Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

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Fourteenth Reflection: Sappho, “When I saw Eros”

When I saw Eros
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

When I saw Eros

On his way down
from heaven, he

wore a soldier’s
cloak dyed purple


Not a cherub with a bow and arrow, nor a bored teen cynical about his own ability to love. Here, Eros is a man in uniform, straight out of 300 or Gladiator. He’s ready to sacrifice in battle but do some push-ups and glisten with sweat first. Whatever he says will be terse and direct, with the profundity and power of being honorable. Then he’ll start doing pull-ups and make sure his cloak is ready for inspection.

There’s no doubt the gentleman in question is an amazing sight. Either people want to bed him or be him. Obviously, I’m tempted to dwell on how ridiculous this all is, how the things worth fighting for are appreciated by a diversity of people, how heroes and heroines act daily to preempt evils from happening in the first place.

But it cannot be doubted that this is still impressive. A number of cultures worry about an end to “manliness,” the embrace of a softness that makes us weaker, unconcerned with virtue and tradition, unwilling to make sacrifices and hard choices. ISIS probably does not think of itself as a bunch of resentful nihilist tyrannical assholes. It probably sees itself as the only way to preserve and fulfill a number of moral dictates. It’s funny how much this fragment of Sappho’s alludes to death. The soldier has already descended once, and he wears the colors he bleeds.




Issac Rosenberg, “August 1914″

With thanks to Benjamin Roman

August 1914 (from Poetry)
Issac Rosenberg

What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?

Three lives hath one life—
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone—
Left is the hard and cold.

Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields,
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.


Kay Ryan had this to say in a charming little meditation entitled “Sweet Talk:”

Too little is made of the agreeability of patently, triumphantly, idle conversation. Much presses us toward substance — wars, prizes going to the wrong people. We feel obliged to refer to these topical evils, but it is only aggravating, usually; no real depth and no real lightness.

I haven’t really had time to think about “the agreeability of patently, triumphantly, idle conversation,” because I’ve been focused on another sort of idleness. In the Oeconomicus, much is made of a sailor who talks about how everything on his ship is clearly and distinctly arranged. The utility of the arrangement of things is always present, but most helpful in an emergency (VIII: 11-18). Having a supremely well-ordered life, being ready for anything, sounds amazing until you realize you’re at war all the damn time. In a store, for example, you’re competing against other stores. Against your fellow employees. In a way, against your customers and your managers, because you don’t just need their praise, you need them to concede to you in some way. Stores are a great example of the sailor’s logic – everything ordered to the end of selling, most attractive items in front and plentiful, the back stocked and ready for more sales if need be – as no one would regard living in a store the way human beings ought to live.

It’s a thought conceived in idleness that human life is only the conquest of necessity. We deal with what is necessary. To let such things define us is to lose something unique to us. But then comes the problem Ryan poses. Don’t the larger issues, like freedom, dignity, and justice, demand to be spoken about? How can we be natural or authentic, not forcing ourselves to see the bigger problems when we’re not really concerned with them?

At first I tried imagining what idle conversation that is a joy to have sounds like. Being a pretentious gasbag, I ended up reading about ISIS and trying to imagine what sound American policy in Iraq would be like, playing the role of “expert” by reading a few news stories. That serious things frequently are treated trivially by us, without us even knowing what we’re doing – I get that. But it doesn’t even begin to help us conceive what truly pleasant, idle chatter is like.

Maybe Rosenberg’s poem offers a solution. Written during the Great War, it pulls no punches. It reminds me of Blake, who with the deftest, darkest touch could make evil come to life and force us to realize just how awful the idols we create are:

What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?

“What in our lives is burnt / In the fire of this?”war is a forge, destroying, purifying, molding. It is desire, it is life, it is death. Yeah, this means my little thought above concerning the inhumanity of trying to prepare for an emergency all the time needs to be qualified, for now. Rosenberg’s question is very specific: something in our lives is burnt in a fire. The answer is lot less clear. “What” is burnt could be the same as “the fire of this.” “The heart’s dear granary” implies that much, as a granary is meant to be consumed. “The much we shall miss” is not just our experiences or loves, but our capacities and potential.

Something essential to us wants war.  Rosenberg has to grapple with what seems most fluid, any consideration of essence. He does this by embracing the fluidity, letting human nature depict itself:

Three lives hath one life—
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone—
Left is the hard and cold.

