28 March 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/13

Romeo meets Juliet

ROMEO:
If I profane with my unworthiest hand
   This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
   To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

JULIET:
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
   Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
   And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.

ROMEO:
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

JULIET:
   Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

ROMEO:
O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do!
   They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

JULIET:
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.

ROMEO:
   Then move not while my prayers' effect I take.
. . . 

William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, Act 1, scene 5, ll 95 - 108

Sick of their lovesick friend Romeo and his moping, his friends propose that he join them that evening as they put on masks and fancy dress and crash a big party at the Capulet mansion. There he can compare the object of his mooning – the fair Rosaline whom thou so loves – with other young ladies in Verona, a comparison which, his friends hope, will let him know there are other fish in the sea. He agrees, though reluctantly, a reluctance owing less to his family's ancient feud with the Capulets than to his dismissal of any notion that he can swerve in his love for Rosaline:

When the devout religion of mine eye
   Maintains such falsehood, then turn tears to fire:
And those, who, often drowned, could never die,
   Transparent heretics, be burnt for liars!
One fairer than my love? The all-seeing sun
Ne'er saw her match since first the world begun.

Act 1, scene 2, ll 91 - 96

At the party, he sees another young woman, who turns out to be the daughter of the house, Juliet. And that's the end of the unseen and silent Rosaline.

The main thing to notice about the encounter of the future lovers is that their dialogue (at least the first fourteen lines) is a sonnet in the English or Shakespearean style – three quatrains and a concluding couplet. The sonnet, even in its early days, was the poetic form most associated with love; here it springs from their lips, an expression not only of their love but of how well-matched they are. The two of them trade conceit for conceit (conceit in the sense of an elaborate and elaborated image of the sort much admired in early modern English poetry), playing off each other in an expert and stylish way. The exchange dramatizes a connection goes beyond the similarity in their backgrounds. There's an assumption that the way to make this play "relevant" is to make the young lovers belong to opposing groups (black vs white! English vs Irish! Arab vs Jew!) with quarrels deeply rooted in history and economics, but that's West Side Story, not Romeo and Juliet. In fact we are told in the very first line of the play (Two households, both alike in dignity) that the families are basically the same – both alike. It would have been easy enough to give us a few lines explaining the origins of this enmity, but there are none, so presumably the information is deliberately withheld, because we're not supposed to see the feud as based in anything real or important. It's just an unexplained ancient grudge. The battling parties can overlook the quarrel if they want to: right before Romeo and Juliet meet, we see her cousin Tybalt denouncing Romeo's presence to her father, who is much angrier at Tybalt for criticizing his tolerance of Romeo than he is at Romeo for crashing the party. Part of the play's tragic irony is that the lovers (and assorted friends and relatives) fall victim to a quarrel that is essentially an empty form, an old and bad habit.

Romeo begins in the religious vein that he had used earlier in describing his faith to Rosaline. (It's important to remember the central role religion played in early modern Europe, when arguments over doctrine, or a king's convenience, could plunge a kingdom into bloodshed, or at least radically different habits of worship.) In his earlier remarks he speaks in terms of heresy (and at least some members of the original audience would actually have seen heretics burnt at the stake; this isn't just a fanciful metaphor). Romeo speaks in the elaborate, punning conceits much admired at the time – which means that there's a certain element of the conventional in what he says; indeed his easily jettisoned love for Rosaline is expressed in all the ways standard to a certain type of young man at the time. Maintaining that he weeps constantly for love, he wishes those tears to turn to fire if his eyes abandon the true faith (his love for Rosaline). Those who, often drowned, could never die refers to his eyes: frequently drowned in tears through sorrowing over his unrequited love, yet as living as he is. Transparent in the next line means not only clear, apparent, but also refers to the pellucid quality of the eye. (And of course he does find one fairer than his love, and dies as as result.)

