A Poem for January…

…whose last few lines echo – uncannily – Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise.

Go here for the poem unaccosted; what follows is the poem plus UD‘s commentary in brackets.

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JANUARY

[By Alfred Corn.
Written in 1977.]


[January can be a month of renewal — or a cold dark drag, a calendrical crystallization of every warm and vital thing frozen within you. Corn’s poem is like that. The frozen thing.]

Night swallows up everything but doesn’t
Alone cast the shadow inside, this sense
Of incompleteness, lack
Of echo…

[No, not night alone. My own despair helps cast the shadow.]

I expect
Too much? Too little?

[The poet grapples with his poetic ambition. At the moment he is, like Shelley in “Ode to the West Wind,” writing a lyric about being unable to write a lyric.]

My undetailed season
Only appears in the bright particulars
Of paired headlights flooding an avenue,
It seems, at cross-purposes with Number.

[I’m like an aimless car at night, turning on the floodlights but illuminating no meaningful location – no detail; no Number.]

If the worst certainties were skill – but now
The mind goes begging, words crumble, refuse
To render anything at all, except
The barrenness their failure parallels.

[Maybe I could at least – being a skilled wordsmith – write a kind of empty but stylish tour de force… Just to get something verbal out there… But my wintry despair is such that even words now fail me, revealing only my existential barrenness.]

People, like a people, do have slumps, when
Nothing wants to be said, and what is,
Hardly worth anyone’s staying awake for –
A satire for unaccommodated men.

[The world fails to accommodate my mind, my heart, my soul, the enormity of my desire for completeness, my desire that the world outside reverberate with – echo – my inner world.]

Best, they claim, to remount the horse that threw
You (in the present case, a horse with wings)

[That’s Pegasus – poetry – there. That’s the particular horse the demoralized poet must get back on. Did it throw him, indeed, because he tried to fly too high for his mundane times? Wanted too much, that is?]

So as to demonstrate –
To show that you are … what?
I’ve forgotten. Given that I can do
Only as well as my times, just how much
Will they sustain?

[Another statement of the same idea: How high can I fly, given where and when I live?]

Or the doubtful subject
Of a self in neither sense exemplary?

[There is moral as well as aesthetic judgment here. The problem is not perhaps in our unpoetic stars as in ourselves.]

[Corn will close – as so many lyricists do – by shifting his focus from himself to his setting, his city.]

In those doorways several will freeze tonight,
Disappointment’s victims, failures at love,
Dazed benumbed – but this is self-description.
Pure perversity, I guess, leads me to search
The mirror of my self-imposed city for
What, if anything here, holds a promise,
The gift of speech that comes to those who hear
A word sounded through the white noise of the world.

[Very DeLilloesque, that. The novel White Noise is about the very same thing – listening so intently to the empty background noise of the world (“white” here has a nice extra symbolic resonance, since we’re January and that’s about benumbing and even killing white snow) that you begin to discern something other than white noise. A word sounded through the white noise of the world. Only the poet’s ear can catch that hidden resonance, which inevitably has to do with suffering (here, the homeless in the doorways) outside of you which somehow “accommodates” the suffering within you. The writer at the center of DeLillo’s novel Mao II has always made a point of listening very closely to the things ordinary people say – because if you listen closely enough, they are saying something extraordinary:

[I]t made his heart shake to hear these things … the uninventable poetry, inside the pain, of what people say.

It’s cold out there. In there. Gotta get the old ticker shaking again.]

So here’s a companion poem to the one I just talked about. Notice that they both conclude with the word “trick.”

This one, Lullaby, is by a Canadian poet, Amanda Jernigan. It shares with Aleksandr Kushner’s poem (see the post just below this one) an attempt to comfort the cold mortal self as it suffers the briefest and darkest and deadest days of the year, which inevitably means that it suffers a reckoning with its own deadly fate.

These are late December, everything winding down, poems. Winter solstice poems.

From its title (Lullaby) on, Jernigan’s poem makes explicit its aim to console. It’s a curious little poem, a tightly rhymed, iambic pentameter, song addressed either to one’s self or to one’s child, and most of its lines are very bleak indeed (even bleaker than Kushners’), very morbid, as the poet describes a life of darkness visible.

