Friday, April 30, 2010

Mementos, I - W.D. Snodgrass

W.D. Snodgrass (1926 - 2009) earned a special place with me through the title poem - Heart's Needle - of his first book, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960.  (There is more in his obit about W.D.'s place in American poetry.) "Heart's Needle" is addressed to his daughter and expressed both his love for her and his pain and anguish at what his divorce from her mother brought (and took) from their lives.  When I first read it, years before my own marriage and fatherhood, I could only relate to it in a superficial way.  When I read it again, more than a decade later and as the father of a ten-year old daughter in the aftermath of his own divorce, I could not finish reading it for the tears.  Many years after that, I wrote to W.D. regarding the furor from some critics over his poems in the voices of Hitler's companions in the last days in the bunker.   (I thought they didn't understand that "humanizing" vs. demonizing the Nazis served to remind us that the potential for evil and darkness is within each of us and not just in a select few.  And, that knowing and acknowledging that truth is one of the safeguards against a repetition of that era.)  I also took the occasion to thank him for "Heart's Needle".  W.D. was gracious enough to write back a very personal letter, with which he included a signed copy of his book "W.D.'s Midnight Carnival".  It initiated a correspondence that I treasure still.  Among other things, he told me that the daughter to whom he wrote "Heart's Needle" grew up to become a minister and that she performed the wedding ceremony for one of his marriages!) 

The poem here is one of two about how encountering physical reminders of past loves cause us to come to terms anew each time with what they meant - and mean - to us.  I was still in my 20s and unacquainted with the how it would feel - much later, post-marriage and divorce - when going through boxes of my own mementos.  I have yet to read a better poem that better captures the sorrow, regrets, and bittersweetness of such an occasion.  
Mementos, I

Sorting out letters and piles of my old
   Canceled checks, old clippings, and yellow note cards
That meant something once, I happened to find
   Your picture.  That picture.  I stopped there cold,
Like a man raking piles of dead leaves in his yard
         Who has turned up a severed hand.

Still, that first second, I was glad: you stand
   Just as you stood – shy, delicate, slender,
In that long gown of green lace netting and daisies
   That you wore to our first dance.  The sight of you stunned
Us all.  Well, our needs were different, then,
         And our ideals came easy.

Then through the war and those two long years
   Overseas, the Japanese dead in their shacks
Among dishes, dolls, and lost shoes; I carried
   This glimpse of you, there, to choke down my fear,
Prove it had been, that it might come back.
         That was before we got married.

--Before we drained out one another’s force
   With lies, self-denial, unspoken regret
And the sick eyes that blame; before the divorce
    And the treachery.  Say it, before we met.  Still,
I put back your picture.  Someday, in due course,
         I will find that it’s still there. 
                                                                                           W.D. Snodgrass - American

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Antes de Amarte (Before I Loved You) - Pablo Neruda

(As this is the third poem by Neruda in this blog, the biographical info is with the first one.)  This translation of mine is a tweak of one by TapscottLike his, it's problematic, but I think less so in places where it matters.  Neruda's metaphors have that "latino" touch of hyperbole, but he gets away with it both in Spanish and in translation.  (I've noticed that tendency in my own writing in Portuguese: it's much freer in the kinds of images that rise up as if from some part that is not accessed when using English.)
Before I Loved You
                                                           transl. from Spanish by Harrison Tao

Before I loved you, Love, nothing was my own:
I stumbled through streets and things:
nothing mattered or had a name:
the world was made of air, which waited.

I knew rooms full of ashes,
tunnels where the moon lived,
cruel shelters that dismissed me,
insistent questions in the sand.

Everything was empty, dead, and mute,
fallen, abandoned, and decayed:
everything was inconceivably alien,
Everything belonged to someone else and to no one,
until your beauty and your poverty
filled Autumn with presents.
                                                                                Pablo Neruda - Chilean

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Gifts - Marilyn Hacker

 (See other of her poems here for biographical background.)  I collect stones from places visited - Delphi, Santorini, Block Island, Point Reyes, the castle where Richard the Lionhearted was held, a beach in Orkney... - so this poem has always had a special appeal. 
Here. Between us I’ve placed a smooth stone,
green-veined, with finger-fissures, and a cracked
blue bowl with three yellow pears, and seven miles
of jagged coves, pebbled and bouldered, the jade sea
drooling and frothing them, one dwarfed tree,
a crooked surviving pine, on a tumbled cliff
lookout point. Hold the stone
in your palm, cold
from morning draughts on the window-sill.
The touched side takes your warmth. The cool
side rubs your lips. Your mouth
is on my hand.
                                                                          Marilyn Hacker - American

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Not A Love Poem - Tu Yun-Hsieh

