This is not fantasy, this is our life

I don’t know exactly when this poem by Lisel Mueller was written but it is clearly of the modern, high-tech age, when we seemed to be fast-forwarding into the type of world predicted by the science fiction writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Indeed, it seemed for a time as if reality was outstripping the possibilities of fiction, hence this poem and a musing of what could take the place of techno-imagination…

 

The End of Science Fiction

Lisel Mueller

This is not fantasy, this is our life.

We are the characters

who have invaded the moon,

who cannot stop their computers.

We are the gods who can unmake

the world in seven days.

Both hands are stopped at noon.

We are beginning to live forever,

in lightweight, aluminum bodies

with numbers stamped on our backs.

We dial our words like Muzak.

We hear each other through water.

The genre is dead. Invent something new.

Invent a man and a woman

naked in a garden,

invent a child that will save the world,

a man who carries his father

out of a burning city.

Invent a spool of thread

that leads a hero to safety,

invent an island on which he abandons

the woman who saved his life

with no loss of sleep over his betrayal.

Invent us as we were

before our bodies glittered

and we stopped bleeding:

invent a shepherd who kills a giant,

a girl who grows into a tree,

a woman who refuses to turn

her back on the past and is changed to salt,

a boy who steals his brother’s birthright

and becomes the head of a nation.

Invent real tears, hard love,

slow-spoken, ancient words,

difficult as a child’s

first steps across a room.

Lisel Mueller

From <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-end-of-science-fiction/>

There are four stanzas, the first two, shorter ones, briefly recap recent technological achievements of the human race, which, because of the title, lead the reader to the conclusion we are living in a world of science-fiction in reality; the second two, longer, stanzas ask what new genre could replace science fiction – but instead of really suggesting something new, the poem takes us back to classical, mythological and biblical references, so a rediscovery of the old, the traditional, the tried and tested, which might indeed be new to many people, but likely not to the intended readers of Mueller’s poem.

The marks of progress noted by the poet in the first half of the poem do not seem so unusual today – space exploration, computers, destructive capacity, medical advances, communications – these things are still moving forward, but we are still human.

But the second half of the poem suggests we should change our focus and reinvent what we have forgotten – the tales and traditions of ancient an former times. You can easily pick up the references to the tales of Adam and Eve, of Jesus Christ, of Aeneas and Anchises, of Jason and Medea, of David, and so on. Have we forgotten these traditions in the world of Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter?

The Poetry Dude

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Du Courage?

I have posted several poems on this blog from Francis Jammes, the French poet writing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They are mostly pastoral, wistful, gently jocular, nostalgic or celebratory of the poet’s surroundings. You get a sense of a man at peace with himself and with the world. This poem has a very different tone, even more shocking when compared with his other poems (at least those I know). It seems to be an extended cry of pan and suffering, in which the courage of the title has no use nor even a palliative effect.

Du Courage?

Du courage ?

Mon âme éclate de douleur.

Cette vie me déchire.

Je ne puis plus pleurer.

Qu’y a-t-il, qu’y a-t-il, qu’y a-t-il, dans mon cœur

Il est silencieux, terrible et déchiré.

Pourtant qu’avais-je fait que de fumer ma pipe devant les doux enfants qui jouaient dans la rue ?

Un serrement affreux me casse la poitrine.

Je ne puis plus railler…

C’est trop noir, trop aigu.

ô toi que j’ai aimée, conduis-moi par la main vers ce que les hommes ont appelé la mort, et laisse, à tout jamais, sur le mortel chemin, ton sourire clair comme un ciel

d’azur dans l’eau.

L’espoir n’existe plus.

C’était un mot d’enfance.

Souviens-toi de ta triste enfance et des oiseaux

qui te faisaient pleurer, tristes dans les barreaux de la cage où ils piaillaient de souffrance.

Aimer.

Aimer.

Aimer.

Abîmez-moi encore.

Je crève de pitié.

C’est plus fort que la vie.

Je voudrais pleurer seul comme une mère douce qui essuie avec son châle la tombe de son fils.

:

Francis Jammes

From <http://www.poemes.co/du-courage.html>

The title echoes the words often said to those in pain, or those facing some difficult circumstance – “Be brave”, but the sense is changed by the poet’s addition of a question mark, as if he recognises that this admonition is likely to be rather useless.

The whole poem which follows, with its irregular, staccato lines seems like an extended cry of agony in which declarations of despair are interwoven with images of comfort and hope (smoking his pipe while watching children play in the street; being in love) are immediately dismissed as ultimately comfortless as the poet returns to his dark place of despair, which consists either of an inevitable progression towards death, in the middle of the poem, or, which might be even worse, to the position of a mother crying over the grave over her son, ie a living death.

There is a straight line from a poem such as this to the most desolate works of someone like Samuel Beckett, but fortunately we have plenty of examples of more joyful and positive poems from Jammes.

