The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church

Robert Browning (1812-1889)

This is one of my favorite poems by Robert Browning. It tells the tale of a dying ecclesiastic who, before he dies, learns that he is not highly regarded.

The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church
Rome, 15—

VANITY, saith the preacher, vanity!	
Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back?	
Nephews—sons mine … ah God, I know not! Well—	
She, men would have to be your mother once,	
Old Gandolf envied me, so fair she was!	        
What ’s done is done, and she is dead beside,	
Dead long ago, and I am Bishop since,	
And as she died so must we die ourselves,	
And thence ye may perceive the world ’s a dream.	
Life, how and what is it? As here I lie	
In this state-chamber, dying by degrees,	
Hours and long hours in the dead night, I ask	
“Do I live, am I dead?” Peace, peace seems all.	
Saint Praxed’s ever was the church for peace;	
And so, about this tomb of mine. I fought	      
With tooth and nail to save my niche, ye know:	
—Old Gandolf cozened me, despite my care;	
Shrewd was that snatch from out the corner South	
He graced his carrion with, God curse the same!	
Yet still my niche is not so cramped but thence	       
One sees the pulpit on the epistle-side,	
And somewhat of the choir, those silent seats,	
And up into the aery dome where live	
The angels, and a sunbeam ’s sure to lurk:	
And I shall fill my slab of basalt there,	      
And ’neath my tabernacle take my rest,	
With those nine columns round me, two and two,	
The odd one at my feet where Anselm stands:	
Peach-blossom marble all, the rare, the ripe	
As fresh-poured red wine of a mighty pulse.	      
—Old Gandolf with his paltry onion-stone,	
Put me where I may look at him! True peach,	
Rosy and flawless: how I earned the prize!	
Draw close: that conflagration of my church	
—What then? So much was saved if aught were missed!	        
My sons, ye would not be my death! Go dig	
The white-grape vineyard where the oil-press stood,	
Drop water gently till the surface sink,	
And if ye find … Ah God, I know not, I!…	
Bedded in store of rotten figleaves soft,	       
And corded up in a tight olive-frail,	
Some lump, ah God, of lapis lazuli.	
Big as a Jew’s head cut off at the nape,	
Blue as a vein o’er the Madonna’s breast …	
Sons, all have I bequeathed you, villas, all,	        
That brave Frascati villa with its bath,	
So, let the blue lump poise between my knees,	
Like God the Father’s globe on both his hands	
Ye worship in the Jesu Church so gay,	
For Gandolf shall not choose but see and burst!	        
Swift as a weaver’s shuttle fleet our years:	
Man goeth to the grave, and where is he?	
Did I say basalt for my slab, sons? Black—	
’Twas ever antique-black I meant! How else	
Shall ye contrast my frieze to come beneath?	      
The bas-relief in bronze ye promised me,	
Those Pans and Nymphs ye wot of, and perchance	
Some tripod, thyrsus, with a vase or so,	
The Saviour at his sermon on the mount,	
Saint Praxed in a glory, and one Pan	       
Ready to twitch the Nymph’s last garment off,	
And Moses with the tables … but I know	
Ye mark me not! What do they whisper thee,	
Child of my bowels, Anselm? Ah, ye hope	
To revel down my villas while I gasp	      
Bricked o’er with beggar’s mouldy travertine	
Which Gandolf from his tomb-top chuckles at!	
Nay, boys, ye love me—all of jasper, then!	
’Tis jasper ye stand pledged to, lest I grieve	
My bath must needs be left behind, alas!	        
One block, pure green as a pistachio-nut,	
There ’s plenty jasper somewhere in the world—	
And have I not Saint Praxed’s ear to pray	
Horses for ye, and brown Greek manuscripts,	
And mistresses with great smooth marbly limbs?	        
—That ’s if ye carve my epitaph aright,	
Choice Latin, picked phrase, Tully’s every word,	
No gaudy ware like Gandolf’s second line—	
Tully, my masters? Ulpian serves his need!	
And then how I shall lie through centuries,	        
And hear the blessed mutter of the mass,	
And see God made and eaten all day long,	
And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste	
Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke!	
For as I lie here, hours of the dead night,	       
Dying in state and by such slow degrees,	
I fold my arms as if they clasped a crook,	
And stretch my feet forth straight as stone can point,	
And let the bedclothes, for a mortcloth, drop	
Into great laps and folds of sculptor’s work:	       
And as yon tapers dwindle, and strange thoughts	
Grow, with a certain humming in my ears,	
About the life before I lived this life,	
And this life too, popes, cardinals, and priests,	
Saint Praxed at his sermon on the mount,	       
Your tall pale mother with her talking eyes,	
And new-found agate urns as fresh as day,	
And marble’s language, Latin pure, discreet,	
—Aha, ELUCESCEBAT quoth our friend?	
No Tully, said I, Ulpian at the best!	       
Evil and brief hath been my pilgrimage.	
All lapis, all, sons! Else I give the Pope	
My villas! Will ye ever eat my heart?	
Ever your eyes were as a lizard’s quick,	
They glitter like your mother’s for my soul,	        
Or ye would heighten my impoverished frieze,	
Piece out its starved design, and fill my vase	
With grapes, and add a vizor and a Term,	
And to the tripod ye would tie a lynx	
That in his struggle throws the thyrsus down,	        
To comfort me on my entablature	
Whereon I am to lie till I must ask	
“Do I live, am I dead?” There, leave me, there!	
For ye have stabbed me with ingratitude	
To death: ye wish it—God, ye wish it! Stone—	       
Gritstone, a-crumble! Clammy squares which sweat	
As if the corpse they keep were oozing through—	
And no more lapis to delight the world!	
Well go! I bless ye. Fewer tapers there,	
But in a row: and, going, turn your backs	        
—Ay, like departing altar-ministrants,	
And leave me in my church, the church for peace,	
That I may watch at leisure if he leers—	
Old Gandolf, at me, from his onion-stone,	
As still he envied me, so fair she was!

