Sunday, December 30, 2007
[Nearly everything Berger writes reads like a prose poem. These delicate prose pieces are extracted from his “fictional memoir” Here is Where We Meet.]
We looked for greengages every year during the month of August. Frequently they disappointed. Either they were unripe, fibrous, almost dry, or else they were over-soft and mushy. Many were not worth biting into, for one could feel with one’s finger that they did not have the right temperature: a temperature unfindable in Celsius or Fahrenheit: the temperature of a particular coolness surrounded by sunshine. The temperature of a small boy’s fist.
The boy is somewhere between eight and ten-and-a half years old, the age of independence, before the press of adolescence. The boy holds the greengage in his hand, brings it to his mouth, bites, and the fruit darts its tongue against the back of his throat so that he swallows its promise.
A promise of what? Of something that has not yet been named and he will soon name. He tastes a sweetness which no longer has anything to do with sugar, but with a limb which goes on and on, and seems to have no end. The limb belongs to a body which he can only see with his eyes shut. They body has three more limbs and a neck and ankles and is like his own; except that it is inside out. Through the limb without end flows a sap ⎯ he can taste it between his teeth ⎯ the sap of a nameless pale wood, which he calls girl-tree.
It was enough that one greengage in a hundred reminded us of that.
He danced with tall grass
for a moment, like he was swaying
with a woman. Our gun barrels
When I got to him,
a blue halo
of flies had already claimed him.
I pulled the crumbed photograph
from his fingers.
There's no other way
to say this: I fell in love.
The morning cleared again,
except for a distant mortar
& somewhere choppers taking off.
I slid the wallet into his pocket
& turned him over, so he wouldn't be
kissing the ground.
for Michael Longley
As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.
One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.
A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
Fructified like any aquarium.
When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch
A white face hovered over the bottom.
Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it. And one
Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall
Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.
Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.
Saturday, December 29, 2007
The extract below is from Carson’s novel in verse, a modern and often steamy, re-creation of an ancient Greek myth.
XVI . Grooming
As in childhood we live sweeping close to the sky and now, what dawn is this.
Herakles lies like a piece of torn silk in the heat of the blue saying,
Geryon please. The break in his voice
made Geryon think for some reason of going into a barn
first thing in the morning
when sunlight strikes a bale of raw hay still wet from the night.
Put your mouth on it Geryon please.
Geryon did. It tasted sweet enough. I am learning a lot in this year of my life,
thought Geryon. It tasted very young.
Geryon felt clear and powerful ⎯ not some wounded angel after all
but a magnetic person like Matisse
or Charlie Parker! Afterwards they lay kissing for a long time then
played gorillas. Got hungry.
Soon they were sitting in a booth at the Bus Depot waiting for food.
They had started to practice
their song (“Joy to the World”) when Herakles pulled Geryon’s head
into his lap and began grooming
for nits. Gorilla grunts mingled with breakfast sounds in the busy room.
The waitress arrived
holding two plates of eggs. Geryon gazed up at her from under Herakles’ arm.
Newlyweds? she said.
Friday, December 28, 2007
AT THE BATHHOUSE
At the public bathhouse the price went up to 19 yen and so
When you pay 20 yen at the counter
You get one yen change.
Women have no leeway in their lives
To be able to say that
They don’t need one yen
And so though they certainly accept the change
They have no place to put it
And drop it in between their washing things.
Thanks to that
The happy aluminum coins
Soak to their fill in hot water
And are splashed with soap.
One yen coins have the status of chess pawns
So worthless that they’re likely to bob up even now
In the hot water.
What a blessing to be of no value
In monetary terms.
A one yen coin
Does not distress people in the way a 1,000 yen note does
Is not as sinful as a 10,000 yen note
The one yen coin in the bath
With healthy naked women.
* * *
In the night I awoke.
The clams I bought yesterday
In a corner of the kitchen
With mouths open were alive.
‘When dawn comes
I’m going to gobble them all up
Every single one.’
The cackle of a witch.
From that moment on
My mouth slightly open
I passed the night in sleep.
Translation by Leith Morton; 2005
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shown the moon that night,
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gathering winter fuel.
Hither, page, and stand by me.
If thou know it telling:
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?
Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes fountain.
Bring me flesh, and bring me wine.
Bring me pine logs hither.
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear the thither.
Page and monarch, forth they went,
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather.
Sire, the night is darker now,
And the wind blows stronger.
Fails my heart, I know not how.
I can go no longer.
Ark my footsteps my good page,
Tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.
In his master's step he trod,
Where the snow lay dented.
Heat was in the very sod
Which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
When One has Lived a Long Time Alone
When one has lived a long time alone,
one refrains from swatting the fly
and lets him go, and one hesitates to strike
the mosquito, though more than willing to slap
the flesh under her, and one lifts the toad
from the pit too deep to hop out of
and carries him to the grass, without minding
the poisoned urine he slicks his body with,
and one envelops, in a towel, the swift
who fell down the chimney and knocks herself
against window glass and releases her outside
and watches her fly free, a life line flung at reality,
when one has lived a ling time alone.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
In the steamer is the trout
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,
brothers, sister, my mother who will
taste the sweetest meat of the head,
holding it between her fingers
deftly, the way my father did
weeks ago. Then he lay down
to sleep like a snow-covered road
winding through pines older than him,
without any travelers, and lonely for no one.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
IN THE KITCHEN
A jug of water
has its own lustrous turmoil
The ironing board thanks god
for its two good strong legs and sturdy back
The new fridge hums like a maniac
I am trying to love the world
back to normal
The chair recites its stand-alone prayer
again and again
The table leaves no stone unturned
The clock votes for the separate burial of hearts
I am trying to love the world
and all its 8,000 identifiable languages
With the forgetfulness of a potter
I’m trying to get the seas back on the maps
where they belong
secured to their rivers
The kettle alone knows the good he does,
Here in the kitchen, loving the world,
See how easy it is, he whistles
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
This beast that rends me in the sight of all,
This love, this longing, this oblivious thing,
That has me under as the last leaves fall,
Will glut, will sicken, will be gone by spring.
