Monday, June 30, 2008
“The Glass King” ends the journey of this book. It is not only about the relationship between wife and husband, it is also about the relationship between the female poet and the male poetic tradition, as the poet makes clear when she breaks into the story of Charles VI and Isabella in her own person, to “elect” her “prince, demented// in a crystal past” as “emblem// and ancestor of our lyric.”
This male lyric tradition is royal in his authority, and fragile in his powers. In conceiving poetry as a beautiful crystal, he is “out of reach// of human love.” The queen-wife-lover knows she needs his hand to turn stone into lace, the way the medieval stonesmiths did. This modern stoneworker is, however,
an ordinary honest woman out of place
in all this, wanting nothing more than the man
she married, all her sorrows in her stolid face.
The imaginative force of the poem converts Isabella to the poet and, in the conclusion, back to Isabella again, from “she” to “I” to “she” again. The ethical punch (what “we” should do) comes in the middle of the poem:
If we could see ourselves, not as we do—
in mirrors, self-deceptions, self-regardings—
but as we ought to be and as we have been:
poets, lute-stringers, makyres and abettors
of our necessary art, soothsayers of the ailment
and disease of our times, sweet singers,
truth tellers, intercessors for self-knowledge—
what would we think of these fin-de-siècle
half-hearted penitents we have become
at the sick-bed of the century: hand-wringing
elegists with an ill-concealed greed
for the inheritance?
She nails the insincerity by showing we want both spiritual absolution and material inheritance, to be both penitent and heir. She wants to want, instead, sweetness, truth and self-knowledge. Noticeably missing is beauty, that crystal.
Without knowing anything much about Boland’s life and other writings, I have been reading her first five books of poetry (out of a collected nine) as ambition reconstructed. In the earliest books, remarkable, though somewhat literary, accomplishments, she saw herself as an unproblematic heir of an unproblematic poetic inheritance. Irish myth, song, grievances and hopes were riches she would add to, without examining too closely their currency.
Under the public shock of the women’s movement, and the private shock of motherhood, she was compelled to examine the treasure trove. The compulsion felt like a spiritual crisis. It demanded a radical change, a conversion. She responded in various ways. Denunciation of male domination and privilege was one way. Deconstructing the feminine was another. From the female body, Boland moved to analyze the constricted institution of motherhood. She was, I think, deeply ambiguous towards motherhood, seeing in it a form of service to patriarchy but also a bond to other women past and present. Many poems attempted to re-envision the Muse as a mother (instead of a beloved), from whom the poet originates and with whom the poet identifies. This re-envisioning effort was accompanied by “tirades” against the former Muse, mimic, epic or lyric, depicted as a compromised or exploited woman.
Boland directed her attacks not only within, but also without, against the male artists and their myths. She wrote many ekphrastic poems that illustrated the advantages the male painter had over his female subjects, advantages denied to a female artist. She also rewrote the myths, substituting domestic subjects for epic ones. Her most notable achievement here reconceived the suburb as a kind of classical underworld. At no point did she fall into the trap of dreaming of a private language accessible only to women. She was too conscious of her debt to the tradition. She rewrote Homer but not Yeats, as far as I could tell.
She changed her verse together with her subjects and stance. The lines became shorter, decided by the phrase instead of the foot. Rejecting the roundness and sweetness of traditional rhetoric, the shorter lines analyzed its subject under a microscope. Every linebreak slotted the line under the lens. End rhymes became irregular, mirroring, perhaps, the incidental felicities in a day’s routine. Boland kept, however, the regularity of her stanza length. It saved her verse from slackness, and gave her a structure that she did not have to re-invent for each new poem. I believe she came up against the limitation of the short lines in trying to write more complexly about more complex topics. A number of the best poems in the later books returned to a longer line, with a regular, if not uniform, number of stresses.
Consistent throughout the changes in subject and style is Boland’s moral seriousness. Sometimes that can lapse into diatribe or sentimentality. Often I wish she would lighten up. But when she is great, she can be very grand. The permanent poems are “The Laws of Love,” “Monotony,” “On Renoir’s The Grape Pickers,” “Fever,” and “The Wild Spray.” One also changes the tradition by adding to it. Strong new poems, as Eliot reminds us, force us see the tradition in a different light. Boland is a poet of enormous resources, and I am eager to read the last four books of her collection. The immigration theme, a topic that also occupies me, has just entered her work in a significant way.
Sunday, June 29, 2008
[To take poetry right is] another way to take life right. And that means not to stick too hard to any particular precept. Suppose I said for instance certain ones--they're always rattling around in my mind. Suppose I said this one: the great problem is to know "how to o'errule" . . .
How to o'errrules the harsh divorce
That parts things natural from divine.
See the precept in that is that you must remember it's hard to
o'errule the harsh divorce
That parts things natural from divine.
And for the duration of the piece--if you're accustomed to poetry--you lend yourself to that and weep. And then, you know, you may believe something opposite, or nearly opposite; you may entertain, not believe, but you may be willing to entertain . . . from Walt Whitman, who said there was no divorce between things natural and divine. He said it right out: "the soul is the body, the body is the soul."
Well, then might I say this just to show what anyone means by the extravagance of the spirit? I go on with extravagance of that kind. There are a great many of them; poetry is full of them. It's the place of them. And maybe if you call everything poetry, that is an extravagance of the spirit. That's what I should say Walt Whitman's is, there when he talks abotu defeat as if it was a good as victory. You konw, I don't act . . . I know I don't act, and neither did Mr Meiklejohn (ever that I knew, I have known him a long time), never did he ever act as if he liked to lose a tennis game. I've seen him play a lot of tennis; he was very good at it. And you [?ride] him for all he's worth, but he was always talking about not coveting the game at all. But that's all right, you know, you have to know how to take it. [Laughter]
This is an amusing one that I came across in an old thirteenth-century story about Saint Francis. That's Salimbene telling on him in the next generation (little gossip). He was a good Franciscan, was Salimbene, but he was given to gossip, and he was not only at God always, the way a person might be if her were a philosopher. Principles, you know. But he said that Saint Francis came into the refectory one day and saw quite a table spread, good things to eat. And he said, "oh no no no no," he said, "you know that isn't what you're fed by! You know, it's fed by the spirit, aren't we?" And they said, 'well what would you have?" "Well a sprig of lettuce," he said, "and a glass of water, you know, that ought to be enough for anybody." And the next day that's what there was: a sprig of lettuce and a glass of water. And he said, "you musn't take the extravagances of a saint too seriously." [Laughter] Whether that's true or not, it shows what I mean by the extravagances.
I like best “Fond Memory.” It first describes the London convent Boland attended as a child, wearing darned worsted, eating rationed food, playing English games, and learning how wise the Magna Carta was. When the Reverend Mother announced that the King had died, all the children cried, except for Boland. But she had to fight back tears when, back home after school, her father played Tom Moore on the piano. In the “slow// lilts” of the Irish national bard,
I thought this is my country, was, will be again,
this upward-straining song made to be
our safe inventory of pain. And I was wrong.
I think Boland means that she was “wrong” about returning to Ireland. Ireland will not be her country again, since she has immigrated to America. But the syntactical ambiguity in that stanza is a fruitful one. The child-speaker could also be wrong about song being a “safe” inventory of pain.
The Minstrel Boy, by Thomas Moore
The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you'll find him;
His father's sword he hath girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
"Land of Song!" cried the warrior bard,
"Tho' all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy right shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!"
The Minstrel fell! But the foeman's chain
Could not bring that proud soul under;
The harp he lov'd ne'er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said "No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and brav'ry!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free
They shall never sound in slavery!
Saturday, June 28, 2008
It begins with “the story of a man and woman” under a willow and beside a weir, near a river in a wooded clearing. They are “fictions of my purpose,” the poet reminds us in the second stanza, before evoking in sensuous detail their wintry flight through the Midlands, to get to that willow. Returning to the start of her story, the middle of theirs, the poet raises our expectations that something is about to happen: “Will we see/ hungers eased after months of hiding?/ Is there a touch of heat in that light?”
Instead of fulfilling our expectations, she asks our forgiveness for setting “the truth to rights.” They never made love; there was no journey; no woodland and no river and no weir. The man and the woman were never the poet’s. Only the myth, or fiction, is hers, only “this sequence of evicted possibilities” called
Invention. Legend. Myth. What you will.
The shifts and fluencies are infinite.
