Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Page 2 of 178

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.

In another country, 5/17/14

Dear Laura:

There’s a lot to do. I have to find a place to live, continue job hunting, finish dissertation revisions. And I need to publish something beautiful and thoughtful and otherworldly so I can go back to struggling to read carefully again without any damn pressure.

But I haven’t talked to you in a while, and I think with spotty Internet, I had better write a letter. And I want that letter to be something you want to revisit, so I’d better make it public and force myself to be interesting.

You’re in Morocco and having a blast in some ways (food! people! different culture! eager students! exploration!) and not in others (food you’re not used to! people who don’t speak your language! illness! homesickness!).

This is not your experience, not even close, but I’d better share it anyway. My first few months of university I had all sorts of trouble eating and as a result trouble staying healthy. I wasn’t complaining, but I felt left out. I had no friends, nor anyone interested in the things I liked. I put on a smiley face and pretended to like everything put my way, even though I didn’t want to be where I was. I hated the food but made myself eat it, thinking I was making myself better for doing so. Of course, I wavered between angry and obnoxious when not full of self-pity.

Again, this is not your experience. You’re a grown woman who could lead an army if asked. You’re doing amazing things for your students and you’re taking a rich culture in at your own pace. I had the maturity of a stupid teenager (I know, I know: nothing’s changed) where I reacted to disappointment with all the tact of an elephant in traffic.

I do think I can share this. In retrospect, I realize now how much I was trying to make others’ expectations and standards my own. Stupid kids don’t always come from nowhere. Sometimes, they’re carefully crafted out of a lot of idiocy that isn’t theirs.

The worst part about those failed expectations and standards was that I could have made so much more of where I was. If I had to go back in time, I’d go everywhere except class and keep looking for friends unceasingly. There’s no way I would sit around musing about how miserable things are. Back then, I made the physical reaction I was having so much worse through my attitude.

So if some part of being in Morocco feels forced, like you’re trying to please someone else or fulfill an artificial standard, I can safely say that I hope you find what feels best for you. I can safely say to not stop exploring. You will find more that you treasure if you keep looking. I stopped looking back when I was surlier because I wanted to wallow in self-pity or pretend I was doing everything but wallowing in self-pity.

That’s all I’ve got for now. I thought I had something smart to say about an impression I had of a few poems, but I lost that thought.


The things that must be said…

…can’t be said. Or they are already said, but we don’t notice. We never notice. The only way to inform someone is to treat them like an idiot. They don’t think. They never think. Only you think. When someone curses out of frustration, let them know they took God’s name in vain. Ignore the blood oozing from the place their arm was. Make sure they hear what you know, what they might know if you say it over and over again.

Don’t forget, you could be wrong. It could be that no one knows anything because the things that must be said are difficult. You don’t just have to know them. You have to convey them. To persuade someone means to know them and make an appeal to them in particular. You don’t really have time for this, but you could make time. If only you had friends. For some reason, you never have friends.

There are no things that have to be said. No necessity asserts itself that you have to say anything. All you have to do is lead. Get out there, show what you’ve got. Lead by example. You’re fixing a car and someone asks you how to do what you do. You mumble “whatever you do will be good.” They go and pump diesel into an engine that takes regular unleaded.

Maybe the things that must be said can’t always be said by you.

Maybe you have to listen to them first.

George Szirtes, “Tenuous”

George Szirtes

Sometimes the soul hangs
by a thread and grows dizzy
just thinking of it,

its grip tenuous
on earth or tree or mountain
on just anything.

The sun is rising
to your right gilding the grass.
Look at the flowers.

Nothing unusual
in your excitement, the grass
as lush as normal.

It’s all delightful,
blazing, ever new, golden.
That’s what you fall from.

And you will praise life
from that height, its perfect map
ever opening.

The faces you love
will remain loved. They are
on a different clock.

But it’s tenuous,
all of it, the grip never
quite reassuring.

Get used to falling.
Imagine it perfectly.
Prepare for landing.

Lack of assurance
is the key. It is the home
we desire. Let’s go.