“A Bird Came Down the Walk”

Bird With Captive Worm

Here is another delightful poem from Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), Queen of American Poets. It is called:

A Bird Came Down the Walk

 

A Bird, came down the Walk - 
He did not know I saw -
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw, 
 
And then, he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass -
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass -
 
He glanced with rapid eyes,
That hurried all abroad -
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought,
He stirred his Velvet Head. - 
 
Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers, 
And rowed him softer Home -
 
Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,
Leap, plashless as they swim. 

The Dreamer

Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003)

Here are sixteen poems from Roberto Bolaño’s collection entitled Tres. The poetic fragments have no titles, but they are striking in their variety and suggestiveness.

31. I dreamt that Earth was finished. And the only 
human being to contemplate the end was Franz 
Kafka. In heaven, the Titans were fighting to the 
death. From a wrought-iron seat in Central Park, 
Kafka was watching the world burn.

32. I dreamt I was dreaming and I came home 
too late. In my bed I found Mário de Sá-Carneiro 
sleeping with my first love. When I uncovered them 
I found they were dead and, biting my lips till they 
bled, I went back to the streets.

33. I dreamt that Anacreon was building his castle 
on the top of a barren hill and then destroying it. 
 
34. I dreamt I was a really old Latin American 
detective. I lived in New York and Mark Twain 
was hiring me to save the life of someone without 
a face. “It’s going to be a damn tough case, Mr. 
Twain,” I told him.

35. I dreamt I was falling in love with Alice Sheldon. 
She didn’t want me. So I tried getting myself killed 
on three continents. Years passed. Finally, when I 
was really old, she appeared on the other end of the 
promenade in New York and with signals (like the 
ones they use on aircraft carriers to help the pilots 
land) she told me she’d always loved me.

