Plain Things

The Poems of Borges Have Always Moved Me

Whenever I feel out of sorts, nothing brings me back faster than re-reading Jorge Luis Borges, particularly his poems. Here is a sonnet from his 1974 collection In Praise of Darkness, translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni:

Plain Things

A walking stick, a bunch of keys, some coins,
a lock that turns with ease, useless jottings
at the back of books that in the few days left
me won’t be read again, cards and chessboard,
an album in whose leaves a withered flower
lies pressed—the monument of an evening
doubtless unforgettable, now forgotten—
and in the west the mirror burning red
of an illusory dawn. So many things—
a file, an atlas, doorways, nails, the glass
from which we drink—serve us like silent slaves.
How dumb and strangely secretive they are!
Past our oblivion, they will live on,
familiar, blind, not knowing we have gone.

The thing that confused me at first was the poet seeing in the western sky a strange mirror of an “illusory” dawn, which, of course, is rising in the east. That sort of thing is so typical of Borges, who delights to introduce mirrors into his works. So he looks west to see signs of an approaching dawn. Yes, I suppose that is possible. A bit tricky for Borges, though, who, by this time, was quite blind.

Although he was not to die yet for some twenty years, the thought of death was never a stranger to Borges.

Plague Diary 27: An Irish View

Giorgio De Chirico Landscape with Train in Distance

It was in a survey of impressions of the global coronavirus outbreak tin the April 23, 2020 issue of the New York Review of Books hat I saw this remark by Northern Irish Poet Nick Laird:

The prophecies arrive: hundreds of thousands of dead, trillions of dollars spent, millions and millions losing their jobs, their health care, their homes. Soldiers on the streets. Each graph, each blank statistic. Each talking head. Stick a fork in the ass of civilization, it’s done. Don’t be silly, this is a blip. I don’t think so. In the stream of news the poems sit like stones, lambent under the surface. Auden’s “Gare du Midi,” where the man with his little case alights from the train, and steps out “briskly to infect a city/Whose terrible future may have just arrived.”

And here’s the poem to which Laird refers:

A nondescript express in from the South,
Crowds round the ticket barrier, a face
To welcome which the mayor has not contrived
Bugles or braid: something about the mouth
Distracts the stray look with alarm and pity.
Snow is falling, Clutching a little case,
He walks out briskly to infect a city
Whose terrible future may have just arrived.

 

 

 

Three Tigers

Wild Bengal Tiger (India)

Nobody does poems about tigers better than Jorge Luis Borges—with the sole exception of William Blake. Here is a poem translated by Alastair Reid entitled “The Other Tiger”:

The Other Tiger

And the craft createth a semblance.
—Morris, Sigurd the Volsung (1876).

I think of a tiger. The half-light enhances
the vast and painstaking library
and seems to set the bookshelves at a distance;
strong, innocent, new-made, bloodstained,
it will move through its jungle and its morning,
and leave its track across the muddy
edge of a river, unknown, nameless
(in its world, there are no names, nor past, nor future
only the sureness of the passing moment)
and it will cross the wilderness of distance
and sniff out in the woven labyrinth
of smells the smell peculiar to morning
and the scent of deer, delectable.
Among the slivers of bamboo, I notice
its stripes, and I have an inkling of the skeleton
under the magnificence of the skin, which quivers.
In vain, the convex oceans and the deserts
spread themselves across the earth between us;
from this one house in a remote lost seaport
in South America, I dream you, follow you,
oh tiger on the fringes of the Ganges.

Afternoon creeps in my spirit and I keep thinking
that the tiger I am conjuring in my poem
is a tiger made of symbols and of shadows,
a sequence of prosodic measures,
scraps remembered from encyclopedias,
and not the deadly tiger, the luckless jewel
which in the sun or the deceptive moonlight
follows its paths, in Bengal or Sumatra,
pf love, of indolence, of dying.
Against the symbolic tiger I have planted
the real one, it whose blood runs hotly,
and today, 1959, the third of August,
a slow shadow spreads across the prairie,
but still, the act of nameing it, of guessing
what is its nature and its circumstances
creates a fiction, not a living creature,
not one of those who wander on the earth.