Biographical info on Tu Yu-Hsieh (1920?- ) is hard to come by in English-language sources. Even the translator of this poem, who was a student with him at National Southwest Associated University in 1940, isn't certain of his birth-year. Soon after, Yu-Hsieh went from student-scholar to soldier in the Burma theater of WWII to fight the Japanese invaders. (He also was not just an ordinary soldier: he was a sniper, the most at-once-personal-yet-distant way to kill.) At the time (1962) of my source for the poem, Tu was still alive, so we know he survived the war. I'd be curious to know if he survived the Cultural Revolution (1967-1976) given that his poetry's influences and lyricism owed more to English writers, particularly W.H. Auden (who visited China during WWII), than to the Communists co-opting of culture for political purposes. (The beginning of the second verse is a bit awkward: I suspect it's from the translation, as the translator acknowledges having to "fill in the blanks" a bit in a number of them, in order to get the meaning across. I think that, here, it takes closer reading to get that he is talking about policing his inner self (the city) to control his jealousy.)
Not A Love Poem
                                                      transl. by Kai-Yu Hsu      

The mountains grow somber, and trees crowd together;
The flowers and herbs lose their colors.
My dear, more than ever are your eyes black
And gleaming, quickening my pulsation.
Please, won’t you move your lips again;
I long for more dizziness: We have,
In the gyration of the earth,
Carried with us many a brilliant galaxy.

Forgive me for again and again giving myself an order
And canceling the order, and again and again cursing
The shouting of the policemen on guard in the city
that threatens and complains in turns.
Now, my dear, let us only soar afar,
Let us melt, let us atone
For those impatient and unlucky tears
And that shameful bit of jealousy.

Let us be like those blossoms of light white clouds
That fly father and grow lighter, finally to disappear
In the calm blue. Man can never again
Gossip about their romance
As untamably wild. We shall
Lean together, reminiscing of our happiness while beautiful dreams
Circulate through the silent contact;
We’ll watch how the haze of the evening is quietly carried away.
                                                                                                                   Tu Yun-Hsieh - Chinese

Monday, April 26, 2010

Complaint - Sun Yu-T'ang

 Sun Yu-T'ang (1905? 1910?- 1985) was a member of the Crescent Group, a group of young Chinese writers who formed in 1923.  The historical context is important: China was in the middle of the Warlord Period between the end of the Empire (and creation of the Republic) in 1912, and the Japanese invasion of 1937.  There was turmoil and exuberance, a sense of "finally perhaps maybe possibly" being able to learn/use the energy and ideas of the West without being dominated by it, politically or otherwise.  Tradition in poetry, as in other parts of society, was being broken, and the writers in this group wanted to create new forms and ways to express new ideas.  In this, their attitudes toward love, beauty and life were closest to the Romanticcs (Keats and Byron were admired by several of the members).  A key development in the group was taking the musicality of every-day language and combining it with great structural rigor in their verses.  Obviously, most of this is lost in translation - sigh... - but not what one critic called "...the measured metaphors.." used.   (Note: Sun Yu-T'ang graduated from Tsing-Hua University's history department in 1933, the year my father entered as a freshman.  He's another poet from that period that my father probably knew about and read.)
                                       transl. by Kai-Yu Hsu

Yes, you loved, just for that wink of an eye –
Like a swallow’s wing-tip touching the water,
A whiff of gentle breeze, leaving no shadow to be caught,
No light to be traced – like a flash of a falling star –

It was gone.  You did not mind at all,
But unthinking, untied my anchor chain.
thus on white sails, swollen with warm dreams,
I flew out of a river, across the sea, and soared over the hills,

Through blue clouds I darted into the depth of night,
Losing myself, and missing my road;
All because I took that instant to be eternity,
Thinking that the silver stars were your eyes.

Then you laughed, and that awakened me,
Awakened me to my earlier hasty belief.
But, ah, what do you want me to do now?
Now that you have slammed shut forever the door of my
                                                                               Sun Yu-T'ang - Chinese

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Tenderness - Stephen Dunn

 Today's is another by Stephen Dunn (1939 - ), from his seventh book of poetry.  I think you'll agree, after reading, that the poem itself is written with great tenderness and that bittersweet quality of learning a truth almost too late to be of use.  Read it once "ignoring" the line breaks so that the narrative of the story is clear, and then again noting them, both visually and sounded aloud.  I am particularly taken by how it "turns" at the end, with the narrator understanding now what he didn't before.

Back then when so much was clear
         and I hadn’t learned
young men learn from women

what it feels like to feel just right,
         I was twenty-three,
she thirty-four, two children, a husband

in prison for breaking someone’s head.
         Yelled at, slapped
around, all she knew of tenderness

was how much she wanted it, and all
         I knew
were back seats and a night or two

in a sleeping bag in the furtive dark.
         We worked
in the same office, banter and loneliness

leading to the shared secret
         that to help
National Biscuit sell biscuits

was wildly comic, which led to my body
         existing with hers
like rain that’s found its way underground

to water it naturally joins.
         I can’t remember
ever saying the exact word, tenderness,

though she did.  It’s a word I see now
         you must be older to use,
you must have experienced the absence of it

often enough to know what silk and deep balm
         it is
when at last it comes.  I think it was terror

at first that drove me to touch her
         so softly,
then selfishness, the clear benefit

of doing something that would come back
         to me twofold,
and finally, sometime later, it became

reflexive and motionless in the high
         ignorance of love.
Oh abstractions are abstract

until they have an ache in them.  I met
         a woman never touched
gently, and when I ended between us

I had new hands and new sorrow,
         everything it meant
to be a man changed, unheroic, floating.

