Week 370: From ‘Xenia’, by Eugenio Montale

When his wife died the great Italian poet Eugenio Montale (1896-1981) wrote a sequence of short poems in her memory, linked but able to stand alone; he called the sequence ‘Xenia’, meaning ‘gifts’, particularly those made as a token of hospitality by a host to his guest. Their style is much plainer and more direct than that found in most of his other work, which makes them not only very accessible but very moving in their simplicity. This one commemorates his wife’s brother, who died young, and by extension her.

The translation that follows is my own.

From ‘Xenia’

Tuo fratello morì giovane; tu eri
la bimba scarruffata che mi guarda
“in posa” nell’ovale di un ritratto.
Scrisse musiche inedite, inaudite,
oggi sepolte in un baule o andate
al macero. Forse le riinventa
qualcuno inconsapevole, se ciò ch’è scritto è scritto.
L’amavo senza averlo conosciuto.
Fuori di te nessuno lo ricordava.
Non ho fatto ricerche: ora è inutile.
Dopo di te sono rimasto il solo
per cui egli è esistito. Ma è possibile,
lo sai, amare un’ombra, ombre noi stessi.

Your brother died young; you
Were the tousle-headed girl looking out at me
From your pose in an oval portrait. He wrote music
Unpublished, unperformed, buried today
In a trunk or sent for pulping; yet maybe,
If what is written stays written, reinvented
Unknowingly by someone else. I loved him
Although I never knew him, but only you
Remembered him. I never made inquiries
To know him better, and now it would be in vain:
With you gone, I am left the only one
For whom he once existed. Yet one can.
I know it, love a shade, being shadows ourselves.

Week 369: From ‘The Farthest Shore’, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) is perhaps best known for her science fiction, which included such classics as ‘The Left Hand Of Darkness’, but for me her crowning achievement remains the first three volumes of the ‘Earthsea’ series, which earn her a place among the great masters of alternative fiction – Tolkien, Garner, Pullman, Pratchett, Gaiman – in what has surely been a great age of that genre. And for me the most profound and resonant of those three volumes is the third, ‘The Farthest Shore’. Much later she came back to ‘Earthsea’ with a fourth volume, ‘Tehanu’, but sadly the magic was gone, her previously unfettered imagination too obviously subordinated to her ideological concerns – worthy concerns to be sure, but still… as Keats observed in one of his letters: ‘We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us’. .

‘The Farthest Shore’ tells the story of the wizard Ged’s last and greatest quest, to find and destroy the evil that is draining power from the world and destroying the Equilibrium. Accompanied by the young prince Arren, he journeys across the archipelago that is Earthsea and finally crosses the land of the dead. This passage, which I think exemplifies Le Guin’s unshowy but beautifully rhythmic prose, is taken from near the end of the book, when the quest has been fulfilled but all Ged’s power is spent, and Arren is left to save both of them.

‘He was not downcast. Though very tired. and grieving for his companion, he felt not the least bitterness or regret. Only there was no longer anything he could do. It had all been done.

When his strength came back into him, he thought, he would try surf-fishing with the line from his pack; for once thirst was quenched he had begun to feel the gnawing hunger, and their food was gone, all but one packet of hard-bread. He would save that, for if he soaked and softened it with water he might be able to feed some of it to Ged. And that was all there was left to do. Beyond that he could not see; the mist was all about him.

He felt about in his pockets as he sat there, huddled with Ged in the fog, to see if he had anything useful. In his tunic pocket was a hard, sharp-edged thing. He drew it forth and looked at it, puzzled. It was a small stone, black, porous, hard. He almost tossed it away. Then he felt the edges of it in his hand, rough and searing, and felt the weight of it, and knew it for what it was, a bit of rock from the Mountains of Pain. It had caught in his pocket as he climbed or when he crawled to the edge of the pass with Ged. He held it in his hand, the unchanging thing, the stone of pain. He closed his hand on it, and held it. And he smiled then, a smile both sombre and joyous, knowing, for the first time in his life, and alone, and unpraised, and at the end of the world, victory’.

