Sunday, July 05, 2015

`Teach Men Soberness: To Be Awake'

Marius Kociejowski: “Yes, he was a fool and he could be such a silly poet but he produced a handful of great poems.” 

Christopher Middleton: “It was the alcohol, of course. I don’t know if he ever wrote under the influence or just let it go, but his poetry is wonderful to me because, by and large, it has a strict sobriety about it.” 

The poet in question is Zbigniew Herbert. The exchange comes in Palavers and a Nocturnal Journal (Shearsman Books, 2004), which includes conversations between Kociejowski and Middleton recorded in 2002 and 2003. Marius has sent me copies of Palavers and two of his poetry collections, Doctor Honoris Causa (Anvil, 1993) and Music’s Bride (Anvil, 1999). I won’t pretend to accurately describe the flavor of these volumes, as they arrived only on Friday, but will note the recurrence of Herbert throughout Kociejowski’s work. Both men befriended the Pole, who died in 1998. Through the grapevine I knew Herbert had a reputation for hard drinking. In some poets, alcohol suffuses their lines. Consider Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas and John Berryman. But in others – Herbert and Auden, foremost – the booze is hardly a shadow on the work. Most of Herbert’s poems are notably sober-minded. The best of them, however fanciful, fractured or funny they seem, usually suggest a certain gravitas. As Chesterton noted, the opposite of “funny” is not “serious” but “not funny.” Herbert deftly balances “funny” (or witty, or jokey, or amusing) and “serious,” as in the Mr. Cogito poems. 

In Labyrinth on the Sea (The Collected Prose 1948-1998, Ecco, 2010), Herbert tells us he explores a Minoan sarcophagus and experiences a “happy moment of illuminating knowledge and inspired sobriety.” “Happy” is not a word often encountered in Herbert’s poetry and prose. “Inspired sobriety” is an inspired coinage. Customarily, sobriety is associated with stony dullness, a literal-minded plodding. In a 1984 interview, Herbert makes even grander claims for the importance of sobriety: 

“Writingand in this I disagree with everybodymust teach men soberness: to be awake. [Spoken in English.] To make people sober. It does not mean, not to try. But with a small internal correction. I reject optimism despite all the theologians. Despair is a fruitful feeling. It is a cleanser, from desire, from hope. `Hope is the mother of the stupid.’ [This is a Polish proverb.] I don’t like hope.” 

Herbert the provocateur is at work here, of course, but so is Herbert the cool, stoical, classical-minded veteran of the twentieth century and its horrors. In Doctor Honoris Causa, in a poem he dedicates to Herbert, “The Stag,” Kociejowski writes: 

“How to say that once again darkness falls,
That plainness of speech ripens into song,
A nightjar swooping through its silences.
We are smuggled home to our sleek places,
The malevolent wasp its empty comb.”

Saturday, July 04, 2015

`Genuine Ebullience and Elegant Despair'

“Let the All-Stars shine from that jerry-built stage.
Let their high notes shimmer above the cold waves.
Time and the tide are counting the beats.
Death the collector is keeping the tab.”
 

Might as well make a party of the inevitable, with friends and good music. Brood about death, yes. Dread it, of course. But don’t let “Death the collector” be a party pooper. The poem is Dana Gioia’s “Meet Me at the Lighthouse,” a celebration of the fabled West Coast jazz club. All of the musicians recruited by Gioia (“the best talent in Tartarus”) are still alive when he calls the party in the summer of ’71– Gerry Mulligan (d. 1996), Cannonball Adderley (d. 1975), Hampton Hawes (d. 1977), Stan Getz (d. 1991), Chet Baker (d. 1988) and Art Pepper (d. 1982). 

The poem is witty and audacious enough to have been written by Tom Disch, the poet and science fiction writer once described by Gioia as “an illegal immigrant from across the literary Rio Grande.” Even while writing the lightest of light verse, Disch is darkly addressing his old friend and antagonist, “Death the collector.” As Elizabeth Hand puts it: “Few people make a successful career of contemplating death and suicide; fewer still approach the subject with the genuine ebullience and elegant despair of the prolific, criminally underappreciated writer Thomas M. Disch.” Here is “A Cape Mendocino Rose,” set on the shore of Gioia’s Pacific, from Disch’s final collection, About the Size of It (Anvil, 2007): 

“Trapped in this single hope
That life goes on, life does go on,
We search for a suitable trope. 

“That life goes on, life does go on
Can’t be denied, until it can.
`Gather ye rosebuds,’ that dark koan 

“Expresses best, and earliest,
The search for a suitable trope.
Or there’s old Horace G’s `Go west!’ 

“He on the Pacific coast
The sun spotlights a spectral rose.
Trapped in a single trope,
We lurch from hope to specious hope.” 