                                                                               Stephen Dunn- American

Saturday, April 24, 2010

For Nobody Else -- David Ignatow

 (Bio info about Ignatow is with his first poem in the blog.  This is one of my favorites - no need to explain why.)
For Nobody Else

She presents me with a mountain
which to possess I first must climb.
At the start I must enter a tunnel
that winds in darkness to the top.
In my extremity, my breathing forced,
at my topmost fear as I labor,
she who has hidden her face
turns to greet the high noon burst
upon our eyes.

Lie quietly by my side
as a still lake reflecting
its mountain, my heart beats
on your heart
as we hold each other’s breathing
in our arms,
our backs on darkness
light on our breaths,
safe at last
to hold you,
you place your hands
upon my back
in the shadows.

I need to see and touch
and talk to you each day
to assure myself
I am not made happy with dreams.
Then you become for me a tree
of comforting shade, bellying
where the branches bunch together
full of leaves.
I want a maternal world.

Sadly is how I must say it
because you have many sisters
and I am brother to many brothers.
Should we then not become many happinesses,
become many starts of love,
as we fade into a crowd of faces
awaiting our bed?

My body grows pale with effort
into the milky dawn.
I succeed in acting one more day,
you already dressed and moving about,
a person with a coffee pot.
I stick out my tongue
to touch the brightening sky.

How do I know that tomorrow you will live?
Do you know how much you mean to me?
At the thought of your death
all thought stops in me,
I catch my breath.
                                                                             David Ignatow - American

Friday, April 23, 2010

Last Night I Dreamt You... - Khusrau (Amir Dehlavi)

Amir Dehlavi (1253-1325) was the first important Indo-Persian poet and used the pen name "Khusrau".  Musician, poet, and scholar, he was a Sufi mystic who wrote in both Persian and Hindawi, serving as a court poet for several rulers of the Delhi Sultanate.  Khusrau's output was large and popular, particularly in northern India.  Even to this day his poetry is sung in Sufi shrines.  I always find it marvelous when a translator's output is as lyrical as the original.  It's just soooooo hard to do!  This one accomplishes that AND conveys the intended emotions.  It's so flowing and sensual, both in imagery and in its rhythm.  It joins the legions I wish I had written myself....

Last night I dreamt you brought me wine
and poured and poured until my dreams were full,
each one watered till the tendrils grew.

And then I heard you pouring more again for two
and thought I saw my tears reflecting you....
I wasn't sure, until I woke to find
my body bathed in wine and wrapped in vines
or was it you?

I never knew who turned my night to day
before the dawn had time for dew.
                                                                         Khusrau (Amir Dehlavi) - Indo-Persian

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Anonymous (Japanese - 10th Century)

The only thing I learned from a college philosophy course was something from Ludwig Wittgenstein which I always paraphrase as: "If you have nothing to say, shut up".  (The actual quote is : "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.")   That applies to commenting on today's poem:
Anonymous - Japanese  10th Century

Early morning glows
in the faint shimmer
of first light.
Chocked with sadness,
I help you into your clothes.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ballad of Love Through the Ages - Carlos Drummond de Andrade

As every Brazilian school-boy knows, today marks the 510th Anniversary of the "discovery" of Brazil in 1500 by the Portuguese admiral Dom Pedro Álvares de CabralTo celebrate the fact that I still remember his full name AND the size of his fleet (13 ships, 1,500 hundred men) from grade-school history classes, today's poem comes from Brazil: another one by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, the acknowledged greatest 20th Century poet writing in Portuguese.   As in my comments with his first poem here, I wish that you could read and hear it in the original.  However, this is the next best thing: a translation by Mark Strand, a poet in his own right, who, like Elizabeth Bishop, brought the necessary poetic soul, skills, and sensitivity to do it justice.  This isn't a poem at Drummond's lyrical best or most complex in meaning or imagery, but it has always charmed me because of its simplicity, humor, and scope. 
Ballad of Love Through the Ages
                                                                   transl. by Mark Strand
From the beginning of time,
I liked you, you liked me.
I was Greek, you were Trojan,
Trojan but not Helen.
I sprung from a wooden horse
to kill your brother.
I killed, we quarreled, we died.

I became a Roman soldier
persecutor of Christians.
At the catacomb door
I met you again.
But when I saw you fall
naked in the Colosseum
and the lion coming toward you,
I made a desperate leap
and the lion ate us both.

Next I was a Moorish pirate,
the scourge of Tripoli.
I set fire to the frigate
where you were hiding from
the fury of my brigantine.
But when I went to grab you
and take you as my slave,
you crossed yourself and drove
a dagger through your heart.
I killed myself as well.

Later on, in happier days,
I was a courtier at Versailles,
clever and debauched.
You dreamed of being a nun…
I vaulted over the convent wall
but difficult politics
led us to the guillotine.

