11 March 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/11

Here is a villanelle: that is, a nineteen-line poem (five tercets and a concluding quatrain) that uses only two rhymes throughout and that uses the first and third lines of the first tercet as alternating stanza refrains, bringing them both together in the last two lines of the quatrain. If that sounds confusing, just read the poem and you'll see how it works. This is by Mark Ford, a contemporary British poet.

A few weeks ago, we saw Housman extending a fragment of Sappho into a new poem. This week, Ford also uses the ancient Greek poet, ingeniously incorporating several of her surviving fragments into a modern structure, much as some medieval builders incorporated random blocks from classical ruins to create something new. Housman's and Ford's poems are both openly derived from Sappho, but a subtler version of her influence is built into the DNA of most European-language lyrics (especially love lyrics), even though much of her work, like that of most classical authors, is now lost: her influence on the subsequently influential, particularly such Roman poets as Horace and Catullus, makes her one of the great if sometimes indirect well-springs of world poetry.


When dawn, wearing golden sandals, awoke me,
I began to crawl, burning, shivering, to my uncurtained window;
Migrating birds streamed over the dark sea.

Who can quench the ingenious fires of cruelty?
I was dreaming of white-fetlocked horses conferring in a meadow
When dawn, wearing golden sandals, awoke me.

On my stopped loom, a sort of landscape: icy
Peaks, serrated as daggers, a corpse, and beside it a crow,
And migrating birds streaming over the dark sea.

Fat, autumnal flies alight on my sheets, rainbow-hued, dizzy;
This one on my wrist - its mandibles quiver, its gibbous eyes glow. . . 
Then dawn, wearing golden sandals, awoke me.

Merciless daughter of Zeus, immortal Aphrodite,
Come to me, sing to me, low-voiced, in sorrow
Of migrating birds that stream over the dark sea.

Cast aside your spangled headband: in my mirror I see
You beneath these stringy locks, puckered lips, and tear-stained cheeks . . . go,
Migrating birds, stream over the dark sea;
And dawn, wearing golden sandals, awake me.

[Author's] Note: "Fragments" makes use of a number of images from the poetry of Sappho.

Mark Ford

Ford strikingly captures that half-waking, half-dreaming state as we move towards dawn, where one thing slips into another and then back again, and the menaces of the night give way hazily to the menaces of the morning. The repetitions inherent in the structure of a villanelle work brilliantly to bring out the obsessive, circular nature of this state. There is a pervading sense of loss and threat; the migrating birds definitely seem to be fleeing rather than just migrating; strange, surreal landscapes appear, icy, with a corpse and a crow; flies seem lazy and colorful and then as if in close-up we see their horrible jaws and bulging eyes. The appearance towards the end of Aphrodite, who is merciless yet sorrowful and who melds with the poet's haggard image, implies that it's erotic loss and failure haunting these dreams.

This is from the anthology Villanelles, edited by Annie Finch and Marie-Elizabeth Mali, from the Everyman's Library Pocket Poetry series. Amazon has other Mark Ford books here.


Unknown said...

I was reminded of the piece you did last year with all of the different versions of the same Sappho poem. Several stanzas seemed to be possible different translations of the same fragment, but then others weren't. I really look forward to the Monday poems.
By the way, dawn didn't get to awake us this morning. Stupid time change.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thank you!

Yes, I like the way the images have slightly different implications each time.

As for the time change, you'll be grateful for it come harvest time, when we have to get the wheat crop in afore sundown -- because the change means the sun stays up an hour longer, right?

Sibyl said...

I really, truly have made a concious effort to avoid poetry since I walked out of my PhD. program in a huff, in a different century. Then you go and post something as crystalline, as fresnel-like as this, and the power of my response makes me question that long-ago decision. Kind of exactly the thing poetry is meant to do? I cannot decide whether to thank you, or damn yer eyes. Guess I'll have to to side with white fetlocked horses conferring in a meadow and say Thank You.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I accept both thanks and damnation with gratitude.