Friday, October 21, 2011

THE ANGEL OF GREATER LOVE



THE TREE

Because of the morning bird singing,
song will persist inside me.
Because of the sound of traffic,
I shall always wonder,
and I shall be troubled at what remains
unknown. But I shall hope. And because of the mailbox,
and the road, and the tree. It is hard to despair
because of the tree. Slowly, we turn toward love.

~ Tryfon Tolides, An Almost Pure Empty Walking

This is what I call a “comfort poem.” “It is hard to despair / because of the tree. Slowly, we turn toward love.” As is typical of comfort poems, the beauty of the world is why we love life. Just one tree makes life worth living.

You may remember the ending of Jack Gilbert’s “Brief for the Defense”:

To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

            ~ Jack Gilbert, Refusing Heaven

The most famous line in that poem is “We must risk delight.” But ultimately the poem winds down to a very quiet pleasure, the faint sound of oars in the dark. “We must admit there will be music despite everything,” is another line I like.

If there are comfort poems, there are also “discomfort poems.” Or at least so they seem on the surface. Here is an abridged version of Jaroslav’s Seifert’s “Struggle with the Angel” (translated by Ewald Osers, who is also the translator of all the other passages from Seifert that I quote in this post)

STRUGGLE WITH THE ANGEL

Some time ago I saw a rose-red shade.
It stood by the entrance to a house
facing Prague’s railway station,
eternally swathed in smoke.

We used to sit there by the window.
I held her delicate hands
and talked of love.
I’m good at that!
She’s long been dead.
The red lights were winking
down by the track.

As soon as the wind sprang up a little
it blew away the gray veil
and the rails glistened
like the strings of some monstrous piano.
At times you could also hear the whistle of steam
and the puffing of engines
as they carried off people’s miserable longings
from the grimy platforms
to all possible destinations.
Sometimes they also carried away the dead
returning to their homes
and to their cemeteries.

Now I know why it hurts so
to tear hand from hand,
lips from lips,
when the stitches tear
and the guard slams shut
the last carriage door.

Love is an eternal 
struggle with the angel.
From dawn to night.
Without mercy.
The opponent is often stronger.
But woe to him
who doesn’t realize
that his angel has no wings
and will not bless.

**

Jaroslav Seifert (1901-1986) was a Nobel-Prize winning Czech poet. In his Nobel Lecture (1984), he described poetry as “our deepest and safest refuge, where we seek succor in adversities we sometimes dare not even name.” Poetry always held human love to be more important than politics, ideologies, nationalism. In his first volume of poetry, Town in Tears, Seifert wrote a typical defense of the primacy of love, of intimacy between two people, as the primary experience that makes any philosophy seem pretty dead, or at least secondary.

Love is something huge
You’ll find out
If there were revolution in the whole wide world
Still somewhere on green grass
Lovers would have time to hold hands
And lean their heads towards one another.

We nod. That patch of grass becomes the garden of Eden, and holding hands and leaning heads toward one another are gestures infinitely more precious than any marching and flag waving. The silence between two lovers is more sacred than anything spoken in religious sermons or political speeches. That’s one reason that religion and totalitarian regimes alike find love subversive.


And yet, these strange lines: 

Love is an eternal 
struggle with the angel.
From dawn to night.
Without mercy.
The opponent is often stronger.
But woe to him
who doesn’t realize
that his angel has no wings
and will not bless.

**

Personally I don't agree with this. Love brings great gifts and transforms us, even at the cost of suffering. We learn most early on, and then again at parting. 


But it’s not all solemn. Seifert can joke a little about those youthful idolatries:

PHILOSOPHY

Remember the wise philosophers:
Life is but a moment.
And yet whenever we waited for our girlfriends
it was eternity.


**

But this is a poet who in his later work wrote

But suddenly we met
at the steps of the fountain,
then each went somewhere else, at another time
and by another path.

Where is the refuge here, the sanctuary? For me it’s in the line “at the steps of the fountain.” The fountain stands for a different love: for beauty and some kind of inherent value of life. But there is some degree of refuge even in the simple statement that we met and we parted. Reading it, we realize that we participate in universal experiences of humanity. 

Likewise, there is a strange beauty in the description of the Prague train station back in the era of steam locomotives, those great black beasts with their fabulous panting, but also all that smoke and sooty grime. The Prague train station, sometime in the middle of the last century! It suddenly seems like a place we have seen, a portion of the heart of humanity, now ours because of the poet’s gift. It becomes a metaphor for all of life’s partings. And yet its melancholy beauty has the power to console.

Prague train station

Seifert has been called a poet of Prague rather than a poet of love, and yet he writes about love quite often. It’s just that he refuses to glorify romantic love. It doesn’t last, that “tremor of delight, / more often long and bitter pain,” he says in a portion of the poem I left out. Using a memorable image, he also says, “Often loves succeed each other / like suits of cards in your hand.”

As I mentioned, I disagree with ending of “The Struggle with the Angel”: even unhappy love does bless, but it may take us a long time to see what its gift has been and how it transformed us. The angel of greater love blesses us every day, indeed every moment when we are in touch with what we love; the angel of romantic love may seem capricious and withholding, even sadistic at times. But his ultimate blessing is growth into a larger personality, and that is infinitely precious. Each human lover is a teacher; these teachers/lovers, absorbed our psyche, guide us as needed. 

Why can’t romance be just joy? Why all the pain and weeping? Almost as soon as we experience our first love, we learn that there is indeed much sorrow inextricably bound with romance, an almost physical pain, a heavy stone in the middle of the chest. What a saving miracle that romance is not the only kind of love we experience. It’s the most stormy, passionate, and dramatic – sometimes a runaway locomotive, though more often a “tremor of delight” followed by a gradual loss of that trembling, a diminishment, a dwindling, and finally either a settling down to quiet affection (“the triumph of affection over passion,” as Louise Glück put it), or a parting of the ways.

THE LOVE THAT PERMEATES ALL TRUE POETRY

Love is the torturer, and love is the savior: an entirely different, wider, and lasting love that can’t quite be labeled, but it is that love that permeates all true poetry. Is it “tenderness toward existence”? That’s the best phrase (thank you, Galway Kinnell) I have come across. That tenderness feels mostly like quiet affection, but it can be intense at times.

One of the questions that I have been answering in different ways over the years is the question of how I managed to survive my youth, when so many bad things were hitting me that the memories seem like an unfunny black comedy. Those were the crying years. Romantic love was a cruel joke, again and again. But against all that awful romance or lack of it (hard to say which was worse), I had two greater kinds of romance that didn’t fail me: my love of beauty, fused with my love for California, and my love of the intellect – all those books! The libraries kept me from suicide; that, and the beauty of California. And, in my later youth, also the love of my emerging vocation.

I’ve always found the way Marlene Dietrich signed off her letters – “I wish you love” –
to be one of the most wonderful things one could say to another person. To me it means love in every sense, including that larger kind of love that made me survive my own years of perdition. When one middle-aged single woman, stressed on the eve of a major trip, snapped at me, “Funny that those who don’t believe in God believe in romance!” I saw no contradiction at all. As long as I had a life of the mind and some beauty, I had my “larger love,” and felt no need for religion. And having the larger love allowed me to believe even in romance. 

In any case, it’s not a matter of “believing” in romantic love. It’s knowing that you can cope with the agony and ecstasy, and, later, with the loss of intensity when the infatuation phase ends, as it must. That’s where the steady flow of blessings from “greater love” comes to rescue. And, turning now to marriage rather than romance, those blessings, those marriages to something other than the human spouse, also strengthen the marital relationships – simply because one is no longer so needy and dependent, a little vampire in terror of abandonment, asking, “Do you love me? Do you really love me? Do you still love me? Will you always love me?”

True, some men are displeased to discover that a woman has a “life of her own.” They dream of a “service person” with no interests and no passionate pursuits of her own, so that her sole task would be taking care of the man’s needs. “Why do I always receive marriage proposals when I am in the kitchen?” one attractive older woman asked, knowing the question was rhetorical. Another single friend bewails the male attention she gets at a laundromat: “There is only one thing they want.” Freud was wrong! There are things that men want more than sex.

If we take seriously the radical idea that the pursuit of happiness is an unalienable human right, then no one should be expected to be another person's dedicated slave. But we should perhaps take a deeper look at the other love or loves in our partner’s life. If we can share even one of them, that’s magnificent. If not, the marriage can still be harmonious, since marriage is not about romance; it’s about stability. It’s a commitment to non-abandonment, to “being there” for the other – a foundation where we feel safe to explore our other loves, other “soul marriages.”

How reliable is the Angel of Greater Love? Sometimes I ask myself if I would still find life worth living if I could no longer read and write – stroke, for instance, can destroy the ability to understand and use language. It would certainly be a huge and cruel loss. I hope what would remain is the joy in the beauty of nature. And that is what poets continually appeal to.

“It’s hard to despair / because of the tree,” Tolides writes. And the love of that tree, of all trees, of animals, of rivers and lakes, of all there is, can bring its own moments of ecstasy and a delicious suspicion that we are links in the web of cosmic love. Seifert writes:

Hush, city, I can’t make out the whispering of the weir.
And people go about, quite unsuspecting
that above their heads fly
fiery kisses.

**



Lisa:

On this tenderness toward existence:

Yes, I am amazed by how much energy a small tree (with all of its leaves turned to brilliant, fluorescent red) holds for us! I'm experiencing the great "rootedness" of the South, whether it be due to the trees themselves, the ancient nature of the great Smokey Mountains, or the history of the place. At any rate, I taste this "tenderness" in the holy basil from the biodynamic farm, I hear this tenderness in my uncle's obituary (a hunter and outdoorsman who died yesterday evening), and I feel this tenderness in the Chinese clothing designer's true friendliness and new friendship as she tells me about her commitment to fair local governance in Asheville – her head wrapped in a funky art piece, her small body wrapped in a funky pieced-together jacket, as we share exquisite Indian food here in the deep South!

I am carrying "The Tree" in my pocket as I walk through the falling leaves of the Appalachian fall. This poem is very real here. Thank you!

Oriana:

Thank you for another post that brings us the colors of the Appalachian fall. How rich this kind of prose seems next to the minimalist – I am tempted to say “miserly” – style of modern poetry. Yes, Tolides gave us the precious observation that “it’s harder to despair because of the tree.” You give us not one abstract tree, but a feast of color and detail (holy basil! even sharing Indian food with a Chinese clothing designer).

If I were to summarize the central message of this blog entry, I’d say it’s the idea that for romantic love to be healthy rather than idolatrous and ultimately devastating, there needs to be that “greater love” behind it – or in parallel, or above – in any case, within us. And the easiest way to connect with that greater love is to take delight in nature.

A neighbor described Emily Brontë returning from a walk on the moors with a “divine light in her face.” Nature has the power to lift us to that higher plane that need not be called divine in any traditional sense, but is nevertheless transcendent – because we are not obsessing about ourselves or whether our partner “really” loves us. Here in Chula Vista we have a lot of liquidambar trees that have turned early this year: great scarves of crimson that bind even my shy heart, afraid as it is to lose yet another beloved landscape.

Tarantella:

Here is where Seifert's poem comes to life for me: 

As soon as the wind sprang up a little
it blew away the gray veil
and the rails glistened
like the strings of some monstrous piano.
At times you could also hear the whistle of steam
and the puffing of engines
as they carried off people's miserable longings
from the grimy platforms
to all possible destinations.
Sometimes they also carried away the dead
returning to their homes
and to their cemeteries.

**

Oriana:

I agree. I think Seifert loved Prague, including even the grimy platforms of the train station, more than he loved any woman. 


Tarantella:


My spirit is rich with the flames of trees after seeing that wonderful photo on your blog. THANK YOU!

Oriana:

When I closed the door on depression, I soon discovered that “working works” – work is my best therapy. At first I worked blindly, without asking why, what good does it do. But I longed for a meaning. As so often, it emerged by itself, and with the help of feedback such as yours: my conscious mission is to nourish hungry minds with beauty and ideas. My audience may be small, but doing the blog is much more fulfilling than publishing poems in small (or even large) magazines. 



Sunday, October 16, 2011

TRANSTROMER’S “FUNERAL GONDOLA”: POWER OF THE DEEP



Palazzo Vendramin on  Gran Canale; Richard Wagner died here

Letter to Ferdinand Taborszky, 1885 

First of all, dear friend, will you be so kind as to go to my house with Frau von Fabry? I stupidly forgot there—in the bedroom, not in the salon—the beautiful and revised copy of a composition for piano and violin or violoncello, together with the transcription of the same for pianoforte alone. The title is “La lugubre Gondola” (the funeral gondola). As though it were a presentiment, I wrote this élégie in Venice six weeks before Wagner’s death.


Now I should like it to be brought out by Fritzsch (Leipzig), Wagner’s publisher, as soon as I receive it from you in Weimar. Hearty greetings to your family.

Ever faithfully yours,
Liszt

Sorrow Gondola No. 2

I
Two old men, father- and son-in-law, Liszt and Wagner, are staying by the Grand Canal
together with the restless woman who is married to King Midas,
he who changes everything he touches to Wagner.
The ocean’s green cold pushes up through the palazzo floors.
Wagner is marked, his famous Punchinello profile looks more tired than before,
           his face a white flag.
The gondola is heavy-laden with their lives, two round trips and a one-way.

II
A window in the palazzo flies open and everyone grimaces in the sudden draft.
Outside on the water the trash gondola appears, paddled by two one-oared bandits.
Liszt has written down some chords so heavy, they ought to be sent off
to the mineralogical institute in Padua for analysis.
Meteorites!
Too heavy to rest, they can only sink and sink straight through the future all the way      down to the Brownshirt years.
The gondola is heavy-laden with the future’s huddled-up stones.

III
Peep-holes into 1990.
March 25th. Angst for Lithuania.
Dreamt I visited a large hospital.
No personnel. Everyone was a patient.

In the same dream a newborn girl
who spoke in complete sentences.

IV
Beside the son-in-law, who’s a man of the times, Liszt is a moth-eaten grand seigneur.
It’s a disguise.
The deep, that tries on and rejects different masks, has chosen this one just for him—
the deep that wants to enter people without ever showing its face.


Abbé Liszt is used to carrying his suitcase himself through sleet and sunshine
and when his time comes to die, there will be no one to meet him at the station.
A mild breeze of gifted cognac carries him away in the midst of a commission.
He always has commissions.
Two thousand letters a year!
The schoolboy who writes his misspelled word a hundred times
before he’s allowed to go home.
The gondola is heavy-laden with life, it is simple and black.

VI
Back to 1990.
Dreamt I drove over a hundred miles in vain.
Then everything magnified. Sparrows as big as hens
sang so loud that it briefly struck me deaf.
Dreamt I had drawn piano keys
on my kitchen table. I played on them, mute.
The neighbors came over to listen.

VII
The clavier, which kept silent through all of Parsifal (but listened),
finally has something to say.
Sighs . . .
 sospiri . . .
When Liszt plays tonight he holds the sea-pedal pressed down
so the ocean’s green force rises up through the floor and flows together with all the stone in the building.
Good evening, beautiful deep!
The gondola is heavy-laden with life, it is simple and black.

VIII
Dreamt I was supposed to start school but arrived too late.
Everyone in the room was wearing a white mask.
Whoever the teacher was, no one could say.

~ Tomas Transtromer, translation by Patty Crane, published in Blackbird, Fall 2011

**

A few preliminary notes:

Wagner married Cosima Liszt, Franz Liszt’s daughter, 24 years his junior. Thus Liszt officially became Wagner’s father-in-law, even though he and Wagner were very close in age (Liszt was only two years older).

Punchinello is a short, punch-bellied buffoon in Italian puppet shows.

The Wagner family went to Venice for the winter. Wagner died of a heart attack at the age of 69 on February 13, 1883 at Ca' Vendramin Calergi, a 16th century palazzo on the Grand Canal. Franz Liszt's two pieces for piano entitled La lugubre gondola (Die Trauergondel) evoke the passing of a black-shrouded funerary gondola bearing Richard Wagner's remains over the Grand Canal to Venice’s Santa Lucia railroad station. Wagner was buried in Bayreuth.

The piece that’s referred to as The Funeral Gondola Nr. 2 is basically a revised version of the already wonderful (in my opinion) first piece.

“Abbé Liszt” – in 1857, in a period of great sorrow in his life, Liszt joined a Franciscan order, and lived for a while at the Monastery of the Madonna of the Rosary in Rome. He did “receive the tonsure” (i.e. was officially a monk), but he was never a priest (Vivaldi, the “Red Priest,” really was a priest; by the way, Vivaldi was born in Venice and lived there most of his life).

While we associate Liszt with flamboyance and being the greatest pianist of his time, it’s a little known fact that he donated a lot of money to various charities, including the restoration of the Cologne Cathedral. After his mid-forties, he donated all his performance fees to charities. Though some prefer to think of him as a sinner rather than a saint, his later life leans to the latter. In a similar vein, it’s a mistake to dismiss Liszt as a mere virtuoso show-off. His late pieces have depth and musical daring.

I recommend listening to the Sorrow Gondola Nr. 1, with the marvelously evocative photos of Venice, including a historical photograph of the palazzo where Wagner died. Don’t miss this feast:


In his stunning Watermark, a book of musings about Venice, Brodsky remarked that Venice is the ideal city for dissolution. (Brodsky is buried in Venice.)

I would prefer “funeral gondola” as the title; I enjoy the specificity. This type of gondola is still in use.

A historical photo of an ornate funeral gondola 

**

Note the interweave of the scene of the funeral gondola’s passage with the present, which is rendered chiefly through the poet’s dreams. Baltics also uses the past-present interweave; likewise, I was reminded of Anne Carson’s stunning interweave in The Glass Essay.

Note that in all these cases, the technique involves close-up, i.e. a relatively “narrow slice” of life rather than a panorama. Thus we have “Emily in the parlor, brushing the carpet” in Glass Essay, and here “A window in the palazzo flies open and everyone grimaces in the sudden draft” and the repeated evocations of the gondola’s being simple and black.

My favorite passage:

When Liszt plays tonight he holds the sea-pedal pressed down
so the ocean’s green force rises up through the floor and flows
together with all the stone in the building.
Good evening, beautiful deep!
The gondola is heavy-laden with life, it is simple and black. 

 **

Tranströmer conflates the power of great music with the power of the elements in a lyrical manner that can work only in poetry. He trusts the beautiful deep. These are perhaps the most strange and beautiful lines in the whole poem, fusing music, the ocean, and the earth (stone):

When Liszt plays tonight he holds the sea-pedal pressed down
so the ocean’s green force rises up through the floor and flows
together with all the stone in the building.

*

I also greatly admire:

Wagner is marked, his famous Punchinello profile looks more tired than before,
           his face a white flag.
The gondola is heavy-laden with their lives, two round trips and a one-way.

 ~ especially “his face a white flag” – the flag of surrender, a sign that he knows he’s lost the battle for his life and is no longer struggling.

Note also this passage:

Beside the son-in-law, who’s a man of the times, Liszt is a moth-eaten grand seigneur.
It’s a disguise.
The deep, that tries on and rejects different masks, has chosen this one just for him—
the deep that wants to enter people without ever showing its face.

 **
 Stanza V, starting with Liszt’s carrying his own suitcase, has stayed with me as well:

Abbé Liszt is used to carrying his suitcase himself through sleet and sunshine
and when his time comes to die, there will be no one to meet him at the station.
A mild breeze of gifted cognac carries him away in the midst of a commission.
He always has commissions.
Two thousand letters a year!
The schoolboy who writes his misspelled word a hundred times
before he’s allowed to go home.
The gondola is heavy-laden with life, it is simple and black.

**


That “mild breeze of cognac” is a touch of humor that is even more evident in

Liszt has written down some chords so heavy, they ought to be sent off
to the mineralogical institute in Padua for analysis.
Meteorites!

~ and then the brilliant line about how they sink all the way to the future. The Nazis are invoked because Liszt’s piece with those heavy chords was meant as a tribute to Wagner, and Wagner got appropriated by the Nazis – but this is not the place to get into that controversy.

Tranströmer is fully modern in this poem; he doesn’t wish to distort reality just so that the homage to the two composers can appear more solemn. Thus the appearance of the trash gondola. That’s how life is, the beautiful and the ugly side by side.

Finally, note how the specificity of the Liszt and Venice parts contrasts with the anonymity present in the dreams: in a hospital, everyone is a patient and there is no medical personnel; in a school, both the students and the teachers are masked. Who, or what, is there to guide us, to comfort us?

The dream that I like best, however, is this one:

Dreamt I had drawn piano keys
on my kitchen table. I played on them, mute.
The neighbors came over to listen.

~ There is a desperate beauty in this: if there is no piano, just draw the piano keys on the table, start playing them, and people will come to listen.

**

Hyacinth:

Spent time reading and re-reading Transtromer about Wagner and Liszt. Fantastic writing. Don't you wish you could hear it in his native language. Love the sound of "sospiri" – Italian really does more with a word than English. I wonder what the word is in Swedish.

I especially love “the chord so heavy it sinks straight to the bottom.” I listened and that's how it sounds. Heavy as a meteorite. Also the piano keys drawn on the table. It reminds me of the movie where the pianist is hiding from the Nazis and there is a piano in his hiding place and all he can do is sit with his hands above the keys and pretend to play.

So poignant about Liszt: "he carries his own suitcase "and there will be no one to meet him at the station when the time comes.” It really presents the picture of how lonely dying is.

On another note I loved the description of Wagner as Punchinello. At our preschool we played a game "What can you do Punchinello, funny fellow what can you do, Punchinello in the shoe?" and the "It" child would clap their hands or whatever and all joined in. Not that relevant but it came to my mind. 


All the photos of Venice bring back memories and the funeral gondolas are eerie and beautiful.

**

Oriana:

I agree that it’s a fantastic poem. Actually I wanted it to be longer, to tell us more about Liszt and Wagner, and especially something about Cosima – all three were such interesting characters. And then the background of Venice and the image of the black funeral gondola. The interweave with dreams and “angst about Lithuania” was also excellent. Transtromer was opposed to the Soviet totalitarianism (note the persecuted composer in Baltics) and imperialism, which included the annexation of Latvia and Lithuania.

The movie you are referring to is Polanski’s “The Pianist,” based on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman. While in hiding, he was strictly forbidden to touch the piano – playing it would obviously draw attention to his presence in the apartment. And the movie audience knows how much he yearns to play. So he moves his fingers above the keys, never making a sound, though he hears the entire concerto in his head. It’s one of the most memorable scenes in the movie.

Liszt’s loneliness was alleviated by his involvement in music up to the very end. Music was his companion. That’s the special luck of musicians – even when not physically able to play, they can “play” their favorite pieces in their mind.

It’s fascinating that your preschool kept the Punchinello tradition alive, so to speak. The name sounds delightful. Which reminds me: yes, sospiri is marvelous, but “sighs” is a good onomatopoeic word – it just needs to be pronounced slowly.

Below: Cosima and Richard, 1872. Yes, poor Cosima had a large nose, after her father. She was also tall and thin; her nickname, during her teens, was “the stork.” But again I want yo to notice that one senses the love between these two. 


Charles:

When I was listening to Liszt's "...Gondola" and saw the pictures I got the feeling of moving in the gondola on the canal. Cosima must have been so interesting. Amazing blog. Love the way you write about history.

Oriana:

Venice flows in that music, dissolving in all the reflections. Here is the Venetian Carnival together with a brilliant performance of Vivaldi’s Winter. The Red Priest has been recorded more times than Beethoven. One fabulous comment on Youtube: “Heavy metal of the 17th century.”



Hyacinth’s description of the funeral gondolas applies to the whole city: “eerie and beautiful.” In this poem, however, Rilke reminds us that Venice was once a formidable naval power. “Old forest skeletons” refers to the alder pilings on which Venice was built.

LATE AUTUMN IN VENICE

Already the city no longer drifts
like a bait, catching the days as they surface.
The glassy palaces ring more brittle
against your gaze. And from the gardens

the summer hangs like a heap of marionettes,
headfirst, exhausted, done in.
But from the ground, out of old forest skeletons,
the will to power rises: as if overnight

the commander of the sea had to double
the galleys in the sleepy arsenal,
in order to tar the next morning breeze

with a fleet, which pushes out rowing
and then suddenly, all its flags dawning,
seizes the high wind, radiant and deadly.

~ R.M. Rilke, translated by Edward Snow
(with minor changes by Oriana)