The moving parts are marvelous. Consider
how the bereavements of the definite
are easily lifted from our heroine.
She may or she may not. She was or wasn’t
by the water at his side as dark
waited above the Western countryside.
Unlike myth, reality bereaves us of possibilities. It fixes us, lessens us, defines us. That is why we go to the “consolations of the craft.” Boland’s poem itself returns to the scene of the willow, where the willow sees itself drowning in the weir, and where the woman “gives the kiss of myth her human heat.”
Reading “Listen. This is the Noise of Myth”
This is the story of a man and a man
not found in Eden, perhaps in Uruk,
but really in a bar at Second Avenue
and East Houston, near the F train stop.
You know how it goes. You read the clues:
fabulous Uruk, the bar (called Urge), F train.
I suppose I should tell you the separate ways
they got there, the stories they told themselves.
One story had to do with a nervous flight
from a silver perch in a gilded birdcage.
The ocean in the other story released
the fishing man, and he broke surface.
Those stories they told each other at the bar,
harmonizing the tones, matching the colors,
so the stories that began with “I” and “me”
found, in their telling, temporary company.
Listen, they’re asking where the other lives.
They’re edging their stories past the past,
and making them up presently as they leave
the bar. What do they think they’re doing?
I don’t know. The waves rise again and crash
over them, as they wave wildly for a cab.
The torrential air, invisible and powerful,
drives them in, and slams the door after them.
After coming out of the Quad, I felt vaguely dissatisfied with the film. For a story billed by Zeitgeist Films as an "against-all-odds saga," the odds dodes not seem very big, and are all-too-readily surmountable. The celebratory narrative makes a one-time trial out of Bachardy's fear of becoming paranoid schizophrenic like his older brother, and only hints at one other relationship Bachardy had while with Isherwood. The older man brought the boy out, not just sexually, but also socially and artistically, but that aspect of the relationship, so potentially fraught with insecurities, resentments and rivalries, receives sunny treatment. I think of Auden's tumultuous relationship with another younger man, a younger writer, Chester Kallman, and feel that Davenport-Hines, Auden's biographer, has got much closer to the truth. I wonder what Isherwood would have thought of the documentary.
Last night's film "The Savages," like the Auden biography, cuts close to the bone. Brother and sister find themselves having to look after their aged father suffering from dementia. All three have love relationships that are distinctly contemporary: loose, qualified, compromised. The father, Lenny Savage, lived with his girlfriend for twenty years, on the contractual understanding that he has no share in her assets on her death. The son Jon (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) lets his girlfriend return to Poland because he cannot bring himself to marry her, after living together for three years. The daughter Wendy (played by Laura Linney) is having an affair with a married neighbor.
It is not quite accurate to describe their common flaw as a lack of commitment. Jon is committed to his book on Bertolt Brecht, while Wendy is an aspiring East Village playwright. The movie does not make clear how much life has shaped ambition, or ambition has formed life, but the siblings are forced to re-examine their past in order to determine their obligations to the present. Despite the family name, the characters are not savages, but very fallible human beings. The story does end with tentative hopefulness. Jon goes to Poland to find his girlfriend. Wendy breaks up with her married man, but adopts his dog which he wanted to put down. In the last image of the film, the dog, hind legs in a tiny wheelchair, does not just represent the father, but also brother and sister.
The sad realism of this film (written and directed by Tamara Jenkins) stands in sharp contrast with the romantic idealism of "Chris and Don." The gay film appears to have taken over the fantasies and the film conventions of straight romances. We need an original vision to capture the untethered bonds of contemporary relationships.
Friday, June 27, 2008
The epigraph is from The Aeneid, Book VI: “Immediately cries were heard. These were the loud wailing of infant souls weeping at the very entrance-way; never had they had their share of life’s sweetness for the dark day had stolen them from their mothers’ breasts and plunged them to a death before their time. “
The poet begins the poem angry that poets waste their time on “the obvious// emblem instead of the real thing.” They write about hyssop dipped in lamb’s blood, instead of antibiotics and sulpha. She falls into a dream-like state (“not sleep, but nearly sleep, not dreaming really/ but as ready to believe”) and is visited by Sappho who guides her down to the underworld.
They arrive beside a river in what seemed to be “an oppressive suburb of the dawn.” The poet sees the shades of children who died of cholera, typhus, croup and diptheria. She also sees the shades of mothers, some of whom have clipped “a limpet shape” to their nipples to suckle darknesses, and others have their arms “weighed down.” Sappho explained these women are not court ladies nor laundresses, but suburban mothers like the poet, picking up “teddy bears and rag dolls and tricycles and buckets.”
The poet asks to be their witness, a mission Sappho affirms, and then returns the poet back to her world “where nothing was changed; nothing was more clear/ but it was wet and the year was late.”
The envoi begins: “It is Easter in the suburb.” The poet waits for her muse who acknowledges both the dustbins brightening under street-lamps, and the jasmine’s shadow cast outside her window in her neighbor’s garden. If the muse comes, she will come as “a brightening and/ the consequences of an April tomb.” The poet wishes to put her hand in her muse’s side in order to verify her own faith, for
If she will not bless the ordinary,
if she will not sanctify the common,
then here I am and here I stay and then am I
the most miserable of women.
“[H]ere I am” echoes, among other allusions, prophet Samuel’s words when, as a child, he hears God calling. “[T]he most miserable of women” reverses the formula for Mary, mother of Jesus, who is “the most blessed of women” after the Annunciation. In the last stanza, the Muse is the voice and angel of the Lord, while the poet is prophet, virgin and mother. The appearance of hubris is somewhat obverted by the rhyme pairs: “ordinary” and “I”; “common” and “women.” The aspiration is already justified by the daring substitution of “teddy bears and rag dolls and tricycles and buckets” for Dido, Deiphobus, Romulus, Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, in Boland’s suburban underworld.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
“The Wild Spray” is about the poet’s marriage: the indistinct happiness of the early days clarifying into present reality, or, as the poem puts it, “a random guess becoming a definition.” Those early days were an ironstone jug filled with long-stemmed flowers whose names the poet learned only much later: true rose, mountain rose, asparagus fern, rosemary, forsythia. The summer air had a consistency of milk. The lights on the mountain were sharp like crocuses seen through the snowfall of darkness, whereas the light on the street, the streetlamp in the rain, was a planet of tears near the whitebeam trees.
Reading “The Wild Spray”
From Paris you brought back your first gift
for me, a stainless steel wine holder, arched
back in a single curve, seen from the side,
and, from the top, a shiny sharp-edged plane.
It was the most definite thing in my kitchen
where mismatched mugs squatted in the sink,
the gas cooker was bronzed with spits of sauce,
and ripe bananas hung over the trash.
I stashed it in some cupboard and forgot
those early days of careful give-and-take.
Now, taking out the holder from my mind,
and flashing it, this way, that, in the sun,
I see it keeps its clear and severe lines,
the boundaries of being, and within
the first material it was made of,
the graceful arch still of that of a bridge,
but, more, the months have worn its cutlass shine
to a rich homely glow, and here it sits,
its empty mouth also a steady hand,
to hold the bottle of Bordeaux we choose.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
The method of revivification in “Mise Eire” is identification with those women. At the start of the poem, the poet asserts she won’t return to Ireland (“where time is time past”). Her roots in the country are brutal. She is the prostitute plying her trade outside the garrison, practicing “the quick frictions.” She is the immigrant on board the Mary Belle, holding her half-dead baby to her, “mingling the immigrant/ guttural with the vowels/ of homesickness.” I am not satisfied by the poem’s method because the identification is incomplete and unconsciously condescending. According to the poet, the immigrant “neither knows nor cares” that
a new language
is a kind of scar
and heals after a while
into a passable imitation
of what went before.
This last stanza describes the poet’s superior knowledge and powers, a sense of superiority not mitigated by that throwaway concession that the immigrant does not care for such hifalutin ideas. The strategy of the poem also subordinates the identifications to the poet’s self-justification for not returning to Ireland.
In “The Oral Tradition,” the poet overhears two women talking about a great-grandmother who gave birth in the fields to a child “without blemish.” The fragments of talk catch the poet’s imagination, and she realizes that women’s talk is an “archive” of such women’s stories. The story gives her “a sense/ suddenly of truth,/ its resonance,” like the singing of the wheels of a train traveling over “iron miles.” I think the poem weaves together successfully the great-grandmother’s story and the poet’s immediate context: after a poetry reading, preparing to leave by train. The five-line stanzas feel more substantial, less sing-songy, than the ballad quatrains; the short lines sound appropriately colloquial though they can rise to lyricism.