The wound will heal, the fever will abate,
The knotted hurt will slacken in the breast;
I shall forget before the flickers mate
Your look that is today my east and west.
Unscathed, however, from a claw so deep
Though I should love again I shall not go:
Along my body, waking while I sleep,
Sharp to the kiss, cold to hand as snow,
The scar of this encounter like a sword
Will lie between me and my troubled lord.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Late at night the Daikokuya bathhouse is quiet
An old woman bone-tired
Even naked unable to be free of dirt
Rattling the door
From the nozzle of the shower with the tap loose
Water makes a dripping sound
Bare-footed the cool of the night softly steals in
From the high skylight
The water is rocking
Overflowing the edge of the bath
Pass no judgement
Like a log
I look at the female bodies
Naked backs, hips and backsides
The water flowing over their bodies
The many hollows of the female body
Water gathering there
I feel as if I have been looking at this
For years over and over again
I also saw the wall separating the men’s and women’s baths
And I took my time to make certain that
Like a wild beast
Climbed from the men’s into the women’s bath
Or the other way
A Short Poem about Daybreak
America, in a toilet in Santa Fe
I was urinating softly for a long long time
In the whole world
I felt as if there was only this sound and myself
Despite the fact that I was making the noise
Curiously it sounded as if it was coming from outside
As I was being consoled by it
Like an old woman’s unending story
Waiting for it to end
But it would not
A time that doesn’t belong
I wasn’t here,
I’m not alive,
I could even say this
Presently the sound ceased
In this room that had rapidly grown cold
A silent soul suddenly created
Is that me, is it me?
The temperature of life left in the shape of an invisible circle
Were you there?
Were you there in that room?
I am alive
Long before then the questioning voice reached me
© 2001, Masayo Koike
From: Yoakemae Juppun
Publisher: Shichosha, Tokyo, 2001
© Translation: 2006, Leith Morton
Monday, December 10, 2007
The fading day lingers on,
caught in a whirlpool with rifts in the grain.
From the tips of my toes
my whole body
burns with cold.
And the fading day lingers on.
A long beam of the setting sun shifts,
touching rough frost
frozen deep in my core.
As I bend down
to peer at its swaying orange edge
a sheet of brand-new
scrap paper enters my view —
even the unnecessary rip
left after I’d scribbled all over it:
emptiness engrained in the weft
of brand-new scrap
Some people, it is said,
see God when they close their eyes.
Once I had a friend
who told me he saw
a field of green foxtail, shoulder-high
stretching far into the distance
I’m ashamed to say that I myself
see nothing at all.
if it’s a matter of surrendering oneself completely
I too yield my whole,
Friday, December 07, 2007
My father said, So what do you do?
I stopped, and replied, I sing in the choir.
Choir? said Mother, That must take some work.
I said, It takes a lot,
And practice. He flicked his ash
Into the hearth and I tried to stand taller.
It fell as small snow. My shoes were tight.
Do you perform?
Not on my own, Ma, I said, But we do.
The choir. We are many. She dropped her head
As he made a noise.
Outside was getting in, between the drapes.
I wish you'd told us, she said,
We'd like to have known before now.
The fire cracked. He made the noise again,
We could have come to watch.
You can still come, I said, eager as a boy.
Oh, I don't know. He could still speak
To throw me off. He sucked on the end of it,
Chucked it in to burn. It's a bit late for that now.
Season's nearly over, eh.
There is no season, I said. There is no season,
Mother said, pushing in,
It's all the time. He rubbed his red hands fast.
Oh well, he said, You'll let us know how
You're getting along.
What do you sing? she said, craning up.
Oh, I said, Just songs. Everything.
Yes, we said, Yes. He was still looking
Down at the wood, white, shaking into air
And fading out of sight, out of being.
I saw her eyes were closed.
Published in Poetry Review, 95:4
Thursday, December 06, 2007
There is so little that is close and warm.
It is as if we were never children.
Sit in the room. It is true in the moonlight
That it is as if we had never been young.
We ought not to be awake. It is from this
That a bright red woman will be rising
And, standing in violent golds, will brush her hair.
She will speak thoughtfully the words of a line.
She will think about them not quite able to sing.
Besides, when the sky is so blue, things sing themselves,
Even for her, already for her. She will listen
And feel that her color is a meditation,
The most gay and yet not so gay as it was.
Stay here. Speak of familiar things a while.
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
Have I said it before? I am learning to see. Yes, I am beginning. It’s still going badly. But I intend to make the most of my time.