Though he's mining the same metaphorical vein when he first addresses Juliet, there is a difference. His earlier remark played on the idea of heresy and abandonment of faith; now he speaks in terms of some of the most devout believers, the pilgrims (a pilgrimage, particularly to what was then called the Holy Land, could entail great expense, danger, and difficulty). He speaks reverently (if I profane with my unworthiest hand) and conditionally (if . . .). Clearly this girl has left a powerful and unsettling impression. But presumably he's bold enough, or feels enough of a connection with her, to take her hand (the holy shrine). He refers to his sin as gentle: perhaps he means not only mild, but (he is masked and unknown) is also offering reassurance that he is of sufficient social status and manner to be her lover (gentle, which is linked to genteel, can mean of aristocratic birth, as in gentle folk). He is both bold and bashful: he takes her hand, but tells her that he is unworthy and profanes that shrine; but if he has offended, he offers to kiss her tenderly enough to eliminate the offense. His lips are two pilgrims, but blushing ones, referring not only to the red of his lips – presumably, if he's masked, his lips are all she can see of his face, so perhaps Romeo is pointing out that underneath the visor he's a pretty handsome youth? – but also to a certain bashfulness assumed out of genuine respect for her: blushing goes with unworthiest, gentle, smooth, and tender.

The last line of his quatrain deftly plays with smooth / rough / tender: all physical sensations related to touch. The emphasis on touching underscores the physical electricity, the longing for bodily contact, that he is feeling. Rough may seem out of line with the milder words he's using, even though it's there to be smoothed away with tenderness, but it may also be, amid the respect and holiness, Romeo's suggestion that he has a suitably masculine aggressive quality – purely tender and smooth young men are, sadly, not generally admired, and Romeo, so aware of the suitable attitudes of love, is no doubt aware of this as well. The roughness is an excuse for trying to take a tender kiss.

In her response, Juliet takes his conceit and cleverly twists it back at him. She tells him he is too hard on the hand he called unworthy, as the hand is showing its devotion (a term applicable to both religion and love) in a mannerly way (that is, in a way that is courteous but also in a manner appropriate to its nature – and is there a submerged pun on man in mannerly, as in you're behaving like a man by taking my hand and also wanting a kiss?). The mannerly hand is touching the hand of the saint, as a pilgrim would do to the preserved and sanctified body he has traveled to see. She assumes the persona of a holy site he has put on her in the first quatrain, and wittily uses it to refuse his request for a kiss: his hand is on hers, so he has reached the goal of his pilgrimage – he has placed his beseeching hand on that of his saint, and he really can't expect any more. Palmer is another term for pilgrim, because of the palm fronds they would carry back from pilgrimage sites, especially those in the Holy Land (the palms are a reference to the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem before the Crucifixion, commemorated on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter; palms were also a symbol of martyrdom; and they would also be a suitably exotic souvenir to bring back to Europe).

Punning on palmer in the sense of pilgrim and palm as part of the hand, she tells Romeo that she has already given him a kiss: palm to palm is the appropriate way for palmers/pilgrims to kiss. She sees his conceit and raises him a quick-witted refusal. But why does she refuse him? She hasn't taken her hand away; clearly both feel something. She may be understandably reluctant to surrender right away to a masked young man whose name she doesn't even know; she may be aware (as he is not – he doesn't know who she is until a few lines after this encounter) that she is in her parents' house, and undoubtedly under observation; she may be enjoying the flirtation, and the sheer thrill of playing with his words (perhaps as a prelude to playing with him). For though she is technically refusing him a kiss, she is doing so by telling him they're already kissing, in a way suitable to the pilgrim metaphor he started. Like the opening quatrain, this one ends with references to touching, specifically to people touching each other: the pilgrims touching the saint's hand, the palm-to-palm of the "palmers" greeting. In their first encounter, Juliet, like Romeo, dwells on the physical sense of touch; her longing matches his, and both quatrains end on the word kiss.

Romeo can already see that she's beautiful; her reply gives her a chance to show him her personality: quick, strong, passionate, clever. It gives the audience a chance to see her personality, too. Up until now, we've had relatively little of her; the earlier scene in which she appears is brief and dominated by her mother and especially by her Nurse, with Juliet herself having few lines, and those mostly dutiful and perhaps deceptively conventional. It's the meeting with Romeo, and the love she feels (emotional, physical, and – not forgetting the guiding metaphor of their first conversation – spiritual) that sets off her verbal fireworks, however much her words (on the surface) deflect his request for a kiss.

They now split the third quatrain between them (their ability to collaborate on a quatrain as well as a whole sonnet is another proof that they are meant to be together). Romeo, continuing in the vein of flirtation through wordplay, asks her if the saints and pilgrims don't have lips as well as palms, suggesting the inadequacy of palm-to-palm as a method of intimacy – he wants to use other body parts. She replies that they do have lips, which they must use in prayer. Again, she is officially deflecting him, but in a playful and clever way. Romeo had earlier referred to his lips as pilgrims; here she makes him the pilgrim.