My little lack-of-light, my swaddled soul,
December baby. Hush, for it is dark,
and will grow darker still.

Born in darkness, then right away swaddled into more darkness (William Blake: ‘Struggling in my fathers hands: /Striving against my swaddling bands: / Bound and weary I thought best / To sulk upon my mothers breast.’), we shut up our souls and our children (Hush) because life is dangerously dark and will only get darker, and we are afraid. The event of the winter solstice expresses the truth of life as it slows and narrows and darkens over time.

We must embark
directly. Bring an orange as the toll
for Charon: he will be our gondolier.

Bring a brilliant sunny emblem of the lost world of light to the underworld’s ferryman who sits just across the river (both poems feature ritual gathering at a river) waiting to escort us to the end of life. Many of the world’s winter solstice celebrations involve offerings of fruit.

Upon the shore, the season pans for light,
and solstice fish, their eyes gone milky white,
come bearing riches for the dying year:
solstitial kingdom.

Pans is beautiful – a delicate, frail, one-syllable word painting the weak sun as searching for gold in the shallow water. “Solstice” fish, their pale eyes dead from weak sunlight, are tokens of the kingdom of unmoving darkness.

It is yours, the mime
of branches and the drift of snow. With shaking
hands, Persephone, the winter’s wife,
will tender you a gift.

The poet again directly addresses her child, or her own soul, and with rueful irony bestows on her/it the gift of a dead world (the mere “mime” of branches).

On her way back to the underworld, its queen pauses with freezing hands to offer a different gift to the poet, the poet’s soul, the poet’s child. What has she bestowed upon the artist?

Born in a time
of darkness, you will learn the trick of making.
You shall make your consolation all your life.

In Kushner’s poem, he’s standing outside freezing, but

I cannot live until
I’ve learnt how this trick is done.

He’s going to keep standing out there until he can figure out a way – poetically – to thaw, reanimate, and ultimately comfort the world. He’s going to learn the poet’s art – the magic trick of bringing the dead back to life. He’s going to learn how to keep us, as Ursula Le Guin says, from dissolving into our surroundings. And Jernigan has the same trick in mind: The poet learns the trick of making. She learns how the imagination can transform, enliven, and console.

Indeed that word – consolation – though it has nothing etymologically to do with the sun, has sol in it — for that matter, has soul in it… Which suggests that the poet’s gift, trick, art, is to pan for, to gather, to consolidate, what little sunlight remains, and transmute it to real gold.

On these cold dark late December days…

… let us consider poetry as self-comforting. Poetry as an effort to thaw, somewhat, the cold dark late days. You know that feeling, after you’ve been skiing or hiking in the snow for hours, of gradually warming beside a fireplace? It’s one of life’s great feelings, the chilled body quickening back to life with a tea or a brandy… Quickening – as in that beautiful entreaty from the heavens to the windy world, in a Phillip Larkin poem:

And in their blazing solitude
The stars sang in their sockets through
the night:
`Blow bright, blow bright
The coal of this unquickened world.’

To feel your limbs radiating again under the familiar low flame — the body, frozen, has been reanimated, and it’s a gift, a reassurance, a confirmation of your warm-blooded flow.

So in these two poems – On a Dark-Blue December Morning, and Lullaby – you have writers spending most of their poem evoking the cold dark late December world, and then, at the end, insisting on their human – aesthetic – capacity to make something beautiful and glowing out of it.

Aleksandr Kushner’s 1974 poem describes a glacial Leningrad dawn:

On a dark-blue December morning
We leave the warmth of our homes
And go out silently into the frost.
The wooden kiosk is covered with ice,
Steam rises steeply into the sky.
A damp shudder runs through the trees
And you, my lovely friend, are wide awake
Rubbing your cheeks with your mitten.

I think that lovely friend is a cat the poet spies, animals being less undone by rough climate than human beings. Animals just get on with it; they’re not compelled to make anything glow, to reassure themselves that the world isn’t entirely dead.

Snow fell last night. People are scraping it away,
Some gently, others more busily.
Drowsy kiddies, warmly wrapped,
Are carried past in tears.