For example, it never occurred to me before how many faces there are. There are multitudes of people, but there are many more faces, because each person has several of them. There are people who wear the same face for years; naturally it wears out, gets dirty, splits at the seams, stretches like gloves worn during a long journey. They are thrifty, uncomplicated people; they never change it, never even have it cleaned. It’s good enough, they say, and who can convince them of the contrary? Of course, since they have several faces, you might wonder what they do with the other ones. They keep them in storage. Their children will wear them. But sometimes it also happens that their dogs go out wearing them. And why not? A face is a face.
Other people change faces incredibly fast, put on one after another, and wear them out. At first, they think they have an unlimited supply; but when they are barely forty years old they come to their last one. There is, to be sure, something tragic about this. They are not accustomed to taking care of faces; their last one is worn through in a week, has holes in it, is in many places as thin as paper, and then, little by little, the lining shows through, the non-face, and they walk around with that on.
But the woman, the woman: she had completely fallen into herself, forward into her hands. It was on the corner of rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs. I began to walk quietly as soon as I saw her. When poor people are thinking, they shouldn’t be disturbed. Perhaps their idea will still occur to them.
The street was too empty; its emptiness had gotten bored and pulled my steps out from under my feet and clattered around in them, all over the street, as if they were wooden clogs. The woman sat up, frightened, she pulled out of herself, too quickly, too violently, so that her face was left in her two hands. I could see it lying there: its hollow form. It cost me an indescribable effort to stay with those two hands, not to look at what had been torn out of them. I shuddered to see a face from the inside, but I was much more afraid of that bare flayed head waiting there, faceless.
From The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke; Edited & Translated by Stephen Mitchell
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
I can tell by the way my mother chews her toast
whether she had a good night
and is about to say a happy thing
She puts her toast down on the side of her plate.
You know you can pull the drapes in that room, she begins.
This is a coded reference to one of our oldest arguments,
from what I call The Rules of Life series.
My mother always closes her bedroom drapes tight before going to
bed at night.
I open mine as wide as possible.
I like to see everything, I say.
What’s there to see?
Moon. Air. Sunrise.
All that light on your face in the morning. Wakes you up.
I like to wake up.
At this point the drapes argument has reached a delta
and may advance along one of three channels.
There is the What You Need Is A Good Night’s Sleep channel,
the Stubborn As Your Father channel
the random channel.
More toast I interpose strongly, pushing back my chair.
Those women! says my mother with an exasperated rasp.
Mother has chosen random channel.
Complaining about rape all the time⎯
I see she is tapping one furious finger on yesterday’s newspaper
lying beside the grape jam.
The front page has a small feature
about a rally for International Women’s Day⎯
have you had a look at the Sears Summer Catalogue?
Why, it’s a disgrace! Those bathing suits⎯
cut way up to here! (she points) No wonder!
You’re saying women deserve to get raped
because Sears bathing suit ads
have high-cut legs? Ma, are you serious?
Well someone has to be responsible.
Why should women be responsible for male desire? My voice is high.
Oh I see you’re one of Them.
One of Whom? My voice is very high. Mother vaults it.
And whatever did you do with that little tank suit you had last year
the green one?
It looked so smart on you.
The frail fact drops on me from a great height
that my mother is afraid.
She will be eighty years old this summer.
Her tiny sharp shoulders hunched in the blue bathrobe
make me think of Emily Brontë’s little merlin hawk Hero
that she fed bits of bacon at the kitchen table when Charlotte wasn’t
So Ma, we’ll go⎯I pop up the toaster
and toss a hot slice of pumpernickel lightly across onto her plate⎯
visit Dad today? She eyes the kitchen clock with hostility.
Leave at eleven, home again by four? I continue.
She is buttering her toast with jagged strokes.
Silence is assent in our code. I go into the next room to phone the
My father lives in a hospital for patients who need chronic care
about 50 miles from here.
He suffers from a kind of dementia
characterised by two sorts of pathological change
first recorded in 1907 by Alois Alzheimer.
First, the presence in cerebral tissue
of a spherical formation known as neuritic plaque,
consisting mainly of degenerating brain cells.
Second, neurofibrillary snarlings
in the cerebral cortex and in the hippocampus.
There is no known cause or cure.
Mother visits him by taxi once a week
for the last five years.
Marriage is for better or for worse, she says,
this is the worse.
So about an hour later we are in the taxi
shooting along empty country roads towards town.
The April light is clear as an alarm.
As we pass them it gives a sudden sense of every object
existing in space on its own shadow.
I wish I could carry this clarity with me
into the hospital where distinctions tend to flatten and coalesce.
I wish I had been nicer to him before he got crazy.
These are my two wishes.
It is hard to find the beginning of dementia.
I remember a night about ten years ago
when I was talking to him on the telephone.
It was a Sunday night in winter.
I heard his sentences filling up with fear.
He would start a sentence⎯about weather, lose his way, start
It made me furious to hear him floundering⎯
my tall proud father, former World War II navigator!
It made me merciless.
I stood on the edge of the conversation,
watching him thrash about for cues,
and it came to me like a slow avalanche
that he had no idea who he was talking to.
Much colder today I guess. . . .
his voice pressed into the silence and broke off,
snow falling on it.
There was a long pause while snow covered us both.
Well I won’t keep you,
he said with a sudden desperate cheer as if sighting land.
I’ll say goodnight now,
I won’t run up your bill. Goodbye.
