Friday, December 06, 2019

'The Land of Spices; Something Understood'

The late Helen Pinkerton was remarkably generous with thoughts, encouragement and books. Half a shelf in my office is filled with volumes she mailed to me from California. Among them is The Poetical Works of George Herbert. With Life, Critical Dissertation, and Explanatory Notes, by the Rev. George Gilfillan. It was published by D. Appleton & Co., New York, in 1854. In pencil, the book is signed “Eli [?] L. Belcher. 1867.” Below it is another, smaller signature in black ink: “Helen A. Pinkerton 12-1945.” She sent it to me in March 2015, almost three years before her death at age eighty-nine. In an email she wrote:

“Going through my books of poetry, I came upon an old favorite, one of the earliest books I acquired when I began at Stanford in 1944-45. . . . I bought it just at the end of my second year at Stanford, probably at a bookstore in Palo Alto. There were quite a few excellent stores at that time. That I spent my hard-earned money on Herbert tells me that I must have already had contact with [Yvor] Winters and was exploring his favorite poets.”

I’ve been reading Herbert again in Helen’s gift, known in the book trade as an association copy, though I would never consider selling it. The volume carries an extra current of personal significance. Reading it is a privilege, almost like reading with Helen at my side. Herbert is a poet who invites memorization – the ultimate gauge of a poem’s worth – though I have only lines or stanzas socked away, no complete poems. Somewhere I remember reading that Elizabeth Bishop considered Herbert and Chekhov her favorite writers. Here’s the Herbert sonnet I’m trying to memorize, “Prayer (I)”:

“Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.”

I have a weakness for list poems. “Prayer” is one long sentence, a catalog of synonyms for prayer.

1 comment:

Baceseras said...

I never noticed before how much that poem sounds like Marianne Moore -- do you hear it too?