Saturday, December 31, 2011
Are you alive?
I touch you.
You quiver like a sea-fish.
I cover you with my net.
What are you—banded one?
"The Pool" by H.D. (1915)
Zwei auf dem Rücken liegende Akte, Gustave Klimt, c.1906
Friday, December 30, 2011
And I love you,
Sky full of laurels and arrows,
White shadow of cities where the scars
Of forgotten swans
Waken into feathers
And new leaves.
From "Moon" by James Wright. The complete poem is here.
Moonlit Night on the Dniepr, Archip Iwanowitsch Kuindshi, 1882
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it—it's the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.
But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.
And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: "It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish."
Translated by Louis Simpson, text via poets.org.
For more on the uses of drunkenness, read "Aristotle -- The Wisdom of Silenus." (Worth clicking over just for the clip of Nureyev dancing The Afternoon of a Faun.)
The lineage of Silenus can be found at theoi.com
The Misfortunes of Silenus, Piero di Cosimo, 1505-1510
Monday, December 26, 2011
One of the things I love about this blog is that it gives me an opportunity to share the work of writers and artists I admire, including some you might not have heard about. Since I've spent a fair amount of time at workshops and writers'conferences over the past year, I've met a LOT of really talented people whose fine stories and poems have not yet found a big audience. I'd like to do my bit to remedy that, so I've decided to start regularly posting links to their work. If you like the stories you find below, do come back and post a comment so I can pass it along to the author. Happy reading.
Brandy Wilson teaches at the University of Memphis and she is currently at work on a novel. You can read one of her stories, "The Paris Times," at PANK Magazine.
Richard Alley is a freelance writer and journalist in Memphis. His story "Sea Change" appeared in Memphis Magazine last year, and you can read "Hav-A-Tampa," an excerpt from another story, at Glass Cases.
A.K. Benninghofen is a Mississippi native who now lives in beautiful Asheville, North Carolina. She and I met at the Sewanee Writers' Conference last year. You'll find a couple of her great stories at Evergreen Review and Necessary Fiction.
Reading the Story of Oenone, Frank Millett, 1882
Saturday, December 24, 2011
Making love with you
Is like drinking sea water.
The more I drink
The thirstier I become,
Until nothing can slake my thirst
But to drink the entire sea.
From The Love Poems of Marichiko by Kenneth RexRoth
Bather, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, 1913
Thursday, December 22, 2011
The night a comet
with its silver tail
tucked between its legs
fell through darkness
to rest in the Wades'
on the back stoop
starved in metal trap
teeth broken from winter's
In the back of the shotgun
the crooked step jutting
out like a lip, he could see
the sky neck, feel the stars
shake they heads
That night he threw
the fallen stone
back to sky
the stars watched
it all come down
to ruined earth again.
Sky would not take back
what she had done
the fields spent,
From "Fallen" by Sheree Renée Thomas. See the rest at Strange Horizons.
"The Great Comet of 1861", illus. from Bilderatlas der Sternenwelt, E. Weiss, 1888
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
How valuable it is in these short days,
threading through empty maple branches,
the lacy-needled sugar pines... (more)
From "Winter Sun" by Molly Fisk
The Magpie, Claude Monet, 1869
Wishing you all a beautiful solstice
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
We have roped swallows together
Now we can't see the sun.
Everywhere nature twitters as it moves.
In the deepening twilight the earth swims into the nets
and the sun can't be seen.
But what can we lose if we try one
groaning, wide, ungainly sweep of the rudder?
The earth swims. Courage,
brothers, as the cleft sea falls back from our plow.
Even as we freeze in Lethe we'll remember
the ten heavens the earth cost us.
From "The Twilight of Freedom" by Osip Mandelstam, 1918. The complete poem is here.
Ad Marginem, Paul Klee 1930
Monday, December 19, 2011
When I’m running across the city
on the crowded streets
to home, when, in a blur,
the grass turns brown
beneath my feet, the asphalt
steams under every step
and the maple leaves sway
on the branches in my wake,
and the people look,
look in that bewildered way,
in my direction, I imagine
walking slowly into my past
among them at a pace
at which we can look one another in the eye
and begin to make changes in the future
from our memories of the past—
the bottom of a bottomless well,
you may think, but why not dream a little ...(more)
From "The Flash Reverses Time" by A. Van Jordan. (You'll find a 2007 post featuring Jordan here.)
Memory, Elihu Vedder, 1870
Sunday, December 18, 2011
'Tis the time of year to make annual lists -- best of, top ten, etc. -- and you'll find mine below. But first, a disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of these lists, or to put it more accurately, I'm not a big fan of creating them. I enjoy other people’s lists (like these, for instance), but when I try to make my own I find that I don’t relish the linear thought process required. I'm not the kind of person who wants or needs her ducks in a row, as even a brief look around my house will confirm. Also, I don’t like the exclusionary nature of lists: This always implies not that, and I hate to reject things that are essentially worthy. (That’s why I possess several hundred perfumes, even though I only wear about 20.) But if I cast aside all thoughts of organization and ranking, list-making does offer me the simple pleasure of revisiting good things, especially the ones that have taught me something or otherwise rocked my world. And, more importantly, a list is a handy way to share those things with people who might not otherwise know about them. Seen in that light, an annual list is a sort of gift to myself and to you. So, with a little ambivalence and a sincere hope that you'll find something that gives you pleasure, here's a random list of ten things I loved in 2011:
1. Frederick Busch’s Domestic Particulars: A Family Chronicle
This is a quiet, sad, beautifully constructed novel about parents and children, among other things. I wrote a brief review of it at Goodreads. I would never have read it if a friend had not urged it on me. Let me pay a favor forward and encourage you to get your hands on a copy. You'll be rewarded for the trouble.
2. Rodney Crowell’s memoir Chinaberry Sidewalks
This is absolutely not a book I would ever have picked up on my own, but I enjoyed every page. My review is here.
3. Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life
One of the most interesting and entertaining books I’ve read in a long time, Mrs. Nixon transcends genre. It's an artful blend of fiction, literary criticism, history and memoir, and reading it is a little like being happily lost in a house of mirrors. The book is not really concerned with Pat Nixon, but with “Mrs. Nixon,” a fictional person who is as much the creation of Pat Nixon as of Ann Beattie. The brilliance of Mrs. Nixon was completely lost on David Greenberg, who wrote a simple-minded, lukewarm review for The New York Times, and on Michiko Kakutani, who delivered a review that is so willfully dumb and mean-spirited I won’t even link to it. At least the book is getting some appreciation from smart readers like this one.
4. The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, trans. by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin
Mandelstam’s poems push me to a place I could never get to on my own, and I can never find my way back without their help.
5. Before the Great Troubling by Corey Mesler
I featured the title poem on the blog a while back, but the whole collection is wise, playful, and very smart. Go here to see some links to other recent poems by Mesler.
6. Some other good books I read or reread this year, in no particular order and excluding lots of worthy titles that I would list if I wasn’t afraid of trying your patience:
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
A Hole in the Earth by Robert Bausch
Brill Among the Ruins by Vance Bourjaily
The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey
1982, Janine by Alasdair Gray
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
Appalachee Red by Raymond Andrews
Rebel Powers by Richard Bausch
7. Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Apart from the way 3D glasses kept falling down my face, watching this film was a magical experience. Herzog, once again, has inspired me to do plenty of wondering about the primal sources of art and about our complex relationship to animals. I won't bore you with my musings, but the film strengthened my long held opinion that our sentimental attachment to our pets is a degraded expression of our deepest, most spiritual selves.
8. Brian Pera's Woman's Picture
Like many of my fellow perfume fanatics, I've been following the production of this film, and I was thrilled to finally see it at the Indie Memphis festival earlier this fall. A beautiful movie in every way, I hope it will be available on DVD soon so that more people can have the chance to see it. And I can't wait to see where Brian Pera takes his considerable talent in the years to come.
9. Susan Bryant's alternative process photography, exhibited this fall at Nashville's Cumberland Gallery
That's one of her images at the top of this post, and you can see more here and here. Wonderful, evocative stuff. Go look.
10. Glasgow in spring
I spent a couple of weeks in Glasgow this year and pretty much fell in love with a city I already liked quite a lot. I have thoughts of making it home someday. To see a few pictures from my visit, go here.
F.A.R., Copyright ©2011 by Susan Bryant. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
Even the void has disappeared
where one could once take refuge.
Now we know that even the air
is matter that weighs upon us.
Immaterial matter, the worst
that could have befallen us.
It isn't full enough because
we must people it with facts and actions
to be able to say we belong to it
and will never escape it even when dead.
To cram with objects what is
the sole Object by definition although
it doesn't care for it oh what a vile
comedy. And with what zeal we perform it!
From It Depends, 1980
The Story of the God of Kitano Tenjin Shrine, 13th century
Sunday, November 20, 2011
The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.
From "What Are Years" by Marianne Moore
Two Finches, Zhao Ji (1082-1135)
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
If your hug gives courage to the heart
and your thighs stop the pain,
if your name gives peace
to his thoughts, and your throat
a shade to his berth
and the night of your voice, an orchard
still untouched by storms.
Then stay beside him
and be more devoted than anyone else
who loved him before you.
Fear the echo approaching
the innocent love nests.
And be gentle with his dream
bellow the invisible mountain
at the edge of the soughing sea.
From a poem by Croatian writer Vesna Parun. The rest of this translation can be found here (scroll down). A different translation is posted on this forum. Thanks to Ankica at Bellatrix for sending me this lovely poem.
Liebespaar, Otto Mueller, c.1920
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
From this cup of my lips comes a song;
It captures my singing soul, my song.
That in my words is the meaning of ecstasy,
That dies my happiness into grief, my song.
If you see that my eyes say a word,
Then take it as my forgetfulness, my song.
Do not ask of love, O it tells me of you;
My words of love speak of death, my song.
His hope, like flowers, I desire.
No drop of my eyes is enough, my song.
The daughter of this place sings qasida, a ghazal,
But what spoils her strange verses, my song?
O the gardener does not understand my happiness;
O do not ask for many looks of my youth, my song.
From this hands, these feet and words, it looks strange
That my name is written on the slate of this age, my song.
Ghazal by Nadia Anjuman*, trans. by Khizra Aslam
Die Wasserschöpferin (Danaide), Hans Ernst Brühlmann, 1909
*A previous post about Nadia Anjuman's poetry and her sad fate is here.
Sunday, October 30, 2011
THE DEEDS OF MUNG
(Lord of all Deaths between Pegana and the Rim)
Once, as Mung went his way athwart the Earth and up and down its cities and across its plains, Mung came upon a man who was afraid when Mung said: "I am Mung!"
And Mung said: "Were the forty million years before thy coming intolerable to thee?"
And Mung said: "Not less tolerable to thee shall be the forty million years to come!"
Then Mung made against him the sign of Mung and the Life of the Man was fettered no longer with hands and feet.
At the end of the flight of the arrow there is Mung, and in the houses and the cities of Men. Mung walketh in all places at all times. But mostly he loves to walk in the dark and still, along the river mists when the wind hath sank, a little before night meeteth with the morning upon the highway between Pegana and the Worlds.
Sometimes Mung entereth the poor man's cottage; Mung also boweth very low before The King. Then do the Lives of the poor man and of The King go forth among the Worlds.
And Mung said: "Many turnings hath the road that Kib hath given every man to tread upon the earth. Behind one of these turnings sitteth Mung."
One day as a man trod upon the road that Kib had given him to tread he came suddenly upon Mung. And when Mung said: "I am Mung!" the man cried out: "Alas, that I took this road, for had I gone by any other way then had I not met with Mung."
