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.

John Donne’s Last Poem

John Donne (1572-1631)

The last poem by John Donne, written while he was dying, is one I have read and analyzed many times since I first encountered in college. It’s rather somber, but also magnificent. I have included notes at the end.

Hymn to God My God, in My Sickness

Since I am coming to that holy room
Where with thy choir of saints for evermore
I shall be made thy music, as I come,
I tune the instrument here at the door,
And what I must do then, think here before.

Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
That this is my southwest discovery [1]
Per fretum febris [2], by these straits to die [3].

I joy that in these straits [4] I see my west [5];
For though their currents yield return to none,
What shall my west hurt me? As west and east
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the resurrectión.

Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are
The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?
Anian [6] and Magellan and Gibraltar,
All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them,
Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham or Shem [7].

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ’s cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place.
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam’s sweat [8] surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.

So in his purple wrapped, receive me, Lord,
By these his thorns give me his other crown;
And as to others’ souls I preached thy word [9],
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:
Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.

[1] The southwest discovery is the passage to the Pacific through the Straits of Magellan.
[2] Literally, “through the straits of fever.”
[3] After passing through the straits named after him, Ferdinand Magellan died in the Philippines.
[4] Note how Donne uses the word not only in its literal geographic sense, but also meaning a difficult passage.
[5] West is the direction of the sunset and south the direction of fever.
[6] The Bering Strait.
[7] The sons of Noah, referring to Europe, Africa, and Asia respectively.
[8] Part of his punishment for his disobedience.
[9] Donne was Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

“Yet To Die Unalone Still”

Russian Poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938)

He got it right when he said, “Only in Russia is poetry respected—it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?” In fact, Osip Mandelstam was killed for his poetry, mostly for having written some highly uncomplimentary things about Stalin, things like:

His thick fingers are bulky and fat like live-baits,
And his accurate words are as heavy as weights.
Cucaracha’s moustaches are screaming,
And his boot-tops are shining and gleaming.

Although Stalin wanted to send him to the Gulags considerably earlier, Mandelstam spent much of the 1930s in a Siberian labor camp, finally dying in 1938 of a heart condition.

He is without a doubt one of the three or four leading Russian poets of his generation, as this short poem proves:

Yet to Die. Unalone Still.

Yet to die. Unalone still.
For now your pauper-friend is with you.
Together you delight in the grandeur of the plains,
And the dark, the cold, the storms of snow.

Live quiet and consoled
In gaudy poverty, in powerful destitution.
Blessed are those days and nights.
The work of this sweet voice is without sin.

Misery is he whom, like a shadow,
A dog’s barking frightens, the wind cuts down.
Poor is he who, half-alive himself
Begs his shade for pittance.

The translation is by John High and Matvei Yankelevich. I got it from the Poetry Foundation’s website.

 

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.