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.

Outstanding, Good, So-So, Stinko

Martha Gellhorn

I have completed my Januarius Project for January 2022. Just to remind you, I typically reserve an entire month at or near the beginning of the year to introduce myself to authors whose work I have not hitherto read. Below is the summary, beginning with the best books and ending with the one stinko book.

Outstanding

  • Martha Gellhorn, Travels with Myself and Another. She might be Ernest Hemingway’s ex-wife, and she may well be as good if not better than her former hubby.
  • M F K Fischer, Two Towns in Provence. Consists of two parts, a great book on Aix-en-Provence, and a merely very very good book on Marseilles.
  • Saint Augustine, Confessions. I’d put this one off for decades, but it is really great, especially the chapter about time.
  • Kenzaburo Oe, A Personal Matter. A Nobel Prizewinner I will have to read more of.
  • Ben Loory, Stories for the Nighttime and Some for the Day. A great original short story collection of fantasy and horror.
  • Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Fearful Void. A solo journey across the width of the Sahara that didn’t pan out, though this book about it certainly did.
  • Derek Walcott, Midsummer. A Nobel Prizewinning poet from the Caribbean. Super stuff.

Good

  • Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography. What the Marquis and Pornhub have in common.
  • Nic Pizzolatto, Galveston. A promising neo-noir author.
  • Edward Whittemore, Quin’s Shanghai Circus. Wild, exotic, and interesting.
  • Eric Jager, The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat. The 2021 Ridley Scott movie was based on this medieval thriller.
  • Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: Origins of the Avante-Garde in France 1885 to World War I. How four French artists (a painter, a composer, a poet, and a playwright) influenced modern art.

So-So

  • Pete Beatty, Cuyahoga. A weird fantasy on the early history of Cleveland, the city of my birth.
  • Meghan Abbott, Die a Little. Vaguely promising, but typical of a New Yorker who knows very little about L.A.
  • Peter Theroux, Translating LA: A Tour of the Rainbow City. Better than most, but nearly so good as his brother Paul’s work.

Stinko

  • William Beckford, Vathek. This 1786 oriental fantasy is still studied in college. Why?

All in all, this year’s Januarius project was a rousing success. Twelve out of the sixteen authors I read for the first time are worth following up on in the months and years to come.

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.