And Mung said: "Had it been possible for thee to go by any other way then had the Scheme of Things been otherwise and the gods had been other gods. When Mana-Yood-Sushai forgets to rest and makes again new gods it may be that They will send thee again into the Worlds; and then thou mayest choose some other way, and not meet with Mung."
Then Mung made the sign of Mung. And the Life of that man went forth with yesterday's regrets and all old sorrows and forgotten things -- whither Mung knoweth.
And Mung went onward with his work to sunder Life from flesh, and Mung came upon a man who became stricken with sorrow when he saw the shadow of Mung. But Mung said: "When at the sign of Mung thy Life shall float away there will also disappear thy sorrow at forsaking it." But the man cried out: "O Mung! tarry for a little, and make not the sign of Mung against me now, for I have a family upon the earth with whom sorrow will remain, though mine should disappear because of the sign of Mung."
And Mung said: "With the gods it is always Now. And before Sish hath banished many of the years the sorrows of thy family for thee shall go the way of thine." And the man beheld Mung making the sign of Mung before his eyes, which beheld things no more.
From The Gods of Pegana by Lord Dunsany, 1905.
Mung, the God of Death, Sidney Sime, c. 1905
Blessed Samhain, Happy Halloween, and so forth...
Friday, October 21, 2011
Now I am minded to take pipe in hand
And yield a song to the decaying year;
Now while the full-leaved hursts unalter’d stand,
And scarcely does appear
The Autumn yellow feather in the boughs
While there is neither sun nor rain;
And a grey heaven does the hush’d earth house,
And bluer grey the flocks of trees look in the plain.
So late the hoar green chestnut breaks a bud,
And feeds new leaves upon the winds of Fall;
So late there is not force in sap or blood;
The fruit against the wall
Loose on the stem has done its summering;
These should have starv’d with the green broods of spring,
Or never been at all;
Too late or else much, much too soon,
Who first knew moonlight by the hunters’ moon.
Gerard Manley Hopkins*
Vines, Paul Ranson, 1902
*, The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Oxford University Press, 4th ed. I should have posted this one about a month ago to suit the season here, but I thought it was too beautiful to leave until next year. By the way, a "hurst" is a thicket or bramble. I had to look it up.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
"The rhyme and uniformity of perfect poems show the free growth of metrical laws and bud from them as unerringly and loosely as lilacs or roses on a bush, and take shapes as compact as the shapes of chestnuts and oranges and melons and pears, and shed the perfume impalpable to form. The fluency and ornaments of the finest poems or music or orations or recitations are not independent but dependent. All beauty comes from beautiful blood and a beautiful brain. If the greatnesses are in conjunction in a man or woman it is enough . . . . the fact will prevail through the universe . . . . but the gaggery and gilt of a million years will not prevail. Who troubles himself about his ornaments or fluency is lost. This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body..."
Walt Whitman, from the preface to Leaves of Grass
Sunset, George Innes, c.1860-65
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Infinite consanguinity it bears—
This tendered theme of you that light
Retrieves from sea plains where the sky
Resigns a breast that every wave enthrones;
While ribboned water lanes I wind
Are laved and scattered with no stroke
Wide from your side, whereto this hour
The sea lifts, also, reliquary hands.
And so, admitted through black swollen gates
That must arrest all distance otherwise,—
Past whirling pillars and lithe pediments,
Light wrestling there incessantly with light,
Star kissing star through wave on wave unto
Your body rocking!
and where death, if shed,
Presumes no carnage, but this single change,—
Upon the steep floor flung from dawn to dawn
The silken skilled transmemberment of song;
Permit me voyage, love, into your hands ...
From "Voyages" by Hart Crane
Flower Clouds, Odilon Redon, 1903
Sunday, October 16, 2011
I used to peruse the altlas of birds
that have vanished from the face of the earth,
the work of a pupil of David who had
failed in the genre of historical painting
and other monumental artistic aspirations.
I was musing on hypothetical atlases
of lives without beaks, without feathers,
irretrievably lost through the millennia,
insects, reptiles, fish
and also, why not? man himself
but who would have compiled or consulted
his opus magnum?
From "Once" by Eugenio Montale. The rest of the poem is here.
Laughing owl (Sceloglaux albifacies), John Gerrard Keulemans, c.1875
About the Laughing Owl
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
My dear, what you said was one thing
but what you sang was another, sweetly
subversive and dark as blackberries
and I became the daughter of your dream.
This body is your body, ashes now
and roses, but alive in my eyes, my breasts,
my throat, my thighs. You run in me
a tang of salt in the creek waters of my blood,
you sing in my mind like wine. What you
did not dare in your life you dare in mine.
From "My mother's body" by Marge Piercy
Mother and Child Kneeling (Madonna), Wilhelm Lehmbruck, 1910
Monday, October 10, 2011
... in this moment which is so wondrous the way
it lies beside you, I either do not exist or the past
has never existed, either my breath is
the breath of stars or I do not breathe as I turn to you,
as you breathe my name, my heart,
as the net of stars dissolves above us, as you wrap
yourself around me like honeysuckle, the moon
turning pale because it is so drained by our love,
so that before this moment, before you lay beneath me,
you must have disguised yourself the way the killdeer
you pointed out diverts intruders to save what it loves,
pretending a broken wing, giving itself over finally
to whatever forces, whatever love, whatever touch,
whatever suffering it needs just to say I am here,
I am always here, stroking the wings of your soul.
From "Sonata" by Richard Jackson. The complete poem is here (scroll down).
Two Reclining Female Nudes, Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)
Sunday, October 9, 2011
The brick wall stretches into the sky,
the sky empty, save the constellations,
whose lives I love—yours most of all,
father of poets, whose lyre filled trees
and stones with awe, the lover torn to shreds
and thrown in to the river. Tonight,
you’re the swan, lost among pinholes of light,
your throat bitten by a black hole
that takes and takes and never fills.
