Friday, October 31, 2014

“Small Luste to Prate”

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Land of Cockaigne,” c. 1567

Lazy morning. “Your lasy bones I pretende so to blisse, / That you shall haue small luste to prate any more.” Blisse meaning “wound.” Lazy turning to fret. That “small luste to prate any more”—whithersoever it cometh? Soonest mended, soonest—what?—ended? (Recall the Ashbery: “To reduce all this to a small variant, / To step free at last, minuscule on the gigantic plateau— / This was our ambition: to be small and clear and free.”) Somewhere beyond the constant yammering, its insobriety and its inconsequence. One no longer trusts the impertinent quotidian thrust, beleaguered by it, chafed by it. Too insistently of late: every word a loss of world. Williams (epigraph to “Excerpts from a Critical Sketch”):
      Poetry? Words: figments of the mind, of no real substance.
      What more then is light? It is precisely a figment of the mind if the apprehension of it be our consideration.
      But it is an emanation consequent on microscopic action in the sun.
      Then words are the same, call the microscopic action which is their source ‘Socrates’ or what you will.
Or recall Hart Crane (out of “Chaplinesque”): “We make our meek adjustments, / Contented with such random consolations / As the wind deposits / In slithered and too ample pockets. / / For we can still love the world . . .” Every music a muffling. Williams again—out of a letter to Pound dated “June, 1932” (Selected Letters):
      I’ve been playing with a theory that the inexplicitness of modern verse as compared with, let us say, the Iliad, and our increasingly difficult music in the verse as compared with the more or less downrightness of their line forms—have been the result of a clearly understandable revolution in poetic attitude. Whereas formerly the music which accompanied the words amplified, certified and released them, today the words we write, failing a patent music, have become the music itself, and the understanding of the individual (presumed) is now that which used to be the words.
      This blasts out of existence forever all the puerilities of the dum te dum versifiers and puts it up to the reader to be a man—if possible. There are not many things to believe, but the trouble is no one believes them. Modern verse forces belief. It is music to that, in every sense, when if ever and in whoever it does or may exist. Without the word (the man himself) the music (verse as we know it today) is only a melody of sounds. But it is magnificent when it plays about some kind of certitude.
With no belief, no certitude. With no certitude, no magnificence. And a sense that “our” humdrum pervasive “inexplicitness” is now the equal to Williams’s “puerilities of the dum te dum versifiers.” Impolitic publicly to admit. See the satirist Nicholas Amhurst (1697-1742), out of “The Inscription, Which Was Lately Found on a Large Marble Pillar Amongst Some Ruins at Whitehall,” docking us all: “His poor fallacious, tinsel Eloquence / Tickled the Ear, but ne’er inform’d the Sense; / Whilst every plausible Harangue affords / A specious, empty, puzzling Rote of Words.” Whither the deft unappeasable music that turns one to the world?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Back (John Sloan / Nabokov / William Carlos Williams)

John Sloan, 1871–1951
(Photograph by Arnold Newman)

Back across the rain-bothered stretches of Pennsylvania, across the cloud-tamped flats of Ohio, the fling of percept lulled by the wheel. John Sloan: “Study cloud formations. Don’t be satisfied with rococo, Spencerian clouds. Observe the flat bottoms of heavy rain clouds, the fine patterns of mackerel skies.” Too few hawks.

A cumulus of notes (or a ragout):
Sharp-shinned hawk dead on the bridle path in Pelham Bay Park. Siwanoy Trail: Flocks of yellow-rumped warblers, double-crested cormorants and herring gulls spotting the lagoon, northern mockingbird, song sparrows. Brown creeper working a tree trunk near the Bartow-Pell.

John Sloan (off a placard at the Parrish Art Museum): “Instead of imitating the colors in nature, I decided on some quality of color that interested me and set a limited palette.”

Montauk: Palm warblers in the grass, great black-backed gull, white-throated sparrow, dark-eyed juncos, Solitary seal bobbing.

Hudson River overlook near Bear Mountain: a pileated woodpecker knifing into the rust-colored canopy below. “Order quiets the mind.”

Pelham Bay Park, Kazimiroff Trail: Fifty or so brant in the lagoon. Oak woods mad with hermit thrushes. Tiny flock of ruby-crowned kinglets (“an arm’s reach away”). Others (“the concordaunt ease of variaunt things”): double-crested cormorant, great egret, mallard, herring gull, ring-billed gull, red-bellied woodpecker, blue jay, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, American robin, European starling, yellow-rumped warbler, palm warbler, song sparrow, white-throated sparrow, swamp sparrow, American goldfinch.

Rusty blackbird on a telephone wire.
And, out of a paucity of reading, Thomas De Quincey’s remark—originally in an 1839 piece called “Lake Reminiscences, from 1807 to 1830: No. 1. William Wordsworth” written for Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine:
I resembled Wordsworth—namely, that in early youth I laboured under a peculiar embarrassment and penury of words, when I sought to convey my thoughts adequately upon interesting subjects: neither was it words only that I wanted; but I could not unravel, I could not even make perfectly conscious to myself, the subsidiary thoughts into which one leading thought often radiates; or, at least, I could not do this with anything like the rapidity requisite for conversation . . . and thus partly—partly also from my invincible habit of reverie—at that era of my life, I had a most distinguished talent ‘pour le silence.’” Adding that Wordsworth, suffered “pretty much the same infirmity.
How many writers (believe, rightly in some cases, they) cannot talk. (I think of Nabokov who, in the “Foreword” to the book of interviews, Strong Opinions (1973), writes: “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child. . . . At parties, if I attempt to entertain people with a good story, I have to go back to every other sentence for oral erasures and inserts.”) How odd, hence, that Wordsworth ought so famously to call for a poetry of “a man speaking to men.” And that that ought to become a mark of writerly authenticity (see William Carlos Williams, in “Excerpts from a Critical Sketch”):
      We seek a language which will not be at least a deformation of speech as we know it—but will embody all the advantageous jumps, swiftnesses, colors, movements of the day—
      —that will, at least, not exclude language as spoken—all language (present) as spoken.
Humph. Suppose the “advantageous jumps, swiftnesses, colors, movements” occur but rarely under the barking regime of repartee, and never amongst the watchdog tutelage of études conversationnelles? Suppose language’s very recklessness and fluidity is at the behest of the silent page?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Max Jacob / William Carlos Williams

Max Jacob, 1876–1944
(Photograph by Carl Van Vechten)

Spurious sense of repose occasioned by incipient departure. Points east, domani. So I go into a reverie of negligence and lassitude, making a tiny extraneous world without recourse to “the world.” Or I read of Juan Gris working in the studio at 13, rue Ravignan, circa 1907. He is straightfacedly telling Max Jacob, “I only stroke dogs with my left hand so that if I am bitten I shall still have my right hand to paint with.” Jacob is muttering to himself, composing some jocular precipitous ode to the surround, the way the ungainly wooden houses adhering badly to the hill of Montmartre make one ponder what’s ineffable, or what’s not:
La Rue Ravignan

      « On ne se baigne pas deux fois dans le même fleuve », disait le philosophe Héraclite. Pourtant, ce sont toujours les mêmes qui remontent! Aux mêmes heures, ils passent gais ou tristes. Vous tous, passants de la rue Ravignan, je vous ai donné les noms des défunts de l´Histoire! Voici Agamemnon! voici madame Hanska! Ulysse est un laitier! Patrocle est au bas de la rue qu’un Pharaon est près de moi. Castor et Pollux sont les dames du cinquième. Mais toi, vieux chiffonnier, toi, qui, au féerique matin, viens enlever les débris encore vivants quand j’éteins ma bonne grosse lampe, toi que je ne connais pas, mystérieux et pauvre chiffonnier, toi, chiffonnier, je t’ai nommé d’un nom célèbre et noble, je t’ai nommé Dostoïewsky.
Out of Le Cornet à dés (1917). In John Ashbery’s rendering:
The Rue Ravignan

“One does not bathe twice in the same stream,” said the philosopher Heraclitus. Yet it is always the same ones who mount the street! Always at the same time of day they pass by, happy or sad. All of you, passers-by of the Rue Ravignan, I have named you after the illustrious dead. There is Agamemnon! There is Madame Hanska! Ulysses is a milkman! When Patroclus appears at the end of the street a Pharaoh is beside me! Castor and Pollux are the ladies of the fifth floor. But thou, old ragpicker, who come in the enchanted morning to take away the still living rubbish as I am putting out my good big lamp, thou whom I know not, mysterious and impoverished ragpicker, I have given thee a celebrated and noble name, I have named thee Dostoievsky.
Jacob, out of L’Art poétique (1922): « La poésie moderne saute toutes les explications. » (Literally: “Modern poetry leaps over all explanations.”) A welcome defiance. And, out of the “Préface de 1916” in Le Cornet à dés: « Le poeme est un objet construit et non la devanture d’un bijoutier. . . . Une œuvre d’art vaut par elle-même et non par les confrontations qu’on en peut faire avec la réalité. » (In Zack Rogow’s translation, out of the Michael Brownstein-edited The Dice Cup: Selected Prose Poems: “The poem is a constructed object and not a jewelry store window. . . . An art work has value in itself and not because it can be used for confrontations with reality.”) Tout simplement: a work of art exists in its own right and not in relation to reality.

Recalling, again, Williams. Here out of the “Prologue” to Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920):
      XIII. No. 3. A poet witnessing the chicory flower and realizing its virtues of form and color so constructs his praise of it as to borrow no particle from right or left. He gives his poem over to the flower and its plant themselves that they may benefit by those cooling winds of the imagination which thus returned upon them will refresh them at their task of saving the world. But what does it mean, remarked his friends?
“Borrow no particle right or left.” Back in a week or so.

