Seize the Day

Roman Poet and Muses

Princeton University Press has come out with an interesting series of books under the general heading Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers. A few months ago, I read the volume on Epictetus. Just now, I have finished the one on Horace’s poetry, entitled How To Be Content: An Ancient Poet’s Guide for an Age of Excess.

Sadly, I have not tried yet in any sustained way to tackle the Odes, Epodes, Epistles, and Satires, what with their reams of footnotes and textual controversies. This volume, on the other hand, makes it easier to understand what Horace is about:

May I have what I have now, less even,
      and may I live for myself
 What remains of my days, if the gods
      grant any remainder:
 May I have a good supply of books and
      corn planted for the year,
 And never hang and float in waiting for
      an uncertain hour.

And:

To be daunted by nothing is the one and
      only thing,
 Numicius, that can make and keep you
      happy.

It is a sobering thought that we have created such complicated lives for ourselves, whereas more than two thousand years ago, there were certain extraordinary poets and philosophers whose advice is as current as today’s news. It was Horace, after all, who advised us all to carpe diem (seize the day).

Horace was as philosophical in dealing with the end of days:

Order wine and perfume and the too-brief
 Flower of the rose to be brought,
 While circumstances, time of life
 And the dark threads of the three sisters
      allow it.

The three sisters, of course, are the Three Fates of ancient mythology: Clotho, who spins the thread of life; Lachesis, who measures the thread of life; and Atropos, who cuts the thread of life.

Who Moves the Pieces?

Chess Pieces

Here is one of Jorge Luis Borges’s sonnets about chess. Except, as you can imagine, it is about more—a whole lot more.

Chess

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?

The translation is by Alastair Reid. Having just finished a cup of hot yerba mate at 9:30 in the evening, after having read a collection of Argentinean short stories by César Aira, I find myself, once again, drawn toward the land of the Sol de Mayo.

The Spiral Road

U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo

Here is another poem by Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee Nation (Este Mvskokvlke), belonging to Oce Vpofv (Hickory Ground). Considering all that has happened to her people, she is curiously optimistic “for earth’s grandsons.” And that is the title of her poem.

For Earth’s Grandsons

Stand tall, no matter your height, how dark your skin
Your spirit is all colors within
You are made of the finest woven light
From the iridescent love that formed your mothers, fathers
Your grandparents all the way back on the spiral road—
There is no end to this love
It has formed your bodies
Feeds your bright spirits
And no matter what happens in these times of breaking—
No matter dictators, the heartless, and liars
No matter—you are born of those
Who kept ceremonial embers burning in their hands
All through the miles of relentless exile
Those who sang the path through massacre
All the way to sunrise
You will make it through—

Pictograph at Chaco Canyon Showing the Spiral Road

I liked the way the poem ends with a dash: All this is still happening. I posted another poem by Joy Harjo on October 20 here. Both poems are taken from her recent book An American Sunrise (New York: W.W. Norton, 2019).

An Astronomer Poet

The Lobster Nebula Seen from the Hubble Telescope

It’s an unusual combination, but it sat well on Rebecca Elson’s shoulders. She was at one and the same time an astronomer and a poet. Unfortunately, she died young at the age of 39 with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I learned about her from Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog.

Canadian Poet and Astronomer Rebecca Elson

Antidotes to Fear of Death

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:

No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
Already there
But unconstrained by form.

And sometime it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:

To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.


			

Seven Questions

Poet Laureate of the United States Joy Harjo

I present for your enjoyment—and serious consideration—a poem about politics by Joy Harjo, the Poet Laureate of the U.S., who is also a Muscogee Creek Indian whose people have suffered grievously from lying, weaselly politicians of all stripes through their history as the first real Americans.

The poem is from her collection entitled An American Sunrise.

For Those Who Would Govern

First question: Can you first govern yourself?

Second question: What is the state of your own household?

Third question: Do you have a proven record of community service and compassionate acts?

Fourth question: Do you know the history and laws of your principalities?

Fifth question: Do you follow sound principles? Look for fresh vision to lift all the inhabitants of the land, including animals, plants, elements, all who share this earth?

Sixth question: Are you owned by lawyers, bankers, insurance agents, lobbyists, or other politicians, anyone else who would unfairly profit by your decisions?

Seventh question: Do you have authority by the original keepers of the lands, those who obey natural law and are in the service of the lands on which you stand?


