Sunday, April 30, 2006

Bottom's Dream

William Shakespeare


[Awaking] When my cue comes, call me, and I will
answer: my next is, 'Most fair Pyramus.' Heigh-ho!
Peter Quince! Flute, the bellows-mender! Snout,
the tinker! Starveling! God's my life, stolen
hence, and left me asleep! I have had a most rare
vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to
say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go
about to expound this dream. Methought I was--there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was,--and
methought I had,--but man is but a patched fool, if
he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye
of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not
seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue
to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream
was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of
this dream: it shall be called Bottom's Dream,
because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the
latter end of a play, before the duke:
peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall
sing it at her death.

- Midsummer Night's Dream Act IV Scene 1

A personal favourite.

Which of us has not experienced this? Which of us has not had a vision or an idea fill our heads with wonder, and then fade into the ordinary when we have tried to describe it? Every authentic act of prose or poetry is an attempt to overcome precisely this tongue-tiedness, to reach past the heaviness of language to the transcendent imagination, to the splendour of our dreams.

There's something very touching about this speech. It is a speech that captures perfectly that sense of transitory wakefulness, that moment when you are both wide awake and still dreaming, that instant before you fade back into the everyday. It is a speech that manages to be both deliciously funny and gently sympathetic, that combines the tender with the ridiculous in a way that is the essence of good comedy.

But most of all, it is, somehow, a very vulnerable speech. There are many, many instances in Shakespeare where he writes of dreams and visions with great skill. Here he resists that temptation, and chooses, instead to be simpler, more artless, even foolish. And it is precisely this vulnerability, this helplessness in the face of great beauty, that makes Bottom's Dream ring so true.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Macbeth Act IV Scene 1

William Shakespeare

Listen (Part 1)

Listen (Part 2)

First Witch
Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd.

Second Witch
Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.

Third Witch
Harpier cries 'Tis time, 'tis time.

First Witch
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and owlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Third Witch
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches' mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver'd in the moon's eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar's lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver'd by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger's chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch
Cool it with a baboon's blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.


O well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i' the gains;
And now about the cauldron sing,
Live elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.

HECATE retires

Second Witch
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Open, locks,
Whoever knocks!


How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!
What is't you do?

A deed without a name.

I conjure you, by that which you profess,
Howe'er you come to know it, answer me:
Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down;
Though castles topple on their warders' heads;
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
Of nature's germens tumble all together,
Even till destruction sicken; answer me
To what I ask you.

If every new endeavour should have an auspicious beginning, what better way to start off a series of Shakespeare posts than with this powerful and incantatory scene? It's always good to keep the forces of darkness appeased, after all.

Over the next week or so, Poi-tre will be featuring excerpts from the Bard's plays (think of it as our own personal Highlights from Hamlet!). I apologise in advance for the ineptitude of some of the recordings (trust me, this stuff sounded SO much better in my head), but hopefully nothing can entirely blight the genius of Shakespeare's work.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Bivouacked and Garrisoned Capitol

Dean Young


Be assured.
April snow vanishes
like footprints of the immaculate
crushing the daffodils.
Be assured.
The advisors come out arm in arm
to declare their resolve into the flashbulbs,
the x-rays are put up on the screen,
the boxes are tied down in the back of the truck.
Because of the ash from the fires last year,
good zinfandels in the valley. Be assured.
The strategy of the moon is to match
its period of rotation to revolution
and thus preserve its dark side
which is strategy of many beautiful
and terrible things. The dream
confabulates, triangulates
our fears and desires until
the flood comes loose
in the baby-crying room, your fault
your fault, key to the lighthouse lost,
ten-foot gap. How can love survive?
Stifled laughter of waiters,
clutter of cloud, vast something
in the vaster nothing.
It is the strategy of life to provide
waking until death which generally
it hides until the last when interposes
a fly. Be assured, a brush is always poised
with its dab of scarlet. A pulse
at the fontanel, a fumarole, a veronica.
Agate, coral, grenadine,
alleys leading to the sea, a letter
read in a grove of apricot trees,
the woman nearly falls to her knees.
A man sews a button onto a shirt,
the sky kicks over its bucket of stars.
Be assured,
the crows are never out of focus,
the ice breaks into pills the river swallows.

One last Dean Young to end the contemporary poetry series with. This one is somewhat less accomplished, somewhat more uneven (much of his work is) but it still contains some beautiful lines.