“Fever” is my favorite of the three poems. It is conceptually and imaginatively more ambitious; it is also genuinely moving. The poem begins by describing the different ways in which fever was conceived in the past: what remained after the ague was over; what had to be shaken out of “the crush and dimple of cotton”; what had to be beaten out of the flesh of a girl who was seen kissing by the river; what was burned alive in back gardens as if it were a witch. From bonfires going out “in charred dew,” the poem turns suddenly to describe the poet’s grandmother who died in a fever ward, younger than the poet is, leaving behind five orphan daughters. She also left behind “[n]ames, shadows, visitations, hints.” From this “half-sense of half-lives,” the poet determines to reconstruct “the histories I never learned/ to predict the lyric of,” on the hypothesis that
. . . what we lost is a contagion
that breaks out in what cannot be
shaken out from words or beaten out
from meaning and survives to weaken
what is given, what is certain
and burns away everything but this
exact moment of delirium when
someone cries out someone’s name.
The grandmother’s half-forgotten story is a fever itself that can break out in words and meaning, and challenge the status quo. It is also a fever that can reduce us to empathy for a stranger. The rhetoric in the last two stanzas is magnificent.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
the room had been shocked into a glacier
of cotton sheets thrown over the almond
and vanilla silk of the French Empire chairs.
To the poet, the mother covers her fine nature—those French empire chairs— with a cold exterior.
This poem marks a thematic change from the previous book. Night Feed analyzes and quarrels with the relationship between male artists and female workers, and with the relationship between female artists and the male-dominated tradition. “I Remember” pictures a powerful mother-artist and her uneasy relationship with her artist-daughter. The poem also marks a strategic move from the poet’s suburban present to an urban—and ruined—past. Instead of personalizing a mythic past, as in Night Feed, this poem mythologizes a personal past.
Monday, June 23, 2008
"But you leave out the poems," said Dorothea. "I think they are wanted to complete the poet. I understand what you mean about knowledge passing into feeling, for that seems to be just what I experience. But I am sure I could never produce a poem."
"You are a poem--and that is to be the best part of a poet--what makes up the poet's consciousness in his best moods," said Will, showing such originality as we all share with the morning and the spring-time and other endless renewals.
The pastoral poems that follow traffic with the trope of metamorphosis. In ‘Daphne with her thighs in bark,’ the speaker wishes to teach her next sister that it is better to give in to Apollo than to save herself for the trap of domestic life. Apollo’s “rough heat” will keep the sister warm, and give her good memories which will return to her when she sees the way the chestnut tree “thrusts and hardens.”
In “The Woman Changes Her Skin,” the speaker, tired of hiding her aged face with cosmetics, changes herself into a snake.
In “The Woman Turns Herself into a Fish,” the speaker, tired of menstruation, changes herself into a fish. But in the “loomy cold,” the woman still “moons” in her.
In “The Woman in the Fur Shop,” the speaker sees another woman in the shop touching the fur as if it is her own skin. When the woman turns to look at the speaker, the latter turns into an animal with “a splayed tail” and lurks out of the shop.
“The Woman as Mummy’s Head” marks the nadir of these poems; it is, however, also the dark before dawn. The speaker, tired of hiding her age with make-up (again!), pulls off her smile, her nose, her lips, the gristle on her chin, and discovers she can’t hear and see. She puts back her make-up (“my shams, my ambers/ And my old bandages”) so that she can “poultice” these “absences of me.” This poem has teen-angsty lines like “Is someone there?/ I feel you there./ Stand by me.”
“A Ballad of Beauty and Time,” the last poem of the book, is a beautifully wrought parable. It consists of 11 stanzas of 7 lines each. It is written in iambic trimeter, with a flexible rhyme scheme. The speaker has passed the prime of her physical beauty. She seeks help from a plastic surgeon but he tells her he can only “mend the dress” whereas her “quarrel’s with the weave.” She then goes to a sculptor’s studio. She complains to him that his statue is unable to stop her aging. She is “the brute proof” that beauty is not truth. He replies that “Truth is in our lies” and artists practice “the arts of compromise.” His conclusion, which is also Boland’s,:
‘And all I have cast
in crystal or in glass,
in lapis or in onyx,
comes from my knowledge when—
above the honest flaw—
to lift and stay my hand
and say “let it stand”.’
Reading “A Ballad of Beauty and Time”
Sculpting the body is an art
practiced with much preening,
but admiration of one’s parts
has, perhaps, a deeper meaning.
No, not about the love of beauty
which is disinterested;
not about the dream of the body
to be more alive than dead.
Not vanity, as the pure would have it,
admiring their pure souls;
not will, as the weak would crave it
like victory at the polls.
It’s not about the selfish gene
that seeks duplication
and bulges the muscle in the jeans
It’s not a fad. It’s not a fact.
It’s not a petty crime.
It’s simply a desirous act
of parsing passing time,
for time flows on and doesn’t sweat
to rap the human drum,
and so I do my reps and sets
for the rhythm.
Sunday, June 22, 2008
To write about—to—one’s source of inspiration is to detach oneself from it, so that one can analyze it, punish it, and, perhaps, reform it. To leave one’s muse unnamed is to leave it unexamined.
In “The Mother Muse,” the poet seeks inspiration in a mother wiping her child’s mouth with a nappy liner. If only the poet could trace this mother-figure back to her roots, she might teach the poet to be a “sibyl,” to speak at last “my mother tongue.”
According to Robert Graves, the Muse is a mother-goddess, the source, the origin. Boland’s search for her mother muse swims in the mainstream of poetical thought, but the new thing here is the gender of the swimmer. Like other poets, Boland comes from the Muse, but as a mother she identifies with the Muse, and as a straight woman is free from—is cut off from?—sexual passion for the Muse. The challenge for her is to make poems of passionate identification, without resorting to the deep resources of Eros.
Reading “The Mother Muse”
If love is a muse, my muse is a man
who swims out of the dark and rises
to his hind feet, to his full height,
his trident tall as a tree, and thick.
But I fear my muse is my mother
stirring hot soups, scouring pots
till they reflect her smile of steel
that says, I always aim to please.
Saturday, June 21, 2008
Mother, played by Kahtleen Keske, rose to tragic heights when she sang of not being able to feed the children. Played by a terrific Mathew Yohn, Father was a drunken figure from comedy ("Tra-la-la-la-la!"), who brought food home in triumph only to find out from his wife she had sent the children into the woods to gather their supper. The music in Act II was enchanting, especially the cuckoo song, but I did not feel that the corp of 4 ballet dancers--first representing the trees, then the protective angels, finally the rising sun--added much. They seemed transplanted from another art or mode. The Sandman, who sent the children to sleep, and the Dew Fairy, who woke them, also felt like add-ons, more color than structure. Perhaps my feeling is due to this particular production. In Act 3, the witch was a hilarious Francis Liska dressed in drag. The comedy in this final act anticipates the opera's optimistic ending.
Today's performance was also my first visit to the Brooklyn Lyceum. A former public bath, it has been refitted to be a center for sports, film and the performing arts. The bathrooms are basic. The ticket office is the tiny cafe. The performance space, with its exposed brick, its old stone staircases at all four corners, its assortment of folding chairs and benches, is assertively alternative: it has a big heart.
Music: Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921)
Libretto: Adelheid Wette & Constance Bache
Hansel: Marcella Caprario
Gretel: Pamela Scanlon
Mother: Kathleen Keske
Father: Mathew Yohn
Sandman: Mary Jane Dingledy
Dew Fairy: Stefanie Izzo
Witch: Franicis Liska
In “Degas’s Laundresses,” after describing the beauty and competence of these washerwomen, the poet breaks in to warn them not to turn round for the male artist to draw them. Degas’s vision of the women is described as “unbandaging his mind.” A good laundress would understand the twists, turns and blind designs of the artist’s mind, for the bandage is the women’s “winding sheet.” The laundresses have the power to clean, heal, the male artist’s wounded mind.
