Saturday, September 03, 2011

`Hail, Ye Small, Sweet Courtesies of Life!'

From my seat in the Houston airport terminal I could see no one reading in the conventional sense – no books, magazines or newspapers. My fellow passengers were occupied with laptops, games, cell phones and devices I don’t recognize. Once we were airborne, facing the screens on the backs of the seats in front of us, the glow of electronics flickered in blues and grays around the dim cabin. Across the aisle, a tired-looking fellow in suit and tie read a hardcover thriller. The woman to my left read emails for four and a half hours, and the guy on my right fell asleep wearing earphones. I worked the crossword puzzle in the airline magazine, and read X.J. Kennedy’s poems and Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey. Kennedy gives us “Silent Cell Phones” in the “New Poems” section of In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus (2007):

“In airport waiting rooms, owners of cell phones
Look wistful when their phones lie silent, millstones
That no stream turns. Mindful of their high stations,
They squirm and fidget their exasperations,
Prisoners staring at a blank cell wall,
Their fingers idle of each speechless phone.
There out to be a number they could call
To demonstrate to us they’re not alone.”

For the first time in two months I’ve returned to Bellevue, Wash., to visit my family, and my timing is superb. The sky is blue and lightly sketched with clouds, temperatures are in the sixties, and no rain is falling. Sterne writes: “Hail, ye small, sweet courtesies of life! for smooth do ye make the road of it.” Even a trip to the pet store for cat food was a pleasure. By the front door was a poster promising relief from feline trichobeazors – hairballs: “Free Class for Friends of Cats Who Puke” and “We Help Cats Who Throw Up.”

Johns Hopkins University Press has published a beautiful edition of Guillaume Apollinaire’s first book of poems, The Bestiary, Or, Procession of Orpheus, translated by Kennedy, with woodcuts by Raoul Dufy. Here is “Cat”:

“I hope I may have in my house,
A sensible right-minded spouse,
A cat stepping over the books,
Loyal friends always about
Whom I couldn't live without.”

For those suitably equipped, here in Apollinaire’s original, “Le chat”:

Je souhaite dans ma maison:
Une femme ayant sa raison,
Un chat passant parmi les livres,
Des amis de toute saison
Sans lesquels je ne peut pas vivre.”


William A. Sigler said...

Before coming here, I read this by Amanda Harris:

"Those works we consider 'Great' tell us something about ourselves we weren't aware of before--they identify something in us. Great art always surprises us in some way. Mediocre art, on the other hand, strives to engage its audience by means of shallow identifications."

And then I read your post and see an example of the two. The Kennedy poem is a perfect example of mediocre art, in that it tells us in pleasing tones what we already know and are glad is acknowledged in words, not taking a step beyond to get us to think about this set of affairs critically. Apollinaire's "Le Chat" on the other hand, surprises us with its utter simplicity (at least in French, the translation is sub-par). The surroundings of the speaker, the entire "luxe, calme and volupte" of his world is reduced to 33 words, most of which rhyme. And isn't it, now that we know of it, actually how we too want to live our lives?

For the literal minded, here is what it means in English:

I want in my house:
A woman with her reason,
A cat among the books,
Friends in any season,
Without that I can't live.

Cynthia Haven said...

Well, "wish" rather than "want," to be persnickety.