The Poetry Dude

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There will come soft rain and the smell of the ground

Today’s poem is by the American poet, Sara Teasdale, who was writing in the first third of the twentieth century. So it is somewhat surprising to find that the theme of the poem, that resilient nature can outlive mankind which has destroyed itself in war, is years and decades ahead of the second world war, the most destructive war in human history, of the nuclear threat overhanging the post-war Cold War, and, of course, of the nuclear power disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima. This poem could have been written  as a response t any one of these, but no, it comes from an earlier time when these dangers were perhaps not apparent.

Another thought that comes to mind is the “soft rain” of the title bein gin contrast to Bob Dylan’s “Hard Rain”, from his 1960s anti-nuclear war song. Many things are indeed connected.

 

There Will Come Soft Rain

There will come soft rain and the smell of the ground,

And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

 

And frogs in the pools singing at night,

And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

 

Robins will wear their feathery fire,

Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

 

And not one will know of the war, not one

Will care at last when it is done.

 

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,

If mankind perished utterly;

 

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn

Would scarcely know that we were gone.

Sara Teasdale

 

From <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/there-will-come-soft-rain-2/>

 

The first half of the poem, the first three couplets, focus on the continuity of the beauties of nature, the nurturing rain softening the ground, the swallows. The frogs, the beautiful plum trees in blossom., the robins happily chirping away on the fence. All seems well in this idylll of nature, at this point we readers probably don’t even notice that humans are absent from this scene.

 

But then the kicker comes in the seventh line – there has bee a war and there is nobody left to tell the tale or to enjoy the beauties of nature. And worse, in lines seven or eight – unlike humankinds appreciation of nature in all its beauty, nothing in nature would be able to care or regret that mankind has been annihilated. To the robin or the plum tree or the frog, whether or not there are people is an irrelevance –  their lives go on regardless. Even in Spring, the season of renewal and growth of the natural world, the absence of humans would barely have any impact.

 

And of course, we have indeed undertaken this experiment, inadvertently, at Chernobyl and at Fukushima, where nature is thriving in the human exclusion zones.

 

Food for thought from a poem ahead of its time.

 

The Poetry Dude

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Entre irse y quedarse duda el día,

The great Mexican poet and writer Octavio Paz, also biographer of the seventeenth century Spanish/Mexican poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a number of whose poems have been included on this blog, here writes a poem of universal appeal and resonance. There is a bit of a similarity in theme with Dionisio Martinez’s poem, Moto Perpetuo, posted here on July 16th 2016. Both poems refer to those moments of stillness in between the onward march of time, in the case of Martinez, these moments of stillness allow co-creation of a work of art between the artist and the onlooker or listener, but im the case of Paz, the experience generalises to any moment when time seems to stand still. I like to think Einstein would have connected with both poems.

Entre Irse y Quedarse

Entre irse y quedarse duda el día,

enamorado de su transparencia.

La tarde circular es ya bahía:

en su quieto vaivén se mece el mundo.

Todo es visible y todo es elusivo,

todo está cerca y todo es intocable.

Los papeles, el libro, el vaso, el lápiz

reposan a la sombra de sus nombres.

Latir del tiempo que en mi sien repite

la misma terca sílaba de sangre.

La luz hace del muro indiferente

un espectral teatro de reflejos.

En el centro de un ojo me descubro;

no me mira, me miro en su mirada.

Se disipa el instante. Sin moverme,

yo me quedo y me voy: soy una pausa.

From <http://www.los-poetas.com/h/paz1.htm>

It seems we are at twilight, when the sun is going down, and the poet can’t tell whether or not the day is ending. The magical quality of the light enchants the poet and causes him to stop the clocks, to hit the pause button on the passage of time, to just step into the moment and stay there. He is conscious of the paradox of tangibility and intangibility of the objects around him, the simultaneous existence of movement and stillness, and the heightened awareness of his own heart beating while all around is as if in suspended animation.

At the end of the poem, what happens next remains unresolved, the moment seems to fade away, but the poet is now completely captivated by the pause in time. Like the ambiguity at the beginning of the poem between day and evening, now it is the poet who remains frozen in time, in the moment. All else is suspended.

The Poetry Dude

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Je n’escris point d’amour, n’estant point amoureux,

Here is a melancholy sonnet from Joachim du Bellay, presumably written while living in Rome on a diplomatic assignment and pining for his native France. In the 1500s, distances were real, not bridged by an hour or two in a plane…

The poem follows a simple, repetitive structure, with each line consisting of a statement of what the poem is not about, followed by a statement of the reason why. The effect is to build up a cumulative sense of the poet’s sadness, almost with a hypnotic effect.

Je n’escris point d’amour, n’estant point amoureux,

Je n’escris de beauté, n’ayant belle maîtresse

Je n’escris de douceur, n’esprouvant que rudesse

Je n’escris de plaisir, me trouvant douloureux :

Je n’escris de bon heur, me trouvant malheureux,

Je n’escris de faveur, ne voyant ma Princesse,

Je n’escris de tresors, n’ayant point de richesse,

Je n’escris de santé, me sentant langoureux :

Je n’escris de la Court, estant loing de mon Prince,

Je n’escris de la France, en estrange province,

Je n’escris de l’honneur, n’en voyant point icy :

Je n’escris d’amitié, ne trouvant que feintise,

Je n’escris de vertu, n’en trouvant point aussi,

Je n’escris de sçavoir, entre les gens d’Eglise.

