Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: poetry (page 1 of 43)

Kay Ryan, “Wooden”

Wooden (h/t Tessa Hulls)
Kay Ryan

In the presence of supple
goodness, some people
grow less flexible,
experiencing a woodenness
they wouldn’t have thought possible.
It is as strange and paradoxical
as the combined suffering
of Pinocchio and Geppetto
if Pinocchio had turned and said,
I can’t be human after all.


This poem is what I can’t say. I can say generally that I feel taken for granted. It’s true but generic and doesn’t indict anyone.

The poem, on the other hand, explores a boast and a related pain. “Supple goodness” is no less than showing gracefulness. To say it characterizes you, or that you help make it present, seems like insane bragging. But at some point, you know you’ve exhibited it. You know you’ve worked to put others at ease, you know you’ve achieved it at moments, you’ve seen them happier and heard their gratefulness and have good reasons you weren’t lied to.

And then it’s all over. Your “supple goodness” produces nothing for anyone. They’ve moved on, whether back to families, or to other friends, or to relationships or careers. And the kind of grace you manifested seems a colossal waste. What you were doing was not a lie, contrary to every thought in your head screaming otherwise.

Just as virtue depends on the existence of vice, our better traits encourage behaviors which in turn take them for granted. This is more than a cynical consequence. When you act one way well, you allow others to act differently, even as they seem to participate in your action. Complicating things infinitely: woodenness may not be a vice. It’s a kind of cementing in the way one way is, a kind of self-knowledge that willfully withdraws. It creates the conditions for certain graces to emerge, but it is what grace allows.

The end result is tragic, there’s no doubt about that. And this: grace didn’t replicate, but stayed itself, and that was the problem. The sadness is that things are known, and hard – if not impossible – to accept. Pinocchio deciding not to be human feels wrong to us, but in a way, it is true to his origin and Geppetto’s love for him. We can’t really accept that the perfection of a virtue could be that virtue’s very failure. Don’t virtues create good in the world? Don’t they make us better? Sort of. You can be the best person the world has ever known, and strictly speaking no good for anyone.

Adam Zagajewski, “Auto Mirror”

Auto Mirror (from A Book of Luminous Things)
Adam Zagajewski (tr. Czeslaw Milosz & Robert Hass)

In the rear-view mirror suddenly
I saw the bulk of the Beauvais Cathedral
great things dwell in small ones
for a moment.


Striking, how this strikes. A massive, beautiful cathedral – the work of hundreds, if not thousands – appears for a moment.

The wrinkles building the drama are more than incidental. First, the speaker sees it in a “rear-view mirror,” “suddenly.” Going about his business, he has already passed the cathedral. It may not be possible to go back. It is probably not possible to seriously contemplate as he is driving. Taking him by surprise, it is a genuine combination of shock and awe.

A revelation of the Du mußt dein Leben ändern sort? That brings us to the second singularity: Beauvais is famous for not being finished. We are talking about a gigantic, amazing, perfect-in-its-own way work of man. The speaker glimpses the “bulk” of it; his own vision of the incomplete is incomplete.

We are brought to a third strangeness. “Great things dwell in small ones for a moment” – something about this experience was a whole, if only for a second. Maybe it was whole because it was momentary. Strictly speaking, all that happened was a building showed itself in a mirror. That is, on a literal level, the great thing in the small one.

It is certainly possible for the speaker to continue driving, like nothing happened. Or maybe he stops driving and changes his life. I couldn’t be bothered with this dualism. Another poem I read today was about how the expectations of love are too idealistic nowadays. The same things that break a relationship lead to trying to go one’s way merrily after it. It’s like all our choices have to be put in this moralistic cloak, where we always know better or become better no matter what choices we make. The only thing this process serves to do is reveal our pettiness. We want to be stronger than everything, and this starts looking really stupid when we consider how small some of our lives are at times. In a similar vein, I suspect that if we spoke about the speaker changing, we’d be reinforcing a cliche: his sensitivity to the cathedral would be tied to an automobile’s mirror.

