“Sonora Wind”

Wind-Blown Sand Near Keeler, CA

It’s the end of the week, and I feel like a poem. I have this slim Everyman volume entitled Poems of the American West , selected and edited by Robert Mezey. The poem entitled “Sonora Wind,” written by Arizona poet Richard Shelton, also described those horrible Santa Ana winds that sweep through Los Angeles from the vastness of the desert.

Sonora Wind

Nobody can stop this dry wind,
this disaster of a wind. Nobody
can heal it, soothe it, send it on.
It remains. Has it nowhere else
to go? Has it been forbidden
to return to where it came from?

It is driving us mad with the sound
of a wound torn open again
and again. It can bend us down
as it bends the greasewood.
It can desiccate our minds.

It screams at us with the voice
of a raging mute who has no words
to tell his pain. When we begin
to scream in return, it rips
the words from our mouths,
replacing them with sand, the taste
of all the evil ever done to us
by those who died before we could
tell them how much we hated them.

Seen From Above

Poet and Naturalist Loren Eiseley (1907-1977)

It is a well-known fact that there are probably half a dozen writers that you have been urging your friends to read … with no success. My own personal failure in this regard is with the works of Loren Eiseley. Perhaps as a scientist, he is a little too out of date; but the fact that he is also a poet makes everything I have read by him almost numinous. Here, for example, is a poem called “The Condor”:

The Condor

The great bird moves its feathers on the air
like fingers playing on an instrument,
the instrument of wind; it climbs and scarcely moves
while steady thermals push
its giant wings still higher till it soars
beyond my sight completely, though it peers
through strange red eyes
upon my face below.
Its kind is dying from the earth; its wings
create a foolish envy among men.
Its shadow knew the mammoth and he passed,
floated above the sabertooth, now gone,
saw the first spearmen on the bison’s track,
banked sharply, went its way alone.
Its eyes are larger than its searching brain;
the creature sees like a satellite,
but exists within
an ice-world now dead. This bird cannot
understand rifles, multiply its eggs,
one hidden on a cliff face all it has.
Its shadow is now passing from the earth
just as the mammoth’s shadow at high noon.
Something has gone with each of them, the sky
is out of balance with the tipping poles.
No huge, tusked beast is marching with the ice,
no aerial shadow tracks the passing years.
Only below the haze grows deeper still,
only the buildings edge up through the murk.
Planes fly, and sometimes crash, but no black wing will write
the end of man, as man’s end should be written
by all the condor wings beneath high heaven.

I have seen Andean condors in Peru at Colca Canyon. They were rising and falling in the thermals hundreds of feet at a time.

In the Red Labyrinths

Victorian Block in London

Every once in a while, I feel I must return to Jorge Luis Borges, the man who has influenced so many of the paths my life has taken in the last forty years:

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 there
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 above photograph by Robert Freidus is from The Victorian Web.

“Nothing Gold Can Stay”

Fall Colors in Wisconsin

Here’s a short poem by Robert Frost about the brilliant gold leaves of a New England autumn. I miss them greatly: I went to college in New Hampshire, and in California there isn’t much brilliant foliage in the fall. The poem is entitled “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

“Nothing More Animal-Like”

Humor and Profundity All Mixed Together

The beginning of this year has introduced me to two great Eastern European poetesses. I think I will be reading a lot of their poems in the months to come. I have already written a couple of postings about Marina Tsvetaeva—and I am just getting started! Earlier, I posted a poem by Wisława Szymborska, but now I am starting to get serious about her as well, what with her curious mixture of humor and profundity. You can find an example of those two traits in this poem:

In Praise of Self-Deprecation

The buzzard has nothing to fault himself with.
Scruples are alien to the black panther.
Piranhas do not doubt the rightness of their actions.
The rattlesnake approves of himself without reservations.

The self-critical jackal does not exist.
The locust, alligator, trichina, horsefly
live as they live and are glad of it.

The killer-whale’s heart weighs one hundred kilos
but in other respects it is light.

There is nothing more animal-like
than a clear conscience
on the third planet of the Sun.

I am still working in the smug self-satisfaction of Republicans, but I am nowhere near Wisława in poetic ability, so I’ll just let her have her say. If you are interested in reading more of her poetry, I suggest you find a copy of Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems by Wisława Szymborska (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981). Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996.