These days I’m totally modern:
dancing, jogging, working out.
And I have money in the bank.
And you’re a fabulous blonde:
dancing, jogging, working out.
None of it pleases your father.
But after a thousand reversals,
I, one of Paramount’s heroes,
give you a hug, a kiss, and we marry.
                                                                            Carlos Drummond de Andrade - Brazilian

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Who Says A Painting Must Look Like Life? - Su Shi

After fifty days of poems on-theme, I'm taking the license to insert the equivalent of a "palate cleanser" before getting back on course.  (It is,  after all, my blog...)  And,  it's a "twofer": two poems separated by almost a thousand years, the second one illustrating the topic of the first.

I have always been interested in the relationship between poetry and painting, which was best defined, around 2,500 years ago,  by the Greek poet Simonides as: " Painting is silent poetry, and poetry a painting that speaks".  

There is a tradition of poets writing "about" paintings, though not of the reverse (to my knowledge).  So, below, is a poem on that relationship by the great poet of the Song (or Sung) Dynasty, Su Shi (also known as Su Tung-p'o) who lived 1037-1101.  He was also a government official, having passed the highest level civil service exams on his first try at age 18.  (This would be the equivalent of perfect scores on the SAT, GRE, and the Achievement tests.  ALL of them...)  His life's fortunes became tied to the political vagaries of such positions, as he was exiled twice, back in favor three times - a pretty high price for a "steady" gig. Many of his letters and poems have survived and have been translated into English.  The link here will take you to a site with a selection of his poems.   (This link will go to biographical info.) This translation is by Burton Watson.   

Following it is an example of a poem inspired by a painting.  The poem is mine; the painting - a Degas - belongs to The Philadelphia Museum of Art.  I'd gladly make a trade!  Until recently, it was on display in the Johnson Gallery at the PMA, but it's been removed, possibly to be loaned.  It's one of my favorites now, since stopping me on my tracks when I first "met" it over thirty years ago.  ("Click" inside the image to magnify.)

Who says a painting must look like life? (1087)
                                                                       translated by Burton Watson

Who says a painting must look like life?

He sees only with children’s eyes.
Who says a poem must stick to the theme?
Poetry is certainly lost on him.
Poetry and painting share a single goal –
clean freshness and effortless skill.
Pien Luan’s sparrows live on paper:
Chao Ch’ang’s flowers breathe with soul.
But what are they beside these scrolls,
bold sketches, with spirit in every stroke?
Who’d think one dot of red
could call up a whole unbounded spring!
                                                                                 Su Shi (Sun Tung-p'o) - Chinese
The painting below, "Le Intérieur" by Edgar Degas, hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  It is fairly large (46" x 32", rounded) and, of course this image does not do it justice.  Degas painted it in 1868 and it is one of his most atmospheric...


Le  Intérieur -  Degas

Whether he is dressed again
or never shed more than cape,
Whether two bodies one imprint pressed,
in passion or by duress,
and finished, the bed remade...

Whether his eyes, with sated lust,
fix far into a sharded past
released from promises and regrets,
or hers, inflamed, mull the words
to claim a maidenhead at last...

By one mute lamp’s carousel of light,
their faces in penumbral relief,
her cowered shape, resigned?
his spectral form, transfixed?
two frailties forever frozen
in a moment outside Time,
two hearts forever questioning 
decisions made... or yet unmade.

                                                                                      Harrison Tao
It has also been called - erroneously - "Le Viol" (The Rape). As best can be researched by art historians, the scene fits a climatic point in a story by Emile Zola depicting the moment of truth between lovers who had conspired to and killed the woman's husband, and are now reuniting at an inn, per agreement, after a year without contact (to avoid suspicions).  

We are drawn as voyeurs into their psychological moment, one that will determine their future relationship, and invited to wonder about their "interior" and, by extension, our own in such a situation.   What drew me to it was the ambiguity presented by the painting: has something happened already or is it the aftermath?  I deliberately did not read the monograph about the painting until after the poem was finished.

Monday, April 19, 2010

In This Valley - Yehuda Amichai

With this one, Amichai now has the most poems (5) thus far in this blog.  If you read the others - go to the side-bar and "click" his name under "Poets" - you will begin to get a feel for why.  To write well about Love, one must experience it.  To write with passion about Love, one must also experience its opposite: Loss.  Each is the necessary reference point by which to fully appreciate the other.  His poems are infused with that appreciation, of which a distinctive part is an urgency to live/love fully. Being an Israeli who fought in three wars will do that.
In This Valley

In this valley which many waters
carved out in endless years
so that the light breeze may now
pass through it to cool my forehead,
I think about you. From the hills I hear
voices of men and machines wrecking and building.

And there are loves which cannot
be moved to another site.
They must die at their place and in their time
like an old clumsy piece of furniture
that’s destroyed together with
the house in which it stands.

But this valley is a hope
of starting afresh without having to die first,
of loving without forgetting the other love,
of being like the breeze that passes through it now
without being destined for it.
                                                                                                 Yehuda Amichai -Israeli

Sunday, April 18, 2010

For Losing Her Love All I Would Profane - Kenneth Patchen

I came across Kenneth Patchen's (1911-1972) Selected Poems the year after his death.  He was a little too old to be part of the "Beat Poets" but his experimentation with different forms and ways of conveying poetry, including the first reading with a jazz group and his "painted poems", certainly put him outside the academic mainstream.  He was a prolific poet, with many published volumes, as well as a novelist.  Late in life (1967) he received a life-time achievement award from the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities.  (Not bad for someone who, in his younger years and after dropping out of college, traveled widely around the USA as a migrant worker.)  For the last years of his life, he was mostly bedridden from an operation that had gone badly.  This blog is about "love poetry", so there won't be examples of Patchen's war poems, which are as heartfelt and powerful as any I have ever read.   

