Monday, April 29, 2013

Philip Larkin / XXIV

by Philip Larkin

Love, we must part now: do not let it be
calamitous and bitter. In the past
there has been too much moonlight and self-pity:
let us have done with it: for now at last
never has sun more boldly paced the sky,
never were hearts more eager to be free,
to kick down worlds, lash forest; you and I
no longer hold them; we are husks, that see
the grain going forward to a different use.

There is regret. Always, there is regret.
But is better that our lives unloose,
as two tall ships, wind-mastered, we with light,
break from an estuary with their courses set,
and waving part, and waving drop from sight.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Anne Sexton / All My Pretty Ones

Anne Sexton

All My Pretty Ones

by Anne sexton

Father, this year’s jinx rides us apart
where you followed our mother to her cold slumber;
a second shock boiling its stone to your heart,   
leaving me here to shuffle and disencumber   
you from the residence you could not afford:   
a gold key, your half of a woolen mill,
twenty suits from Dunne’s, an English Ford,   
the love and legal verbiage of another will,   
boxes of pictures of people I do not know.
I touch their cardboard faces. They must go.

But the eyes, as thick as wood in this album,   
hold me. I stop here, where a small boy
waits in a ruffled dress for someone to come ...   
for this soldier who holds his bugle like a toy   
or for this velvet lady who cannot smile.   
Is this your father’s father, this commodore
in a mailman suit? My father, time meanwhile   
has made it unimportant who you are looking for.   
I’ll never know what these faces are all about.   
I lock them into their book and throw them out.

This is the yellow scrapbook that you began
the year I was born; as crackling now and wrinkly   
as tobacco leaves: clippings where Hoover outran   
the Democrats, wiggling his dry finger at me
and Prohibition; news where the Hindenburg went   
down and recent years where you went flush   
on war. This year, solvent but sick, you meant   
to marry that pretty widow in a one-month rush.   
But before you had that second chance, I cried   
on your fat shoulder. Three days later you died.

These are the snapshots of marriage, stopped in places.   
Side by side at the rail toward Nassau now;
here, with the winner’s cup at the speedboat races,   
here, in tails at the Cotillion, you take a bow,
here, by our kennel of dogs with their pink eyes,   
running like show-bred pigs in their chain-link pen;   
here, at the horseshow where my sister wins a prize;   
and here, standing like a duke among groups of men.   
Now I fold you down, my drunkard, my navigator,   
my first lost keeper, to love or look at later.

I hold a five-year diary that my mother kept   
for three years, telling all she does not say   
of your alcoholic tendency. You overslept,
she writes. My God, father, each Christmas Day   
with your blood, will I drink down your glass   
of wine? The diary of your hurly-burly years   
goes to my shelf to wait for my age to pass.   
Only in this hoarded span will love persevere.   
Whether you are pretty or not, I outlive you,
bend down my strange face to yours and forgive you.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Anne Sexton / Menstruation at Forty

Anne Sexton

Menstruation at Forty

by Anne Sexton

I was thinking of a son.
The womb is not a clock
nor a bell tolling,
but in the eleventh month of its life
I feel the November
of the body as well as of the calendar.
In two days it will be my birthday
and as always the earth is done with its harvest.   
This time I hunt for death,
the night I lean toward,
the night I want.   
Well then—
speak of it!
It was in the womb all along.

I was thinking of a son ...   
You! The never acquired,
the never seeded or unfastened,   
you of the genitals I feared,
the stalk and the puppy’s breath.
Will I give you my eyes or his?
Will you be the David or the Susan?
(Those two names I picked and listened for.)
Can you be the man your fathers are—
the leg muscles from Michelangelo,
hands from Yugoslavia
somewhere the peasant, Slavic and determined,   
somewhere the survivor bulging with life—
and could it still be possible,   
all this with Susan’s eyes?

