Sunday, May 09, 2010

`A Name Naming None'

A reader writes:

“I just returned from Toronto. I had a strange experience. While reading Helen Vendler's Last Looks, Last Books, her review of 5 American poets' `last looks’ at life in their final books, I looked out Air Canada's window to see what looked like a cemetery. It was Toronto, its buildings dwarfed by altitude appearing to me as tombstones.”

Reading Vendler puts me in a funereal mood too. It’s easy to joke, “I had not thought death had undone so many,” and so forth, but cemeteries are certainly cities, and vice versa, with good and bad neighborhoods. Once I toured the beautifully landscaped Vale Cemetery in Schenectady, N.Y., with Robert V. Wells, author of Facing the `King of Terrors’: Death and Society in an American Community, as my guide. It was an excellent place for bird watching. Wells pointed out the Italian, General Electric Co., and influenza neighborhoods, all segregated and plotted like plats on graph paper. Even in death we choose order.

None of the poets in Vendler’s book – Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill – came to mind as I read my reader’s e-mail. No, I thought of the opening of Briggflatts. A boy and girl accompany her father, a stonemason, who carves a tombstone. The boy and girl return to her house and make love. That’s it. Here is Bunting’s second stanza:

“A mason times his mallet
to a lark's twitter,
listening while the marble rests,
lays his rule
at a letter's edge,
fingertips checking,
till the stone spells a name
naming none,
a man abolished.
Painful lark, labouring to rise!
The solemn mallet says:
In the grave's slot
he lies. We rot.”


Peter Watson said...

You can't grip years, Postume,
that ripple away nor hold back
wrinkles and, soon now, age,
nor can you tame death

not if you paid three hundred
bulls every day that goes by
to Pluto, who has no tears,
who has dyked up

giants where we'll go aboard,
we who feed on the soil,
to cross, kings some, some
penniless plowmen.

For nothing we keep out of war
or from screaming spindrift
or wrap ourselves against autumn,
for nothing, seeing

we must stare at that dark, slow
drift and watch the damned
toil, while all they build
tumbles back on them.

We must let earth go and home,
wives too, and your trim trees,
yours for a moment, save one
sprig of black cypress.

Better men will empty
bottles we locked away,
wine puddle our table,
fit wine for a pope.

Horace 23 BC, Bunting 1971

zmkc said...

Re cemeteries and cities, there is the very wellworn joke about the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna - that it is half the size of Zurich and twice as much fun.
Gosh that Horace in the comment above is beautiful.