Week 416: The Wild Iris, by Louise Gluck

I confess that until last week’s news that she had won the Nobel Prize for literature I had not heard of the American poet Louise Gluck (oh, come on, David, do keep up), but I soon found a good selection of her work online. Some poets possess you immediately, some you need to live with for a while: at the moment I don’t feel I’ve quite tuned in to these spare, mythic poems but I’ve made a good start with this one, the title poem from a 1992 collection.

The Wild Iris

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

Hear me out: that which you call death
I remember.

Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.

It is terrible to survive
as consciousness
buried in the dark earth.

Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:

from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.

Louise Gluck

Week 415: The Persian Version, by Robert Graves

I see that in this blog so far I have rarely if ever featured the poetry of wit and humour, despite the fact that I relish a well-turned parody or satire as much as anyone, so here to make some amends is a report on the Battle of Marathon as seen from the Persian point of view. Robert Graves, though primarily a love poet, could also be very funny – as witness, for example, the poem ‘Welsh Incident’ – and here he takes aim at political/military spin, though in my experience the satire could equally apply to the desperate quest for morale-boosting positivity engaged in by corporate bodies generally.

The Persian Version

Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon
The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon.
As for the Greek theatrical tradition
Which represents that summer’s expedition
Not as a mere reconnaissance in force
By three brigades of foot and one of horse
(Their left flank covered by some obsolete
Light craft detached from the main Persian fleet)
But as a grandiose, ill-starred attempt
To conquer Greece – they treat it with contempt;
And only incidentally refute
Major Greek claims, by stressing what repute
The Persian monarch and the Persian nation
Won by this salutary demonstration:
Despite a strong defence and adverse weather
All arms combined magnificently together.

Robert Graves

Week 414: If I Should Ever by Chance, by Edward Thomas

I find this poem a pure delight. For one thing it is, uncharacteristically for Edward Thomas, an essentially happy poem, even if the happiness is tinged with wistfulness: ‘If I should ever by chance grow rich’ – Thomas knew quite well that he was never going to grow rich, certainly not rich enough to own a tract of English countryside, having chosen the penurious life of a literary hack.

Then there are the field names: Codham, Roses, Pyrgo. Thomas loved to pore over maps finding these curious old appellations, so expressive of our ancient, many-layered, parcelled-out countryside, and letting them conjure up for him memories and visions of the landscape he was so intimate with. And there is the playful relationship in the poem with his small daughter Bronwen, the only one who could lighten his black moods, the one he would take on his spring walks, competing with her to find the first flowers of the year. So it is a light rent that he imagines asking of her first, and then really no rent at all, since it would be quite difficult not to find a blossom on furze at any time of year: hence the country saying ‘When gorse is out of bloom, kissing’s out of season’.

Happy, I called it, if  a little wistful. Yet I suspect that for the Thomas family, after Edward’s death in France in 1917, there must have been a sadness beyond wistfulness about this particular poem, having to stand as it did for all the things a father might have wished to give to a daughter whose growing up he was never to see.

If I Should Ever by Chance

If I should ever by chance grow rich
I’ll buy Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch,
Roses, Pyrgo, and Lapwater,
And let them all to my elder daughter.
The rent I shall ask of her will be only
Each year’s first violets, white and lonely,
The first primroses and orchises –
She must find them before I do, that is.
But if she finds a blossom on furze
Without rent they shall all for ever be hers,
Whenever I am sufficiently rich:
Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch,
Roses, Pyrgo and Lapwater, –
I shall give them all to my elder daughter.

Edward Thomas

Week 413: On A Return From Egypt, by Keith Douglas

This appears to have been the last poem that Keith Douglas wrote, before his death at the age of 24 during the Normandy campaign on June 1944, a loss to English poetry that was great if little recognised at the time. I do not think it is quite as perfectly realised as some others of his poems, like ‘Vergissmeinnicht’, ‘Canoe’ or ‘Aristocrats’ that I have already featured, but I do find the third stanza in particular very moving. One might speak of pathos, but really there is nothing pathetic about Douglas: this is not an invitation to sympathy but more like a great howl of frustration from a poet who knows he has so much more to give but also has a growing sense that he has little time left in which to give it. ‘Time, time is all I lacked…’. Indeed.