All this without you—   
two days gone in blood.
I myself will die without baptism,
a third daughter they didn’t bother.   
My death will come on my name day.   
What’s wrong with the name day?   
It’s only an angel of the sun.
weaving a web over your own,
a thin and tangled poison.
bad spider—

My death from the wrists,
two name tags,
blood worn like a corsage
to bloom
one on the left and one on the right—
It’s a warm room,
the place of the blood.
Leave the door open on its hinges!

Two days for your death   
and two days until mine.

Love! That red disease—
year after year, David, you would make me wild!
David! Susan! David! David!
full and disheveled, hissing into the night,
never growing old,
waiting always for you on the porch ...   
year after year,
my carrot, my cabbage,
I would have possessed you before all women,
calling your name,
calling you mine.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Anne Sexton / Praying on a 707

Praying on a 707
by Anne Sexton

each time I talk to God
you interfere.
You of the bla-bla set,
carrying on about the state of letters.
If I write a poem
you give a treasurer’s report.
If I make love
you give me the funniest lines.
Mrs. Sarcasm,
why are there any childrem left?

They hold up their bows.
They curtsy in just your style.
They shake their hands how-do-you-do
in the same inimitable manner.
They pass over the soup with parsley
as you never could.
They take their children into their arms
like cups of warm cocoa
as you never could
and yet and yet
with your smile, your dimple we ape you,
we ape you further…
the great pine of summer,
the beach that oiled you,
the garden made of noses,
the moon tied down over the sea,
the great warm-blooded dogs…
the doll you gave me, Mary Gray,
or your mother gave me
or the maid gave me.
Perhaps the maid.
She had soul,
being Italian.

each time I talk to God
you interfere.
Up there in the jet,
below the clouds as small as puppies,
the sun standing fire,
I talked to God and ask him
to speak of my failures, my successes,
ask him to morally make an assessment
He does.

He says,
you haven’t,
you haven’t.

you and God
float with the same belly

Monday, April 15, 2013

Anne Sexton / Sylvia's Death

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia's Death
by Anne Sexton

For Sylvia Plath

O Sylvia, Sylvia,
with a dead box of stones and spoons,
with two children, two meteors
wandering loose in a tiny playroom,
with your mouth into the sheet,
into the roofbeam, into the dumb prayer,
(Sylvia, Sylvia
where did you go
after you wrote me
from Devonshire
about raising potatoes
and keeping bees?)
what did you stand by,
just how did you lie down into?
Thief —
how did you crawl into,
crawl down alone
into the death I wanted so badly and for so long,
the death we said we both outgrew,
the one we wore on our skinny breasts,
the one we talked of so often each time
we downed three extra dry martinis in Boston,
the death that talked of analysts and cures,
the death that talked like brides with plots,
the death we drank to,
the motives and the quiet deed?
(In Boston
the dying
ride in cabs,
yes death again,
that ride home
with our boy.)
O Sylvia, I remember the sleepy drummer
who beat on our eyes with an old story,
how we wanted to let him come
like a sadist or a New York fairy
to do his job,
a necessity, a window in a wall or a crib,
and since that time he waited
under our heart, our cupboard,
and I see now that we store him up
year after year, old suicides
and I know at the news of your death
a terrible taste for it, like salt,
(And me,
me too.
And now, Sylvia,
you again
with death again,
that ride home
with our boy.)
And I say only
with my arms stretched out into that stone place,
what is your death
but an old belonging,
a mole that fell out
of one of your poems?
(O friend,
while the moon's bad,
and the king's gone,
and the queen's at her wit's end
the bar fly ought to sing!)
O tiny mother,
you too!
O funny duchess!
O blonde thing!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Anne Sexton / Divorce

