Time To Take In Sail

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Having just finished an absorbing biography of Henry David Thoreau, I thought I should also give some attention to his friend and neighbor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here is a poem of his that impressed me entitled “Terminus”:

Terminus
It is time to be old,
To take in sail:—
The god of bounds,
Who sets to seas a shore,
Came to me in his fatal rounds,
And said: “No more!
No farther shoot
Thy broad ambitious branches, and thy root.
Fancy departs: no more invent;
Contract thy firmament
To compass of a tent.
There’s not enough for this and that,
Make thy option which of two;
Economize the failing river,
Not the less revere the Giver,
Leave the many and hold the few.
Timely wise accept the terms,
Soften the fall with wary foot;
A little while
Still plan and smile,
And,—fault of novel germs,—
Mature the unfallen fruit.
Curse, if thou wilt, thy sires,
Bad husbands of their fires,
Who, when they gave thee breath,
Failed to bequeath
The needful sinew stark as once,
The Baresark marrow to thy bones,
But left a legacy of ebbing veins,
Inconstant heat and nerveless reins,—
Amid the Muses, left thee deaf and dumb,
Amid the gladiators, halt and numb.”

As the bird trims her to the gale,
I trim myself to the storm of time,
I man the rudder, reef the sail,
Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime:
“Lowly faithful, banish fear,
Right onward drive unharmed;
The port, well worth the cruise, is near,
And every wave is charmed.” 

Seeing vs Thinking

Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) Painted by Almada Negreiros

We tend sometimes to forget that Portugal even exists, yet the tiny country at the left edge of the Iberian Peninsula has a way of grabbing our intention, especially with its literature. Fernando Pessoa was such a rich trove that he split himself into some some seventy-five heteronyms, or authorial entities. The following excerpt from “The Keeper of Sheep” is by one of his most prominent heteronyms, Alberto Caeiro.

My gaze is clear like a sunflower.
It is my custom to walk the roads
Looking right and left
And sometimes looking behind me,
And what I see at each moment
Is what I never saw before,
And I’m very good at noticing things.
I’m incapable of feeling the same wonder
A newborn child would feel
If he noticed that he’d really and truly been born.
I feel at each moment that I’ve just been born
Into a completely new world...

I believe in the world as in a daisy,
Because I see it. But I don’t think about it.
Because to think is not to understand.
The world wasn’t made for us to think about it
(To think is to have eyes that aren’t well)
But to look at it and be in agreement.

I have no philosophy, I have senses...
If I speak of Nature it’s not because I know what it is
But because I love it, and for that very reason,
Because those that love never know what they love
Or why they love, or what love is.
Love is innocence,
And the sum of innocence is not thinking...

Statue of Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon

In a mock interview with “Alberto Caeiro,” Pessoa wrote:

I’m not a materialist or a deist or anything else. I’m a man who one day opened the window and discovered this crucial thing. Nature exists. I saw that the trees, the rivers and the stones are things that truly exist. No one had ever thought about this.

I don’t pretend to be anything more than the greatest poet in the world. I made the greatest discovery worth making, next to which all other discoveries are games of stupid children. I noticed the Universe. The Greeks, with all their visual acuity, didn’t do as much.

The poem and the quote come from the Pessoa collection entitled A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems translated by Richard Zenith.

“I Am Everything I Have Already Lost”

Argentinean Poet and Writer Silvina Ocampo Aguirre (1903-1993)

I’m not about to call her a poetess, because she could hold her own in the literary world of women and men. She was a great writer who was married to another great writer, Adolfo Bioy Casares, friend of Jorge Luis Borges. I understand she is buried in Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, which I have visited three times without finding her grave. I will have to make another visit and try harder to find her so that I can pay homage to her beauty and talent.

The following poem is from her collection Poemas de amor desesperado (Poems of Desperate Love, 1949).

Song

Oh, nothing, nothing is mine,
not the tone of my voice, nor my absent hands,
nor my distant arms!
I have received it all. Oh, nothing, nothing is mine.
I am like the reflections of a gloomy lake
or the echo of voices at the bottom of a blue
well when it has rained.
I have received it all:
like water or glass
that turns into anything,
into smoke, into a spiral,
into a building, a fish, a stone, a rose.
I am different from me, so different,
like some people when they are in society.
I am all the places I have loved in my life.