The speaker describes his audience’s emotional state far too well. The soul is not even gripped by what is grounded (“earth,” “tree,” “mountain”). It hovers over a world distinct from it, the world of where things belong together. Sun gilds grass; flowers and grass grow lush, complementing the other. The world the soul pictures, where everything else delights, has the desired effect for the audience. The soul does delight, but only to maintain its separation and anxiety. A “perfect map” and “different clock” imply the audience’s soul or state of mind has its own space and time.

Apart from nature, it hangs, thinks, falls, praises, and imagines. What the soul does not do, despite the speaker’s encouragement, is prepare. The soul will fall, its grip remaining tenuous. The speaker’s voice, again, is far too accurate. It describes exactly the state of mind where no solution can be found. I find it very strange one can “praise life” and still love properly while feeling no grip whatsoever on reality.

So I have two thoughts about the speaker. He could be talking to himself, trying to deal with his anxiety. Hanging, seeing yourself as separate and defined by separation, thinking you can use “falling” to your advantage – these are thoughts I’ve had when disappointed. I can safely say no amount of preparation gets you used to falling, though.

Or the speaker is someone who’s been there before, giving the exact same advice I just said was preposterous. I can imagine a lover saying “lack of assurance is the key” not because she wants to create delusional hopes, but because she knows the only thing that can be done is preparation of some sort. Ambitions don’t let go of you easily, if at all. The trick is to recognize, at some point, that you are loved.

Tenth Reflection: Sappho, “That afternoon / Girls ripe to marry…”

“That afternoon / Girls ripe to marry…”
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

That afternoon

Girls ripe to marry
wove the flower-
heads into necklaces


On the one hand, this little detail of a day shows the preparation for celebration itself a celebration. In the light, those who have blossomed weave blossoms together for what will likely be a wedding. This fragment exults. I feel like I’m at a Hallmark store, about to overdose on potpourri.

On the other hand, eros is self-reinforcing in the extreme. No wonder broken relationships are like traumas. Our everyday work not only builds to our hopes, but has those hopes written into it. Those hopes are even written into ourselves, as we feel ourselves ripe. It’s almost enough to say Don’t love, but thankfully the afternoon will pass.

Paul Celan, “With a fieldmouse voice”

With a fieldmouse voice (from Guernica)
Paul Celan (translation Ian Fairley)

With a fieldmouse voice
you squeak up,
a sharp
you bite through my vest into flesh,
a cloth,
you slip over my mouth,
even as my talk
would weigh you, shadow,


Perhaps unfairly, I thought of this as a study for George Szirtes’ “Polyphonic,” which I hope to write on later. In that poem, a shadow lodges in a man’s mouth while he speaks, and an argument commences between him and the shadow.

The action of Celan’s poem bears similarity. The speaker addresses a shadow which has come over him. And the shadow is not unrelated to the speaker’s own voice.

Here, the shadow is also aggressive, moving onto the speaker. It seems to start from outside him, almost imperceptible (“fieldmouse voice”). Then all of a sudden it grips, bites, tears into flesh. But the tearing into flesh feels accidental, as the speaker’s clothing, his vest, looks like the target. The shadow ultimately forms a cloth over him and slips over his mouth.

My impression of the shadow: it’s one of Eros’ arrows. Getting bitten by a squeaky mouse that doesn’t really know what it wants to chew is a lot like love. Not love of the “omg I think I’m crushing on that hottie at the bar” sort. This is real romance, where the faintest sound latches on and doesn’t let go. It hits suddenly out of the everyday. To resist is pain; whether any pleasure exists apart from pain is a good question. You’d argue, if this is love of a more real sort, that the speaker would at least allude to how necessary or choiceworthy it is. I do think that allusion presents itself.

Talk weighs the shadow covering the mouth down. To speak is to break the spell in a way, as the shadow will move less quickly over him. But to speak is also to keep the shadow with oneself, to make it more earthly, to make it more real. What’s funny is how this process exists for the people we truly love and who truly love us. Most of what we call love seems to be some sort of game bearing a resemblance to this. On a larger level, this is most unexpected.