Inna Mikitas

by Anne Sexton

I have killed our lives together,
axed off each head,
with their poor blue eyes stuck in a beach ball
rolling separately down the drive.
I have killed all the good things,
but they are too stubborn for me.
They hang on.
The little words of companionship
have crawled into their graves,
the thread of compassion,
dear as a strawberry,
the mingling of bodies
that bore two daughters within us,
the look of you dressing,
all the separate clothes, neat and folded,
you sitting on the edge of the bed
polishing your shoes with boot black,
and I loved you then, so wise from the shower,
and I loved you many other times
and I have been for months,
trying to drown it,
to push it under,
to keep its great red tongue
under like a fish,
but whenever I look they are on fire,
the bass, the bluefish, the wall-eyed flounder
blazing among the kelp and seaweed
like many suns battering up the waves
and my love stays bitterly glowing,
spasm of it will not sleep,
and I am helpless and thirsty and need shade
but there is no one to cover me –
not even God.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Anne Sexton / Old

by Anne Sexton

I’m afraid of needles.
I’m tired of rubber sheets and tubes.
I’m tired of faces that I don’t know
and now I think that death is starting.
Death starts like a dream,
full of objects and my sister’s laughter.
We are young and we are walking
and picking wild blueberries.
all the way to Damariscotta.
Oh Susan, she cried.
you’ve stained your new waist.
Sweet taste –
my mouth so full
and the sweet blue running out
all the way to Damariscotta.
What are you doing? Leave me alone!
Can’t you see I’m dreaming?
In a dream you are never eighty.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Anne Sexton / Barefoot

by Anne Sexton

Loving me with my shoes off
means loving my long brown legs,
sweet dears, as good as spoons;
and my feet, those two children
let out to play naked. Intricate nubs,
my toes. No longer bound.
And what’s more, see toenails and
all ten stages, root by root.
All spirited and wild, this little
piggy went to market and this little piggy
stayed. Long brown legs and long brown toes.
Further up, my darling, the woman
is calling her secrets, little houses,
little tongues that tell you.

There is no one else but us
in this house on the land spit.
The sea wears a bell in its navel.
And I’m your barefoot wench for a
whole week. Do you care for salami?
No. You’d rather not have a scotch?
No. You don’t really drink. You do
drink me. The gulls kill fish,
crying out like three-year-olds.
The surf’s a narcotic, calling out,
I am, I am, I am
all night long. Barefoot,
I drum up and down your back.
In the morning I run from door to door
of the cabin playing chase me.
Now you grab me by the ankles.
Now you work your way up the legs
and come to pierce me at my hunger mark

Friday, April 5, 2013

Billy Collins / Feedback


Billy Collins, “Feedback”

The woman who wrote from Phoenix
after my reading there
to tell me they were all still talking about it
just wrote again
to tell me that they had stopped.
Horoscopes for the Dead is the ninth collection from Billy Collins, the former U.S. Poet Laureate (and also a former laureate of New York State). Two other poems from this collection appeared in Poetry: “Memorizing ‘The Sun Rising’ by John Donne” and “The Chairs That No One Sits In.”
2 April 2011

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Arthur Rimbaud by Lydia Davis

Up Front: Lydia Davis

On our cover this week, Lydia Davis reviews John Ashbery’s new translation of Rimbaud’s “Illuminations.”
Illustration by Tina Berning
Lydia Davis

Davis is well known for her extremely short, elliptical stories that read, sometimes, like deadpan Zen koans. Here’s one, called “Collaboration With Fly,” that consists of exactly one sentence: “I put that word on the page, but he added the apostrophe.” Fans of Davis’s fiction may be startled to learn that in her parallel career, as a translator of French literature, she has tackled wordier writers, including Proust and Flaubert, to great acclaim. (Davis’s 2010 translation of Madame Bovary won a prize from the French-American Foundation last month.)
How does Davis approach translations? “A single work involves often hundreds of thousands of minute decisions,” she told us via e-mail. “Many are inevitably compromises. The ideal translation would result in an English that perfectly replicated the original and at the same time read with as much natural vigor as though it had been born in English. But in reality the finished translation is likely to be more uneven — now eloquent, now pedestrian, now a perfect replication, now a little false to the original in meaning or rhythm or syntax or level of diction. A careful weighing of the many choices involved can nevertheless result in a wonderful translation. But great patience and of course great skill in writing are essential, not to speak of a good ear and a deep understanding of the original text.”

