Even after the murder
of the child Muhammad on Rosh Hashanah,
the paper didn’t go black.
In the same water in which the snipers
wash their uniforms,
I prepare my pasta,
and over it pour
olive oil in which I’ve browned
which I cooked for two minutes with dried tomatoes,
crushed garlic, and a tablespoon of basil.
As I eat, the learned minister of foreign affairs
and public security
appears on the screen,
and when he’s done
I write this poem.
For that’s how it’s always been —
the murderers murder,
the intellectuals make it palatable,
and the poet sings.
(translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole)
For those of us who regularly seek solace in poems, acts of terrorism can be particularly hard to deal with, because (the deluge of poetry written in the aftermath of 9/11 notwithstanding) there just doesn’t seem to be enough good poetry about living with terrorism.
In times like these, I find myself turning to books like J’Accuse (New Directions 2003), a collection of ‘political’ poems by Hebrew poet Aharon Shabtai. Shabtai’s poems seem matter of fact, even flippant, in tone, but beneath their nonchalance lies a deep groundswell of outrage – an outrage made all the more powerful for being directed impartially against all who traffic in hatred or hold human life cheap, whether Arab or Jew. Shabtai’s voice is the voice of a poet for whom terrorism is a fact of everyday life, and therefore something to be not dismayed by but struggled against. What you hear in Shabtai’s poems is the constant rediscovery of the balance of being human, of learning to endure the horrors of the news without either succumbing to hatred or surrendering to indifference. It is what makes these poems so unexpectedly comforting.
(recording courtesy: PBS)
Der Krieg wird nicht mehr erklärt,
sondern fortgesetzt. Das Unerhörte
ist alltäglich geworden. Der Held
bleibt den Kämpfen fern. Der Schwache
ist in die Feuerzonen gerückt.
Die Uniform des Tages ist die Geduld,
die Auszeichnung der armselige Stern
der Hoffnung über dem Herzen.
Er wird verliehen,
wenn nichts mehr geschieht,
wenn das Trommelfeuer verstummt,
wenn der Feind unsichtbar geworden ist
und der Schatten ewiger Rüstung
den Himmel bedeckt.
Er wird verliehen
für die Flucht von den Fahnen,
für die Tapferkeit vor dem Freund,
für den Verrat unwürdiger Geheimnisse
und die Nichtachtung
Translation (by Peter Filkins):
War is no longer declared,
but rather continued. The outrageous
has become the everyday. The hero
is absent from the battle. The weak
are moved into the firing zone.
The uniform of the day is patience,
the order of merit is the wretched star
of hope over the heart.
It is awarded
when nothing more happens,
when the bombardment is silenced,
when the enemy has become invisible
and the shadow of eternal armament
covers the sky.
It is awarded
for deserting the flag,
for bravery before a friend,
for the betrayal of shameful secrets,
and the disregard
of every command.
I’ve been reading a lot of Bachmann recently, having just got my hands on a 2006 edition of her Collected Poems translated by Peter Filkins and entitled Darkness Spoken.
What I love about this poem is the first stanza, which seems to me to encapsulate the essence of modern warfare, the way the horrors of violence are converted into just another television feature, how routine steadily numbs us to the brutality of the truth.
She rose to his requirement, dropped
The playthings of her life
To take the honorable work
Of woman and of wife.
If aught she missed in her new day,
Of amplitude, or awe,
Or first prospective, or the gold
In using wore away,
It lay unmentioned, as the sea
Develops pearl and weed,
But only to himself is known,
The fathoms they abide.
It’s been over a year since we ran a Dickinson poem, so I thought it was about time.
I don’t know where to begin to praise this poem. I love the subversion of the message – the way the opening stanza loudly dismisses the “playthings of her life” and celebrates the “honorable work / of woman and of wife” only to have the second stanza make disappointment and suffocation seem almost inevitable. I love the arc of the poem – the first stanza rising, the second stanza losing momentum, leveling off, and the third dropping quietly to the bottom of the sea. I love the conciseness of it, the precision of the word choices (“amplitude, or awe”, “pearl and weed” “abide”), that startling ‘himself’ in the penultimate line that always takes my breath away. And I love the music of the poem, the rhythmic perfection that makes the end rhymes (awe, away; weed, abide) seem entirely natural, the way the opening line of each stanza is a shift in gears, the subdued gentleness of those last lines with their sense of something coming softly to rest.
When Americans say a man
takes liberties, they mean
he’s gone too far. In Philadelphia today I saw
a kid on a leash look mom-ward
and announce his fondest wish: one
bicentennial burger, hold
the relish. Hold is forget,
On the courts of Philadelphia
the rich prepare
to serve, to fault. The language is a game as well,
in which love can mean nothing,
doubletalk mean lie. I’m saying
doubletalk with me. I’m saying
go so far the customs are untold.
Make nothing without words,
and let me be
the one you never hold.
While we’re doing poems that dabble playfully in the possibilities of language, I thought I’d throw in this Heather McHugh poem (originally from A World of Difference, since republished in Hinge and Sign) which takes a few cleverly observed idiosyncracies of the language, and pushes them in delightful and unexpected directions.
Oh, and don’t miss the bell!
O Hell! what doe mine eyes with grief behold,
Into our room of bliss thus high advanc’t
Creatures of other mould, earth-born perhaps,
Not Spirits, yet to heav’nly Spirits bright
Little inferior; whom my thoughts pursue
With wonder, and could love, so lively shines
In them Divine resemblance, and such grace
The hand that formd them on thir shape hath pourd.
Ah gentle pair, yee little think how nigh
Your change approaches, when all these delights
Will vanish and deliver ye to woe,
More woe, the more your taste is now of joy;
Happie, but for so happie ill secur’d
Long to continue, and this high seat your Heav’n
Ill fenc’t for Heav’n to keep out such a foe
As now is enterd; yet no purpos’d foe
To you whom I could pittie thus forlorne
Though I unpittied: League with you I seek,
And mutual amitie so streight, so close,
That I with you must dwell, or you with me
Henceforth; my dwelling haply may not please
Like this fair Paradise, your sense, yet such
Accept your Makers work; he gave it me,
Which I as freely give; Hell shall unfould,
To entertain you two, her widest Gates,
And send forth all her Kings; there will be room,
Not like these narrow limits, to receive
Your numerous ofspring; if no better place,
Thank him who puts me loath to this revenge
On you who wrong me not for him who wrongd.
And should I at your harmless innocence
Melt, as I doe, yet public reason just,
Honour and Empire with revenge enlarg’d,
By conquering this new World, compels me now
To do what else though damnd I should abhorre.
It’s been a very Milton-centric week in my online world. First this post (and the discussion in the comments space) by Daisy Fried over at Harriet about the delights of Milton’s verse and his accessibility to modern readers, then this piece today by Claire Tomalin in the Guardian Book Review. So I figured it was time we posted another extract from Paradise Lost (see earlier post here).
As I say in that earlier post, the thing that always strikes me, reading Milton today, is how, once you get past the often convoluted diction (and it does take a bit of working out, doesn’t it?) you discover a mind that is strikingly modern in its conception of the world. The two lines that immediately follow this speech in the book read: “So spake the Fiend, and with necessity, / The tyrant’s plea, excused his devilish deeds.”  Substitute ‘terrorist’ for ‘tyrant’, and what Milton gives us here is a pitch-perfect rendition of the standard terrorist apology: it’s terrible to have to hurt the innocent, but what can they do? It’s the big bad Oppressor’s fault, that’s what’s compelling them to act such brutally, they’re only sharing what’s been done to them, they would spare the innocent if they could but ‘justice’ demands it.
Fried, in her post, calls Paradise Lost “psychologically authentic”, and reading this passage it’s easy to see what she means. But the real power of Milton lies in a deeper authenticity, in a grasp of human nature so fundamental it can come to seem prophetic . That’s why Milton, for all his baroque grammar, remains not just relevant (whatever that means) but insightful and exciting.
 Quick note on the text. The text I reproduce here comes from Literature.org though my reading uses the text from the 1909 Harvard Classics edition of the Complete Poems. There are a number of differences in punctuation between the two texts, which explains why the audio recording may not follow the text here all that faithfully.
 Nor is Paradise Lost the only place where Milton’s concerns seem surprisingly modern. In a sonnet to Sir Henry Vane the Younger (from 1652; one of the sonnets Tomalin doesn’t mention in her piece), Milton praises Vane saying “Both spiritual power, and civil, what each means / What severs each, thou hast learned, which few have done. / The bounds of either sword to thee we owe:” If only we could say the same of George W. Bush.
What if I were turned on by seemingly innocent words such as
What if I maneuvered conversation in the hope that others would
pronounce these words?
Perhaps the excitement would come from the way the other person
touched them lightly and carelessly with his tongue.
What if “of” were such a hot button?
“Scumble of bushes.”
What if there were a hidden pleasure
in calling one thing
by another’s name?
A bewitching little poem, that perfectly showcases Armantrout’s abiding fascination with the intricacies and intimacies of the language, the quality of her attention, the way words and phrases, placed in her deft hands, take on a vitality one never suspected they had. R.S. Thomas, you may remember, wrote of the poet learning “how to assemble / With more skill the arbitrary parts / Of ode or sonnet” but Armantrout’s poems work the other way, taking the poem apart into its component parts, as though one way to study time were to disassemble the clocks and examine each cog with careful attention. In poems like this one, Armantrout places everyday speech under a multi-colored microscope, discovering a universe of nuance and detail that is both delightful and treacherous.
Armantrout’s reading comes to your courtesy of Poets.org, which also features other Armantrout poems, including an audio recording of ‘Yonder’ here. You can also find a treasure trove of Armantrout readings over at the Kenyon Review, as well as new poems by her in The New Yorker and in mark(s)