I am the woman I hated most.
and the perfume that wounded me one night
with decrees of an uncertain destiny.
I am the shadows that entered a car,
the luminosity of a port,
the secret embraces hidden in the eyes.
I am the knife of jealousy,
and the aches red with wounds.
Of the long eager glances I am the sparkle.
I am the voice I heard behind the blinds,
the light, the air above the cypress trees.
I am all the words that I adored
on the lips, in the books that I admired.
I am the greyhound that fled in the distance,
the solitary branch among the branches.
I am the happiness of a day,
the whisper of the flames.
I am the poverty of naked feet,
with children going silently away.
I am what they did not tell me and I knew.
Oh, I wanted everything to be mine!
I am everything I have already lost.
But everything’s elusive like the wind and the river,
like the golden summer flowers
that die in your hands.
I am everything, but nothing, nothing is mine,
not the pain, nor the joy, nor the terror,
not even the words of my song.

 

This poem can be found in the excellent edition of Silvina Ocampo’s poetry published by NYRB/Poets and translated and edited by Jason Weiss.

Browning Decides To Be a Poet

Robert Browning (1812-1889)

It is time for another poem by one of my favorite poets, the late Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo of Argentina.

Robert Browning Decides To Be a Poet

In these red labyrinths of London
I find that I have chosen
the strangest of all callings,
save that, in its way, any calling is strange.
Like the alchemist
who sought the philosopher's stone
in quicksilver,
I shall make everyday words—
the gambler's marked cards, the common coin—
give off the magic that was their
when Thor was both the god and the din,
the thunderclap and the prayer.
In today's dialect
I shall say, in my fashion, eternal things:
I shall try to be worthy
of the great echo of Byron.
This dust that I am will be invulnerable.
If a woman shares my love
my verse will touch the tenth sphere of the concentric heavens;
if a woman turns my love aside
I will make of my sadness a music,
a full river to resound through time.
I shall live by forgetting myself.
I shall be the face I glimpse and forget,
I shall be Judas who takes on
the divine mission of being a betrayer,
I shall be Caliban in his bog,
I shall be a mercenary who dies
without fear and without faith,
I shall be Polycrates, who looks in awe
upon the seal returned by fate.
I will be the friend who hates me.
The persian will give me the nightingale, and Rome the sword.
Masks, agonies, resurrections
will weave and unweave my life,
and in time I shall be Robert Browning.

The line about “if a woman turns my love aside” is particularly poignant. For most of his life, Borges was in love with a fellow writer, Norah Lange, who instead married Oliverio Girondo, whom he hated with a passion.

Argentinean Writer Norah Lange (1905-1972)

Borges did eventually get married in his old age—twice. The first one was a disaster, the second one more of a helpmate.

Watch But Don’t Touch

Mohave Desert Scene with Joshua Tree in Foreground

Yesterday I did a search for poems about the desert and came up with a winner. “Desert” was written by Josephine Miles way back in 1934, but it has a contemporary feel. One thing for sure: There are no tree huggers in the desert, what with all the spiny plants. Moreover, the ground itself is unfriendly, full of sharp stones. The only thing Miles leaves out is the wind-blown dust.

Desert
When with the skin you do acknowledge drought,
 The dry in the voice, the lightness of feet, the fine
 Flake of the heat at every level line;

 When with the hand you learn to touch without
 Surprise the spine for the leaf, the prickled petal,
 The stone scorched in the shine, and the wood brittle;

 Then where the pipe drips and the fronds sprout
 And the foot-square forest of clover blooms in sand,
 You will lean and watch, but never touch with your hand.

My First Poet

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021) As He Looked When I Met Him

It was my freshman year at Dartmouth College. When I heard that beatnik poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was going to visit the campus, give a poetry reading from his recently published collection A Coney Island of the Mind, and answer questions, I decided to show up. In all, there were about twenty-five students in the audience, plus a few professors.

I really enjoyed the poems, such as this one, which is called “I Am Waiting”:

I am waiting for my case to come up  
and I am waiting 
for a rebirth of wonder  
and I am waiting          
          for someone to really discover America  
and wail 
and I am waiting  
for the discovery 
of a new symbolic western frontier  
and I am waiting 
for the American Eagle  
to really spread its wings  
and straighten up and fly right  
and I am waiting 
for the Age of Anxiety  
to drop dead  
and I am waiting  
for the war to be fought 
which will make the world safe  
for anarchy 
and I am waiting  
for the final withering away  
of all governments  
and I am perpetually awaiting  
a rebirth of wonder 
 
I am waiting for the Second Coming  
and I am waiting 
for a religious revival 
to sweep through the state of Arizona  
and I am waiting 
for the Grapes of Wrath to be stored  
and I am waiting 
for them to prove  
that God is really American  
and I am waiting 
to see God on television  
piped’ onto church altars  
if only they can find  
the right channel  
to tune in on  
and I am waiting 
for the Last Supper to be served again  
with a strange new appetizer  
and I am perpetually awaiting  
a rebirth of wonder 
 