Goodbye. Who are you?
I said into the dial tone.
At the hospital we pass down long pink halls
through a door with a big window
and a combination lock (5⎯25⎯3)
to the west wing, for chronic care patients.
Each wing has a name.
The chronic wing is Our Golden Mile
although mother prefers to call it The Last Lap.
Father sits strapped in a chair which is tied to the wall
in a room of other tied people tilting at various angles.
My father tilts least, I am proud of him.
Hi Dad how y’doing?
His face cracks open it could be a grin or rage
and looking past me he issues a stream of vehemence at the air.
My mother lays her hand on his.
Hello love, she says. He jerks his hand away. We sit.
Sunlight flocks through the room.
Mother begins to unpack from her handbag the things she has
brought for him,
grapes, arrowroot biscuits, humbugs.
He is addressing strenuous remarks to someone in the air between us.
He uses a language known only to himself,
made of snarls and syllables and sudden wild appeals.
Once in a while some old formula floats up through the wash⎯
You don’t say! or Happy Birthday to you!⎯
but no real sentence
for more than three years now.
I notice his front teeth are getting black.
I wonder how you clean the teeth of mad people.
He always took good care of his teeth. My mother looks up.
She and I often think two halves of one thought.
Do you remember that gold-plated toothpick
you sent him from Harrod’s the summer you were in London? she
Yes I wonder what happened to it.
Must be in the bathroom somewhere.
She is giving him grapes one by one.
They keep rolling out of his huge stiff fingers.
He used to be a big man, over six feet tall and strong,
but since he came to hospital his body has shrunk to the merest bone
except the hands. The hands keep growing.
Each one now as big as a boot in Van Gogh,
they go lumbering after the grapes in his lap.
But now he turns to me with a rush of urgent syllables
that break off on a high note⎯he waits,
staring into my face. That quizzical look.
One eyebrow at an angle.
I have a photograph taped to my fridge at home.
It shows his World War II air crew posing in front of the plane.
Hands firmly behind backs, legs wide apart,
Dressed in the puffed flying suits
with a wide leather strap pulled tight through the crotch.
They squint into the brilliant winter sun of 1942.
It is dawn.
They are leaving Dover for France.
My father on the far left is the tallest airman,
with his collar up,
one eyebrow at an angle.
The shadowless light makes him look immortal,
for all the world like someone who will not weep again.
He is still staring into my face.
Flaps down! I cry.
His black grin flares once and goes out like a match.
The Glass Essay; Glass Irony and God; 1992
Sunday, December 02, 2007
When the day-birds have settled
in their creaking trees,
the doors of the forest open
for the flitting
drift of deer
among the bright crosiers
of new ferns
and the legible stars;
foxes stream from the earth;
a tawny owl
sweeps the long meadow.
In a slink of river-light
the mink’s face
is already slippery with yolk,
and the bay’s
tiny islands are drops
under a drogue moon.
The sea’s a heavy sleeper,
dreaming in and out with a catch
in each breath, and is not disturbed
by that plowt ⎯ the first
in a play of herring, a shoal
the sheeted black skin of the sea.
Through the starting rain, the moon
skirrs across the sky dragging
torn shreds of cloud behind.
The fox’s call is red
in the snow’s white shadow.
The horses watch the sea climb
and climb and walk
towards them on the hill,
hear the vole
crying under the alder,
breathing slowly in their beds.
Saturday, December 01, 2007
That winter, the dead could not be buried.
The ground was frozen, the gravediggers weak from hunger,
the coffin wood used for fuel. So they were covered with
and taken on a child’s sled to a cemetery
in the sub-zero air. They lay on the soil,
some of them wrapped in dark cloth
bound with rope like the tree’s ball of roots
when it waits to be planted; others wound in sheets,
their pale, gauze, tapered shapes
stiff as cocoons that will split down the center
when the new life inside is prepared;
but most lay like corpses, their coverings
coming undone, naked calves
hard as corded wood spilling
from under a cloak, a hand reaching out
with no sign of peace, wanting to come back
even to the bread made of glue and sawdust,
even to the icy winter and the siege.
Cars, laughter, noises: everything’s shut out
at seven up. All I hear is my sponge
and squeaky wheezing from the steel from which
I hang. Sometimes a cloud will speak to me
or I guess what a seagull has to say.
The humans: busy, pale, mute, behind glass.
At eight up art. That girl inside, that laugh,
who’s spied on her so much that she, immune
to compliments, thus looks into my face?
When does that sparrow-hawk escape its frame?
I’m hanging like an ice-cold painting here
that no one notices, I toil and wipe,
unveil the view once more – remake month
after month the unfaked clouds again.
Look. Now sunlight creeps into my frame.
* * *
GLAZENWASSER ZIET SCHILDERIJEN
Auto’s, gelach, geraas: alles slaat dood
op zeven hoog. Ik hoor alleen mijn spons
en het verkouden knarsen van het staal
waaraan ik hang. Soms spreekt een wolk mij aan
of gis ik wat een meeuw te zeggen heeft.
De mensen: druk, wit, stemloos, achter glas.
Op acht hoog kunst. Dat meisje daar, die lach,
wie heeft haar zo bespied dat ze immuun
voor complimenten mijn gezicht in kijkt?
En wanneer breekt die sperwer uit zijn lijst?