Beauvais isn’t presented as dedicated to God or mighty and wondrous in its timelessness. It is a reflection of the efforts of many nameless others, as there seems to be an indirect contrast with the speaker’s “I,” the medieval and the modern. That’s the greatness, and it dwells in our speaker for a moment. Whether it is the seed of anything more, well – that depends on what they have to say.

Charles Simic, “Miracle Glass Co.”

Miracle Glass Co.
Charles Simic

Heavy mirror carried
Across the street,
I bow to you
And to everything that appears in you,
And never again the same way:

This street with its pink sky,
Row of gray tenements,
A lone dog,
Children on rollerskates,
Woman buying flowers,
Someone looking lost.

In you, mirror framed in gold
And carried across the street
By someone I can’t even see,
To whom, too, I bow.


A mirror is carried across a street. For some reason, the speaker bows to it and composes this ode.

It looks like he sees himself in the mirror. But seeing yourself is seeing more than yourself. The mirror is “heavy,” weighted with more than just him (“everything that appears in you”). It not only captures objects, but time (“momentarily… [each object is] never again the same way”).

A reflection may be better than memory. It is situated in the present in a way memories aren’t. Memories can be loaded with the things we tell ourselves over and over again. They can distort our self-perception. To see a reflection, though, invites another problem. What one sees might not make any sense.

After all, our speaker locates himself as “lost.” This is after his vision moves from the sky (“sky, tenements”) to the ground (“dog”) to the things at eye level (“children, woman”), the things that resemble him. Those of his species are in motion, the sky and tenements are in their place. With the potential of motion, alone, his reflection leads him to a dog.

I think I can explain this poem’s intimations of divinity (“miracle,” “framed in gold,” bowing). Maybe I can even clarify the more general problem. The search to see yourself, to know your place in the world, requires that you try to see beyond yourself. This is possible, and you can get reflections that capture reality exactly. The problem is that you can barely do anything with these things; you’re like an animal trapped by the rationality you think you need.

Making things stranger is this: the effort is not without value. You’re in a situation where your own humanity is questionable, but you’re the one who questioned it. This invites the divine, as someone certainly stands above you (“someone I can’t even see”). We could say that God holds a mirror to us, and there’s an invitation to humility here, but that does not fit the tone of this poem. It’s more like you’re pursuing your own humanity and not quite realizing it. The miracle is that the speaker realizes that two someones – a reflection, a guy carrying the mirror across the street – are himself, not himself, and a complete mystery.

Twelfth Reflection: Sappho, “People do gossip”

People do gossip
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

People do gossip

And they say about
Leda, that she

once found an egg
hidden under

wild hyacinths


They gossipped, wondering what the story was, passing judgment anyway. We might have just as much of the story they had. Probably less.

Oh well. What’s important is snark.

Leda’s story is weird. Zeus seduced her as a swan. Eggs resulted, the kind animals lay. Children, including Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra, came from the eggs. Making things more complicated is that Leda was involved with her mortal husband on the night she met the swan. Some of the children are mortal, some divine.

It’s a huge mess, but it’s neat that Barnard turned what could be rendered “they say” into a more emphatic “gossip.” You get the feeling that Sappho was reproducing something really catty, something like “Leda didn’t really attract both men and gods. She didn’t even lay eggs. She just found them while being around flowers way prettier than her.” The gossip could have a more general character. Some people get lucky in life. They get to marry royalty and traverse beautiful, wild fields. They’re in a realm inaccessible to us. Why shouldn’t they find an egg with a glorious, tragic future?

Ay, there’s the rub. Snarky gossip is a way of justifying our envy, our embrace of tragedy. Tragedy may be the truest way of depicting life, as there is no necessarily happy ending to it. But the appeal of the truth is not the truth itself. In Leda’s case, one has to be particularly blind to what happened to her in order to gossip.

Emily Dickinson, “Faith” is a fine invention (185)

“Faith” is a fine invention (185)
Emily Dickinson

“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!


