Thursday, July 29, 2010

`To See What Is Really There'

An unexpectedly good haul from a customarily disappointing used-book store:

The Sonnets, a recent Penguin collection of Borges’ poems in that form, edited by Stephen Kessler. Spanish texts and English versions, some already familiar, by twelve translators, one hundred thirty-seven poems in all. Borges seems well served. Most of the translated sonnets stand as good poems in English. Here is Alistair Reid’s rendering of “Religio Medici, 1643” from In Praise of Darkness (Elogio de la Sombra, 1969):

“Save me, O Lord. (That I use a name for you
does not imply a Being. It’s just a word
from that vocabulary the tenuous use,
and that I use now, in an evening of panic.)
Save me from myself. Others have asked the same—
Montaigne, Sir Thomas Browne, an unknown Spaniard.
Something remains in me of these golden visions
That my fading eyesight can still recognize.
Save me, O Lord, from that impatient urge:
To yield myself to tombstones and oblivion.
Save me from facing all that I have been,
That person I have been irreparably.
Not from the sword-thrust or the bloodstained lance.
Save me, at least, from all those golden fictions.”

The second book is an old favorite I’ve never owned – The Peregrine by the English writer John [Alec] Baker, whom I’ve always known as J.A. Baker. The first edition appeared in 1967. This is a paperback reprint without a copyright date from the University of Idaho Press, originally priced at $9.95. I got it for $4.98. The painting on the cover, attributed to Robert Bateman, is cheesy and wrong – no craggy, snow-streaked mountains among the Essex estuaries Baker tramps. But I’m pleased finally to own a copy of Baker’s masterpiece, and the first sentence in its second section remains bracing:

“The hardest thing of all is to see what is really there.”

A short time before our visit to the bookstore I noted a passage in Charles Burchfield’s Journals: The Poetry of Place dated Jan. 3, 1915. It was written at the painter’s home in Salem, Ohio, midway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh:

“How too often do nature-writers express themselves thru natural phenomena instead of describing these for their own sake. Thus we have `the melancholy days are come,’ the writer puts his own personal melancholy into otherwise joyful days. Viewed absolutely every aspect of nature in beautiful. But sentimentalists, who are suffering some mental aberration, speak of dull grey skies and sad rainy days and actually believe their own misconceptions.”

For the writers Burchfield dismisses, the world and everything in it is a collection of well-polished mirrors. Mary Oliver comes to mind. The passage Burchfield quotes – “the melancholy days are come” – is from “The Death of Flowers” by William Cullen Bryant, the Mary Oliver of his day.


William A. Sigler said...

I bought the Borges book a little over a month ago, and love it. I re-translated one of them after some online parlor trick told me the writer I most resembled was James Joyce (?). Check it out.

William A. Sigler said...

Also, I love the Burchfield quote. As I often say, the birds sing in America and cry in China.

The other side of it -- and I'll include poor Mary Oliver in this too -- is the tendency to describe things with such clinical detachment one might as well be talking about wallpaper. Here's how Ms. Oliver describes a place near to Mr. Burchfield:


We enter
the green river,
heron harbor,
mud-basin lined
with snagheaps, where turtles
sun themselves--we push
through the falling
silky weight
striped warm and cold
bounding down
through the black flanks
of wet rocks--we wade
under hemlock
and white pine--climb
stone steps into
the timeless castles
of emerald eddies,
swirls, channels
cold as ice tumbling
out of a white flow--
sheer sheets
flying off rocks,
frivolous and lustrous,
skirting the secret pools--
full of the yellow hair
of last year’s leaves
where grizzled fish
hang halfway down,
like tarnished swords,
while around them
fingerlings sparkle
and descend,
nails of light
in the loose
racing waters."

I read this, and I wonder what the hell is being described, I guess so I'm confused enough to not ask impertinent questions like "is it really possible to climb a river?" "how do rocks have flanks?" "what are grizzled fish?" "do nails of light hurt you?"