On this date, July 4, in 2008, Disch, age sixty-eight, took his own life.

Friday, July 03, 2015

`Contractility Is a Virtue'

From a distance they resemble wood-colored buttons incongruously tacked to the garage door. They number among summer’s sadder emblems: Snails, marooned, dried-out, glued to an inhabitable surface. In the night, they climb, seeking – what? Morning adheres them in place. They are not swimmers but their medium is moisture. Snails are toothless, indiscriminate feeders. “Gastropod” means stomach foot. They move with the aid of a mucus-like secretion and leave glistening trails. Their lives are allegories, rich in inference, as Marianne Moore recognizes in “To a Snail” (Observations, 1924): 

“If `compression is the first grace of style,’
you have it.  Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
It is not the acquisition of any one thing
that is able to adorn,
or the incidental quality that occurs
as a concomitant of something well said,
that we value in style,
but the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, `a method of conclusions’;
`a knowledge of principles,’
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.” 

Moore preferred her animals armored, prickly and well-defended, exotic yet familiar, like her verse. The quoted matter in the first line she attributes to Democritus, though it sounds more like Moore. In fact, it’s probably Demetrius of Phalerum (c. 350-c. 280 B.C.) The latter quotes are Duns Scotus’. Moore’s interest is aesthetics, not natural science. Her “absence of feet” refers, I’m certain, to prosody.  See “Diamonds” by Kay Ryan, a poetic descendent of Moore’s.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

`When I Get Among the Highlanders'

The John Keats I love is not a “dainty sprite.” As poet and man, even after hours of violent hemoptyses, he is made of sturdier stuff.  In 1816, Keats completed medical studies and acquired his Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries. By the standards of his time and place, he was a family practitioner. Soon after his twenty-first birthday, Keats’ guardian, Richard Abbey, enquired after his professional intentions. “I mean to rely on my abilities as a poet,” he replied. “You are either mad or a fool to talk in so absurd a manner,” Abbey said. “My mind is made up,” Keats said, and he never practiced medicine. (John Keats, Robert Gittings, 1969).

No, the Keats I love is resolute, a magician with language, and a devoted brother. His finest work is in his letters. With his friend Charles Brown he left for a walking tour of the Lake District, Ireland and Scotland in June 1818, a journey that would last through August. On the way, Keats’ brother and his wife, George and Georgina, left them at Lancaster, headed for Liverpool, where they boarded a ship for America. The poet never saw them again. On the Isle of Mull, Keats caught a cold and concluded he was “too thin and fevered to proceed on the journey.” He returned home on Aug. 8 and resumed nursing his brother Tom, who died of tuberculosis on Dec. 1. John had already contracted the disease that would kill him in 1821 at age twenty-five.

With his sister Frances Mary, always known in the family as “Fanny” (1803-89), eight years his junior, Keats is always solicitous and amusing, the big-brother clown. On this date, July 2, in 1818, while in Dumfries, Scotland, he writes to her: “We are employed in going up Mountains, looking at strange towns, prying into old ruins and eating very hearty breakfasts.” No hint of illness or distress. This is no shrinking violet: “Mr. Abbey says we are Don Quixotes—tell him we are more generally taken for Pedlars. All I hope is that we may not be taken for excisemen in this whisky country. We are generally up about 5 walking before breakfast and we complete our 20 miles before dinner.” That evening, Keats writes his sister a singable sequence of nonsense verses, “a song about myself”:

“There was a naughty Boy,
A naughty boy was he,
He would not stop at home,
He could not quiet be—
He took
In his Knapsack
A Book
Full of vowels
And a shirt
With some towels—
A slight cap
For night cap—”

Keats, no doubt, was amusing himself, but think of Fanny. Imagine getting such a letter from your brother, who is tramping somewhere in the pre-telephone North. Your parents are dead. One brother has left for America, another is dying of consumption. You don’t yet know that you will outlive all of them. For now, you know John is well enough to take the time to make you laugh. After the nonsense rhymes, your big brother adds:

“I am ashamed of writing you such stuff, nor would I if it were not for being tired after my day’s walking, and ready to tumble into bed so fatigued that when I am asleep you might sew my nose to my great toe and trundle me round the town, like a Hoop, without waking me. Then I get so hungry a Ham goes but a very little way and fowls are like Larks to me—A Batch of Bread I make no more ado with than a sheet of parliament; and I can eat a Bull’s head as easily as I used to do Bull’s eyes. I take a whole string of Pork Sausages down as easily as a Pen’orth of Lady’s fingers. Ah dear I must soon be contented with an acre or two of oaten cake a hogshead of Milk and a Clothes-basket of Eggs morning noon and night when I get among the Highlanders.”

