The Little White Chapel

This is my last posting until I return from Las Vegas, probably on Thursday. I will leave you with a poem by Brenda McGrath entitled “Little White Chapel”:

Little White Chapel

When my husband and I were in Las Vegas, I had a great suggestion,
To go to the Little White Chapel, and renew our vows in celebration.
I thought it would be such a lark we wouldn’t forget.
Having Elvis perform the ceremony would be the best thing yet!

However we never made it to the chapel, he refused.
To do such a silly thing did not leave him amused.
Maybe that was an indication of what was to come.
Divorce ensued, and sorrow beat its drum.

I want to go to the Little White Chapel with a new man.
We would have so much fun before our life began!
We could play a slot machine on our way out.
Then we would be man and wife with a payout!

An Islander Recalls Cythera

Antoine Watteau’s “The Embarkation for Cythera”

I am always enchanted by poems based on paintings that I love. And my favorite painting of the Eighteenth Century is Antoine Watteau’s “The Embarkation for Cythera,” a promise of love in the offing, but no delivery for certain. Cythera, or Kythira, is an island off the Peloponnese. The following poem was written by another islander, from Saint Lucia in the Caribbean, namely Derek Walcott. It is poem XX in the sequence of his collection Midsummer and called simply “Watteau”:

The amber spray of trees feather-brushed with the dusk,
the ruined cavity of some spectral château, the groin
of a leering satyr eaten with ivy. In the distance, the grain
of some unreapable, alchemical harvest, the hollow at
the heart of all embarkations. Nothing stays green
in that prodigious urging towards twilight;
in all of his journeys the pilgrims are in fever
from the tremulous strokes of malaria’s laureate.
So where is Cythera? It, too, is far and feverish,
it dilates on the horizon of his near-delirium, near
and then further, it can break like the spidery rigging
of his ribboned barquentines, it is as much nowhere
as these broad-leafed islands, it is the disease
of elephantine vegetation in Baudelaire,
the tropic bug in the Paris fog. For him, it is the mirror
of what it is. Paradise is life repeated spectrally,
an empty chair echoing the emptiness.

A Syrian or an Assyrian

The following poem by Derek Walcott is from his collection entitled Midsummer. Born on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, Walcott won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992 and passed away in 2017. The name of the poem is the Roman numeral LIII (not to be confused with Super Bowl LIII):

There was one Syrian, with his bicycle, in our town.
I didn’t know if he was a Syrian or an Assyrian.
When I asked him his race, about which Saroyan had written
that all that was left were seventy thousand Assyrians,
where were sixty-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine?
he didn’t answer, but smiled at the length of our street.
His pupils flashed like the hot spokes of a chariot,
or the silver wires of his secondhand machine.
I should have asked him about the patterns of birds
migrating in Aramaic, or the correct
pronunciation of wrinkled rivers like “Tagus.”
Assyria was far as the ancient world that was taught us,
but then, so was he, from his hot-skinned camels and tents.
I was young and direct and my tense
was the present; if I, in my ignorance,
had distorted time, it was less than some tyrant’s
indifference that altered his future.
He wore a white shirt. A black hat. His bicycle
had an iron basket in front. It moved through the mirage
of sugar-cane fields, crediting suits to the cutters.
Next, two more Syrians appeared. All three shared a store
behind which they slept. After that, there was
a sign with that name, so comical to us, of mythical
spade-bearded, anointed, and ringleted kings: ABDUL.
But to me there were still only seventy thousand
Assyrians, and all of them lived next door
in a hot dark room, muttering a language whose sound
had winged lions in it, and birds cut into a wall.

“Desert Places”

It’s difficult to imagine Robert Frost writing a poem which is albeit partially about the desert. Although he is most often associated with New England, Frost was actually born in San Francisco. The name of the poem is “Desert Places”:

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it—it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less—
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places. 

The Rape of Europa

Titian’s painting of “The Rape of Europa” tells of how Zeus turned himself into a bull, seduced the beautiful Europa, and impregnated her. Here is one version of the tale from Greeka.Com:

The name of Europa is mentioned in many contexts, most of which deal with the divine union between a young girl and Zeus. The most popular myth about Europa says that she was the daughter of Agenor, a Phoenician king, and later became a wife of Zeus, the King of Gods.

According to the legend, Europa was the epitome of feminine beauty on Earth. Zeus once saw her on the seashore of Phoenicia playing with her friends. He was so captivated by her beauty that he fell in love with her and developed a strong desire to possess her. Immediately, he took the form of a white bull and approached her. The bull looked wonderful with its snow-white body and gem-like horns. Europa looked at the extraordinary animal curiously and dared to touch and later hang him because he appeared so calm to her. Later, she was somehow motivated to climb on his back.