The golden color of honey disappears as the honey becomes iron-like. Iron is fundamental; gold was beautiful and most temporal. The ordering of the second line in this second stanza is nothing short of brilliant. Rosenberg has given us a false end in “gold,” letting the misery of the images we chase sting. Yet the central element, “honey,” stands out. There are sweet things, and iron preserves a memory of them, weirdly enough.

He works in the third stanza to undermine any sweetness tempting us. Iron is molten, flowing like honey, breeding the ravages of war:

Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields,
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.

Iron does not just cut down youth on the battlefield. It’s their desire, what they were born into. The everyday necessities that could involve a fire on farmland, the decay that is aging, and the violence we do to each other are all one. There’s no real logic to this; it’s the way it is, and it confronts us. There was more logic in the second stanza, which suggested that something sweeter could be had.

Maybe that’s the answer I’m looking for. We use our reason to chase images, and that’s not always the worst thing. If one can chatter away about small things and find it involving and pleasant, that’s not delusional or a waste of time. It is, in a strange way, authentically pious. You’re using what might be a higher power to appreciate something small. It’s easy to see how such a life would be blessed or divine without any New Age notions of self-actualization. There’s a kind of governance involved which some thinkers, once upon a time, thought could translate into leadership. The truly great comes from the small. Only a few know what is worth sacrificing for.

William Butler Yeats, “The Living Beauty”

The Living Beauty
William Butler Yeats

I’ll say and maybe dream I have drawn content —
Seeing that time has frozen up the blood,
The wick of youth being burned and the oil spent —
From beauty that is cast out of a mould
In bronze, or that in dazzling marble appears,
Appears, but when we have gone is gone again,
Being more indifferent to our solitude
Than ‘twere an apparition. O heart, we are old,
The living beauty is for younger men,
We cannot pay its tribute of wild tears.


Feeling old, the speaker declares his contentment. Well, sort of. He says he’s content aloud, then right away qualifies it with a dream he might have. The dream he actually has more than likely involves his colder, less active blood, spent light and reserves of youth. How old is the speaker? I recognize this sort of whining, as I do it. Someone needs to slap this guy, reminding him that mowing the lawn and taking out the trash do not necessarily involve losing the desire for higher things.

Then again, some of the higher things are very present to the speaker. He dreams he has drawn content “from beauty that is cast out of a mould / In bronze, or that in dazzling marble appears.” Idols, images of gods, images of human beauty perfected. Thus, a complication arises: What exactly is the speaker trying to draw contentment from? Is it an eternal being, a god of sorts, or a beauty dependent upon temporality? He repeats “appears,” aware that he has brought two different idols into being while meaning one, watching both recede into the appearances they are.

Idols and youthful beauty both go “when we have gone.” Our reverence and our memories fade, never quite having the same import for anyone else. We are alone with what we worship and pursue, and yet that only regards us as a ghost (“apparition”) might.

So that leaves us with this charming, not at all depressing ending:

O heart, we are old,
The living beauty is for younger men,
We cannot pay its tribute of wild tears.

The speaker was reminded of living beauty while contemplating ideal forms of art and religion. So does that mean he’s giving up all pursuit of beauty? Has his despair turned to resignation, as he is “old” and every desire of his is fruitless?

The more serious read is something like this: the eros of any thinker or artist always tortures, as you’re wondering what more you could have done, what more could have been achieved. What’s curious is how the speaker gets the logic linking the beauty of idols and sensuality exactly right. “Objects of devotion” cannot be considered too literal in this poem. But what’s flawed, then, is his initial premise, that he could ever draw content from any kind of beauty or from his youth being burned up. Neither love, beauty, nor piety satisfies entirely. Again, this is a very flawed speaker. “O heart, we are old” – I don’t know that he ever meant to address another person in the whole of the poem. This artist compares himself to other men, muses on how other men regard things. But how he actually relates to another human being, well.

Emily Dickinson, “My Cocoon tightens — Colors teaze” (1099)

My Cocoon tightens — Colors teaze (1099)
Emily Dickinson

My Cocoon tightens — Colors teaze — 
I’m feeling for the Air — 
A dim capacity for Wings
Demeans the Dress I wear — 

A power of Butterfly must be — 
The Aptitude to fly
Meadows of Majesty concedes
And easy Sweeps of Sky — 

So I must baffle at the Hint
And cipher at the Sign
And make much blunder, if at last
I take the clue divine


Kay Ryan loves the third stanza of this poem, but not much else. In her words, “Dickinson terrain is hard on the brain suspension. In any poem of more than one stanza, one stanza 
is likely to bottom out.”