Let us look for a third tiger. This one
will be a form in my dream like all the others,
a system and arrangement of human language,
and not the tiger of the vertebrae
which, out of reach of all mythology,
paces the earth. I know all this, but something
drives me to this ancient and vague adventure,
unreasonable, and I still keep on looking
throughout the afternoon for the other tiger,
the other tiger which is not in this poem.

“Who Is Kafka? Who Is Anyone?”

Kafka’s Metamorphosis

I came across a wonderful poem by Asher Reich about Franz Kafka on the website of Haaretz, the Israel News. It is called

Who Is Kafka? Who Is Anyone?

Every time I looked at his picture I saw a different person.
The man waiting at the gate
is not Kafka, though his name begins with K.

The surveyor is not Kafka, nor is the lord of the castle
who is pretending to be the lord of the castle.
Is the cockroach Kafka, or vice versa? The cockroach
is playing itself, not the man Kafka. The man

whose picture is printed in the newspaper was born in Prague
and looks like Kafka, but he isn’t Kafka. He’s an insurance
agent called Josef K. who is sure he is
Kafka. The judge who glories in the rare name Kafka
is an actor in the play “The Trial” adapted

from Kafka’s book. Who is the hunger artist?
Did Kafka submit the report to the academy, or vice versa?
Was Kafka the jailer at the penal colony, or
vice versa: a wretched prisoner?! The police say
they have arrested Kafka for conspiring to burn his writings
and there are two witnesses who confirm his identity.

But it’s not Kafka. It’s his friend Max, who didn’t burn them,
because he pursued one-eyed justice. Was Kafka’s
vegetarianism only anti-meat or did his asceticism
imprison his life, which was one long suicide?
So who and what is this Kafka whose identity has faded?
The man who was against life, an exile in his own body,
succumbing to the sweet taste of sickness, or vice versa?

Autographed Still from Orson Welles’s Film of The Trial

The Max referred to in the poem was Kafka’s friend Max Brod, who decided not to destroy Kafka’s writings as his friend made him promise to do.

Translated by Vivian Eden. The Hebrew poem will be included in Reich’s “Selected Poems,” forthcoming at Mossad Bialik.

 

 

Liberté

French Poet Paul Éluard (1895-1952)

There are many ways of discovering a great poet. In the case of Paul Éluard, I was introduced to his work from seeing films of French film director Jean-Luc Godard, particularly Alphaville (1966).

Liberté

On my school notebooks
On my desk and on the trees
On the sands of snow
I write your name

On the pages I have read
On all the white pages
Stone, blood, paper or ash
I write your name

On the images of gold
On the weapons of the warriors
On the crown of the king
I write your name

On the jungle and the desert
On the nest and on the brier
On the echo of my childhood
I write your name

On all my scarves of blue
On the moist sunlit swamps
On the living lake of moonlight
I write your name

On the fields, on the horizon
On the birds’ wings
And on the mill of shadows
I write your name

On each whiff of daybreak
On the sea, on the boats
On the demented mountaintop
I write your name

On the froth of the cloud
On the sweat of the storm
On the dense rain and the flat
I write your name

On the flickering figures
On the bells of colors
On the natural truth
I write your name

On the high paths
On the deployed routes
On the crowd-thronged square
I write your name

On the lamp which is lit
On the lamp which isn’t
On my reunited thoughts
I write your name

On a fruit cut in two
Of my mirror and my chamber
On my bed, an empty shell
I write your name

On my dog, greathearted and greedy
On his pricked-up ears
On his blundering paws
I write your name

On the latch of my door
On those familiar objects
On the torrents of a good fire
I write your name

On the harmony of the flesh
On the faces of my friends
On each outstretched hand
I write your name

On the window of surprises
On a pair of expectant lips
In a state far deeper than silence
I write your name

On my crumbled hiding-places
On my sunken lighthouses
On my walls and my ennui
I write your name

On abstraction without desire
On naked solitude
On the marches of death
I write your name

And for the want of a word
I renew my life
For I was born to know you
To name you

Liberty.

