27 June 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/26

Upon the Loss of His Little Finger

Arithmetic nine digits, and no more,
Admits of, then I still have all my store.
For what mischance hath ta'en from my left hand,
It seems did only for a cipher stand.
But this I'll say for thee, departed joint,
Thou wert not given to steal, nor pick, nor point
At any in disgrace; but thou didst go
Untimely to thy death only to show
The other members what they once must do:
Hand, arm, leg, thigh, and all must follow too.
Oft didst thou scan my verse, where, if I miss
Henceforth, I will impute the cause to this.
A finger's loss (I speak it not in sport)
Will make a verse a foot too short.
Farewell, dear finger: much I grieve to see
How soon mischance hath made a hand of thee.

Thomas Randolph

This witty, macabre poem is from the early sixteenth century, when the clever playing-out of conceits, often with spiritual connotations, was much prized. I assume the mischance Randolph mentions actually happened, causing him to lose a finger and then turn life's lead into poetic gold by writing this epitaph. He begins by punning on digits, meaning numerals but also fingers (digit for numbers comes from the Latin digitus for finger, because people would count on them). He is considering 1 to 9 as the digits allowed by arithmetical rules, and consoling himself that he still has all required digits, despite the loss of one finger, which now must represent zero (the cipher of line 4, and perhaps that word, which can also mean writing in a secret code, suggests why he is teasing out various meanings from his finger's loss, trying to figure out what this strange personal mutilation might mean). Zero, a late joiner to the arithmetical game (reaching Europe in the tenth century, via the Islamic scholars resident in the Iberian peninsula), is not considered quite a regular number here; it is the presence that indicates an absence.

Randolph then eulogizes the moral worth of his lost finger: it did not steal, nor pick (pilfer), nor add to the shame of others by pointing out their shame; instead, it demonstrates a useful lesson in impending mortality, reminding the rest of Randolph's body parts of the way of all flesh. In listing the admonished parts, the poet starts with those closest to the finger: the hand, then the arm, and then the parts most like the arm: the leg and thigh, as if each is unconscious of the inevitability of death until reminded by the loss of a part close to or resembling it.

Having considered the arithmetical and moral implications of losing his finger, Randolph moves on to a practical consideration: he used his fingers to count out his five-beat lines (a reminder of the elemental physical nature, the link to the body and dance and especially song, underlying even an elaborate and sophisticated jeu d'esprit like this). Randolph puns on foot meaning a group of syllables making up a metrical unit in poetry as well as the thing you put shoes on: losing his finger might lead to the loss of a (poetic) foot, and indeed the line in which he announced this consequence (Will make a verse a foot too short) is indeed short a foot (that is, it's a four-beat line, contrasted with the five-beat lines in the rest of the poem). This loss is really hitting home for a poet! Despite his playful wit, there is a mournful undercurrent to all his comparisons: the digit that was his finger now stands for zero, the finger's loss is a memento mori incorporated in his body, his poetry will now halt in with missing feet. He concludes with a final farewell to his dear finger, adding one last pun, the effect of which is unfortunately blunted for us because the idiom to make a hand of [something], meaning to make away with or to make an end of [something], fell out of usage a few centuries ago. As with the earlier pun on foot, we now have the lost finger turned into a hand: a synecdochal reminder that the loss of the one finger prefigures the eventual loss of his entire body (and indeed Randolph died young – thirty years old).

This poem is from The New Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse, edited by Alastair Fowler.

20 June 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/25

To a Song of Sappho Discovered in Egypt

           And Sappho's flowers, so few,
            But roses all.

Jonah wept within the whale;
But you have sung these centuries
Under the brown banks of the Nile
Within a dead dried crocodile:
So fares the learned tale.

When they embalmed the sacred beast
The Sapphic scroll was white and strong
To wrap the spices that were needed,
Its song unheard, its word unheeded
By crocodile or priest.

The song you sang on Lesbos when
Atthis was kind, or Mica sad;
The startled whale spewed Jonah wide,
From out the monster mummified
Your roses sing again.

Your roses! from the seven strands
Of the small harp whereon they grew;
The holy beast has had his pleasure,
His bellyful of Attic measure
Under the desert sands.

Along strange winds your petals blew
In singing fragments, roses all;
The air is heavy on the Nile,
The drowsy gods drowse on the while
As gods are wont to do.

Leonora Speyer

There is no actual Biblical authority for saying that Jonah wept in the belly of the whale; in the King James version, he does cry, but in the sense of crying out, in an urgent appeal or entreaty: I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord (Jonah, 2:2). Perhaps Speyer was misremembering, or misread the passage. Perhaps she could not resist the alliteration of wept within the whale. Or perhaps she merely invented the detail (which is entirely plausible) as part of her poem's exploration of the connections and contrasts between religious texts and sacred rituals and the love poems of Sappho.

