Thursday, September 27, 2007

499. Candle Hat - Billy Collins

In most self-portraits it is the face that dominates:
Cezanne is a pair of eyes swimming in brushstrokes,
Van Gogh stares out of a halo of swirling darkness,
Rembrant looks relieved as if he were taking a breather
from painting The Blinding of Sampson.

But in this one Goya stands well back from the mirror
and is seen posed in the clutter of his studio
addressing a canvas tilted back on a tall easel.

He appears to be smiling out at us as if he knew
we would be amused by the extraordinary hat on his head
which is fitted around the brim with candle holders,
a device that allowed him to work into the night.

You can only wonder what it would be like
to be wearing such a chandelier on your head
as if you were a walking dining room or concert hall.

But once you see this hat there is no need to read
any biography of Goya or to memorize his dates.

To understand Goya you only have to imagine him
lighting the candles one by one, then placing
the hat on his head, ready for a night of work.

Imagine him surprising his wife with his new invention,
the laughing like a birthday cake when she saw the glow.

Imagine him flickering through the rooms of his house
with all the shadows flying across the walls.

Imagine a lost traveler knocking on his door
one dark night in the hill country of Spain.
"Come in, " he would say, "I was just painting myself,"
as he stood in the doorway holding up the wand of a brush,
illuminated in the blaze of his famous candle hat.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

498. The Starry Night - Anne Sexton

"That does not keep me from having a terrible
need of––shall I say the word––religion. Then I
go out at night to paint the stars."

Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother

The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die.

It moves. They are all alive.
Even the moon bulges in its orange irons
to push children, like a god, from its eye.
The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die:

into the rushing beast of the night,
sucked up by that great dragon, to split
from my life with no flag,
no belly,
no cry.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

497. A "Thank You" Note (1) - Wislawa Szymborska

Translated from the Polish by Joanna Maria Trzeciak

There is much I owe
to those I do not love.
The relief in accepting
they are closer to another.

Joy that I am not
the wolf to their sheep.

My peace be with them
for with them I am free,
and this, love can neither give,
nor know how to take.

I don't wait for them
from window to door.
Almost as patient
as a sun dial,
I understand
what love does not understand.
I forgive
what love would never have forgiven.

Between rendezvous and letter
no eternity passes,
only a few days or weeks.

My trips with them always turn out well.
Concerts are heard.
Cathedrals are toured.
Landscapes are distinct.

And when seven rivers and mountains
come between us,
they are rivers and mountains
well known from any map.

It is thanks to them
that I live in three dimensions,
in a non-lyrical and non-rhetorical space,
with a shifting, thus real, horizon.

They don't even know
how much they carry in their empty hands.

"I don't owe them anything",
love would have said
on this open topic.

Monday, September 24, 2007

496. The Eye, The Pulse - Harvey Shapiro

The air extends beyond this sill
And, whether I will or not, performs
Its various delights. So children
Race upon the sand and cry
Their colorful syllables, gulls
In rocky congregations cry.
All one mesh and all one dance
Upon the inner ear and eye.

The air extends, and through its light
The mind in intellection moves,
Conning the landscape to a line
Of liquid spars and sanded flats.

The body in projection moves
Into the threaded air and sky.
And now begins the true delight.
The sympathy of life for life
Leaps past formal excellence,
Eros, bringer of delight,
Quickens the landscape to a pulse.
Sand, and child, and formal bird
Stand at the center of our love,
As at the center of this globe
The jewel-spun open and shut
Of an insect's breathing.

Friday, September 21, 2007

495. I Am - John Clare (1793-1864)

I am––yet what I am, none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes––
They rise and vanish in oblivion's host,
Like shadows in love frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live––like vapours tossed

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my lifes esteems;
Even the dearest that I love the best
Are strange––nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man hath never trod,
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie,
The grass below––above, the vaulted sky.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

494. Thesaurus - Billy Collins

It could be the name of a prehistoric beast
that roamed the Paleozoic earth, rising up
on its hind legs to show off its large vocabulary,
or some lover in a myth who is metamorphosed into a book.