36. I dreamt I was 69ing with Anaïs Nin on an 
enormous basaltic flagstone.

37. I dreamt I was fucking Carson McCullers in a 
dim-lit room in the spring of 1981. And we both felt 
irrationally happy.

38. I dreamt I was back at my old high school 
and Alphonse Daudet was my French teacher. 
Something imperceptible made us realize we were 
dreaming. Daudet kept looking out the window 
and smoking Tartarin’s pipe

39. I dreamt I kept sleeping while my classmates 
tried to liberate Robert Desnos from the Terezín 
concentration camp. When I woke a voice was 
telling me to get moving. “Quick, Bolaño, quick, 
there’s no time to lose.” When I got there, all I 
found was an old detective picking through the 
smoking ruins of the attack.

40. I dreamt that a storm of phantom numbers was 
the only thing left of human beings three billion 
years after Earth ceased to exist.

41. I dreamt I was dreaming and in the dream 
tunnels I found Roque Dalton’s dream: the dream 
of the brave ones who died for a fucking chimera.

42. I dreamt I was 18 and saw my best friend at 
the time, who was also 18, making love to Walt 
Whitman. They did it in an armchair, contemplating 
the stormy Civitavecchia sunset.

43. I dreamt I was a prisoner and Boethius was 
my cellmate. “look, Bolaño,” he said, extending 
his hand and his pen in the shadows: 
“they’re not trembling! they’re not 
trembling!” (after a while, 
he added in a calm voice: “but they’ll tremble when 
they recognize that bastard Theodoric.”)

44. I dreamt I was translating the Marquis de Sade 
with axe blows. I’d gone crazy and was living in the 
woods.

45. I dreamt that Pascal was talking about fear with 
crystal clear words at a tavern in Civitavecchia: 
Miracles don’t convert, they condemn, he said.

46. I dreamt I was an old Latin American detective 
and a mysterious Foundation hired me to find the 
death certificates of the Flying Spics. I was traveling 
all around the world: hospitals, battlefields, pulque 
bars, abandoned schools.

After Apple-Picking

The Mailbox at Robert Frost’s Franconia, NH House

I attended a Robert Frost poetry reading at Dartmouth College shortly before he died in 1963. Although he was just short of ninety years old, the impression I got was of a wily octogenarian who knew what he was doing. The auditorium in Hopkins Center was filled to overflowing with an appreciative audience. After all, Frost had studied at Dartmouth for a while before he listened to the call of his muse and dropped out.

Although he was almost the quintessential New Englander, Frost was actually born in San Francisco. I think that was all part of his wiliness. I had the feeling he could fit in almost anywhere.

Here is one of my favorite poems of his:

After Apple-Picking

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep. 

A Different Tiger

A Somewhat Less Cosmic Tiger Than the One Created by Borges

Jorge Luis Borges wrote a number of spectacular poems based on tigers he had viewed at the Buenos Aires Zoo. Leave it to his friend, poet Silvina Ocampo, to provide an altogether different picture. Appropriately, the title is:

 
A Tiger Speaks

 

I who move like water
sinuously
like water I know
shameful secrets.
I heard that there are dog cemeteries,
with earnest inscriptions
commemorating human friendship,
and that there are horses so stupid
they kneel before their masters,
oxen who are slaves to farmworkers,
cats who are ornaments for ladies,
like a hat or a fan,
bears who dance to the sound of a tambourine
from a man or a dwarf woman,
monkeys who flatter their owners,
elephants whom the public degrades,
abject seals who gargle
to entertain the children,
cows who let themselves be dragged along, mistreated,
who give their milk to anybody,
trained sheep
who donate their wool
to make clothing or mattresses,
snakes who caress
the head and neck of madmen.

