Archives for category: Poetry

Today is December 1. It feels auspicious somehow, and I wanted to mark it with a poem. Choosing Derek Walcott’s Love After Love was an easy decision – it is good to be reminded to love ourselves, something too easily ignored and forgotten.

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott

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A friend just sent me this – a Seamus Heaney poem displayed in a New York subway station.

The poem is Scaffolding:

Masons, when they start upon a building,

Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,

Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done

Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be

Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall

Confident that we have built our wall.

This was one of the very first poems that Heaney wrote, and as he explains in this short video where he also reads the poem, Scaffolding was written as an appeasement to his wife following a disagreement:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNYBwF7lKLA

It is now two years since Heaney’s death in 2013. His last words, Noli timeri, texted to his wife and which mean ‘do not fear’, are reminiscent of his words to her in Scaffolding, at the beginning of their life together, ‘Never fear’. Heaney’s gravestone has recently been erected in his native Bellaghy:

2015-08-14_new_11964283_I2

‘Walk on air

against

your better

judgement’

He continues to inspire…

CQ

Once Later

 

It is not until later

that you have to be young

 

it is one of the things

you meant to do later

 

but by then there is

someone else living there

 

with the shades rolled down

how could you have been young there

 

at that time

with all that was expected

 

then what happened to

the expectations

 

there is no sign of them there

a shadow passes across the window shade

 

what do they know in there

whoever they are

 

W.S. Merwin

The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano died this week. I love his writing, my favourite being The Book of Embraces. I have bought numerous copies of this title over the years, all but one of which I have given to family and friends. It is that kind of book: true to its title, it demands sharing.

The Book of Embraces defies classification, being partly prose, poetry, fiction, history and autobiography. At a very rough guess it contain more than 200 entries, the longest just two pages in length.

Some of my favourites:

Dreams at the end of the exile/1

Helena dreamed she was trying to close her suitcase and couldn’t, and she pushed down on it with both hands and knelt on it and sat on top of it and stood on top of it, and it wouldn’t budge. Mysteries and belongings gushed from the suitcase that wouldn’t close.

Grapes and wine

On his deathbed, a man of the vineyards spoke into Marcela’s ear. Before dying, he revealed his secret:

The grape,” he whispered, “is made of wine.

Marcela Perez-Silva told me this, and I thought: If the grape is made of wine, then perhaps we are the words that tell who we are.

Resurrections/1

Acute myocardial infarct, death clawing at the center of my chest. I spent two weeks sunk in a hospital bed in Barcelona. Then I sacrificed my tattered Porky 2 address book, which was falling apart, and although I could not help it, as I changed address books, I relived the years since the sacrifice of Porky 1. While I was transferring names, addresses and telephone numbers to the new book, I was also getting a clear perspective on the muddle of times and people I had been living with, a whirlwind of many deep joys and sorrows, and this was a prolonged mourning for the dead who had remained in the dead zone of my heart, and a long, much longer celebration of those still alive who fired my blood and swelled my surviving heart. And there was nothing bad and nothing odd about the fact that my heart had broken from so much use.

CQ

The Swedish Nobel Laureate poet and psychologist died on March 26. Despite suffering a stroke in 1990, he continued to write, and to play the piano with his left hand. I have always been drawn to his sparse yet intense style, and include here one of my favourites, ‘Alone’:

I

One evening in February I came near to dying here.
The car skidded sideways on the ice, out
onto the wrong side of the road. The approaching cars –
their lights – closed in.

My name, my girls, my job
broke free and were left silently behind
further and further away. I was anonymous
like a boy in a playground surrounded by enemies

The approaching traffic had huge lights.
They shone on me while I pulled at the wheel
in a transparent terror that floated like egg white.
The seconds grew – there was space in them –
they grew as big as hospital buildings.

You could almost pause
and breathe out for a while
before being crushed.

Then something caught: a helping grain of sand
or a wonderful gust of wind. The car broke free
and scuttled smartly right over the road.
A post shot up and cracked – a sharp clang – it
flew away in the darkness.

Then – stillness. I sat back still in my seat-belt
and saw someone coming through the swirling snow
to see what had become of me.

II

I have been walking for a long time
on the frozen Östergötland fields.
I have not seen a single person.

In other parts of the world
there are people who are born, live and die
in a perpetual crowd.

To be always visible – to live
in a swarm of eyes –
a special expression must develop.
Face coated with clay.

The murmuring rises and falls
while they divide up among themselves
the sky, the shadows, the sand grains.

I must be alone
ten minutes in the morning
and ten minutes in the evening.
– Without a programme.

Everyone is queuing at everyone’s door.

Many.