It means treasury, but it is just a place
where words congregate with their relatives,
a big park where hundreds of family reunions
are always being held,
house, home, abode, dwelling, lodgings, and digs,
all sharing the same picnic basket and thermos;
hairy, hirsute, woolly, furry, fleecy, and shaggy
all running a sack race or throwing horseshoes,
inert, static, motionless, fixed and immobile
standing and kneeling in rows for a group photograph.

Here father is next to sire and brother close
to sibling, separated only by fine shades of meaning.
And every group has its odd cousin, the one
who traveled the farthest to be here:
astereognosis, polydipsia, or some eleven
syllable, unpronounceable substitute for the word tool.
Even their own relatives have to squint at their name tags.

I can see my own copy up on a high shelf.
I rarely open it, because I know there is no
such thing as a synonym and because I get nervous
around people who always assemble with their own kind,
forming clubs and nailing signs to closed front doors
while others huddle alone in the dark streets.

I would rather see words out on their own, away
from their families and the warehouse of Roget,
wandering the world where they sometimes fall
in love with a completely different word.
Surely, you have seen pairs of them standing forever
next to each other on the same line inside a poem,
a small chapel where weddings like these,
between perfect strangers, can take place.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

493. National Cold Storage Company - Harvey Shapiro

The National Cold Storage Company contains
More things than you can dream of.
Hard by the Brooklyn Bridge it stands
In a litter of freight cars,
Tugs to one side; the other, the traffic
Of the Long Island Expressway.
I myself have dropped into it in seven years
Midnight tossings, plans for escape, the shakes.
Add this to the national total––
Grant's tomb, the Civil War, Arlington,
The young President dead.
Above the warehouse and beneath the stars
The poets creep on the harp of the Bridge.
But see,
They fall into the National Cold Storage Company
One by one. The wind off the river is too cold,
Or the times too rough, or the Bridge
Is not a harp at all.Or maybe
A monstrous birth inside the warehouse
Must be fed by everything––ships, poems,
Stars, all the years of our lives.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

492. The God Forsakes Antony (2,3,4) - C. P. Cavafy

Translated from the Greek by Rae Dalven

When suddenly at the midnight hour
an invisible troupe is heard passing
with exquisite music, with shouts––
do not mourn in vain your fortune failing you now,
your works that have failed, the plans of your life
that have all turned out to be illusions.
As if long prepared for this, as if courageous,
bid her farewell, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all do not be fooled, do not tell yourself
it was only a dream, that your ears deceived you;
do not stoop to such vain hopes.
As if long prepared for this , as if courageous,
as it becomes you who are worthy of such a city;
approach the window with firm step,
and listen with emotion, but not
with the entreaties and complaints of the coward,
as a last enjoyment listen to the sounds,
the exquisite instruments of the mystical troupe,
and bid her farewell, the Alexandria you are losing.

C. P. Cavafy - The God Forsakes Antony
Translated from the Greek by Theoharis C. Theoharis

Suddenly, at midnight, when an invisible troupe
is heard passing,
with exquisite players, with voices—
do not lament your luck, now utterly exhausted,
yours acts that failed, your life's projects,
all ended in delusion.
Like a man who's all along been ready, like a man made bold by it,
say your last farewell to her, to Alexandria, who is leaving.
First, foremost, do not fool yourself,
and say it was a dream, or that your ears were tricked;
do not stoop to such vacant hopes.
Like a man who's all along been ready, like a man made bold by it,
in a way fitting the dignity that made you worthy of such a city,
approach the window steadily,
and listen, moved, but not needy
and disgruntled, like a coward,
listen, taking your final pleasure,
to the sounds, to that mystic troupe's rare playing,
and say your last farewell to her, to that Alexandria you are losing.