Ik hang hier als een ijskoud schilderij
waar niemand oog voor heeft, ik poets en zwoeg
en maak het uitzicht vrij – schilder er maand
na maand onvervalste wolken bij.
Kijk. Daar kruipt al zonlicht in mijn lijst.
Translated from the Dutch by John Irons, 2007
Friday, November 30, 2007
Night covers the pond with its wing.
Under the ringed moon I can make out
your face swimming among the minnows and the small
echoing stars. In the night air
the surface of the pond is metal.
Within, your eyes are open. They contain
a memory I recognize, as though
we had been children together. Our ponies
grazed on the hill, they were gray
with white markings. Now they graze
with the dead who wait
like children under their granite breastplates,
lucid and helpless:
The hills are far away. They rise up
blacker than childhood.
What do you think of, lying so quietly
by the water? When you look that way I want
to touch you, but do not, seeing
as in another life we were of the same blood.
Thursday, November 29, 2007
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
(This is one of my favourite poems --A)
Their faces, safe as an interior
Of Holland tiles and Oriental carpet,
Where the fruit-bowl, always filled, stood in a light
Of placid afternoon ⎯ their voices’ measure,
Their figures moving in the Sunday garden
To lay the tea outdoors or trim the borders,
Afflicted, haunted us. For to be young
Was always to live in other peoples’ houses
Whose peace, if we sought it, had been made by others,
Was ours at second-hand and not for long.
The custom of the house, not ours, the sun
Fading the silver-blue Fortuny curtains,
The reminiscence of a Christmas party
Of fourteen years ago ⎯ all memory.
Signs of possession and of being possessed,
We tasted, tense with envy. They were so kind,
Would have given us anything; the bowl of fruit
Was filled for us, there was a room upstairs
We must call ours: but twenty years of living
They could not give. Nor did they ever speak
Of the coarse stain on that polished balustrade,
The crack in the study window, or the letters
Locked in a drawer and the key destroyed.
All to be understood by us, returning
Late, in our own time ⎯ how that peace was made,
Upon what terms, with how much left unsaid.
Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme⎯
why are they no help to me now
I want to make something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
The lovely, always inspiring, Ms. Glamourpuss, has awarded this blog with “The Roar for Powerful Words”. As I can only take credit for the poems I’ve chosen, I should like to allow these very poets their say on what makes for good writing. My dearest thanks to Ms. Puss and for her two fabulous blogs I daily look forward to.
One of my favourite essays on poetry, “Once in a Poem”, is written by John Berger. A long time ago these words breathed life into me and I’ve not since forgotten them.
“Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.
“Poems are nearer to prayers than to stories, but in poetry there is no one behind the language being prayed to. It is the language itself which has to hear and acknowledge. For the religious poet, the Word is the first attribute of God. In all poetry words are a presence before they are a means of communication.
“…Everything depends upon . . . how the writer relates to language, not as vocabulary, not as syntax, not even as structure, but as a principle and a presence.”
Next. Seamus Heaney in describing Robert Lowell’s final poems writes “… the reader is kept in the company of flesh and blood.” Helen Vendler writes of Lowell’s verse, “Finally, the test of a poem is that it be unforgettable, the natural held in the grip of vision.” For no other poet do these words ring most true. By these measures I too have tried, as a poet, to live by.
Third. Here ultimately is what Robert Lowell had to say about writing verse. The extract is from the poem “Epilogue”.
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
My five nominations for the next recipients are forthcoming.
Monday, November 26, 2007
Draped in a touched-up matron's trailing purple,
I turn back to the haunch, the beaker, the guests.
They hate me and cannot do without me.
Their talk used to be of my pocket wars,
Of the ruined fleet and the satrap's water garden.
Tonight, it is of the god I mutilated.
She was being carried along the capital's edges
To ward off what entrails had threatened come dawn.
The slander has me slashing through the thick
Midnight mist across the gilded statue,
Her smiling face on the processional litter split
Into the past's pushovers, the future's penitence.
Why would I, who have no loyalties
But those to my sense of honor and of change,
Try to harm what others are forced to believe in?
The point is to keep what I shall want tomorrow.
If I pull back the drop on which the city is painted,
There is the moon, glistening in its recess.
Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs, no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, headed north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radios dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters crouched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
"They'll molder away and be like other loam."
We make our oxen drag our rusty plows,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers' land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers' time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads,
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.
Sunday, November 25, 2007
At night the monks sang softly
and a gusting wind lifted
spruce branches like wings.
I’ve never visited the ancient cities,
I’ve never been to Thebes
or Delphi, and I don’t know
what the oracles once told travellers.
Snow filled the streets and canyons,
and crows in dark robes silently
trailed the fox’s footprints.
I believed in elusive signs,
in shadowed ruins, water snakes,
mountain springs, prophetic birds.
Linden trees bloomed like brides
but their fruit was small and bitter.
Wisdom can’t be found
in music or fine paintings,
in great deeds, courage,
but only in all these things,
in earth and air, in pain and silence.
A poem may hold the thunder’s echo,
like a shell touched by Orpheus
as he fled. Time takes life away
and gives us memory, gold with flame,
black with embers.
Saturday, November 24, 2007
After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.
It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.
The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.
Yet the absence of the imagination had Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence
Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge.
Required, as a necessity requires.