Rimbaud’s Wise Music

Some associations with the name Rimbaud are very familiar: the highly romantic photograph taken a few months after he first settled in Paris, already at 17 the dedicatedly bohemian artist, with his pale blue eyes, distant gaze, thatch of hair, carelessly rumpled clothes; the startling, much interpreted declaration Je est un autre (“I is someone else”); the fact that he produced a masterly, innovative and influential body of poetry while still in his teens; that he stopped writing around age 21 and never went back to it, engaging thereafter in various sometimes mysterious commercial and mystical enterprises in exotic locations, including a period of gun-­running in Africa (and, oddly, an attempt to enlist in the United States Navy).

Illustration by Hugo Guinness


By Arthur Rimbaud
Translated by John Ashbery
175 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $24.95.

Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis
A photograph of Arthur Rimbaud.
He died of cancer in a Marseilles hospital in 1891, still young — having in effect compressed what for others would have been a long lifetime of artistic revolution and exotic adventure into just 37 years. A deepened and more detailed acquaintance with the legend does not disappoint: he is one of those exceptional meteoric individuals whose very eruption and subsequent accomplishments remain dazzling and difficult to explain away.
Arthur Rimbaud was born in 1854 in Charleville, in the northeast of France close to the Belgian border, to a sour-tempered, repressively pious mother and a mostly absent soldier father who disappeared for good when Rimbaud was 6. He excelled in school, reading voraciously and retentively and regularly carrying off most of his grade’s year-end academic prizes. Early poems were written not just in French but sometimes in Latin and Greek and included a 60-line ode, dedicated (and sent) to Napoleon III’s young son, and a fanciful rendering of a math assignment.
He had announced in a letter written when he was only 16 that he intended to create an entirely new kind of poetry, written in an entirely new language, through a “rational derangement of all the senses,” and when, not yet 17, he made his first successful escape to Paris, financed by the older poet Paul Verlaine, he came prepared to change the world, or at least literature. He was immediately a colorful figure: the filthy, lice-infested, intermittently bewitching young rebel with large hands and feet, whose mission required scandalizing the conventional-minded and defying moral codes not only through his verse but through his rude, self-destructive and anarchical behavior; the brilliantly skillful and versatile poet not only of the occasional sentimental subject (orphans receiving gifts on New Year’s Day) but also of lovely scatological verse; the child-faced young innovator whose literary development evolved from poem to poem at lightning speed.
In Paris, he became close friends and soon lovers — openly gay behavior being very much a part of his project of self-­exploration and defiance of society — with Verlaine, whose own poetry Rimbaud had already admired from a distance, with its transgression of traditional formal constraints including, shockingly, bridging the caesura in the alexandrine line. (Although this line occurred in Verlaine’s third book, Rimbaud may well also have been familiar with the first, “Poèmes saturniens,” or “Poems Under Saturn,” which was published in 1866 and has recently appeared in a deftly rhymed and metered new translation by Karl Kirchwey that offers it for the first time in English as an integral volume.) Their stormy relationship, which extended into Belgium and England and lasted a surprising length of time, was richly productive literarily on both sides.
Rimbaud has therefore been the perfect subject, for 120 years now, of sanctification, vilification, multiple rival exegeses, obfuscation, memoirs that rely on often faulty recollection — all of which has generated, of course, many times the few hundred pages left by the poet himself in the form of letters, juvenilia, some 80 poems, including the 100-line “Drunken Boat,” written when he was still 16, and the nine-section confessional and self-condemnatory prose sequence “A Season in Hell,” besides what was close to his last work, the sequence of mostly prose poems called “Illuminations.”

