17 November 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/47

A Woman Talks to Her Thigh

It is only thanks to your good looks
I can take part
in the rites of love.

Mystical ecstasies,
treasons delightful
as a crimson lipstick,
a perverse rococo
of psychological involutions,
sweetness of carnal longings
that take your breath,
pits of despair
sinking to the very bottom of the world:
all this I owe to you.

How tenderly every day I should
lash you with a whip of cold water,
if you alone allow me to possess
beauty and wisdom irreplaceable.

The souls of my lovers
open to me in a moment of love
and I have them in my dominion.
I look as does a sculptor
on his work
at their faces snapped shut with eyelids,
martyred by ecstasy,
made dense by happiness.
I read as does an angel
thoughts in their skulls
I feel in my hand
a beating human heart,
I listen to the words
which are whispered by one human to another
in the frankest moments of one's life.

I enter their souls,
I wander
by a road of delight or of horror
to lands as inconceivable
as the bottoms of the oceans.
Later on, heavy with treasures
I come slowly
to myself.

O, many riches,
many precious truths
growing immense in a metaphysical echo,
many initiations
delicate and startling
I owe to you, my thigh.

The most exquisite refinement of my soul
would not give me any of those treasures
if not for the clear, smooth charm
of an amoral little animal.

Anna Swir, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan

Last week's poem made me think of this one.

Like the previous poems we've seen by Anna Swir (check here for the poems and some background on the poet) she takes a somewhat distanced yet still intimate attitude towards her body, as if it's "an amoral little animal," as she describes it in her last line here, some beloved pet that, due to its alien and animal nature, sometimes behaves unpredictably. This is a poem specifically to her thigh, so it's more openly erotic than some of her other poems about her physical being. The speaker here is at an age in which she is still physically attractive – she begins by thanking her thigh's good looks for enabling her to have sex. Yet she's old enough to have had several lovers, and to have a sort of emotional distance from them (just as she's sort of distanced from her own body; perhaps this is a function of aging, or of this particular woman's personality). These anonymous men are subject to her power, and pretty much the same in their reactions. Their souls open to her under her dominion; she is an artist of love-making, a sculptor seeing them, in the throes of love, as her creations, their faces snapped shut with eyelids yet their souls open. They are martyred by ecstasy (this makes me think of Bernini's famous statue of the Ecstasy of St Teresa of Avila); they are made dense by happiness – solid, substantial, like a sculpture, with perhaps also a suggestion of made a bit thick-skulled by sex. (This is a translation, so I wouldn't rely too heavily on analysis of a single word, but at least one of the translators knew Swir and is himself a great poet, so there's no reason to think he's misrepresenting her.)

But her love-making is bringing her more than just mechanics or physical relief; she speaks of "the rites of love," of mystical ecstasies, of treasons delightful – social and soul-full states. Throughout she alternates between sweetness and despair, delight and horror. She would tenderly lash her thigh daily with a "whip" of cold water. Although she sees her body as amoral (perhaps amorous because amoral), it is thanks to it that she receives precious (yet undefined, perhaps because they are too deep to be captured in words, which always limit and deceive) truths, which grow "immense in a metaphysical echo": there is a strong spiritual current underlying this very physical poem; she sees herself not as her body but as something acting with and through and inside of it; she speaks of souls, martyrs, angels, of ecstatic trances and mystic visions just as if she were a saint trying to describe the divine presence.

There's a wonderful comparison of coming out of her erotic swoon/reverie to being a traveler in strange lands, strange as the bottom of the ocean (heavy, wet, swirling, mysterious) slowly coming (perhaps there's a pun on "come" in the sense of sexual climax?) to herself – as if her self is separate but not unrelated to what she's just been through – as if her self is, like a delta, something constantly growing and changing under the accretions of these ocean currents.

I love the lines about "treasons delightful / as a crimson lipstick" – the lipstick is both an inward satisfaction and an outward sign; you feel she enjoys buying different shades of lipstick, playing with her appearance, taking pleasure in the way she looks. Yet the lipstick is also for others, a way of presenting herself (in an attractive way) to the world, the thin layer of interaction between herself and the social world. Crimson lips are seen as an erotic signal, but make-up itself is not only a way of ornamenting but also a way of hiding her naked self from the world (mascara of course comes from the Italian word for mask, and lipstick can function the same way). The lines remind me of the passage in one of Barbara Pym's novels in which an orderly middle-aged woman insists, despite the saleswoman's suggestions (helpful? condescending? both?), on buying a shade of lipstick that doesn't suit her, either as a color or as an emotion: "I shall take Hawaiian Fire," she insists. She buys it defiantly, but of course she knows the purchase is a mistake. It would be interesting to read that woman's talk to her thigh; it might be very different from that of the speaker here.

I took this from Talking to My Body by Anna Swir, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan.

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