I am waiting for my number to be called  
and I am waiting 
for the Salvation Army to take over  
and I am waiting 
for the meek to be blessed 
and inherit the earth  
without taxes and I am waiting  
for forests and animals  
to reclaim the earth as theirs  
and I am waiting  
for a way to be devised  
to destroy all nationalisms  
without killing anybody 
and I am waiting 
for linnets and planets to fall like rain  
and I am waiting for lovers and weepers  
to lie down together again 
in a new rebirth of wonder 
 
I am waiting for the Great Divide to ‘be crossed  
and I am anxiously waiting 
for the secret of eternal life to be discovered  
by an obscure general practitioner  
and I am waiting 
for the storms of life  
to be over  
and I am waiting  
to set sail for happiness  
and I am waiting  
for a reconstructed Mayflower  
to reach America  
with its picture story and tv rights  
sold in advance to the natives  
and I am waiting  
for the lost music to sound again  
in the Lost Continent  
in a new rebirth of wonder 
 
I am waiting for the day  
that maketh all things clear  
and I am awaiting retribution  
for what America did 
to Tom Sawyer  
and I am waiting  
for the American Boy  
to take off Beauty’s clothes  
and get on top of her  
and I am waiting  
for Alice in Wonderland  
to retransmit to me  
her total dream of innocence  
and I am waiting  
for Childe Roland to come  
to the final darkest tower  
and I am waiting  
for Aphrodite 
to grow live arms  
at a final disarmament conference  
in a new rebirth of wonder 
 
I am waiting  
to get some intimations  
of immortality  
by recollecting my early childhood  
and I am waiting  
for the green mornings to come again  
youth’s dumb green fields come back again  
and I am waiting  
for some strains of unpremeditated art  
to shake my typewriter  
and I am waiting to write 
the great indelible poem 
and I am waiting 
for the last long careless rapture  
and I am perpetually waiting  
for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn  
to catch each other up at last  
and embrace 
and I am waiting  
perpetually and forever  
a renaissance of wonder            

Lawrence Ferlinghetti died on Monday, February 22, which is Washington’s birthday, at the ripe old age of 101, just a month shy of his 102nd.

I was too shy to ask the poet any questions, being a detested freshman. But I did enjoy seeing him handle the know-it-alls that asked questions only to make themselves look good. Ferlinghetti may have been a poet, but he knew how to handle wise asses.

A Poem About Donkeys

“With Monstrous Head and Sickening Cry”

Having just finished re-reading G. K. Chesterton’s Autobiography, my mind is still reeling with his view of life. Here is one of his funniest poems, entitled, simply, “The Donkey”:

 When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

The last quatrain refers to Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on the original Palm Sunday, mounted on a donkey.

“This Fals World Is But Transitory”

Statue of William Dunbar in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

William Dunbar (ca 1460-1530) was a great Scottish poet who is not much read these days—probably because the language has changed too much since his day. Still, there is power in his verse. Following is his “Lament for the Makers” (Makers meaning Poets):

I THAT in heill was and gladness
 Am trublit now with great sickness
 And feblit with infirmitie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Our plesance here is all vain glory,
 This fals world is but transitory,
 The flesh is bruckle, the Feynd is slee:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 The state of man does change and vary,
 Now sound, now sick, now blyth, now sary,
 Now dansand mirry, now like to die:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 No state in Erd here standis sicker;
 As with the wynd wavis the wicker
 So wannis this world's vanitie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Unto the Death gois all Estatis,
 Princis, Prelatis, and Potestatis,
 Baith rich and poor of all degree:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 He takis the knichtis in to the field
 Enarmit under helm and scheild;
 Victor he is at all mellie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 That strong unmerciful tyrand
 Takis, on the motheris breast sowkand,
 The babe full of benignitie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 He takis the campion in the stour,
 The captain closit in the tour,
 The lady in bour full of bewtie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 He spairis no lord for his piscence,
 Na clerk for his intelligence;
 His awful straik may no man flee:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Art-magicianis and astrologgis,
 Rethoris, logicianis, and theologgis,
 Them helpis no conclusionis slee:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 In medecine the most practicianis,
 Leechis, surrigianis, and physicianis,
 Themself from Death may not supplee:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 I see that makaris amang the lave
 Playis here their padyanis, syne gois to grave;
 Sparit is nocht their facultie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 He has done petuously devour
 The noble Chaucer, of makaris flour,
 The Monk of Bury, and Gower, all three:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 The good Sir Hew of Eglintoun,
 Ettrick, Heriot, and Wintoun,
 He has tane out of this cuntrie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 That scorpion fell has done infeck
 Maister John Clerk, and James Afflek,
 Fra ballat-making and tragedie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Holland and Barbour he has berevit;
 Alas! that he not with us levit
 Sir Mungo Lockart of the Lee:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Clerk of Tranent eke he has tane,
 That made the anteris of Gawaine;
 Sir Gilbert Hay endit has he:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 He has Blind Harry and Sandy Traill
 Slain with his schour of mortal hail,
 Quhilk Patrick Johnstoun might nought flee:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 He has reft Merseir his endite,
 That did in luve so lively write,
 So short, so quick, of sentence hie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 He has tane Rowll of Aberdene,
 And gentill Rowll of Corstorphine;
 Two better fallowis did no man see:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 In Dunfermline he has tane Broun
 With Maister Robert Henrysoun;
 Sir John the Ross enbrast has he:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 And he has now tane, last of a,
 Good gentil Stobo and Quintin Shaw,
 Of quhom all wichtis hes pitie:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Good Maister Walter Kennedy
 In point of Death lies verily;
 Great ruth it were that so suld be:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Sen he has all my brether tane,
 He will naught let me live alane;
 Of force I man his next prey be:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.
 Since for the Death remeid is none,
 Best is that we for Death dispone,
 After our death that live may we:—
         Timor Mortis conturbat me.