Emily Dickinson, “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act” (997)

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act (997)
Emily Dickinson

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act
A fundamental pause
Dilapidation’s processes
Are organized Decays —

‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul
A Cuticle of Dust
A Borer in the Axis
An Elemental Rust —

Ruin is formal — Devil’s work
Consecutive and slow —
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping — is Crashe’s law —


This poem seems to spend a lot of words prolonging our agony. “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act,” “a borer in the axis,” “ruin is formal,” “fail in an instant, no man did:” our completely falling apart is our own fault, pure and simple. We put in play a principle doomed to decay, if it wasn’t a fatal enterprise in its very inception.

However, I’ve been driving myself crazy the last month wondering what I can do to make my prose and speech sharper. My reaction to this poem was not to wallow in more self-pity, but wonder what Dickinson was up to. Surely she knows that people undergo incredible traumas that break the strongest wills. That even if one wants to blame oneself for faulty reasoning and indulging delusions, there are still others getting hit by disasters which are “an instant’s act.” It would be beyond cruel, not to mention unreasonable, to expect they would have the resources to deal with everything brought upon them.

Her poem starts with a speaker musing on crumbling nearly abstractly, as if it were a mere dimension of time:

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act
A fundamental pause
Dilapidation’s processes
Are organized Decays —

“Instant’s Act,” “fundamental pause,” “processes,” “organized decays” – the subject of the language she employs is Time itself. “Crumbling” and “Dilapidation” bring to mind the image of a building, but “Dilapidation” merely describes “processes.” “Organized Decays” feels like it augurs the introduction of something natural, but nothing living or organic has been introduced in this stanza.

From Time the speaker moves to the Soul, but while she provides organic imagery, almost nothing living is given:

‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul
A Cuticle of Dust
A Borer in the Axis
An Elemental Rust —

She moves from a “cobweb” on the soul to a “Cuticle of Dust.” The dust might as well be our skin. Suddenly, the imagery changes to the mechanical. There is an axis and it is rusting, perhaps because of the very elements of which it is composed.

What stands out is “Borer” – that is either a worm or insect. It is something living, only metaphorically some kind of mechanical malfunction. All a “Borer” does is wreck an attempted motion. Up to this point, there has been no mention of motion other than “crumbling.”

Before we close read the third stanza, we should summarize where we’ve come. The speaker started with Time, then mused about the Soul. Not once did she engage the prospect of something being alive, except obliquely. This may be a clue that the principle she stands upon was fatal from its inception, moreso than most principles. Something was overwhelmingly self-defeating in her logic. It sounds like she wanted to build a sure foundation upon which to act; what’s crumbling is her house upon the sand. “Cobweb on the Soul” is very strange: don’t people who build use their souls? They are usually described as spirited. Also peculiar is that a layer of dust is one’s skin. It’s like the speaker wanted to trade her mortal coil for something more lasting, but in the process ignored what she can do with her own body.

One could say traditions inspire us and make us want to be like the great figures of yesteryear. But that can be flipped on its head, as we do pursue false idols.

The speaker, I think, has too strong a sense of sin. She wants immortality in this life, and still thinks the principles she holds can obtain that. The problem is that she’s watching herself fall apart every second she insists on this. She seems to be blaming herself for not being spirited enough, for not being physically resilient enough. She continues by citing the Devil as the problem:

Ruin is formal — Devil’s work
Consecutive and slow —
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping — is Crashe’s law —

The movement has been from “Time” to the “Soul” to “Man.” But again, except for a man slipping, the organic, natural world is completely missing. “Ruin is formal:” there are principles she holds that she has not purged. She lacks purity and so is doing the “Devil’s work” unknowingly. “Slipping – is Crashe’s law:” there is no such man as Crashe. Dickinson’s speaker made a name up from the concept of “crashing.” That tells you all you need to know about how the speaker engages humanity.

All that being said, this is not Dickinson simply ranting against theism. There’s a degree to which the speaker is an aspect of her, of all of us. If you insist that what you do must last, then yes, you are going to crumble. All of us need to take the world as is, the one we were born into and remains in front of us, seriously. We need to keep in mind that we create and recreate structures of belief that we treat as one-size-fits-all solutions. The solution sounds simpler than it is, of course. The world comes with its share of sticks and stones that break bones, as well as words that hurt worse. Many times, the search for an unshakeable foundation emerges from that pain.

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2014 Rethink.

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