I found interesting Joy’s use of the word principalities in the fourth question. She herself is a member of a sovereign nation that is affiliated with the U.S.

In the sixth question, I would have included real estate developers, who are in my book archvillains.

Looking at our current president, he comes off in honest answers to these questions as a suppurating vessel of gangrenous pus.

The God Abandons Antony

Marc Antony on Cleopatra’s Barge

It was in the first century AD that Plutarch first mentioned the tale that, as he was to face ultimate defeat from both Octavian (later Augustus) and his love Cleopatra, that he was visited by a strange vision:

During this night, it is said, about the middle thereof, while the city was quiet and depressed through fear and expectation of the future, all at once certain harmonious sounds from all kinds of instruments were heard, and shouts of a crowd with Evoes and satyric leapings, as if some company of revellers not without noise were going out of the city; and the course of the procession seemed to be through the middle of the city to the gate leading outwards in the direction of the enemy, and at this point the tumult made its way out, being loudest there. And those who reflected on the sign were of opinion that the god to whom Antonius all along most likened himself and most claimed kinship with was deserting him.

In his play Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare makes mention of this vision in Act IV, Scene 3.

But it was the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, a citizen of Alexandria, who wrote one of his greatest poems on the subject:

Constantine P. Cavafy

The God Abandons Antony

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

The poem is mentioned in Lawrence Durrell’s Justine and even printed there, but in Durrell’s translation. I have chosen instead to include the translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.

A Poem for Halloween

Jack O’ Lanterns

Here is a poem redolent of the season by the U.S.’s new Nobel Prize Winner in Literature for 2020: Louise Glück.

All Hallows

Even now this landscape is assembling.
The hills darken. The oxen
sleep in their blue yoke,
the fields having been
picked clean, the sheaves
bound evenly and piled at the roadside
among cinquefoil, as the toothed moon rises:

This is the barrenness
of harvest or pestilence.
And the wife leaning out the window
with her hand extended, as in payment,
and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here
Come here, little one

And the soul creeps out of the tree.


Poet Louise Glück

“Too Much Liberty”

Nun’s Cell at Santa Catalina Convent in Arequipa, Peru

There is nothing I have ever seen quite like Santa Catalina Convent in Arequipa, Peru. It occupies virtually a square mile with numerous chapels, nuns’ cells, narrow winding streets. One could easily spend a whole day here, as I did. It reminds me of one of Wordsworth’s sonnets:

“Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room”

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells;
In truth the prison, unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is; and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

 

Furness Fells in Lancashire, England

I love what Wordsworth does here, comparing the sonnet’s “scanty plot of ground” with the constricted quarters of a nun, hermit, scholar, or weaver. If I remember, tomorrow I will show some pictures I took at Santa Catalina in Peru, a place that impressed me even more than Machu Picchu.

 

On the Day the World Ends

“On the Day the World Ends/A Bee Circles a Clover”

One of my favorite Eastern European poets of the 20th Century is Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004). A winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature, Milosz lived for many years in California; consequently, he poems have a special meaning for me. Here is one of my favorites:

A Song on the End of the World

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be.

 

“Resurrection”

Lake Balatón with Tihany Abbey, Burial Place of Magyar Kings

In 1977, I went to Hungary and Czechoslovakia (before it was split into two countries) with my mother and father. We spent a couple of days in a hostel on the shores of Lake Balatón, one of the largest in Europe. I remember it as a large but shallow lake in which one could walk out a half mile before getting in over your head. The average depth of the lake is only about 3 meters. The cafés around the lake served a kind of carp called, in Hungarian, ponty (that’s only a single syllable, which can be pronounced only by Hungarians).

I was delighted to find this poem by the Chilean novelist and poet Roberto Bolaño, which mentions the lake:

Resurrection

Poetry slips into dreams
like a diver in a lake.
Poetry, braver than anyone,
slips in and sinks
like lead
through a lake infinite as Loch Ness
or tragic and turbid as Lake Balatón.
Consider it from below:
a diver
innocent
covered in feathers
of will.
Poetry slips into dreams
like a diver who’s dead
in the eyes of God.

Those last few lines pack a punch, which I am still trying to figure out. Maybe the original Spanish will help:

un buzo
inocente
envuelto en las plumas
de la voluntad.
La poesía entra en el sueño
como un buzo muerto
en el ojo de Dios.

Or maybe it won’t help. But that’s what poetry is all about. Coming back to it again and again until everything seems to click into place.