C. P. Cavafy - The God Abandons Antony
Translated from the Greek by Daniel Mendelsohn

When suddenly at midnight, there comes the sound
of an invisible procession passing by
with exquisite music playing, with voices raised—
your good fortune, which now gives way; all your efforts'
ill-starred outcome; the plans you made for life,
which turned out wrong: don't mourn them uselessly.
Like one who's long prepared, like someone brave,
bid farewell to her, to Alexandria, who is leaving.
Above all do not fool yourself, don't say
that it was a dream, that your ears deceived you;
don't stoop to futile hopes like these.
Like one who's long prepared, like someone brave,
as befits a man who's been blessed with a city like this,
go without faltering toward the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the entreaties and the whining of a coward,
to the sounds—a final entertainment—
to the exquisite instruments of that initiate crew,
and bid farewell to her, to Alexandria, whom you are losing.

Monday, September 17, 2007

491. Robert Hass - Heroic Simile

When the swordsman fell in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai
in the gray rain,
in Cinemascope and the Tokugawa dynasty,
he fell straight as a pine, he fell
as Ajax fell in Homer
in chanted dactyls and the tree was so huge
the woodsman returned for two days
to that lucky place before he was done with the sawing
and on the third day he brought his uncle.

They stacked logs in the resinous air,
hacking the small limbs off,
tying those bundles separately.
The slabs near the root
were quartered and still they were awkwardly large;
the logs from midtree they halved:
ten bundles and four great piles of fragrant wood,
moons and quarter moons and half moons
ridged by the saw's tooth.

The woodsman and the old man his uncle
are standing in midforest
on a floor of pine silt and spring mud.
They have stopped working
because they are tired and because
I have imagined no pack animal
or primitive wagon. They are too canny
to call in neighbors and come home
with a few logs after three days' work.
They are waiting for me to do something
or for the overseer of the Great Lord
to come and arrest them.

How patient they are!
The old man smokes a pipe and spits.
The young man is thinking he would be rich
if he were already rich and had a mule.
Ten days of hauling
and on the seventh day they'll probably
be caught, go home empty-handed
or worse. I don't know
whether they're Japanese or Mycenaean
and there's nothing I can do.
The path from here to that village
is not translated. A hero, dying,
gives off stillness to the air.
A man and a woman walk from the movies
to the house in the silence of separate fidelities.
There are limits to imagination.

Friday, September 14, 2007

490. The Great Figure - William Carlos Williams

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

489. No Title Required - Wislawa Szymborska

Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

It's come to this: I'm sitting under a tree,
beside a river
on a sunny morning.
It's an insignificant event
and won't go down in history.
It's not battles and pacts,
whose motives are scrutinized,
or noteworthy tyrannicides.

And yet I'm sitting by this river, that's a fact.
And since I'm here,
I must have come from somewhere,
and before that
I must have turned up in many other places,
exactly like the conquerors of nations
before setting sail.

Even a passing moment has its fertile past,
its Friday before Saturday,
its May before June.
Its horizons are no less real
than those a marshal's fieldglasses might scan.

This tree is a poplar that's been rooted here for years.
The river is the Raba; it didn't spring up yesterday.
The path leading through the bushes
wasn't beaten last week.
The wind had to blow the clouds here
before it could blow them away.

And though nothing much is going on nearby,
the world's no poorer in details for that,
it's just as grounded, just as definite
as when migrating races held it captive.

Conspiracies aren't the only things shrouded in silence.
Retinues of reasons don't trail coronations alone.
Anniversaries of revolutions may roll around,
but so do oval pebbles encircling the bay.

The tapestry of circumstance is intricate and dense.
Ants stitching in the grass.
The grass sewn into the ground.
The pattern of a wave being needled by a twig.

So it happens that I am and look.
Above me a white butterfly is fluttering through the air
on wings that are its alone
and a shadow skims through my hands
that is none other, no one else's, but its own.

When I see such things I'm no longer sure
that what's important
is more important than what's not.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

488. When They Are Found - C. P. Cavafty

Try to guard them, poet,
however few there are that can be kept.
The visions of your loving.
Set them, half hidden, in your phrases.
Try to sustain them, poet,
when they are roused in your brain
at night, or in the glare of noon.

Monday, September 10, 2007

487. The First Dream - Billy Collins

The Wind is ghosting around the house tonight
and as I lean against the door of sleep
I begin to think about the first person to dream,
how quiet he must have seemed the next morning

as the others stood around the fire
draped in the skins of animals
talking to each other only in vowels,
for this was long before the invention of consonants.