In my early 20s, the poem below jolted me with the first two lines of each stanza, while the cry in the last line is far more plaintive now than then: experience and the intervening years - as they should - make it less rhetorical and more real.
For Losing Her Love All Would I Profane

For losing her love all would I profane
As a man who washes his heart in filth.
She wakes so whitely at my side,
Her two breasts like bowls of snow
Upon which I put my hands like players
In a child’s story of heaven.

For gaining her love all would I protest
As a man who threatens God with murder.
Her lips part sleep’s jeweled rain
Like little red boats on a Sunday lake.
I know nothing about men who die
Like beasts in a war-fouled ditch –
My sweetling….

O God what shall become of us?
                                                                             Kenneth Patchen - American

Untitled (You Did Say...) - Marilyn Hacker

Marilyn Hacker two days in a row (see previous)....  She is also someone with a masterful command of and ability to write poems fitting different forms, such as sonnets, villanelles, etc.  This one is in sonnet form.
You did say, need me less and I'll want you more.
I'm still shell-shocked at needing anyone,
used to being used to it on my own. 
It won't be me out on the tiles till four-
thirty, while you're in bed, willing the door 
open with your need. You wanted her then, 
more. Because you need to, I woke alone 
in what's not yet our room, strewn, though, with your 
guitar, shoes, notebook, socks, trousers enjambed 
with mine. Half the world was sleeping it off 
in every other bed under my roof. 
I wish I had a roof over my bed 
to pull down on my head when I feel damned 
by wanting you so much it looks like need. 
                                                                                        Marilyn Hacker - American

Friday, April 16, 2010

Somewhere In A Turret - Marilyn Hacker

 Marilyn Hacker (1942 -  ) is of the generation that reached their 20s in the 1960s, a perfect storm of both personal and societal turmoil.  For many women it was a liberating time so it's not surprising how many women writers/poets found their true voices (and sexual orientation) during this time.  (Before she "came out", she was married to Samuel R. Delany, an award-winning science-fiction writer now teaching at Temple Univ. (!).)  To write powerful poems beyond early adulthood (20s - early 30s) - when angst/anger/passion can carry a piece - takes real talent, dedication, and perseverance.   She has demonstrated hers through the last decades of productive work.  Her poems are often situation or place-specific, her language is sometimes raw(er), but all in the service of bringing a reader inside.  This selection comes from her second poetry book (Separations in 1976), which followed her debut volume (Presentation Pieces in 1974) that won the National Book Award in that year. 
Somewhere In A Turret

Somewhere in a turret in time,
castled and catacombed in but
still on a tan street that
ends with a blue-and-white gingerbread house,
those rooms are still filled
with our pictures and books.  On the sill
our black-and-white cat hums after a fly.
It is getting light.  When we come in,
no one will ask you to leave, no one will send me away.

Nobody lives in the present, time
has textures past and future that
tongues taste at, fingers feel for.
The present happens in rooms
I am not in; past rooms
are only momentarily
empty, if I knew how
to turn around, I would cross the threshold smiling.
No one would ask me to leave, no one would send me

Don’t think I’m trying to ignore the time
I piled my things into a cab and left
a note for you and one for the dinner guests.
Those rooms have new tenants.  You and I
may never share a closet or a towel-rack
again.  We contrived it. I am still
surprised waking up without you every morning.
But I can’t camp out in your house or you in mine.
Peoplse would ask me to leave.  People woulod send you

Still, I am an optimist.  Sometime
we may be sitting, maybe near the ocean
on a cliff, and under the blown spray
get tangled in each other’s fingers and hair;
and in that arbitrary future, our mouth
and the sea will taste of each other.
It is so easy to make things happen
like a freeze shot ending a movie
so you don’t leave, and I don’t go away.

But you know about words.  You have had time
to figure out that hardly anyone
came back to bed because of a poem.
Poems praise and protect us from
our lovers.  While I write this
I am not having heartburn
about your indifference.  We could walk
into any room.
You wouldn’t ask me to leave.  I wouldn’t send you

                                                                                          Marilyn Hacker - American

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Poem - Sappho

For someone whose name many know today and was regarded in antiquity as a great poet,  few details are known about Sappho outside of what is gathered from her poetry.  She lived in the 500s BCE (Before Christian Era), born on the island of Lesbos which, though closer to mainland Asia Minor (now Turkey), is a part of Greece.  Thanks to her prominence as a poet and her involvement with the cult of Aphrodite,  the education of unmarried women, and her erotic/love poetry, she is popularly - possibly erroneously - associated with lesbian poetry.   (In fact, it's because of that association that the term "lesbian" came about, as her home was Lesbos.  She herself seems to have been married - to a man - and had a daughter.) It's pretty amazing how little of her poetry has come down intact: one complete poem and two almost-complete; lines from 50+ other poems, and assorted fragments on papyrus and pottery shards.  What I like about this one is how perfectly it describes what we have all experienced in the presence of a beloved, and how well it's traveled through over 2,500 years.   This translation is by John Frederick Nims (1913-1999), a poet, critic, and academic.