 

“Bound for Hell”

Poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)

Poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)

Yesterday, I posted an incident from Marina Tsvetaeva’s diary of how she was robbed in the streets of Moscow by a young Red Army soldier. Today, I would like to give you one of her most famous poems:

Bound for Hell

Hell, my ardent sisters, be assured,
Is where we’re bound; we’ll drink the pitch of hell—
We, who have sung the praises of the lord
With every fiber in us, every cell.

We, who did not manage to devote
Our nights to spinning, did not bend and sway
Above a cradle—in a flimsy boat,
Wrapped in a mantle, we’re now borne away.

Every morning, every day, we’d rise
And have the finest Chinese silks to wear;
And we’d strike up the songs of paradise
Around the campfire of a robbers’ lair,

We, careless seamstresses (our seams all ran,
Whether we sewed or not)—yet we have been
Such dancers, we have played the pipes of Pan:
The world was ours, each one of us a queen.

First, scarcely draped in tatters, and disheveled,
Then plaited with a starry diadem;
We’ve been in jails, at banquets we have reveled:
But the rewards of heaven, we’re lost to them,

Lost in nights of starlight, in the garden
Where apple trees from paradise are found.
No, be assured, my gentle girls, my ardent
And lovely sisters, hell is where we’re bound.

I’m still not finished writing about this incredible poet. Look for another post about her within a few days.

Marina Tsvetayeva Is Robbed

2005 Painting of Marina Tsvetayeva by Aida Lisenkova-Hanemaayer

2005 Painting of Marina Tsvetayeva by Aida Lisenkova-Hanemaayer

I have just finished reading Marina Tsvetayeva’s Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002). Virtually unknown in the United States, Tsvetayeva was one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th Century. Here is one of her poems:

I Know the Truth (1915)

I know the truth – forget all other truths!
No need for anyone on earth to struggle.
Look – it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what will you say, poets, lovers, generals?

The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep beneath the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.

The above translation is by Elaine Feinstein.

In her Moscow diary, she recounts the experience of being robbed as she leaves a friend’s house late at night:

“Who goes there?”

A young guy about eighteen years old, in uniform, a jaunty forelock peeking out from under his cap. Light brown hair. Freckles.

“Any weapons?”

“What kind of weapons do women have?”

“What is that there?”

”Please, take a look.”

I take out of my purse and hand him, one after the other: my new, favorite cigarette case with lions (yellow, English: Dieu et mon droit), a coin purse, matches.

“And there’s also a comb, a key … If you have any doubts, we can go see the yardkeeper; I’ve lived here for four years.”

“Any documents?”

At this point, remembering the parting words of my cautious friends, I conscientiously and meaninglessly parry:

“And do you have any documents?”

“Right here!”

The steel of a revolver, white in the moonlight. (“So it’s white, and for some reason I always thought it was black.I saw it as black. A revolver—is death. Blackness.”)

At the same instant, the chain from my lorgnette flies over my head, strangling me and catching on my hat. Only then do I realize what’s going on.

“Put down that revolver and take it off with both hands, you’re strangling me.”

“Don’t scream.”

“You can hear how I’m speaking.”

He lowers it, and, no longer strangling me, swiftly and deftly removes the doubled chain. The action with the chain is the last one. I hear “Comrades!” behind my back as my other foot steps through the gate.

(I forgot to say that the whole time we were talking (a minute plus) there were people walking back and forth on the other side of the street.)

The soldier left me: all my rings, the lion brooch, the purse itself, both bracelets, my watch, book, comb, key.

He took: the coin purse with an invalid check for 1000 rubles, the new wonderful cigarette case (there you have it, droit without Dieu!), the chain and lorgnette, the cigarettes.

All in all, if not a fair price—a fraternal one.

The next day, Marina hears the young robber was killed by a church custodian:

They offered to let me go pick out my things. I refused with a shudder. How could I—one of the living (that is—happy, that is—wealthy), go and take from him, the dead, his last loot?! I quake at the very thought of it. One way or the other, I was his last (maybe next to the last!) joy, which he took to the grave with him. You don’t rob the dead.

I will have more to say about Tsvetaeva in a future post.