Romeo plays back, pleading that lips should have the same license as hands. He furthers the religious metaphor by pointing out that if prayers aren't granted, faith turns to despair. Juliet responds with a theological distinction, one that was much debated in the Catholic / Protestant divide: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake. Here move can mean to change position but also to cause things to happen: one Protestant objection to Catholicism was the cult of the saints, which they saw as basically polytheistic and lacking in Biblical authority. The Catholic response was that saints are not worshiped and are definitely secondary to God; what the faithful do is ask the saints for help, and the saints intercede with God on behalf of the earthly petitioners, so the whole system is still safely monotheistic. So Juliet is saying that, in the role of saint in which he's placed her, she can't actually grant his prayers – yet she suggestively adds that nor can (or will) she move away (just as an embalmed saint could not).

During a performance of course these words flash back and forth in real time and the audience doesn't have time for careful processing of each layer of meaning; instead, we get a cumulative impression of wit and wordplay and and electric repartee between the two, with the guiding metaphors being twisted and turned back and forth, joining the two characters in the connected aura of their words.

Playful jokes about the doctrines of the saints may seem like odd banter for a first flirtation, but again it's important to remember how deeply religious controversy (and theological knowledge) permeated everyday life in the early modern world. There also is a very long tradition of poetry that blurs the boundaries between erotic and spiritual ecstasies. Also, the play is set in Verona, and anything Italian would carry an exotic Papist aura to the English audience. And the religious talk here may also prepare us for a society in which Friar Lawrence can command such obedience from his headstrong congregants, with ultimately tragic consequences. It's odd that so many of Shakespeare's plays are set in Italy, but Italy did have the Renaissance before anyone else, and produced Machiavelli, and stuck with the Popes the English had mostly rejected, and was the birthplace of the powerful and long-lived Roman Empire – it must have seemed like a place where important things happened, a glamorous but dangerous place, an intriguing (in every sense of the word) place – setting a play there was probably like setting a play in New York City is (or used to be) for us.

Since she's pointed out that she won't move, he seizes the opportunity to take (or give) the desired kiss on her lips. That ends the love sonnet the two speak at their first meeting.

He continues:

Thus from my lips, by thine my sin is purged.

She replies, with an assurance that their desire is mutual:

Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

And we hear no more about the fair Rosaline.

This is from the Signet Classic edition of Romeo and Juliet, edited by Joseph Bryant.

21 March 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/12

There Is No Other Way

The eye sees, the thought flies.
The eye tells, the thought denies.

       I will prepare for your returning.
       (Is there no other way?)

The word falls, the heart cries.
The heart knows the word's disguise.

       I shall expect you then at evening.
       (Is there no other way?)

The bird sings, the wind sighs,
The air stirs, the bird shies.
A storm approaches.

       (There must be other ways. . . )

The leaf shakes, the wings rise.
The song stops, the bird flies.
The storm approaches.

       I will have supper waiting.

The song stops, the bird flies.
The mind stirs, the heart replies,
"There is no other way."
"There is no other way."

       I will prepare for your return.
       I shall expect you then at evening.

The word stops, the heart dies.
The wind counts the lost goodbyes.

       There is no other way.
       There is no other way.

Stephen Sondheim, from Pacific Overtures

Tomorrow, 22 March, is Stephen Sondheim's 86th birthday, so today we have one of his lyrics: outwardly simply, but deeply moving and complex in its effects.

Pacific Overtures opened on Broadway in the Bicentennial year of 1976, but though its subject is an important and revealing moment of American history – Commodore Matthew Perry's 1853 visit to self-isolated Japan, which he forced open to Western visitors (and commerce) by the presence of his warships – it does so from the Japanese perspective. The drama incorporates traditional Japanese theatrical techniques as well, including the use of Reciters (the original Broadway production also used the traditional Kabuki technique of having the women's roles played by men, though I believe this is a choice, not a requirement of the staging).