As soon as she did so, Zeus ran to the sea and carried her all the way from Phoenicia to the island of Crete. There he regained his human form and mated with her under an evergreen tree. This was the abduction of Europa, who later gave birth to three sons of Zeus, Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon. These men were known for their fairness and became the three judges of the Underworld, when they died. In fact, Minos founded the town of Knossos and gave his name to an entire civilization, the Minoan civilization.

Zeus loved Europa so much that he showered her with three priceless gifts. The first one was a bronze man, Talos, who served as a guard to her. He was the bronze giant that the Argonauts met and killed in their attempt to shore on Crete. The second was a dog, Laelaps, which could hunt anything she wanted. The last one was a javelin that had the power to hit the target, whatever it was. Europa was later married to one of the kings of Crete, Asterius, who adopted her sons and made her the first queen of Crete.

And here is the Roman poet Ovid’s telling of the legend from The Metamorphoses, as translated by Darrell Hine:

Majesty is incompatible truly with love; they cohabit
Nowhere together. The father and chief of the gods, whose right hand is   
Armed with the triple-forked lightning, who shakes the whole world with a nod, laid   
Dignity down with his sceptre, adopting the guise of a bull that   
Mixed with the cattle and lowed as he ambled around the fresh fields, a   
Beautiful animal, colored like snow that no footprint has trodden   
And which no watery south wind has melted. His muscular neck bulged,   
Dewlaps hung down from his chin; his curved horns you might think had been hand carved,   
Perfect, more purely translucent than pearl. His unthreatening brow and   
Far from formidable eyes made his face appear tranquil. Agenor's   
Daughter was truly amazed that this beautiful bull did not seem to   
Manifest any hostility. Though he was gentle she trembled at first to   
Touch him, but soon she approached him, adorning his muzzle with flowers.   
Then he rejoiced as a lover and, while he looked forward to hoped for   
Pleasures, he slobbered all over her hands, and could hardly postpone the   
Joys that remained. So he frolicked and bounded about on the green grass,   
Laying his snowy-white flanks on the yellowish sands. As her fear was
Little by little diminished, he offered his chest for her virgin   
Hand to caress and his horns to be decked with fresh flowers. The royal   
Maiden, not knowing on whom she was sitting, was even so bold as   
Also to climb on the back of the bull. As the god very slowly   
Inched from the shore and the dry land he planted his spurious footprints   
Deep in the shallows. Thus swimming out farther, he carried his prey off   
Into the midst of the sea. Almost fainting with terror she glanced back,   
As she was carried away, at the shore left behind. As she gripped one   
Horn in her right hand while clutching the back of the beast with the other,   
Meanwhile her fluttering draperies billowed behind on the sea breeze.

Ezra Pound’s “The Seafarer”

If he did nothing else during his life, Ezra Pound (1885-1972) gave us a magnificent translation of one of the great surviving Anglo-Saxon poems:

The Seafarer

May I for my own self song’s truth reckon,
Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care’s hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship’s head
While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
My feet were by frost benumbed.
Chill its chains are; chafing sighs
Hew my heart round and hunger begot
Mere-weary mood. Lest man know not
That he on dry land loveliest liveth,
List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea,
Weathered the winter, wretched outcast
Deprived of my kinsmen;
Hung with hard ice-flakes, where hail-scur flew,
There I heard naught save the harsh sea
And ice-cold wave, at whiles the swan cries,
Did for my games the gannet’s clamour,
Sea-fowls, loudness was for me laughter,
The mews’ singing all my mead-drink.
Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern
In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed
With spray on his pinion.
Not any protector
May make merry man faring needy.
This he little believes, who aye in winsome life
Abides ‘mid burghers some heavy business,
Wealthy and wine-flushed, how I weary oft
Must bide above brine.
Neareth nightshade, snoweth from north,
Frost froze the land, hail fell on earth then
Corn of the coldest. Nathless there knocketh now
The heart’s thought that I on high streams
The salt-wavy tumult traverse alone.
Moaneth alway my mind’s lust
That I fare forth, that I afar hence
Seek out a foreign fastness.
For this there’s no mood-lofty man over earth’s midst,
Not though he be given his good, but will have in his youth greed;
Nor his deed to the daring, nor his king to the faithful
But shall have his sorrow for sea-fare
Whatever his lord will.
He hath not heart for harping, nor in ring-having
Nor winsomeness to wife, nor world’s delight
Nor any whit else save the wave’s slash,
Yet longing comes upon him to fare forth on the water.
Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries,
Fields to fairness, land fares brisker,
All this admonisheth man eager of mood,
The heart turns to travel so that he then thinks
On flood-ways to be far departing.
Cuckoo calleth with gloomy crying,
He singeth summerward, bodeth sorrow,
The bitter heart’s blood. Burgher knows not —
He the prosperous man — what some perform
Where wandering them widest draweth.
So that but now my heart burst from my breast-lock,
My mood ‘mid the mere-flood,
Over the whale’s acre, would wander wide.
On earth’s shelter cometh oft to me,
Eager and ready, the crying lone-flyer,
Whets for the whale-path the heart irresistibly,
O’er tracks of ocean; seeing that anyhow
My lord deems to me this dead life
On loan and on land, I believe not
That any earth-weal eternal standeth
Save there be somewhat calamitous
That, ere a man’s tide go, turn it to twain.
Disease or oldness or sword-hate
Beats out the breath from doom-gripped body.
And for this, every earl whatever, for those speaking after —
Laud of the living, boasteth some last word,
That he will work ere he pass onward,
Frame on the fair earth ‘gainst foes his malice,
Daring ado, …
So that all men shall honour him after
And his laud beyond them remain ‘mid the English,
Aye, for ever, a lasting life’s-blast,
Delight mid the doughty.
Days little durable,
And all arrogance of earthen riches,
There come now no kings nor Cæsars
Nor gold-giving lords like those gone.
Howe’er in mirth most magnified,
Whoe’er lived in life most lordliest,
Drear all this excellence, delights undurable!
Waneth the watch, but the world holdeth.
Tomb hideth trouble. The blade is layed low.
Earthly glory ageth and seareth.
No man at all going the earth’s gait,
But age fares against him, his face paleth,
Grey-haired he groaneth, knows gone companions,
Lordly men are to earth o’ergiven,
Nor may he then the flesh-cover, whose life ceaseth,
Nor eat the sweet nor feel the sorry,
Nor stir hand nor think in mid heart,
And though he strew the grave with gold,
His born brothers, their buried bodies
Be an unlikely treasure hoard.

The Path to the Milky Way Leads Through Los Angeles

I am completely entranced by the poetry of Joy Harjo, a Muscogee Indian who is also Poet Laureate of the United States. I found the following poem in her collection A Map to the Next World. By the way, Okmulgee is the Oklahoma city that is the center of the Muscogee nation.

The Path to the Milky Way Leads Through Los Angeles

There are strangers above me, below me and all around me and we are all strange in this place of recent invention
This city named for angels appears naked and stripped of anything resembling the shaking of turtle shells, the songs of human voices on a summer night outside Okmulgee.
Yet, it’s perpetually summer here, and beautiful. The shimmer of gods is easier to perceive at sunrise or dusk
when those who remember us here in the illusion of the marketplace
turn toward the changing of the sun and say our names.
We matter to somebody,
We must matter to the strange god who imagines us as we revolve together in the dark sky on the path to the Milky Way,
We can’t easily see that starry road from the perspective of the crossing of boulevards, can’t hear it in the whine of civilization or taste the minerals of planets in hamburgers.
But we can buy a map here of the stars’ homes, dial a tone for dangerous love, choose from several brands of water or a hiss of oxygen for gentle rejuvenation.
Everyone knows you can’t buy love but you can still sell your soul for less than a song to a stranger who will sell it to someone else for a profit
until you’re owned by a company of strangers
in the city of the strange and getting stranger,
I’d rather understand how to sing from a crow
who was never good at singing or much of anything
but finding gold in the trash of humans.
So what are we doing here I ask the crow parading on the ledge of falling that hangs over this precarious city?
Crow just laughs and says wait, wait and see and I am waiting and not seeing anything, not just yet.
But like crow I collect the shine of anything beautiful I can find.

“Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit”

I have just finished reading Joy Harjo’s Crazy Brave: A Memoir, which made me hungry to read more of her poetry. Harjo is a Muscogee (Creek) Indian who also happens to be the Poet Laureate of the United States. Below is a short prose poem of hers:

Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit

Don’t bother the earth spirit who lives here. She is working on a story. It is the oldest story in the world and it is delicate, changing. If she sees you watching she will invite you in for coffee, give you warm bread, and you will be obligated to stay and listen. But this is no ordinary story. You will have to endure earthquakes, lightning, the deaths of all those you love, the most blinding beauty. It’s a story so compelling you may never want to leave; this is how she traps you. See that stone finger over there? That is the only one who ever escaped.

“Beyond the Far Cathayan Wall”

By no means is Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) considered as a mainstream American writer. Yet his poems and stories have a certain quality, reinforced by his association with H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E Howard. Of him, Lovecraft said, “in sheer daemonic strangeness and fertility of conception, Clark Ashton Smith is perhaps unexcelled.” And Ray Bradbury said that Smith “filled my mind with incredible worlds, impossibly beautiful cities, and still more fantastic creatures.”

