Saturday, January 28, 2012

"the true, desired form of you"

Grizzled and white the old man leaves
the sweet place, where he has provided for his life,
and leaves the little family, filled with dismay
that sees its dear father failing it:

then, from there, dragging his aged limbs
through the last days of his life,
aiding himself by what strength of will he can,
broken by years, and wearied by the road:

he reaches Rome, following his desire,
to gaze on the image of Him
whom he hopes to see again in heaven:

so, alas, I sometimes go searching,
lady, as far as is possible, in others
for the true, desired form of you.

Petrarch, from the Canzoniere, translated by A.S. Kline.

Female Nude with Blue Cloth, Koloman Moser, c.1013

Monday, January 23, 2012

"Whole and alive, like an untorn language"

What explains poetry is that life is hard
But better than the alternatives,
The no and the nothing. Look at this light
And color, a splash of brilliant yellow

Punctuating an emerald text, white swans
And mottled brown ducks floating quietly along
Whole and alive, like an untorn language
That lacks nothing, that excludes

Nothing. Period. Don’t you think
It is our business to defend it
Even the day our masters start a war?
To defend the day we see the daffodils?

From "Daffodils" by Alicia Ostriker. The complete poem is here.

I recently did a Q&A with Ostriker for Chapter 16. She's a brilliant writer, with interesting things to say about religion, poetry and politics. You can read the interview here.

Photo by BitterGrace. Share freely.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

To Osip Mandelstam

Where did this feeling come from?
…They”re not the first, these curls
I’ve caressed, and I’ve kissed
Lips darker than yours.

Stars have flared and died
(Where did this feeling come from?)
And eyes as well, flared and died
Before my very eyes.

And often in the dead of night
I’ve heard more wonderful songs
(Where did this feeling come from?)
Lying in a singer’s arms.

Where did this feeling come from?
What shall I do with it, singer
Who just stopped by, pretty boy
With the bedroom eyes.

"To Osip Mandelstam" by Marina Tsvetaeva, from The Stray Dog Cabaret: A Book of Russian Poems, translated by Paul Schmidt.

*With thanks to Howard, a wise and delightful friend of the blog.

Liebespaar, Koloman Moser, c.1913

Friday, January 20, 2012

"He's such a quiet little chap"

I love my little Teddy Bear,
He's such a friendly fellow,
His fur, beautiful and soft,
Is neither brown or yellow.
He plays but never quarrels with me,
And keeps me gay and jolly,
And I don't have to punish him
As often as my Dolly.
He's such a quiet little chap,
No impish schemes he hatches,
He never barks, he has no fleas,
At least he never scratches.

"Bears" by Eula Smith-Zimmerman

Illus. by Raphael Kirchner (1876-1917)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

"A severed hand is an ugly thing"

...A severed hand
Is an ugly thing, and man dissevered from the earth and stars and his history...for contemplation or in fact...
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions, or drown in despair when his days darken.

From "The Answer" by Robinson Jeffers. The complete poem (uncorrupted by Blogger's stubborn template) is here.

January 20 is the 50th anniversary of the death of Robinson Jeffers. I'm not sure I disagree with Mark Jarman's assessment that Jeffers is "a very great, bad poet," but his poems thrill me, even so. You can find Jeffers expounding on what Jarman calls his "unjust" vision here.

Clouds Over the Sea, Ivan Alvazovsky, 1889

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


A nice little compilation of vintage erotica. Some of these pictures are silly, a few are weird, but most of them are just charming. I can't help noticing how many of the women are reading...

"Now I am alone, following the downwar slur"

Walking at Night
William Stafford

Now I am alone, following the downwar slur
Of blowing sleet past lights, and I remember:
The tremendous little train, quiet now with evening,
Sagging along that valley on the way home;
Those fragile Sunday mornings,
The men and women giving those days away,
Never caring what comes over the curve of the earth,
Measuring juke box life by drinks in a war boom bar,
Wearing wings from death by terror across the ocean;
Those walls sweeping together with walls in corners of knot-eyed wood;
Those persons looking at each other, their lives a richness;
And transported choirs of heroes on a buoyant sea.

Now, in a time of darkness and cold,
Those islands of fairness, piercing and staggering,
Live breathlessly like children dashing through a room;
And I have become a student of having
And not having.

From Another World Instead: The Early Poems of William Stafford, 1937-1947

Stafford was born on this day in 1914. There's a nice long profile on him at the Poetry Foundation.

Moonlight and Frost, Alexander Helwig Wyant, c.1890

Monday, January 16, 2012

MLK, in honor of the day

"Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary." ~ Martin Luther King Jr.

*This quote is from "On being a good neighbor," one of the sermons in Strength to Love. I encourage you to click over and read King in context, for a change.

The Charity, Mihail Mohov, 1842

Thursday, January 12, 2012

"Don't ask why my strange heart loves you"

Don’t ask why my strange heart loves you.
Do you know how corals are formed at the bottom of the ocean?
Waves are talking about a sleeping beauty
but you live far away from the waves’ voice.
Your thought is a steep cave
against which my life is crashing in vain.

From "Don't Ask Again" by Vesna Parun

Hermaphroditus and the Nymph Salmacis, Bartholomeus Spranger, c.1580

The story of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis (from Book IV of Metamorphoses, trans. by A.S. Kline) is here.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A rambling post, beginning with perfume and moving on to a vessel of the devil

A few friends have mentioned that they miss the perfume posts here. I'm glad to know that people have enjoyed my perfume writing, but I'm afraid I won't be returning to it anytime soon. (I will, however, go on writing about interesting projects that touch on the subject of perfume, such as this and this.) For the record, I still love perfume. I still wear it and buy it, although I do a lot less buying lately. There was a time when I could afford to be both a bibliophile and a perfume freak. Now the budget only allows one expensive addiction, and between books and perfume there’s really no contest. My days of dropping $100 for a little bottle of scent are over.

That sounds a little sad. It isn't. Life changes (mine sure has), and flowing with the changes is part of the pleasure of living. Being poorer doesn't bother me, and it’s not really the reason I’ve stopped blogging about perfume. I’ve still got a large collection worth writing about, and I could always swap samples if I wanted to review new things. The truth is that I just don’t want to think about perfume anymore. I still thoroughly enjoy the stuff, but my cerebral engagement with it has almost disappeared. I now love perfume in the instinctive, easily satisfied way that I did as a kid, when I first started raiding the pretty bottles on my mother’s dresser: Spritz. Happiness. Done.

The perfume obsession is not the only fancy that has fallen away over the past couple of years. I used to love to cook and collect recipes, but these days scrambling an egg constitutes a major culinary effort. My cookbooks all have a thick coating of dust and I happily subsist on yogurt and almonds for weeks at a time. I was a pretty serious amateur herbalist for years, with a large collection of exotic herbs, homemade tinctures and the like. Since my divorce, I have – with frightening ease, it seems to me – forgotten most everything I used to know about damiana and he shou wu. A couple of months ago, I finally just said the hell with it and put all my herbs and the attendant paraphernalia in the trash. Birding has also gone by the wayside. I used to maintain a half dozen bird feeders year-round, monitoring the visitors and keeping a journal about their comings and goings. I still feed the hummingbirds, but the rest are on their own and it’s rare for me to spend any time observing the avian population in my yard.

I’ve been getting rid of material things, too. Keepsakes, clothes, furniture -- all kinds of items I acquired and kept for reasons I can't now fathom are leaving my life, one carload or garbage bin at a time. I aim to keep paring away until my house is empty of everything I don’t need or genuinely cherish. Unloading my too-large house is probably not an option anytime soon, but I plan to sell it the second I can get a decent price. In the future, home is going to be someplace small, and I hope to spend plenty of time far away from it.

The idea of a wandering, unencumbered life has always appealed to me. Most of my childhood fantasies revolved around achieving — alone — some exalted state of freedom or knowledge. In my dreams I found secret passages to magical places, befriended spirits in the woods, became a bird or a wild horse. Some remnant of those dreams still lurks in me. It fuels my desire to write, and it keeps my mind turning on certain myths and stories – especially, for more than a year now, the story of Mary of Egypt.

Everything about Mary’s life, particularly Sophronius’s version of it, fascinates me. Strip away the expressly Christian trappings (please), and the life of Mary of Egypt is a myth about the dualities that define human existence – body and spirit, feminine and masculine. It’s also a story about death and loss, and the struggle to find some meaning to life as death approaches. But apart from all those grand themes, it’s a tale about a remarkable woman who pursued the life she desired, first as a "vessel of the devil,” and then as a desert hermit. I admire her, and I feel a certain sisterhood. Lately, my 22-year marriage seems more and more like Mary’s long career as a harlot: a false life from which I’ve been delivered. I won’t be following her path as an ascetic. I’m a pleasure-loving animal to the marrow of my bones and that will never change.  But to walk, as Mary did,  out into the unknown, abandoning myself to the mere possibility of  wisdom, seems like a good way to pass the time until I finally rest on the riverbank.

Saint Mary of Egypt, José de Ribera, 1691

Friday, January 6, 2012

"No, soul doesn't leave the body."

Disappearing Act
by Eleanor Ross Taylor

No, soul doesn't leave the body.

My body is leaving my soul.
Tired of turning fried chicken and
coffee to muscle and excrement,
tried of secreting tears, wiping them,
tired of opening eyes on another day,
tired especially of that fleshy heart,
pumping, pumping. More,
that brain spinning nightmares.
Body prepares:
disconnect, unplug, erase.

But here, I think, a smallish altercation
Soul seems to shake its fist.
Wants brain? Claims dreams and nightmares?
Maintains a codicil bequeathes it shares?

There'll be a fight. A deadly struggle.
We know, of course, who'll win. . . .

But who's this, watching?

*Eleanor Ross Taylor died Dec. 30, 2011 at the age of 91. Chapter 16 has posted a tribute to her, with remembrances from Mark Jarman, Claudia Emerson, and others.

Profile of an Old Woman, Gustav Klimt (1862–1918)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

"foredefeated challengers of oblivion"

Stone-cutters fighting time with marble, you foredefeated
Challengers of oblivion
Eat cynical earnings, knowing rock splits, records fall down,
The square-limbed Roman letters
Scale in the thaws, wear in the rain. The poet as well
Builds his monument mockingly;
For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth die, the brave sun
Die blind and blacken to the heart:
Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found
The honey of peace in old poems.

"To The Stone-Cutters" by Robinson Jeffers

Ruine Heisterbach im Siebengebirge, Anton Schiffer (1811-1876)

Monday, January 2, 2012

"Beyond is a brightness I am not equal to"

Beyond is a brightness
I am not equal to

Yet what I see
Turns into what I want

And to bring nothing but this body
To pass through

The one thing between
Myself and what I crave,

Almost done, the world a ruin
Of leaves, winter at the throat,

My song over and over until
So familiar I can do

What I am about to do

From "Bird at the Window" by Sophie Cabot Black. Read the complete poem here.

Song, Copyright ©2012 by Billy Renkl. Used with permission. All rights reserved.