Oh, in case you're wondering Zinfandel is a Californian grape from which wine is made (I did not know that)

Starting tomorrow: Shakespeare.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Bathed in Dust and Ash

Dean Young


Maybe Heraclitus was right, maybe
everything is fire. The lovers,
exhausted, unknot like slick ribbons,
the sirens fade to silver ash. Knock
at the door, no one there, voices

coming through the floor, spring
all morning, winter by afternoon,
dense rhymes of foliate argument,
laughter from passing cars. Fire
swallowed and regurgitated from which

all life comes, bees returning
to their hives to dance, hawks feeding
their gaping chicks, variables
in alternate currents you almost
lived, if you had married him,

if you had stayed, a future begun
as marks on a nearly transparent page.
So the shadows vanish and return
carrying their young in their jaws,
and the man who still thinks he's a man

and not a column of smoke, sits
in his idling car, and the woman
who still thinks she's a woman and not
climbing a staircase in flames,
bites her lips before she speaks.

The poet I think should have won the Pulitzer this year was Dean Young. I first came across Young's poetry three months ago, when a poem of his called 'Static City' showed up on the back cover of the American Poetry Review. The only other thing by him I've read is the collection that was shortlisted for the Pulitzer - elegy on toy piano - and it's a truly delightful book. Young is the true heir of Corso, a sort of erudite beat poet, Bukowski with a PhD. His poems are whimsical and intense and witty and irreverent and endlessly experimental and laced every now and then with some searing image or heartbreaking line, like the biting taste of neat vodka in a strawberry daiquiri. The poems I've picked to post here (there's another one coming up tomorrow) are the more serious ones (I don't trust myself to do justice to the humour in his more playful work) but this is a collection of poems you want to get your hands on.

I really like this poem because of the way it develops that first opening statement, the skill with which that first paragraph is pulled off, the thrill of lines like "the shadows vanish and return / carrying their young in their jaws" and that lovely final stanza, that brings us so neatly back to the central conceit of the poem, and creates so indelible an image in my head.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Hazard Response

Tom Clark


As in that grey exurban wasteland in Gatsby
When the white sky darkens over the city
Of ashes, far from the once happy valley,
This daze spreads across the blank faces
Of the inhabitants, suddenly deprived
Of the kingdom’s original promised gift.
Did I say kingdom when I meant place
Of worship? Original when I meant
Damaged in handling? Promised when
I meant stolen? Gift when I meant
Trick? Inhabitants when I meant slaves?
Slaves when I meant clowns
Who have wandered into test sites? Test
Sites when I meant contagious hospitals?
Contagious hospitals when I meant clouds
Of laughing gas? Laughing gas
When I meant tears? No, it’s true,
No one should be writing poetry
In times like these, Dear Reader,
I don’t have to tell you of all people why.
It’s as apparent as an attempted
Punch in the eye that actually
Catches only empty air—which is
The inside of your head, where
The green ritual sanction
Of the poem has been cancelled.

from Light and Shade: New and Selected Poems, © 2006 by Tom Clark

I like the call and response style the poem uses right after it sets up the contrasting opening lines, "grey exurban wasteland" and "once happy valley". The poem goes well with the title of this book - Light and Shade (which in turn evokes Keats).

Here is a bit from a conversation featured in the Jacket's April '06 issue, where Clark talks about this poem,

"I had that passage[from The Great Gatsby] in mind when I started the poem: ....

With “happy valley,” I was thinking, perhaps, of the America of Johnny Appleseed, in the Disney version, bright and abundant fields and orchards, that cartoon dream of an American past supplanting the endarkened vision of the present and future which Fitzgerald saw, or vice versa, ...
The poem was written in that interesting early Fall of 2001, just after 9/ 11 and during the subsequent anthrax terror scare. One gaped with wonder at one’s TV while white-lipped network newscasters grimly presented footage of Hazmat teams in yellow plastic suits swarming pointlessly around outside suspected toxic terror sites...

Meanwhile crowds of evacuated workplace normals could be seen apprehensively looking on, too sheepish to acknowledge the real terrorists might be those they’d chosen to govern them. That image of the doubled wastelands, the wasteland in Gatsby, the wasteland in the suburban office building parking lot was indeed, as you’ve said, the switch that opened the floodgates of the “call and response” structure that holds the poem together, even as it tries to fall apart."

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Landscape

Robert Desnos


I dreamt of loving. The dream remains, but love
is no longer those lilacs and roses whose breath
filled the broad woods, where the sail of a flame
lay at the end of each arrow-straight path.