Gentlemen, secure with their wealth and virtue, know they have to take charge. They have to see, or more properly, have to proclaim they are seeing. Maybe that is why “faith” is in scare quotes and “see” is italicized. That they say they can see necessitates faith: it is both found and made. Whether or not anything is actually seen, well, that’s another question. As is the sort of faith, which pertains to society more than an individual.

On a first reading of this poem, one might be tempted to say “microscopes,” the active seeking of scientific, empirical knowledge, decisively counters the so-called seeing of faith and tradition. But that’s crazy. When are microscopes prudent in an emergency, excepting movies about contagion? The only thing prudent in an emergency is a clear head and clear vision, i.e. parts of prudence itself. Prudence comes from people like “Gentlemen,” who have an ability to keep steady because of “faith.” It isn’t enough to know; one must be able to act based on knowledge; an emergency calls for the best response possible, which does not necessarily stem from knowledge alone. Looking at the littlest details could cost one everything. Still, Dickinson moves us to the littlest details, the smallest part of the whole.

The tension between faith and knowledge with regard to one’s own affairs is sharp, to say the least. In a way, they can be reconciled. The Gentlemen who see, having faith, only need the microscopes in case of emergency. Their “faith” takes care of most issues, but it is precisely their faith that will not prove adaptive enough. Microscopes needed in case of emergency have less to do with the knowledge they actually yield, knowledge of an empirical character that might be said to be reality-based. They have more to do with the vision of the Gentleman, who in a certain sense takes the world for granted.

Actual knowledge of the world is necessary to act prudently, but not sufficient. But what is sufficient isn’t really seeing the world itself in order to act in it, but the addition of a “fine invention” that is as far away from knowledge as one can get. No wonder “faith” is in scare quotes. Belief has the character of infinite regress. The second you believe as zealots do, without doubting anything, you’re acting like you have knowledge. That’s not really belief. What belief is: you start with a “fine invention” that gives what looks like insight, at first. Then something happens that doesn’t test it directly – emergencies are not the character of everyday life – but still calls the whole character of it into question. An existence between faith and knowledge, where one can only hope for a greater knowledge, is the individual.

Afternoon with Hanshan

Why sit whining over things?
When you’ve read the Classics through,
You’ll know quite enough of death.

- Hanshan, tr. A.S. Kline

Arrival at a bookstore. Deep breath, a relaxed, confident feeling – this is nowadays strange for me. But earlier in the week, it happened.

I’ve been holding myself to an unrealistic standard lately. Everything I say has to be beautiful, useful, or thoughtful. Not a bad idea, in theory. But when you’re hurting, half the time what you’ll get is garbled beyond comprehension, rushed like the emergency bridge you need. Disparate, messy materials that only matter as matter, a slab to support a weight. Falling, a few steps away.

I spent a bit of time with a volume of Peter Hobson’s translations of Hanshan. The lack of expectation in the store, with this book, was everything. I was free to explore. Free to draw associations, note similar themes or, God forbid, find something relevant and meaningful. We really do think that having expectations is the same as being thoughtful, and it is hard to break that spell. It’s hardest to break when you think meeting expectations will bring some good.

Hanshan speaks of wisdom; one can assume his located in a Buddhist tradition. All things change and perish, suffering cannot be wished away, compassion flowing continually from one’s soul marks the Enlightened. I don’t know that we need to work with any specific view of wisdom, though, to see the power of his reflections regarding the quest for it. The collection I read starts suggestively, describing a simple, traditional life: “ancestral plenty of fields and orchards,” a lack of envy, a wife calmly working the loom, children babbling. The non-rational is ordered such that it could be acceptable to someone who has wisdom. Yet the poem ends with these lines: “no guests / applaud our happiness except / the woodcutter / on his occasional rounds.” Ordered non-rationality is still perishable, and that leads to the larger question. Do we tie our notions of happiness to what is fleeting? Can this be remedied by finding or having a more static notion of happiness? (1)

The radical nature of pursuing this kind of question, at once religious and irreverent, makes itself clear in another poem. When younger, reading scripture while working diluted the work. Reading books when older also invited the disdain of one’s peers and a wife’s glare. It’s the intellectual movement which caught my eye, as it’s a theme that I’m sensitive to because of my study of the Socratic problem. Not working properly is not earning one’s keep. It’s an injustice as well as a slighting of one’s fellow man. Compounding the problem is that one grows from conventional piety to something that may be different later. One could say the man in question grew out of society, but it is clear society rejected him well before. (2)