There’s a man, I really believe, compares with
any god in heaven above!  To sit there
knee to knee so close to you, hear your voice, your
         cozy low laughter,
close to you – enough in the very thought to
put my heart at once in a palpitation.
I, come face to face with you even briefly,
         stand in a stupor:
tongue a lump, unable to lift; elusive
little flames play over the skin and smolder
under.  Eyes go blind in a flash; and ears hear
         only their own din.
Head to toe I’m cold with a sudden moisture;
knees are faint; my cheeks, in an instant, drain to
green as grass.  I think to myself, the end?  I’m
         really going under?
Well, endure is all I can do, reduced to……
                                                                                         Sappho - Greek

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Guitar Recitativos - A.R. Ammons

 Of all of A.R. Ammons' (1926-2001) poems, this is hands-down my favorite and also on my "all-star" poems list.  Awards and honors (of which he had many: two National Book Awards, a McArthur "genius' award, the Bollingen) are at once meaningful and meaningless: it's the poems themselves that count.  And if there is ONE poem in this blog that will serve you well with a lover, THIS one is it.  So, follow these instructions.  First, read it enough times to feel as though you wrote it, then practice reading it aloud.  Treat it like a jazz piece, each verse a riff on the theme.  Don't be afraid to read it LARGE, with feeling: it's a joyful, lively, happy poem.  Your tone should be conversational, not oratorical or stentorian, as though it's just YOU talking to HIM/HER.  When you are ready to share and, depending on the season and weather: a) pack a picnic, including a bottle of sparkling wine and head to a place of beauty and quiet, or b) stay home, cook their favorite meal, leave the clean-up for the morning.  When you are ready, in either scenario, charge your glasses, make sure he/she is comfortable, and start.... You can thank me later.  (P.S. For the florally challenged - of which I am one - "clicking" on words highlighted will take you to images of the flowers.  For extra points, you could make a bouquet to have at hand...)
Guitar Recitativos


I know you love me, baby
I know it by the way you carry on around here certain times
         of the day and night
I can make the distinction between the willing and the
That’s not what I’m talking about
That’s not what I need
What I mean is could you just peel me a few of those grapes
         over there
I want to lie here cool and accumulate
Oh say about half a bunch
That’s what I need – flick out those little seed –
Just drop them in here one at a time
I’m not going anyplace, baby, not today
Relax – sneak the skin off a few of those grapes for me, will you?


Baby, you been stomping round on my toes so long
they breaking out in black and blue hyacinths,
well-knit forget-me-nots
Geraniums are flopping out over the tops of my shoes
tendril leaves coming out along the edges of my shoelaces
Gladioli are steering out of the small of my back
strumming those cool stalks up  my spine
Zinnias radiating from the crock of my neck
and petunias swinging down bells from my earlobes
All this stomping around on me you been doing, baby,
I’m gonna break out in a colorful reaction
I’m gonna wade right through you
with the thorns of all these big red roses


I’m tired of the you-and-me thing
I am for more research in to the nature of the amorous bond
the discovery of catalysts for speeding-up, wearing out,
         and getting it over with
or for slowing it down to allow long intervals of looseness

Baby, there are times when the mixture becomes immiscible
and other times we get so stirred up I can’t tell
whether I’m you or me
and then I have this fear of a surprising reaction in which
we both turn into something else

powdery or gaseous or slight metallic
What I means is this whole relationship is, lacking further
knowledge, risky: while there’s still time, why
don’t you get yourself together and I’ll

get myself together and then we’ll sort of shy out
of each other’s gravitational field, unstring the
electromagnetism, and then sort of just drop this
whole orientation, baby


I can tell you what I think of your beauty, baby,
you have it, it’s keen and fast, there’s this
glittery sword whipping about your head all day
and, baby, you make people snap – you condescend

and a surprised little heart splatters or you turn your
cold head away and a tiny freeze kills a few
cells in some man’s brain – I mean, baby, you
may be kind but your beauty, sweetie, is such

many a man would run himself through for
hating your guts every minute that he died for you


You come in and I turn on:
freon purrs and the
refrigerator breaks out with hives of ice:
the Westinghouse portable electric fan flushes
my papers all over the room:
the waffle-iron whacks down sizzling imaginary waffles:
one paper glues itself and billows to the back of the fan,
my nerves nervous as newspapers:

I tell you, you are a walking calamity
and when you sit down there is hardly less activity:
the alarm clock breaks out raging its held cry
and the oven in the kitchen sets itself for broil:
I mean the gas-jet in the incinerator bloops on
and, frankly, the mechanisms in my legs – I hope you
         never find out – jerk:
Oh, beauty, beauty is so disturbingly nice.