 

 

Non-Academic Poet

British Poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

Sometimes the greatest poets are not those favored by academics. Philip Larkin was not a prolific poet, yet what he wrote speaks volumes even to those who are not “academia nuts.” When I look back at 20th Century British poetry, I see him as one of the brightest literary lights of his time. Take for example the following:

Aubade

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

 

 

Rintrah Roars

Cover of William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”

I find myself coming back to it again and again. Ever since I was a student in college, I regarded William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” one of the greatest poems in the English language. Following is the opening of it, or “The Argument”—very appropriate as we wait for a rare thunderstorm to arrive around midnight.

The Argument

Rintrah roars and shakes his fires in the burdened air;
Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

Once meek, and in a perilous path,
The just man kept his course along
The vale of death.
Roses are planted where thorns grow,
And on the barren heath
Sing the honey bees.

Then the perilous path was planted:
And a river and a spring
On every cliff and tomb;
And on the bleached bones
Red clay brought forth.

Till the villain left the paths of ease,
To walk in perilous paths, and drive
The just man into barren climes.

Now the sneaking serpent walks
In mild humility,
And the just man rages in the wilds
Where lions roam.

Rintrah roars and shakes his fires in the burdened air;
Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

I love the second last stanza about the just man raging in the wilds. As I despondently view the condition of the Republic under Trump as his brigands, the following quote from the second part of the poem gives me hope:

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.

From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.

Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

All we could do is grasp the hide of the Tiger that is History and try not to fall off.

 

“The Poet Remembers”

Polish Poet Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004)

Sometimes, I like to look at what is happening in this country with the eyes of an Eastern European. I dedicate this poem to our president.

You Who Wronged

You who wronged a simple man
Bursting into laughter at the crime,
And kept a pack of fools around you
To mix good and evil, to blur the line,

Though everyone bowed down before you,
Saying virtue and wisdom lit your way,
Striking gold medals in your honor,
Glad to have survived another day.

Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
You can kill one, but another is born.
The words are written down, the deed, the date.

And you’d have done better with a winter dawn,
A rope, and a branch bowed beneath your weight.

 

 

Haibun: At the Ruins of Dzibilchaltún

The Temple of the Seven Dolls at Dzibilchaltún

A Haibun is a uniquely Japanese medium in which prose and haiku poetry are interspersed. I will attempt to memorialize some of my travel experiences using the Haibun genre from time to time. My intent is to follow the style of Matsuo Bashō:

First look at the ruins
My eyes glued to the chess board
Losing to my guide.

On my first trip to Yucatán in November 1975, I ordered guide services from a company called Turistica Yucateca. The lady who ran the company couldn’t speak a word of English, but we managed to communicate by nouns more or less common to English and Spanish. As my first destination, I chose Dzibilchaltún, about 20  miles north of Mérida. My guide, who had his own vehicle, was Manuel Quiñones Moreno who spoke good English and was well educated. I spent a few minutes looking at the ruins, which were mostly fairly ramshackle; but then he brought out a chess set, and we played several games. I lost all of them.

I have always loved chess, but not with any degree of proficiency.

In any case, I didn’t hold it against Manuel. I hired him the next day to show me the ruins of Acanceh and Mayapán. I kind of wish that Turistica Yucateca were still around, but that was almost half a century ago.

Things change.

 

 

Haibun: The Norte

A Norte Storm Lashes the Gulf Coast of Yucatán

A Haibun is a uniquely Japanese medium in which prose and haiku poetry are interspersed. I will attempt to memorialize some of my travel experiences using the Haibun genre from time to time. My intent is to follow the style of Matsuo Bashō:

November norte
White-clad Maya point and laugh
Paper boats bobbing in the street.

It was November 1992. I was in Yucatán with Martine and three friends from work: George Hoole and Jin and Christine Han. On the last day but one of our trip, the peninsula suffered a storm called a norte, because it originated in the United States and gathered strength as it crossed the Gulf of Mexico. The streets of Mérida were flooded: There was no walking without wet stains halfway up the leg. We were staying at the Posada Toledo, an old mansion turned hotel, near the center, worried whether our return flight the next day would be able to take off. Jin Han lightened the mood by carefully folding paper boats and setting them adrift in the street. They aroused considerable hilarity among the passersby.