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

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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

Week 309: Fife Tune, by John Manifold

What appeals to me about this piece by the Australian poet John Manifold (1915-1985) is partly the enchanting lilt of its movement and partly its quality of wistful innocence – meaning no disrespect to our armed forces, but that’s perhaps not the first thing one would look for in a poem about a bunch of squaddies marching past a pretty young girl.

Fife Tune

(6/8) for Sixth Platoon, 308th ITC

One morning in spring
We marched from Devizes
All shapes and all sizes
Like beads on a string,
But yet with a swing
We trod the bluemetal
And full of high fettle
We started to sing.

She ran down the stair
A twelve-year-old darling
And laughing and calling
She tossed her bright hair;
Then silent to stare
At the men flowing past her
There were all she could master
Adoring her there.

It’s seldom I’ll see
A sweeter or prettier;
I doubt we’ll forget her
In two years or three.
And lucky he’ll be
She takes for a lover
While we are far over
The treacherous sea.

John Manifold

Week 308: Forgotten, by Dannie Abse

Another one from Welsh poet and doctor Dannie Abse (1923-2014), written, I assume from the Vietnam reference, in the late sixties or early seventies. The theme is a common enough one in literature – that haunting sense of the other place, once known or dreamed of, that one can never quite get back to or come to: Alain-Fourner’s lost domain, H.G.Wells and his door in the wall, Edwin Muir’s childhood Eden, the unscheduled railway halt of Robert Graves’s poem ‘The Next Time’.

Forgotten

That old country I once said I’d visit
when older. Can no one tell me its name?
Odd, to have forgotten what it is called.
I would recognise the name if I heard it.
So many times I have searched the atlas
With a prowling convex lens – to no avail.

I know the geography of the great world
has changed; the war, the peace, the deletions
of places – red pieces gone forever
,and names of countries altered forever:
Gold Coast Ghana, Persia become Iran,
Siam Thailand, and hell now Vietnam.

People deleted. Must I sleep again to reach it,
to find the back door opening to a field,
A barking of dogs, and a path that leads back?
One night in pain, the dead middle of night,
will I awake again, know who I am,
the man from somewhere else, and the place’s name?

Dannie Abse

Week 307: Song, by Seamus Heaney

No doubt we all have our favourite Seamus Heaney collections (and while ‘Collected Poems’ are very satisfying and serviceable, is there not an excitement that a ‘Collected’ can never quite replace about reading a poet’s collections as they come out?). For me, it has to be ‘Field Work’, which I think shows the poet in his prime, in full relish of his mastery. This week’s choice is a relatively simple lyric from that collection, compared with some of the complex and demanding (but very satisfying) poems that it contains. I have to say that I’m not too sure about the image in the first line. It seems to me that a girl would need to be wearing an awful lot of lipstick in a lot of unusual places to look anything like the berry-laden rowan trees I’ve seen. But I do like the second stanza. Appropriately for an Irish poem, the last line echoes the answer given by the legendary hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, who when asked what he thought was the best music of all said ‘The music of what happens’.

Song

A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

Seamus Heaney

Week 306: A Lullaby, by Randall Jarrell

Another of Randall Jarrell’s war poems, an unillusioned view of military life superbly clinched by its final couplet.

A Lullaby

For wars his life and half a world away
The soldier sells his family and days.
He learns to fight for freedom and the State;
He sleeps with seven men within six feet.

He picks up matches and he cleans out plates,
Is lied to like a child, cursed like a beast.
They crop his head, his dog tags ring like sheep
As his stiff limbs shift wearily to sleep.

Recalled in dreams or letters, else forgot,
His life is smothered like a grave, with dirt;
And his dull torment mottles like a fly’s
The lying amber of the histories.

Randall Jarrell