Although there have been some recent papyrus discoveries of previously unknown fragments by Sappho, this poem, published in 1926, refers to then-new fragments found in what are known as the Oxyrhynchus papyri, for the town in Egypt near which they were found. It's difficult and sad to realize that until fairly recently we had even less of Sappho's poetry than the fraction known today, but then much of the classical past is lost or known only in fragments. Even a celebrated and influential author like Menander, exponent of Greek New Comedy (and thereby father of Plautus, Terence, commedia dell'arte, Molière, and numerous romantic comedies) and with a special aura of Christian-era wisdom as the sole pagan author quoted by St Paul, was known only by stray fragments until the late 1950s, when the Dyskolos (The Misanthrope) was found in close to complete form. There are still discoveries waiting to be made.

Anyway: until these discoveries, much of Sappho's mystique came from her very high reputation in the ancient world, exemplified here by the epigraph from Meleager (this would be Meleager of Gadara, a poet and early founder of the collection of verse that become known as The Greek Anthology). Throughout this lyric Speyer will develop his comparison of Sappho's poems to the rose, generally considered the flower of all flowers, at least among poets.

Speyer begins by contrasting the weeping of Jehovah's reluctant prophet Jonah, hidden within the whale, with the silent singing of the Sappho manuscript inside another water creature, a crocodile (many of the Oxyrhynchus papyri had been used in the mummification of crocodiles; not surprisingly for a creature associated with the life-giving Nile, the crocodile was sacred, an avatar of the god Sobek). Despite the presence of these water creatures (the whale and the crocodile) and the watery tears of Jonah, Speyer creates a sense of dryness and desiccation in the scene: we have the brown banks of the Nile and the dead dried crocodile; in both cases alliteration increases the emphasis on the words. So fares the learned tale: that's what happens to things outside the ordinary, perhaps, or perhaps the reference is to Sappho's relatively obscure and archaic Aeolic dialect, which was less familiar than the standard Attic dialect.

To the priests mummifying their dead reptile, the white and strong (like a Greek column) scroll was merely handy and suitable material. The priests are equated with the dead crocodiles; both are deaf to the personal, emotional songs (when Atthis was kind, or Mica sad) found on the scroll. Speyer compares her wonderfully vivid startled whale spewing Jonah wide (again, she makes music with alliteration: startled / spewing and whale / wide) with the monster mummified releasing Sappho's poems. There is a contrast between the sacred history's reluctant prophet of Jehovah and the poems, described as beauteous roses surreally singing again. But there's also an equivalence in dignity and importance, despite what the ancient priests thought; actually, this poem tends to tip towards the ancient love poems.

The lyric ends with two rhapsodic stanzas continuing the comparisons between the Sappho fragments and the desert world of priests and mummies. The papyrus fragments would themselves be browned and fragile, but Speyer transfigures them into roses, working off of Meleager's ancient praise, and the fresh and lovely petals contrast with the desert sands and the heavy air. Speyer reminds us of the performative nature of Sappho's poems: all of them were originally sung, by soloist or chorus, to the accompaniment of a small harp, an instrument that became associated with Sappho (hence the reference here to the seven strands / Of the small harp). Sappho's ancient fragments are made to seem fresh to us by the comparison to roses, as opposed to the strange, even alien world of the holy beast hidden under the desert sands. The "roses" that slept in these fragments awaken and are spread abroad again, alive and singing, in contrast to the Egyptian gods: while the new ancient poems are spread abroad, the drowsy gods drowse on; the repetition drowsy / drowse helps reinforce the sense of, well, drowsiness, of lethargic half-sleeping semi-dreaming somnolence. This is, Speyer tells us, as gods are wont to do: in the final line, the silent mysterious world of the Egyptian priests (and, by implication, the Judeo-Christian tradition drawn in by the initial mention of Jonah in the whale), the withdrawn and invisible divinity of the gods, is contrasted with the everlasting livingness and love of the poet's art.

I took this poem from the Library of America collection American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, Volume One: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker, edited by Nathaniel Mackey, Marjorie Perloff, and Carolyn Kizer.

16 June 2016

Refuge of sinners (Jacky! Tommy!)