(*posted today for the lovely Ms. Glamourpuss)
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d⎯see here it is
I hold it towards you⎯
Two perhaps three
I was sure
I would touch the essence
and would know
the web of my formula
made of allusions as in the Phaedo
had also the rigour
of Heisenberg’s equation
I was sitting immobile
with watery eyes
I felt my backbone
fill with quiet certitude
earth stood still
heaven stood still
was nearly perfect
the postman rang
I had to pour out the dirty water
Siva lifted his finger
the furniture of heaven and earth
started to spin again
I returned to my room
where is that perfect peace
the idea of a glass
was being spilled all over the table
I sat down immobile
with watery eyes
filled with emptiness
If it happens to me once more
I shall be moved neither by the postman’s bell
nor by the shouting of angels
I shall sit
my eyes fixed
upon the heart of things
a dead star
a black drop of infinity
Translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz & Peter Dale Scott
Thursday, November 22, 2007
The sudden sea is bright
and soundless: a changed channel
of dashed colour, scrolling
plankton, sea-darts, the slope
and loom of ghosts, something
slow and grey
sashaying through a school
of cobalt blue,
thin chains of silver fish
that link and spill and flicker away.
The elements imitate each other:
water-light playing on these stones
becomes a shaking flame; sunlight
stitches the rock-weed’s rust and green,
swaying, sea-wavering; one red
twist scatters a shoal like a dust of static
⎯ a million tiny shocks of white
dissolving in the lower depths.
The only sound
is the sea’s mouth and the ticking
of the myriad mouths
that feed within it, sipping the light.
Dreaming high over the sea-forest
⎯ the sea-bed green as a forest floor ⎯
through the columns of gold
and streams of water-weed,
above a world in thrall,
charting by light
as a plane might glide, slowly, silently
over woods in storm.
|Lights are burning|
In quiet rooms
Where lives go on
The quiet lives
That follow us-
These lives we lead
But do not own-
Stand in the rain
When we are gone,
And the last bus
Comes letting dark
Black flowers, black flowers.
And lives go on.
And lives go on
Like sudden lights
At street corners
Or like the lights
In quiet rooms
Left on for hours,
by Li-Young Lee
In sixth grade Mrs. Walker
slapped the back of my head
and made me stand in the corner
for not knowing the difference
between persimmon and precision.
How to choose
persimmons. This is precision.
Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.
Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one
will be fragrant. How to eat:
put the knife away, lay down the newspaper.
Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat.
Chew on the skin, suck it,
and swallow. Now, eat
the meat of the fruit,
all of it, to the heart.
Donna undresses, her stomach is white.
In the yard, dewy and shivering
with crickets, we lie naked,
I teach her Chinese.
Crickets: chiu chiu. Dew: I've forgotten.
Naked: I've forgotten.
Ni, wo: you and me.
I part her legs,
remember to tell her
she is beautiful as the moon.
that got me into trouble were
fight and fright, wren and yarn.
Fight was what I did when I was frightened,
fright was what I felt when I was fighting.
Wrens are small, plain birds,
yarn is what one knits with.
Wrens are soft as yarn.
My mother made birds out of yarn.
I loved to watch her tie the stuff;
a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.
Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class
and cut it up
so everyone could taste
a Chinese apple. Knowing
it wasn't ripe or sweet, I didn't eat
but watched the other faces.
My mother said every persimmon has a sun
inside, something golden, glowing,
warm as my face.
Once, in the cellar, I found two wrapped in newspaper,
forgotten and not yet ripe.
I took them and set them both on my bedroom windowsill,
where each morning a cardinal
sang, The sun, the sun.
he was going blind,
my father sat up all one night
waiting for a song, a ghost.
I gave him the persimmons,
swelled, heavy as sadness,
and sweet as love.
This year, in the muddy lighting
of my parents' cellar, I rummage, looking
for something I lost.
My father sits on the tired, wooden stairs,
black cane between his knees,
hand over hand, gripping the handle.
He's so happy that I've come home.
I ask how his eyes are, a stupid question.
All gone, he answers.
Under some blankets, I find a box.
Inside the box I find three scrolls.
I sit beside him and untie
three paintings by my father:
Hibiscus leaf and a white flower.
Two cats preening.
Two persimmons, so full they want to drop from the cloth.
He raises both hands to touch the cloth,
asks, Which is this?
This is persimmons, Father.
Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,
the strength, the tense
precision in the wrist.
I painted them hundreds of times
eyes closed. These I painted blind.
Some things never leave a person:
scent of the hair of one you love,
the texture of persimmons,
in your palm, the ripe weight.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
The hospital smell
combs my nostrils
as they go bobbing along
green and yellow corridors.
What seems a corpse
is trundled into a lift and vanishes
I will not feel, I will not
I have to.
Nurses walk lightly, swiftly,
here and up and down and there,
their slender waists miraculously
carrying their burden
of so much pain, so
many deaths, their eyes
still clear after
so many farewells.
Ward 7. She lies
in a white cave of forgetfulness.
A withered hand
trembles on its stalk. Eyes move
behind eyelids too heavy
to raise. Into an arm wasted
of colour a glass fang is fixed,
not guzzling but giving.
And between her and me
distance shrinks till there is none left
but the distance of pain that neither she nor I
She smiles a little at this
black figure in her white cave
who clumsily rises
in the round swimming waves of a bell
and dizzily goes off, growing fainter,
not smaller, leaving behind only
books that will not be read
and fruitless fruits.