We’ve been reading Dickinson a while now, you and I, and I say challenge accepted. You should read Ryan’s powerful, personal remarks about this poem. They concern poetic craft, how one has to blunder with the clue divine. What I take out of them is the rough idea that anything that truly speaks to the truly human has to come from our failures and fallibility. That someone too good with words or too clever has no wisdom nor anything of use to us.

I don’t think the first two stanzas are throwaway, though. “My Cocoon tightens — Colors teaze — I’m feeling for the Air:” the caterpillar speaker knows or hopes she will be a butterfly. Her mind is mixed, intense states. At the same time she wants to feel for the air, the space around her tightens. She will be colorful, but if she’s in the cocoon, she has not seen any color at all for a while. One could say the phenomenon of her space and vision shrinking makes perfect sense, as it happens to all of us. But Dickinson is nicely showing the contradictory elements in our thought creating such claustrophobia. It isn’t as simple as “reality” vs. “expectation.” It’s more like we grow, learn, and correctly expect a result. We may even get exactly the result we worked for. Why are there any doubts, why are there any gaps, in this process?

“A dim capacity for Wings / Demeans the Dress I wear.” The cocoon, the coming-to-be of a butterfly, could be the dress. Or being a butterfly simply is wearing the dress. Either way, the speaker does not feels she knows enough to do justice to her own growth. She feels she hasn’t experienced anything. A funny thing about knowledge: if you really know something, it shouldn’t feel new, should it?

Now comes the stanza Ryan feels bottoms out – “stanza two just isn’t very strong, essentially some Dickinson boilerplate to say, Butterflies fly:”

A power of Butterfly must be — 
The Aptitude to fly
Meadows of Majesty concedes
And easy Sweeps of Sky — 

You can see where I’m going to disagree. “Must be” and “aptitude” are the keys. The knowledge that she must fly, the knowledge she has the capacity, the fact the wings are there and can work: how come the butterfly is still scared of flying? Why isn’t power over earth and sky being exerted? The speaker has completely transformed herself, no?

For me, this is not a throwaway stanza. It advances the precise drama of the poem, which is not necessarily a poem about poetry. What’s more likely happening is that the speaker has a powerful bit of knowledge which is not translating to self-knowledge. Granted, this is an easy theme for me to see, since 99% of my work centers around it. But I also might be really, really good at this reading thing, so I should offer a bit of advice. It’s okay to jump ahead when reading to a theme you find relevant. It’s good to start somewhere. But most authors who are worth reading modify the question they started with as they work. In the case of Plato, the question changes almost entirely. Questions of justice in the Republic turn into a discussion of eros. Figure out why that happens and you too can take 10 years to get a PhD.

The poem concludes with an amazing but baffling third stanza:

So I must baffle at the Hint
And cipher at the Sign
And make much blunder, if at last
I take the clue divine

Knowledge is not good enough for self-knowledge. In fact, if we start believing that all we do as humans is “progress,” we are far more apt to ignore questions of how we use knowledge or why it is valuable to us. We’re far more apt to actually be ignorant, letting our powers use us. (A similar, just as dangerous blunder is believing we make nothing which can be called progress at all. But more on that later.)

What’s happened to the speaker is this: blessed with an enormous power, emergence from a cocoon, her learning has begun anew. She’s back to making silly mistakes like the rest of us, as she does not know who she is as a butterfly yet. “The clue divine” goes beyond knowledge of self, though. She has a power that is beyond her at the moment and probably will be beyond her when she knows more. In Plato and Nietzsche, there’s this question of whether gods philosophize. I always thought it kind of ridiculous, because “no” is a pretty good answer. However, there’s something to learning about learning that’s more than powerful or enchanting. It’s probably something like seeing a student take an idea of yours, modify it, and better the world, or better yet, watching a child talk or walk for the first time. You wonder how everything came together to produce just that moment, when there’s so much to be anxious about, when tragedy remains the highest account of human life. I’ve said enough.