Monday, October 20, 2014

William Carlos Williams / Juan Gris

Juan Gris, 1887–1927
(Photograph by Man Ray)

Rainy cold morning. Out yesterday into the 32º Fahrenheit sun-up at West Lake. High blue sky with a few sweeps of clouds. The ongoing tumult and ruckus of several bluebirds, sun “steaming” the frost off the gone-to-seed goldenrods. Three wood ducks in the deadwood swamp. Sharp-looking white-crowned sparrow in a brushy corner of the old field, its rose-orange bill under the emphatic striped cap. Something to etch into memory, a hold against the onslaught of days. (Calvino, quoting Leonardo da Vinci’s rendering of some immense “antediluvian sea monster,” evidenced by marine fossils found in mountain rock: “Oh how many times were you seen among the waves of the great swollen ocean, looming like a mountain, defeating and overwhelming them, and with your black bristly back furrowing the sea waters, and with stately and grave bearing!”)

Re-reading swathes of Williams: Out of the Selected Letters, a lengthy number—dated only “[1932]”—addressed to Kay Boyle:
. . . I have no belief in the continuity of history.* To me the classic lives now just as it did then—or not at all. The “Greek” is just as much in Preakness as it was in Athens. Everything we know is a local virtue—if we know it at all—the only difference between the force of a great work and a lesser one being lack of brain and fire in the second. In other words, art can be made of anything—provided it be seen, smelt, touched, apprehended and understood to be what it is—the flesh of a constantly repeated permanence. This must be a lot of bosh to anyone who isn’t intimate with the materials. But to one who is working with the stuff it may mean something. If not—
      But it doesn’t mean enough to create form. It means this however—that whatever form we create during the next ten years will be, in excellence, like all the classic inventions, a new thing, a thing intrinsic in the times. It will probably foretell the decade that is to follow it. It will take its shape from the character of its age, not the “social” character, if so positively, not satirically. It will not be the symptom of a chronic bellyache or—something else. It will be like no classic which has preceded it. Why do we not read more of Juan Gris? He knew these things in painting and wrote well of them.
      I have been working with prose, since I didn’t know what to do with poetry. Perhaps I have been in error. Maybe I should be slaving at verse . . .
      All I can see finally to rely on is the seriousness of poetry itself, that it stands equal to any endeavor. The fact that it takes us, turns over the mind, because the required form is not easy to come at, discloses its pertinence to the time and the intelligence. That must be the beginning, as it is about all there is to take hold of. There is, you see, in our minds the possibility of a technique which may be used. It must be large enough, free enough, elastic enough, new enough yet firm enough to hold the new well, without spilling. It must have a form.
I love Williams’s irascibility, and contradictoriness. (He notes, like Whitman: “I myself can be accused of contradictions. Possibly I have contradicted myself.”) Of Juan Gris: there’s a lecture called “On the Possibilities of Painting,” delivered to students of philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1924. In it:
      One of my friends, a painter,** has written: “Nails are not made from nails but from iron.” I apologize for contradicting him, but I believe exactly the opposite. Nails are made from nails, for if the idea of the possibility of a nail did not exist in advance, there would be a serious risk that the material might be used to make a hammer or a curling tong.
      A painting is not made simply with canvas, brushes and colours. One can produce a landscape, a nude woman, gleaming saucepans, triangles or squares, but there will be no painting unless the idea of painting exists a priori. We must therefore try to find out what painting consists of and from what it springs.
Pertinent to the seriousness of Williams’s search for what he calls—lovely definition of art—”flesh of a constantly repeated permanence.” Poems are not made from words, poems are made from poems.
* A line that Anselm Berrigan seizes for use in “Zero Star Hotel,” the long patchwork quilt-like piece he dedicates “for Douglas Oliver (1937-2000)”: “you know, I think / enough of me / to understand that / I have no belief / in the continuity / of history, if anyone / had died I could / like anyone, they’d / like me and feel / flattery towards objects”

** Georges Braque.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Williams’s “Speech Rhythm,” &c.

William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963

Chomping at the air, at nothing. Besieged by that nothing, its casual unpreparedness. Nevertheless, a sallying out, a “mere improvise” (see Shelley’s remark apropos the verse drama Hellas: “I doubt whether, if recited on the Thespian waggon to an Athenian village at the Dionysiaca, it would have obtained the prize of the goat.”) Out of an essay called “Speech Rhythm” William Carlos Williams submitted to Harriet Monroe’s Poetry in 1913:
No action, no creative action is complete but a period from a greater action going in rhythmic course, i.e., an Odyssey, is rightly considered not an isolated unit but a wave of a series from hollow through crest to hollow. No part in its excellence but partakes of the essential nature of the whole.
      This is the conception of the action that I want.
      In the other direction, inward: Imagination creates an image, point by point, piece by piece, segment by segment—into a whole, living. But each part as it plays into its neighbor, each segment into its neighbor segment and every part into every other, causing the whole—exists naturally in rhythm, and as there are waves there are tides and as there are ridges in the sand there are bars after bars . . .
      Each piece of work, rhythmic in whole, is then in essence an assembly of tides, waves, ripples—in short, of greater and lesser rhythmic particles regularly repeated or destroyed . . .
      For practical purposes and for me the unit is of a convenient length, such as may be appreciated at one stroke of the attention. It must not be so small as not to tax the attention, that is, to hold it; it should be in good scale as the architects say . . .
      The rhythm unit is simply any repeated sequence of lengths and heights. Upon this ether the sounds are strung in their variety—slipping, clinging, overreaching, triumphing but always going forward even through moments of total disorder in the advance. . . .
Waves : tides :: ridges in the sand : sandbars. Self-similar mechanisms across differing scales. “No part in its excellence but partakes of the essential nature of the whole.” Is Williams’s “Speech Rhythm” pointing to a kind of “fractal verse” avant la lettre? See Alice Fulton’s “Of Formal, Free, and Fractal Verse: Singing the Body Eclectic” (1986), with its “tentative exploration of fractal precepts”:
. . . any line when examined closely (or magnified) will reveal itself to be as richly detailed as was the larger poem from which it was taken; the poem will contain an infinite regression of details, a nesting of pattern within pattern . . . ; digression, interruption, fragmentation and lack of continuity will be regarded as formal functions rather than lapses into formlessness; all directions of motion and rhythm will be equally probable . . .
Harriet Monroe rejected Williams’s essay, “returned it as incomprehensible”—according to Mike Weaver, who found “Speech Rhythm” “uncatalogued among the Viola Baxter Jordan papers” and printed excerpts of it in William Carlos Williams: The American Background (1971). Williams, out of the Selected Letters (1957), writing to Monroe in a letter dated 10 October 1913, presumably regarding the rejected piece:
My dear Miss Monroe: How a thing can be hammered out until it is first perceived is beyond me—but if your editorial judgment is correct—patience.
      To me, what is woefully lacking in our verse and in our criticism is not hammered out stuff, but stuff to be hammered out. A free forum, there is the need, which asks only “Is it new, interesting?” I should think, even, that at times you would be concerned lest you get nothing but that which is hammered and worked out—except when the divine Ezra bludgeons you into it.
      France is France; we are not France. Would you not rather have anticipated a Lincoln than acclaimed a McMahon?
      Figure me, of course, the Lincoln.
And again, a few days thereafter (14 October 1913):
My dear Miss Monroe: To tell the truth, I myself never quite feel that I know what I am talking about—if I did, and when I do, the thing written seems nothing to me. However, what I do write and allow to survive I always feel is mighty worth while and that nobody else has ever come as near as I have to the thing I have intimated if not expressed. To me it’s a matter of first understanding that which may not yet be put to words. I might add more but to no purpose. In a sense I must express myself, but always completely incomplete if that means anything. . . .
Williams seeming to work out a processual dialectic, improvisatory, provisional, raw. I think of E. M. Forster’s anecdotal lady who remarks “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” in Aspects of the Novel (1927). And, too, Forster’s agreeably remarking on Gide’s Les Faux Monnayeurs, its—
. . . proposal that writers should mix themselves up in their material and be rolled over and over by it; they should not try to subdue any longer, they should hope to be subdued, to be carried away. As for a plot—to pot with the plot! Break it up, boil it down. Let there be those ‘formidable erosions of contour’ of which Nietzsche speaks. All that is prearranged is false.
(Shelley again: “I must trespass upon the forgiveness of my readers for the display of newspaper erudition to which I have been reduced.”)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Thoreau / Williams / Aldo Buzzi