Sad is the man who is asked for a story
and can't come up with one.
His five-year-old son waits in his lap.
Not the same story, Baba. A new one.
The man rubs his chin, scratches his ear.
In a room full of books in a world
of stories, he can recall
not one, and soon, he thinks, the boy
will give up on his father.
Already the man lives far ahead, he sees
the day this boy will go. Don't go!
Hear the alligator story! The angel story once more!
You love the spider story. You laugh at the spider.
Let me tell it!
But the boy is packing his shirts,
he is looking for his keys. Are you a god,
the man screams, that I sit mute before you?
Am I a god that I should never disappoint?
But the boy is here. Please, Baba, a story?
It is an emotional rather than logical equation,
an earthly rather than heavenly one,
which posits that a boy's supplications
and a father's love add up to silence.
The smell of ordinariness
Were new on the night drive through France:
Rain and hay and woods on the air
Made warm draughts in the open car.
Signposts whitened relentlessly.
Montreuil, Abbeville, Beauvais
Were promised, promised, came and went,
Each place granting its name’s fulfilment.
A combine groaning its way late
Bled seeds across its work-light.
A forest fire smoldered out.
One by one small cafés shut.
I thought of you continuously
A thousand miles south where Italy
Laid its loin to France on the darkened sphere.
Your ordinariness was renewed there.
If and when I did look up, the sky over the Moy was the very same
as the slow lift
of steam-smoke over the seam
of manure on a midwinter morning. I noticed the splash of red lead
on my left boot as again and again I would bend
my knee and bury my head in the rich
black earth the way an ostrich
was rumoured to bury its head. My hands were blue
with cold. Again and again I would bend
to my left and lift
by one handle a creel of potatoes⎯King Edwards, gray as lead⎯
mined from what would surely seem
to any nine- or ten-year-old an inexhaustible seam.
My father wore a bag-apron that read, in capital letters, RICH.
My own capital idea, meanwhile, had sunk like a lead
balloon. “Blow all you like,” my father turned on me. “Talk till you’re blue
in the face. I won’t let you take a lift
from the Monk. Blow all you like. I won’t bend.”
Monday, November 19, 2007
by Tomasi Di Lampedusa
Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.
The daily recital of the Rosary was over. For half an hour the steady voice of the Prince had recalled the Glorious and the Sorrowful Mysteries; for half an hour other voices had interwoven a lilting hum from which, now and again, would chime some unlikely word: love, virginity, death; and during that hum the whole aspect of the rococo drawing room seemed to change; even the parrots spreading iridescent wings over the silken walls appeared abashed; even the Magdalen between the two windows looked a penitent and not just a handsome blonde lost in some dubious daydream, as she usually was.
Now, as the voices fell silent, everything dropped back into its usual order or disorder. Bendicò, the Great Dane, vexed at having been shut out, came barking through the door by which the servants had left. The women rose slowly to their feet, their oscillating skirts as they withdrew baring bit by bit the naked figures from mythology painted all over the milky depths of the tiles. Only an Andromeda remained covered by the soutane of Father Pirrone, still deep in extra prayer, and it was some time before she could sight the silvery Perseus swooping down to her aid and her kiss.
The divinities frescoed on the ceiling awoke. The troops of Tritons and Dryads, hurtling across from hill and sea amid clouds of cyclamen pink toward a transfigured Conca d’Oro,* and bent on glorifying the House of Salina, seemed suddenly so overwhelmed with exaltation as to discard the most elementary rules of perspective; meanwhile the major gods and goddesses, the Princes among gods, thunderous Jove and frowning Mars and languid Venus, had already preceded the mob of minor deities and were amiably supporting the blue armorial shield of the Leopard. They knew that for the next twenty-three and a half hours they would be lords of the villa once again. On the walls the monkeys went back to pulling faces at the cockatoos.
Beneath this Palermitan Olympus the mortals of the House of Salina were also dropping speedily from mystic spheres. The girls resettled the folds in their dresses, exchanged blue-eyed glances and snatches of schoolgirl slang; for over a month, ever since the “riots” of the Fourth of April, they had been home for safety’s sake from their convent, and regretting the canopied dormitories and collective coziness of the Holy Redeemer. The boys were already scuffling with each other for possession of a medal of San Francesco di Paola; the eldest, the heir, the young Duke Paolo, was longing to smoke and, afraid of doing so in his parents’ presence, was fondling the outside of his pocket in which lurked a braided-straw cigar case. His gaunt face was veiled in brooding melancholy it had been a bad day: Guiscard, his Irish sorrel, had seemed off form, and Fanny had apparently been unable (or unwilling) to send him her usual lilac-tinted billet-doux. Of what avail then, to him, was the Incarnation of his Savior?
Restless and domineering, the Princess dropped her rosary brusquely into her jet-fringed bag, while her fine crazy eyes glanced around at her slaves of children and her tyrant of a husband, over whom her diminutive body vainly yearned for loving dominion.
Meanwhile he himself, the Prince, had risen to his feet; the sudden movement of his huge frame made the floor tremble, and a glint of pride flashed in his light blue eyes at this fleeting confirmation of his lordship over both human beings and their works.