Thirteenth Reflection: Sappho, “Peace reigned in heaven”

Peace reigned in heaven
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

Peace reigned in heaven

Ambrosia stood
already mixed
in the wine bowl

It was Hermes
who took up the
wine jug and poured
wine for the gods


First reading: Once there was no strife among the gods. Wine was not simply like food for them, it was food. The message they sent themselves was that of celebration. No scarcity and no loss of control meant easily enjoying peace.

Second reading: Strife among the gods is complicated, to say the least. Heaven (Ouranos) and Time (Kronos!) could not accept the concept of change. Hence, the stories of eating their children or trying to shut them up in the Earth. But those are the gods prior to the Olympians. With Zeus, strife among the gods concerns justice and beauty, i.e. the Trojan War. Those of godly lineage upon the Earth have the potential for fame, ruling in this life and awing through resplendent memorials after they pass.

That peace reigns in heaven because of wine mixed with ambrosia, then, brings the gods not just to human things but to the everyday. This the first reading got right, but it can’t be emphasized enough, because there are times we use wine instead of food – that’s 99% of parties, really. “Ambrosia” isn’t food of any sort: it means something like “no bread,” referring to the idea that the gods do not eat bread, unlike us bread-eaters/mortals.

We have peace the moment we’ve decided to enjoy peace. Those moments are extremely rare. Most of the time what we have is not so much peace, but the absence of any pressing strife or combat. We live our lives as if we’re at war, competing with each other for everything. Hermes starts the party and the decline already begins. Hermes is not only a messenger, but a thief. I read Lampert’s commentary on Benardete’s commentary on the Odyssey (h/t Nathaniel Cochran), and this was pointed out most emphatically while talking about the moly, the root whose nature, pointed out to Odysseus, protects him from Circe, giving him godlike power. Hermes is stealing the peace at the very moment he delivers its fruits.

I should say something about the past month at this point. While not blogging, I still perused an awful lot of the Internet. I must have run into every narcotics addict on tumblr and twitter and facebook, each one asking “why can’t life be better” every other day. It’s certainly a sentiment I share. However, there is something to knowing all things change, even in heaven, that can make one appreciative. Peace is not entirely gone when the party starts, but we want to avert our eyes from what is truly beautiful.

In Memoriam T. S.

The boy I remember had the most natural of graces. His heart was large, his spirit continually active. If he was crude, forceful, or even a bit of a bully, it was because of the neighborhood kids and their broken views. He befriended them, sworn to help friends and harm enemies. He always meant well. I always enjoyed meeting him.

He had tremendous potential. He was brighter than I was, a quick study with evolved street smarts. He was sharp at games. I don’t know how good his Greek was or whether classes at the Orthodox church did much for him. I’m sure he picked up on quite a bit. He was a hard worker when younger, and when I stopped seeing him around, when I was at my high school and he was at his, I heard he was a very talented singer in choir. I know he was a hit with the ladies.

I am more understanding than ever before of the trap addiction and denial is. I know the strongest, smartest people banding together, wanting to change, struggle to defeat those demons. I know some of the people around him, while they made tremendous sacrifices, were doomed to fail in helping him fight his. There was the time a large butterfly landed on the back of his shirt and stayed there. It was beautiful and majestic in its ignorance. My dad tried to gently get it off, but it refused to budge. A friend of his fixed the issue by pushing it off with a broom and smashing it.

The only blame I assign in this situation is not to friends of his, but friends of mine. One in particular advised others to mind their own business when the situation screamed for anything else. It’s easy to drown others’ cries in what you assume knowledge, prudence, even morality. It’s a lot harder to admit that your selfishness and fear can make you hysterical, dangerous, and counterproductive.

I suspect that critique can extend to others he knew. In a way, there is only blame because the loss is so unnecessary, so damaging to all of us. I’ll never forget the time he begged me to be at his birthday party. He saw something in me and was happy to be with me. In those days, I was just awkward, talentless, spoiled and shallow. (I know – not much has changed.) I didn’t know anything except the paranoia of those older and my own greed. His friends, for all their faults, were much more gregarious, generous, assured. I had a blast with him, as I felt believed in.

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.

On learning of The Situation’s arrest in a tanning salon (or: Archaïscher Torso Apollos II)

for Ricky McAlister; recommended reading

Not the beauty
of a sonnet’s lines,
forming quietly.

Nor the excitement
of a campaign speech,
exploding wildly.

It is best seen
when Warhol’s fifteen
didn’t apply to Edie.

The warmth of his smile
with mention of her.

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