Joachim Du Bellay, Les Regrets Sonnet 79

Most of the examples are personal – love, beauty, gentleness, pleasure, happiness, favours, riches, good health, friendship, honour etc, but the final line takes a somewhat daring dig at the Church, saying he doesn’t write about knowledge or learning, because he is among churchmen. In Rome, the city of the Pope, this could have got him into trouble, I would think.

The sub-text of the poem is that all the poet’s troubles would be over if only he could return to France. Well, finally he did.

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I’ve been walking in circles for what seems like days.

Dionisio Martinez’s poem is inspired by a particular piece of music, but goes on to explore theartistic implications of visual art and of a different piece of music. The Moto Perpetuo of the title (meaning, of course, perpetual motion) is a short piece for the violin (with piano accompaniment) by Paganini). It is fast-paced and probably written to show off the virtuosity of the violinist. Here is a You Tube of it being played by Itzhak Perlman:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMh5AlaFVzw

Moto Perpetuo

Dionisio D. Martinez

1

I’ve been walking in circles for what seems like days.

They’ve been playing Paganini, but you know

how intermittent the conscious ear

can be. How selective. Walking has nothing to do

with distance as clearly as Paganini

has nothing to do with the violin that plays him hard.

2

How it hurt Jackson Pollock, during his black

and white period, to hear the critics say

that he was painting black on white; how important

the gaps and absences were to him;

how crucial the distances, the gulfs; how

critical each emptiness to each composition.

3

There is that moment in, say, the finale of Beethoven’s

Fifth, when you hear nothing between the various

false endings, so you make your own music,

a bridge of silence from one illusion

to the next. A deeper and more refined

ear-Beethoven’s ear-takes care of this.

Dionisio D. Martinez

From <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/moto-perpetuo/>

Martinez’s poem is divided into three sections. The first deals with his reaction to the Paganini piece. He probably can’t get it out of his head, as he walks in circles, a bit like the music goes round and round. But then he introduces the idea of separation between the experience of listening to the music and the music itself. The ear is selective, it hears and retains only certain parts of the music and the listener then creates their own interpretation. There is also separation between the intent of the composer, Paganini, and the performance by any violinist, who interprets the music in a unique way.

The second stanza moves to visual art, with Jackson Pollock, he of the splattered paint. The critics interpret his work, give it their own meaning, black on white for this particular phase of his output, but this does not match the artist’s own interpretation, in which the places where he didn’t put paint on canvas are as important as those where he did. So artistic creation happens multiple times, first in the mind and intent of the artist and then in each successive interpretation of the viewer, or listener.

The third stanza returns to music, with Beethoven’s Fifth, homing in on the finale, which builds to a series of climaxes, each with a short silence in-between. That is a space for the listener to fill in. Who can listen to Beethoven’s work, or that of any artist, and be sure that you are listening to it or seeing it, as the composer or artist intended?

The power of all art forms, including poetry is in the eternal collaboration between the work of the artist and the interpretation of the audience.

The Poetry Dude

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L’hiver, nous irons dans un petit wagon rose

Here is a poem by Rimbaud, describing a dream of getting into a carriage with a companion or lover, cozily settling into the cushions and falling into his lover’s arms for a sensual journey. Sounds like he might have been reading Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, with its notorious carriage scene…Anyway, it is a very fitting subject for a dream on a cold winter’s day.

And, of course, this is a sonnet with respect to the number of lines and their structure, but, I think unusually, the lines vary in length, giving an interesting rhythmic variation on the usual form,

Rêvé Pour l’hiver.

L’hiver, nous irons dans un petit wagon rose

Avec des coussins bleus.

Nous serons bien. Un nid de baisers fous repose

Dans chaque coin moelleux.

Tu fermeras l’oeil, pour ne point voir, par la glace,

Grimacer les ombres des soirs,

Ces monstruosités hargneuses, populace

De démons noirs et de loups noirs.

Puis tu te sentiras la joue égratignée…

Un petit baiser, comme une folle araignée,

Te courra par le cou…

Et tu me diras : “Cherche !”, en inclinant la tête,

– Et nous prendrons du temps à trouver cette bête

– Qui voyage beaucoup…

From <http://www.best-poems.net/poem/a-dream-for-winter-by-arthur-rimbaud.html>

This is a charming scene, described from the imagination of the poet, anticipating a winter carriage-ride with his lover, snuggling among the cushions inside the carriage as it moves through the streets. The lover closes her eyes so as to not see the dark and murky exterior, full of the supposed monsters of the night. The poet caresses her cheek and begins to kiss her neck, leading to the expected outcome hinted in the final three lines.

The poem echoes Flaubert, but also anticipates Proust, as in the scene where Swann leans in to smell the orchids on Odette’s dress as they return home in a carriage after an evening with Mme Verdurin. Its nice to see such a specific continuity of theme across three great writers.

The Poetry Dude

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