Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sonnet 4 - Ah when you drift hover - Berryman

As mentioned in earlier post, John Berryman's (1914 - 1972) 115 sonnets were an accounting of the course of a love affair with a married woman.  By this one's number, it's at the beginning. 

It's not an "easy" poem after the first four lines.... but what first four lines they are!  They alone are worth it.  Who hasn't felt so enraptured, connected and complete that nothing else that moment matters - not life, not wondering "...the point of life..."!  Those lines are the gold-standard for describing the drug-like "high" of kissing a lover.  (There.  Now I've made you, dear reader - AND myself! - entirely self-conscious about the next time we kiss.   Yes, even each other!)  

The rest of the sonnet requires a bit more "work" for full appreciation, particularly with the classical references.  (I wrestled with whether to post this poem at all because of that.)  

However, as quick help, "swine-enchanted lover" is a reference to the Odyssey and Circe, the enchantress who turned Odysseus' crew into animals, notably pigs.  (Hmm.... is this where it comes from that women call men "pigs"?)  "Melpomene" was one of  the 9 Muses, the goddesses of dance, music, and song, in Greek mythology.  Each "covered" one area in the arts, and Melpomene was the Muse of tragedy.  "Erato", on the other hand, was the Muse of erotic poetry....so we know where Berryman was headed (if not already there).  He was a lustful, lively - and tormented - man who, like his father, eventually committed suicide (click on his name above for a link to a brief bio).  It's good to have in this poem - and many others - a record of his joy.

Sonnet 4 – Ah when you drift hover

Ah when you drift hover before you kiss
More your mouth yours now, lips grow more to mine
Teeth click, suddenly your tongue like a mulled wine
Slides fire, -- I wonder what the point of life is.
Do, down this night when I adore you, Lise,
So I forsake the blest assistant shine
Of deep-laid maps I made for summits, swine-
enchanted lover, loafing in the abyss?

Loaf hardly, while my nerves dance, while the gale
Moans like your hair down here.  But I lie still.
Strengthless and smiling under a maenad rule.
Whose limbs worked once, whose imagination’s grail
Many or some would nourish, must now I fill
My strength with desire, my cup with your tongue,
          no more Melpomene’s but Erato’s fool?...

                                                      John Berryman

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Surly One - Theodore Roethke

If this is the only Roethke poem you will read here, you'll be doing yourself a disservice.  Pleeease "click" on his name on the left and check out the others!  He has written some of the most dazzling love poems that I know: joyous, playful, with imagery that will surprise by their freshness.  This one is short and, thus, might look simple and not worth a second read.... but take your time!  Boil some water, and while the tea steeps let the lines loose among your emotional memoriesYou will be surprised at what they can stir up, if you let themI like #1, perhaps because of my fondness for single malt whiskeys, as they evoke my chosen connection to Scotland.  (However, unlike Roethke, I SIP, not slug them down to drown memories.)  In #2, it's how he condenses so much truth in the last two lines. 
 The Surly One


When true love broke my heart in half ,
I took the whisky from the shelf,
And told my neighbors when to laugh.
I keep a dog, and bark myself.


Ghost cries out to ghost –
But who’s afraid of that?
I fear those shadows most
That start from my own feet.

                                                                Theodore Roethke

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sonnet 36 – (Keep your eyes open when you kiss) - John Berryman

 Another selection from John Berryman's sonnets has been long overdue.  For some background, the 115 poems, written in the 1940s and in one volume, were a lineal account of a love affair and not published until the mid-1960s.  To me, they are on a par with Neruda's, sharing a richness and passion of expression that is dizzying.  Both are to be read aloud and large, be it in front of the loved one as declarations or alone, as lamentations.  Either way, they are bold and cathartic, with wine or whiskey, day or night.  Sometimes, the syntax in Berryman can sound "Yoda-ish" by its placement of nouns and verbs, and it takes a little bit of effort to "get" all he is doing with language.  But the prize.... the prize when you do is so satisfying that you'll be ashamed of having complained.  Here, in this early one in the arc of the relationship, he turns the traditional "close your eyes when kissing" on its head and riffs on it.... while sticking to the sonnet structure. Wow!
 Sonnet  36 – (Keep your eyes open when you kiss) – John Berryman

Keep your eyes open when you kiss: do: when
You kiss.  All silly time else, close them to;
Unsleeping, I implore you (dear) pursue
In darkness me, as I do you again
Instantly we part . . only me both then
And when your fingers fall, let there be two
Only, “in that dream-kingdom”: I would have you
Me alone recognize your citizen.

Before who wanted eyes, making love, so?
I do now.  However we are driven and hide,
What state we keep all other states condemn,
We see ourselves, we watch the solemn glow
Of empty courts we kiss in . . Open wide
You do, you do, and I look into them.

                                                      John Berryman

Saturday, November 20, 2010

" It Is Marvellous..." - Elizabeth Bishop

 I know that I am supposed to like Elizabeth Bishop (1911 - 1979) and I certainly respect her work - but she has never been appealing personally except for her translations of Brazilian poets.  As the biographical synopsis tells (click on her name above), she had a tragic personal life one wouldn't wish on an enemy.  Her father died when she was one year old, her mother placed permanently in a mental institution when Elizabeth was five years old, and later, her long-term lover in Brazil committed suicide.  Wealthy grandparents provided an education (Vassar) and financial freedom which led to travel abroad and, eventually, fourteen years in Brazil until returning to the USA in 1970 to teach at Harvard.  Work published work in her lifetime - only 101 poems - was good enough to win both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award for Poetry.  Her reputation has grown in stature since her death.  

This poem IS marvellous for how it paints scene, setting, and atmosphere to perfection.  The details build unrushed to the final result the way a cook adds each ingredient, in the right amount and at the right time, to make an edible perfection.  (I was making a smoked salmon corn chowder yesterday.)   Enjoy!
“It Is Marvellous…”

It is marvellous to wake up together
At the same minute; marvellous to hear
The rain begin suddenly all over the roof,
To feel the air suddenly clear
As if electricity had passed through it
From a black mesh of wires in the sky.
All over the roof the rain hisses,
And below, the light falling of kisses.

An electrical storm is coming or moving away;
It is the prickling air that wakes us up.
If lightning struck the house now, it would run
From the four blue china balls on top
Down the roof and down the rods all around us,
And we imagine dreamily
How the whole house caught in a bird-cage of lightning
Would be quite delightful rather than frightening;

And from the same simplified point of view
Of night and lying flat on one's back
All things might change equally easily,
Since always to warn us there must be these black
Electrical wires dangling. Without surprise
The world might change to something quite different,
As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking,
Change as the kisses are changing without our thinking.

                                             Elizabeth Bishop

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Song of Yue - Song Lian

Better known for his prose and role as a high court-official in the administration of the first Ming Dynasty Emperor, Song Lian was also charged with compiling the official history of the previous dynasty (Yuan).  This little poem comes by way of a small book of Chinese love poems edited by Qiu Xialong, about whom I've written earlier.  This streak of Chinese poems is not entirely intentional.  Tonight, I read poetry by Mary Oliver and several Brazilian poets looking for one that would be appealing, but was not successful.  

I chose this one for its perfect use of a pair of scissors to express separation and joining.  It's so simple, so elegant..... and written almost 800 years ago!  I am continually mindful of how emotional states know no boundaries of time or culture.  We yearn, we love, we mourn the same way, irrespective of time and place. 


Song of Yue
                            transl. from Chinese by Qiu Xialong

It is not just a day or night that I have
missed you, Lord.
It is like a broken pair
of Bingzhou scissors –
one blade is far in the south, and the other,
far in the north.
When can the pair
be joined to cut out a wedding gown?

                                                    Song Lian  - Chinese 1310-1381

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Reply to "Phoenix Hairpin" (to the tune of) - Tang Wan

This is the only translation I could find (from The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry) of Tang Wan's poem in reply to her ex-husband Lu You's poem.  (See two postings below.)  There is something unsatisfying about it: I can't tell whether it's the poem or the translation.  Somehow, given how she must have felt, the fullness of her feelings doesn't come across.  There is flame but little heat and I can't believe that is how it was for her.  The sorrow of a love torn asunder, a love big enough to kill her less than a year after that meeting: it just doesn't come through strongly enough.  We know his broken heart lasted the rest of his life, another forty years, but that's what a great love will do. I wonder, if given the option of a short or long life after a loss like that, which would be the easier.  But we are not given that choice.  I know.

Addendum: Jan. 22, 2011.  Since no longer being able to add more poems after the fire of Dec. 21., I have been "visiting" poems whose physical copies burned.  I feel that I have done Tang Wan a disservice with my original remarks.  I see her sorrow now as so deep, so profound that it's past the stage of torrents of tears and words.  She is now at a place where what remains is the bleakness of the loss and a vocabulary of images as stark and limited as her life.  I remember reading somewhere that the purest truths are said in the shortest sentences and with the simplest of words.  (No, not Hemingway.)  Read with that in mind, I can feel her devastation in my marrow.  Contrast it with his, forty years after that chance encounter... and leave me a comment.)

 Reply to “Phoenix Hairpin”  (to the tune of)  -  Tang Wan

Human relationships are short.
Human intentions are evil.
When rain accompanies evening, flowers fall easily,
but morning wind is dry.
Tearstains remain.
I want to write you my feelings
but I only whisper to myself, leaning against banister.
Hard!  Hard!  Hard!

We are separate.
Today is not yesterday.
My sick soul moves like a swing between us.
A cold blast from a horn.
The night is late.
Afraid of questions,
I swallow my tears and smile.
Hide!  Hide!  Hide!

                                                             Tang Wan - dates unknown, Song Dynasty ,

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Shen Garden - Lu You

 This is the poem that Lu You wrote forty years after the chance meeting with his beloved, Tang Wan, as described in the previous posting (Nov. 2nd).  The translation is by a very interesting person, Qiu Xiaolong, a Chinese-born poet/professor at Washington University who writes in both Chinese and English, as well as translating T.S. Eliot (!) and others into Chinese.  Qiu is also the author of a detective story series set in modern day Shanghai: they are a great read as both social commentary and a good crime yarn.  I highly recommend them.  (The first one is called "Death of A Red Heroine" and this is a link to a review of it.)

As previously noted, translations are tricky business, even between languages from the same "family", like the Romance languages.  (As close as Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese are to each other, I've seen some terrible choices migrating a poem from one to the other.)  Going from a pictograph-based language like Chinese to English takes amazing skill and double sensitivity to intent and result.  Simply, it takes another poet, but a poet aware of his own ego, limitations, and biases.  Of the translations I have read, this one fulfills the task the best.

When revisiting the past by recalling a memory, nothing has aged.  Going back to a physical place, one must be prepared for the opposite, and the consequences depend on one's preparation and expectations.  In this poem, Lu appears to have been ready and thus not jarred by the changes: his tone is observational and accepting, not questioning or raging.  Someday, I hope to be that way myself about the past.

The Shen Garden
                                    transl. by Qiu Xiaolong

The sun is sinking behind the city wall
to the sad notes of a shining bugle.
In the Shen Garden,
the pond and the pavilion appear
no longer to be the same,
except the heart-breaking spring ripples
still so green under the bridge,
the ripples that reflected her arrival
light-footed, in such beauty
as would shame a wild goose into fleeing.


It’s forty years since we last met,
the dream broken, the scent vanished,
in the Shen Garden, the aged willows
produce no more catkins.
I’m old, already turning into the dust
of Mount Ji, when I shed a drop of tear
at this old scene.
                                                      Lu You – 1125-1210

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"Phoenix Hairpin" (to the tune of) - Lu You (Song Dynasty)

Lu You, one of the four great poets of the Southern Song Dynasty, was also half of one of the great Chinese love storiesThat story has: a childhood true love leading to marriage; a disapproving and jealous mother-in-law; lovers forced to split up; a bittersweet - and brief - reunion; and a tragic death.  All of it memorialized in poems - now almost 1,000 years old! - by the participants, poems that can be seen inscribed on the walls of the place where the key event occurred.  (No wonder the story has been made into at least one TV show...)

The love of Lu's life was his cousin, Tang Wan.  They had grown up in the same household and wedded when he was twenty, but married life lasted only one year, as his mother never liked Tang and forced Lu to cast her out and divorce, which he did out of filial duty.  Lu moved away to continue his studies and a career of many ups and downs whose focus was regaining northern China for the Song Dynasty.  (Lu You is known as the "Patriotic Poet" for his many poems - several thousand of  which survive - urging the unification of China.)

Almost ten years after the divorce, Lu had a chance encounter with Tang Wan and her new husband during a visit to the Shen Garden (in modern day Shaoxing).   Societal rules did not allow them to speak directly, but she received permission from the husband to have contact.  The sources I've read conflict on whether she sent a servant to him with wine or handed him the cup herself.  Regardless, it is said her eyes were brimmed with tears, that he got drunk on the wine, and then composed immediately this poem on a wall of the Garden.  

Later, Tang saw the poem and wrote one in reply, also on the wall.  And there the poems are today, side-by-side.

She died, many say of a re-broken heart, a year after that brief, public reunion.  She was only twenty-nine years old.  Twenty-nine years old.

In 1199, some forty years later, when he was seventy-five years old, Lu You revisited the garden and wrote two poems - "Shen Garden" - recalling the event.

This poem is in "Ci" form, which are meant to be sung.  A tune is selected first, to which words are then written.  It is not uncommon for different poets to use the same tune but write different verse to fit it.

I am a sucker for tragic love stories, hence the selection.  It takes no effort at all for me to dive into their pain.
 “Phoenix Hairpin” (To the Tune of)
Pink soft hands, yellow rippling wine,
The town is filled with Spring, willows by palace walls.
The east wind is biting, happiness is thin,
heart full of sorrow, so many years apart.

Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!

Spring is as of old; the person is empty and thin.
Traces of tears show through the sheer silk.
Peach blossoms falling, glimmering pond freezing,
The huge oath remains, the brocade book is hard to hold.

Don't, Don't, Don't!

                                                             Lu You -  1125 – 1210, Song Dynasty
Note: This poem also shows how hard it is to translate poems from Chinese.  The forms are SO different, each character's meaning so rich that it needs, in English, several words to explain.  The triple "wrong" meant that it was wrong for them to end up apart; wrong of his mother to drive her away; and wrong of him to obey mom and leave Tang. “East Wind” refers to his mother and the rules that made him obey her wishes.  He and Tang are the willows separated by the palace wall, ie. the rules that didn't allow them to talk directly.  The tears on the silk are her tears from their encounter.  The “brocade book” refers to his work and career.