We never managed to agree
about man’s true nature,
some fools think
perhaps in gratitude
for those who deified us
in other times
that man is a god,
but I and certain of my friends and enemies
think that he is edible.
The edible man
is always shy and trembling,
without claws and hair or with very little hair;
the man-god distributes food
with his hands, so I’ve been told,
he has a whip in his tongue and in his eyes.
In olden days, when he took up his position in the arena,
or in the desert, he wore a halo
or carried a magic wand,
he had a long mane
like a lion’s, which tangles in the teeth.
All this disturbs me:
sometimes I dream
of a rug whose coat
resembles mine, and I cry
stretched out on my own skin.
It’s strange. Inconceivable.
But there are stranger things:
Don't birds exist
who pass the time singing,
ridiculous doves, and an infinite series of fish
and beetles I’m unaware of
but which bother me?
Isn't there a poet who thinks about me constantly,
who believes that in my skin are signs revealing
man’s destiny drawn by God
in a poem?

Borges on Chess

Borges Had a Unique Take on the Game of Kings

Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) wrote two sonnets entitles “Chess.” This is the second one:

Faint-hearted king, sly bishop, ruthless queen,
straightforward castle, and deceitful pawn—
over the checkered black and white terrain
they seek out and begin their armed campaign.

They do not know it is the player’s hand
that dominates and guides their destiny.
They do not know an adamantine fate
controls their will and lays the battle plan.

The player too is captive of caprice
(the words are Omar’s) on another ground
where black nights alternate with whiter days.

God moves the player, he in turn the piece.
But what god beyond God begins the round
of dust and time and sleep and agonies?

From Jorge Luis Borges, The Sonnets (London: Penguin, 2010).

The Weary Blues of Langston Hughes

American Poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Great poetry is not necessarily white. Sometimes it comes from something deeper, like the centuries-old suppression of the black man in America. It becomes even more interesting when it is tied to the blues, as this poem is:

The Weary Blues

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
     I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
     He did a lazy sway . . .
     He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
     O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
     Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
     O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
     “Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
       Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
       I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
       And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
     “I got the Weary Blues
       And I can’t be satisfied.
       Got the Weary Blues
       And can’t be satisfied—
       I ain’t happy no mo’
       And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

“Obscurest Night”

English Poet William Cowper (1731-1800)

It was the last poem Cowper (which he pronounced “Cooper”) ever wrote, shortly after he read the tale of Commodore George Anson’s circumnavigation of the globe, as described in his A Voyage Round the World in 1740-4. Cowper’s 1799 poem tells of one of Anson’s crewmen washed overboard and drowning within full view of his shipmates during an awful storm.\

Curiously, I discovered the poem as a resulting of reading Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, which discusses the poem at some length. Here it is in its entirety:

The Castaway
Obscurest night involv’d the sky,
         Th’ Atlantic billows roar’d,
When such a destin’d wretch as I,
         Wash’d headlong from on board,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,
His floating home for ever left.

No braver chief could Albion boast
         Than he with whom he went,
Nor ever ship left Albion’s coast,
         With warmer wishes sent.
He lov’d them both, but both in vain,
Nor him beheld, nor her again.

Not long beneath the whelming brine,
         Expert to swim, he lay;
Nor soon he felt his strength decline,
         Or courage die away;
But wag’d with death a lasting strife,
Supported by despair of life.

He shouted: nor his friends had fail’d
         To check the vessel’s course,
But so the furious blast prevail’d,
         That, pitiless perforce,
They left their outcast mate behind,
And scudded still before the wind.

Some succour yet they could afford;
         And, such as storms allow,
The cask, the coop, the floated cord,
         Delay’d not to bestow.
But he (they knew) nor ship, nor shore,
Whate’er they gave, should visit more.

Nor, cruel as it seem’d, could he
         Their haste himself condemn,
Aware that flight, in such a sea,
         Alone could rescue them;
Yet bitter felt it still to die
Deserted, and his friends so nigh.

He long survives, who lives an hour
         In ocean, self-upheld;
And so long he, with unspent pow’r,
         His destiny repell’d;
And ever, as the minutes flew,
Entreated help, or cried—Adieu!

