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.