To really read is subversive: you’re not allowing anyone to control your mind. However, to insist on this sort of freedom can be seen as threatening. Hanshan demonstrates this through the patheticness of those trying to write: “Wretched poor scholars hitting the limits the limits in cold and hunger, existing unattached for love of writing verse, grinding their bones to pound out words… who’s interested?” The social isolation is mutual, but don’t let “who’s interested” fool you into thinking these scholars are completely independent of the world. Composing verse well is like casting a spell – if done right, immeasurable power results. It is power, I suspect, that makes the scholars derelict, rejected even by dogs who see their occult tendencies: “The writings of a derelict have no takers. My friend, pen your sublimities on fancy cakes and put them out for hungry dogs to eat – even they won’t touch them.” (3)

The emergency bridges we fashion are themselves larger questions. Independent of pain at a given moment, we only have limited time in our lives to find answers that work for us. It’s soothing in a weird way to think about how ridiculous a quest for wisdom is, how overblown its pretensions and ambitions. One would overthrow the world if it was done “right,” i.e. articulated just one thing that hadn’t quite made itself visible. Again, it’s ridiculous. But maybe this is what it means for something to be true of (human) nature.


Translations of Hanshan above are from Poems of Hanshan, trans. Peter Hobson. Walnut Creek: Altamira, 2003. References below are to this work.

1. pg. 7, Poem 1 (15)

2. pg. 9, Poem 3 (111)

3. pg. 12, Poem 6 (99)

Eleventh Reflection: Sappho, “We heard them chanting”

For Laura Garofalo. Happy birthday!

We heard them chanting
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

We heard them chanting

[First voice:]

Young Adonis is
dying! O Cytherea
What shall we do now?

[Second voice:]

Batter your breasts
with your fists, girls -
tatter your dresses!


So here’s the goddess of Love, Cytherea, unable and unwilling to save her great love, the all-too-beautiful hunter Adonis. The speaker overhears the drama reenacted.

What kind of crazy drama are we witnessing? A devotee begs Aphrodite to save the beauty sacred to her. She responds poetically, as if the beauty is only contained in the tragedy. Why would anyone see this incident as central to their own piety? It seems the gods hold as stark a view as we do: they cannot alter the facts of life and death, nor can they rejoice in their own divinity.

I suspect an answer lies in the notion of love depicted. All of us have dealt with people who, instead of being content, attack the foundation of what could be happiness. They have ideals, standards of beauty, that are extremely difficult to realize. They impose those standards upon life and do things like wreck their own relationships. It is easier for them to accept beauty when it is gone than when it is present. Beauty depends on its fleetingness. Whether anyone is happy in this awful process – well, that’s another question.

Aphrodite seems to be acting the same way. The only trouble is that we consider people who are willing to throw away what they consider precious because they can lose it superficial. Inasmuch Aphrodite values Adonis in this way, she objectifies him, holding a very petty sexual love. It is not hard to imagine a greater eros without notions of agape or fraternal love.

But maybe this drama exists for the chanters, as it comments on the devotees of Aphrodite. Presumably those around Aphrodite plead her for things. Their love is centered on those all too earthly pleasures. The goddess herself tells them to batter their breasts with their fists, rip apart their dresses. She remains a distance from that sort of mourning as well as the sort of love she governs. Her love of Adonis remains mysterious. Maybe that is the only condition needed for divinity.

Paul Celan, “In lizard skins”

With thanks to Nadia Nasedo & Sophie Johnson

“In lizard skins” (from Guernica)
Paul Celan (tr. Ian Fairley)

In lizard
skins, Epi-
I bed you, on the sills,
the gable
infill us, with lightsoil.