“Woman Posing” is based on “the painting Mrs Badham by Ingres.” I cannot find the painting, but found a drawing of the same woman by the artist. The poem begins by identifying her: “She is a housekeeping. A spring cleaning.” The frill and lace the artist dressed her in cannot hide “the solid column of her neck.” Ill-at-ease in a place and pose not hers, “[s]he smirks uneasily at what she’s shirking”: housework, and holds the open book “like pantry keys.” The male artist falsifies women’s appearance and work, but the work still shows in women’s appearance.
“On Renoir’s The Grape Pickers” seems to be about his “Grape Pickers at Lunch,” rather than another painting with the poem’s title. The poem begins ominously. In their roundness and fleshiness, the grape pickers “seem to be what they are harvesting.” With the exception of one “red-headed woman” who is sleeping instead of working. The figure of the female artist, she is dreaming of “stoves, raked leaves and plums.” She will pay, however, for her dreams, for “[w[hen she wakes summer will be over.” This poem is my favorite of the three. It poignantly and sharply observes the trade-off the woman-artist has to make between home and work, a trade-off not put to men in the same manner.
Friday, June 20, 2008
The poet is sitting at her Singer sewing machine, with her “sumptuous” trash bag of colors—Laura Ashley cottons—waiting to be cut, stitched and patched together. She senses, however, “a mechanical feel” about her work. She senses her back is to the dark where
are stars and bits of stars
and little bits of bits.
And swiftnesses and brightnesses and drift.
I like how the plural suffixes in “swiftnesses” and “brightnesses” evoke bits, and a great host of bits. The bits are not just things like stars, but also aspects of things like swiftness and brightness; the bits even include “drift,” unformed or unnamed aspects of things. The strong stress on “drift,” after the relatively lighter stresses on the plural suffixes (where the stress is expected to fall in regular iambic pentameter) gives the idea of “drift” a paradoxical form and force.
Though the stars appear to wait like the Laura Ashley cottons for someone to join them together, stars are still stars and not scraps of cloth. Stars are joined by great art, so the (male) poetic tradition insists, whereas patchwork is viewed as a mere craft, usually performed by women. The female poet asks of her second-hand sewing machine, “But is it craft or art?”
She answers herself by choosing to remain “here,” on earth, rather than aspire to the heavens, to sit “cross-legged in the dining-room,” cutting and aligning her patches. She admits “[t]here’s no reason in it”; its rationale will only be seen when the patchwork is complete. When it is finally laid across the floor, like “a night-sky spread,” it will “hit” her:
These are not bits.
They are pieces.
And the pieces fit.
The poem’s argument is not a demonstration of fact, but a statement of faith. The poem’s form, however, demonstrates the basis for that artistic faith. By shaping the “random” thoughts at the beginning of the poem—the bits, the drift—into the final shape of the poem, the poet gives herself, and us, the faith to go on. Patchwork or the Poet’s Craft? Patchwork is the poet’s craft.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
To make things easier around the house, you create routines, routines which in turn make your life feel smaller. There must have been times when, woken up by Liesel’s cry for milk, my sister felt what Boland describes in the opening of “Monotony”:
The stilled hub
and polar drab
of the suburb
The feeling comes upon the poet, standing “in the round” of the staircase, arms “sheafing nappies” like some hideous inverted Demeter. Instead of growing to the sun, the poet grows “in and down// to an old spiral, a well of questions,/ an oracle.” Her question for the oracle: at the “altars” of washing machines and dryers, is she priestess or sacrifice? She observes how
clouds the rinsed,
with a hint
of winter constellations.
She sees stars in the glass. The acute observation leads her to find her answer in Virgo whose arms sheaf the hemisphere. The virgin stars of the constellation “harry” us
to wed our gleams
to brute routines:
Even the stars have routines they must follow. Though the poet accepts “brute routines” grudgingly (How else could one accept it?), by the end of the poem she has imaginatively transformed the stilled hub of the suburb into the rotating earth of the solstices.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
In “Fruit on a Straight-Sided Tray,” the poet thinks that the still-life painter’s true subject is not the late melons, grapes and lemons, but “the space between them.” This restful space gives the fruits the feel of “an assembly of possibilities;/ a deliberate collection of cross purposes.” But this same space, in the poem’s turn, also disguises “the equation that kills,” that “you are my child and between us are// spaces. Distances. Growing to infinities.” I think the conjunction between painting and maternity here is too forced. Too many portentous formulations try to make the connection: “the study of absences,” “the science of relationships,” “a homely arrangement,” “the geometry of the visible,” “physical tryst/ between substances,” and “the equation that kills.” The overall effect of the poem is to forget the fruits in the compulsion to make something of them.
In “Lights,” the poet remembers sailing in “the Artic garden” when she was an urban twelve. The remembered space was “A hard, sharkless Eden,” with, in a nice bit of description, Aurora Borealis “apple-green and icy—/ behind an ice wall.” The poet loved the python waves and dreamt of the sirens who lured sailors to their “phosphor graves.” Now, however, the poet does not lie with these mythical sailors, but “lie half-awake,” with “The child asleep beside me.” No more the Aurora. Only
Doubt still sharks
the close suburban night
And all the lights I love
leave me in the dark.
I find the comparison method in this poem a little too methodical. Before: no sharks, a snow-shrubbed orchard, Aurora Borealis, an ice wall, the blaze of the python waves, sailors. After: sharks, the house garden, no Aurora, ice-cap of shadow, the day’s illusory gleams, baby. The poem does not need the extended description of the poet’s present in the second half. After evoking the childhood memory, and stating the essential facts of her present situation, the poem could end with the striking conclusion—“And all the lights I love/ leave me in the dark”—and leave the dark to the reader’s imagination.
This shortened method is what Boland accomplishes in the next poem. In “After a Childhood Away from Ireland,” the poet remembers vividly slipping into an Irish harbor on “plum-coloured water,” and, ship engines stopped, hearing
a noiseless coming head-on
of red roofs, walls,
dogs, barley stooks.
Then we were there.
The memory is not only physical but existential, for the poet had lost “the habit of land”:
whether of growing out of
or settling back on,
These lines are superficially clumsy, but crucially vital to the poem’s beautiful thought. When, in the last two stanzas (only two!), the poet bends to kiss her daughter, the way returning emigrants kiss the ground of the homeland, and discovers the daughter’s cheeks are “brick pink,” she recovers the habit of land. The growing out of, the settling back on, the being defined by her daughter.
Reading “After a Childhood Away from Ireland”
In the second busiest harbor
of the world
you can see the steel
corners of container ships,
the oil tankers’ block-
of luxury liners.
All that pragmatic pride
I am escaping
your bed, a dugout
from Stone Age,
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
“Night Feed” takes place at dawn. That time is the daughter’s season, “The moment daisies open,” and “the hour mercurial rainwater/ Makes a mirror for sparrows.” The poet-mother tiptoes into the nursery to feed the baby, and when the feed is over, the daughter opens her eyes “Birth-colored and offended.” Now dawn becomes the time of endings (“Worms turn./ Stars go in”), and poet and daughter “begin/ The long fall from grace.”
In “Before Spring,” the transfer of seedlings into pots reminds the poet how quickly the pride “in giving life” passes, how quickly the baby will grow independent of her.
“Energies” is the strongest poem of this group, I think. Her life spent in chores, the poet consoles herself that her daughter, like her daisies, is storing up energy for her own life.
In the dusk they have made hay:
in a banked radiance,
in an acreage of brightness
they are misering the day
while mine delays away.
Like “Night Feed” and “Energies,” “Hymn” begins by stating the time of day: “Four a.m./ December.” The round of routine has to be distinguished in some way, broken up in some way. The poet rejects the star in the sky for the star of “a nursery lamp/ in a suburb window.” The act of devotion is not there and faraway, but here and now: “I know it all by heart:// these candles/ and the altar/ and psaltery of dawn.” The poem should end there, instead of adding a lame last stanza about the world being made flesh in the dark.
In “Partings,” the poet celebrates her union with her child during the night. Daybreak here spells separation:
and light finds us
with the other loves
The poet declares in “Endings” she will never fill a cot with a child again. She thinks of the jasmine and the apple trees, and “what it is the branches end in:”
Chris knew something about taking care of babies.
His lover Don was thirty years younger than him.
In his diary Chris wrote, I know he can leave me
but I can’t leave him until he has no need of me.
Don knew something about taking care of babies,
something worse, watching your lover age and die.
In his drawings of his dying lover, his hands said,
I know he can’t leave me until I have no need of him.
But as he drew picture after picture, to show his need
for the dying man to sit up, picture after lively picture
showed the sudden line mastering the stunned mouth
until the final one spoke, You have no need of me.
Monday, June 16, 2008
oil on canvas, 30" X 34", 2006
Collection of Bernard Schleifer, NYC
Richard Taddei is an artist based in NYC, and he has a website. Browsing the catalogue, I found two paintings I like quite a bit. The first for its abstract power, the second for capturing the look on the youth's face.
oil on canvas, 26" X 29", 2007
oil on canvas, 28" X 25", 2007
Collection of Bernard Schleifer, NYC
The painting is of a recently married couple, but the poem describes only the woman who is “as round/ as the new ring/ ambering her finger” and who “has long since been bedded.” The man appears in the poem in the figure of the artist “by whose edict” the woman will stay “burnished, fertile,/ on her wedding day,/ interred in her joy.” The pejorative diction here suggests that the male gaze is imperious (“edict”), deceptive (“burnished”), exploitative (”fertile”), and, perhaps, even murderous (“interred”). Though the eye of the poet’s husband is “loving, bright/ and constant,” yet it shows this woman only “in her varnishes.”
The poet opposes the superficial male gaze with “a way of life/ that is its own witness.” This way of life begins with simple, caring domestic chores: “Put the kettle on, shut the blind.” It sees that Home is “a sleeping child,” “an open mind,”
and our effects
shrugged and settled
in the sort of light
jugs and kettles
grow important by.
Love is not to be judged by its promise (“the ring”) on wedding day; it is to be judged by its “effects,” or consequences (“jugs and kettles”), in the day-to-day of living together afterwards. This last stanza fulfils the prosodic expectations of the previous stanzas beautifully. All the stanzas have five lines each. Most of the lines have two heavy stresses but some have one (“The oils”), or three (“a quiet search for attention"), or four ("Put the kettle on, shut the blind”). The last stanza not only brings the last long sentence to a rest, it also regularizes the number of stresses per line to two.
and our effects
shrugged and settled
in the sort of light
jugs and kettles
grow important by.
Also, scanned metrically, the last line is iambic, omitting the initial unstressed syllable. The vowel and consonantal sounds in “shrugged and settled” are repeated in “jugs and kettles,” while the vowel sounds in “in the sort of light” are repeated in “grow important by.” The sound patterning combines with the rhythm and syntax to give the conclusion its extraordinarily convincing coloring.
Reading “Domestic Interior”
These linen sheets are washed to silk, they are
so soft. They’re older than the two of us.
You asked me this morning for the weather.
It’s fine. It’s delicate. It’s luxurious.
[Madam Merle:] "When you've lived as long as I you'll see that every human being has his shell and that you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances. There's no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we're each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances. What shall we call our 'self'? Where does it begin? where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us--and then it flows back again. I know a large part of myself is in the clothes I choose to wear. I've a great respect for things! One's self--for other people--is one's expression of one's self; and one's house, one's furniture, one's garments, the books one reads, the company one keeps--these things are all expressive."
. . . [Isabel:] "I don't agree with you. I think just the other war. I don't know whether I succeed in expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me. Nothing that belongs to me is any measure of me; evrything's on the contrary a limit, a barrier, and a perfectly arbitrary one. Certainly the clothes which, as you say, I choose to wear, don't express me; and heaven forbid they should!"
"You dress very well," Madam Merle lightly interposed.
"Possibly; but I don't care to be judged by that. My clothes may express the dressmaker, but they don't express me. To begin with it's not my choice that I wear them; they're imposed upon me by society."
"Should you prefer to go without them?" Madam Merle enquired in a tone which virtually terminated the discussion.
"Well," said Henrietta, "you think you can lead a romantic life, that you can live by pleasing yourself and pleasing others. You'll find you're mistaken. Whatever life you lead you must put your soul in it--to make any sort of success of it; and from the moment you do that it ceases to be romance, I assure you: it becomes grim reality!"
. . . under the guise of caring only for intrinsic values Osmond lived exclusively for the world. Far from being its master as he pretended to be, he was its very humble servant, and the degree of its attention was his only measure of success. He lived with his ye on it from morning till night, and the world was so stupid it never suspected the trick. Everything he did was pose--pose so subtly considered that if one were not on the lookout one mistook it for impulse. Ralph had never met a man who lived to much in the land of consideration. His tastes, his studies, his accomplishments, his collections, were all for a purpose. His life on his hill-top at Florence had been the conscious attitude of years. His solitude, his ennui, his love for his daughter, his good manners, his bad manners, were so many features of a mental image constantly present to him as a model of impertinence and mystification. His ambition was not to please the world, but to please himself by exciting the world's curiosity, and then declining to satisfy it.
Her [Isabel's] notion of the aristocratic life was simply the union of great knowledge with great liberty; the knowledge would give one a sense of duty and the liberty a sense of enjoyment. But for Osmond it was altogether a thing of forms, a conscious calculated attitude.
The Countess [Gemini] seemed to her to have no soul; she was like a bright rare shell, with a polished surface and a remarkably pink lip, in whch something would rattle when you shook it. This rattle was apparently the Countess's spiritual principle, a little loose nut that tumbled about inside of her.
Sunday, June 15, 2008
It's you that scare me, you and your great whanger,
a standing threat to boys both good and naughty.
Look, wag the damn thing where and how you fancy,
all you've a mind to out there, cocked and ready--
just leave him out of it, make one exception!
The plea then turns into a threat. Should "ill-will or mindless madness" drive Aurelius to practice "low tricks" on Catullus, he will feel his retaliation,
feet spread and strapped, back-passage widely gaping,
reamed all its length with radishes and mullets!
Ouch! Roman adult masculinity: okay to fuck, but not to be fucked; even mindless madness is subject to the discipline of an iron will. The unstressed syllable at the end of every line gives the line a falling rhythm (as opposed to the strong rising rhythm in English verse), which seems to add to the urbane tone.
Saturday, June 14, 2008
In Number 5, written in hendecasyllables, the speaker asks Lesbia to love him, and to value scandal, gossip, old men's strictures at "no more than a farthing!" Suns can rise and set "ad infinitum," but, once their "brief life's quenched," humans have only "one unending night" to sleep through. The numerical tropes, familiar, even cliched, set up these following marvelous lines:
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
then a thousand more, a second hundred,
then yet another thousand then a hundred--
The lines have a winsome spontaneity in the swing from thousand to hundred, and then back to thousand, only to push off to another hundred. The numbers are repeated with nice variations: "a thousand kisses"; "a thousand more"; another thousand." There is witty play on the idea that uboth "thousand" and "hundred" can signify countless, a conceit elaborated in the poem's conclusion:
then when we've notched up all these many thousands,
shuffle the figures, lose count of the total,
so no maleficent enemy can hex us
knowing the final sum of all our kisses.
The "maleficent enemy" is also death, already introduced at the poem's beginning. The seduction poem, like all carpe diem poems of its ilk, is finally about mortality, here, re-imagined as "the final sum of all our kisses."
After "Review," the section "Reflections" meditates, in short prose pieces, on different aspects of Bacon's art, such as "The painter as medium," "Bacon and poetry," "Bacon and Giocometti," "Bacon's secret vice," and "Images of the human body." The third section "Fragments of Talk" gathers together snippets of interviews and conversations Sylvester had with Bacon.
Bacon in his own words:
I think that the very great artists were not trying to express themselves. They were trying to trap the fact, because, after all, artists are obsessed by life and by certain things that obsess them that they want to record. And they've tried to find systems and construct the cages in which these things can be caught.
I think that great art is deeply ordered. Even if within the order there may be enormously instinctive and accidental things, nevertheless I think that they come out of a desire for ordering and for returning fact onto the nervous system in a more violent way.
You see, all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself; and you may say it has always been like that, but now it's entirely a game. What is fascinating now is that it's going to become much more difficult for the artists, because he must really deepen the game to be any good at all.
Triptych, May–June 1973
Francis Bacon, 1973
Oil on canvas
198 × 147.5 cm, 78 × 58.1 in
Milan Kundera: "One day the veil falls and we are left stranded with the body, at the body's mercy... reduced to our fear, like in 'Triptych 1973' by Francis Bacon. And if some-one was presiding invisibly over that little horror scene, it was no apparatchik, or executioner, it was a God - or an anti-God, a Demiurge, a Creator, the one who had trapped us for ever by that 'accident' of the body he cobbled together in his workshop and of which, for a while, we are forced to become the soul."
Friday, June 13, 2008
He splits my lip with his fist,
shadows my eyes with a blow,
knuckles my neck to its proper angle (from “In His Own Image”);
or robber, in the guise of medical personnel:
to their looting
to the sleight
of their plunder.
I am a brute site.
Theirs is the true booty (from “Mastectomy”);
or porn addict:
I’ll show them how
blind on files,
my curves and arcs (from “Exhibitionist).
The speaker in these poems doesn’t seem to like other women much either. In “Menses,” she envies the plants in her garden that grow from their own stamens, without the messiness of birth, and compares these plants to “street-walkers, /lesbians,/ nuns.” In fact, the speaker doesn’t seem to like herself very much. “My body is a witch, “ she announces in “Anorexic,” “I am burning it.” The poems are angry; the poems are hateful. Accusations fly indiscriminately like a shower of arrows. Proclamations of victories ring hollow.
Ironically, despite the tirade against the mimic muse, the figurative language sounds more like mimicry than before. The exhibitionist-stripper recalls Plath; the witch reminds me of Anne Sexton. Boland’s language is so bare (as if that quality guarantees authenticity) that she often tries to kick it up a notch by using words as a part of speech they are not normally used as. So, for instance, in “Mastectomy,” the speaker recognized
across his desk.
The radical change in prosody is striking. Most of these poems are written in very short lines (with two or three heavy stresses), with occasional end-rhymes, and in regular stanzas. The best poem of the book “In Her Own Image” makes effective use of this new prosody. The six stanzas each has five lines. After the poem has set up the circular imagery of eyes and wedding ring to describe an alienated past self, stanza 3 presses the simple words into a compact round:
She is not myself
anymore she is not
even in my sky
anymore and I
am not myself.
The turn takes place neatly in the middle of the poem, after the third stanza quoted above:
I will not disfigure
her pretty face.
Let her wear amethyst thumbprints,
a family heirloom,
a sort of burial necklace.
Line three is a sharp image suggesting strangulation. The speaker knows where to bury her strangled former self: “where the lettuce seeds,/ where the jasmine springs/ no surprises.”
Thursday, June 12, 2008
With what drums and dances, what deceits
Rituals and flatteries of war,
Chants and pipes and witless empty rites
And war-like men
And wet-eyed patient women
You did protect yourself from horrors,
From the lizarding of eyelids
From the whiskering of nipples,
From the slow betrayals of our bedroom mirrors—
How you fled
The kitchen screw and the rack of labour,
The wash thumbed and the dish cracked,
The scream of beaten women,
The crime of babies battered,
The hubbub and the shriek of daily grief
That seeks asylum behind suburb walls . . .
You get the idea. The poet berates herself for writing about past wars and not the present ones, the wars abroad and not the wars at home, wars in the abstract and not wars in the body. I have noted the literariness in some of Boland’s earlier poems, but this disavowal of the earlier work in favor of the pressing present throws out the baby with the bathwater. It surrenders to its zeitgeist, instead of surrounding it. Though I am glad the gender stereotypes in the earlier poetry have been rightly identified (“war-like men/ And wet-eyed patient women”) and condemned, I am disturbed that, in the litany of suburban “horrors,” no mention is made of men’s pain. Only the clichés of “beaten women” and “babies battered.” I worry for the poetry, as much as for the ideas of the poetry.
My fears, as I continue to read, are not assuaged by what the poet proposes to do to her Muse with her words:
Make your face naked.
Strip your mind naked.
Drench your skin in a woman’s tears.
There is an air of exhilaration in these lines, a sense of liberation from the strictures of tradition, the tricks of poetry, the corset of gender role. But nakedness is relative, not absolute. We are always more or less naked, for even stripped to our skin we may find the skin, well, a skin for something deeper, more naked. Onion-like, we are never only naked.
But perhaps my dismay is an overreaction. The poem calls itself knowingly a tirade, and one does not expect a tirade to be subtle. Finally, a manifesto is justified by the poetry it produces. I am going to walk past the demonstration, and try to listen for the demons.
Reading “Tirade for the Mimic Muse”
Whenever I walk past a body of demonstrators,
I feel as if I’m a different species: a mangy dog
when they call for the dogs of war to be leashed,
an inquiring antelope when they call for justice
for the black man shot dead by the cops the night
before his wedding, a giant panda ambling off
when they call for the Chinese to free Tibet.
It must feel good to call for peace, justice, freedom.
It must feel human. I have only personal demons.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
“Chorus of the Shadows” is a poem “after Nelly Sachs,” a Jewish German poet and dramatist who escaped from the Nazi concentration camp on the last airplane flight to Sweden. The Shadows, presumably persecuted or murdered Jews, begin the poem by comparing themselves to puppets strung by a puppet master. They end by delivering an ultimatum to the planet which “scripts” their part, to take away light, give them a new part to play or a stake in the luck, “the frail/ Perfect luck of a dragonfly above/ The rim of a well.”
I did not care enough for “The Greek Experience” to try to make sense of it.
In “Suburban Woman,” the woman is torn between town and country in five heroic sections, and in much violent language. I cannot tell if she is an allegory for the shell-shocked country, or the shell-shocked country an allegory for her. The first strikes me as a forced comparison, the second as overblown. In the fifth and last section, the poet enters the poem, too late in my view, to make the woman a kind of muse. Though defeated, both survive, “housed/ together in my compromise, my craft/ who are of one another the first draft.”
“Ode to Suburbia” compares suburbia in an extended metaphorish way to an ugly sister from Cinderella. The poem is pretty ho-hum until the last stanza in which something significant—and not merely witty—about suburbia is said. In suburbia “the same lion who tore stripes/ Once off zebras,” now sleeps “Small beside the coals” and may “Catch a mouse.” If you like lions, go to the city or the jungle; leave the suburbia to us kitties.
The last poem “The Hanging Judge” tells the story of one James Lynch Fitzstephen, a Galway magistrate in 1493. When his son killed a friend who fell for his sweetheart, the father hanged him for the crime. The poem seems to condemn the father-judge, but it gives either too much detail or too little, to make a convincing case to either the heart or the head. The 6-stanza poem is too short for the morally complex narrative to work.
The race to the finishing line was not a happy one.
In his zoo work, [Richard] Garner invented what we would today call the primate playback experiment. . . .
This re-emergence [of the playback technique] is mainly due to the work of the British ornithologist-turned-primatologist Peter Marler. . . .
The Amboseli vervets made scientic history. When the vervets heard a played-back call originally uttered in the presence of an eagle, they fled into the bushes. For leopard and snake calls, they responded in distinct but similarly adaptive ways. Seufarth, Cheney and Marler proved that the calls contained not just high-arousal cues but specific information about the environment.
"Linguists," [Pinker] writes, "call the inventory of concepts and the schemes that combine them 'conceptual semantics'. Conceptual semantics--the language of thought--must be distinct from language itself, or we would have nothing to go on when we debate what our words mean."
Consider two drawings, one sharp-edged and spiky, the other soft and cloudlike, that grace a page of the book. Which is the malooma and which is the takata? People tend to agree on the answer (the cloud is malooma), because our brains are prepared to make sense of sound symbolism.
Pinker occasionally back-pedals from the reductive abyss. He reassures readers, for instance, that the patterned regularities he discusses are not "necessarily direct reflections of the genetic patterning of our brains; some may emerge from brains and bodies interacting in human ecologies over the course of human history". For those who approach human behavior by working to understand acts of meaning-making between people, far stronger support exists for embodied and distributed cognition than is hinted at by Pinker.
One example comes from neuroscience, where research reveals the great plasticity of the human brain. In a dynamic and iterative process that unfolds according to each life's experiences, our brain circuits are sculpted and resculpted. Another example comes from a thought experiment. What if we rigged up one of Richard Garner's cages and settled inside, on an urban street, in a remote rural village, or along a forest path, to witness human interaction unfold? How far would conceptual semantics take us in interpreting what we would hear and see? Anthropologists have been there, and done that (minus the cage). Humans everywhere, they know, mak meaning together in song-laden sacred rituals, loud messy conflicts, or calm conversations. It is in creative, contingent, unpredictable and emotional meaning-making that our human nature truly lies.
from Raymond Tallis's Commentary "License my roving hands: Does neuroscience really have anything to teach us about the pleasures of reading John Donne?"
For the extraordinary thing about human beings--and what captures what is human--is that they transcend their bodies; that human experience is not solitary sentience but has a public face; it belongs to a community of minds. This is a process that has developed over many hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of years since hominids parted company from the monkeys. The neuromythologist, trying to find citizens and their worlds in neurones, stuffs all that has been created by the collective of brains back into a stand-alone brain; indeed into a small part of such a brain. True, we require a brain to participate in the community of minds; but that participation is not to be reduced to activity in bits of brains.
It is important not to suggest that it is only in rather special states of creativity--say, reading or writing poems--that we are distanced from animals. This is a mistake. We are different from animals in every waking moment of our lives. The bellowing on the lavatory that I referred to earlier demonstrates a huge gulf between us and our nearest animal kin. But if we deny this difference (invoking chimps etc) even in the case of creativity--and the appreciation of works of art--then no distance remains. That is why one would expect critics to be on the side of the poets, with their sense of this complexity, rather than siding with the terribles simplificateurs of scientism.
from "Then and Now," from Gore Vidal's review of M. A. Screech's translation of Montaigne's essays:
"In every work of genius", wrote Emerson, "we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty." After four centuries, Montaigne's curious genius still has that effect on his readersm and, time and again, one finds in his self-portrait one's ow most brilliant apercus (the ones that somehow we forgot to write down and so forgot) restored to us in his essays . . . .
“Conversation with an Inspector of Taxes,” a wryly humorous explanation for not paying taxes, is “Concerned to discern the role of the poet/ Within the ranks of the proletariat” (rhyming couplet concluding the 6-line stanza). The poet tries to explain writing poetry to the Tax Inspector in terms the latter would understand. So: rhyme is roughly equivalent to a promissory note; in the petty cash of sense, poets “moisten the coins of nuance”; as for the question of taxable travel, this poet has “bitted and stampeded Pegasus.” His debts, the poem turns, are not to Bureaucracy, but to Poetry, not monetary, but “debts of honor” to the revolutionary Red Army, to the “winter flowering cherry of Japan,” and to “the fastness of my winter cradle,” his homeland.
“The Atlantic Ocean” is a far more complex, and moving, poem. Boland uses an interesting stanza form: 4 lines of iambic pentameter followed by four lines of iambic trimeter, both of which rhyme abab with variations. The thinner section depicts to good effect “A shrivelled Europe”; “the ballyhoo/ of war”; “A squad of drops” that tears imperial crests to tatters; the “will to fight”; and the poem’s final recognition that the ocean, “in its wild station,” is the elder brother of the Russian Revolution. The second to last stanza is particularly beautiful, in its location of revolutionary faith in the formation of coral:
So what has started well can flourish still,
As for example underneath the tide
The marvel of structured self-perfecting coral
Now a milestone, soon to be a guide
xxxxTo the she-whale, to the sperm-whale nosing
xxxxClear of the shark, the porpoises
xxxxBraceleting the ships’ bows,
xxxxThe octopus intricately dozing.
Mayakovsky may seem a surprising choice for translation but these two poems speak to concerns already present in Boland’s poetry: the role of the poet, the love of a homeland, war, the establishment of a republic. The poems’ contrasting tones can also be found in her poetry: the wry wit and the meditative fervor. The heroic Cossack stallions remind me of the horses and horsemen in Boland’s romantic imagination. The comparison of the ocean to an elder brother echoes Boland’s domestic tropes for the world, her understanding that “it’s in the family.”
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
So my heart might not harden
Since yours at last found light relief:
Sleeping partners in a garden,
Your final acolyte a thief.
The association between the addressees is loose and light. To its delight, the poem finds surprising phrasing for old ideas. I am surprised by its religious spirit.
Reading “Dependence Day”
Today I will acknowledge
my supporters. My chair,
my desk, my wardrobe rails,
but not my bed, that edge,
and certainly not the stair
that promises and fails.
Monday, June 09, 2008
In “Anon,” the poem is compared to a “love child” the author abandons without giving it his name. In “Elegy for a Youth Changed to a Swan,” the mother-speaker prays for the woods to become a broad ocean, so that her forest-loving son, now a swan, may see not “the cold crest,/ But branches of the whitebeam and the maple.” “O Fons Bandusiae,” a translation of a Horatian ode (Book 3, XIII), devotes a stanza to the kid goat to be sacrificed to the sacred fount.
And tomorrow we will bring
A struggling kid, his temples sore
With early horns, as sacrifice.
Tomorrow his new trumpeting
Will come to nothing, when his gore
Stains and thaws your bright ice.
I don’t know how the Latin compares with this, but here are the same lines in an English translation by A. S. Kline I found by googling. Kline says he/she follows the original Latin meter, and gives a reasonably close English version.
tomorrow we’ll honour you
with a kid, whose brow is budding
with those horns that are destined for love and battle.
All in vain: since this child of the playful herd will
darken your ice-cool waters,
with the stain of its crimson blood.
I think Boland’s version shows her gift for the visceral detail: the temples sore with early horns, the new trumpeting, the hot gore thawing the bright ice.
The poem I like best in this group has nothing to do with children. In “From the Irish of Pangur Ban” a scholar-monk charmingly compares himself to his cat in their hunt for knowledge and mice. It is a translation of an Old Irish poem written in the 8th century. Pangur Ban, or “white waulker,” is the name of the cat, the poem being anonymous. (Waulking—or walking, or fulling, or tucking—is a step in woolen clothmaking which involves cleansing the cloth of impurities.)
Here’s a prose version of the 8-stanza poem, by J. Marchand:
1. I and White Pangur, each of us in his special craft. His mind is set on hunting; my mind is on my special subject.
2. I love resting (better than any fame) at my book, with diligent understanding; White Pangur is not envious of me; he loves his childish craft.
3. When we are (tale without tiredness), in our house, being alone, we have an endless sport, a thing to which we may apply our skill.
4. It is usual, at times, by feats of valor, that a mouse sticks in his net. As for me, there falls into my net, a difficult rule with hard meaning.
5. He points fiercely against an enclosing wall his eye, bright, perfect. I myself direct against the keenness of knowledge my sharp eye, though it be quite weak.
6. He is happy with swiftness of movement upon a mouse sticking in his sharp paws. Which I understand a difficult pleasant problem, as for me, I am happy, too.
7. Though we may be indeed (like this) at any time, neither disturbs his partner; good to each of us is his art, each rejoices in them.
8. He himself is master of it, the work which he does every day. To bring clarity to difficulty, I am at my own work.
Boland’s version uses quatrains with alternating long and short lines, and a rhyme scheme of abab. Her version of stanza 6 is particularly delightful.
And his delight when his claws
Close on his prey
Equals mine when sudden clues
Light my way.
I love the sonic and semantic sympathies in “claws, “close,” and “clues.” Also, the perfect proportion of the stanza divided between cat and monk, equals in deed, and in need.
Reading “From the Irish of Pangur Ban”
An Irish song to set alongside a Latin ode,
a monkish cell to a swelling fount,
you sing to all who walk on this black road,
what cat and monk and poet want.
Sunday, June 08, 2008
“The Family Tree” begins with playful wit: “I miss them as though they existed.” The poet finds unexpectedly her aunt and uncles “In this woods growing as trees.” Her uncles, “unable even once/ To shed their gravity” are like the yew “Which will not lose a leaf for spring and autumn.” The poem turns dark when it sees in the laburnums cousins who “Will wage their sterile fight, their arid battle/ Pleasuring to poison enemy cattle,” but who are “Innocent children now.” In the end, the poet sees a reversal of her playful first imagining: “I see/ Only woods lost in my family tree.” The poem is too bloodless to support such a conclusion, I think. The nice bits are the description: the yew-uncles with their “Serious loop and swag of dark branches,” and the laburnum-cousins “lace at the wrists, / Ruffles at the throat.”
In the Ulster Cycle of mythology, Naoise and his two brothers were waylaid by King Conchobar who murdered them and forcibly married Naoise’s lover, Deidre. Bolands’ poem “Naoise at Four” is addressed to her godson named after the hero. Myth, the poem begins, is a way of healing—making sense of—old violence, but the poet despairs of solving the present “sudden Irish fury” to a “folk memory.” Instead, she wishes for her godson a return to the wood around his house, a lucky context
Where values can be learned, fixed,
A truce with life negotiated
On terms you yourself can make
Unlike your luckless namesake.