From "To Orpheus" by Blas Falconer.*
Orpheus, Franz von Stuck, 1891
*Blas is a wonderful poet I've reviewed and interviewed over the years. He recently took part in an ekphrasis event in Memphis and had a few words to say about it in an article I did for Chapter 16.
Thursday, October 6, 2011
Eastward the city with scarcely even a murmur
turns in the soft dusk,
the lights of it blur,
the delicate spires are unequal
as though the emollient dusk had begun to dissolve them...
And the soft air-breathers,
their soft bosoms rising and falling as ferns under water
responding to some impalpably soft pressure,
turn with the city, too.
The petals of tenderness in them,
their tentative ways of feeling, not quite reaching out
but ever so gently half reaching out and withdrawing,
withdrawing to where their feminine star is withdrawing,
the planet that turns with them,
faithfully always and softly...
From "The Soft City" by Tennessee Williams.
Read the complete poem here.
Street at Stadtpark Schöneberg, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Open your hands,
& a starling makes
its strange, thoughtful,
lone way to water, while
songs unwind from
the heavy branches—
those mild breezes
of the heaped season.
From "Love Poem" by Richard Bausch. Read the complete poem here.
La Fontaine, Jean-Jacques Henner, 1880
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
What is pink? a rose is pink
By a fountain's brink.
What is red? a poppy's red
In its barley bed.
What is blue? the sky is blue
Where the clouds float thro'.
What is white? a swan is white
Sailing in the light.
What is yellow? pears are yellow,
Rich and ripe and mellow.
What is green? the grass is green,
With small flowers between.
What is violet? clouds are violet
In the summer twilight.
What is orange? Why, an orange,
Just an orange!
"Color" by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
Design for the Red Sultan, Leon Bakst, c.1920
Sunday, October 2, 2011
"Thoreau was a great musician, not because he played the flute but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear "the Symphony." The rhythm of his prose, were there nothing else, would determine his value as a composer. He was divinely conscious of the enthusiasm of Nature, the emotion of her rhythms and the harmony of her solitude. In this consciousness he sang of the submission to Nature, the religion of contemplation, and the freedom of simplicity--a philosophy distinguishing between the complexity of Nature which teaches freedom, and the complexity of materialism which teaches slavery. In music, in poetry, in all art, the truth as one sees it must be given in terms which bear some proportion to the inspiration. In their greatest moments the inspiration of both Beethoven and Thoreau express profound truths and deep sentiment, but the intimate passion of it, the storm and stress of it, affected Beethoven in such a way that he could not but be ever showing it and Thoreau that he could not easily expose it. They were equally imbued with it, but with different results. A difference in temperament had something to do with this, together with a difference in the quality of expression between the two arts. "Who that has heard a strain of music feared lest he would speak extravagantly forever," says Thoreau. Perhaps music is the art of speaking extravagantly. Herbert Spencer says that some men, as for instance Mozart, are so peculiarly sensitive to emotion ... that music is to them but a continuation not only of the expression but of the actual emotion, though the theory of some more modern thinkers in the philosophy of art doesn't always bear this out. However, there is no doubt that in its nature music is predominantly subjective and tends to subjective expression, and poetry more objective tending to objective expression. Hence the poet when his muse calls for a deeper feeling must invert this order, and he may be reluctant to do so as these depths often call for an intimate expression which the physical looks of the words may repel. They tend to reveal the nakedness of his soul rather than its warmth. It is not a matter of the relative value of the aspiration, or a difference between subconsciousness and consciousness but a difference in the arts themselves; for example, a composer may not shrink from having the public hear his "love letter in tones," while a poet may feel sensitive about having everyone read his "letter in words." When the object of the love is mankind the sensitiveness is changed only in degree."
Charles Ives, from Essays Before a Sonata*: V, Thoreau
*Ives's "introductory footnote" to the essays: "These prefatory essays were written by the composer for those who can't stand his music--and the music for those who can't stand his essays; to those who can't stand either, the whole is respectfully dedicated."
Saturday, October 1, 2011
Therefore, to make your beauty more appear,
It you behoves to love, and forth to lay
That heavenly riches which in you ye bear,
That men the more admire their fountain may;
For else what booteth that celestial ray,
If it in darkness be enshrined ever,
That it of loving eyes be viewed never?
From "A Hymn in Honor of Beauty" by Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)
Friday, September 30, 2011
by Trumbull Stickney (1874-1904)
Now in the palace gardens warm with age,
On lawn and flower-bed this afternoon
The thin November-coloured foliage
Just as last year unfastens lilting down,
And round the terrace in gray attitude
The very statues are becoming sere
With long presentiment of solitude.
Most of the life that I have lived is here,
Here by the path and autumn's earthy grass
And chestnuts standing down the breadths of sky
Indeed I know not how it came to pass,
The life I lived here so unhappily.
Yet blessing over all! I do not care
What wormwood I have ate to cups of gall;
I care not what despairs are buried there
Under the ground, no, I care not at all.
Nay, if the heart have beaten, let it break!
I have not loved and lived but only this
Betwixt my birth and grave. Dear Spirit, take
The gratitude that pains, so deep it is.
When Spring shall be again, and at your door
You stand to feel the mellower evening wind.
Remember if you will my heart is pure,
Perfectly pure and altogether kind;
That not an aftercry of all our strife
Troubles the love I give you and the faith:
Say to yourself that at the ends of life
My arms are open to you, life and death.
How much it aches to linger in these things!
I thought the perfect end of love was peace
Over the long-forgiven sufferings.
But something else, I know not what it is,
The words that came so nearly and then not,
The vanity, the error of the whole,
The strong cross-purpose, oh, I know not what
Cries dreadfully in the distracted soul.