Those children’s tears signal, at the very middle point of the poem, a shift from unweighted to emotionally heavy description. The cat’s cheeks are dried by its mitten; children’s cheeks run with tears in the stinging cold. But of course tears signal sadness as well.

How unlike a pleasant stroll
Are these excursions towards the river!
In the dark narrow streets
We shiver in the Leningrad draft.

The “damp shudder” that runs through trees is the city’s cold wet wind, provoking not merely tears and shivers, but a feeling of deathliness: those dark narrow streets are coffins, that shiver rattling bones, and the sad silent communal movement toward the river a funereal ritual, some sort of ultimacy.

Here’s the final stanza:

And I, in my usual dogged way,
Try to restore their beauty to
The houses, the indifferent squares,
And the pedestrian on the bridge.
Deliberately I miss my bus,
And freeze now, stranded in the snow.
But I cannot live until
I’ve learnt how this trick is done.

Da, so now we’ve got the poet stubbornly assuming the poet’s role:

Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

That’s Shelley talking to the wind, but it’s the same stubborn poet, insisting on quickening the petrified world. How is the trick done? How can Kushner take all that dead stuff – houses, squares, pedestrians – and make it living beauty? Both poets expose themselves to the forces of the universe – wind, cold – in order somehow to prompt those forces not to destroy (“freeze”) them but to share with them the trick, the incantation, of their vibrancy. This is the poet begging nature to make him a verbal transmitter of its radiance. I cannot live until I figure out how to transform my extraordinary need for extraordinary intensity of life into poetic language that will quicken all those who read it.

Second poem coming up.

The Anatomy of Revolution

CASTRO MOVES INTO THE HAVANA HILTON

BY SANDRA M. CASTILLO

[To mark his death, UD looks at this poem, which reflects on the ironies of history and the disastrous tendencies of revolutions. The title alludes to Castro having in victory taken over and reclaimed the very Batista-esque Hilton Hotel, renaming it Free Havana.]

“History always dresses us for the wrong occasions.”
—Ricardo Pau-Llosa


[Scruffy guerrillas from the hills crowd into the plush Hilton.]

Camera Obscura

[The whole poem will concern itself with obscurity, enigma — the ungraspability of the meaning of historical events and world-historical figures. Part of the problem, it will suggest, is precisely the images through which we try to take in the real world.]

The afternoon lightening his shadow,
Fidel descends from the mountains,
the clean-shaven lawyer turned guerilla,
his eyes focused on infinity,
El Jefe Máximo con sus Barbudos,
rebels with rosary beads


[History once again seems to dress us wrong – anti-clerical revolutionaries retaining their rosary beads.]

on their 600-mile procession across the island
with campesinos on horseback, flatbed trucks, tanks,
a new year’s journey down the oldest roads
towards betrayal.


[Towards betrayal. The revolution will be betrayed. Betray itself.]

Ambient light. Available light

[We always have very partial knowledge. We move by what’s available to us in terms of understanding, but it’s never enough.]

Light inside of them,
nameless isleños line El Malecón to touch Fidel,
already defining himself in black and white.
The dramatic sky moving in for the close-up
that will frame his all-night oratory,
he turns to the crowd,
variations on an enigma,
waving from his pulpit with rehearsed eloquence,
a dove on his shoulder.


[First the references to the rosary, and now, in this stanza, many suggestions that this “faith” (Fidel) revolution is really a slightly transposed religious event – variations on an enigma – with people lining up to touch their deity, who dresses like a priest in black and white. He speaks from a “pulpit” and sports a dove.]

This is a photograph. This is not a sign.

[People stubbornly “symbolize” reality, a process by which a revolutionary leader becomes a god.]

Flash-on camera. Celebrity portraits.

1. Fidel on a balcony across the street
from Grand Central Station,
an American flag above his head,
New York, 1959.

2. Fidel made small by the Lincoln Memorial,
Washington D.C., 1959.

3. Fidel learning to ski,
a minor black ball against a white landscape,
Russia, 1962.

4. Fidel and shotgun,
hunting with Nikita,
Russia, 1962.

Circles of Confusion

Beyond photographs,
Havana is looted and burned.
Women weep at our wailing wall,
El Paredón, where traitors are taken,
and television cameras shoot
the executions, this blood soup,
the paradoxes of our lives,
three years before I am born.

