Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A. R. AMMONS: THE MOUNTAIN AND I



































Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park


Mountain Talk

I was going along a dusty highroad
when the mountain
across the way
turned me to its silence:
oh I said how come
I don’t know your
massive symmetry and rest:
nevertheless, said the mountain,
would you want
to be
lodged here with
a changeless prospect, risen
to an unalterable view:
so I went on
counting my numberless fingers.

**

This is one of those stunners that are best left uncommented on, since anything one may say after the magic of “so I went on / counting my numberless fingers” will be just prosy babble.

But this little masterpiece made me think of the statues of Buddha seated in meditation, and how those images fail to touch my heart – maybe because I like flow rather than stasis. I like the way that, if you take a close look at anything, it blossoms into infinity.

And I love it when poets talk with mountains, wind, dogs, river, and so on (“Lead, why did you let yourself / be made into a bullet?” ~ Simic; unforgettable). We can get away with it in poetry; we are allowed to be like little children and holy fools.


Matterhorn and Riffelsee

WHO CAN MOURN THOSE THE DEAD MOURNED

In another conversation with the mountain, Ammons takes up the eternal theme of transience and time. If your eyes have just glazed over, have some coffee and continue with “Continuing” – it’s the wonderful way humus is compared to human life that matters.

Continuing

Considering the show, some prize-winning
leaves broad and a firm, a good year,
I checked the ground
for the accumulation of
fifty seasons: last year was
prominent to notice, whole leaves
curled, some still with color:
and, underneath, the year
before, though paler, had structure,
partial, airier than linen:
but under that,
sand or rocksoil already mixed
with the meal or grist:
is this, I said to the mountain,
what becomes of things:
well, the mountain said, one
mourns the dead but who
can mourn those the dead mourned;
back a way
they sift in a tearless
place: but, I said,
it’s so quick, don’t you think,
quick: most time, the mountain said, lies
in the thinnest layer: who
could bear to think of it:
I scooped up the sand which flowed
away, all but a cone in the palm:
the mountain said, it
will do for another year.

**

My favorite passage:

is this, I said to the mountain,
what becomes of things:
well, the mountain said, one
mourns the dead but who
can mourn those the dead mourned;
back a way
they sift in a tearless
place: but, I said,
it’s so quick, don’t you think,
quick: most time, the mountain said, lies
in the thinnest layer: who
could bear to think of it:

**

The mountain here has surprising understanding of human concerns and emotions:

well, the mountain said, one
mourns the dead but who
can mourn those the dead mourned;
back a way
they sift in a tearless
place:

Then “who / could bear to think of it” continues the mountain’s breaking away from aloofness. From the advantage of its tall and quite durable majesty – one could also posit the “wisdom of great age” – the mountain suddenly speaks with human understanding of how our psyche cannot bear all this passing and vanishing.

There is also an element in humor in the very fact that the mountain speaks to the tiny human, and that alone creates a certain emotional uplift.


Zugspitze, Germany. Photo: Christian Nawroth

THE PURITY OF EMPTINESS VERSUS SURVIVAL

Let me quote another “the mountain and I” poem that I find quite charming:

Classic

I sat by a stream in a
perfect – except for willows –
emptiness
and the mountain that
was around

scraggly with brush &
rock
said
I see you’re scribbling again:

accustomed to mountains,
their cumbersome intrusions,
I said

well, yes, in a fashion very
like the water here
uncapturable and vanishing:

but that
said the mountain does not
excuse the stance
or diction

and next if you’re not careful
you’ll be
arriving at ways
water survives its motions.

**

Here, instead of transience, we end of survival – water survives its motions.

Also, here both the mountain and the human are dismissive of each other. The mountain says, “I see you’re scribbling again.” He assures the reader that he is “accustomed to mountains / their cumbersome intrusions.”

These conversations between a man and a mountain are so marvelous that I want to swat at the thought that buzzes by: how lonely the poet must have been to have these talks. I love the mountain’s “cumbersome intrusion”; I know about a necessary, creative solitude, the kind that gave us Dickinson’s genius; I know about long solitary walks and writing love letters to the wind; but still . . .  