In this scene, Kayama, a samurai but one of little importance, tells his wife Tamate that he has just been made the Prefect of Police for the city of Uraga. Her initial joy vanishes when he explains that foreign warships have been sighted off the coast of that city, and that it will be his job to float out there on his little boat and inform them that no foreigners are allowed to set foot on the sacred soil of Japan. Given the disparity between his little craft and the fleet of American war ships, this mission is bound to end in failure and personal disgrace, which is why the important and high-ranking members of the Shogun's court selected someone unimportant like him to do it. Tamate hopes that perhaps the Americans will not insist on coming, but Kayama gently corrects her. She prepares for his departure, fearing that it will be permanent as they will have to commit ritual suicide to erase the shame. In the staging (I'm going by the CD booklets here, as I've never seen the show live), she dances silently, while the two Observers on stage sing this song. The First Observer tells us what Tamate is thinking and feeling (the italicized words above) and the Second repeats what she says to her husband.

This may seem like double distancing, but it actually brings us closer in, providing us with multiple perspectives, inner and outer, on the scene (and of course in addition to the two sets of words we have what the delicate, mournful, plangent music tells us, and what the actors' movements tell us). Much is left unsaid between the two, though it is said to us by the observers, as well as by the music and movement. (There are things they don't need to spell out to each other – like all of us, Kayama and Tamate are creatures of their culture, so of course they both know what the impending disgrace would mean for them). Even with the First Observer giving us a view of Tamate's inner life, though, there is still indirection, the use of symbols (the departing bird, the approaching storm) to convey associated emotions (the term for this technique is the objective correlative). The effect is not so much of repressed emotion as of emotions so deeply felt and powerful that their direct expression is too painful (and actually unnecessary, a belaboring of the obvious). The heart knows the word's disguise – both Kayama and Tamate are deeply aware of the emotions underlying their ordinary, almost businesslike words.

Sondheim incorporates Japanese verse styles here, such as the indirect expression of emotions of love, longing, and loss through references to the natural world – the bird stopping its song and flying away, the approaching storm: these signal the departure of happiness and the oncoming disaster. The wind sighs – this line is an example of what is called the Pathetic Fallacy, which is attributing human emotions to inanimate objects or natural phenomenon (a stubborn rock, an angry wave). But the lines about the bird and the storm are something different, which is the use of the natural world to mirror an emotional situation (a technique not restricted to poetry; think of how brilliantly Dickens modulates the weather in Bleak House to reflect the emotional qualities of various scenes). In Tamate's spoken words we can trace the initial persistence of some hope in her recurring second line Is there no other way? even as she quietly reassures her husband that she will be waiting for him with supper ready. Emotionally (in the narration of the First Observer) she traces a more despairing path. She starts off acknowledging to herself that her hopeful remarks are improbable, a denial of what she can clearly see will happen – The eye sees, the thought flies. / The eye tells, the thought denies. She knows that what she is saying (what she must say) is to disguise the painful truth – The word falls, the heart cries. / The heart knows the word's disguise. The fall of the word can refer merely to its utterance, but also to a sense of the word falling down, failing to comprehend and express the full emotional truth behind it.

Once Tamate has acknowledged to herself the bitter truth, the balance alters between the outer and inner voices. Initially, the voices had exchanged couplets. But once Tamate begins to realize how hopeless the situation is – a realization so painful that even internally she must approach it indirectly, through the objective correlative of the bird falling silent and flying off while the storm approaches – then, although the structure is maintained of the two voices speaking in four-line units, the inner voice now has three lines and the outer, official and social, voice only one. By the end of the song, as the inner voice reaches a state of emotional finality and futility (the wind counts the lost goodbyes), and even the outer voice has moved from its initial questioning (Is there no other way?) to a realization that matches the inner voice's finality (There is no other way), the two voices start to sing simultaneously (or at least overlappingly) for the first time, bringing the scene to a powerful, pessimistic, and loving (pessimistic because loving) close. The separation and then union of the voices, and their distance from the performer playing Tamate, illustrates the kind of poetry in action that you can get on the dramatic stage, in which separate elements cumulatively create a striking and moving moment. There's nothing here that is too complex to catch in performance – the words themselves are ordinary enough – but the final effect is one of intense emotional complexity. Sondheim is one of those artists (Nabokov is another) whose work is so frequently (and accurately) described as brilliant or clever or ingenious that it's easy to overlook that their work is also heartbreaking and profoundly moving.