[Random photographic images trace Fidel’s reduction to a celebrity – or, if you like, the process by which the revolution’s strongman becomes a kitschy version of god – while the rest of the religious story plays out as well: The wailing wall where we mourn the loss or theft of the original faith; the devolution of divine passion into inquisition. But it’s a modern inquisition – it’s all photographed and filmed.]

Photoflood


[A photoflood is a lamp that sheds intense illumination in order to produce artificial light for photography and filming. The only form of true lucidity available to us is the artificial brilliance we rig up in order to “flood” the world with yet more images.]

But it is late afternoon,
and a shower of confetti and serpentine
falls from every floor of the Havana Hilton,
where history is a giant piñata,
where at midnight, Fidel will be photographed
eating a ham sandwich.


[This final stanza returns us – after the poem’s meditation on history and revolution – to the narrative immediacy with which the poet began. We are back at the Hilton, and celebrations of the revolution’s victory take place. Of course, given the treacherous and enigmatic nature of such events, they are “serpentine.” The last lines make everything explicit: history is a nightmare of chaos and grief, a great violent shaking up which nonetheless can be seen to smuggle back in precisely the cultural realities that inspired the revolution in the first place. Its final image has Castro – at midnight, the darkest hour – fully reduced by the camera and celebrity culture: he is pictured eating a ham sandwich.]

For these moments we give thanks: Thee, fully forth emerging.

A Clear Midnight
by Walt Whitman

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best.
Night, sleep, death and the stars.

‘She feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China.’

So, in honor of Leonard Cohen, who has died, and with UD‘s new tea series in mind, she features his great song, Suzanne.

The real Suzanne “would invite Cohen to visit her apartment by the harbour in Montreal, where she would serve him Constant Comment tea…”

I’ve sung this song, with guitar when I was a tyke, and on the piano post-tyke, for forty years. Its lack of dynamics, its few, unchallenging notes for the singer (no high notes), and its strange lyrics, give it a soft hypnotic insistence, a whispery chanting truthful feel. A religious song, it sounds like a litany. It lulls you like a child’s lullaby, yet its words are charged with enigmatic-but-feels-importantly-meaningful power.

Like Henry Purcell’s great song Music For Awhile, Suzanne (and many other Cohen works) gets its simple/complex, lulling/enigmatic, balladic/liturgical mix from Cohen’s use of counterpoint as much as from its lyrics. “[T]he counterpoint lines — they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs,” says Bob Dylan. “As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music.”

The unsettling independence of Cohen’s two musical lines has, UD thinks, the same effect as the same technique in the Purcell piece, where the singer calmly and simply and affirmatively sings above a dark and complex ground bass; we are in a harmonic and at the same time disharmonic location in these sorts of songs, where manifest human assertions about the world are latently undermined and complicated by a subterranean countervailing pure-musical insinuation. This beautiful but corrosive pure music seems to come from some tragic, obdurate, humanly unavailable, realm of metaphysical power. Cohen’s songs, says Suzanna Vega, are “a combination of very real details and a sense of mystery, like prayers or spells.” Cohen himself at the end of his life said “You hear this other deep reality singing to you all the time, and much of the time you can’t decipher it. Even when I was healthy, I was sensitive to the process.”

Cohen describing his lifelong struggles with depression could be describing the dynamic of many of his songs. There were “periods when I was fully operative but the background noise of anguish still prevailed.”

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There’s a gentle waltzy circularity to Suzanne, underscoring its theme of willing but confused erotic/spiritual entrapment by Suzanne/Jesus. One keeps going back to her. You want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind. That is the travel of everyone through this seductive song – it’s the sort of song whose two reconcilable/irreconcilable lines somehow reconcile you to the impossible truths of mortality.

I’m describing here a variant of great art’s cathartic power.

Of its many versions, I like Judy Collins’ best, because her very breathy, low-vibrato, balladic voice (you take in, almost pruriently, her intakes of air before many lines) is a perfect match for the drifty, openly musing, openly sexual content of the piece.