At length, his transient respite past,
         His comrades, who before
Had heard his voice in ev’ry blast,
         Could catch the sound no more.
For then, by toil subdued, he drank
The stifling wave, and then he sank.

No poet wept him: but the page
         Of narrative sincere;
That tells his name, his worth, his age,
         Is wet with Anson’s tear.
And tears by bards or heroes shed
Alike immortalize the dead.

I therefore purpose not, or dream,
         Descanting on his fate,
To give the melancholy theme
         A more enduring date:
But misery still delights to trace
   Its semblance in another’s case.

No voice divine the storm allay’d,
         No light propitious shone;
When, snatch’d from all effectual aid,
         We perish’d, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm’d in deeper gulfs than he.

“Her Leopard Legs”

A Poem by the Chilean Writer Roberto Bolaño

I never thought of Roberto Bolaño as a poet before, but his collection entitled The Romantic Dogs set me straight on that score.

LUPE

She worked in la Guerrero, a few streets down from Julian’s,
and she was 17 and had lost a son.
The memory made her cry in that Hotel Trébol room,
spacious and dark, with bath and bidet, the perfect place
to live out a few years. The perfect place to write
a book of apocryphal memories or a collection
of horror poems. Lupe
was thin and had legs long and spotted
like a leopard.
The first time I didn’t even get an erection:
and I didn’t want to have an erection. Lupe spoke of her life
and of what, for her, was happiness.
When a week had passed, we saw each other again. I found her
on a corner alongside other little teenage whores,
propped against the fender of an old Cadillac.
I think we were glad to see each other. From then on
Lupe began telling me things about her life, sometimes crying,
sometimes fucking, almost always naked in bed,
staring at the ceiling, hand in hand.
Her son was born sick and Lupe promised la Virgen
that she’d leave her trade if her baby were cured.
She kept her promise a month or two, then had to go back.
Soon after, her son died, and Lupe said the fault
was her own for not keeping up her bargain with la Virgen.
La Virgen carried off the little angel, payment for a broken
     promise,
I didn’t know what to say.
I liked children, sure,
but I still had many years before I’d know
what it was to have a son.
And so I stayed quiet and thought about the eerie feel
Emerging from the silence of that hotel.
Either the walls were very thick or were the sole
     occupants
or the others didn’t open their mouths, not even to moan.
It was so easy to ride Lupe and feel like a man
and feel wretched. It was easy to get her
in your rhythm and it was easy to listen as she prattled on
about the latest horror films she’d seen
at Bucareli Theater.
Her leopard legs would wrap around my waist
and she’d sink her head into my chest, searching for my
nipples or my heartbeat.
This is the part of you I want to suck, she said to me
     one night.
What, Lupe? Your heart.

Roberto Bolaño, The Romantic Dogs: 1980-1998 (New York: New Directions, 2006).

The Great Yes and the Great No

This posting originated on Blog.Com on August 16, 2009.

Today, as I was walking along the beach in Venice, I started thinking about sand castles. Then I saw this gem of a poem by Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933). If you have ever read Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, you will remember Cavafy as the “poet of the city” who is not named but whose spirit pervades Alexandria, the city where he was born and lived much of his life. In his own words:

I am from Constantinople by descent, but I was born in Alexandria—at a house on Seriph Street; I left very young, and spent much of my childhood in England. Subsequently I visited this country as an adult, but for a short period of time. I have also lived in France. During my adolescence I lived over two years in Constantinople. It has been many years since I last visited Greece. My last employment was as a clerk at a government office under the Ministry of Public Works of Egypt. I know English, French, and a little Italian.

Here is one of my favorite poems of his:

Che fece …. il gran rifiuto

 

To certain people there comes a day
when they must say the great Yes or the great No.
He who has the Yes ready within him
immediately reveals himself, and saying it he goes

against his honor and his own conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Should he be asked again,
he would say no again. And yet that no—
the right no—crushes him for the rest of his life.