(If you're lucky enough to have an upcoming opportunity to see this show, you may want to skip this paragraph: Kayama, along with Manjiro, a fisherman who had been shipwrecked and rescued by Americans (and consequently had some familiarity with their language and customs), come up with an ingenious way of preventing an attack by the Americans while also honoring the law that no foreigner may step on Japanese's sacred soil: they cover the beach with tatami, the thick woven mats used by the Japanese as flooring, and build a special treaty house on the mats – therefore the foreign feet never actually touch Japanese soil. This comparative success relieves Kayama of the need to commit seppuku. But when, after these events, he goes back home to bring the good news to his wife, he finds that she, anticipating the certain failure they were both expecting, has already killed herself.)

The lyrics are from the original Broadway cast album. There is also a recording of the 2004 Broadway revival, labelled The New Broadway Cast Recording, which includes some dialogue omitted from the OBC album (though, in the manner of many recent musical revivals, it also reduces the orchestra). There is a recording of the 1987 English National Opera revival, which I have not heard, mostly because I just found out about it while looking up links for the other two recordings (otherwise I would have bought it years ago, as Pacific Overtures has always been one of my favorite Sondheim works). You can also find the lyrics in Finishing the Hat, the first volume of Sondheim's two-volume collection and commentary on his own work (he doesn't discuss this particular lyric in much detail, though). In all three sources I've checked the words are the same.

18 March 2016

Friday photo 2016/12


apricot blossoms

This was taken just a few weeks ago, but the blossoms are already long gone.

14 March 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/11

Saint Ite's Song

Jesukin
stays with me day out, day in;
no loutish priest-spawned lodger he
but my own dear Jesukin.

I did not get this wounded heart
from fostering just anyone;
Jesu and his heavenly gang
curl up with me when day is done.

Jesukin gives me every good
and he gets a just return;
you try praying to any other
and in eternity you'll burn.

No Partholán, Aedh or corner boy
is nurtured in my secret shade
but Jesu, bright angel-headed
son of the Judaean maid.

Sons of puffed-up priests and chiefs
plead for my sweet fostering
but how can I have time for them
when all my care is Jesukin?

You owe your most tuneful praise,
you girls with tender voices,
to Him who reigns in heaven's height
– and under my pierced breast rejoices.

attributed to Saint Ite, translation/adaptation by Patrick Crotty

In honor of St Patrick's Day this Thursday, here is an ancient Irish poem attributed to St Ite (or Ita), who was born about one hundred years after Patrick was. Born in what is now County Waterford and baptized Deirdre, her name was later changed to Ita(e), which means thirst for holiness. Like many early female saints, she had to battle against her parents in order to avoid being married off. She became the leader of a community of similar women and was renowned for her austere way of life as well as her generous devotion to education and the spiritual guidance of others (hence one of the affectionate nicknames attached to her: foster mother of the saints of Erin). The usual miracles were attached to her legend as time went on; one of them, referenced in this poem, is that the infant Jesus came to her and allowed her to nurse him. She is fulfilling a traditional female role, but in a way that marks her off from others: exempt from the usual round of marriage and childbirth, she is granted a spiritual equivalent (perhaps an indication that the normal pleasures and ecstasies of life are not alien to the saints, but that grace encompasses all of life).

In his introduction to The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, Crotty specifically mentions this poem as one in which he has tried to recreate the original effect of an ancient work, rather than offer a more literal and necessarily antiquarian-sounding version, so this may be more of a re-creation than a faithful reproduction. I like the affectionate diminutive Jesukin, and Crotty intertwines her affection for her Jesukin with a rather scornful rejection of more ordinary suitors (Partholán and Aedh are Gaelic male names, possibly aristocratic, and a corner boy is, reasonably enough, a raffish lad who spends his time lounging on street corners – personifications of the regular romances she has renounced in favor of following her own road). She rejects these sons of puffed-up priests and chiefs and at the end calls on her community of women to join in hymning the praise of Jesus, while also reminding them of her special relationship with him: the child who under my pierced breast rejoices. I'm not really sure about the references here to Ita's wounded heart and pierced breast – I don't know if these are symbolic references to a heart pierced by suffering and abnegation, or if we're supposed to take them literally, as replications of Jesus's wounds on the cross. But in my research on St Ita I haven't come across any references to such wounds being attributed to her, though plenty of other miracles and manifestations of divine favor are, and as far as I know the first saint to receive the stigmata was Francis of Assisi, centuries later.