Week 368: The Farmer’s Wife, by Charlotte Mew

Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) was described by Thomas Hardy as ‘the best woman poet of her generation’. With all respect to Mr Hardy, I don’t find the label ‘woman poet’ helpful: to me there are just poets, good or not so good, and surely we are now at a stage where gender in such matters should neither disadvantage you in any way nor on the other hand earn you any extra brownie points. And I think this poem is remarkable for its empathy not just with the feelings of the frightened woman but with the erotic frustration of the man, who despite being a practical son of the soil apparently has more delicacy than some men of his time might have had in the circumstances – yes, he brings her back and locks her in when she runs away, but at least he doesn’t force himself on her – she sleeps alone in the attic. And we assume that the beautiful lines in the last stanza evoking the onset of a frosty winter are intended as expressive of his sensibility too, not just the poet’s.

The Farmer’s Bride

Three Summers since I chose a maid,
Too young maybe — but more’s to do
At harvest-time than bide and woo.
When us was wed she turned afraid
Of love and me and all things human;
Like the shut of a winter’s day.
Her smile went out, and ’twasn’t a woman —
More like a little, frightened fay.
One night, in the Fall, she runned away.
‘Out ‘mong the sheep, her be,’ they said,
‘Should properly have been abed;
But sure enough she wasn’t there
Lying awake with her wide brown stare.
So over seven-acre field and up-along across the down
We chased her, flying like a hare
Before our lanterns. To Church-Town
All in a shiver and a scare
We caught her, fetched her home at last
And turned the key upon her, fast.

She does the work about the house
As well as most, but like a mouse:
Happy enough to chat and play
With birds and rabbits and such as they,
So long as men-folk stay away.
‘Not near, not near!’ her eyes beseech
When one of us comes within reach.
The women say that beasts in stall
Look round like children at her call.
I’ve hardly heard her speak at all.

Shy as a leveret, swift as he,
Straight and slight as a young larch tree,
Sweet as the first wild violets, she,
To her wild self. But what to me?
The short days shorten and the oaks are brown,
The blue smoke rises to the low gray sky,
One leaf in the still air falls slowly down,
A magpie’s spotted feathers lie
On the black earth spread white with rime,
The berries redden up to Christmas-time.
What’s Christmas-time without there be
Some other in the house than we!
She sleeps up in the attic there
Alone, poor maid. ‘Tis but a stair
Betwixt us. Oh, my God! — the down,
The soft young down of her; the brown,
The brown of her — her eyes, her hair, her hair! 

Charlotte Mew

Week 367: The Long Small Room, by Edward Thomas

Remembrance Sunday comes round again, and this week’s piece, though not in itself a war poem, does confront us, indirectly but powerfully, with one truth about the Great War which we are understandably reluctant now to recognise, but which goes some way towards explaining the enthusiasm with which the war was initially greeted: namely, that enlistment gave to many the chance of escape from an unhappy and unfulfilled working life. And one such was the poet Edward Thomas, who as a mature married man had no need to volunteer, but did so anyway in 1915, going on to be killed at Arras in 1917. This poem looks back on the years of badly paid literary hackwork that had been his lot in the years leading up to the war, and it is hard not to speculate on what might have happened had he not been caught up in the great events of his time. Would the dam that was holding in all that pent-up rare original poetry of his own never have broken? Would he have simply carried on with the drudgery he so despised, his hand continuing to crawl on towards age, until the last of those hundred leaves fell from the willow?

The Long Small Room

The long small room that showed willows in the west
Narrowed up to the end the fireplace filled,
Although not wide. I liked it. No one guessed
What need or accident made them so build.

Only the moon, the mouse and the sparrow peeped
In from the ivy round the casement thick.
Of all they saw and heard there they shall keep
The tale for the old ivy and older brick.

When I look back I am like moon, sparrow, and mouse
That witnessed what they could never understand
Or alter or prevent in the dark house.
One thing remains the same – this my right hand

Crawling crab-like over the clean white page,
Resting awhile each morning on the pillow,
Then once more starting to crawl on towards age.
The hundred last leaves stream upon the willow.

Edward Thomas

Week 366: I Could Give All To Time, by Robert Frost

Robert Frost is by no means the only poet in whom a hunger for recognition comes into conflict with a wariness, an inner reticence, a distaste for self-revelation. But I think in him the conflict was particularly acute. On the one hand he could be quite shameless in his pursuit of favourable reviews and his presentation to the public of a folksy and largely misleading image. On the other hand we have cryptic comments scattered throughout the work, like the line in ‘Paul’s Wife’ where Paul does not wish his fantasy wife (for which read muse figure) to be spoken of ‘in any way the world knows how to speak’. In this poem it is not made explicit what the ‘things forbidden’ are that he has managed to preserve for himself but I take them to be his poems, or those things that his poems keep alive, and he is rightly confident enough in his own powers as a poet to feel that he has succeeded.

