Monday, February 27, 2012

"His lily was white and he had a foolish smile..."

In Beauty Bright
By Gerald Stern

In beauty-bright and such it was like Blake’s
lily and though an angel he looked absurd
dragging a lily out of a beauty-bright store
wrapped in tissue with a petal drooping,
nor was it useless—you who know it know
how useful it is—and how he would be dead
in a minute if he were to lose it though
how do you lose a lily? His lily was white
and he had a foolish smile there holding it up like
a candelabrum in his right hand facing the
mirror in the hall nor had the endless
centuries started yet nor was there one thorn
between his small house and the beauty-bright store.

Text from the Poetry Foundation

Still Life with Lilies, François Barraud, 1934

Sunday, February 26, 2012

"The heart, catalectic though it be, does glow"

The heart, catalectic though it be, does glow,
responds to every midnight bell within you.
This is a discourse on reading heat,
the flushed char of burned moments one sees
after the sexton's lamp flows
over the body's dark book.
There is suspicion
here that violet
traces of

From "Desire's Persistence" by Jay Wright

Phryne, Artur Grottger, 1867

Saturday, February 25, 2012

"Hair has been on my mind"

If you undo your do you would
be strange. Hair has been on my mind.
I used to lean in the doorway
and watch my stony woman wind
the copper through the black, and play
with my understanding, show me she cóuld
take a cup of river water,
and watch it shimmy, watch it change,
turn around and become ash bone.

From "The Healing Improvisation of Hair" by Jay Wright

Nude with a Coral Necklace, August Macke, 1910

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"Worthy, and yet mere playthings..."

'Thinketh, He made thereat the sun, this isle,
Trees and the fowls here, beast and creeping thing.
Yon otter, sleek-wet, black, lithe as a leech;
Yon auk, one fire-eye in a ball of foam,
That floats and feeds; a certain badger brown
He hath watched hunt with that slant white-wedge eye
By moonlight; and the pie with the long tongue
That pricks deep into oak warts for a worm,
And says a plain word when she finds her prize,
But will not eat the ants; the ants themselves
That build a wall of seeds and settled stalks
About their hole—He made all these and more,
Made all we see, and us, in spite: how else?
He could not, Himself, make a second self
To be His mate; as well have made Himself:
He would not make what He mislikes or slights,
An eyesore to Him, or not worth His pains:
But did, in envy, listlessness or sport,
Make what Himself would fain, in a manner, be—
Weaker in most points, stronger in a few,
Worthy, and yet mere playthings all the while,
Things He admires and mocks too,—that is it.
Because, so brave, so better though they be,
It nothing skills if He begin to plague.
Look, now, I melt a gourd-fruit into mash,
Add honeycomb and pods, I have perceived,
Which bite like finches when they bill and kiss,—
Then, when froth rises bladdery, drink up all,
Quick, quick, till maggots scamper through my brain;
Last, throw me on my back i' the seeded thyme,
And wanton, wishing I were born a bird.
Put case, unable to be what I wish,
I yet could make a live bird out of clay:
Would not I take clay, pinch my Caliban
Able to fly?—for, there, see, he hath wings,
And great comb like the hoopoe's to admire,
And there, a sting to do his foes offence,
There, and I will that he begin to live,
Fly to yon rock-top, nip me off the horns
Of grigs high up that make the merry din,
Saucy through their veined wings, and mind me not.
In which feat, if his leg snapped, brittle clay,
And he lay stupid-like,—why, I should laugh;
And if he, spying me, should fall to weep,
Beseech me to be good, repair his wrong,
Bid his poor leg smart less or grow again,—
Well, as the chance were, this might take or else
Not take my fancy: I might hear his cry,
And give the mankin three sound legs for one,
Or pluck the other off, leave him like an egg
And lessoned he was mine and merely clay.
Were this no pleasure, lying in the thyme,
Drinking the mash, with brain become alive,
Making and marring clay at will? So He.

From "Caliban upon Setebos" by Robert Browning

Caliban, Franz Marc, 1914

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dedicated to Rick Santorum

Law Like Love
W.H. Auden

Law, say the gardeners, is the sun,
Law is the one
All gardeners obey
To-morrow, yesterday, to-day.

Law is the wisdom of the old,
The impotent grandfathers feebly scold;
The grandchildren put out a treble tongue,
Law is the senses of the young.

Law, says the priest with a priestly look,
Expounding to an unpriestly people,
Law is the words in my priestly book,
Law is my pulpit and my steeple.
Law, says the judge as he looks down his nose,
Speaking clearly and most severely,
Law is as I've told you before,
Law is as you know I suppose,
Law is but let me explain it once more,
Law is The Law.

Yet law-abiding scholars write:
Law is neither wrong nor right,
Law is only crimes
Punished by places and by times,
Law is the clothes men wear
Anytime, anywhere,
Law is Good morning and Good night.

Others say, Law is our Fate;
Others say, Law is our State;
Others say, others say
Law is no more,
Law has gone away.

And always the loud angry crowd,
Very angry and very loud,
Law is We,
And always the soft idiot softly Me.

If we, dear, know we know no more
Than they about the Law,
If I no more than you
Know what we should and should not do
Except that all agree
Gladly or miserably
That the Law is
And that all know this
If therefore thinking it absurd
To identify Law with some other word,
Unlike so many men
I cannot say Law is again,
No more than they can we suppress
The universal wish to guess
Or slip out of our own position
Into an unconcerned condition.

Although I can at least confine
Your vanity and mine
To stating timidly
A timid similarity,
We shall boast anyway:
Like love I say.

Like love we don't know where or why,
Like love we can't compel or fly,
Like love we often weep,
Like love we seldom keep.