                                                                                       A.R. Ammons - American

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Silent Lover - Louis Simpson

Louis Simpson (1923 - ).  I haven't read much of the recent Simpson, but have always liked his work and appreciate it more now.  If it makes sense, in earlier years I wanted to be dazzled by a poet's visible command of the language, control of poetic forms, and  the complexity in the imagery.  

Now, I am also drawn to poems and language that is "simple" yet require more from me: to slow down, to reflect and allow my own experiences to inform my connection to the poem.  I know some of it comes from reading Chinese poetry and some from being older.  There is a richness to this one .....if you don't rush and let it meld with you. 

It's a poem that goes with sitting on the porch of a beach house in the late afternoon sipping  tea.  Or, for myself, sipping a 20 yr. old single cask bottling of Highland Park and recalling the urban hike to its distillery on an overcast August day after the ferry ride from Aberdeen to Kirkwall….. and the memory nestled within that memory: my thoughts during that hike, which included the beautiful last line of this poem and how it can stand alone, a complete poem just by itself.

The Silent Lover

She sighs. What shall I say?
For beauty seems to grow
In silence, when the heart is faint and slow.

Sing, sing…How shall I sing?
In silent eyes, where clouds and islands gaze,
The waves bring Eros in.

I think the rustling of her clothes
Is like the sea, and she
A wild white bird,

And love is like the sighing of the sand.
                                                                                         Louis Simpson - American

Monday, April 12, 2010

Canto do Noivo (Song of the Bridegroom) - Murilo Mendes

 Another Brazilian poet.  (May be I am being influenced by having lunch Sunday at a slice of home: a "churrascaria" (grilled meats restaurant) in Northeast Philadelphia, where there is a small Brazilian community.  Murilo Mendes (1901-1975) was a part of the Modernist Movement in Brazilian literature during the 1920s-1930s.  He was also a diplomat, studied in France, taught in Italy, and died in Portugal.  He said that he had his first poetic revelation when he saw Halley's Comet in 1910.  I hope to have done justice to it with my translation.  To me, its "take" on marriage in the voice of a bridegroom is unexpected, making the title a bit ironic.
Canto do Noivo (Song of the Bridegroom)
                                                                        transl. from Portuguese - Harrison Tao

I will see your shapes take form little by little,
will see them shift in color, in weight, in rhythm,
your breasts swell in the hot night,
the eyes be transformed at the budding idea of a first child.

I will assist in the unfolding of your ages,
watching over all your transformations.

Already in my memory is the girl mother-to-dolls,
and after that, the one by the window in the afternoon,
and the one who changed on knowing me,
and the one close-by the union of bodies and souls.
The others will come. Your hips that will spread out,
the fallen breasts, the blameless eyes, the hair without luster
will be and tether you closer to the meaning of love,
my darling martyr, shape that I destroyed, integrated into mine.
                                                                                                          Murilo Mendes - Brazilian

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sonnet on Fidelity - Vinicius de Moraes

Another by Vinicius de Moraes (see yesterday's post).  I wish that you could hear it in the original Portuguese.  And if you think French accents are sexy, you need to hear a Brazilian Portuguese speaker talk in English.... Alas, most of my Brazilian Portuguese accent is gone... but not the spirit!
Sonnet on Fidelity

Above all, to my love I’ll be attentive
First, and always with such ardor, so much
That even when confronted by this great
Enchantment my thoughts ascend to more delight.

I want to live it through in each vain moment
And in its honor I must spread my song
And laugh with my delight and shed my tears
When she is sad or when she is contented.

And thus, when afterward comes looking for me
Who knows what death, anxiety of the living,
Who knows what loneliness, end of the loving

I could say to myself of the love (I had):
Let it not be immortal, since it is flame
But let it be infinite while it lasts.
                                                                                Vinicius de Moraes - Brazilian

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Sonnet on Separation - Vinicius de Moraes

Ahhh.... Vinicius de Moraes (1913-1980)!  Probably the most beloved and popular Brazilian poet of the last fifty years.  Boulevadier of Rio's grand avenues, raconteur, bon vivant, diplomat (posted to France, UNESCO, and Los Angeles!), playwright, performer, acclaimed lyricist of the Bossa Nova period, especially in collaboration with Antonio Carlos Jobim, and later with Chico Buarque, Baden Powell, and others. 

Vinicius lived large, married eight times (tying Mickey Rooney and Larry King!), wrote beautiful, beautiful poems that celebrated and embodied everything Brazilian, especially the embracing equally of life's joys and tribulations.  One of his plays became the movie "Black Orpheus", which, in 1959, hit the trifecta, winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Picture here and the equivalent awards in France and England.  (It's a MUST see, for the music and dancing alone!)  Perhaps his best known work worldwide are the lyrics to "The Girl From Ipanema".  Coincidentally, I was in Rio, on my first trip back to Brazil since leaving for America as a teenager, when he died in July 1980.  I remember seeing people in the hotel bar and club dancing to his songs while crying at the same.  I chose this poem because it encompasses that duality of living/loving fully while accepting how quickly it can change.  (If you click on his name at the end of the poem, it will take you to a site where you can both read more about him and hear some of the songs he wrote.)
Sonnet on Separation
                                                              translated from Portuguese by Ashley Brown
Suddenly laughter became sobbing
Silent and white like the mist
And united mouths became foam
And upturned hands became astonished.

Suddenly the calm became the wind
That extinguished the last flame in the eyes
And passion became foreboding
And the still moment became drama.

Suddenly, no more than suddenly
He who’d become a lover became sad
And he who’d become content became lonely

The near became the distant friend
Life became a vagrant venture
Suddenly, no more than suddenly.
                                                                                Vinicius de Moraes  - Brazilian

Friday, April 9, 2010

Love Sonnet XI - P. Neruda

 Pablo Neruda wrote at least one hundred love sonnets and while this is the first of those here, it won't be the last.  For me, he is another poet best consumed in small quantities, but for a different reason than Amichai (yesterday's post.)  Reading too many of the sonnets at one sitting is like visiting The Barnes Foundation.  By the second room filled with Cezannes and Renoirs, one begins to lose appreciation of each individual one.  By the fifth room, one runs the risk that "...surfeiting, the appetite may sicken and so die" (Orsino in "Twelfth Night") and that would be a loss.  Each poem is beautiful but also almost too rich, the wording (in translation) feels a little too "flowery" for ears accustomed to colloquial English.  (They do feel different in the original Spanish and there are editions of the love sonnets that are bilingual.)  Regardless, some of his imagery is so good (lines 9) that all is forgiven.  Enjoy!
Love Sonnet XI
I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair.
Silent and starving, I prowl through the streets.
Bread does not nourish me, dawn disrupts me, all day
I hunt for the liquid measure of your steps.

I hunger for your sleek laugh,
your hands the color of a savage harvest,
hunger for the pale stones of your fingernails,
I want to eat your skin like a whole almond.

I want to eat the sunbeam flaring in your lovely body,
the sovereign nose of your arrogant face,
I want to eat the fleeting shade of your lashes,

and I pace around hungry, sniffing the twilight,
hunting for you, for your hot heart,
like a puma in the barrens of Quitratue.
                                                                                                   Pablo Neruda -  Chilean

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Once a Great Love - Y. Amichai

#4 from Yehuda Amichai.  For the others, "click" on his name on the left column in the "Poets and Categories" section.)  It's poems like this one that make me read him in small doses.  There is no shade from its light and heat.  You are exposed because he has exposed himself, as that is the contract: to get the most from the gift of the poet's experience, the reader must also be willing to stand naked.

The first time I read this poem was just before a great love.  It had light, but little heat: I had no reference point.   The second time, its heat was unbearable: not enough years had passed after my life was cut in two.  Even now, before reading it, I gird myself first, like a furnace-worker putting on an asbestos suit.  

Note: This translation from Hebrew is noteworthy because Amichai worked with Ted Hughes, the English poet, who will forever be better-known as having been Sylvia Plath's husband than for his own writing....

Once a Great Love

Once a great love cut my life in two.
The first part goes on twisting
at some other place like a snake cut in two.

The passing years have calmed me
and brought healing to my heart and rest to my eyes.

And I’m like someone standing in
the Judean desert, looking at a sign:
“Sea Level.”
He cannot see the sea, but he knows.

Thus I remember your face everywhere
at your “face level.”
                                                                                       Yehuda Amichai - Israeli

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Some Thoughts for Benson Green on his 27th Birthday - R. McKuen

The best way to place Rod McKuen (1933 -  ) is to think of him as Leonard Cohen-lite.  I would call McKuen (and Cohen) "troubadours" in the traditional definition as poets who wrote and performed verse to music.  McKuen was living in New York City at the time - he's a San Franciscan through and through - and wrote it for his best friend.  It's taken the posting of thirty-six other poets here before I could bring myself to posting one from him.   And that is more about my embarrassment at knowing it than about his place in popularizing poetry for the "flower power" generation in the mid-1960s.  (There is no bio page for him on the American Poetry Foundation site or the other "serious poetry" organizations, I suspect because his poems are considered unsophisticated and obvious, and success with critics isn't guaranteed by commercial success. )  The poem here was just "right" for me as a teenager and as much of an eye-opener to a poem's power to connect as reading T.S. Eliot's "Prufrock" poems two years later.  That summer of 1968 is a blurry memory, but I still can recite most of this poem  from memory.....yikes.   (Clicking his name will take you to his website: Rod McKuen.)
Some Thoughts for Benson Green on his 27th Birthday

Having just gone through the year myself
I know that twenty-seven can be hard.
But there are Sunday breakfasts
                           and April fields
and blue on blue
                           and green growing things
to change all that.

I know that spring is hard because you wait
                                     for summer
and fall is hardest of them all-
                 because you must not be alone
when winter comes.

I know
that love is worth the time it takes to find.
Think of that
    when all the world seems made of walk-up rooms
and hands in empty pockets.

I know your smile
and it is much too warm to waste on people in the
                      (though smiles are plentiful)
I know
that if you keep the empty heart alive a little longer
love will come.
                    It always does,
maybe just at the last moment, but it will come
                                           You must believe that
or there isn’t any reason to be twenty-seven.
                                                                                                     Rod McKuen - American