Below is another version of Ita's chant. This one was translated by Chester Kallman, who is probably best remembered these days for his co-authorship, with W H Auden, of the libretto to Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. This lyric was done for a different composer, Samuel Barber, as part of his wonderful song cycle Hermit Songs. You can see similar bones underlying this version and the one given above. Unlike Crotty, who tries to present the old poem as if new-born, Kallman deliberately uses archaic language to give a sense of a poem coming from a different time and place: for instance, churl (a variant of the archaic carl), which here means a person of low degree or a peasant, rather than a rude or mean-spirited man, which is the word's current meaning. This transformation occurred by the same process that turned clown from a rustic to a comic entertainer: language, which often evolves fastest and gets written down in urban and literary centers, does not grant dignity to the country classes (recognizing actual shepherds, rather than idealized Arcadians, as fit subjects for poetry was one of the great revolutions wrought by Wordsworth and the other Romantic poets).

Saint Ita's Vision

"I will take nothing from my Lord," said she,
"unless he gives me His Son from Heaven
In the form of a Baby that I may nurse Him."
So that Christ came down to her in the form
of a Baby – and then she said:

"Infant Jesus at my breast
Nothing in this world is true
Save O tiny nursling, You.
Infant Jesus at my breast
By my heart ev'ry night
You I nurse are not
A churl but were begot
On Mary the Jewess by Heaven's Light.
Infant Jesus at my breast
what King is there but You who could
Give everlasting Good?
wherefore I give my food.
Sing to Him, maidens, Sing your best
There is none that has such right
to your song as Heaven's King
who ev'ry night
Is Infant Jesus at my breast,"

attributed to Saint Ita, translated by Chester Kallman

As mentioned earlier, my source for the first version of the poem is The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, edited by Patrick Crotty; it looks as if there is a paperback version now, which I assume is the same as the hardback I have. The text for the Kallman translation is from the booklet for the Bridge Records CD Leontyne Price & Samuel Barber in Concert, an invaluable release which contains (among other things) a recording of the world premiere performance of Barber's Hermit Songs, given at the Library of Congress in 1953, with Price as the soloist and Barber on piano.

07 March 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/10

The Wish of the Brother with a Swan's Wing

As soon as the shirts touched them, the swan skins fell off, and her brothers stood before her in the flesh. Only the youngest was missing his left arm, and he had a swan's wing on his shoulder instead.

– "THE SIX SWANS," THE BROTHERS GRIMM

To meet his left arm again.
To pick up pebbles and skip them.
To close ten fingers over a pearl
of great price. To wind the gold stem
of his watch. Or not wind it.
To stop time. To walk up and speak to her.
To play Chopin and move the minutes
to tears. To carve her name on a bench.
To lift her chin toward his mouth.
To dance with her, one hand at the small
of her back, the other clasping her fingers
lightly – they are so small, like the bones
of a bird! With his strong left hand,
to slip a gold band on her finger.
To throw off his shirt, blue as the asters,
that his sister wove from the wild stars
of the field. To be broken yet whole, a ring
of still water. To sleep with his bride
on the floor of a white boat as it floats
out to sea. To carry her on the water's
shoulders. To shelter her
under his wing.

Nancy Willard

The Six Swans is a German folk tale about a brave girl whose six brothers have been transformed into swans. She must take a vow of silence and suffer terribly until she can finish weaving wild asters into jackets that, when thrown over the birds, will restore them to human form. It's a fairly standard (though entertaining) story, except for one detail, which some ancient anonymous Oma added in a moment of genius: the girl can't quite complete the six jackets in time, and the youngest brother's left arm permanently remains a swan's wing. This is a striking bit of grit in the happily-ever-after; it produces a pearl – though the youngest brother barely exists as a character, this one remarkable detail makes him one of the most memorable inhabitants of Fairy Land. I was repeatedly drawn to this story when I was a boy (and judging from the number of explorations and expansions of this character that I've come across, including this poem, I'm not the only one a bit obsessed by his fate). The boy is rendered a freak, a monster – but a beautiful one; given the choice between a swan's wing and, say, a rodent's tail or a bird's feet, who wouldn't want the wing, with its broad expanse, its obvious beauty and its implied power to lift you up and help you fly away? Unaided human flight is a long-time and deep human fantasy, found in many ancient stories (often with an unhappy ending: think of Icarus, and a warning about wishing to soar above the normal human sphere). And it's important that the birds here are swans, seen since ancient times as special birds because of their elegance and mystery (I understand that in reality swans hiss and cackle a bit, but they're not obstreperous like geese or common like ducks and there is a long-standing legend that they are silent birds, who only sing once, with devastating beauty, when they're on the point of death). They are associated with royalty and with poets (think of the romantic label "the Swan of Avon" for Shakespeare, or the swan boat that comes for Lohengrin). The youngest brother's monstrous fate is almost enviable, halfway between and inextricably linking beauty and horror.