THE SUPREMACY OF THE MIND

But before we start feeling sorry for the poet, one more poem to remind us that, for all his supposed envy of the mountain, he is the one who feels superior:

Apologetics

I don’t amount to a thing, I said to the mountain:
I’m not worth a tuft of rubble:  I come from
nothing, that’s where I’ll go:  you take, like, from

my elevation, everything rises, slopes with huge
shoulders barreling and breaking up as if out of
melt-deep ground:  when I look out I don’t see

a scope falling away under prevailing views
into ridges, windings, plots, stream-fields:    sir,
the mountain noticing me below and fixing

me in view said, what you don’t have you nearly
acquire in the telling, there is a weaving
winding round in you lifting you buzzardlike up into

high-windings:    just a minute, I said to the
mountain:  exaggeration is not your prerogative:
you have to settle for size:    eminence is mine.

**

The cleverness of this poem lies in how it starts with the assertion of human worthlessness: “from dust to dust” here becomes even more radical: from nothing to nothing. The speaker continues with self-effacement by praising the mountain’s superior view from above, while the speaker’s view is from below, where “everything rises, slopes with huge / shoulders barreling and breaking up.” The mountain, impressed with the poet’s eloquence, replies

           what you don’t have you nearly
acquire in the telling, there is a weaving
winding round in you lifting you buzzardlike up into

high-windings

This competing eloquence on the part of the mountain makes the speaker reveal his true feelings about which of them is superior:

          just a minute, I said to the
mountain:  exaggeration is not your prerogative:
you have to settle for size:    eminence is mine.

This ending might be hubristic, but humor saves it from that. Thus we arrive at the opposite pole from humility. Both extremes are true: compared to a mountain, we are momentary, dust to dust, nothing to nothing. At the same time, there is an undeniable greatness in humanity, even in just one human being. Simply having a language (thanks to which we are capable of exaggeration) is magnificent.

Thus, Ammons doesn’t let nature have the last word. The mountain has greatness, but that greatness is confined to size; human greatness has to do with the infinitude of the human mind.

This is not to say that Ammons is a great singer of the human. No, he is primarily a singer of nature:

. . . paradise was when
Dante
regathered from height and depth
   came out onto the soft, green level earth
into the natural light

**


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

SIMIC, WHITMAN, AND SISTER LOUISE



Tamara Lempicka, Adam and Eve


THE OLD WORLD

I believe in the soul; so far
It hasn’t made much difference.
I remember an afternoon in Sicily.
The ruins of some temple.
Columns fallen in the grass like naked lovers.

The olives and goat cheese tasted delicious
And so did the wine
With which I toasted the coming night,
The darting swallows,
The Saracen wind and moon.

It got darker. There was something
Long before there were words:
The evening meal of shepherds . . .
A fleeting whiteness among the trees . . .
Eternity eavesdropping on time.

The goddess going to bathe in the sea.
She must not be followed.
These rocks, these cypress trees,
May be her old lovers.
Oh to be one of them, the wine whispered to me.

~ Charles Simic

**

“The Old World” is one of my favorite poems. I am particularly delighted by the last line of each stanza, but especially the first and the last stanza, starting with “Columns fallen in the grass like naked lovers.” The “Saracen wind and moon” makes me think of Lorca’s ballads, stylized and passionate at the same time (so what if some professor tells you never to write about the moon? I say all true poets have the inalienable right to write about the moon).

Then “A fleeting whiteness among the trees” – which could be simply the light, but might also be a nymph or the goddess that’s mentioned soon afterwards, probably Aphrodite, since she had the closest connection with the sea (and of course with love and sex). And what is a moment of transcendent delight except a fleeting whiteness, and “eternity eavesdropping on time”?

The last stanza is perfection:

The goddess going to bathe in the sea.
She must not be followed.
These rocks, these cypress trees,
May be her old lovers.
Oh to be one of them, the wine whispered to me.

Who can resist that Dionysian whisper? The line is funny and moving at the same time. That is a rare feast: humor may delight us, but it’s rare that something can simultaneously amuse us and touch our hearts. But Eros has that power. (The marriage proposal scene in The Iron Lady is comic and yet touching.)

Simic interests me because his best poems are both cerebral and sensual, erotic. It’s the marriage of Logos and Eros. The gods mingle with the mortals, characters out of myth are everywhere along with the ever-present butcher, angel-child, and the blind beggar (who’s of course also Tiresias). I don’t think Simic could ever be popular with poets who write mainly about their immediate family. He actually does have some mother-and-father poems. One of them, “Romantic Sonnet,” starts:

Evenings of sovereign clarity –
Wine and bread on the table,
Mother praying,
Father naked in bed.

