits of nicotine on fingers and teeth.”

Yellow shows up sparsely in Sanders’ poems, which should not surprise us given that he lives in Central Ohio, a muted landscape of color. In Texas, his work might be spattered with yellow. He notes forsythia and a school bus without mentioning their color. He likens piano keys to “chipped and yellowed teeth.” In “Unattended Consequences,” the speakers and a neighbor visit an abandoned settlement in the woods, where all that remains are the flowers planted by the long-gone inhabitants. The neighbor says:

“`Timbermen—who knows when or why—
tried to settle here, built some houses,
then disappeared. Left just the daffodils. . . .’”

And the speaker comments: “Such curiosities should be passed on / to kin, not just the guy across the street,” and adds:

“In all fairness, though, he chanced to tell me
just because the daffodils were up—
their temporary heads of yellow crepe
both maverick marks and mockery of survival—
the afternoon we saw them in the woods.”

“Mockery of survival,” yes, but survival nevertheless. That’s yellow, despite the hint of cowardice.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

`He Drives His Peg Into the Cliff'

“The artist who can get down on paper something not himself—some scheme of values of which he takes—so that the record will not waver with time or assume grotesque perspectives as viewpoints alter and framing interests vanish, has achieved the only possible basis for artistic truth and the only possible basis for literary endurance.”
By these standards, our age will be recalled, if at all, as one of literary history’s near-vacuums. The Age of Hill ended two weeks ago, and the resulting vacancy rings in our ears. The best writers never proselytize but their words embody “some scheme of values” – not Truth, necessarily, but tentative, reality-tested truths.

“Homer so registered values and was the educator of Greece [and all of Western civilization]. It is the hardest and rarest of jobs. This or that novel which we in haste mistake for a mirror of the age—The Forsyte Saga, for instance—usually turns out to be a reflection in moving water. Language alters, connotations slither, the writer leans on what his audience understands, and that understanding does not endure.”

 The quoted passages come from “Remember that I Have Remembered,” Hugh Kenner’s review of the 1950 reissue of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, collected in Gnomon: Essays on Contemporary Literature (McDowell, Obolensky, 1958). Later in the same essay Kenner writes: “The point at which a writer defines something, whether one moral term--`wise passiveness’—or an entire civilization—Cummings’ Eimi—is the point at which he drives his peg into the cliff.”