I dreamt of loving. The dream remains, but love
is no longer that storm whose white nerve sparked
the castle towers, or left the mind unrhymed,
or flared an instant, just where the road forked.

It is the star struck under my heel in the night.
It is the word no book on earth defines.
It is the foam on the wave, the cloud in the sky.

As they age, all things grow rigid and bright.
The streets fall nameless, and the knots untie.
Now, with this landscape, I fix; I shine.

(Translated from the French by Don Paterson)

Given that it's been over 60 years since Desnos died, this poem doesn't strictly qualify as contemporary poetry, but I include it here because it appeared in this week's issue of Poetry (which I've blogged about here) and because, well, I like it.

Paterson, writing about the poem in his translator's note, describes it as "one of those poems so deeply folded in its own music, it almost defines the 'problem of translation'". I can't speak to the quality of the translation here, not having read, or being capable of reading the poem in its original [1], but I think that music is very much in evidence here. Each individual line of this poem, when you sit down to dissect it, is not particularly impressive, and if the overall effect is powerful, it can only be because of the graceful rhythm of the whole. And isn't that true of landscapes themselves? That breath-taking as they may seem in perspective, closer scrutiny will show them to be merely picturesque. And empty.

[1] Paterson himself is careful to make the point that this is a 'version' not a translation. He writes:

"By definition, pursuing a lyric aesthetic in translation makes it an act of versioning, no translation proper. Because you know the original surface-sense will suffer as a result, your allegiance switches from the original words to your subjective interpretation of them, i.e. to that wholly personal mandala of idea and image and spirit that floats free of the poem, and functions in a kind of intercessory capacity in it reincarnation. A translation is different. It tries to remain true to those original words and their relations, and its primary aim is usually one of stylistic elegance (meaning essentially the smooth elimination of syntactic and idiomatic artifacts from the original tongue, a far more subtle project than it sounds) - in which lyric unity is only one of several competing considerations."

Worth remembering for the next time we have the discussion about translations of Faiz on this blog.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Affair of Kites

Robin Robertson


I sit, astonished by the pink kite:

its scoop and plunge, the briefness of it;
an escaped blouse, a pocket of silk
thumping like a heart
tight above the shimmering hill.
The sheer snap and plummet
sculpting the air's curve, the sky's chambers.
An affair with the wind's body;
a feeling for steps in the rising air, a love
sustained only by the high currents
and the hopeless gesture of the heart's hand.

The kitemaster has gone, invisible
over the hard horizon;
wind walks the grass between us.
I see the falling,
days later feel the crash.

Over the last six months, Robin Robertson has moved pretty high up on my list of contemporary poets to watch. First alerted to his poetry by poems that appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, I've since read both of his collections, A Painted Field and Slow Air (I liked Painted Field much better) and am looking forward to his third book, Swithering, which came out this month.

At his best, Robertson combines the lyrical accuracy of Heaney, with a violence that reminds me of Lowell, and a bloodthirsty-ness that does credit to his Scottish ancestors. He is a fine, fascinating poet, who this poem, picked to show off his more whimsical side, does not do full justice to (though it's a lovely poem for all that). Read him.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Pitching Horseshoes

Claudia Emerson


Some of your buddies might come around
for a couple of beers and a game,
but most evenings, you pitched horseshoes

alone. I washed up the dishes
or watered the garden to the thudding
sound of the horseshoe in the pit,

or the practiced ring of metal
against metal, after the silent
arc - end over end. That last

summer, you played a seamless, unscored
game against yourself. Or night
falling. Or coming in the house.

You were good at it. From the porch
I watched you become shadowless,
then featureless, until I knew

you couldn't see either, and still
the dusk rang out, your aim that easy;
between the iron stakes you had driven

into the hard earth yourself, you paced
back and forth as if there were a decision
to make, and you were the one to make it.

Taken from Late Wife, a collection of poems for which Emerson won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry this year (see my review of the book here).

This is one of my favourite poems from the first part of the book. I like the unusual, lonely image of a man pitching horseshoes late into the night, the clanging and metallic flavour of it, the way Emerson makes it so vivid, so easy to picture. And I love the way this seemingly innocent hobby becomes a metaphor for so much more, for a sort of stubborn isolation, for the struggles of a man thinking things through over and over, trying to get it exactly right.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Macavity: The Mystery Cat

T. S. Eliot

Listen (to the Mystery Cat read)

Macavity's a Mystery Cat: he's called the Hidden Paw -
For he's the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He's the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad's despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime - Macavity's not there!

Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,
He's broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime - Macavity's not there!
You may seek him in the basement, you may look up in the air -
But I tell you once and once again, Macavity's not there!

Mcavity's a ginger cat, he's very tall and thin;
You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in.
His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly domed;
His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.
He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake;
And when you think he's half asleep, he's always wide awake.

Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,
For he's a fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity.
You may meet him in a by-street, you may see him in the square -
But when a crime's discovered, then Macavity's not there!

He's outwardly respectable. (They say he cheats at cards.)
And his footprints are not found in any file of Scotland Yard's.
And when the larder's looted, or the jewel-case is rifled,
Or when the milk is missing, or another Peke's been stifled,
Or the greenhouse glass is broken, and the trellis past repair -
Ay, there's the wonder of the thing! Macavity's not there!

And when the Foreign Office find a Treaty's gone astray,
Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scrap of paper in the hall or on the stair -
But it's useless to investigate - Mcavity's not there!
And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say:
`It must have been Macavity!' - but he's a mile away.
You'll be sure to find him resting, or a-licking of his thumbs,
Or engaged in doing complicated long-division sums.

Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,
There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.
He always has an alibi, and one or two to spare:
At whatever time the deed took place - MACAVITY WASN'T THERE!
And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known
(I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)
Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time
Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!

Finally we have Macavity, where Macavity wasn't there! A guest recording by Mystery Cat.

Eliot and the Old Possum need no introduction. Neither does Macavity. And while you are at it something on Prof. Moriarty too.

note: The series on 'new' poetry will continue. Consider this just a defiance of Law, a deceitful and suave move by the Napoleon of Crime :)

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Suicide of a Moderate Dictator

Elizabeth Bishop


for Carlos Lacerda

This is a day when truths will out, perhaps;
leak from the dangling telephone ear-phones
sapping the festooned switchboard's strength;
fall from the windows, blow from off the sills,
- the vague, slight unremarkable contents
of emptying ash-trays; rub off on our fingers
like ink from the un-proof-read newspapers,
crocking the way the unfocused photographs
of crooked faces do that soil our coats,
our tropical-weight coats, like slapped-at moths.

Today's a day when those who work
are idling. Those who played must work
and hurry, too, to get it done,
with little dignity or none.
The newspapers are sold; the kiosk shutters
crash down. But anyway, in the night
the headlines wrote themselves, see, on the streets
and sidewalks everywhere; a sediment's splashed
even to the first floors of apartment houses.

This is a day that's beautiful as well,
and warm and clear. At seven o'clock I saw
the dogs being walked along the famous beach
as usual, in a shiny gray-green dawn,
leaving their paw prints draining in the wet.
The line of breakers was steady and the pinkish,
segmented rainbow steadily hung above it.
At eight two little boys were flying kites.

I've blogged extensively about the new collection of Bishop's fragments and unpublished pieces elsewhere, so I'll spare you the larger discussion. This particular poem is one of the most polished of the collection though, and showcases admirably Bishop's gift for both atmosphere and surprise. Some of the phrases that Bishop throws in so casually are simply stunning ('tropical-weight coats, like slapped-at moths) and the sense of expected panic, of the fake calm of a day when a storm is expected comes across perfectly. "in the night / the headlines wrote themselves, see, on the streets / and sidewalks everywhere", Bishop writes, and you can just picture the town teetering on the edge of nervous anticipation. Even the normalcy of the last stanza, the obliviousness of the truly innocent (I'm reminded of Auden's Musee de Beaux Arts, that line about 'how everything turns quite leisurely away from the disaster'), only heightens the sense of submerged tension in the poem.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


Louise Gluck


Part 5

Part 6


It is true there is not enough beauty in the world.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.

I am
at work, though I am silent.

The bland

misery of the world
bounds us on either side, an alley

lined with trees; we are

companions here, not speaking
each with his own thoughts;

behind the trees, iron
gates of the private houses,
the shuttered rooms

somehow deserted, abandoned,

as though it were the artist's
duty to create
hope, but out of what? what?

the word itself
false, a device to refute
perception - At the intersection,

ornamental lights of the season.

I was young here. Riding
the subway with my small book
as though to defend myself against

this same world.

you are not alone,
the poem said,
in the dark tunnel.


The brightness of the day becomes
the brightness of the night;
the fire becomes the mirror.

My friend the earth is bitter; I think
sunlight has failed her.
Bitter or weary, it is hard to say.

Between herself and the sun,
something has ended.
She wants, now, to be left alone;
I think we must give up
turning to her for affirmation.

Above the fields,
above the roofs of the village houses,
the brilliance that made all life possible
becomes the cold stars.

Lie still and watch:
they give nothing but ask nothing.

From within the earth's
bitter disgrace, coldness and barrenness

my friend the moon rises:
she is beautiful tonight, but when is she not beautiful?

The more I read Gluck, the more I find myself admiring her work. Today's selection comes from her book - Averno [1] - which is a lovely collection of graceful, meditative poems about aging and mortality and grief. A handful of poems here ('Prism', 'Fugue') are a too fragmented, too insistently clever for my taste, but the rest are all consistently stunning.

I picked the last two sections of the long poem October both because they embody everything I like about Gluck's style, and also because they provide an excellent illustration of the way Gluck balances, in Averno, a sense of overwhelming despair with the kind of sad hope that comes only from acceptance. Hope is not a currency that poetry can presume to trade in, Gluck seems to say, but when you find yourself in the dark tunnel, what can the poem find to say to you, except that you are not alone? (that line, btw, is in italics in the original)

P.S. My plan for the rest of the week, just by the way, is to try and focus on 'new' poetry - poems from recent collections / magazines as well as by more contemporary poets.

[1] From the front pages of the book: "Averno. Ancient name Avernus. A small crater lake, ten miles west of Naples, Italy; regarded by the ancient Romans as the entrance to the underworld"

The Rose of the World

W.B. Yeats


Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream?
For these red lips, with all their mournful pride,
Mournful that no new wonder may betide,
Troy passed away in one high funeral gleam,
And Usna's children died.

We and the labouring world are passing by:
Amid men's souls, that waver and give place
Like the pale waters in their wintry race,
Under the passing stars, foam of the sky,
Lives on this lonely face.

Bow down, archangels, in your dim abode:
Before you were, or any hearts to beat,
Weary and kind one lingered by His seat;
He made the world to be a grassy road
Before her wandering feet.

Quite simply one of my favourite Yeats poems ever.

See commentary on Minstrels

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Tell me the truth about Love

W. H. Auden


Some say love's a little boy,
And some say it's a bird,
Some say it makes the world go around,
Some say that's absurd,
And when I asked the man next-door,
Who looked as if he knew,
His wife got very cross indeed,
And said it wouldn't do.

Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,
Or the ham in a temperance hotel?
Does its odour remind one of llamas,
Or has it a comforting smell?
Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,
Or soft as eiderdown fluff?
Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?
O tell me the truth about love.

Our history books refer to it
In cryptic little notes,
It's quite a common topic on
The Transatlantic boats;
I've found the subject mentioned in
Accounts of suicides,
And even seen it scribbled on
The backs of railway guides.

Does it howl like a hungry Alsatian,
Or boom like a military band?
Could one give a first-rate imitation
On a saw or a Steinway Grand?
Is its singing at parties a riot?
Does it only like Classical stuff?
Will it stop when one wants to be quiet?
O tell me the truth about love.

I looked inside the summer-house;
It wasn't over there;
I tried the Thames at Maidenhead,
And Brighton's bracing air.
I don't know what the blackbird sang,
Or what the tulip said;
But it wasn't in the chicken-run,
Or underneath the bed.

Can it pull extraordinary faces?
Is it usually sick on a swing?
Does it spend all its time at the races,
or fiddling with pieces of string?
Has it views of its own about money?
Does it think Patriotism enough?
Are its stories vulgar but funny?
O tell me the truth about love.

When it comes, will it come without warning
Just as I'm picking my nose?
Will it knock on my door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my toes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.

There's just no one quite like Auden, is there? This is such a delightful poem - with its laugh out loud wit and its infectious rhythm. What I love about it is the way Auden manages to strike the balance between the ridiculous and the clever. There are lines in here that are just downright silly (all that rhyming of pyjamas with llamas for instance) but in between them Auden manages to slip in the one line that lifts the whole thing above mere doggerel. Of all the questions it is possible to ask about the nature of love, I can think of none more pertinent than: "Will it stop when one wants to be quiet?". Ah, if only.

P.S. My copy of the Collected Shorter Poems has this poem listed as number XII in the collection Twelve Songs (yes, the same one that includes the 'stop all the clocks' poem) and provides no other title. I've followed other sites on the Internet though and called it Tell me Truth about Love

Thursday, April 13, 2006

In Despair

C P Cavafy


He has lost him completely. And now he is seeking
in the lips of every new lover
the lips of his beloved; in the embrace
of every new lover he seeks to be deluded
that he is the same lad, that it is to him he is yielding.

He has lost him completely, as if he had never been at all.
For he wanted - so he said - ­ he wanted to be saved
from the stigmatised, the sick sensual delight;
from the stigmatised, sensual delight of shame.
There was still time - as he said - to be saved.

He has lost him completely, as if he had never been at all.
In his imagination, in his delusions,
on the lips of others it is his lips he is seeking;
he is longing to feel again the love he has known.

(English translation by Rae Dalven)

A follow-up of sorts to the Rilke poem. This is the flip side of the lover's absence - not the lover you can't find, by the lover you can't forget, the endless search for a present experience that will live up to the remembered bliss of the past.

Cavafy, of course, should require no introduction. He is a master of lyrical simplicty, his poems understated masterpieces, statements of plain fact or ordinary emotion that take on, in his writing, in the aching aura of his voice, the incantatory quality of truth.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Going Home

Wislawa Szymborska

Listen (to Black Mamba read)

He came home. Said nothing.
It was clear, though, that something had gone wrong.
He lay down fully dressed.
Pulled the blanket over his head.
Tucked up his knees.
He's nearly forty, but not at the moment.
He exists just as he did inside his mother's womb,
clad in seven walls of skin, in sheltered darkness.
Tomorrow he'll give a lecture
on homeostasis in metagalactic cosmonautics.
For now, though, he has curled up and gone to sleep.

Retreating back to your mother's womb - life can make you crave that space, at times. All the things you have done and achieved just can't buy you, what you are dying for. There is just not enough homeostasis in the metagalaxy to comfort you. But then you wake up, walk the walk, talk the talk and the you everyone knows - is just fine.

note: Oh, Szymborska! again? you ask. :) Long answer : We like, we post :)

Monday, April 10, 2006

Cassandra, Iraq

C K Williams



She's magnificent, as we imagine women must be
who foresee and foretell and are right and disdained.

This is the difference between we who are like her
in having been right and disdained, and we as we are.

Because we, in our foreseeings, our having been right,
are repulsive to ourselves, fat and immobile, like toads.

Not toads in the garden, who after all are what they are,
but toads in the tale of death in the desert of sludge.


In this tale of lies, of treachery, of superfluous dead,
were there ever so many who were right and disdained?

With no notion of what to do next? If we were true seers,
as prescient as she, as frenzied, we'd know what to do next.

We'd twitter, as she did, like birds; we'd warble, we'd trill.
But what would it be really, to twitter, to warble, to trill?

Is it ee-ee-ee, like having a child? Is it uh-uh-uh, like a wound?
Or is it inside, like a blow, silent to everyone but yourself?


Yes, inside, I remember, oh-oh-oh: it's where grief
is just about to be spoken, but all at once can't be: oh.

When you no longer can "think" of what things like lies,
like superfluous dead, so many, might mean: oh.

Cassandra will be abducted at the end of her tale, and die.
Even she can't predict how. Stabbed? Shot? Blown to bits?

Her abductor dies, too, though, in a gush of gore, in a net.
That we know; she foresaw that - in a gush of gore, in a net.

(From the April 3, 2006 issue of the New Yorker)

To be right is not always to win. There are times when everyone loses, times when you almost wish you had got it wrong. For those of us who believed that the US should not have invaded Iraq, there is little satisfaction in knowing that time has proved us right. Rather there is only the frustration, and a terrible sense of loss for so many lives needlessly wasted.

Williams' poem captures that sense of bitter vindication perfectly, invoking Cassandra (a connection that seemed so obvious after I read it that I still can't believe I didn't think about it before) and delivering some truly superb lines along the way. I didn't think much of the second part of the poem, but I loved the opening, loved the "it's where grief / is just about to be spoken, but all of a sudden can't be" line, and loved the way the poem ends, the repetition of that final phrase combining menace with a sense of trapped helplessness.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Baazi hai ab ke jaan se badhkar lagi hui

Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Listen (to Falstaff read)

Sunne ko bheed hai sar-e-mahshar lagi hui
Tohmat tumhare ishq ki hum par lagi hui

Rindon ke dam se aatish-e-may ke bagair bhi
Hai maykade mein aag barabar lagi hui

Aabad karke shahar-e-khamoshan harek soo
Kis khoj mein hai teg-e-sitamgar lagi hui

Jeete the yon to pahle bhi hum jaan pe khelkar
Baazi hai ab ke jaan se badhkar lagi hui

"Lao to katlnama mera, mein bhi dekh loon
Kis kis hi muhar hai sar-e-mahzar lagi hui

Aakhir ko aaj apne lahoo par hui tamaam
Baazi miyan-e-kaatil-o-khanjar lagi hui.

That bet has now been placed on me
Translation by Agha Shahid Ali

The Day of Judgement is here.
A restless crowd has gathered all around the field.
This is the accusation: that I have loved you.

No wine is left in the taverns of this earth.
But those who swear by rapture,
this is their vigil:

they've made sure,
simply with a witnessing thirst,
that intoxication is not put out today.

In whose search is the swordsman now?
His blade red, he's just come from the City of Silence,
its people exiled or finished to the last.

The suspense that lasts between killers and weapons
as they gamble: who will die and whose turn is next?
That bet has now been placed on me.

So bring the order for my execution.
I must see with whose seals the margins are stamped,
recognize the signatures on the scrolls.

More than my life is at stake
Translation by Falstaff

The day of judgement has arrived.
A crowd has gathered to hear them proclaim:
I am accused of having loved you.

There is no wine left now;
But the thirst of the drunkards
Has kept the taverns burning.

Who is the tyrant's sword searching for?
Now that it has filled every graveyard,
Populated every silence?

I have lived this way before, it is true,
Playing games with death;
But this time more than my life is at stake.

So bring the order for my execution
Let me see who accuses me
Who signs his name to my death.

In the end,
This is all my life turns out to be:
A gamble between a killer and his sword
With my blood as the prize.

More Faiz on pō'ĭ-trē ,

[1] Raat Yun Dil Mein Teri
[2] Paon se Lahoo Ko Dho Dalo
[3] Aur Bhi Gham Hain Zamaane Mein
[4] Jinhe Zurm-e-ishq Pe Naaz Tha

Thursday, April 06, 2006


Edgar Allan Poe


In Heaven a spirit doth dwell
"Whose heart-strings are a lute";
None sing so wildly well
As the angel Israfel,
And the giddy stars (so legends tell),
Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell
Of his voice, all mute.

Tottering above
In her highest noon,
The enamored moon
Blushes with love,
While, to listen, the red levin
(With the rapid Pleiads, even,
Which were seven,)
Pauses in Heaven.

And they say (the starry choir
And the other listening things)
That Israfeli's fire
Is owing to that lyre
By which he sits and sings-
The trembling living wire
Of those unusual strings.

But the skies that angel trod,
Where deep thoughts are a duty-
Where Love's a grown-up God-
Where the Houri glances are
Imbued with all the beauty
Which we worship in a star.

Therefore thou art not wrong,
Israfeli, who despisest
An unimpassioned song;
To thee the laurels belong,
Best bard, because the wisest!
Merrily live, and long!

The ecstasies above
With thy burning measures suit-
Thy grief, thy joy, thy hate, thy love,
With the fervor of thy lute-
Well may the stars be mute!

Yes, Heaven is thine; but this
Is a world of sweets and sours;
Our flowers are merely- flowers,
And the shadow of thy perfect bliss
Is the sunshine of ours.

If I could dwell
Where Israfel
Hath dwelt, and he where I,
He might not sing so wildly well
A mortal melody,
While a bolder note than this might swell
From my lyre within the sky.

No, it's not that I'm that crazy about Poe. It's just that the 'To One in Paradise' post made me think of this relatively obscure little poem that I'd read about the same time as I read "To One in Paradise' and so I thought I'd just go ahead and post it.

I'm strangely fond of Israfel. Not that I'm making any extravagant claims for it - I see its many shortcomings (in particular, that second stanza always makes me wince) but I like the rhythm of it, the almost rap like beat (which is strange, seeing as I don't really like rap that much). And I love the little sting in the tail that Poe puts in. All that long, yawning praise, and then somewhere around the middle things start to sour and before you know it the poem has broken out in explicit rebellion. It's not the person, it's the context, Poe cries, anticipating decades of behavioural research to follow a century later. But what an unexpected, almost startling ending to a poem that started off seeming so unpromising.


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

You who never arrived

Rainer Maria Rilke


You who never arrived
in my arms, Beloved, who were lost
from the start,
I don't even know what songs
would please you. I have given up trying
to recognize you in the surging wave of the next
moment. All the immense
images in me - the far-off, deeply-felt landscape,
cities, towers, and bridges, and unsuspected
turns in the path,
and those powerful lands that were once
pulsing with the life of the gods -
all rise within me to mean
you, who forever elude me.

You, Beloved, who are all
the gardens I have ever gazed at,
longing. An open window
in a country house - , and you almost
stepped out, pensive, to meet me.
Streets that I chanced upon, -
you had just walked down them and vanished.
And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors
were still dizzy with your presence and, startled,
gave back my too-sudden image. Who knows?
perhaps the same bird echoed through both of us
yesterday, seperate, in the evening...

Translated by Stephen Mitchell

And the German Original:

Du im Voraus
verlorne Geliebte, Nimmergekommene,
nicht weiß ich, welche Töne dir lieb sind.
Nicht mehr versuch ich, dich, wenn das Kommende wogt,
zu erkennen. Alle die großen
Bildern in mir, im Fernen erfahrene Landschaft,
Städte und Türme und Brücken und un-
vermutete Wendung der Wege
und das Gewaltige jener von Göttern
einst durchwachsenen Länder:
steigt zur Bedeutung in mir
deiner, Entgehende, an.

Ach, die Gärten bist du,
ach, ich sah sie mit solcher
Hoffnung. Ein offenes Fenster
im Landhaus—, und du tratest beinahe
mir nachdenklich heran. Gassen fand ich,—
du warst sie gerade gegangen,
und die spiegel manchmal der Läden der Händler
waren noch schwindlich von dir und gaben erschrocken
mein zu plötzliches Bild.—Wer weiß, ob derselbe
Vogel nicht hinklang durch uns
gestern, einzeln, im Abend?

The hallmark of a great poem is its ability to make you feel nostalgic for things you've never had, the things you have forgotten to be. Rilke's verses ache with that sense of loss - they are poems that time and translation have worn to a slow beauty - like ancient sculpture they have the ability to make us recognise ourselves in the images of a lost age. Rilke is the poet of terrifying angels, at once Orpheus and Apollo, at once lyrical and profound.

This poem, an unpublished fragment, exemplifies this quality of Rilke's work. It is an exquisitely beautiful poem (and Mitchell's translation is, as always, superb), one that captures perfectly that sense of absence, of something just missed. "And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors / were still dizzy with your presence" Rilke writes. It's precisely that dizziness of presence that makes Rilke's poems so special.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Raat aadhi kheench kar meri hatheli

Harivansh Rai Bachchan

Listen (to Amitabh Bachchan read)

Raat aadhi kheench kar meri hatheli
Ek ungli se likha tha pyar, tumne.

Faasla tha kuchh humare bistaron me
Aur charon or duniya so rahi thi.
Tarikayen hi gagan ki janti hain
Jo dasha dil ki tumhare ho rahi thi.
Main tumhare paas hokar door tumse
Adhjaga sa aur adhsoya hua sa.
Raat aadhi kheench kar meri hatheli
Ek ungli se likha tha pyar, tumne.

Ek bijli chhu gayi, sahsa jaga main
Krishnapakshi chaand nikla tha gagan me.
Is tarah karwat padi thi tum ki aansoo
Bah rahe the is nayan se us nayan me.
Main laga doon aag us sansaar me
Hai pyar jisme is tarah asamarth-kaatar.
Jaanti ho us samay kya kar guzarne ke liye
Tha kar diya taiyyaar tumne!
Raat aadhi kheench kar meri hatheli
Ek ungli se likha tha pyar, tumne.

Praath he ki oar ko hai raat chalthi
Auh ujaale mein andhera doob jaata.
Manch he poora badaltha kaun aise
kkoobiyon ke saath parde ko uttatha.
ek chehra sa laga thumne liya tha
aur meine tha utharaa ek chehra.
vo nisha ka swapn mera tha ke apne
par gazab ka tha kiya adhikaar thumne.
Raat aadhi kheench kar meri hatheli
Ek ungli se likha tha pyar, tumne.

Aur utne faasle par aaj tak
Sau yatna kar ke bhi na aye fir kabhi hum.
Fir na aya waqt waisa, fir na mauka us tarah ka
Fir na lauta chaand nirmam.
Aur apni wedna main kya bataun!
Kya nahi ye panktiyan khud bolti hain?
Bujh nahi paya abhi tak us samay jo
Rakh diya tha haath par angaar tumne.
Raat aadhi kheench kar meri hatheli,
Ek ungli se likha tha pyar, tumne.

in devnagiri

Wiki on Harivansh Rai Bachchan here.