What a shame Keats was never a father.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

`The Only Antidote Is in the Bite'

Eric Ormsby has sent me a signed copy of Araby, his poetry collection published in 2001 by Signal Editions, an imprint of Véhicule Press of Montreal. In addition to being a fine critic and one of our best poets, Ormsby for nine years was a professor and director of the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University, and since 2006 has served as chief librarian at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. This recitation from his C.V. hints at Ormsby’s scholarly, bookish and polylingual gifts, but leaves out his ear, one of the most voluptuous in the business. Consider the opening lines of “Jaham and His Cat”:

“The pink melodious ratchet of her tongue
psalmodized as she hunched on Jaham’s chest.
Jaham admired her reverence of repose,
the prayerful alertness of her ears,
the pierced opacity of her green eyes
whose irises held aloof the more they shone,
her silken dignity, the way she made
a pedestal of paw to rest upon
behind a twitching balustrade of tail.”

Araby is a suite of related poems devoted to the lives of Jaham, “the Father of Clouds” (his name is the Arabic words for “clouds”), a poet and auto mechanic, and his sidekick Bald Adham, also a mechanic, “a sleek grease-monkey from Jizan,” a clownish fanatic. When Adham “hectored Jaham to join the Holy War,” Jaham “humored his friend. Theology, he thought, / was a tumor of reason caused by the Jinn. / He loathed transcendence as he loathed the clap.” Meet the Don and Sancho Panza (or Laurel and Hardy) reborn as Saudis. And here are the concluding lines of “Jaham and the Old Poet”:

“With unexpected vigor the old man
sank two sharp incisors into the boy
--into his sweet and nearly speechless mouth--
and chawed him like an elapid,
working the poison well into his skin,
gnawing at his mouth till the hot bite
brought blood. And then he said,

The only antidote is in the bite.

“Jaham went home writhingly and learned to write.”

Ormsby is never averse to savory, high-cholesterol words. As if by reflex, he avoids what Thom Gunn has called “the dull thunder of approximate words.” His language is at once lush and precise, never a purple gush. “Bite” means the obvious but also, the OED reminds us, “incisiveness, pungency; point or cogency of style, language.” “Elapid” refers to a venomous colubrid snake (most snakes are colubrids, but few colubrids are venomous). “Chaw” as a verb means to chew or champ, and hints at a plug of tobacco (Ormsby was born in Georgia and grew up in Florida). The OED reports the word can also mean “to ruminate upon, brood over.” In Ormsby’s hands, a word can never be reduced to a blunt, one-purpose tool. He hears echoes, connotations and harmonies, and isn’t shy about deploying them. But Araby cannot be reduced to filigree. Ormsby has stories to tell, lives to chronicle. First Adham, and then Jaham, are dead by the conclusion of the volume’s final poem, “Jaham’s Last Words,” and here are those words: “I love everything that perishes, / everything that perishes entrances me.”  Ormsby’s friend Marius Kociejowski, in “A Voyage Through Ormsby’s Araby” (The Pebble Chance: Feuilletons and Other Prose (Biblioasis, 2014), writes:

“A hunger for the exotic barely enters the equation, and, as anyone who has ever spent time in the Middle East will tell you, one of its perils is a powerful dose of taedium vitae. Something there puts one’s brain in a sling from time to time, and it’s all one can do just to rise from a rock-hard mattress and breathe the traffic fumes. It’s not all bejeweled navels, fancy turbans and aromatic spices. Was it ever? Anyway, Orientalism is not my concern here. That’s student’s fare. The figure of Jaham, it has to be said, is a dying breed within his own culture. There are few poets today who’d recognize the Pleiades. Ormsby’s Araby, which represents a remarkable interlude in an already remarkable poetic oeuvre, is a nod in the direction of all we stand to lose.”

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

`More Than Grilled Chicken and Wine'

Václav Havel writes to his wife Olga Havlová on April 3, 1982:

“I have another task for you till the end of my sentence: to build up a philosophical library so that when I return, I shall learn at last how it all is (you have no idea how hungry I am for such reading matter; I miss it a hundred times more than grilled chicken and wine). Buy everything that comes out; comb the secondhand bookstores; buy, or put on long-term deposit in our place, the libraries of emigrating friends…”

Much of Letters to Olga (trans. Paul Wilson) is filled with the mundane, non-literary concerns of a literary man working hard to maintain dignity in a setting engineered to eradicate that virtue. Along with books he asks his wife for a toothbrush, razor blades, cigarettes, chocolate and tea, preferably Earl Gray (“My happiest moment is when I prepare a glass of hot, strong tea, and then sit down with it to read, think or write a letter”). He complains of hemorrhoids and lumbago (“I can't shake the feeling that my organism is only functioning on its word of honor, as it were”). In the early letters, Havel comes across as a nag, and at the same time as a modern-day Boethius, a philosophical quester behind bars. He revels in phenomenology.