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Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover

And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind


And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

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[Wisdom’s the killer – the divinity killer. Wisdom understood as the refusal to travel blind, the refusal to trust Suzanne as she takes your hand.]

****************


And you want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
And you think you maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with her mind

Now, Suzanne takes your hand and she leads you to the river
She’s wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love and they wil lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds her mirror
And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind

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This last verse skirts sentimentality (children in the morning); yet it’s also true that whenever she sings the words And the sun pours down like honey (with melisma on sun and a soft/explosive release of air on the h of honey), UD finds forming in her eyes what she’d called triumphant tears. For her, that is the true climax of the song, the cathartic payoff where the natural/metaphysical world finally drops its dark counterpoint against us and opens up a world so unproblematically bright that we can suddenly see everything with a Blakeian double vision that makes the counterpointed world finally (fleetingly) harmonic: flowers in the garbage, heroes in the seaweed.

“Each of us at times has felt the future fade, / Or seen the compass of his life diminished, / Or realized some tangible illusion was unreal.”

I think that people are the sum of their illusions,
That the cares that make them difficult to see
Are eased by distance, with their errors blending
In an intricate harmony, their truths abiding
In a subtle “spark” or psyche (each incomparable,
Yet each the same as all the others) and their
Disparate careers all joined together in a tangled
Moral vision whose intense, meandering design
Seems lightened by a pure simplicity of feeling,
As in grief, or in the pathos of a life
Cut off by loneliness, indifference or hate,
Because the most important thing is human happiness –
Not in the sense of private satisfactions, but of
Lives that realize themselves in ordinary terms
And with the quiet inconsistencies that make them real.

… [I]n the course of getting older,
And trying to reconstruct the paths that led me here,
I found myself pulled backwards through these old,
Uncertain passages, distracted by the details,
And meeting only barriers to understanding why the
Years unfolded as they did, and why my life
Turned out the way it has …

… Why did I think a person only distantly like me
Might finally represent my life? …

… The houses on a street, the quiet backyard shade,
The room restored to life with bric-a-brac—
I started by revisiting these things, then slowly
Reconceiving them as forms of loss made visible
That balanced sympathy and space inside an
Abstract edifice combining reaches of the past
With all these speculations, all this artful
Preening of the heart. I sit here at my desk,
Perplexed and puzzled, teasing out a tangled
Skein of years we wove together, and trying to
Combine the fragments of those years into a poem.
Who cares if life — if someone’s actual life — is
Finally insignificant and small? There’s still a
Splendor in the way it flowers once and fades
And leaves a carapace behind. There isn’t time to
Linger over why it happened, or attempt to make its
Mystery come to life again and last, like someone
Still embracing the confused perceptions of himself
Embedded in the past, as though eternity lay there —
For heaven’s a delusion, and eternity is in the details,
And this tiny, insubstantial life is all there is.

… It starts and ends
Inside an ordinary room, while in the interim
Brimming with illusions, filled with commonplace
Delights that make the days go by, with simple
Arguments and fears, and with the nervous
Inkling of some vague, utopian conceit
Transforming both the landscape and our lives,
Until we look around and find ourselves at home,
But in a wholly different world. And even those
Catastrophes that seemed to alter everything
Seem fleeting, grounded in a natural order
All of us are subject to, and ought to celebrate…

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From “Falling Water,” by John Koethe

Inspirational Verse for this Special Day

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster…

Elizabeth Bishop

Halloween Poem: “Opiate”

This nation is in the midst of an unprecedented opioid epidemic.

That being the case, it seems to ol’ UD that the Halloween poems she features this year might as well display that element of the Halloween mood which is drift, dreaminess, creepiness, trance, immobilism, morbidness… UD‘s commentary is in brackets.

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OPIATE

Gottfried Benn (translated, Francis Golffing, 1952)

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Opiate, aconite
beckoning lust and cadaver
Lernaean fields
that my soul drinks
as its elements press forward,
hear its flute-song, its cry:
“As you infuse your poison
restore the self, past itself.”