The evening fills the garden, hardly red;
And autumn goes away, like one alone.
Would I were with the leaves that thread by thread
Soften to soil, I would that I were one.
Leaves, William Trost Richards, 1855
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
I like for you to be still: it is as though you were absent,
and you hear me from far away and my voice does not
From "I Like for You to Be Still" by Pablo Neruda, trans. by W.S. Merwin
Orient, Luis Ricardo Falero (1851-1896)
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
What did they lack that you and I lacked?
turning the one unravaged cheek to the artist—
suggests a dignity
we easily find too easy.
From "A Letter" by Richard Tillinghast. Complete poem is here.
I recently did an interview with Tillinghast, which you can read here.
Diptych of the Duchess and Duke of Urbino, Piero della Francesca, c.1472. There's a nice piece about this painting at The Guardian.
*Nashville-area folks can see Tillinghast at the Southern Festival of Books next month.
Monday, September 26, 2011
And fleetingly it seemed to him
That in between one eye blink and the next
Time paused, allowing time to be installed
Within that countless interim,
Coiled up, on hold,
A memory predicted and recalled.
Now, that weak muscle flexed,
All that contained him started to unfold
In front of him, a moving book
In three dimensions he could wander through,
At will, at any point, now, since, before,
To feel, to listen and to look—
A house, or suite
Of rooms around a circling corridor,
And waiting there, he knew,
Were all the peopled days he’d not repeat.
Form "The House of Time" by Stephen Edgar. Complete poem is here.
Der Kaktusliebhaber, Carl Spitzweg, c.1850
*After many weeks away, I seem to be making regular posts again. My thanks to everybody who hung around to welcome me back. It's a pleasure to go searching again for words and images to share with you. Not sure where all the time went while I was away from here. A lot of it was spent reading and writing. I've read some gorgeous books in the past few months, including Appalachee Red by Raymond Andrews, Mr. Field's Daughter and Rebel Powers by Richard Bausch, Mr. Sammler's Planet by Saul Bellow, and the new Lydia Davis translation of Madame Bovary. Kevin Wilson's new novel, The Family Fang, is smart and great fun -- I reviewed it here. As for the writing, I've been lucky enough to devote more of my work time to fiction, and I spent two weeks at the Sewanee Writers' Conference. I wrote a little essay about that for Chapter 16.
For longtime readers who don't keep in touch with me via Facebook, I'm sad to report that Kobi, the Big Yellow Ball of Crazy, died in August. Kobi was the most troubled and troublesome of my dogs, and the one that loved me best, so of course she was my favorite. I always said she would wind up breaking my heart and she did. I miss her.
Finally, an apology for my poor housekeeping. I have neglected the blog so thoroughly for the past few months that I just now discovered that some Blogger spasm (probably that huge hissy fit last spring) tweaked the template just enough to knock a bunch of the past year's posts slightly askew. Urgh. They are still readable, but we are all about the pretty here at BitterGrace Notes and misaligned text is intolerable. I'll eventually fix all the posts so that those of you who like to scroll through, say, the Gallery of Antique Smut will find nothing to offend your eyes.
Friday, September 23, 2011
When you are already here
you appear to be only
a name that tells of you
whether you are present or not
and for now it seems as though
you are still summer
still the high familiar
yet with a glint
of bronze in the chill mornings
and the late yellow petals
of the mullein fluttering
on the stalks that lean
over their broken
shadows across the cracked ground
From "To the Light of September" by W.S. Merwin. Complete poem is here.
Early Autumn White Birch, Maxfield Parrish, 1936
Thursday, September 22, 2011
To the Moon
by Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837)
O lovely moon, now I’m reminded
how almost a year since, full of anguish,
I climbed this hill to gaze at you again,
and you hung there, over that wood, as now,
clarifying all things. Filled with mistiness,
trembling, that’s how your face seemed to me,
from all those tears that welled in my eyes, so
troubled was my life, and is, and does not change,
O moon, my delight. And yet it does help me,
to record my grief and tell it, year by year.
Oh how sweetly, when we are young, it hurts,
when hope has such a long journey to run,
and memory is so short,
this remembrance of things past, even if it
is sad, and the pain lasts!
Translated by A.S. Kline
Sleeping Nude in Front of the Mirror, Franz Nölken, 1915
Monday, September 19, 2011
The only sadnesses that are dangerous and unhealthy are the ones that we carry around in public in order to drown them out with the noise; like diseases that are treated superficially and foolishly, they just withdraw and after a short interval break out again all the more terribly; and gather inside us and are life, are life that is unlived, rejected, lost, life that we can die of. If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiment, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing.
It seems to me that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis because we no longer hear our astonished emotions living. Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing. That is why the sadness passes: the new presence inside us, the presence that has been added, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer even there, is already in our bloodstream. And we don't know what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing happened, and yet we have changed, as a house that a guest has entered changes. We can't say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens. And that is why it is so important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad: because the seemingly uneventful and motionless moment when our future steps into us is so much closer to life than that other loud and accidental point of time when it happens to us as if from outside.
Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet
Mournful Foreboding of What is to Come, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, c.1810
Sunday, September 18, 2011
If I were Psyche how could I not
bring the lamp to our bedside?
I would have known in advance
all the travails my gazing
would bring, more than Psyche
and even so, how could I not have raised
the amber flame to see
the human person I knew
was to be revealed.
She did not even know! She dreaded
a beast and discovered
a god. But I
know, and hunger
to witness again the form
of mortal love itself.
From "Psyche in Somerville" by Denise Levertov. The complete poem is here.
Psyche and Cupid, Peter Paul Rubens, c.1636
Friday, September 16, 2011
Before the Great Troubling
by Corey Mesler
There were times of great clarity.
There were days when time
did not imprison, did not
glad-hand the devil.
And there was a feeling that this
would all go on, getting
better and better,
enriching us in ways we could never
foresee. This was the feeling
we lived under as if
it were shade.