Illus. by Édouard-Henri Avril for De figuris Veneris, 1906

Sunday, February 19, 2012

"Beauty beckons."

"The judgment of beauty is not the result of a mysterious inference on the basis of features of a work which we already know. It is a guess, a suspicion, a dim awareness that there is more in the work that it would be valuable to learn. To find something beautiful is to believe that making it a larger part of our life is worthwhile, that our life will be better if we spend part of it with that work. But a guess is just that: unlike a conclusion, it obeys no principles; it is not governed by concepts. It goes beyond all the evidence, which cannot therefore justify it, and points to the future. Beauty, just as Stendhal said, is a promise of happiness. We love, as Plato saw, what we do not possess. Aesthetic pleasure is the pleasure of anticipation, and therefore of imagination, not of accomplishment. The judgment of taste is prospective, not retrospective; the beginning, the middle, but never the end of criticism. If you really feel you have exhausted a work, you are bound to be disappointed. A piece that has no more surprises left—a piece you really feel you know “inside and out”—has no more claim on you. You may still call it beautiful because it once gave you the pleasure of its promise or because you think that it may have something to give to someone else. But it will have lost its hold on you. Beauty beckons."

Alexander Nehamas, from "An Essay on Beauty and Judgment"

You can read an excellent interview with Nehamas here.

Nude Sitting on a Divan (The Beautiful Roman Woman), Amedeo Modigliani, c.1918

Saturday, February 18, 2012


"And great and numerous as are the blessings of friendship, this certainly is the sovereign one, that it gives us bright hopes for the future and forbids weakness and despair. In the face of a true friend a man sees as it were a second self. So that where his friend is he is; if his friend be rich, he is not poor; though he be weak, his friend's strength is his; and in his friend's life he enjoys a second life after his own is finished."

Cicero, from On Friendship, or Laelius

Children in Naples, 1944. Image from the National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Take them to the other side..."

With only his dim lantern
To tell him where he is
And every time a mountain
Of fresh corpses to load up

Take them to the other side
Where there are plenty more
I’d say by now he must be confused
As to which side is which

From "Charon's Cosmology" by Charles Simic. The complete poem is here.

Read Simic's latest post at the NYRB blog here. It's lovely.

Caron passant les ombres, Pierre Subleyras, 1735

Sunday, February 12, 2012

In honor of Saint Valentine

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And, darkly bright, are bright in dark directed.
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow's form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 43

1. Liebespaar, Otto Mueller, c.1920
2. Bathers at San Niccolò (detail), Passignano, 1600
3. [Title unknown], Koloman Moser, c.1915
4. Femme nu, Ernest Laurent, 1915
5. Pompeiian fresco
6. Two girls - Lovers, Egon Schiele, 1911
7. Sketch, Carl Olof Larsson, 1914
8. Study for Kneeling Leda, Leonardo da Vinci, c.1505
9. Male nude reclining, Maurycy Trębacz, 1887
10. Male nude, William Etty, c.1820-1830
11. Male couple, Suzuki Harunobu, c.1750
12. Satyr mason, after Agostino Carracci, 16th century
13. Mujeres indolentes, Alfredo Guttero, 1927

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"Each day with so much ceremony begins"

by Elizabeth Bishop

Each day with so much ceremony
begins, with birds, with bells,
with whistles from a factory;
such white-gold skies our eyes
first open on, such brilliant walls
that for a moment we wonder
"Where is the music coming from, the energy?
The day was meant for what ineffable creature
we must have missed?" Oh promptly he
appears and takes his earthly nature
instantly, instantly falls
victim of long intrigue,
assuming memory and mortal
mortal fatigue.

More slowly falling into sight
and showering into stippled faces,
darkening, condensing all his light;
in spite of all the dreaming
squandered upon him with that look,
suffers our uses and abuses,
sinks through the drift of bodies,
sinks through the drift of classes
to evening to the beggar in the park
who, weary, without lamp or book
prepares stupendous studies:
the fiery event
of every day in endless
endless assent.

Today is the birthday of Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979). A recent article on her by William Logan is here, and you'll find her Paris Review interview here.

Alpleben, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

"The man or woman outside has a word for you"

O rarely will the thing you most
need rise to your hand.
O rarely will your love come to
you on your darkest day
with the precise counter-spell. O,
friend, why do you sit
and wait for the bell? Rise now
and open the drapes. The
man or woman outside has a
word for you. ...(more)

From "Walking on God's Good Side" by Corey Mesler. Complete poem at Curio Poetry.

Sunrise in the Catskill Mountains, Thomas Cole, 1826

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

"the alchemy of four stomachs"

Not milk, not cream,
not even crème de la crème.
It was a delicacy which assured me
that bliss follows agitation,
that even pasture daisies
through the alchemy of four stomachs
may grace a king's table.

From "Butter" by Connie Wanek

Woman Milking a Red Cow, Karel Dujardin, c.1650

Wishing you all the blessings of Imbolc

"From darkness grows a gaudy revelation"

We share the cycle of flower, grapeleaf, fruit.
They don't speak just the language of the seasons.
From darkness grows a gaudy revelation
which is perhaps the object of some mute
envy from the dead, who strengthen the soil.
Can we conceive how they regard their part
in this? It long has been their way to lard
the loam through with their marrow. But this toil:

the question seems to be, whether this is
done freely. Does this, heavy work of slaves,
ensphered press up to us, their lords, as fruit?

Or are they the lords, who sleep beside the roots,
and grant us out of their affluent graves
this thing halfway between brute force and kisses?

From Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. by Howard A. Landman

Im Garten von Schloß Pretzfeld, Curt Herrmann, c.1903