The Latin refrain means “Fear of death disturbs me.” Sorry to spring something so tricky on you, but however much the language has changed, the greatness shines through.

Wild Nights

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

There is probably no woman in the history of our country’s literature who is worthy to touch the hem of Emily Dickinson’s garb. In our obsession with the “Great American Novel,” we have quite forgotten that we have no other real claimants to the title of “Great American Poetess.” And by “Poetess,” I do not mean to belittle her excellence. She stands side by side with Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe, and Ezra Pound—and not so much as a half step behind any of them. She is, in sum, a national treasure.

Here is one of her short, savage poems which will leave you gasping:

Wild Nights—Wild Nights
Wild nights - Wild nights!
 Were I with thee
 Wild nights should be
 Our luxury!

 Futile - the winds -
 To a Heart in port -
 Done with the Compass -
 Done with the Chart!

 Rowing in Eden -
 Ah - the Sea!
 Might I but moor - tonight -
 In thee!

Timon’s Rage: “Let Confusion Live”

Timon Grubbing for Roots After He Has Fled Athens

No doubt you are familiar with the rage of King Lear after two of his daughters ave betrayed him. That is almost nothing compared to the rage of Timon, who has given all his wealth to his friends, but is deserted by them when he himself is broke. These are the opening lines of Act IV:

Let me look back upon thee. O thou wall,
That girdlest in those wolves, dive in the earth,
And fence not Athens! Matrons, turn incontinent!
Obedience fail in children! slaves and fools,
Pluck the grave wrinkled senate from the bench,
And minister in their steads! to general filths
Convert o’ the instant, green virginity,
Do ’t in your parents’ eyes! bankrupts, hold fast;
Rather than render back, out with your knives,
And cut your trusters’ throats! bound servants, steal!
Large-handed robbers your grave masters are,
And pill by law. Maid, to thy master’s bed;
Thy mistress is o’ the brothel! Son of sixteen,
pluck the lined crutch from thy old limping sire,
With it beat out his brains! Piety, and fear,
Religion to the gods, peace, justice, truth,
Domestic awe, night-rest, and neighbourhood,
Instruction, manners, mysteries, and trades,
Degrees, observances, customs, and laws,
Decline to your confounding contraries,
And let confusion live! Plagues, incident to men,
Your potent and infectious fevers heap
On Athens, ripe for stroke! Thou cold sciatica,
Cripple our senators, that their limbs may halt
As lamely as their manners. Lust and liberty
Creep in the minds and marrows of our youth,
That ’gainst the stream of virtue they may strive,
And drown themselves in riot! Itches, blains,
Sow all the Athenian bosoms; and their crop
Be general leprosy! Breath infect breath,
at their society, as their friendship, may
merely poison! Nothing I’ll bear from thee,
But nakedness, thou detestable town!
Take thou that too, with multiplying bans!
Timon will to the woods; where he shall find
The unkindest beast more kinder than mankind.
The gods confound—hear me, you good gods all—
The Athenians both within and out that wall!
And grant, as Timon grows, his hate may grow
To the whole race of mankind, high and low! Amen.

Even Shakespeare’s minor plays can pack a punch. Timon of Athens is worth a read, especially when you are feeling unkindly toward your fellow man.