21 September 2005

for Ozzie

Evening Light
by Anthony Abbott

The trees undress slowly from the top.
Bare arms arc brownly into the sky. It is
sunset. Orange skirts swirl in an awful
dying light. The ground is littered gold.

I stop the scene with the shutter of my eye—
stop and hold and mark—this blue, these reds
and holding greens—those rusts upon the ground.
I stoop and pick and hold this one dry leaf.

It crumbles in my hand, and I see a picture
from the morning paper speak as if alive.
Five Turkish children killed by earthquake
lie upon the ground, seemingly asleep.

The mother screams above, mouth horror ravaged,
while in Kentucky and Ohio other mothers weep
into clean white handkerchiefs as taps are played
and flags are placed into their hollow laps.

Hats do not suffice. The time is never right.
Beauty is always almost gone. This dress, this
cock of the head, this touch, this curl of hair,
this graying beard, that look over the shoulder.

We are taken so suddenly, the breath goes
in white astonishment. If I had known is not
enough. Say it now. Say it now. Say it now.
Before the shutter clicks once more and closes.

11 September 2005

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Moonrise June 19

I awoke in the midsummer not-to-call night, |
                in the white and the walk of the morning:
The móon dwíndled and thínned to the frínge |
                of a fíngernail héld to the cándle,
Or páring of páradisáïcal frúit, |
                lóvely in wáning but lústerless,
Stepped from the stool, drew back from the barrow, |
                of dark Maenefa the mountain;
A cusp still clasped him, a fluke yet fanged him, |
                entangled him, not quit utterly.
This was the prized, the desirable sight, |
                unsought, presented so easily,
Parted me leaf and leaf, divided me, |
                eyelid and eyelid of slumber.

10 September 2005

Carol Bly

From Carol Bly’s Beyond the Writers’ Workshop:

Our efforts to think and feel beyond simple love of family or love of nature are a fragile enterprise! We will have to keep reminding ourselves of how this civilization, the stuff nonfiction writers [CP: poets and novelists, too] write about, works out cruelly for some, cruelly for all at some times, cruelly all their lives for still others.

Literary colleagues may assure us that such thinking will make us shrill. “I used to love your work so much,” they will say, “back when you just described how people are and you didn’t press for change.” Such friends and colleagues far prefer rereading Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to reading Three Guineas all through once. In Mrs. Dalloway the character Hugh Whitbread was still only an emerging shadow of a villain. He was still just one of Woolf’s aesthetic achievements—an interesting character vaguely benefiting, but only vaguely, from being a privileged player in “the system.” By the time she wrote Three Guineas, Woolf recognized the Hugh Whitbreads as the beneficiaries and manipulators of unethical entitlement because by then she had asked the question: “Who is the victim for whom this civilization doesn’t work out fairly? And now that I have shown you the victim, we had better ask who, exactly, is the predator?”

Of course, the Woolf of Three Guineas is less charming than the scrupulous but still merely sensuous novelist of Mrs. Dalloway. It is odd how easy and gratifying it is to think of men in ascot and waistcoat and striped morning pants, yet how awful it is to think of a major perpretrator of war and poeverty (not just to women—to everyone) in that same morning dress! We may wish that someone had not pointed it out to us that the villain often wears the correct school tie, but the pyschological fact is that once it has been pointed out to us we are pinned. We will look at Hugh Whitbread but see poor women’s buckets and dead soldiers’ heads and limbs on the beach.

Copyright 2001. Who in the world by the late date of 2001 found it “easy and gratifying . . . to think of men in ascot and waistcoat and striped morning pants”? I don’t even find it easy to think of women decking themselves out to attract men. That aside, Bly proceeds convincingly:

Once we . . . writers have asked either question, “Who is the victim for whom this civilization doesn’t work out fairly?” or “Who exactly is the predator?” we can never go back. We will never again equate a sojourn in the wilds with a spiritual journey. From then on, we will see the wilds wistfully, as someplace not yet intruded on and misused by our lot. Enjoying nature is from then on only escape.

09 September 2005

Robinson Jeffers

The Purse-Seine

Our sardine fishermen work at night in the dark of the moon;
           daylight or moonlight
They could not tell where to spread the net, unable to see the
           phorphorescence of the shoals of fish.
They work northward from Monterey, coasting Santa Cruz; off
           New Year’s Point or off Pigeon Point
The look-out man will see some lakes of milk-color light on the
           sea’s night-purple; he points, and the helmsman
Turns the dark prow, the motorboat circles the gleaming shoal
           and drifts out her seine-net. They close the circle
And purse the bottom of the net, then with great labor haul it in.

                                                                       I cannot tell you
How beautiful the scene is, and a little terrible, then, when the
           crowded fish
Know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall to the
           other of their closing destiny the phosphorescent
Water to a pool of flame, each beautiful slender body sheeted
           with flame, like a live rocket
A comet’s tail wake of clear yellow flame; while outside the
Floats and cordage of the net great sea-lions come up to watch,
           sighing in the dark; the vast walls of night
Stand erect to the stars.

                             Lately I was looking from a night mountain-top
On a wide city, the colored splendor, galaxies of light: how could
           I help but recall the seine-net
Gathering the luminous fish? I cannot tell you how beautiful
           the city appeared, and a little terrible.
I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together
           into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now
There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable
           of free survival, insulated
From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on all
           dependent. The circle is closed, and the net
Is being hauled in. They hardly feel the cords drawing, yet they
           shine already. The inevitable mass-disasters
Will not come in our time nor in our children’s, but we and our
Must watch the net draw narrower, government take all powers
           —or revolutaion, and the new government
Take more than all, add to kept bodies kept souls—or anarchy,
           the mass disasters.

                                                 These things are Progress;
Do you marvel our verse is troubled or frowning, while it keeps
           its reason? Or it lets go, lets the mood flow
In the manner of the recent young men into mere hysteria,
           splintered gleams, crackled laughter. But they are quite wrong.
There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew that
           cultures decay, and life’s end is death.

                                                                                 - 1937

04 September 2005

My thanks to Steve for the link to this Peter Ackroyd interview occasioned by his new biography of Shakespeare. Ackroyd is one of my favorite writers, and if you've not read his novel Hawksmoor, you've missed a great great work.