There were times, before the great
troubling, when we
were happy to think the world vast
and shapeless, when
we were happy to call modernity
out host. This I remind myself
when it closes in.
This comforts somehow
as if in the past is the seed of a
future where I will
once again walk out into the dark-
ness as if it were my
best dream, as if it held things for me
that I would need, things
as particular and personal as a poem.
Corey Mesler is a gifted poet and fiction writer who also -- along with his wife, Cheryl -- owns a bookstore in Memphis. I interviewed Corey recently for Chapter 16, and he had fascinating things to say. You can read the Q&A here. The beautiful poem above is from his new collection by the same name, which is full of lovely, funny, smart stuff. Go here to order a copy.
Storm at Sea, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1569
Poem ©2011 by Corey Mesler. Used by permission. All rights reserved
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Every verse is a child of love,
A destitute bastard slip,
A firstling -- the winds above --
Left by the road asleep.
From "Every Verse is a Child of Love" by Marina Tsvetaeva. More here.
Nude Child with Open Arms, Giulio Romano (1499-1546)
Monday, September 12, 2011
"The sky to the east was black with bird, the sun itself disguised. Thousands of passenger pigeons beat southward, a flying carpet of them. Catto held his breath. A hundred thousand. might be. They were free. Marveling up at them he felt pure, the innocence of dawn. He watched in welcome every spring, in godspeed every fall. The birds flew in a vast, oval mass, no pairs, no skeins, no wedges, only the great mass of them, and the steady, fading rush across the face of the sun. A dark mass, the blushing breasts obscured, they dimmed the golden morning."
From When the War is Over* by Stephen Becker
A Pair of Passenger Pigeons (''Ectopistes migratorius''), John James Audubon (1785-1851)
"Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon"
*I'm in the middle of reading this beautiful novel -- one of those wonderful books that seems to have been unjustly forgotten. More about Becker here.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
It is given to mortals to love, to recognize,
to make sounds move to their fingers,
but I have forgotten what I wanted to say
and a bodiless thought returns to the palace of shadows.
The Transparent One still speaks, but of nothing.
Still a swallow, a friend known as a girl, Antigone.
The reverberations of Stygian remembrance
burn like a black ice on one’s lips.
From "I Have Forgotten the Word I Wanted to Say" by Osip Mandelstam. Read the complete poem here.
Passage to the Underworld, Joachim Patinir, 1515-1524
Friday, July 22, 2011
Leaves scarcely breathing
in the black breeze;
the flickering swallow
draws circles in the dusk.
In my loving
a twilight is coming,
a last ray, gently reproaching.
From Stone 24 by Osip Mandelstam, trans. by Clarence Brown & W.S. Merwin, The selected poems of Osip Mandelstam
Summer, Gustave Doré, 1860-70
Thursday, July 7, 2011
Now my five senses
gather into a meaning
all acts, all presences;
and as a lily gathers
the elements together,
in me this dark and shining,
that stillness and that moving,
these shapes that spring from nothing,
become a rhythm that dances,
a pure design.
From "Five Senses" by Judith Wright. You can read a profile of Wright here, and there's an interesting interview with her here.
Wright’s poem about the commingling of the senses seems like an appropriate introduction to my first perfume post in -– what? Must be months. To be honest, I doubted I’d ever write about perfume here again. Not that I’ve lost my love for the stuff. I’ve just lost much of my enthusiasm for writing about it, in part because writing about it usually means acquiring it, and I am presently not in a mood to acquire things. Even an extra 2ml vial seems like a major addition to the clutter around here. I have fantasies about mysterious men in trucks showing up some morning and carting it all away, leaving me nothing but my books, my bed and the coffee pot.
That said, pleasure-seeking still trumps my monastic impulse occasionally, so when Julie Rose (who writes wonderfully at Everything is Interesting) contacted me recently about a lovely discovery she’d made at a farmer’s market in Maine, I couldn’t resist checking it out. Seems Julie ran into an old acquaintance named Kathi Langelier who has started a business devoted to handmade herbal products. Kathi’s creations include floral and herbal elixirs that Julie described to me as “basically edible perfume.” This, I had to try. Kathi has been kind enough to send me some samples, including Wild Rose, Ginger, Lavender and Chocolate Love. The base is made with locally sourced raw honey, and the organic essences include lavender and wild rose that Kathi harvests herself. Julie declared them “intoxicating” and I agree. When I opened the bottle of Wild Rose, my first thought was OMG, my rose HG. It has a rich, almost boozy rose fragrance, as potent as any rose soliflore in my perfume cabinet. But, unlike my many rose oils, attars, etc., this rose I can eat. Kathi recommends putting a few drops into tea or water, but you can also take it straight from the dropper, and it’s absolutely delicious. The Lavender is just as delightful, with a combination of flavor and aroma that could satisfy the most powerful lavender jones. The Ginger and Chocolate Love aren’t quite as impressive on the fragrance front, but they certainly taste great, and I’m fascinated by the composition of the Chocolate Love, which includes – in addition to raw cacao – damiana, ginseng, hawthorn berries, maca root and saw palmetto. Quite an herbal aphrodisiac.
You can check out the elixirs for yourself at Kathi’s Etsy site, or on Facebook. Happy dosing.
The Five Senses and the Four Elements, Jacques Linard, 1627
Sunday, June 26, 2011
Our hearts are a sea, a lake,
Finally a little pond, where
Spider webs interlock over the round leaves,
And below them our longing
Is only a single drop of dew.
From "Written in the Sunset" by Hsiung Hung, trans. by Kenneth Rexroth.
Pond at Sunset, Fyodor Vasilyev, 1871
Thursday, June 23, 2011
As men give vast lands to little papers with line and color, I have imagined more on the surface of your body, giving all the universe in this model....