Aldo Buzzi, 1910–2009

Oh to be fleet and capacious and omnivorous like—and one pauses to random the brain’s pert inessential byways and furrows for some mythological beast not forthcoming, only to conclude, albeit reluctantly—like capital itself, voracious and consuming. To prehend invariably the multitudinous array, prehensile in the scrabblings, a mild indefatigable seizure in the gleanings, piling up unsortables in new and “uninstituted” ways. Institute: out of the Latin instituĕre to set up, in + statuĕre, see the Latin statūtum ordinance, see status, see station, see state. Long string of immovables. Henry David Thoreau, out of a Journal entry dated 19 August 1851:
      The way in which men cling to old institutions after the life has departed out of them & out of themselves reminds me of those monkies which cling by their tails—aye whose tails contract about the limbs—even the dead limbs of the forest and they hang suspended beyond the hunters reach long after they are dead   It is of no use to argue with such men   They have not an apprehensive intellect but merely as it were a prehensile tail. Their intellect possesses merely the quality of a prehensile tail. The tail itself contracts around the dead limb even after they themselves are dead–and not till corruption takes place do they fall.
      The poet must be continually watching the moods of his mind as the astronomer watches the aspects of the heavens. What might we not expect from a long life faithfully spent in this wise—the humblest observer would see some stars shoot.—A faithful description as by a disinterested person of the thoughts which visited a certain mind in 3 score years & 10 as when one reports the number & character of the vehicles which pass a particular point. As travellers go round the world and report natural objects & phenomena—so faithfully let another stay at home & report the phenomena of his own life. Catalogue stars—those thoughts whose orbits are as rarely calculated as comets   It matters not whether they visit my mind or yours—whether the meteor falls in my field or in yours—only that it comes from heaven. (I am not concerned to express that kind of truth which nature has expressed. Who knows but I may suggest some things to her. Time was when she was indebted to such suggestions from another quarter—as her present advancement shows. I deal with the truths that recommend themselves to me please me—not those merely which any system has voted to accept.) A meteorological journal of the mind—   You shall observe what occurs in your latitude, I in mine.
I love the sly cheekiness of a kind of self-appointed divinity in Thoreau’s “I may suggest some things” to nature, “Time was when she was indebted to such suggestions from another quarter.” Too, I think of Williams’s call—in Spring and All (1923)—for “the perfection of new forms as additions to nature.” Against “the falseness of attempting to ‘copy’ nature.” Little sense of any Williams’s history of reading Thoreau. I see a single (odd and rather unfathomable) reference in Williams’s Selected Letters. Writing to Robert Lowell about Lord Weary’s Castle (26 September 1947):
. . . it’s interesting to me that you have found a way to mention local place names without that jumping out of context which so often occurs to make a work false sounding. It’s very hard to treat of American things and name them specifically without a sense of bathos, of bad sentimental overlap resulting. Look at the John Brown thing. Look even at Thoreau. Something happens, something happened even to Henry Adams, even to Henry James when the United States was mentioned. It is very difficult and somewhat obscure what happens—but you have got by nicely I think. Maybe its because you anchored your data in ground common to Europe and to Christianity—if that has to be.
Williams, seemingly in the course of writing, succinctly (and sweetly) putting Lowell in the European camp (that is, a tradition antithetical to Williams’s own). Bathos in Thoreau? Place names in the 19 August 1851 entry: “PM   to Marlboro Road via Clamshell Hill—Jenny Dugan’s—Round Pond   Canoe Birch road (Dea Dakins) & White Pond.—” Isn’t bathos a predominantly literary failing? Odd that Williams’d fret that.

I commenced with the “fleet and capacious and omnivorous” thing because I’d just reread some of the gastronome and architect Aldo Buzzi’s marvelous Journey to the Land of the Flies and Other Travels (1996). Admired, particularly Buzzi’s unexpected and extravagant pile of gleanings here:
      In 367 B.C., with the tragedy The Ransom of Hector, performed in Athens, Dionysus won a literary prize and, like a good Sicilian, wished to celebrate the event with a banquet. I don’t know if, like his fellow citizen Charmos, he kept at hand, while he ate, verses of Homer and Euripides and proverbs to cite in relation to every dish that was placed before him; but as for the food, it is probable that he regulated himself according to the ancient equivalent of the Sicilian saying “There is always room for an unexpected mouthful.” As often happens with tyrants, he exaggerated. He died at table, where one can put off old age but not death. (Nor did his tragedy survive him; already judged mediocre by contemporaries, it confirms that even in antiquity literary prizes tended to be awarded to mediocre works.)
      Two very special dishes have, by force of circumstance, eluded me: stigghiole, seen only from a distance on a street in Messina (as I was passing in a car, with no possibility of stopping, I saw the unmistakable azure smoke); and scuma (foam), the finest spaghetti, thinner than angel hair, a specialty of Catania, the city of the great physicist Ettore Majorana, who let his hair grow very long, like a like a generous portion of scuma, in order not to waste time at the barber’s. As the young Stendhal did, too.
Making room for that casual appendage of “the young Stendhal.”

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Ian Hamilton Finlay / Novalis

Ian Hamilton Finlay, 1925-2006
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Out of a letter dated 21 June 1967 found in Midway: Letters from Ian Hamilton Finlay to Stephen Bann, 1964-1969 (2014):
. . . I am puzzling, and agonising, about a sort of extension of the one-word poem idea . . Not the 2-word poem, exactly, but the fragment, on isolated phrase, which is somehow soaked in meaning, in an un-obvious way . . Such poems would be a sort of equivalent of those corners, in farmyards, or wherever, which seem inexplicably to ‘contain’ some elusive meaning, in the form a few nettles, a shadow, and an old sack . . . The ‘fragment’ has obvious affinities with the concrete poem, in that both are ‘self-sufficient’ and ‘unexplained’. But one cannot have the fragmentary fragment, unless one does what my new friend, Prof. Guy Davenport, did in his Archilochos and Sappho translations—simply allow the historical fact of fragmentation to forgive what would be impermissible in a contemporary poem . . I am always convinced that one has poems without number inside one, and that the real problem is always to find the form which will allow them to exist. This is why I have sometimes toyed with the idea of pseudo-translation (just as various people seem to have assumed that Archilochos was Guy Davenport’s invention, which he of course was not). But such a solution is unsatisfactory, and I suppose I must content myself with the odd fragment that is not fragmentary, while rejecting the ones which seem as full of ‘content’ but don’t fulfil the other obligations of the contemp. poem. By the way, did I ever send you one my favourite one-worders—which I am having (I hope) done on a stone:

The Water’s Breast And


The Boat’s
inseperable ripples

(which is a 2-worder)

or (a great favourite)


which is the germ of a whole new method, if I could see it.
Ian Hamilton Finlay’s first one-word poems appeared in the final issue of Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. (No. 25) in 1967. Some of Finlay’s one-word poems—out of the Alec Finlay-edited Ian Hamilton Finlay: Selections (2012):
The Cloud’s Anchor


The Boat’s Blueprint

And the lovely late entry (1999):
A Last Word

Pertinent to the marvelous “corners . . . seem inexplicably to ‘contain’ some elusive meaning”—Finlay’s 1999 note called “Romanticizing,” reworking the Novalis fragment that begins “Die Welt muß romantisirt werden”:
The world must be romanticized. Only thus will we rediscover its original meaning . . . If I give a higher meaning to the everyday, a mysterious aspect to the ordinary, the dignity of the unfamiliar to the familiar, the nom de plume Novalis to the name Friedrich von Hardenberg, then I am romanticizing it.
And, too, some lines out of Finlay’s “Camouflage Sentences”: “Realism is a style which purports to be, and is at first often taken to be, without camouflage.” And: “Every style in art is a camouflage through which, by our own reconstruction, we think we see ‘real’ nature.”

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

O’Hara’s Reverdy

Pierre Reverdy, 1889-1960
(Portrait by Pablo Picasso)

Usual sleeplessness of four o’clock. Up to read “at” the Reverdy translations in the Mary Ann Caws-edited Pierre Reverdy (NYRB, 2013). Some of the translators: John Ashbery, Lydia Davis, Richard Howard, Ron Padgett, Kenneth Rexroth, Richard Sieburth. Funny how Frank O’Hara—represented by a single previously unpublished translation (another is partially quoted in Caws’s prefatory note “Why Reverdy?”)—comes to preside over the book. Caws, in “Why Reverdy?” :
      A single moment has a singular potential. “Just for Now,” in Frank O’Hara’s translation,* lays the stress on that:
Life it’s simple it’s great
The clear sun rings a sweet noise

[. . .]

Listen I’m not crazy
I’m laughing at the foot of the stairway
Before the great wide open door
In the espaliered sunshine
And my arms are stretched towards you
This day that I love you
It’s today that I love you
Later, assessing “the impact of Reverdy on American poets,” Caws points to Rexroth’s New Directions Selected Poems (1969) and Ashbery’s “A Note on Pierre Reverdy” and translations in the Evergreen Review (1960) and writes:
O’Hara memorably refers to him in his 1964 Lunch Poems
                                My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy
—and then goes on, in the same upbeat tone, to link his name to two other avant-garde writers:
                                everything continues to be possible
René Char, Pierre Reverdy, Samuel Beckett it is possible isn’t it
I love Reverdy for saying yes, though I don’t believe it
(Isn’t the effect here to elide lines out of “A Step Away from Them” with lines out of “Adieu to Norman, Bonjour to Joan and Jean-Paul”?) The unpublished O’Hara translation (provided by Bill Berkson) is of Reverdy’s “Chair vive”**:
Live Flesh

Carcass my dear get up and walk
There’s nothing new under the yellow sun
Absolutely the last of the golden Louis
Light which is so detached
Under time’s little scales
Lock on the heart that’s breaking
A silk thread
A plumb-line
A thread of blood
After waves of silence
Those kinky black signs of love
Heaven smoother than your dear life
Neck twisted with pride
My backstage life
From there I see death’s harvests swaying
All the greedy hands that make smokeballs
Heavier than pillars of the universe
Empty heads
Naked hearts
Perfumed hands
Tentacles of the monkeys who claw the clouds
In the furrows of those grimaces
A straight line tightens
A nerve twitches
The full sea
Bitter smile of death
I like some of the swerves and refusals: “kinky” for crin, meaning horsehair, “time’s little scales” for les pellicules du temps, meaning time’s scurf or dandruff—that sort of thing. Meeting the French text with a vigorous sense of play. For comparison, here’s Lydia Davis’s more literal version, blunter, more somber, attending more to the prosody of the original (Caws includes, too, a Rexroth version):
Live Flesh