**

The combination of Eucharistic symbols and sex is irresistible to this lapsed Catholic. There is a strong connection between religion and sex, but it’s not what the religious right would have us believe.

**

Sociology of religion is an established field, but psychology of religion remains somewhat undeveloped, it seems to me – maybe precisely because it would mean treading into the erotic. We are reasonably comfortable with it when dealing with classical or Asian mythology: yes, of course, the phallic gods, fertility rituals, virgins and serpents everywhere, and gods and goddesses mating with mortals. When it comes to Chrisitanity, however, (or, to use the more inclusive and intellectually chic term, “Abrahamic religions”), we tend to pull back.

In a stark break with polytheistic religions, the Abrahamic god is sexless, so Eros has to enter through the back door, disguised. In a Hasidic midrash, Shehkina (arguably the feminine divine) joins Yahveh each Sabbath, and they make love – hence there is a special blessing for married couples making love during Sabbath. This, of course, is not in the scriptures. But we have to have some sacred marriage somewhere . . .

But what am I saying, “we” . . . it’s poets and writers who tend to infuse Eros into everything they write about, including matters that others might label “spiritual.” Here is Whitman, erotic not just in imagery, but also in the seductive use of sound – “Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.

I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you, 
And you must not be abased to the other. 

Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat, 
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not 
even the best, 
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice. 

I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning, 
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn'd over upon me, 
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue 
to my bare-stript heart, 
And reach'd till you felt my beard, and reach'd till you held my feet. 

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass 
all the argument of the earth, 
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own, 
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own, 
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women 
my sisters and lovers, 
And that a kelson of the creation is love, 
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields, 
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them, 
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap'd stones, elder, mullein and 
poke-weed. 

~ Walt Whitman, Section 5 of Song of Myself

**

It’s best to leave intellectual literary criticism out of this, lest we sound like theologians writing chaste commentaries on the Song of Songs. I’ll only say that I love the inclusion of brown ants and mossy scabs and weeds in this mystical experience. And yes, it is a typical mystical experience in its mention of peace and knowledge:

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass 
all the argument of the earth

You may object that this Whitman is speaking about the union not with the divine, but with his own soul. But that soul is externalized and divinized in a manner that reminds me of Rumi and Hafiz. The god of the mystics sounds more like the ultimate “twin soul.” (When I come home to my twin soul, there he is at the piano, playing Schubert like a virtuoso. Mystically enabled myself, I sit down on the piano bench next to him and say, “Let me take the left hand.”)

**

No, the erotic will not be shut out of religion, and the love of the devotee for the deity does not stay platonic. The longing for a union with the Beloved keeps reappearing in most religions, and it’s a longing for touch, for the sound of his voice. However, it’s the soul that is the Beloved, a former nun, Sister Louise (no longer a “sister,” but it was impossible to think of her except as Sister Louise) explained it to us during her lecture on Progressive Catholic Thought. “If the soul is the Beloved, then God is – what?” Sister Louise asked. None dared reply. She repeated the question. Silence.

Slightly rolling her eyes at our ignorance about something so basic, Sister Louise knew that, again, she’d have to tell the obvious to the befuddled listeners. “If the soul is the Beloved, then God is the Lover,” she announced. It was, in the parlance of those years, “mind-blowing” to hear this. Our Lover, who art in heaven?

The fact that someone, especially a woman who used to be a nun and thus likely taught catechism, with its fussy categories of sin, could define God as a Lover – now, that was more radical than any religious idea I’d ever heard. And the former nun did not seem to mean “platonic love” either. Smiling at our astonishment, she calmly kept using terms usually associated with erotic union, including “God makes love to the soul.” (Later, I overheard a professor say, “She’s really grown since she left the convent.”)

Sister Louise explained that the soul, the Beloved, is more passive and lets herself (the word for soul is feminine in those languages in which nouns have gender) be possessed by God when he comes to visit. The union is rapturous: there is ecstasy and a great feeling of peace, intoxication and yet complete clarity of inner vision, the shedding of rational control in favor of the feeling of blissful fulfillment. What we want from religion is not commandments but paradise.