Refuge of sinners. Comfortress of the afflicted. Ora pro nobis. Well has it been said that whosoever prays to her with faith and constancy can never be lost or cast away: and fitly is she too a haven of refuge for the afflicted because of the seven dolours which transpierced her own heart. Gerty could picture the whole scene in the church, the stained glass windows lighted up, the candles, the flowers and the blue banners of the blessed Virgin's sodality and Father Conroy was helping Canon O'Hanlon at the altar, carrying things in and out with his eyes cast down. He looked almost a saint and his confessionbox was so quiet and clean and dark and his hands were just like white wax and if ever she became a Dominican nun in their white habit perhaps he might come to the convent for the novena of Saint Dominic. He told her that time when she told him about that in confession crimsoning up to the roots of her hair for fear he could see, not to be troubled because that was only the voice of nature and we were all subject to nature's laws, he said, in this life and that that was no sin because that came from the nature of woman instituted by God, he said, and that Our Blessed Lady herself said to the archangel Gabriel be it done unto me according to Thy Word. He was so kind and holy and often and often she thought and thought could she work a ruched teacosy with embroidered floral design for him as a present or a clock but they had a clock she noticed on the mantelpiece white and gold with a canary bird that came out of a little house to tell the time the day she went there about the flowers for the forty hours' adoration because it was hard to know what sort of a present to give or perhaps an album of illuminated views of Dublin or some place.

The exasperating little brats of twins began to quarrel again and Jacky threw the ball out towards the sea and they both ran after it. Little monkeys common as ditchwater. Someone ought to take them and give them a good hiding for themselves to keep them in their places, the both of them. And Cissy and Edy shouted after them to come back because they were afraid the tide might come in on them and be drowned.

– Jacky! Tommy!

Once again, a very happy Bloomsday to my mountain flowers.

13 June 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/24

Poor, fond deluded heart!

Poor, fond deluded heart! wilt thou again
     Listen, enchanted, to the siren song
     Of treacherous Pleasure? Ah, deceived too long,
Cease now at length to throb with wishes vain!
Ah, cease her paths bewildering to explore!
     Betrayed so oft! yet recollect the woe
     Which waits on disappointment; taught to know
By sad experience, wilt thou not give o'er
To rest, deluded, on the fickle wing
     Which Fancy lends thee in her airy flight,
     But to seduce thee to some giddy height,
And leave thee there a poor forsaken thing.
     Hope warbles once again, Truth pleads in vain,
     And my charmed soul sinks vanquished by her strain.

Mary Tighe

It's not surprising that a poet would be led astray by the power of imagination, but this does seem like a universal problem: lecturing ourselves on the need to learn from our past experience while being seduced once again by the hope that this time it will be different. What is Pleasure here? It could easily be read just as romantic feelings (or a euphemism for sexual ones): the poet starts by addressing her heart, her fond deluded heart (in the early nineteenth century, when this sonnet was written, fond still retained some of the aura of its earlier meaning, foolish). She speaks of throbbing, siren songs, seduction, and flying, all of which tend to have erotic connotations. But when I first read this poem I thought of going to plays and concerts, which is how I spend many of my evenings, despite the inconvenience and expense and (more often than I'd like) the disappointment. Pleasure can be any of those little treats we arrange for ourselves in the hopes of making the grind of life varied, interesting, and enjoyable.

The tight structure of a sonnet (fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, with a strict rhyme scheme) makes it seem that this is an argument the poet has made with herself many times before, rather than a spontaneous effusion. She begins by asking her heart if she will, again, be enchanted by the siren song of Pleasure, which she already knows to be treacherous (a sense reinforced by the reference to the sirens, whose lovely songs drew sailors to their deaths). She reminds herself of the disappointment and unhappiness that, experience has shown her, inevitably ensue when she follows the bewildering byways of Pleasure. As we switch from the octave to the concluding sestet, she continues to argue with herself, but in terms which make clear how appealing is the thing she's warning herself against. She wants herself to give over (give up) resting, deluded, on the fickle wing but despite deluded and fickle there is a basic appeal in the ideas of resting and of soaring, and the position of to rest at the beginning of the line subtle separates and highlights the concept from the questioning injunction wilt thou not give o'er. And, especially for a poet, why shouldn't Fancy (imagination) take precedence over experience? She may well be abandoned on a giddy height, but where would she be otherwise?

Her sestet ends with a couplet that neatly summarizes and amplifies the poem: Hope warbles once again, Truth pleads in vain, / And my charmed soul sinks vanquished by her strain. Warbles connects back to the siren song mentioned in the second line and with the birds implicit in the mentions of wings and flying. Truth, which Tighe is using to mean one's past experience, pleads, and pleads in vain. It might be wiser, but also sadder, to ignore warbling in favor of pleading. Her charmed soul sinks, seduced. Charmed connects back to enchanted in the second line; both suggest some kind of suspicious magic at work. Now instead of her heart it is her soul that is at stake; her soul sinks and is vanquished, both of which, when applied to the soul, suggest a kind of moral peril underlying her surrender. She (or rather her Fancy, her imaginative capacity) has depicted Pleasure to herself in a way that makes its appeal to us as well, but there is a stinging little reminder as we reach the end that the result might be not only some pain but also the loss of one's soul (that is, oneself) – the familiar phrase amusing ourselves to death might come to mind.