On A Return From Egypt

To stand here in the wings of Europe
disheartened, I have come away
from the sick land where in the sun lay
the gentle sloe-eyed murderers
of themselves, exquisites under a curse;
here to exercise my depleted fury.

For the heart is a coal, growing colder
when jewelled caerulean seas change
into grey rocks, grey water-fringe,
sea and sky altering like a cloth
till colour and sheen are gone both:
cold is an opiate of the soldier.

And all my endeavours are unlucky explorers
come back, abandoning the expedition;
the specimens, the lilies of ambition
still spring in their climate, still unpicked:
but time, time is all I lacked
to find them, as the great collectors before me.

The next month, then, is a window
and with a crash I’ll split the glass.
Behind it stands one I must kiss,
person of love or death,
a person or a wraith,
I fear what I shall find.

Keith Douglas

Week 412: Die Spitze, by Rainer Maria Rilke

A favourite theme in the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke is the sacrifices that the artist must make for the sake of his/her art. In his poem ‘Der Dichter’ (‘The Poet’) he bemoans these: ‘Ich habe keine Geliebte, kein Haus,/keine Stelle auf der ich lebe’ (I have no beloved, no house, nowhere I can live’). Actually one feels he didn’t do too badly: people lent him their castles to compose in; a poet nowadays would be lucky to get the offer of a garden shed.

This poem exemplifies that theme of sacrifice: it is about a lace-maker who goes blind from all the close work involved in the practice of her craft but lives on, Rilke imagines, in one artefact. The poem is actually in two parts: this is just the first part, which I feel is self-sufficient.

The translation that follows is my own.

Die Spitze

Menschlichkeit: Namen schwankender Besitze,
noch unbestätigter Bestand von Glück:
ist das unmenschlich, daß zu dieser Spitze,
zu diesem kleinen dichten Spitzenstück
zwei Augen wurden? — Willst du sie zurück?

Du Langvergangene und schließlich Blinde,
ist deine Seligkeit in diesem Ding,
zu welcher hin, wie zwischen Stamm und Rinde,
dein großes Fühlen, kleinverwandelt, ging?

Durch einen Riß im Schicksal, eine Lücke
entzogst du deine Seele deiner Zeit;
und sie ist so in diesem lichten Stücke,
daß es mich lächeln macht vor Nützlichkeit.

The Lace

What is it to be human? To possess
Nothing for certain, no sure happiness.
Was it inhuman then, that you who made
This thing, this small close-woven piece of lace,
Gave two eyes for it? Do you rue that trade?

You, long departed one, whose end was dark,
Is this the thing wherein you left your bliss,
Great feeling, in the width of trunk to bark,
Diminished as by magic into this?

You found a rift in destiny, a space
To draw your soul out of its time, set free,
And it’s so here, in this light piece of lace,
It makes me smile at the utility.

Week 411: My Father’s People, by Stanley Cook

The poems of the Yorkshire poet and schoolteacher Stanley Cook (1922-1991) are infused with a strong sense both of place and of a vanished way of life whose fading years he caught and celebrated. Of course, it has always been part of a poet’s role to be a bridge between present and past, but perhaps never more so than in the case of Cook’s generation and my own that followed it, which saw a time of unprecedented social and technological change. We may tend to forget, in this age obsessed with the immediate, just how far back into the past knowledge from personal acquaintance can reach, and how much of that past it can preserve if only we think to ask the right questions at the right time. When I was small a great-great aunt of some kind came to visit us: she was a centenarian, born around 1850. We walked down the garden path together. Sadly at that age I had no appreciation of the fact that I was in the presence of someone who had been a child at the time of the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, and who might in her turn have walked with people who stood with other mourners in the streets of London to watch Nelson’s coffin pass on its way to St Paul’s. I just thought she looked like a small brown wizened monkey, and I do not recall that we had anything to say to one another. At least it was different with my mother, born in 1908, whose anecdotes gave me a window on to a world of lamplighters, muffin-men and hopscotch played in leafy suburban roads where the only traffic was horse-drawn. Stanley Cook’s poems give me the same sense of vicarious, elegiac knowledge. This poem is from his collection ‘Signs of Life’ (Peterloo Poets, 1972).