From "A Love Letter" by Russell Edson
Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694)
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
First, some sublime words on erotic escape, from Wharton's 1909 poem "Terminus" --
And thus some woman like me, waking alone before dawn,
While her lover slept, as I woke & heard the calm stir of your breathing,
Some woman has heard as I heard the farewell shriek of the trains
Crying good-bye to the city & staggering out into darkness,
And shaken at heart has thought: "So must we forth in the darkness,
Sped down the fixed rail of habit by the hand of implacable fate–
So shall we issue to life, & the rain, & the dull dark dawning;
You to the wide flare of cities, with windy garlands and shouting,
Carrying to populous places the freight of holiday throngs;
I, by waste lands, & stretches of low-skied marsh
To a harbourless wind-bitten shore, where a dull town moulders & shrinks...
You can read the rest of the poem here.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
These are some less sublime words from Wharton, taken from one of her letters to Morton Fullerton. They are consolation to anyone who has ever drunk dialed, or otherwise been pitiful in the grasp of unrequited love:
I never expected to tell you this; but under the weight of this silence I don't know what to say or leave unsaid. After nearly a month my frank tender of friendship remains unanswered. If that was not what you wished, what is then your feeling for me? My reason rejects the idea that a man like you, who has felt a warm sympathy for a woman like me, can suddenly, from one day to another; without any act or word on her part, lose even a friendly regard for her, & discard the mere outward signs of consideration by which friendship speaks. And so I am almost driven to conclude that your silence has another meaning, which I have not guessed. If any feeling subsists under it, may these words reach it, & tell you what I felt in silence when we were together!
You will find the rest of the letter here.
Nothing can quite top Wharton, but I'm posting so rarely these days I feel I should give you your money's worth when I do show up, so here are a few more variations on the theme:
There's a wonderful piece in Guernica on Pauline Réage/Dominique Aury, the author of The Story of O. The article is an excerpt from Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms, by Carmela Ciuraru. The discussion of the novel is skippable if you have read it, but the examination of Aury's relationship with Jean Paulhan is pretty interesting. "She wrote the book to entice him, claim him, and keep him—and she wrote it exclusively for him. It was the ultimate love letter."
In case you missed it, here's a slide show at The Daily Beast of e.e. cummings' erotic drawings, along with snippets of his love poems.
Finally -- because what's a blog without a little shameless self-promotion? -- here's a new essay by me about how some things survive our loving foolishness.
Evening, Anders Zorn, 1892 (Many thanks to Jon, an erudite friend of the blog, for providing the proper title and date of this gorgeous painting.)
Monday, May 9, 2011
Since I got to Glasgow, I’ve been stopped at least twice a day by people needing directions. I barely know this city, so only once or twice have I been able to help at all. I just smile and say sorry, I’m new here, too. They smile and go on their uncertain way. I don’t mind these little encounters, but I am always tempted to return their question with mine: Why, on a busy street with scores of people passing by, did you decide to stop me?
As long as I’ve been old enough to wander around the world by myself, I’ve been a magnet for people who have lost their way. It doesn’t matter if I’m rambling around my home turf or thousands of miles away in a completely unfamiliar city – I’ll be the person who’s asked for help. I’ve always found this baffling, since I don’t exactly stand out in a crowd. I’m an average-sized, quietly dressed woman. I’d like to think it has something to do with looking exceptionally intelligent, but I suspect it has more to do with looking exceptionally harmless; also, aimless. I am an ambler by nature. Even when I have destination and an arrival time in mind, I tend to walk pretty slowly and let the things around me catch my eye. No doubt that makes me seem more approachable than the majority of people, charging along as if they were off to battle.
Ironically, I don’t often ask for directions myself. Unless I’m late for a job interview or some other important rendezvous, I actually like getting lost. There’s a wonderful little thrill in the moment when I realize that I don’t know where I am, and have no idea how to make my way back to familiar ground. It’s liberating, and creates a feeling of being wide-awake to the environment. Suddenly, I have to pay attention instead of cruising around on autopilot. Sometimes I deliberately seek the experience, in the spirit of the dérive – a concept that, if anything, has become even more subversive in our increasingly virtual world.
A strong song tows
us, long earsick.
Blind, we follow
rain slant, spray flick
to fields we do not know.
From "Coda" by Basil Bunting
Wikipedia on the dérive
A Parisian Street Scene with Sacre Coeur in the distance, Luigi Loir (1845-1916)
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
The trout leaps up from the water,
and if there is sun you see
the briefest shiver of gold,
and then the river again.
When the trout dies
it turns its white belly
to the mirror of the sky.
From "Damselfly, Trout, Heron" by John Engels
A Trout Rising, Joseph Crawhall (1861-1913)
Monday, May 2, 2011
I am a little shocked to see that it has been almost a month since my last post. In spite of my good intentions I seem to keep wandering away from the blog. I've been literally wandering, in fact, which is one of the reasons I've neglected BitterGrace Notes. At the moment, I'm sitting in a nice little hotel in Glasgow, not far from Kelvingrove. Glasgow is beautiful now, sunny and reasonably warm, flowers in bloom everywhere--quite different from my last visit in gloomy, cold December. This is a great city in any season, though. Since I arrived last week, there have been two great global media frenzies (the Will & Kate nuptials and the assassination of Osama bin Laden), both of which seem to have left Glaswegians completely unmoved. I love that.
Before I hopped across the Atlantic, I spent a few days in Chattanooga, covering the Conference on Southern Literature for Chapter 16. (My posts are here, here and here.) It's a great conference, very small and friendly, and features members of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Wendell Berry, Allan Gurganus, Dorothy Allison, Ann Patchett and Natasha Trethewey were just a few of the names on the line-up. It's held every 2 years, and any Southern lit fan should attend at least once. Mark your calendars for 2013.