Throughout this poem there are details that keep up the fairy-tale atmosphere: the colors are gold, blue, and white, as in an old-fashioned illustration; there are pearls and gold, music and dancing, a watch that stops time, a boat that magically floats in the right direction out at sea. As with many fairy tales, the people are royal yet also capable of weaving; they live somewhere between the heights and the humble everyday. There are also, again as in a fairy-tale, intimations of loss and sacrifice on the way to a happy ending: the pearl of great price is a reference to Matthew 13:45 - 46 ("Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls; / Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it"). If the young man plays Chopin beautifully enough, the minutes express their emotion through tears. Being normal means throwing off the enchanted (or disenchanting) shirt woven from the wild stars of the field. The poem hovers, like the shirt, between enchantment and disenchantment (an odd enchantment in normality, and a disenchantment with the solitude of magic and the isolation of even glorious freakishness).

Willard brings out both the beauty and the freakishness (that is, a longing for what seems like the comparative relief of normality) in the youngest brother's situation. As befits a story based on a fairy tale, the poem is swift and light yet rooted in heavier emotional materials. Beneath the elegance there's a tensile strength to this poem, like a bolt of silk. It is made up of brief sentences, each with an infinitive as its subject (that is, an action turned into a noun, an object, giving this half-saved youth an aura of action, but of action objectified, withheld, wished-for), sometimes elaborated with a prepositional phrase or the occasional subordinate clause. This repetition of grammatical structure helps give the poem its rhythm. It steps from one thought to the next, in a definite progression: we start with his basic wish, to be whole and normal once again. Then we move from boyish pleasures (skipping pebbles across a pond, an early suggestion of the water imagery that will reappear at the poem's end) to young love, expressed in specific moments, most of them masculine romantic gestures centered on the use of his hand – to walk up to the unnamed, unidentified, and possibly nonexistent her that he imagines would have appeared if he were normal, to speak to her, to carve her name on a bench, to lift her chin to his mouth for a kiss, to dance with her: we see the stages of developing and eventually reciprocated love, leading, as in a proper fairy tale, to a wedding. (He wants to feel strong and protective towards her, unhindered by his anomalous wing.)

But Willard takes the story beyond that, with the vividly physical act of throwing off his blue magical shirt, into sex and union with his bride. Throwing off the shirt of asters made by his sister suggests also throwing off the whole narrative that left him so beautifully deformed. The poem began with a wish to meet his left arm again (to meet, as if they were strangers or at least long-separated friends); it ends with the wish to shelter her (the unnamed, unidentified, possibly nonexistent bride) under his wing: the expression is usually a metaphor, but in this case it's literal. These lines hearken back to the ones about the delicacy of his lover's hand: her bones must be light and small, as in a bird's wing. Does the final line represent some sort of acceptance of his condition? Or a reminder of how deeply a metaphorical, perhaps even a longed-for, version of that condition is buried in the human psyche? Is an acceptance of his condition part of his wish to be broken yet whole (beautifully deformed but also loved as a normal man)? He wishes to become a ring of still water: ring might bring to mind the gold band he slips on her finger, still can mean both unmoving and a continuing condition; he wants to become water, like the sea on which he and his bride float out into forever. He is both denying his body and celebrating it by transforming it (another transformation for him) into a vast upholding ocean.

This is from In the Salt Marsh by Nancy Willard. The verses from St Matthew are from the King James Version. The basic version of the Six Swans story can be found in the tales of the Brothers Grimm, and there are many editions of the Grimm Fairy Tales; the one I looked at for this entry is The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, translated by Jack Zipes. Hans Christian Andersen also wrote a version of the story, called The Wild Swans; it's longer, more elaborate, and more Gothic (the shirts must be woven out of nettles picked from a graveyard at midnight). He also lays a heavier burden of weaving on his heroine, giving her eleven brothers instead of six. I used the version in Hans Christian Andersen: Eighty Fairy Tales, translated by R P Keigwin for the Pantheon Fairytale & Folklore Library.

04 March 2016