My Father’s People

In Gainsborough, South Kelsey, Morton and Scotter
The apple trees print a forgotten alphabet
On parchment of ground beside the inherited
Rosy brick of cottages and farms;
Streets made to measure horse and cart still serve
The shabby numbered gates of once busy works,
The unemployed that no longer dress up to sign on:
And I could panic that all my uncles and cousins
Wh once worked here are dead, only alive
In flashes of anecdote from aging widows.
For a family supposed to be fond of its stomach
That killed and hung its pigs and made one mouthful
Of cheesecakes and tarts they had indifferent health
Those connoisseurs of chitterlings and chines
Living on one lung or dying of ulcers.
Failing a poem, what else would they do but eat
The beautiful land I too find fascinating?
Poor writers, who gathered only at funerals
Or added to a Christmas card
’Mother died this June’.

Stanley Cook

Week 410: The Death of Falstaff, by William Shakespeare

I sometimes wonder how much Shakespeare really intended Falstaff. One imagines it all starting with a ‘note to self: how about comic fat character to give the groundlings a laugh?’, and then Falstaff turns up, marches in, and takes over the place. I first met this larger-than-life character at a fairly young age and found him very entertaining but a bit confusing. I could not help comparing him with English literature’s other great subversive antihero, William Brown, who like Falstaff had a band of faithful acolytes, a fine line in rhetorical self-justification and a sturdy disdain for the values and conventions of his time. I’m afraid that morally the comparison did Falsaff no favours. William might have had his faults, but he was essentially honourable, and you wouldn’t have caught him going round stabbing corpses and trying to take the credit for killing them. Still, I felt keenly the increasing pathos of the old rogue’s rejection by the cold-hearted Prince Hal, and was glad that Shakespeare, a third of the way through ‘Henry IV Part 2’, at least gave him a fine sendoff, in a scene that manages to be both funny – the Hostess trying to reassure the dying Knight that he need not to be thinking about God just yet – and yet do justice to the mystery and solemnity of death.

ACT II SCENE III

London. Before a tavern.

Enter PISTOL, Hostess, NYM, BARDOLPH, and Boy

PISTOL

Boy, bristle thy courage up; for Falstaff he is dead,
And we must yearn therefore.

BARDOLPH

Would I were with him, wheresome’er he is, either in heaven or in hell!

HOSTESS

Nay, sure, he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. A’ made a finer end and went away an it had been any christom child; a’ parted even just between twelve and one, even at the turning o’ the tide: for after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a’ babbled of green fields. ‘How now, sir John!’ quoth I ‘what, man! be o’ good cheer.’ So a’ cried out ‘God, God, God!’ three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a’ should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So a’ bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.

William Shakespeare

Week 409: 51st Highland Division’s Farewell To Sicily, by Hamish Henderson

When you first read this poem, written during the Second World War, you may be forgiven for wondering if half of it is written in Scots Gaelic, but no, it’s English, Jim, just not as we Sassenachs know it, and a little persistence and recourse to a glossary (see foot of poem) soon sorts it out, to reveal a wistful, complex, ambivalent poem of leavetaking. The war-weary swaddies (soldiers) are not sorry to be leaving Sicily, and yet there are things about it they will miss: this alien land has become something of a home for them, offering bright rooms, wine and kindly women, and the music of the pipes as they leave chimes with the mood of that strange grey sky over the Strait of Messina in a lament for days of comradeship and adventure. This rather ties in with the experiences of men that I knew when I was young, who had served in the Second World War. They seemed to be evenly split between those who had loathed the whole brutal experience and simply wanted to forget it and those who had had, or claimed to have had, the time of their lives and were finding peacetime existence something of an anticlimax. Maybe the latter were those who had never seen action, but this did not always seem to be the case; maybe they were just whistling in the dark, but again, that did not always seem to be true. It was all a bit morally confusing.  There is a great pipe tune to go with the words. Of the singers who have covered the song, I think Dick Gaughan deserves a special mention. 