One.

translated from the Swedish by Robin Fulton

I have seen other translations of this Russian poem by Fyodor Tyutchev, but Robert Chandler’s version is my favourite http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/21/saturday-poem-silentium-by-fyodor-tyutchev-robert-chandler

Silentium
 

Be silent, hide away and let

your thoughts and longings rise and set

in the deep places of your heart.

Let dreams move silently as stars,

in wonder more than you can tell.

Let them fulfil you – and be still.

 

What heart can ever speak its mind?

How can some other understand

the hidden pole that turns your life?

A thought, once spoken, is a lie.

Don’t cloud the water in your well;

drink from this wellspring – and be still.

 

Live in yourself. There is a whole

deep world of being in your soul,

burdened with mystery and thought.

The noise outside will snuff it out.

Day’s clear light can break the spell.

Hear your own singing – and be still.

 

Fyodor Tyutchev, translated by Robert Chandler

LIT

 

Everyone can’t

be a lamplighter.

 

Someone must

be the lamp,

 

and someone

must, in bereaved

 

rooms sit,

unfathoming what

 

it is to be lit.

 

Andrea Cohen

 

 

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/16/lit-2

An interesting piece on ‘last words’ in The Conversation [http://theconversation.com/that-final-vowel-reading-seamus-heaneys-last-poem-32539] encouraged me to reflect on, not so much final words themselves but more how we interpret them. I suspect this is particularly true when we consider the poet.

When Seamus Heaney died, much attention was given to the last words he uttered, via text, to his wife: ‘Do not be afraid’. Heaney actually typed the words in Latin, ‘Noli timeri’, which, ironically given the poet’s own superlative classical translation expertise, was misspelt in various media transcriptions [http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/09/how-so-many-people-got-seamus-heaneys-last-words-wrong/279330/].

As The Conversation article suggests, Heaney’s last poem – a mediation on a painting of a canal by the French artist Gustave Caillebotte and completed just 10 days before the poet’s death – cannot escape being analysed in the context of the imminent demise of the poet’s voice. I have always struggled with this issue, which is that we too often gravitate towards a contextual interpretation of poetry, as if the words alone, unexplained, are not enough. For my MA dissertation I argued that the work of Robert Lowell was inappropriately and unfairly adjudicated against the background of the poet’s bipolar condition. I argued for an appreciation of his works purely in the context in which the poet himself presented them.

It is tempting and too easy to over interpret, to satisfy a base and human need to explain everything away. Which goes against the very essence of poetry, where words can stand defiantly alone, and have the power to transport you elsewhere, and manywhere, as such.

Heaney:

‘A poem should take you somewhere different…a poet should be the one least likely to step into the same river twice.’

 

CQ

Choosing just one poem to share today felt like such a daunting task. But then I remembered Elma Mitchell’s ‘This Poem’, which demonstrates so eloquently and succinctly the beauty and power of the poetic form.

 

This Poem

This poem is dangerous: it should not be left

Within the reach of children, or even of adults

Who might swallow it whole, with possibly

Undesirable side-effects. If you come across

An unattended, unidentified poem

In a public place, do not attempt to tackle it

Yourself. Send it (preferably in a sealed container)

To the nearest centre of learning, where it will be rendered

Harmless by experts. Even the simplest poem

May destroy your immunity to human emotions.

All poems must carry a government warning. Words

Can seriously affect your heart.

 

Elma Mitchell

 

One of my absolute favourite poets.

And thus, in the aftermath of watching Night Will Fall, I looked to Szymborska for a redemption of sorts, a rekindling of my faith in humanity and in life.

This is what I found.

 

The Ball

 

As long as nothing can be known for sure

(no signals have been picked up yet),

 

as long as Earth is still unlike

the nearer and more distant planets,

 

as long as there’s neither hide nor hair

of other grasses graced by other winds,

of other treetops bearing other crowns,

other animals as well-grounded as our own,

 

as long as only the local echo

has been known to speak in syllables,

 

as long as we still haven’t heard word

of better or worse mozarts,

platos, edisons somewhere,

 

as long as our inhuman crimes

are still committed only between humans,

 

as long as our kindness

is still comparable,

peerless even in its imperfection,

 

as long as our heads packed with illusions

still pass for the only heads so packed,

 

as long as the roofs of our mouths alone

still raise voices to high heaven –

 

let’s act like very special guests of honor

at the district-firemen’s ball,

dance to the beat of the local oompah band

and pretend that it’s the ball

to end all balls.

 

I can’t speak for others –

for me this is

misery and happiness enough.

 

just this sleepy backwater

where even the stars have time to burn

while winking at us

unintentionally.’