The poem is from A Century of Sonnets: The Romantic-Era Revival, edited by Paula R. Feldman and Daniel Robinson.

10 June 2016

Friday photo 2016/24

detail of an untitled sculpture by Ruth Asawa, with shadows, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 2016

06 June 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/23

A Small Fig Tree

I am dead, to be sure,
for thwarting Christ's pleasure,
Jesus Christ called Saviour.

I was a small fig tree.
Unjust it seems to me
that I should withered be.

If justice sits with God,
Christ is cruel Herod
and I by magic dead.

If there is no justice
where great Jehovah is,
I will the devil kiss.

Donald Hall

In this hymn-like poem, Hall is playing off one of those endlessly ambiguous and frustrating Gospel passages: Christ curses a fig tree. Here is the relevant passage from the Gospel of St Mark, in the King James translation:

And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry: And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon; and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it. . . . And when even was come, he went out of the city. And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away.

Mark, 11: 12 - 14, 19 - 21

The passage goes on to show Jesus pointing to the withering of the tree as proof of the power of faith and prayer. This poem asks us to consider the event from the perspective of the fig tree. Hall immediately characterizes the tree as small, a description not included in the Gospel: small in this case suggests endearing, and also a bit helpless, as if we are to think of the tree as of a child. Small also suggests powerlessness, at least in a physical sense: the small fig tree against the might and vastness of the Creator and his universe. One little word, small, and we already feel a personal sense of the fig tree as an underdog in this battle. We root for it.

The fig tree remains within the world of religion; we don't see things from some pantheistic or even deistic view: the cursed tree does not reject but instead contemplates and questions the power of Christ in the universe. Linguistically and formally the fig tree's speech evokes the simple structure and rhymes of old hymns and early rhymed prayers. The inversion of normal word order (Unjust it seems to me / That I should withered be) sounds a bit archaic and dignified. The slightly rough slippage from perfect rhyme (sure / pleasure / Saviour; God, Herod, dead) is reminiscent of old poems whose once-perfect rhymes have been eroded by linguistic changes over time; they also remind us that perfection is elusive and in this world perhaps nonexistent.

The tree begins by pointing out the obvious: it is now surely and certainly dead. But its statement of the cause – for thwarting Christ's pleasure – immediately raises questions that the Gospel avoids. St Mark's account sees the incident as an illustration of the power of faith and prayer, which is much grander than seeing it as a petulant lashing out at a tree for not bearing fruit (surely the Creator should know what fruits were seasonal?). The sly little tree further undercuts Christ by referring to him as one called Saviour, with the implication that though he may be called that, he does not really deserve the title (indeed, he is no Saviour to the fig tree). In the second stanza, the tree states what it is: a small fig tree. Did it deserve to be destroyed in this outburst of wrath? Despite its status as little, as nonhuman, as surely dead, the tree asserts the right to question the Divine and Universal order: unjust it seems to me.

In the remaining two stanzas, the tree lays out the moral dilemma: if God is just, then how can Christ, who blasted the tree for something it was not responsible for, be God? Instead he is as cruel and as enmeshed in earthly power as Herod (a name which will conjure up a famous incident in Christ's early life: the Massacre of the Innocents, in which all the baby boys near Bethlehem were killed on Herod's orders, in his attempt to eradicate the rumored rival king born there). If God is just and Christ has done what is unjust, then the curse is not an illustration of prayer or faith but of magic. Religion is always careful to differentiate its miracles, which it claims as examples of Divine power and benevolence, from magic, which comes from – somewhere else, most likely the Devil. Marking the distinction between miracles and magic was always a source of anxiety, even in the early days of Christianity (see Peter's condemnation of Simon Magus in Chapter 8 of the Acts of the Apostles).

The tree then continues its logical examination of the situation: if justice is not in fact a necessary attribute of God, then God is not good, and why not embrace God's opponent, the Devil? Jehovah is an old form of the sacred and unspeakable Hebrew name of God, now usually transliterated as Yahweh. Jehovah not only adds to the archaic Biblical air of the poem, it connects the little fig tree blasted by Christ with the often vindictive deity of the early Hebrew scriptures. It's interesting that justice is seen as the major attribute of a true and good God, as opposed to other frequently cited qualities: God is Love, God is Mercy, God is Caritas. In this poem we hear the ancient and never-answered voice of the victim: I did my best to do right, I did not deserve this, why did this happen to me, why did God allow this to happen to me – why did God do this to me? The small fig tree joins Job as one of those who stubbornly persist in questioning the nature and power of the Almighty.

I took this poem from Chapters Into Verse: Poetry in English Inspired by the Bible, Volume 2: Gospel to Revelation, assembled and edited by Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder.