Week 313: Night Wind, by Boris Pasternak

If this poem by the Russian poet Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) is, as I assume, a veiled reference to his problems with the Soviet authorities, then the veil seems quite thin and one is surprised that it sufficed to throw them off the scent, but Pasternak seems to have been more successful than some in treading the difficult line with the censors, and even managed a rather fraught personal relationship with Stalin himself, who apparently decided that he should be treated as some kind of holy fool and left alone, or at least, spared execution.

Night Wind

The village blacks out. The young
Go home from going gay.
The songs and the drunks are silent.
Tomorrow’s an early day.

Only the night wind fumbles
A path bewildered among
The weeds, that brought it home
With the party-going young.

It hangs its head at the door,
No stomach for a fight,
Wondering how to settle
Its argument with night.

Between the garden fences
And trees that crowd the track
Night picks another quarrel
And wind must answer back.

Boris Pasternak (translated by M. Harari)

Week 312: Which Of Us Two, by Peter Viereck

When I came across this poem by the American poet Peter Viereck (1918-2006) it struck me as such a powerful, intimate statement of grief that I immediately went looking for more by the same poet, but, as sometimes happens, could find plenty of verbal pyrotechnics but nothing that seemed to match this one for feeling. Still, as I’ve said before, one breakthrough poem is more than most of us manage.

Which Of Us Two

When both are strong with tenderness, too wild
With oneness to be severance-reconciled;
When even the touch of fingertips can shock
Both to such seesaw mutuality
Of hot-pressed opposites as smelts a tree
Tighter to its dryad than to its own tight bark;
When neither jokes or mopes or hates alone
Or wakes untangled from the others; when
More-warm-than-soul, more-deep-than-flesh are one
In marriage of the very skeleton, –

When, then, soil peels more flesh off half this love
And locks it from the unstripped half above,
Who’s ever sure which side of soil he’s on?
Have I lain seconds here, or years like this?
I’m sure of nothing else but loneliness
And darkness. Here’s such black as stuffs a tomb,
Or merely midnight in an unshared room.
Holding my breath for fear my breath is gone,
Unmoving and afraid to try to move,
Knowing only you have somehow left my side.
I lie here, wondering which of us has died.

Peter Viereck

Week 311: Anglais Mort à Florence, by Wallace Stevens

Every so often I have another go at reading Wallace Stevens, whose work I continue to find intriguing and frustrating in equal measure. Intriguing because the verse has such hypnotic cadences; frustrating because it seems to exist in some parallel universe where sometimes the words have meanings or associations that don’t seem to have made their way into mine. As a case in point, the last three stanzas here seem to me very fine, with the repetition of ‘But he remembered the time when he stood alone’ tolling like a bell, but what on earth are the police doing suddenly crashing in on the scene out of nowhere? Does this refer to some incident in a novel (possibly, from the poem’s title, a French novel) that I haven’t read? As usual, any enlightenment will be gratefully received.

Anglais Mort à Florence

A little less returned for him each spring.
Music began to fail him. Brahms, although
His dark familiar, often walked apart.

His spirit grew uncertain of delight,
Certain of its uncertainty, in which
That dark companion left him unconsoled

For a self returning mostly memory.
Only last year he said that the naked moon
Was not the moon he used to see, to feel

(In the pale coherences of moon and mood
When he was young), naked and alien,
More leanly shining from a lankier sky.

Its ruddy pallor had grown cadaverous.
He used his reason, exercised his will,
Turning in time to Brahms as alternate

In speech. He was that music and himself.
They were particles of order, a single majesty:
But he remembered the time when he stood alone.

He stood at last by God’s help and the police;
But he remembered the time when he stood alone.
He yielded himself to that single majesty;

But he remembered the time when he stood alone,
When to be and delight to be seemed to be one,
Before the colors deepened and grew small.

Wallace Stevens

Week 310: From ‘King Lear’, by William Shakespeare

It seems that yesterday was National Poetry Day. Some years ago I did try to get involved in this, having been told that our local library was going to be mounting a display. Moved by a certain sense of duty to my poor publisher, I went along and enquired rather diffidently if they’d like to feature some of my own work, you know, local poet and all that. The kindly librarian explained to me that really her wall-space was reserved for more established names: Pam Ayres, Maya Angelou, Roger McGough, Shakespeare…. I was not surprised, of course, but I did feel the need to remind myself of exactly what this Shakespeare fellow had done to merit a place in such distinguished company. Back home I picked up my ‘Lear’ and it opened at this passage, where the old king has just been reconciled with his daughter and the poetry gathers in a pool of serenity before its last plunge over the brink of tragedy. And I thought to myself oh well, fair enough.

From ‘King Lear’, Act V, Scene 3

Lear: ‘No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon’.

William Shakespeare