Stand up carcass and walk
Nothing new under the yellow sun
The last of the last of the louis d’or
The light that separates
under the skins of time
The lock in the heart that shatters
A thread of silk
A thread of lead
A thread of blood
After these waves of silence
These tokens of love in black horsehair
The sky smoother than your eye
The neck twisted with pride
My life in the corridor
From which I see the undulating harvests of death
All those greedy hands kneading loaves of smoke
Heavier than the pillars of the universe
Heads empty
Hearts bare
Hands scented
Tentacles of the monkeys who aim at the clouds
Among the wrinkles of these grimaces
A straight line tightens
A nerve twists
The sea sated
The bitter smile of death
* See “Just for Now” complete in O’Hara’s rendering here—out of the Bill Berkson-edited Best & Company (1969). Rather mysteriously, the O’Hara version quoted by Caws differs in its final four lines, with one word changed (the too poetic “espaliered” replacing the imprecise “squandered”—for éparpillé, meaning scattered, dispersed), a line missing (“At the wall midst the vines the greens”), and a line added—the somewhat limp “This day that I love you.”) The ending in Best & Company reads:
Listen I’m not crazy
I’m laughing at the foot of the stairway
Before the great wide open door
In the squandered sunshine
At the wall midst the vines the greens
And my arms are stretched towards you

It’s today that I love you

** The original:
Chair vive

Lève-toi carcasse et marche
Rien de neuf sous le soleil jaune
Le der des der des louis d’or
La lumière qui se détache
sous les pellicules du temps
La serrure du cœur qui éclate
Un fil de soie
Un fil de plomb
Un fil de sang
Après ces vagues de silence
Ces signes d’amour au crin noir
Le ciel plus lisse que ton œil
Le cou tordu d’orgueil
Ma vie dans la coulisse
D’où je vois onduler les moissons de la mort
Toutes ces mains avides qui pétrissent des boules de fumée
Plus lourdes que les piliers de l’univers
Têtes vides
Cœurs nus
Mains parfumées
Tentacules des singes qui visent les nuées
Dans les rides de ces grimaces
Une ligne droite se tend
Un nerf se tord
La mer repue
L’amer sourire de la mort

Monday, October 13, 2014

Italo Calvino / Thomas De Quincey

Italo Calvino, 1923–1985

Rain at four a.m. A low pressure system elbowing its way east: sensed in the balmy air, fish-scented. Unexpected after a cold weekend of high blue sky and autumnal clarity. Early Sunday out at sunup to tromp the Leonard Preserve, old prairie fields and hardwoods along the River Raisin near Manchester. Driving out: a straight line, single file, of black-faced sheep cutting down a briar-covered hill. A garden of particolored quilts, lumpy and meager, thrown over tomatoes against the frost. A red-tailed hawk hunched on a telephone pole, inscrutable, noiselessly turning to look. At the Preserve: air with an uncommon sweet smell, hint of strawberries, some unfathomable resin, some tang. Tiny kinglets in the shrubberies: both ruby- and golden-crowned. Five or six wild turkeys crowding the path, twenty or thirty feet away, ambling off into the tall grass. Osage oranges, their brain-lobed fruit. A red-headed woodpecker working the deadwood near the river. Plenty of deer: “coughing” and bounding, or standing perfectly still to look back in that placid half-knock-kneed way.

In the lecture called “Quickness” in Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), he quotes Carlo Levi writing about Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy:
      The clock is Shandy’s first symbol. Under its influence he is conceived and his misfortunes begin, which are one and the same with this emblem of time. Death is hidden in clocks, as Belli said . . . Tristram Shandy does not want to be born, because he does not want to die. Every means and every weapon is valid to save oneself from death and time. If a straight line is the shortest distance between two fated and inevitable points, digressions will lengthen it; and if these digressions become so complex, so tangled and tortuous, so rapid as to hide their own tracks, who knows—perhaps death may not find us, perhaps time will lose its way, and perhaps we ourselves can remain concealed in our shifting hiding places.
Calvino’s reply to Levi (and Sterne):
Because I am not devoted to aimless wandering, I’d rather say that I prefer to entrust myself to the straight line, in the hope that the line will continue into infinity, making me unreachable. I prefer to calculate at length the trajectory of my flight, expecting that I will be able to launch myself like an arrow and disappear over the horizon. . . .
Whence he proceeds into a lovely digress:
      From my youth on, my personal motto has been the old Latin tag, Festina lente, hurry slowly. Perhaps what attracted me, even more than the words and the idea, was the suggestiveness of its emblems. You may recall that the great Venetian humanist publisher, Aldus Manutius, on all his title pages symbolized the motto Festina lente by a dolphin in a sinuous curve around an anchor. The intensity and constancy of intellectual work are represented in that elegant graphic trademark, which Erasmus of Rotterdam commented on in some memorable pages. But both dolphin and anchor belong to the same world of marine emblems, and I have always preferred emblems that throw together incongruous and enigmatic figures, as in a rebus. Such are the butterfly and crab that illustrate Festina lente in the sixteenth-century collection of emblems by Paolo Giovio. Butterfly and crab are both bizarre, both symmetrical in shape, and between them establish an unexpected kind of harmony.
Words pertinent to my reading, with pleasure, of Thomas De Quincey’s memoirs (written c. 1834-40) of Coleridge—here out of the David Wright-edited Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets (1970). (See De Quincey’s numerous—and, I suspect, rather lamented by some readers—self-urgings “to resume the thread of my wandering narrative.”) A lovely example regarding Coleridge’s father, “a learned clergyman, the vicar of Ottery St Mary,” seemingly a man whose errantry, caprice and waywardness aligns with Coleridge’s own. De Quincey:
His father was described to me, by Coleridge himself, as a sort of Parson Adams, being distinguished by his erudition, his inexperience of the world, and his guileless simplicity. I once purchased in London, and, I suppose, still possess, two elementary books on the Latin language by this reverend gentleman; one of them, as I found, making somewhat higher pretensions than a common school grammar. In particular, an attempt is made to reform the theory of the cases; and it gives a pleasant specimen of the rustic scholar’s naiveté, that he seriously proposes to banish such vexatious terms as the accusative; and, by way of simplifying the matter to tender minds, that we should call it, in all time to come, the ‘quale-quare-quidditive’ case, upon what incomprehensible principle I never could fathom. He used regularly to delight his village flock, on Sundays, with Hebrew quotations in his sermons, which he always introduced as the ‘immediate language of the Holy Ghost.’
De Quincey, too, in fleet digress apropos Coleridge père:
Dining in a large party, one day, the modest divine was suddenly shocked by perceiving some part, as he conceived, of his own snowy shirt emerging from a part of his habiliments, which we shall suppose to have been his waistcoat. It was not that; but for decorum we shall so call it. The stray portion of his supposed tunic was admonished of its errors by a forcible thrust back into its proper home; but still another limbus persisted to emerge, or seemed to persist, and still another, until the learned gentleman absolutely perspired with the labour of re-establishing order. And, after all, he saw with anguish, that some arrears of the snowy indecorum still remained to reduce into obedience. To this remnant of rebellion he was proceeding to apply himself—strangely confounded, however, at the obstinacy of the insurrection—when the mistress of the house, rising to lead away the ladies from the table, and all parties naturally rising with her, it became suddenly apparent to every eye, that the worthy Orientalist had been most laboriously stowing away, into the capacious receptacles of his own habiliments, the snowy folds of a lady’s gown, belonging to his next neighbour; and so voluminously, that a very small portion of it, indeed, remained for the lady’s own use; the natural consequence of which was, of course, that the lady appeared almost inextricably yoked to the learned theologian, and could not in any way effect her release, until after certain operations upon the Vicar’s dress, and a continued refunding and rolling out of snowy mazes upon snowy mazes, in quantities which, at length, proved too much for the gravity of the company. . . .
Festina lente. I recall a story out of Charles Sprawson’s terrific book about swimming, Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero (1992). To wit: “When still a schoolboy in London, Coleridge was once walking down the Strand revolving his arms in imitation of Leander swimming the Hellespont. A passerby presumed that this was a novel method of pickpocketing and after apprehending him was so struck by Coleridge’s scholarly explanation that he gave him a ticket to a circulating library in the city . . .” Festina lente. Rabbit in a snail’s shell. Tortoise outfitted with tall mast and a billowing sail.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Merrill Gilfillan’s Red Mavis

Merrill Gilfillan
(Photograph by John Sarsgard)

Out of Merrill Gilfillan’s Red Mavis (Flood Editions, 2014):
Blue Ridge: Streams Are Roaring

Morning in the shade
of a persimmon tree. Later, downstream
below a hornbeam. A shy man hollers
from across the valley.

Every other rhododendron flower holds
a tiny bee, just the way
each macaroni shell in pasta e fagioli
eventually holds a bean.

A little Italian goes well up here.
Latin, too—castanea, ruficapilla, caroliniana:
Paroles: Dogwood calls the catbirds.
Black cherry calls the blue.
Examining the lingo, the paroles: Castenea is the genus name of the chestnut tree, the American chestnut an erstwhile mainstay of the Appalachian slopes; ruficapilla, literally “chestnut-crowned,” species name of the Nashville warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla), with its rarely-noted reddish-brown cap; caroliniana, amongst other, commoner, pertinences, being the species name of the American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), another tree native to the Blue Ridge. A whole “radiant node or cluster” there: ch’ing ming, “right naming,” le mot juste. Gilfillan is a master of a certain laconic economy, seeing itself making precise naming’s arrangements: “Black cherry calls the blue.” Too, there’s a kind of wry goofy numinosity, fervor ratcheted down a notch or two, in the “calling” of a line like “Dogwood calls the catbirds.” One senses the mischief in the earlier alignment of bee (in rhododendron flower) with bean (in macaroni shell), the natural world become like pasta e fagioli, mimicking an ordinary homemade thing. (No accident that Gilfillan’s title, Red Mavis, is a regional name—Thoreau knew it—for the brown thrasher, a bird of the Mimidae family, related to the mockingbird.)

To note: parallel to Gilfillan’s plein air sketching (I am thinking here of Kerouac’s use of the term—“everything activates in front of you in myriad profusion, you just have to purify your mind and let it pour the words”) of the adjacency, the (natural) surround,* there’s Gilfillan’s easygoing acceptance of the vagaries of human folly, the inexplicable human world. “Roan Mountain: Vireos Sing Falling Water” begins: “Those men in the valley / shredding lilacs in full bloom— / a little too human?”—and later asks: “Did I ever actually know / a woman named Normandie Beach?” Or there’s the two varieties of riffing of “Daybreak Sky”—a triad of sycamore fancies hinged to a “scratched out” tale of human straits and manners:
Sycamores along the Guyandotte
pretty as a pony: elegant as Appaloosas:
fancy as a rare blond python.

Daybreak sky

the gentle colors of a burst persimmon.
Coal Miner’s Daughter, scratched out,
then Coal Miner’s Wife.
To note: Gilfillan’s love of the names of things, of places. One part of “Smoky Hill Moon” ends with a kind of litany:
Sizzle of old names fried
in the sun. Yitas. Yupes.
The fabulous Aes—old names,
names I think of almost daily,
names cut free, gone missing,
broiled crisp beside the road.
Ietan, Highatan, Layatan:

private spellings sweet to say,
words rolled like dice,
scooped up by wild wind.
Names tongued and tangible, mouth-material, precise and particular names, names approaching scat (Jelly Roll Morton: “Scat doesn’t mean anything but just something to give a song a flavor.”)

To note: Gilfillan’s sense of fractal scale, deft telescopings. Looking off “Cumberland Mountain” (“a high clear place”): one notes how “bare trees show / the same almost prehensile reach and whorl / as the tuft of lichen riding in your buttonhole.” Or, in one of the “salted haikus” (a lovely flap-copy term, presumably Gilfillan’s own: “salted” with its sense of “cured or preserved” or of “seasoned with wit or good sense”—road and trail incidents put away, conserved, with glints of humor intact), a piece called “Night Sky, Pawnee Creek,” one slips between the brightest star in the constellation Orion and creek: “Rigel leaves a ripple / otter / through black water.” Against such potent miniatures: a series of prose poems, jump-narrative pieces, shotgun memoirs. Here’s one:
A Mile North

One partly cloudy March afternoon in 1978 I stopped at an oyster bar out in the back country of Florida, a well-worn roadhouse about a mile north of Crawfordville on 319. A gaggle of local men were sitting in an open-air, tin-roofed patio with a jug of mud-colored grape homebrew and a dimestore cooler full of oysters. They were shooting pool and passing the jug and shucking Apalachicola sliders. Someone even broke into “The Wabash Cannonball.” I joined them and said I’d driven south a week before from Ohio on the big-river downstream route. Eunice the barmaid was married years ago to a band leader in Cleveland—that put us in the same canoe. We sat there for an hour, beneath the strings of Christmas lights still looped across the roof beams. When we ran out of saltines for the oysters, Rodney went out to his truck and brought in a box of coconut cookies. His son was passed out dreamily across the seat of the cab . . . Such a thing. Such a thing as a mural for the day, weak gesso on old stucco for the simple Dionysian high-note of it: for the a capella laughter and the buds of clouds and the intermittent song, the accidental brackish sheen of salt and sugar on the mutual tongue.
“For the simple Dionysian high-note of it . . .” There’s no little sense and evidence of sheerly celebratory offices in Red Mavis, lauds and praises for the earth and its doings and inhabitants, noted with fond particularity, tender clarity, kindly acceptance: “Barmy old rattlesnake / lazes through / chicory blue . . .” (out of “R.I.P. Mary Fly”). Or: “Raucous wind, ratty clouds— / what the cat dragged in.” (out of “The Road to Jupiter”). The pleasure in modestly offering an approbatory something, not much. Here’s “Gift Horse”:
Toss a crust
for the quiet hermit thrush, sipping
the last of the garden:

fallen eggplant, soggy squash—
pretty much the same ratatouille
we had for lunch.
Not much, but measuredly—and humanly—enough.
* Exemplary, perhaps, the wild (and right) contiguities of “Cuatro de Mayo”:
Dabbling teal the color of ibis,
ibis in the shallows flashing
violet-rose, teal-wing green—

think along that cut of dream
the other night: “On a Greyhound
or a train,” talking
with an unfamiliar woman to my right.

We gradually unravel her privy news
as crows slip by: D. H. Lawrence
still alive, living far off in remote
seclusion—a jitney, then a mule—

We call for sherry, polished
walnuts, full pilgrimage.
Jets camouflaged sky-blue go over
in a fit of rage.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Edwin Denby’s Pleasure

Rudy Burckhardt, “Edwin Denby on West 21st Street,” 1937

“Neon in daylight is a / great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would / write . . .” Thus O’Hara writes in “A Step Away from Them”—a poem dated 16 August, 1956. A line so etched in memory that I go looking for the Denby line, somehow convinced of its existence in one of the sonnets, right there next to “The shoulder of a man is shaped like a baby pig.” Nothing. There’s only Denby in “The Thirties: An Essay”—written “in the late fifties” according to a note in the Robert Cornfield-edited Dance Writings and Poetry (1998)—recalling walking with Willem de Kooning “at night in Chelsea” during the Depression, with de Kooning “pointing out to me on the pavement the dispersed compositions—spots and cracks and bits of wrappers and reflections of neon-light—neon-signs were few then—and I remember the scale of the compositions was too big for me to see it.” And how Denby’d put what de Kooning made him see into a poem called “The Silence at Night,” found in the 1948 In Public, In Private. It begins:
The sidewalk cracks, gumspots, the water, the bits of refuse,
They reach out and bloom under arclight, neonlight—
Luck has uncovered this bloom as a by-produce
Having flowered too out behind the frightful stars of night.
(Dispersal and its ever-expanding scale caught in the reiterating: “reach out and bloom,” “bloom,” and “flowered . . . out.”) No daylight, little neon. Is, I wonder, the Denbyism O’Hara wants to capture not daylight-inflected neon, but the idiolect “great pleasure,” a way Denby had of speaking (writing)? (The pause O’Hara’s line break exerts before “great pleasure” adds some intensity and prominence to the phrase.) Out of Denby’s Dance Writings and Poetry:
There is nothing everyday about art. There is nothing everyday about dancing as an art. And that is the extraordinary pleasure of seeing it. I think that is enough for today.
      —“Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets” (1954)
To recognize poetic suggestion through dancing one has to be susceptible to poetic values and susceptible to dance values as well. But I find that a number of people are and that several dancers . . . are quite often able to give them the sense of an amplitude in meaning which is the token of emotion in art. I myself go to dancing looking for this pleasure, which is the pleasure of the grand style, and find a moment or two of satisfaction in the work of a dozen dancers or more.
      —“How to Judge a Dancer” (1943)
      A number of people have asked me the reason for the present wave of balletomania that is sweeping from coast to coast . . . My personal opinion is that ballet—when it is well danced—is the least provoking of our theatrical forms. Nobody on the stage says a word all evening. Nobody bothers much about sexiness or self-importance. The performers are bright, tender, agile, well mannered, they are serious and perfectly civilized. It is good for one’s morale, because it appeals to the higher instincts. You feel sociable and friendly and at the same time wide awake. I think that’s why so many people are delighted. Civilization is really a great pleasure.
      —“Markova’s Dance Rhythm; Tudor’s Romeo and Juliet” (1943)
Standing among the ruins of the Palatine toward sunset late in October, I saw a flock of migrant birds keeping close like a swarm, beating their small wings almost in unison, forming—the swarm of them—a single revolving vibrating shape which kept changing in the air—a shape that distended, that divided like an hourglass, that streamed out like a spiral nebula and then condensed again into a close sphere, a series of choreographic figures which rose and fell above the city as the flock drifted upstream and out of sight. A social celebration and a prehistoric pleasure.
      —“Forms in Motion and in Thought” (1954, printed 1965)
The plan of a choreography is a great pleasure.
      —“Balanchine and Tchaikovsky: Ballet Imperial” (1943)
. . . if ballet is a way of entertaining the audience by showing them animal grace, why is its way of moving so very unanimal-like and artificial? For the same reason that music has evolved so very artificial a way of organizing its pleasing noises. Art takes what in life is an accidental pleasure and tries to repeat and prolong it. It organizes, diversifies, characterizes, through an artifice that men evolve by trial and error. Ballet nowadays is as different from an accidental product as a symphony at Carnegie Hall is different from the noises Junior makes on his trumpet upstairs or Mary Ann with comb and tissue paper, sitting on the roof, the little monkey.
      —“Against Meaning in Ballet” (1949)
It was a great pleasure to see the new Monte Carlo; it was a pleasure too that it was such a success.
      —“Massine and the New Monte Carlo” (1938)
      What is a “stylized movement”? It is a movement that looks a little like dancing but more like nondancing. It is a movement derived from what people do when they are not dancing. It is a gesture from life deformed to suit music (music heard or imagined). The pleasure of watching it lies in guessing the action it was derived from, in guessing what it originally looked like, and then in savoring the “good taste” of the deformation.
      Stylized movement has always been a perfectly legitimate pleasure in the theater. Sometimes it’s merely a little quiz game thrown in for variety.
      —“On Meaning in Dance” (1943)
If not an idiolect, a creed, the measure of an aesthetic. I think that is enough for today.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Borges’s Coleridge, &c.

Jorge Luis Borges, 1899–1986

Fickle tenuity of each new writerly onslaught: how readily morning’s jumpy megrimish light would white it all out. An æther monologue, demur as a scruple. “The way music passes, emblematic / Of life and how you cannot isolate a note of it / And say it is good or bad.” (Ashbery, “Syringa”). Borges, lecturing in 1966, notes a “book about Browning . . . that Chesterton published . . . in the year 1907 or 1909 . . . part of that admirable series, English Men of Letters:
Reading a biography of Chesterton, written by his secretary, Maisie Ward, I read that all of Chesterton’s quotations of Browning in the book were wrong. But they were wrong because Chesterton had read Browning so much that he had learned him by heart. And he had learned it so well that he had not needed to consult Browning’s work a single time. He was wrong precisely because he knew it. It is a pity that the editor of the series, English Men of Letters, Virginia Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, reinstated the original text. It would have been interesting to compare Browning’s original text to how they appear in Chesterton’s text. Unfortunately, they were corrected, and the printed book contains Browning’s texts. It would have been lovely to know how Chesterton transformed in his memory Browning’s verses—for memory is also made up of forgetting.
Out of the Martín Arias and Martín Hadis-edited Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature (New Directions, 2013), translated by Katherine Silver. Borges’s breezy and companionable talk. Borges on Coleridge:
      Coleridge studied at Christ Church, where his classmate was Charles Lamb, who wrote a description of him. He then attended Cambridge University, where he met Southey, and there they planned to found a socialist colony in a remote and dangerous region of the United States. Then, for some reason that has never been fully explained, but is just one of the many mysteries that constitutes Coleridge’s life, Coleridge enlists in a regiment of dragoons. “I am,” as Coleridge said, “the least equestrian of men.” He never learned to ride a horse. After a few months, one of the officers found him writing poems in Greek on one of the barrack walls, poems in which he expressed his despair at his impossible fate as a horseman, which he had inexplicably chosen. The officer spoke with him and managed to have him released. Coleridge returned to Cambridge and shortly thereafter planned to establish a weekly journal. He traveled around England looking for subscribers for this publication. He recounts that he arrived in Bristol, spoke with a gentleman, that this gentleman asked him if he had read the newspaper, and he answered that he did not believe that one of his duties as a Christian was to read the newspaper, which caused no small amount of hilarity, because everyone knew that the purpose of his trip to Bristol was to engage subscribers for his publication. Coleridge, after having been invited to join a conversation, took the strange precaution of filling half his pipe bowl with salt and the other half with tobacco. In spite of this, he became ill, as he was not in the habit of smoking. . . .
(The editors point out—“memory is also made up of forgetting”—that “Coleridge studied at Christ’s Hospital, not at Christ Church.”) Borges:
      Coleridge’s conversations were very unusual. De Quincey, who was a disciple and admirer, said that each time Coleridge talked, it was as if he were tracing a circle in the air. In other words, he went further and further away from the subject he had started with, then returned to it, but very slowly. Coleridge’s conversation could last for two or three hours. At the end, it was discovered that he had traced a circle, returning to the point of departure. But usually his interlocutors would not have lasted that long and would have left. So they carried away the impression of a series of inexplicable digressions.
See Thomas De Quincey’s lines on Coleridge originally appearing in 1834 in the pages of Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine (under the title and byline “Samuel Taylor Coleridge. By the English Opium-Eater.”), later collected under the title Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets (1862). De Quincey:
Coleridge, like some great river, the Orellana, or the St. Lawrence, that had been checked and fretted by rocks or thwarting islands, and suddenly recovers its volume of waters, and its mighty music,—swept at once, as if returning to his natural business, into a continuous strain of eloquent dissertation, certainly the most novel, the most finely illustrated, and traversing the most spacious fields of thought, by transitions the most just and logical, that it was possible to conceive. What I mean by saying that his transitions were “just,” is by way of contradistinction to that mode of conversation which courts variety through links of verbal connexions. Coleridge, to many people, and often I have heard the complaint, seemed to wander; and he seemed then to wander the most, when in fact his resistance to the wandering instinct was greatest,—viz. when the compass, and huge circuit, by which his illustrations moved, travelled farthest into remote regions, before they began to revolve. Long before this coming-round commenced, most people had lost him, and naturally enough supposed that he had lost himself. They continued to admire the separate beauty of the thoughts, but did not see their relations to the dominant theme.
Borges again:
      What’s curious is that Coleridge’s conversation has been preserved, as was Johnson’s; but when we read Boswell’s pages—those pages full of epigrams, those short and clever sentences—we understand why Johnson was so admired as a conversationalist. On the contrary, the volumes of Table Talk—of Coleridge’s after-dinner conversations—are rarely admirable. They abound in trivialities. . . .*
* A sample, randomly selected, to complete the morning’s scrupulous circle. Out of Coleridge’s Table Talk, dated 1 July 1833:
      I could write as good verses now as ever I did, if I were perfectly free from vexations, and were in the ad libitum hearing of fine music, which has a sensible effect in harmonizing my thoughts, and in animating and, as it were, lubricating my inventive faculty. The reason of my not finishing Christabel is not that I don’t know how to do it; for I have, as I always had, the whole plan entire from beginning to end in my mind; but I fear I could not carry on with equal success the execution of the Idea—the most difficult, I think, that can be attempted to Romantic Poetry—I mean witchery by daylight. I venture to think that Geraldine, so far as she goes, is successful—but I doubt any one being able to go much farther without recourse to some of the common shifts. Besides, after this continuation of Faust, which they tell me is very poor, who can have courage to attempt a reversal of the judgment of all criticism against Continuations? Let us except Don Quixote, however—although the continuation is not uno flatu with the original conception.
      Some music is above me; most music is beneath me. I like Beethoven, Mozart, or some of the aerial compositions of the elder Italians, as Palestrina &c. And I love Purcell.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Williams’s Poe

Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849

Out of William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain (1925). Williams (in the chapter “Père Sebastian Rasles”) talking with Valéry Larbaud in Paris (“this center of old-world culture where everyone was tearing his own meat, warily conscious of a newcomer, but wholly without inquisitiveness—No wish to know”—now, certes, caught up by the greasy smear of renegade globalism, there is nothing except “old-world culture,” the antic perspicuity of its ambiance betrayed by the regularity of its implacable refusals, its brutal ruts):
. . . Who are we? Degraded whites riding our fears to market where everything is by accident and only one thing sure: the fatter we get the duller we grow; only a simpering disgust (like a chicken with a broken neck, that aims where it cannot peck and pecks only where it cannot aim, which a hog-plenty everywhere prevents from starving to death) reveals any contact with a possible freshness—and that only by inversion. Shall I never bring a look to bear which is not tawdry? . . . Must I make a choice between to scream like a locomotive or to speak not at all? . . . In the din we die—and rot into the magazines and newspapers—and books by the million—Books. We had mentioned books. We have no books, I said.
“In the din.” Everywhere in In the American Grain a sense of what Williams calls (in the “Poor Richard” chapter) “a mass of impedimenta” or (in the “Edgar Allan Poe” chapter) “the inchoate mass . . . the formless mass.” Writing, the work of it, becomes a way to “detach SOMETHING . . . detach a ‘method’ from the smear of common usage.” Of Poe (“a light in the morass”):
      He has a habit, borrowed perhaps from algebra, of balancing his sentences in the middle, or of reversing them in the later clauses, a sense of play, as with objects, or numerals which he has in the original, disassociated, that is, from other literary habit; separate words which he feels and turns about as if he fitted them to his design with some sense of their individual quality: “those who belong properly to books, and to whom books, perhaps, do not quite so properly belong.”
“Fitted . . . design . . . their individual quality.” All the makings of Williams’s eventual “machine made out of words.” How tangible the material word, the word “to whom books . . . do not quite so properly belong.” And, quoting lines out of Poe’s 1844 review in Graham’s Magazine of R. H. Horne’s Orion: an Epic Poem in Three Books:
      “If a man—if an Orphicist—or SEER—or whatever else he may choose to call himself, while the rest of the world calls him an ass—if this gentleman have an idea which he does not understand himself, the best thing he can do is to say nothing about it; . . . but if he have any idea which is actually intelligible to himself, and if he sincerely wishes to render it intelligible to others, we then hold it as indisputable that he should employ those forms of speech which are the best adapted to further his object. He should speak to the people in that people’s ordinary tongue. He should arrange words such as are habitually employed for the preliminary and introductory ideas to be conveyed—he should arrange them in collocations such as those in which we are accustomed to see those words arranged.” “Meantime we earnestly ask if bread-and-butter be the vast IDEA in question—if bread-and-butter be any portion of this vast idea? for we have often observed that when a SEER has to speak of even so usual a thing as bread-and-butter, he can never be induced to mention it outright . . .”
      The language of his essays is a remarkable HISTORY of the locality he springs from. There is no aroma to his words, rather a luminosity, that comes of a disassociation from anything else than thought and ideals; a coldly nebulous, side to side juxtaposition of the words as the ideas—It seems to fall back continuously to a bare surface exhausted by having reached no perch in tradition. Seldom a long or sensuous sentence, but with frequent reduplication upon itself as if holding itself up by itself.
I think (reading the Poe quote) of Wordsworth’s experiment (divulged in the “Preface” to the 1800 Lyrical Ballads) at “fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation.” Or I think of Pound’s assigning to Ford Madox Ford (in Pound’s 1916 memoir Gaudier-Brzeska, a book Williams likely read) the—rather perilous, though seemingly pertinent—belief that “good prose is just your conversation.”

I see today, accidently, marks the anniversary of Poe’s death. Another Williams salvo (for the pertinence of its counsel, for the brusquerie of its insistence):
      He abhorred the “excessively opportune.”—Of course, he says, to write of the Indians, the forests, the great natural beauty of the New World will be attractive and make a hit—so he counsels writers to AVOID it . . . His whole insistence has been upon method, in opposition to a nameless rapture over nature. He admired Claude Lorraine. Instead of to hog-fill the copied style with a gross rural sap, he wanted a lean style, rapid as a hunter and with an aim as sure. One way, in the New World, men must go. Bust gut or acute wit. Find the ground, on your feet or on your belly. It is a fight. He counsels writers to borrow nothing from the scene, but to put all the weight of effort into the WRITING. Put aside the GRAND scene and get to work to express yourself. Method, punctuation, grammar—

Monday, October 06, 2014

Gilbert White / Charles Darwin

Gilbert White, 1720–1793

Rainy and cold weekend. Minimal tromping in the hills, maximal foundering in hesitance and “right habondant” regret, that infrequent soul-nourisher of the introspective, the restless, and the stuck. Out Sunday into a brief burst of sun. In a grassy wet area next to an enormous red barn off Trinkle Road, three sandhill cranes doing their quizzical slow-chug walk. With a solitary peevish crow harassing a couple of meadowlarks into constant short flights, bursting up all tail. At West Lake a towhee rummaging in the leaf litter along a rotting log. Two red-tailed hawks circling high up over the cornfields. A bluebird in a shiny-leaved oak calling out in a tremulous little voice, nonplussed by waver and restraint.

Out of the Reverend Gilbert White’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, in the county of Southampton (1789), a letter addressed to the Honorable Daines Barrington, dated 20 May 1777:
Dear Sir—
      Lands that are subject to frequent inundations are always poor; and probably the reason may be because the worms are drowned. The most insignificant insects and reptiles are of much more consequence, and have much more influence in the œconomy of Nature, than the incurious are aware of; and are mighty in their effect, from their minuteness, which renders them less an object of attention; and from their numbers and fecundity. Earth-worms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of Nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm. For, to say nothing of half the birds, and some quadrupeds which are almost entirely supported by them, worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them, by boring, perforating, and loosening the soil, and rendering it pervious to rains and the fibres of plants, by drawing straws and stalks of leaves and twigs into it; and, most of all, by throwing up such infinite numbers of lumps of earth called worm-casts, which, being their excrement, is a fine manure for grain and grass. Worms probably provide new soil for hills and slopes where the rain washes the earth away; and they affect slopes, probably to avoid being flooded. Gardeners and farmers express their detestation of worms; the former because they render their walks unsightly, and make them much work: and the latter because, as they think, worms eat their green corn. But these men would find that the earth without worms would soon become cold, hard-bound, and void of fermentation; and consequently steril: and besides, in favour of worms, it should be hinted that green corn, plants, and flowers, are not so much injured by them as by many species of coleoptera (scarabs), and tipulæ (long-legs) in their larva, or grub-state; and by unnoticed myriads of small shell-less snails, called slugs, which silently and imperceptibly make amazing havoc in the field and garden.*
      These hints we think proper to throw out in order to set the inquisitive and discerning to work.
      A good monography of worms would afford much entertainment and information at the same time, and would open a large and new field in natural history. Worms work most in the spring; but by no means lie torpid in the dead months; are out every mild night in the winter, as any person may be convinced that will take the pains to examine his grass-plots with a candle; are hermaphrodites, and much addicted to venery, and consequently very prolific.

                                                                                                                                        I am, &c.
* Farmer Young, of Norton-farm, says that this spring (1777) about four acres of his wheat in one field was entirely destroyed by slugs, which swarmed on the blades of corn, and devoured it as fast as it sprang.
Out of the introductory chapter of Charles Darwin’s final monograph The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits (1881):
      The share which worms have taken in the formation of the layer of vegetable mould, which covers the whole surface of the land in every moderately humid country, is the subject of the present volume. This mould is generally of a blackish colour and a few inches in thickness. In different districts it differs but little in appearance, although it may rest on various subsoils. The uniform fineness of the particles of which it is composed is one of its chief characteristic features; and this may be well observed in any gravelly country, where a recently-ploughed field immediately adjoins one which has long remained undisturbed for pasture, and where the vegetable mould is exposed on the sides of a ditch or hole. The subject may appear an insignificant one, but we shall see that it possesses some interest; and the maxim “de minimis lex non curat,” does not apply to science. Even Elie de Beaumont, who generally undervalues small agencies and their accumulated effects, remarks, « la couche très-mince de la terre végétale est un monument d’une haute antiquité, et, par le fait de sa permanence, un objet digne d’occuper le géologue, et capable de lui fournir des remarques intéressantes. » Although the superficial layer of vegetable mould as a whole no doubt is of the highest antiquity, yet in regard to its permanence, we shall hereafter see reason to believe that its component particles are in most cases removed at not a very slow rate, and are replaced by others due to the disintegration of the underlying materials.
      As I was led to keep in my study during many months worms in pots filled with earth, I became interested in them, and wished to learn how far they acted consciously, and how much mental power they displayed. I was the more desirous to learn something on this head, as few observations of this kind have been made, as far as I know, on animals so low in the scale of organization and so poorly provided with sense-organs, as are earth-worms.
      In the year 1837, a short paper was read by me before the Geological Society of London, “On the Formation of Mould,” in which it was shown that small fragments of burnt marl, cinders, &c., which had been thickly strewed over the surface of several meadows, were found after a few years lying at the depth of some inches beneath the turf, but still forming a layer. This apparent sinking of superficial bodies is due, as was first suggested to me by Mr. Wedgwood of Maer Hall in Staffordshire, to the large quantity of fine earth continually brought up to the surface by worms in the form of castings. These castings are sooner or later spread out and cover up any object left on the surface. I was thus led to conclude that all the vegetable mould over the whole country has passed many times through, and will again pass many times through, the intestinal canals of worms. Hence the term “animal mould” would be in some respects more appropriate than that commonly used of “vegetable mould.”
Several pages later, Darwin’s only nod to Gilbert White: “It has often been said that under ordinary circumstances healthy worms never, or very rarely, completely leave their burrows at night; but this is an error, as White of Selborne long ago knew. In the morning, after there has been heavy rain, the film of mud or of very fine sand over gravel-walks is often.”

Friday, October 03, 2014

John Ashbery’s “The Egyptian Helen”

John Ashbery, c. 1975
(Photograph by Peter Hujar)

Out of the cormorancy: a John Ashbery prose piece called “The Egyptian Helen.” In a note appended to the “Introduction” to Ashbery’s Selected Prose (2004), editor Eugene Richie—conjecturally assembling “seminal texts in a representative selection of Ashbery’s prose poetry and fiction”—lists its provenance thus: “‘The Egyptian Helen,’ written in 1952, is a short story that I found in a folder in Ashbery’s desk drawer in his apartment in Chelsea and that was subsequently published, first as an appendix to Rosanne Wasserman’s doctoral thesis, ‘Helen of Troy: Her Myth in Modern Poetry’ . . . and later in the English-Russian magazine Gnosis 11 (Winter 1995), edited by the poet Victoria Andreyeva and the fiction writer Arkady Rovner.” Gnosis proved introuvable. What’s here is the piece as recopied out of Wasserman’s 1986 CUNY dissertation. Of the Greeks, Euripides, Stesichorus, and Herodotus all put Helen in Egypt during the Trojan War. In Euripides’s Helen, the Helen who runs off to Troy with Paris is a likeness constructed by Hera, an eidolon, phantom. Ashbery’s story:
The Egyptian Helen