Below is a poem of his entitled “Beyond the Great Wall”:

Beyond the Great Wall

Beyond the far Cathayan wall,
A thousand leagues athwart the sky,
The scarlet stars and mornings die,
The gilded moons and sunsets fall.

Across the sulphur-colored sands
With bales of silk the camels fare,
Harnessed with vermeil and with vair,
Into the blue and burning lands.

And ah, the song the drivers sing
To while the desert leagues away—
A song they sang in old Cathay
Ere youth had left the eldest king,

Ere love and beauty both grew old
And wonder and romance were flown
On irised wings to worlds unknown,
To stars of undiscovered gold.

And I their alien words would know,
And follow past the lonely wall
Where gilded moons and sunsets fall,
As in a song of long ago.

I think that Smith deserves a long second look, both for his poems and his eldritch short stories.

His Cardboard Heart

Puerto Rican poet Martin Espada has recently won the National Book Award for his collection of poems entitled Floaters, named after the famous photograph of a father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande swimming to supposed safety in Trump’s United States. One of the poems in that collection is the following prose poem:

Letter to My Father

You once said: My reward for this life will be a thousand pounds of dirt shoveled in my face. You were wrong. You are seven pounds of ashes in a box, a Puerto Rican flag wrapped around you, next to a red brick from the house in Utuado where you were born, all crammed together on my bookshelf. You taught me there is no God, no life after this life, so I know you are not watching me type this letter over my shoulder.

When I was a boy, you were God. I watched from the seventh floor of the projects as you walked down into the street to stop a public execution. A big man caught a small man stealing his car, and everyone in Brooklyn heard the car alarm wail of the condemned: He’s killing me. At a word from you, the executioner’s hand slipped from the hair of the thief. The kid was high, was all you said when you came back to us.

When I was a boy, and you were God, we flew to Puerto Rico. You said: My grandfather was the mayor of Utuado. His name was Buenaventura. That means good fortune. I believed in your grandfather’s name. I heard the tree frogs chanting to each other all night. I saw banana leaf and elephant palm sprouting from the mountain’s belly. I gnawed the mango’s pit, and the sweet yellow hair stuck between my teeth. I said to you: You came from another planet. How did you do it? You said: Every morning, just before I woke up, I saw the mountains.

Every morning, I see the mountains. In Utuado, three sisters, all in their seventies, all bedridden, all Pentecostales who only left the house for church, lay sleeping on mattresses spread across the floor
when the hurricane gutted the mountain the way a butcher slices open a dangled pig, and a rolling wall of mud buried them, leaving the fourth sister to stagger into the street, screaming like an unheeded prophet about the end of the world. In Utuado, a man who cultivated a garden of aguacate and carambola, feeding the avocado and star fruit to his nieces from New York, saw the trees in his garden beheaded all at once like the soldiers of a beaten army, and so hanged himself. In Utuado, a welder and a handyman rigged a pulley with a shopping cart to ferry rice and beans across the river where the bridge collapsed, witnessed the cart swaying above so many hands, then raised a sign that told the helicopters: Campamento los Olvidados: Camp of the Forgotten.

Los olvidados wait seven hours in line for a government meal of Skittles and Vienna sausage, or a tarp to cover the bones of a house with no roof, as the fungus grows on their skin from sleeping on mattresses drenched with the spit of the hurricane. They drink the brown water, waiting for microscopic monsters in their bellies to visit plagues upon them. A nurse says: These people are going to have an epidemic. These people are going to die. The president flips rolls of paper towels to a crowd at a church in Guaynabo, Zeus lobbing thunderbolts on the locked ward of his delusions. Down the block, cousin Ricardo, Bernice’s boy, says that somebody stole his can of diesel. I heard somebody ask you once what Puerto Rico needed to be free. And you said: Tres pulgadas de sangre en la calle: Three inches of blood in the street. Now, three inches of mud flow through the streets of Utuado, and troops patrol the town, as if guarding the vein of copper in the ground, as if a shovel digging graves in the backyard might strike the ore below, as if la brigada swinging machetes to clear the road might remember the last uprising.

I know you are not God. I have the proof: seven pounds of ashes in a box on my bookshelf. Gods do not die, and yet I want you to be God again. Stride from the crowd to seize the president’s arm before another roll of paper towels sails away. Thunder Spanish obscenities in his face. Banish him to a roofless rainstorm in Utuado, so he unravels, one soaked sheet after another, till there is nothing left but his cardboard heart.

I promised myself I would stop talking to you, white box of gray grit. You were deaf even before you died. Hear my promise now: I will take you to the mountains, where houses lost like ships at sea rise blue and yellow from the mud. I will open my hands. I will scatter your ashes in Utuado.