Puzzled, rambled about this poem. It combines sensuality with a quiet domesticity. The whole poem is one action, “I bed you, on the sills,” which is the copulative act (“I bed you”) and the putting of a plant in soil next to a window. The house is less a structure and the locus of growth itself (“the gable holes infill us”). “Lightsoil” is just amazing. As it fills the lovers, it enables them to grow and create the conditions for new growth. And that “light” and “soil” are on equal footing is no less remarkable.

So true love and intercourse do go together. But what do we do with the opening of the poem? “Lizard skins” and “epileptic” suggest behaviors by the speaker that don’t seem to fit the above reading. The purposiveness of sensuality is very clear in the latter half of the poem. That doesn’t quite square with “epileptic” behavior. Lizard skin is camouflage, if it isn’t tough and resilient. It suggests a lover eager to move on or be independent more than one who would settle down.

Celan, I think, is pushing this “true love makes itself manifest in sexuality” theme very far. The inconsistent behaviors that characterize romance prior to settling down do create a longing which makes a life together. It’s a small miracle that a lizard turns into a plant, and epileptic might refer to the ecstasy and loss of rationality involved. The lizard’s behavior would ordinarily take it up the wall, through the gable, and beyond.

After Hannah Stephenson’s “Craftsman”

Not just a porch, not just an old porch,
but a beautiful old porch

Even the rotting-away pieces of it

Look at all there is which has not yet rotted

Every caretaker is a craftsman
contributing to the beautiful old something

- Hannah Stephenson, “Craftsman”

Listen to the bees -
their delirious buzz
destroying a daytime’s calm.

I envy their consistency.
The fungus spreads,
the log rots -

the pattern and texture
like old parchment
with wondrous calligraphy.

The surgical glow
of office lighting taunts.
It tells me I’m trapped.

Lottery tickets
lack hesitation.
Coffee goes best
with daydreams.

Maybe, in another life,
reward and escape are one.

But here,
the sun’s quiet warmth
sometimes irritates.

Only the golden
gentleness of dandelions
sways in the wind,
like a wish.

Charles Simic, “Tattooed City”

Tattooed City (from A Wedding in Hell)
Charles Simic

I, who am only an incomprehensible
Bit of scribble
On some warehouse wall
Or some subway entrance.

Matchstick figure,
Heart pierced by arrow,
Scratch of a meter maid
On a parked hearse.

CRAZY CHARLIE in red spraypaint
Crowding for warmth
With other unknown divinities
In an underpass at night.


Three types of markings manifest themselves in the city. “An incomprehensible bit of scribble” could be on a warehouse wall, a subway entrance. More defined figures, like one resembling a matchstick or a heart with an arrow through it, might be a meter maid scratched onto a hearse or the scratch a meter maid put on the car. Finally, some words speak boldly to no avail: CRAZY CHARLIE is unmistakable and unknown.

The speaker identifies primarily with the bit of scribble. It cannot be comprehended but is linked with transience. At some times he’s stored away, at some times he’s moving about. He does explore the city, but it feels like he’s going backwards despite where he started. My own thought is that he’s giving an autobiography of sorts. The “matchstick figure” reduces to an arrow-pierced heart: he may be lovesick and disappointed. There’s an even further reduction to the scratch on the hearse. Yeah, that scratch could be vandalism and thus a drawing with form. But it is unmistakably destruction.

Simic’s images are very well chosen. A “matchstick figure” is the most defined of the three in the second stanza, but one has no clue where it came from or whether it was created with purpose. The heart pierced by an arrow has a purpose, but still remains vague. Only the scratch of a meter maid on a parked hearse shares in material, formal, and efficient cause. What we understand best, what makes itself most concrete, is pain.

He ends with words that might refer to the author himself: CRAZY CHARLIE. Still, these words distance the author and speaker from what he witnesses. His pain is real, he is homeless in a sense. Graffiti and tattoos can be thought marks of a cult, signaling and calling to another world. Yet it would be crazy to place the speaker with huddled homeless under the highway. He describes them as “unknown divinities;” he is merely a scribble. They are human beings who suffer every moment of every day. His words, his scribbling, his markings only echo them. He cannot do them justice. His own pains cannot do them justice.

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