One striking uniformity that emerges is the mystics’ complete lack of fear of hell. Theirs is not a fear-based faith. Their god-concept seems based on a totally loving and forgiving deity. Their focus is not hell, but paradise. And apparently even a fear-based believer can experience a moment of mystical joy. William James, in his lectures on religious experience, quotes this: “When a fellow-monk," said Luther, "one day repeated the words of the Creed: 'I believe in the forgiveness of sins,' I saw the Scripture in an entirely new light; and straightway I felt as if I were born anew. It was as if I had found the door of paradise thrown wide open.” Alas, that moment of mystical vision passed quickly, and Luther for the most part reverted to his obsession with sin and Satan.

I realize that Luther’s idea of God remained parental, and he’d probably be horrified at a former nun (he’d approve of her having left the convent) defining God as a Lover. But Saint Teresa of Avila, as well as various Sufi and other ecstatic mystics, are more likely to see God as a Lover or Friend. There is, of course, St. John of the Cross, whom I quoted in a previous blog entry


and who is worth quoting again:

Stanzas of the Soul

1. One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
– ah, the sheer grace! –
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.
2. In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
-- ah, the sheer grace! --
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

3. On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
– him I knew so well –
there in a place where no one appeared.

5. O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

6. Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.


**

We know that ecstatic experiences, be they erotic, musical, or spiritual, all seem to originate in the right temporal lobe. This may explain to some degree the similarity of these various kinds of rapture, but it’s the poets who have given us the fallen temple pillars like lovers and always a variety of flowers, including the sexiest lilies.

Morgan:

Simic’s "The Old World" is wonderful, so mysterious as the poet pulls reader along with him through abstractions into a concrete, partly mythic, timeless past. "Eternity eavesdropping on time" is my favorite line.

Oriana:

While the clergy try to stay with the abstract, the mystic experiences sensations, sometimes described as “waves of liquid love.” Simic stays just sufficiently understated to have me feel that no, he does not reduce anything to sex; he elevates sex, makes it more beautiful with his imagery and words like “eternity.”

And the wine, so often mentioned in mystical poetry that it’s even been called the “wine of the mystic”? The rational faculties must be dampened so that an ecstatic vision can take place.

Hyacinth:

About Simic's poem:

I noticed that he used the word "soul" with no apologies and we have been avoiding it in modern poetry. I especially like "columns fallen on the grass like naked lovers" and "there was something long before there were words." Fascinating. Made me wonder about what goes on in a baby's mind before language. 

Long ago when I studied the Bible there was much emphasis on the "Word" being with god at the beginning of the world.

I also enjoy WW's "the lull, I like the hum of your valved voice."

And I’m intrigued by the image of the piano. "Let me take the left hand” reminds me of playing with my mother.

Oriana:

“At the beginning was the Logos” – that’s usually translated as “the Word,” but Logos also means mind, logic, design, concept. Anyway, Hesiod says that in the beginning was Chaos, Gaia (Earth), and Eros. I think poets want to say, “In the beginning was Eros.” Or at least they want to balance Logos with Eros.

I don’t think I will ever see fallen columns as anything but naked lovers from now on. Simic eroticizes the whole landscape, even the rocks and the cypresses.

An interesting query about the baby’s preverbal mind. Images, I suppose, but even those are probably different than ours. It’s possible that language affects neural function in a global manner. 



Scott:


I have been reading more by and of Whitman. As you know, my literary world is heavily colored by Melville, and he and Whitman share many similarities. Their lives parallel each other in that they lived in the same era and region; the poet Jay Parini even has them meet in his novel on Melville. Melville was too troubled by his Calvinistic background to have related to much of Whitman’s poetry. The Catholic Kiwi poet James K Baxter could have better related to Whitman; his brand of mystical/liberal Catholicism was very unorthodox. I think Whitman was a true free spirit and saw the human condition as one to be fully embraced, in all its aspects. His Civil War service had to have been very unsettling to someone of his frame of mind. I also think Whitman was influenced by his interaction with the Quakers. I like their official title 'The Society of Friends'....if only we could all be in such a society truly.

