A Winter Poem

Wood Thrush

I have always thought that Thomas Hardy was vastly underrated as a poet. Try this poem on for size and imagine that the time is the end of the day at the end of the year and (even) the end of the century:

The Darkling Thrush
I leant upon a coppice gate
      When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
      The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
      Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
      Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
      The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
      The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
      Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
      Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
      The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
      Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
      In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
      Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
      Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
      Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
      His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
      And I was unaware.

 

 

A Proof of Immortality?

Anglo-Saxon Facial Armor

Once again I turn to the Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges who in so many ways replicates my thoughts. Perhaps, it is because he has influenced me so much over so many years?

Poem Written in a
Copy of Beowulf

At various times I have asked myself what reasons
Moved me to study while my night came down,
Without particular hope of satisfaction,
The language of the blunt-tongued Anglo-Saxons.
Used up by the years my memory
Loses its grip on words that I have vainly
Repeated and repeated. My life in the same way
Weaves and unweaves its weary history.
Then I tell myself: it must be that the soul
Has some secret sufficient way of knowing
That it is immortal, that its vast encompassing
Circle can take in all, can accomplish all.
Beyond my anxiety and beyond this writing
The universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting.

This translation is by Alastair Reid from Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Poems 1923-1967, edited by Norman Thomas di Giovanni.

 

Holy Sidewalks

Is This Hole an Illusion? Or an Allusion?

Today being Thursday, I rode the Metro downtown, went to the Central Library, and attended the weekly half-hour mindful meditation session held there. Group leader John Kneedler quoted the following poem by Portia Nelson:

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

V

I walk down another street.

I know this poem is all over the Internet, but it’s the first time I encountered it; and I love the way it summarizes so many people. Including myself.

“Field Flowers”

“certainly / you don’t look at us”

I was eating lunch at the Westfield Mall in Culver City when I was struck by a few lines from a poem by Louise Glück which originally appeared in The New Yorker on February 16, 1992. When I got home, I hunted down the full text of the poem and decided to share it with you here:

Field Flowers

what are you saying? that you want
eternal life? are your thoughts really
as compelling as all that? certainly
you don’t look at us, don’t listen to us,
on your skin
stain of sun, dust
of yellow buttercups: i’m talking
to you, you staring through
bars of high grass shaking
your little rattle—o
the soul! the soul! is it enough
only to look inward? contempt
for humanity is one thing, but why
disdain the expansive
field, your gaze rising over the clear heads
of the wild buttercups into what? your poor
idea of heaven: absence
of change. better than earth? how
would you know, who are neither
here nor there, standing in our midst?

There is something about this poem, with its view of humanity from the point of view of wildflowers. I thought it was nicely done.

 

“Limits”

A Street Corner in the San Telmo Neighborhood of Buenos Aires

Below is one of my favorite poems from the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges. It is called “Limits.”

Limits

Of all the streets that blur in to the sunset,
There must be one (which, I am not sure)
That I by now have walked for the last time
Without guessing it, the pawn of that Someone

Who fixes in advance omnipotent laws,
Sets up a secret and unwavering scale
for all the shadows, dreams, and forms
Woven into the texture of this life.

If there is a limit to all things and a measure
And a last time and nothing more and forgetfulness,
Who will tell us to whom in this house
We without knowing it have said farewell?

Through the dawning window night withdraws
And among the stacked books which throw
Irregular shadows on the dim table,
There must be one which I will never read.

There is in the South more than one worn gate,
With its cement urns and planted cactus,
Which is already forbidden to my entry,
Inaccessible, as in a lithograph.

There is a door you have closed forever
And some mirror is expecting you in vain;
To you the crossroads seem wide open,
Yet watching you, four-faced, is a Janus.

There is among all your memories one
Which has now been lost beyond recall.
You will not be seen going down to that fountain
Neither by white sun nor by yellow moon.

You will never recapture what the Persian
Said in his language woven with birds and roses,
When, in the sunset, before the light disperses,
You wish to give words to unforgettable things.

And the steadily flowing Rhone and the lake,
All that vast yesterday over which today I bend?
They will be as lost as Carthage,
Scourged by the Romans with fire and salt.

At dawn I seem to hear the turbulent
Murmur of crowds milling and fading away;
They are all I have been loved by, forgotten by;
Space, time, and Borges now are leaving me.

As I drive and walk through the streets of Los Angeles, I, too, wonder which streets I am seeing for the last time. Is it Airlane Avenue in Westchester? Lemac Street in Van Nuys? Adelaide Street in Santa Monica? What about Paseo de Montejo in Mérida, Yucatan? Florida in Buenos Aires? The Royal Mile in Edinburgh? As we live, we eventually complete the circuits of our lives.

 

“On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic”

St Marks Square in Venice by Canaletto

I cannot read this sonnet by Wordsworth without thinking of the plight of the United States, which has fallen so low after its postwar high. In 1797, Napoleon took Venice and apportioned her territory between Austria and France, putting an end to a once-powerful empire that had lasted almost a thousand years.

On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic

Once did She hold the gorgeous east in fee;
And was the safeguard of the west: the worth
Of Venice did not fall below her birth,
Venice, the eldest Child of Liberty.
She was a maiden City, bright and free;
No guile seduced, no force could violate;
And, when she took unto herself a Mate,
She must espouse the everlasting Sea.
And what if she had seen those glories fade,
Those titles vanish, and that strength decay;
Yet shall some tribute of regret be paid
When her long life hath reached its final day:
Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade
Of that which once was great is passed away.

That final couplet packs a real punch.

Two English Poets in Iceland

The Falls at Gullfoss Around the Time of Auden and MacNeice’s Visit

Around 1936, W.H. Auden and his companion Louis MacNeice visited Iceland, which resulted in a delightful travel-cum-poetry book entitled Letters from Iceland. Here are a few excerpts from the poetic “Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard” signed by MacNeice:

So I came here to the land the Romans missed,
Left for the Irish saint and the Viking colonist.
But what am I doing here? Qu’allais-je faire
Among these volcanic rocks and this grey air.
Why go north when Cyprus and Madeira
De jure if not de facto are much nearer?
The reason for hereness seems beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture,
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health
And culture is limited by lack of wealth,
The tourist sights have nothing like Stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.
And yet I like it if only because this nation
Enjoys a scarcity of population
And cannot rise to many bores or hacks
Or paupers or poor men paying Super-Tax.

Later in the poem, he becomes more reflective:

Here is a different rhythm, the juggled balls
Hang in the air—the pause before the soufflé falls,
Here we can take a breath, sit back, admire
Stills from the film of life, the frozen fire;
Among these rocks can roll upon the tongue
Morsels of thought, not jostled by the throng,
Or morsels of un-thought, which is still better….

Harðfiskur

Both the prose and the poetry are worth reading. For instance, here is Auden’s opinion on the cuisine of the island:

Dried fish [harðfiskur] is a staple food in Iceland. This should be shredded with the fingers and eaten with butter. It varies in toughness. The tougher kind tastes like toe-nails, and the softer kind like the skin off the soles of one’s feet.