[Lethe beckons. One wants to make an end of it, to cancel consciousness, if not through death and if not through sex, then through taking one of the many poisons that get the self past itself into a condition of twilight sleep, the self “restored,” fulfilled, in stasis. (“The woman is perfected. / Her dead / Body wears the smile of accomplishment...”) Lernaean fields feature streams to the underworld, to oblivion, and one’s soul drinks that up.]

Cosmogonies, spirits
in the smoke of Hyoscine
atomizations, syntheses
of change, Heraclitean:
These are the very same rivers
but not the Ποταμοί,
opiate, showers of rain
driving past river and self.

[One wants to make an end of it and enter new worlds – cosmogonies. One wants the opiated air to summon metamorphosing spirits. Opiates offer you a way out of not merely the self, but the trivial changes of earthly life, the dull sublunary differences that after all only hasten you toward suffering and extinction. Opiates shower a cleansing rain that takes you past earthly rivers and an earthly self into “river god” (potamoi) worlds that transcend the human.]

Amphorae stand and tables
Before shades, dream-drugged,
thorn of sleep, fresh poppy calyx,
welling white to our lips:
here, too, is the threshold
from which comes a sound of flutes
and as the garlands unfold,
wine and ashes subside.

[The final stanza begins and ends with opiating wine. Amphorae for millennia have been containers for wine, and here they stand in a dark room, a dream chamber into which we’re descending via the poppy’s needle, the heroin’s hypodermic, the opiate’s white (deathly) liquid “welling … to our lips.” Again, as at the poem’s beginning, we drift toward the seductively tuneful threshold of nonexistence. The poppies open up to us draughts and draughts of their white wine until the wine itself – life itself – and death (ashes) subside. Lust and cadaver – the fever and the fret – both go up in smoke.]

**********

calyx

Hilaire Belloc’s “Lines to a Don” meant something entirely different…

… but parts of the poem contain a curiously contemporary resonance.

***********

… Don poor at Bed and worse at Table,
Don pinched, Don starved, Don miserable;
Don stuttering, Don with roving eyes,
Don nervous, Don of crudities;
Don clerical, Don ordinary,
Don self-absorbed and solitary;
Don here-and-there, Don epileptic;
Don puffed and empty, Don dyspeptic;
Don middle-class, Don sycophantic,
Don dull, Don brutish, Don pedantic;
Don hypocritical, Don bad,
Don furtive, Don three-quarters mad;
Don (since a man must make an end),
Don that shall never be my friend.

… Don dreadful, rasping Don and wearing,
Repulsive Don—Don past all bearing.
Don of the cold and doubtful breath,
Don despicable, Don of death;
Don nasty, skimpy, silent, level;
Don evil; Don that serves the devil.
Don ugly — that makes fifty lines…

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Guess that’s what they mean by immortal verse.

Poem.

Donald Trump, To His Followers

When, in disgrace with Fortune and the Times
I, with my staff, beweep my outcast state,
And trouble Kasówitz with my bootless cries,
And look upon my press and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one less apt to grope,
Chaste like him, like him with will possessed,
Desiring this man’s heart and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented best;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love at rallies such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

9/11 Again…

… and we go to poetry to make us feel and see it once more with its meanings intact.

It’s hard to write a poem about an atrocity. Many 9/11 poems are long personal narratives of the event: scenes witnessed in Lower Manhattan, the way the collapse looked from nearby windows. Some, like September Sonnet by Michael Salcman, are highly compressed lyrics in which physical descriptions also appear, but where the point is less to produce a verse record of one’s impressions than to capture, with small but heavily weighted lines, the larger fact of all of us having been immediately overwhelmed, and then permanently haunted, by the incommensurability and mystery of the battering.

Salcman begins by folding his poem into Auden’s 1st September 1939, which has emerged as the pre-9/11 poem, with its coincidence of month and theme as Auden assumes the full dread of war having broken out again in Europe.

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September Sonnet

Auden was right – our buildings grope
the sky for certainty but are dumb
and blind. In the fierce limbus of my eye
the plummeting birds burn still,
asbestos rains and twisted steel
falls in a broth of jet fuel,
cable wrap and mineral dust;
it bathes the snouts of corpse-hunting
dogs and spatters our helmeted Nimrods.
Who stoked these fires while we slept?
Who blew on the embers
Filling September with regret,
and who will be consoled if irony dies
a thousand deaths? Not you or I.