Oriana:

You are right: Melville and Whitman, two giants of American literature, lived in the same era. I think both of them spread the message of tolerance (curious, how many centuries it’s taken us to arrive at the current still imperfect level of acceptance of people who are different). Melville gave us the wonderful figure of Queequeg, for whom Ishmael has so much affection and admiration – a message against racism (which must have been quite radical at the time, especially given the frequency with which the word “cannibal” is used in the novel). Whitman’s embrace of humanity was Christ-like – note his compassion for prostitutes and the mentally ill. I think that has something to do with Whitman’s mystical streak – he seems to have liberated himself from the toxic concept of the divine prevalent during his times, when religion was still very much founded on psychological terrorism, i.e. the threat of hellfire. Mystics are very alike in being love-based rather than fear-based. The neural substrate of mystical experience is apparently the same regardless of whether the person starts out as a Buddhist or a Catholic.

My own “conversion experience” (a moment that did change my life, though from the outside it would have looked as though nothing happened: it literally was all inside my head) has been to a productive life as opposed to chronic depression, and it too bore the fruit of much greater acceptance of others, and great love for the earth. (Animals I always loved; it’s people I had trouble accepting.) I tended to see Whitman as too effusive; now I understand him and enjoy him more. He was incredibly radical, and even today, as I’ve heard from professors of American literature, some college students simply can’t accept what he is saying (or what the American transcendentalists are saying). 



Thanks for pointing out the influence of Quaker views on Whitman. Here is an interesting link:



John:

I like the Simic but he's a man who can never love the soul the way Whitman does. For Whitman, the soul is always present, for Simic it is a memory.

Oriana:

Yes, for Simic and probably for most educated readers, soul is a pretty meaningless word. It's startling to realize that Freud constantly wrote of die Seele -- German for "soul." His translators seem embarrassed by it and usually render Freud's Seele as "psyche" or "mind."

Friday, January 13, 2012

HASS'S DRAGONFLIES



from DRAGONFLIES MATING


This morning in the early sun,
steam rising from the pond the color of smoky topaz,
a pair of delicate, copper-red, needle-fine insects
are mating in the unopened crown of a Shasta daisy
just outside your door. The green flower heads look like wombs
or the upright, supplicant bulbs of a vegetal pre-erection.
The insect lovers seem to be transferring the cosmos into each other
by attaching at the tail, holding utterly still, and quivering intently.

I think (on what evidence?) that they are different from us.
That they mate and are done with mating.
They don’t carry all this half-mated longing up out of childhood
and then go looking for it everywhere.
And so, I think, they can’t wound each other the way we do.
They don’t go through life dizzy or groggy with their hunger,
kill with it, smear it on everything, though it is perhaps also true
that nothing happens to them quite like what happens to us
when the blue-backed swallow dips swiftly toward the green pond
and the pond’s green-and-blue reflected swallow marries it a moment
in the reflected sky and the heart goes out to the end of the rope
it has been throwing into abyss after abyss, and a singing shimmers
from every color the morning has risen into.

My insect instructors have stilled, they are probably stuck together
in some bliss and minute pulse of after-longing
evolution worked out to suck that last juice of the world
into the receiver body. They can’t separate probably
until it is done.

~ Robert Hass

**

I love the phrase “insect lovers.” “Lover” is already an appropriation of a term that isn’t normally applied to any species other than our own, but lately I’ve noted the trend in poetry not to be so human-elitist. Hass is envious of those insect lovers because they don’t drag their childhood trauma, say, into their mating process. They do it the clean and simple way, not smearing their love hunger over everything. “They can’t wound each other the way we do” is the crucial statement. Humans, let’s face it, have made a mess of romance, though we try to “church it up” (a new phrase I just learned, so I simply had to use it) and speak in lofty terms to cover up all the suffering that comes, sooner or later, with our sexuality.

“Supplicant bulbs” is wonderful too, and of course we humans are the ultimate supplicant bulbs, begging to be loved, then abandoning each other – only to beg again, “dizzy or groggy with [our] hunger.” And the wounds live on, and the soul gets to look like the scarred November fields before the peace of winter – if peace ever comes.

Now the poem just stayed with celebrating the dragonflies, or maybe ended by attacking us with a question, e.g. so, having seen such beauty, have you changed your life? But then it would be another forgettable nature poem with some nice description. Maybe for a while we’d be titillated by the phrase “vegetal pre-erection” to describe the unopened flower heads (flowers are, indeed, a plant’s sex organs – Georgia O’Keefe, for all her protesting too much, must have seen the connection).