Now he was settling the huge scarlet missal on the chair which had been in front of him during his recitation of the Rosary, putting back the handkerchief on which he had been kneeling, and a touch of irritation clouded his brow as his eye fell on a tiny coffee stain which had had the presumption, since that morning, to fleck the vast white expanse of his waistcoat.
Not that he was fat; just very large and very strong; in houses inhabited by common mortals his head would touch the lowest rosette on the chandeliers; his fingers could twist a ducat coin as if it were mere paper; and there was constant coming and going between Villa Salina and a silversmith’s for the mending of forks and spoons which, in some fit of controlled rage at table, he had coiled into a hoop. But those fingers could also stroke and handle with the most exquisite delicacy, as his wife Maria Stella knew only too well; and up in his private observatory at the top of the house the gleaming screws, caps, and studs of the telescopes, lenses, and “comet-finders” would answer to his lightest touch.
The rays of the westering sun, still high on that May afternoon, lit up the Prince’s rosy skin and honey-colored hair; these betrayed the German origin of his mother, the Princess Carolina, whose haughtiness had frozen the easygoing Court of the Two Sicilies thirty years before. But in his blood also fermented other German strains particularly disturbing to a Sicilian aristocrat in the year 1860, however attractive his fair skin and hair amid all that olive and black: an authoritarian temperament, a certain rigidity in morals, and a propensity for abstract ideas; these, in the relaxing atmosphere of Palermo society, had changed respectively into capricious arrogance, recurring moral scruples, and contempt for his own relatives and friends, all of whom seemed to him mere driftwood in the languid meandering stream of Sicilian pragmatism.
In a family which for centuries had been incapable even of adding up their own expenditures and subtracting their own debts he was the first (and last) to have a genuine bent for mathematics; this he had applied to astronomy, and by his work gained a certain official recognition and a great deal of personal pleasure. In his mind, now, pride and mathematical analysis were so linked as to give him an illusion that the stars obeyed his calculations too (as, in fact, they seemed to be doing) and that the two small planets which he had discovered (“Salina” and “Speedy” he had called them, after his main estate and a shooting dog he had been particularly fond of) would spread the fame of his family through the empty spaces between Mars and Jupiter, thus transforming the frescoes in the villa from the adulatory to the prophetic.
Between the pride and intellectuality of his mother and the sensuality and irresponsibility of his father, poor Prince Fabrizio lived in perpetual discontent under his Jovelike frown, watching the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move toward saving it.
That half hour between Rosary and dinner was one of the least irritating moments of his day, and for hours beforehand he would savor its rather uncertain calm.
With a wildly excited Bendicò bounding ahead of him he went down the short flight of steps into the garden. Enclosed between three walls and a side of the house, its seclusion gave it the air of a cemetery, accentuated by the parallel little mounds bounding the irrigation canals and looking like the graves of very tall, very thin giants. Plants were growing in thick disorder on the reddish clay; flowers sprouted in all directions, and the myrtle hedges seemed put there to prevent movement rather than guide it. At the end a statue of Flora speckled with yellow-black lichen exhibited her centuries-old charms with an air of resignation; on each side were benches holding quilted cushions, also of gray marble; and in a corner the gold of an acacia tree introduced a sudden note of gaiety. Every sod seemed to exude a yearning for beauty soon muted by languor.
But the garden, hemmed and almost squashed between these barriers, was exhaling scents that were cloying, fleshy, and slightly putrid, like the aromatic liquids distilled from the relics of certain saints; the carnations superimposed their pungence on the formal fragrance of roses and the oily emanations of magnolias drooping in corners; and somewhere beneath it all was a faint smell of mint mingling with a nursery whiff of acacia and the jammy one of myrtle; from a grove beyond the wall came an erotic waft of early orange blossom.
It was a garden for the blind: a constant offense to the eyes, a pleasure strong if somewhat crude to the nose. The Paul Neyron roses, whose cuttings he had himself bought in Paris, had degenerated; first stimulated and then enfeebled by the strong if languid pull of Sicilian earth, burned by apocalyptic Julys, they had changed into things like flesh-colored cabbages, obscene and distilling a dense, almost indecent, scent which no French horticulturist would have dared hope for. The Prince put one under his nose and seemed to be sniffing the thigh of a dancer from the Opera. Bendicò, to whom it was also proffered, drew back in disgust and hurried off in search of healthier sensations amid dead lizards and manure.
But the heavy scents of the garden brought on a gloomy train of thought for the Prince: “It smells all right here now; but a month ago . . .”
He remembered the nausea diffused throughout the entire villa by certain sweetish odors before their cause was traced: the corpse of a young soldier of the Fifth Regiment of Sharpshooters who had been wounded in the skirmish with the rebels at San Lorenzo and come up there to die, all alone, under a lemon tree. They had found him lying face downward in the thick clover, his face covered in blood and vomit, his nails dug into the soil, crawling with ants; a pile of purplish intestines had formed a puddle under his bandoleer. Russo, the agent, had discovered this object, turned it over, covered its face with his red kerchief, thrust the guts back into the gaping stomach with some twigs, and then covered the wound with the blue flaps of the cloak; spitting continuously with disgust, meanwhile, not right on, but very near the body. And all this with meticulous care. “Those swine stink even when they’re dead.” It had been the only epitaph to that derelict death.
*Conca d’Oro, literally “Golden Shell,” is the name of the hills encircling Palermo.