In October 1979, the playwright and future president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for “subversion of the republic.” Havel was a leader of Charter 77 and the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted. Communism spawned a remarkable library of prison literature, from Koestler, Solzhenitsyn and Aleksander Wat to Armando Valladares’ Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro's Gulag (1985). Such books, not Modernism or “postmodernism,” constitute the signature genre or movement of twentieth-century literature. Much of it, including Havel’s letters, started as samizdat. The Czech critic Jan Lopatka usefully reads Havel’s letters not as documentation of Marxist inhumanity but as a novel of “character and destiny” like those of Balzac and George Eliot. While in prison, Havel’s reading matter is subject to bureaucratic vagaries. He scavenges Stendhal, Pickwick Papers, Max Brod’s biography of Kafka, a Czech volume on the Watergate scandal, To Kill a Mockingbird and Introduction to Christianity by Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. While reading an unnamed volume by Musil, he writes: “It’s just what I need: it allows me to be in contact, for a while each day, with cultivated language and a clever text.”

I first read Letters to Olga when the English translation was published in 1988, a year before the Velvet Revolution. I remember a fleeting sense of guilt that I, as a young American, had been in the early years of my journalism career, moving where I wished, reading and writing what I wished, while Havel was held in Ruzyné Prison. Rereading the book now, three and a half years after Havel’s death, I dismiss that earlier guilt as cheap self-indulgence. Havel’s example is more worthy of study and respect than ever before: ''The more slavishly and dogmatically a person falls for a ready-made ideological system or `worldview,’ the more certainly he will bury all chances of thinking, of freedom, of being clear about what he knows.” 

Havel also reminds us that prisons take many forms besides the usual brick-and mortar variety. On March 8, 1980, he writes:
“I’ve discovered that in lengthy prison terms, sensitive people are in danger of becoming embittered, developing grudges against the world, growing dull, indifferent and selfish. One of my main aims is not to yield an inch to such threats, regardless of how long I’m here. I want to remain open to the world, not to shut myself up against it; I want to retain my interest in other people and my love for them.”

Monday, June 29, 2015

`His Cackleophilous Concubines'

My youngest son has a video of me carrying on an extended conversation with a rooster. The bird was strutting behind a fence on the grounds of a nearby grade school, the one he (my son, that is) had attended years before. I cock-a-doodle-doo’ed, the bird, after hustling his hens into the coop, answered in kind, and we carried on a call-and-response for ten minutes or so, until the rest of the (human) family was fed up with the Dr. Doolittle routine. I do the same with squirrels, cats, dogs and several species of birds. Dogs are particularly responsive. The neighbors have a Dachshund that barks with a precisely enunciated “Ruff, ruff,” like a cartoon dog. My accent when barking with him is good, better than my French. I enjoy the illusory sense of intimacy with another species and the total ridiculousness of the whole thing, similar to many conversations with my fellow humans, though I don’t fall for any of that “horse whisperer” crap. In his review of a book titled The Animal Dialogues, Eric Ormsby writes: 

“Conversations with wild animals are always one-sided. If we speak to them, we hear how empty our words sound in the silence between us. If we manage to make eye contact with some startled deer in a forest clearing or with a caged lion in the local zoo, we search their faces for visual clues, but we can't quite decipher the look they give us back. We depend almost exclusively on our eyes, but animals apprehend us with all their senses. They know us by our smells and sounds as well as by sight; the lion may even anticipate the way we taste. For all our wordiness, we are mute in this wordless realm.” 

Note that Ormsby specifies “wild” animals, leaving open the possibility that two-way conversations with domesticated creatures are possible. My cat is not shy about expressing his preferences and aversions. He is laconic, never verbose (expect when purring), and has little use for small talk. Language for him is largely utilitarian, but never less than elegant and eloquent, accompanied as it is by rubbing, paw-kneading and head butting, a uniquely feline mingling of speech and dance. Ormsby’s poems, like Marianne Moore’s, are densely populated with animals, and roosters seem to be among his favorites. In “Watchdog and Rooster,” he contrasts the communication styles of the titular beasts: 

“The rooster, however,
accustomed to the chuckling palaver
of his cackleophilous concubines,
disliked the stolid silence of the dog
who hunched there like a stinkpot on a log
and only uttered small, obsequious whines
about his master's boots at supper-time.”
 

And in “Rooster” he writes: 

“I like the way his stubby little beak
Produces that dark, corroded croak
Like a grudging nail tugged out of stubborn wood:
No `cock-a-doodle-doo’  but awk-a-awk!
He yawps whenever he's in the mood
And the thirst and clutch of life are in his squawk.”
 

With that “yawps” Ormsby sneaks in a nice Whitmanesque echo.