But Hass is quick to correct his insect envy with the praise of human capacity for delight when we see something gorgeous” and the heart goes out to the end of the rope
it has been throwing into abyss after abyss, and a singing shimmers.” So it’s the agony and ecstasy again, can’t have one without the other, the price for being human and exiled from the Eden of being one with nature, etc. Note that the “insect lovers seem to be transferring the cosmos into each other” – wow, who wouldn’t envy that – but wait a moment, those beautiful dragonflies have no sense of beauty (that we know of), and it would be astonishing to learn that they watch the sunset (even dogs can’t do that; does anyone know if a chimpanzee or any other “higher primate” has ever been observed watching the sunset? I think their color vision would be adequate, but what about their sense of the sublime?)

But the last stanza ultimately affirms how mechanical dragonfly mating is after all: they probably can’t physically separate until the process is complete down to that last drop of the “juice of the world” (why say something as ordinary as semen if you have Hass’s cosmic metaphors? though isn’t it a tad aggrandizing, semen as the juice of the world? What about the quadrillions of bacteria in our intestines? They don’t need that juice to reproduce).

So Hass assents to being human, I assume, with some regret about the way we smear our longing over everything and can’t love without wounding (this really is pretty disgusting if you think about it; sure, we can protest that we didn’t mean to hurt, but how come there is so much hurting going on?)

Hass’s vegetal and insect musings reminded me of Rilke’s Third Duino Elegy, where he takes the long view, a supra-personal perspective:

Look, we don’t love like flowers, with only a single
season behind us; immemorial sap
mounts in our arms when we love. Dear girl,
this: that we’ve loved, within us, not One, still to come,
but seething multitudes; not just a single child,
but the fathers like ruined mountains
within our depths; but the dry river-bed
of ancient mothers; yes, and the whole of that
soundless landscape under its cloudy
or cloudless destiny – all this, dear girl, preceded you.

(I must be a tad pedantic here and confess that “dear girl” is a make-do for Mädchen. To translate it as “maiden” would seem archaic, as “girl” a little curt and unmusical in this case; “young woman,” while politically correct, is unappealing for other reasons. I think Mitchell as translator was right to let a little affection creep in.)

If this passage doesn’t remind us of the impersonal element in sex, then we’re lost in the delusion that it’s “all about me.” And we’re very prone to delusion, as Hass has already instructed us, if we’ve read his words correctly, without being overly distracted by our primary activity of smearing everything with longing.



Sigmund Freud, one of the ruined-mountain fathers

**

All this said, I must confess that neither the Hass nor the Rilke touch me. I’m tempted to say that both of them over-reach with their overblown metaphors, though in each case the message is insightful: yes, we pay a price for our complex human consciousness, and get to know both agony and ecstasy; yes, human love-making is still marked by millennia of the collective experience, and in a sense each lover is all the lovers. But neither Rilke’s eroded landscape of former mothers and fathers, nor Hass’s “juice of the world” moves me. This is fine writing, and in Rilke’s case a grand vision, but it’s emotionally detached.

Recently, however, I’ve come across a poem by Leonard Kress, one of the thousands of less-known American poets, tens of thousands, voices mostly lost in the static and excess of incessant contests and publishing. And I felt shaken by something human and real. This is the second half of Kress’s poem “Harmonium.” (to hear a harmonium – significantly, the title of the first book by Wallace Stevens – go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBMHV0IITVk

the sound seems to be a cross between an organ and an accordion, failing in grandeur but somehow true to life that way)

Here is the second half of Leonard Kress's “Harmonium”:

I found my instrument in the back room
of an Indian boutique on Walnut Street
in Philadelphia with money leftover from a summer trek

to Europe. I bought it instead of the fired beads
and long print skirt intended for my girlfriend,
who was then serving spritzers on the terrace

of the art museum (descending the stairs after work
like Duchamp’s nude, displayed inside) not knowing
I returned already.  I hadn’t told her yet.

Because I wasn’t sure what to do about her,
barely sixteen, concentric circles of brown ringlets,
springing down to her phenomenal breasts—

her father threatening to bash my skull. 
But it wasn’t just the waging war
between the beating and delights of her young body—

I wasn’t that much older—but something that happened
on my trip, the very end of it, a night
I spent on the pebbled Croatian coast

of the Adriatic. It’s gone now, whatever occurred:
sirens from an all night fire in Rijeka
or was it from the hot stones rising up

from the cold water, followed by dense silence?
And then a music I’ve been trying to replicate since
without success. In front of Ginsburg, too.

Thirty years later, still raw, my ex-girlfriend wrote, 
“When you told me you didn’t want to see me
anymore, I walked into my house, cried out

for my mother and collapsed on the floor.” 
“You don’t love your harmonium enough,”
Ginsberg said without judgment. 

“I thought you had seen the core of me
and were repelled,” she wrote. What he really
meant was, “You don’t love enough.”

~ Leonard Kress, from Living in the Candy Store, 2011

Romantic passion can flare up and die as quickly as a straw fire. Here the speaker returns from his European trip transformed, having discovered creative stirrings within himself, and is no longer interested in his young girlfriend in spite of her “phenomenal breasts.” But as if to illustrate the French song about the pleasures of love lasting only a moment while the sorrows last a lifetime, the girlfriend is severely wounded by the break-up, probably the first one in her life.

The last three tercets shook me to the core. Does anyone still remember the pain of the first break-up, when you were still so young, so inexperienced and vulnerable, and vehemently in love, the kind of worshipful love that’s idolatry – and your lover tells you it’s over? It’s like being rejected by God. What the girlfriend writes thirty years later almost makes me collapse to the floor because of the traumatic memory it brings back.

Note the way Ginsberg’s pronouncement is marvelously interwoven with the letter from the ex-girlfriend. The way the poet’s words are transformed in the last line is masterful.

Thirty years later, still raw, my ex-girlfriend wrote, 
“When you told me you didn’t want to see me
anymore, I walked into my house, cried out

for my mother and collapsed on the floor.” 
“You don’t love your harmonium enough,”
Ginsberg said without judgment. 

“I thought you had seen the core of me
and were repelled,” she wrote. What he really
meant was, “You don’t love enough.”

*

We love either too much or not enough. Still, it’s telling that a book titled Women Who Love Too Much becomes a best-seller, while no one ever writes about men who love too much. Self-help books chiefly try to free women of men who don’t love them enough, so the women don’t love themselves enough and can’t seem to “get a life.” Could there be a hard-wired biological snag here, or is it purely cultural, with women still singing “One day my Prince will come” until their dying day?

Of course once in a while we see a man hopelessly drawn to a woman cast into the role of a cruel mistress, uncomfortable to see that the wrong man loves her too much. “He sends me flowers every day,” one woman friend gasped to me in horror. We’ve come to see happy long-term marriages as miracles. There are those who argue that we as a species have not evolved for monogamy, especially the male of the species, and serial monogamy is the closest we can come to the romantic ideal – but then what about the kids? D.H. Lawrence said that marriage is about disillusionment – but we are meant to grow through that disillusionment. He resented Frieda’s missing the three children she lost by marrying him. Sex, even with a writer of genius, is not enough. Nothing is enough.

But maybe marriage – or any long-lasting relationship – is above all about stability, so we can turn our attention to matters other than mating? The British mystery writer Edgar Wallace said, “An intellectual is someone who has found something more interesting than sex.” True, but the levels of sex hormones also have to go down. And even then, there is an unstoppable part of the soul that keeps on singing, “One day my Prince will come.” For companionship, we explain, as if we knew. We don’t.

Sarah:

This is beautiful... Funnily enough, what I had to get out of the way first was a text about insect sex - ovipositing butterflies. In my proofreading I actually specialise in insect sex. The other scientist I work with studies ants who mate by the male leaving sperm on leaves and the female coming and picking it up. The males compete quite intensively to leave their sperm in the right places . . . doesn't sound like much fun to me . . .

Yes, we have a consciousness advantage, but still the insect 'level' lives on, doesn't it? I find the ending extraordinarily evocative. Not because I am thinking of the insects as insects – because I am thinking of myself. For all our consciousness and for all our smeary emotions and childhood longings, and all that we can do with them, there is this simple level, cruel, simple, and beautiful, on which we just cannot separate until it’s done. Cannot control when it will be done, cannot even know about it. And that 'probably'. Because we are still insects, too.

The other lines I find intensely evocative, moving, are:
The insect lovers seem to be transferring the cosmos into each other
by attaching at the tail, holding utterly still, and quivering intently.