51st Highland Division’s Farewell To Sicily

The pipie is dozie, the pipie is fey
He wullnae come round for his vino the day
The sky o’er Messina is unco an’ grey
An’ a’ the bricht chaulmers are eerie

Fareweel ye banks o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye valley an’ shaw
There’s nae Jock will mourn the kyles o’ ye
Puir bliddy swaddies are weary

Then doon the stair and line the waterside
Wait your turn the ferry’s awa’
Then doon the stair and line the waterside
A’ the bricht chaulmers are eerie

Fareweel ye banks o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye valley an’ shaw
There’s nae name can smoor the wiles o’ ye
Puir bliddy swaddies are weary

The drummie is polisht, the drummie is braw
He cannae be seen for his webbin’ ava
He’s beezed himsel’ up for a photy an’ a’
Tae leave with his Lola, his dearie

Then fare weel ye dives o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye shielin’ an’ ha’
We’ll a mind shebeens an’ bothies
Whaur Jock made a date wi’ his dearie

Then fare weel ye dives o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye shielin’ an’ ha’
We’ll a mind shebeens an’ bothies
Whaur kind signorinas were cheerie

Then tune the pipes and drub the tenor drum
Leave your kit this side o’ the wa’
Then tune the pipes and drub the tenor drum
A’ the bricht chaulmers are eerie

Hamish Henderson

pipie = pipe major
dozie = sleepy
vino = wine
fey = acting in a strange manner, as if having a presentiment
unco = strange, unusual
chaulmers = rooms
shaw = wood
kyles = straits
smoor the wiles = obliterate (literally smother) your fascination (one smoors a fire)
drummie = drum major
beezed = polished (beezin =  spit and polish)
we’ll a mind = we’ll all remember
shielin = hut
byres and bothies = cow sheds and cottages
shebeens = boozers, drinking dens
whaur = where

Week 408: I Am Roerek, by Sheenagh Pugh

Roerek was a minor king of Norway in the saga times, and the first settlers in Iceland, not counting a few Irish monks, were emigrants from Norway who were, according to tradition, fleeing from civil strife brought about by the rule of King Harald I. And that’s all you really need to know to enjoy this poem by Sheenagh Pugh, who has a delightful gift for retrieving characters that have fallen through the cracks of history.

I Am Roerek

I am Roerek: I was king
of a little scrap of Norway;
large or small, I would not part
with what I had.

I fought a man whose luck
swallowed mine; he blinded me,
but being a good Christian
he wouldn’t kill me,

just kept me about his court,
where I spent my spare time
earnestly attempting his life.
After the third try

he said: don’t you ever give up?
and shipped me to Iceland.
I stayed a winter with this man
and that: we always quarrelled.

Now I lie under a hill,
hear the muffled wind shifting
over the grass, uneasy
like the sea in a shell.

I am the only king
to lie in a land too stubborn
for kings; an edgy country.
it suits me well,

for I am one who would not
co-operate; tailor my wants
to fit reality. Roerek: king
and cosmic nuisance.

Sheenagh Pugh

Week 407: So Many Summers, by Norman MacCaig

‘So Many Summers’ by the Scots poet Norman MacCaig (1910-1996) is a good example of how a poem can be formally constrained and seemingly transparent in its language, yet dense enough with meaning to open up whole avenues of reflection. What is it about the juxtaposition of those two images, of hind’s skeleton and decaying boat, that resonates so? And what is this malice that time adds? As I interpret these lines, it is the way that the living thing becomes indistinguishable from the artefact: that once life has departed from the animate it too is no more than a collection of molecules, subject to exactly the same laws of decay as anything else. But do the phrases ‘neat geometries’ and ‘already dead but still to die’ suggest something about the power of art to preserve for a while some stripped-down quintessence of a thing, before its final dissolution and oblivion? I am reminded here of Keith Douglas’s lines: ‘Remember me when I am dead/And simplify me when I am dead’. And what precisely is the tone and message of the last line: ‘So many summers, and I have lived them too’? Is this a wry recognition that his own time too is coming to an end? Or, read with an emphasis on the ‘lived’, is it a kind of defiant gratitude for his own survival, for having been allowed this enduring richness of experience? 

For me, this is definitely one of those poems where you wish you had had the chance to discuss it with its creator, with the caveat, of course, that poets themselves do not always fully understand, or at least, cannot always articulate in other words, what it is that has been given them to say during the writing of the poem. 

So Many Summers

Beside one loch, a hind’s neat skeleton,
Beside another, a boat pulled high and dry:
Two neat geometries drawn in the weather:
Two things already dead and still to die.

I passed them every summer, rod in hand,
Skirting the bright blue or the spitting gray,
And, every summer, saw how the bleached timbers
Gaped wider and the neat ribs fell away.

Time adds one malice to another one –
Now you’d look very close before you knew
If it’s the boat that ran, the hind went sailing.
So many summers, and I have lived them too.

Norman MacCaig