      A beautiful girl, a wild impish girl. A girl with a weak will and pronounced characteristics, with strange hoarse mannerisms that are revolting at times. Do not get too close. A girl to inspire the heart and mind of an academician. We read that she was associated with trees, and this is not hard to believe as we see her in Sparta with the other girls, her sisters, on a Saturday night in summer as they emerge from their house to watch the bright lights and the boys showing off, just before bedtime. A shrinking but unforgettable figure, genuinely attractive, minus a few bedbug bites, and exactly like a tree. Then there is the “tree of Helen.” What is it? Perhaps someone will tell me, for I do not know what it is.
      We read that she may have been a goddess, but that men forgot this at some point and made her an aristocrat. She behaved like an aristocrat, but also very much like a goddess. For instance, her childhood was largely taken up with questions like, Does what we eat affect our personality? and, What is right? She wrestled all her life with the first question, so that as a wrinkled and white-haired old lady she approached every morsel in an agony of indecision, though knowing that the question cannot be answered. She was constantly finding new answers to the second question, like an unscrupulous pioneering goddess, like a very beautiful one. It is fun to consider what is right and to make up new names for it. Unlike most games it grows more amusing the longer one plays, since one always feels on the point of a move which will recoup all one’s losses. One does not grow cross and ugly in old age. One imagines one’s death as a magnificent though costly move, which might win the game if one could stay to see that justice were administered. It is not the removal of oneself that does the trick, but the fact that one has finally succeeded in becoming emotional. This was difficult for a girl like Helen, who was two-thirds dead to begin with, owing to the confusion about her mortal or immortal status, which stemmed from a confusion in her own mind.
      “The dear girl,” people in Sparta used to say, “but of course she has no heart.” Of course she had a heart; she was very sensitive; but she was always watching to see what her next move would be. People who have their attention fixed on the events of the next five minutes cannot be called spiritual, but they do have that attitude of peaceful expectancy which, among other things, lends inspiration and fury to the academicians’ flailing chisels. What about the academicians? They were an ugly lot, with even baser natures than the true bohemian artists. But even the lowest of them had the knack of selecting one characteristic from the subject at hand and making it seem all-important. Helen was always very patient with them. It was through deep contemplation of their work that she noticed her own unspirituality, and after that it was as if all doors opened before her. She saw that it was her characteristic of waiting that gave her significance, and she was able to make it, not spiritual of course, but all-important. A slight improvement, but the most that could be expected of her. She knew it and was glad.
      How often we hear it said of someone, “She changed my life,” and much less often, “It was through her that I found out who I really am.” Of Helen the first could not be said; in spite of her violent beauty she made very little impression, and she did not make so little that one thought about her afterwards. It was strange, but she seemed to have the beauty of a very beautiful cat or tree which one admires but very soon forgets. But it was she who made men know what they were. After she found out about herself (just before she left Sparta), that waiting was her great characteristic, but before she had begun seriously to consider it, she began having this effect on the men who met her. Not that she had found out who she was—the old confusion hadn’t vanished, because she continued to think about her next move—but she now knew about her confusion, and men saw it and discovered theirs. As she stood on the deck of Paris’s ship, with the men making ready, as quietly as possible, to set sail from Sparta, she thought about her newly discovered self, about the effect she had had on Paris, but most of all about her forthcoming decision in the game of what is right. “I shall discover the rule of right and proper conduct,” she exclaimed to no one. “But it won’t apply to everyone—just to some people.” But this is an even more difficult part of her confusion, because according to this legend it was a phantom of her which Paris carried off to Troy, and the true Helen spent the war years in Egypt, living quietly at the court of King Proteus. Yet it is certain that, just as she was in a way the cause of the phantom’s existence, as the phantom was somehow a part of her, though she would have sincerely denied, if she had been questioned, ever making the remark or laying eyes on the man the world supposed her to have eloped with.
      And yet she might have admitted these things, as she would have admitted, on finding herself in Egypt, that she was at a loss. Perhaps deciding to discover a law was the same as discovering it, and subsequent attempts to apply it the same as losing it, as imagining more of an improvement for herself than was possible. She was unhappy; she did not know how to eat. She did not know there was a phantom of herself far away having her old effect on men to the extent we know about, but somehow she felt downhearted. But she was happy that she had not abandoned her quest for right because she had discovered it accidentally; she knew that she would not be lost for long, even though she found a new place instead of the old one, or remained exactly where she was. She felt that she had made her last move and that it was now up to others to make what they would of the game. She was given a sumptuous apartment in the palace and a maid named Lois, who did not speak at all. She was a sad, impudent negress. It was impossible to escape for long from her responsible gaze, though Helen tried it at first. She used to go for walks around the city, hoping for some adventure which might make her feel at home, for her feeling of pleasant victorious uncertainty was beginning to be replaced by the ordinary old one, the kind she had felt at Sparta before she found out she could affect what went on around her. No doubt it was the phantom, which was now causing events of a more and more terrible importance, and thus encroaching more and more on people’s thoughts, though they did not mistake it for the real Helen. She felt a little light, a little silly. But she knew she was the true Helen, even though the phantom (of whom she was not aware) might end by being more lifelike than herself. How did she know this? Because she did not mistake people for their thoughts, as they were letting a thought of her gradually replace her in their minds. Of course no thought of her, however clearly defined, could have any importance for them. And though there was less and less of her, the less there was the more it seemed to be she.
      Nevertheless she felt uncertain. So she decided to take Lois along on her expeditions for a little weight, a little color until she should be feeling sufficiently lost to begin contemplating another move. It was impossible to make an adventure of these sly Egyptians, of their flat sky and buildings and the evil smells that escaped from their sewers. Lois introduced her to a number of people; there was a young man whom she liked well enough to try to test her old powers on him; but none of this was really any use, and she could not seem to do whatever it was these people had in mind for her, though she realized how important it was to try. Every day they went to an outdoor café on a big square where all these people used to come. They seemed to take little interest in life, sitting or moving about much as the phantom Helen might move about Troy, caring little for any advantage it might or might not have over those about her. Helen was afraid of becoming like this herself, and decided to do her best to attract their attention.
      “I have heard that far, far away,” she said, “a terrible war is being waged in my name. Every morning men set forth full of the hope of gaining me, and every evening they return, crushed and hopeless without me. And this has been going on for years.” But Lois and the young man only pretended to look astonished, or perhaps they had not heard. Perhaps they were not there at all. Still, Helen felt better. She got up from the table and began walking away. Neither Lois nor the young man made any move to follow her.
      She walked on through the half empty squares. Occasionally a sentry or a slave would stiffen as she passed and clear his throat as though wishing she would speak to him. But she did not notice her surroundings, or that night had begun to fall. She felt angry with herself for her long idleness. She had been drawn away from her interests by an absurd double who was menacing the world, which was no concern of hers, and now she had returned to find herself in a place that was not at all like home, among people who were merely shadows, who expected her to tell them what to do. In the absence of anyone to play her game with she had been playing with the phantom Helen. She was a goddess who had played with a mortal, which was forgetfulness. What was there to do? In her despair she did not notice that she had become again the old watchful Helen, full of anxiety but doing neither more nor less than what was expected of her.
      As she neared the palace she noticed a little old man seated at an easel in the shadow of an archway, painting from a tiny paintbox. It was King Proteus! “Why do you paint at night?” she asked. But he seemed not to hear. Boldly she stepped up to him and took the picture from the easel. It was a portrait of herself, done in the pale academic manner she had known so well in days gone by. There was in fact nothing to distinguish it from the dozens of portraits of her that the Spartan painters had made. The central quality was once again elusiveness, a lack of decision which had been so common a characteristic in their work that for a time it had seemed a trademark of artistic excellence.
      “Why have you done this?” she demanded sternly.
      Tears flowed from the old king’s eyes. “Because I missed you,” he answered simply. “I knew you were dwelling in my palace. At the same time, it seemed your thoughts were always far away, goodness knows where, so I decided to paint your picture to remind myself that you were here, that you still loved me, and that I loved you. Now, if you don’t mind, I should like to continue.”
      Helen returned to her apartment and went to bed. She did not think about the king’s words, for they were only a reflection of her own thoughts, but about the portrait of herself. “I am the Helen of all those pictures and plays and poems,” she thought. “It was not my face that launched a thousand ships, or received the kisses of Paris, or did anything wonderful. My face was valuable only because it could be reproduced an infinite number of times. I might have been watchful Helen, or the impatient Helen, or the gay Helen; those artists did not care so long as I reflected their own sorrowful emptiness, which I now am.” She looked in the mirror and discovered she had grown old and tired, though not cross or ugly. “It is just as well,” she sighed. “At least I discovered the rule of right and proper conduct.”
      After that time passed very quickly. She would lie in bed wishing it was Thursday, and almost before she had formed the wish it would be the Thursday after next, or the next year. One day an old woman came to the palace selling things, and she bought this, that and the other. The old woman asked her as a favor to keep her dog for a year and a day, for she had to go on a long journey. Helen asked her why she was so fond of the dog. “Because it is a magic dog,” she replied. “It does what I tell it to.” Helen promised to cherish it as though it were herself, and the old woman departed.
      Helen gazed for a long time at the dog as it lay on a comfortable rug before the fire. She decided to test its obedience. “Go and bring me my husband,” she commanded. “Why do you disobey my mistress?” the dog asked, and putting its paws on Helen’s breasts, it nipped her lightly on the cheek and vanished.
      The year and a day passed quickly enough. On the appointed day Helen lay in bed clad in her most beautiful robes, and wearing her costliest jewels. The scar where the dog had nipped her had not gone away, but it seemed to make her more beautiful than ever. Lois ushered the old lady into the bedchamber. Helen noticed that she looked strangely like old King Proteus, but she was too tired to look at her very closely.
      The old crone did not seem surprised or displeased to learn that the dog had vanished. “It was not a dog anyway,” she said. “It was only a phantom. Look, here is a letter I have brought you as a reward for your pains.” And so saying, she too vanished.
      “No doubt this is a letter from my husband, Menelaus,” Helen said to herself. “He has discovered my identity, and wants to claim me. Well, let him do as he wishes. In any case I am too tired to open this letter.” But Lois opened it for her and placed it on the bed. Sure enough, it was from Menelaus announcing his immediate arrival in Egypt, and full of regrets over their long separation and the unhappy struggle at Troy, “all over a lost cause,” as he said.
      Euripides tells us that Menelaus discovered his true wife in Egypt and managed to escape with her back to Sparta despite the efforts of King Proteus’s son, who had fallen in love with her. Since there is room for an infinite number of legends, I shall suppose that she remained in her apartment, attended by the faithful Lois, and refusing all nourishment because she knew there was no answer to the question of whether what we eat affects our personality. So she grew always less and less, and so (she felt) more like herself, except for the scar on her cheek, which seemed to make her more beautiful than all the illicit kisses of Paris. She would now have seemed a very likeable little girl, just as she had seemed in Sparta so very long ago, if there had been anyone to see her, except that she had entered the country of shyness, and was as far from everyone as they were from her.
      Being shy, it seemed, was not the same as being correct. But anything was like waking from a beautiful daylight sleep, more certain of what was to come than of what had already happened. Lois and the young man, the old king, the old lady and the dog, all seemed like beautiful friends on the deck of a ship which was tugging excitedly at its moorings, who now approached to introduce her to the charming young stranger, the lady so much like herself, even more beautiful, though without a scar, who extended her hand as the sailors shot the silvery sail up into the blue night sky.
Isn’t it the ending that seems most particularly Ashberyesque? The taut reciprocity of “tugging excitedly at its moorings” versus the “silvery sail” being “shot . . . up into the blue night sky.” That sail, full of salutation and possibility—I think of the ending of the prose poem “For John Clare” in The Double Dream of Spring (1970): “So their comment is ‘No comment.’ Meanwhile the whole history of probabilities is coming to life, starting in the upper left-hand corner, like a sail.” Or of the sail at the end of the eponymous poem of Houseboat Days (1977):
A little simple arithmetic tells you that to be with you
In this passage, this movement, is what the instance costs:
A sail out of some afternoon, beyond amazement, astonished,
Apparently not tampered with. As the rain gathers and protects
Its own darkness, the place in the slipcover is noticed
For the first and last time, fading like the spine
Of an adventure novel behind glass, behind the teacups.*
* Originally:
A sail out of some afternoon, like the clear dark blue
Eyes of Harold in Italy, beyond amazement, astonished,
Apparently not tampered with. . . .
Subsequently truncated for the Selected Poems (1985)—the only instance of post-book-publication revising by Ashbery I know of.