I Could Give All To Time 

To Time it never seems that he is brave
To set himself against the peaks of snow
To lay them level with the running wave,
Nor is he overjoyed when they lie low,
But only grave, contemplative and grave.

What now is inland shall be ocean isle,
Then eddies playing round a sunken reef
Like the curl at the corner of a smile;
And I could share Time’s lack of joy or grief
At such a planetary change of style.

I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.

Robert Frost

Week 365: The Players, by Stuart Henson

I have little patience with wilful obscurity in a poem, but subtlety and genuine mystery are another matter, and this week’s offering, by contemporary poet Stuart Henson, is characteristically subtle and, at first reading, a little mysterious. Who are these players that assemble in the spring dusk? What is this drift road they travel? The second question is easily answered: a drift road is an ancient country road used to take travellers, farm workers and animals between rural villages, that here takes on a temporal dimension, haunted, as are all roads, by wayfarers from the past. As for the players, I take these to stand for just such wayfarers, those who travelled before us down time’s road, moving from light through half-light into darkness, their voices being dimmed and their lives slowly effaced yet still for a while finding echoes within our own. And how well that image of the coin in the closing lines works, conjuring into existence again some long-vanished twilight with its throng of mediaeval travellers, alive and credulous under a new spring moon.

The poem can be found in Stuart’s collection ‘The Way You Know It’ (Shoestring, 2018), which contains 40 new poems and selections from six previous volumes; further information can be found on Stuart’s website at stuarthenson.co.uk

The Players

Out of the green graves or the road’s dust
The dusk assembles them, wisest and least,
like shadows gathered to a feast,
and one by one in candle-fall they come
about the chestnuts and the tombs,
speaking their dumb discourse to leaf,
to stone, and to the sun that lingers
low on the hill where the hay lies mown.

Gargoyles that once were angels hang and grin.
Above the sunken lane the dead lean in.
All the quick world is spring and listening
at time’s conventicle, a ring
where thin grey fingers pluck at strings
that resonate through bird-light,
bat-light, half-light, out on the air,
on the dim concentric circles of the night.

Their text, their eloquence, begins to be
our understanding too and our intelligence
is rhymed to theirs and hears as if the trees
translated us; but what they say’s grown
brown with lichens, rain-washed, worn away.
Their day has travelled with its dusty sun
and goes ahead, and if we follow them we know
we should become them finally and not return.

For once these players might have been
priest, poet, teacher, physician…
But now the leather on their heels
is wearing thin. Their eyes see through us
and they’re gone, beyond our hearing,
down the drift road where time and timeless join,
turning their pocket-silver twice for luck,
for a moon like the edge of a new coin.

Stuart Henson

Week 363: Fire Thief, by Karine Polwart

This is an original work by the Scottish folk-singer Karine Polwart, written for a BBC Radio 2 musical documentary series called The Radio Ballads. It is based on interviews with Anne Marie, who is living with HIV and lost her husband to AIDS, and Betty, who lost her son Michael. Both husband and son suffered from AIDS-related dementia long before their bodies died. I admire how skilfully Karine uses the devices of the old ballads – question-and-answer, refrain – to build an atmosphere of doom and pity. Of course, it’s better still with its music, a haunting guitar accompaniment: the track can be found on Karine’s album ‘This Earthly Spell’.

A couple of Scots words here: a rickle is a loose heap or rickety structure; dool is dolour, pain.

Fire Thief

Who stole the heart of my bonnie laddie
All alone and aloney O
And left me another lad in his body?
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot follow

Who stole the light in my laddie’s eyes
All alone and aloney O
And left me another lad in disguise?
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot follow

Who stole the words on my laddie’s tongue
All alone and aloney O
And left me a rickle of skin and bone?
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot follow

Who stole today? Who stole tomorrow?
All alone and aloney O
And left me with nothing but doul and sorrow?
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot follow

I know the name of the fire thief
All alone and aloney O
But you can’t grow a tree from a fallen leaf
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot follow
Down where I cannot go

Karine Polwart