What moves me is the way in which the cosmos gets transferred. Simple, mechanical, seems almost random and yet also utterly precise. How else would you do such a mystical thing? Attach at the tail.

Hmmm... you got me here!

Thank you also for
your atheist prayers (the purest, in my opinion, not smeared by longing).

Oriana:

Sarah, this is simply brilliant. You refute Hass’s weak attempt to elevate us above dragonflies – as if we, a superior species, could disengage before nature is done with us. Yes, we are still insects too. Our mating goes much farther back than Rilke imagines: way beyond the ruined mountain-fathers and dried-up river-mothers, all the way back to what in our colossal human arrogance we call “primitive organisms.” 

As for attaching at the tail: look up the Latin for “tail” (one of the two words), and the mechanics of mysticism become clear.

As for quivering: while browsing in a bookstore I picked up at random Heaven Is So Real by an Korean-American woman, Choo Thomas. America has been smeared with heaven and hell from the start. In a shameless digression, I simply must quote this little passage by Simic:

I’m squeezing her hand; she is squeezing
My hand. We are going down
To the cellar where they keep
Little dark chocolates
Filled with almonds of heaven and hell.

(from “Some Nights,” in Hotel Insomnia)

It used to be The Joy of Cooking. Then came The Joy of Sex. Then Pray and Grow Rich. Then The Secret, which smeared Pray and Grow Rich over matters such as health and the correct way to sing “One Day My Prince Will Come.” Now it’s the afterlife.

Bear with me. Here comes the dragonfly connection. Whenever Jesus came at night to visit Choo (whose husband had to relocate to the guest bedroom), Choo’s body would begin to quiver (her word choice) for twenty minutes or longer while the visions of heaven and hell and the “third place” (not Purgatory, but a desert in which “disobedient Christians” wander in circles forever) were being downloaded into her.

Interesting that there is no way of getting the body out of the way. We sing the body electric, the body primeval, insectal. We quiver – somewhere in the Duino Elegies, Rilke has his lovers quivering, maybe not exactly like dragonflies, but as Sarah reminds us, we can’t deny our ancient kinship, or the way we transfer the cosmos into one another.

Still, in my atheist eclecticism, I find something to my liking in Choo’s visions: heaven is a garden, and the who enter are those who are joyful and full of wonder; the dancers, not the penitents. Heaven is a state of mind, a mating with the divine, and it is within us.

Hyacinth:

I find Hass 's Dragonflies interesting, but my usual complaint about his work is that it’s not satisfying by my definition of what a poem should be.

In the poem with the word "Mädchen" why not just leave it. It's a charming word and nothing in English can replace it in my opinion. Loved your "smearing everything with longing."

**

Oriana:

I agree that there is no adequate English equivalent for Mädchen -- the word is affectionate, a diminutive. I think "maiden" used to approximate it, but now it’s archaic. So “dear girl” works, as long as we don’t find it condescending. Today a male poet probably would not dare to get close to this kind of rhetoric, afraid to be accused of preaching to young women from the heights. But the richness of Rilke’s mentality redeems the passage, I think.

Hyacinth also sent a poem by John O’Donohue. Let me quote the opening:

To Learn From Animal Being

Nearer to the earth's heart,
deeper within its silence:
animals know this world
in a way we never will.

We who are ever
distanced and distracted
by the parade of bright
windows thought opens:
their seamless presence
is not fractured thus.

Stranded between time
gone and time emerging,
we manage seldom
to be where we are:
whereas they are always
looking out from
the here and now.

**

It’s so frequent now: we are told to learn from animals and babies to be “in the here and now.” That is wonderful while watching a sunset, or dragonflies, or darting swallows. In fact, when I think of being happy, sitting on top of a mountain and watching the mountains get more and more blue as they step into clouds is the first thing that comes to my mind. But that’s in the past, all the various mountaintops where I sat on a boulder and gazed. It’s my remembering self that brings back that happiness.

Now, animals have some memory in the sense that they learn, they recognize. But I don’t think they ever “reminisce.” Their life is the outside. My life is 90% inner life, which may be excessive, I know, but I don’t crave a more “exciting” life. My first requirement is a lot of solitude and down time so I can process anything that’s happened and think about its meaning. I hate it when a lot of things happen all at once like a whirlwind; I don’t enjoy that. But I’ve never envied animals. Much as I love animals, I love the richness of inner life even more.