The panther-wielding maenad who adorns this post is there in honor of a new novel by one of the writers featured at the conference, Madison Smartt Bell. I interviewed Bell about The Color of Night back in February, and now that the book's out I've written a review. (You gotta read at least one to find out what maenads have to do with it.) I can't recommend Bell's brilliant little book highly enough. It'll scare you and make you think, not necessarily in that order.
Furious maenad, 490-480 BCE
Friday, April 8, 2011
You glow like a perfumed lamp
In the gathering shadows.
We play wine games
And recite each other's poems.
Then you sing `Remembering South of the River'
With its heart breaking verses. Then
We paint each other's beautiful eyebrows.
I want to possess you completely -
Your jade body
And your promised heart.
It is Spring.
Vast mists cover the Five Lakes.
My dear, let me buy a red painted boat
And carry you away.
From "For the Courtesan Ch'ing Lin" by Wu Tsao, trans. by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung. Read the rest of the poem here. You will find a brief commentary on the poem here.
Zwei Mädchen mit Tulpe, Dorothea Maetzel-Johannsen, 1921
Thursday, April 7, 2011
"She was fat the first time we saw her, large, brilliantly beautiful, fat. She seemed for this moment that never again returned to be almost a matron, someone real and sensible who carried money to the bank, signed papers, had curtains made to match, dresses hung and shoes in pairs, gold and silver, black and white, ready. What a strange, betraying apparition that was, madness, because never was any woman less a wife or mother, less attached; not even a daughter could she easily appear to be. Little called to mind the pitiful sweetness of a young girl. No, she was glittering, somber, and solitary, although of course never alone, never. Stately, sinister, and absolutely determined."
Elizabeth Hardwick on Bille Holiday, in The New York Review of Books
Elizabeth Hardwick on Bille Holiday, in The New York Review of Books
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Let a joy keep you.
Reach out your hands
And take it when it runs by,
As the Apache dancer
Clutches his woman.
I have seen them
Live long and laugh loud,
Sent on singing, singing,
Smashed to the heart
Under the ribs
With a terrible love.
Let joy kill you!
Keep away from the little deaths.
Text from Bartleby.com
Two Boeotian Girls (costume sketch for the ballet Narcisse), Leon Bakst, 1911
Friday, April 1, 2011
I just realized that I have a couple of recent interviews up at Chapter 16 that I’ve failed to mention here – one with Joyce Carol Oates, and another with Richard Bausch. Bausch has some interesting things to say about the writing process and the "Southern writer" issue, and Oates discusses her new memoir. You’ll find lots of other good recent stuff on the site, including an essay by Amy Greene (author of Bloodroot), and interviews with Bobbie Ann Mason, Yann Martel and Tom Perrotta. Please click here to see it all.
By the way, when I say please click, I mean PLEASE click. Chapter 16 is a non-profit that relies on grants and donors to keep going (and pay writers). The folks who shell out the money like to see evidence of readers, so think of every click as a vote against the guillotine for our little project. We thank you.
Beggars at the Door, Rembrandt, 1648
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
I want to tell you about something that happened yesterday – or rather, something that didn’t happen, which was finding my college diploma. I took a notion to look for it late yesterday morning and wound up spending the entire day ferreting through every drawer, box and file folder in the house, with no success. Around 3 o’clock I ran out of reasonable places to look, but that didn’t stop me. I hunted through a few unreasonable places before revisiting every possibility I’d already tried. Twice. No diploma.
I did, however, find lots of other things. I found a few ancient Polaroid snapshots of my teenage self, and some incredibly bad pictures I took during a high school trip to Europe. (Venice has never looked so homely.) There were scads of letters, some from people I can’t even remember knowing, and a surprising number of sweet little love notes from my former husband. (Children picking up our bones...)
What really surprised me, though, were the number of stray notebooks and sheets of paper scribbled with bits of my writing. I don’t mean my freelance writing, the stuff I do for hire. I almost never hang onto drafts of articles and reviews once they’ve been published. The things I found were scraps of fiction I’ve written over the years; most of it (judging from the surrounding flotsam) produced during stretches of time when, if asked, I would have denied doing any such writing at all.
Even some of you who have known me since POL days may not know I write fiction. I’ve never had a lot to say about it on the blog. Mostly, that’s because I think there are few things more tedious than a writer of meager accomplishment blathering on about her process, her ideas, her multitude of unfinished projects. Blech. I’d rather be forced to read a thousand bland mommy blogs, and I assume you would, too. So I’ll just say that there have been periods in my life when I worked hard at writing fiction (like now), and periods when I didn’t work at all.
Or so I thought. The bits of work I found yesterday mostly date from the first few years after I moved back to Tennessee from Chicago, and I could have sworn I hadn’t been writing anything then except for a few early freelancing efforts. But there was the evidence, tucked away in one folder or box after another, revealing that I was actually scribbling down little scenes and monologues for stories, or for a long-gestating novel that was first conceived more than 20 years ago. Apparently, I was only half-aware I was doing this even at the time, which is why the scraps wound up hidden in so many unlikely places.
I have to admit that didn’t find any work that was very exciting. The vast majority of it is useless crap. What does kind of thrill me, though, is the knowledge that those thoughts and ideas kept rolling even when I was doing absolutely nothing to push them. The urge to make art was just there, seeking an outlet, without any recognition or encouragement at all. That’s a comforting thought – to me, at least, and I suppose it would be to any writer, because there is always that kernel of doubt about the decision to write. There’s always a part of you that wonders if you are just an attention whore with intellectual pretensions, as opposed to someone with a gift for making stories. (Yes, it is possible to be both, but I’m choosing to look on the bright side here.)
Of course, I am not at all certain that I have a real gift for making stories, but I can’t get around the fact that I have a visceral desire to make them, and that’s good to know. It’s a happy thing to find out what manner of beast you are. Now, if I could just find that diploma...
The Letter Writer Surprised, Gabriel Metsu, 1662