**********************

Buildings grope the sky, wrote Auden, and Salcman, struck by the same wretched irony of our high bright-edged monuments suddenly cringing as the sky goes blank and the world senseless, echoes the earlier poet. More broadly, importing Auden lends this poem historical resonance; and Salcman’s use throughout of simple beautifully balanced lyrical lines (Who stoked these fires while we slept?), lines that read like translations from Greek tragedies, sharpens our sense of the infinite profundity of events that can never be fully assimilated.

In the fierce limbus of my eye
the plummeting birds burn still,
asbestos rains and twisted steel
falls in a broth of jet fuel,
cable wrap and mineral dust;

Beautiful stuff here, conveying our inability to make memories of 9/11 stop. The falling objects persist on the edge of vision. The mind’s eye keeps seeing the “broth” (such a well-chosen word, with rich, witchy associations) of jet fuel, and the “mineral dust” (a great phrase, conjuring with horrific concision the organic particles in the air) also stays with us.

These lines remind me of a passage in James Merrill’s Santorini: Stopping the Leak, when the poet talks about what he calls his “psychic incontinence,” his uncontrollable tendency to summon to his mind, and somehow to have to account for, image after image after image:

churning down the optic sluice
… Faces young, old
… all random, ravenous images

… avid for inwardness

… The warm spate bears me on, helpless…

The event comes back to us unbidden, iconic elements of the awful day that want us to take them in, to do something with them.

And notice Salcman’s fantastic use of a kind of loose assonance: limbus, plummeting; birds, burn; falls, broth. It gives the poem an elegance, a sheer verbal beauty, at obvious odds with its subject matter, and this you could say conveys a sly sort of human triumph over the deathliness of the event. We are still to be found on the edge of the scene, generating beauty and even meaning out of it.

The dust

bathes the snouts of corpse-hunting
dogs and spatters our helmeted Nimrods.

Nothing of the horror is avoided here; and yet once again the combination of sheer verbal beauty (bathes) and ancient reference (Nimrod – the Biblical precursor of the New York City Fire Department) heightens – aestheticizes – the horror in a way that lets us retain the horror and at the same time somewhat transcend it.

who will be consoled if irony dies
a thousand deaths?

These lines bring us back to Auden:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages…

Ironic because almost comically at odds with, resistant to, the powerful darkness everywhere, our various points of light, our places of rebellion and affirmation in the face of atrocity, include things like poetry. Poetry brings harmony and form and powerful subjective utterance to a stuporous world.

Valedictory

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When orange hairs, or none, or few, do hang
Upon this brow which lately raged against the polls.
But now bare silent Tweets! where late my Twitter sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such ire
That on the ashes of my pride doth lie,
The reality-show whereon it must expire
Consumes that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes my spite more strong,
To love that well which I must leave ere long.

Remorse for Intemperate Speech

I ranted to the knave and fool,
I acted the obscenest tool,
To transform the polls.
Fit audience I found, but Clinton rules
The voter rolls.

I sought my betters: though in each
Fine manners, liberal speech,
Turn hatred into sport.
Nothing said or done can reach
My sadistic heart.

From a penthouse have I come.
Great pride, great rooms,
Maimed me at the start.
I carry to my bronzéd tomb
A sadistic heart.

The Darkling Campaign

La Bedlam Sans Merci

“Doth Roger Ailes avail thee, Donald Trump,
Alone and madly floundering?
Your edge has withered in the race,
And no birds sing.

Yet – Roger Ailes? Art thou that
Haggard and that woe-begone?
This pig’s ignominy is full,
And the damage done.

I see a fox cub on thy brow,
Its orange fades and lies askew;
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.”

***************************

“I face a lady in debate,
Full competent in policy
Her hair is blond, her foot is light,
And she will wipe the floor with me.

I have been lullèd all asleep,
I have been dreaming — woe betide!—
And now I must ascend the stage
By cold Hill’s side.

My campaign staff it spoke to me
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
By cold Hill’s side.

Thus desperately I turn to Ailes,
Thus sad and madly floundering,
Though the edge is withered from the race,
And no birds sing.”

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