He might have gone off by himself to sit
on a rock and look into the mist of a lake
as he tried to tell himself what had happened,
how he had gone somewhere without going,

how he had put his arms around the neck
of a beast that the others could touch
only after they had killed it with stones,
how he felt its breath on his bare neck.

Then again, the first dream could have come
to a woman, though she would behave,
I suppose, much the same way,
moving off by herself to be alone near water,

except that the curve of her young shoulders
and the tilt of her downcast head
would make her appear to be terribly alone,
and if you were there to notice this,

you might have gone down as the first person
to ever fall in love with the sadness of another.

Friday, September 07, 2007

486. This Is A Wonderful Poem - David Wagoner

Come at it carefully, don't trust it, that isn't its right name,
It's wearing stolen rags, it's never been washed, its breath
Would look moss-green if it were really breathing,
It won't get out of the way, it stares at you
Out of eyes burnt gray as the sidewalk,
Its skin is overcast with colorless dirt,
It has no distinguishing marks, no I.D. cards,
It wants something of yours but hasn't decided
Whether to ask for it or just take it,
There are no policemen, no friendly neighbors,
No peacekeeping busybodies to yell for, only this
Thing standing between you and the place you were headed,
You have about thirty seconds to get past it, around it,
Or simply to back away and try to forget it,
It won't take no for an answer: try hitting it first
And you'll learn what's trembling in its torn pocket.
Now, what do you want to do about it?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

485. Finalities - C. P. Cavafy

Translated from the Greek by Rae Dalven

Plunged in fear and suspicions,
with agitated mind and frightened eyes,
we melt, and plan how to act
in order to avoid the certain
danger so frightfully menacing us.
And yet we err, it is not in our paths;
the messages were false alarms,
(or else we did not hear, or fully understand them).
Another catastrophe, that we never imagined,
suddenly, torrentially falls upon us,
and unprepared––there is no more time––carries us off.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

484. Voices - C. P. Cavafy

Translated from the Greek by Rae Dalven

Ideal and dearly beloved voices
of those who are dead, or of those
who are lost to us like the dead.

Sometimes they speak to us in our dreams;
sometimes in thought the mind hears them.

And for a moment with their echo other echoes
return from the first poetry of our lives––
like music that extinguishes the far-off night.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

483. N. V. N. - Anna Akhmatova

Translated from the Russian by Jane Kenyon and Vera Sandomirsky Dunham

There is a sacred, secret line in loving
which attraction and even passion cannot cross,––
even if lips draw near in awful silence
and love tears at the heart.

Friendship is weak and useless here,
and years of happiness, exalted and full of fire,
because the soul is free and does not know
the slow luxuries of sensual life.

Those who try to come near it are insane
and those who reach it are shaken by grief.
So now your know exactly why
my heart beats no faster under your hand.

Monday, September 03, 2007

482. In Favor Of One's Time - Frank O'Hara

The spent purpose of a perfectly marvellous
life suddenly glimmers and leaps into flame
it's more difficult than you think to make charcoal
it's also pretty hard to remember life's marvellous
but there it is guttering choking then soaring
in the mirrored room of this consciousness
it's practically a blaze of pure sensibility
and however exaggerated at least somethings going on
and the quick oxygen in the air will not go neglected
will not sulk or fall into blackness and peat

an angel flying slowly, curiously singes its wings
and you diminish for a moment out of respect
for beauty then flare up after all that's the angel
that wrestled with Jacob and loves conflict
as an athlete loves the tape, and we're off into
an immortal contest of actuality and pride
which is love assuming the consciousness of itself
as sky over all, medium of finding and founding
not just resemblance but the magnetic otherness
that that that stands erect in the the spirit's glare
and waits for the joining of an opposite force's breath

so come the winds into our lives and last
longer than despair's sharp snake, crushed before it conquered
so marvellous is not just a poet's greenish namesake
and we live outside his garden in pure tempestuous rights