The wish is perfectly understandable, since it arises from the desire to protect a dearly loved child from the country’s mad violence, but, within the terms of this poem and earlier ones, the wish is delusory and deluding; it is to make “a perfumed stockade” Boland praises Mary Robinson for not making for her daughter in “The Laws of Love.” “Naoise at Four,” as if in silent acknowledge of this problem, does not finally convince itself: it includes incidental imagery (“your love/ Is a closed circuit like your glove/ In your mother’s”) and, after setting up the myth for the sake of the contrast with present atrocity, does nothing more with it, but develops an unrelated strand of metaphor, that of credit. To assert in the conclusion “Your currency will not devalue,” is surely, in the money markets, incredible.
Reading “Naoise at Four”
Hannah, my niece, your name,
too, has a long history.
Now you play setting up home
(after marrying Prince Disney),
and dressing up Barbie,
later you will cry for a child
to make you a real woman.
Remember, Hannah smiled,
and in 1 Samuel 2:1-10
sang as well as any man.
Directed by Henry Wishcamper, the play interweaves three monologues spoken by three men at a bus terminal. Kevin (john Gallagher, Jr.), the young man who just left home to live on his own, hangs out with loser-bands, and lets the girl he loves walk away. Dermot (Brian d'Arcy James) is a middle-aged exec who thinks he's going somewhere, finally, in his career, only to find himself back at square one, with a wife who chose him because she pitied him for his mediocrity. Joe (Jim Norton), living in an old age home, recalls giving up a romantic opportunity because he was too afraid. As Kevin puts it, the world has only two souls we all share: the one who flows along with things, and the one who fights. The three men share the first.
The writing is sharp, and sometimes moving. McPherson has a good ear for the way people talk about themselves. The acting is always vivid; especially memorable is Jim Norton who creates an average Joe quite different from the talkative drunk of an older brother in "The Seafarer." I did not like the soft background music and lighting effects that accompany epiphanic moments. The writing is evocative enough on its own.
The Headhunter's all-purpose 5-point scale: ****
Saturday, June 07, 2008
In “Sisters,” the poet mourns for the death of her sister, seven years ago, and blames herself for betraying her “By letters unwritten, unlifted phones, /Unspoken words.” Now love, death and guilt lock them in a “grim embrace,” a sisterhood that the three “harridans” of Fate, who never “Noticed one untwisted joy,” could not sever.
“The Laws of Love” expands on the sisterhood based on love and loss, with now the addition of national hope. The poem addresses Mary Robinson, a senator then, who would become the first female President of Ireland. Boland and Robinson were born in the same year, 1944. I don’t know how well they knew each other at the time of the poem’s writing. While intimating a personal bond between the two women, the poem knows itself to be a public occasion.
At first light the legislator
Who schooled you, creator
Of each force, each element,
Its secret law, its small print
Nature—while dawn, baptismal as waters
Which broke early in dark, began—
First saw the first of your daughters
Become in your arms a citizen.
The syntax is formal, patterned and deliberate, piling up the appositives, delaying the main verb till the seventh line, balancing phrase against phrase, ringing changes on key words, accentuating its meaning through alliteration. Nature is both “legislator” and “creator.” As the first, it has its secret law and small print; as the second it makes every force and element. This Creator and Lawgiver, at a primeval and daily “first light,” presides over the daughter’s change into a citizen. The change, statutory in fact, is figured as both sacred (“baptismal”) and natural as childbirth (“waters/ Which broke”). This Creator and Lawgiver is, appropriately since the poem is addressed to a woman, a Mother.
Invocation and birth over, the poem describes the pitfalls this Mother-Lawgiver manages to avoid. She does not make for her daughter “a perfumed stockade,” nor impose on her nation “torts for those/ Fragments which matter less and less/ As all fragments.” In bringing up this young daughter, in giving order to this young state, she must focus that force—
Which makes your Moy in its ridge pool
Prime teenage trout for butchery,
While at the same time fulfil
The blood-tie of the tide
that bloody force that grows and kills, that divides and unites—she must “focus” that force “Slowly a miracle/ a closing wound.” The image here, of resurrection and of healing, is at once supernatural and natural.
That hope must contend with the mockery “That sisters kill, that sisters die,” but it is also strengthened by the “laws of love” the poet and the legislator have found between them. In the final image of the poem, wishes may fall, unfulfilled, down a wishing well, but they are still there, as the well is. The breaking waters in stanza one, polluted by the blood-tie of the tide in stanza three, are transformed into drinking water in the end. The well is not only associated with woman’s work, it is also an image of the womb.
“The Laws of Love” is a great public poem, in an age of private lyrics. The poet may never become the legislator of the world (Thank goodness for that!), but the singer is sister to the lawgiver.
Friday, June 06, 2008
In “The Other Woman,” the poet knows she cannot rival the ideal woman her husband commands to come, “like a harem wife,” into his novels. The fictitious Other is beautiful, young, immortal, obedient; she does not bind him to “the married state”; she is perfect because she is perfectly shaped by and for his desire. Yet the poet insists at the end of the poem that she has “the better bargain” compared to her rival,
For I imagine she has grown strange
To you among the syntax and sentences
By which you distance her and would exchange
Her speaking part for any of our silences.
This turn in the final quatrain does not convince. The poem offers no reason why the ideal woman would grow strange to the husband, nor evidence that he wishes to distance her or exchange “her speaking part for any of our silences.” “For I imagine” sounds wistful and wishful. “Silences,” which ends the poem, is ominous for the relationship. The implicit comparison between writing novels and poems reverses usual expectations of each genre. If novels written by the husband fantasize about an ideal woman, the poems written by the poet-wife struggle with an actual husband.
In “Cyclist with Cut Branches,” the poet sees a cyclist knocked down on the road, branches of jasmine and hyacinth fallen over him, and sees in him an image of her husband “Like an animal the packs pursue/ To covert in a forest,” and realizes the branches represent decay. The move from pursuit to decay is abrupt. In the last stanza, the poet consoles her husband that, since they, like the branches, have been cut at the flower but not at the root, they “still had lives to live.” The consolation does not seem to follow from the fallen cyclist, who disappears from sight. The poem perhaps should be renamed “Cut Branches with Cyclist.”
The husband is again smashed up in the sonnet “Ready for Flight.” As the crowds disperse “around your heart,” he is discovered to be “trampled/ Underfoot,” his “terraces smashed,” and, in a disturbing phallic image, “the entry/ Into holy places rudely sampled.” The violence against the husband is vividly imagined, whereas the poet’s promise of salvation is given in rather conventional imagery: she would come at once to him like “butterfly and swan and turtle dove,” and carry him to “peace.”
“Prisoners” has the poet seeing the lion first in a zoo, and, after a series of places in growing up, in her husband in their suburban home. The images after the first one never come alive, but the first sighting of the caged lion is dangerous: “as bored as a socialite/ With her morning post, I saw him slit/ A rabbit open like an envelope.”
“The Botanic Gardens” is a more successful poem. Every year the couple returns to the gardens to find something new, and to sense the “terms of reference” for their relationship. These damn writers, a rose is never just a rose. Anyway, trees twined “in peace and stress” represent their sexual union; Corsican pine and guerilla poison plants are the flowers of forced proximity; the “African grotesqueries” of cacti and deformed trees make the husband wonder what they symbolize. The poem has the feel of painting-by-numbers, but I like the Corsican pine, guerilla poison plant, and African grotesqueries.
The best poem of the five is a “Song” of courtship. The lover is pictured as a river that the poet feared would “slip/ By me,” and so she asked him first, and risked the first kiss. They forded the river, the poet holding her skirt high, drops of water splashing her thigh, when the lover, “ahead of me at last,” turned, and claimed
‘Look how the water comes
Boldly to my side;
See the waves attempt
What you have never tried.’
He late that night
Followed the leaping tide.
The last two lines archly and accurately puncture male vanity.
We’ll do this day by day, at the start
we promised each other and ourselves.
Then my stained underwear dropped
in your bag, my books moved to your shelves.
Now, when I remove a book from its place,
Rhyme’s Reason, Snow, or What I Loved,
the other books keep that spinal space
for a second, then fall. And when you shove
the laundry bag to the kitchen, tilt
our clothes into the washer, the bag,
empty of all that daily weight,
to the floor mysteriously sags.