If the dating of all the poems in this last work cannot be verified precisely, neither can their proper order or the circumstances leading up to their publication. The rather unreliable Verlaine tells us that after he was released from prison in 1875 — he had shot Rimbaud in the arm in a Brussels hotel room — the younger poet handed him a pile of loose pages and asked him to find a publisher. After passing through several hands, the poems appeared in the magazine La Vogue 10 years later, in 1886, having been prepared for publication by Félix Fénéon (journalist, publisher and author of the bizarre collection of police-blotter-generated newspaper fillers published as “­Novels in Three Lines” by New York Review Books in 2007).
Asked many years later, Fénéon could not remember whether the order was his own or whether he had preserved the order in which he received them — although, since he did not receive them directly from Rimbaud, that order was not necessarily the author’s. The work was greeted at the time with some laudatory reviews, though not many copies were bought.

Formally, “Illuminations” — the title may refer to engraved illustrations, to epiphanies or flashes of insight, or to the productions of the poet-seer who has transformed himself into pure light — consists of 43 poems ranging from a few lines to works of several sections covering multiple pages; some are in large blocks of type, some in paragraphs so brief they are virtually two-line stanzas. (At least once, a single comma at the end of the paragraph magically turns it into a ­strophe.) Only three poems have broken lines.
Despite the uncertainty of its dates of composition, “Illuminations” is quite clearly written after Rimbaud’s most defiant and scurrilous phase had passed. It does not contain the explicit playful or lyrical obscenity of earlier times, but rather a subtler incandescent or ecstatic range of congruous and incongruous, urban and pastoral imagery, and historical and mythological reference often grounded in near-recognizable autobiographical narrative. A wealth of images — mineral, industrial, theatrical, royal, natural and nostalgic — often develop by leaps of immediate personal association rather than by sequential or narrative logic, employing the techniques of Surrealism decades before it existed as a movement. The poems shift in tone and register from the matter of fact to the highly rhetorical (“O world!”), the statements from the simple (“the hand of the countryside on my shoulder”) to the more abstruse (“He is affection and the present since he opened the house to foaming winter and the hum of summer”), while always departing from and returning to a concrete, sensory world. The more narrative poems — faux-reminiscences, exhortations, modern fairy tales — are punctuated by verse consisting almost solely of exclamatory lists of sentence fragments, what sound like celebrations of repeated amazement, contributing to create what John Ashbery, in his brief but enlightening preface to his new translation, calls “the crystalline jumble of Rimbaud’s ‘Illuminations,’ like a disordered collection of magic lantern slides, each an ‘intense and rapid dream,’ in his words.”
Ashbery has said he first read Rimbaud when he was 16, and he clearly took to heart the young poet’s declaration that “you must be absolutely modern” — absolute modernity being, as Ashbery says in his preface, “the acknowledging of the simultaneity of all of life, the condition that nourishes poetry at every second.” When Rimbaud’s mother asked of “A Season in Hell,” “What does it mean?” — a question still asked of Rimbaud’s poetry, and of Ashbery’s, too — Rimbaud would say only, “It means what it says, literally and in every sense.”
If Rimbaud anticipated the Surrealists by decades, Ashbery is said to have gone beyond them and defied even their rules and logic. Yet though nearly 150 years have intervened since Rimbaud’s first declaration of independence, many readers in our own age, too, still prefer a coherence of imagery, a sameness of tone, a readable sequential message, even, ultimately, what amounts to a prose narrative broken into lines. Enough others, however, find the “crystalline jumble” intellectually and emotionally revitalizing and say, Yes, please do interrupt the reverie you have created for us to allow an intrusion of Popeye!
Besides his early absorption of Rimbaud’s work, Ashbery brings to this translation a long and deep familiarity with French life, language and culture, particularly artistic and literary culture, and the experience of having translated many other French works over the years — by Pierre Reverdy, Raymond Roussel, Max Jacob, Pierre Martory (as well as at least one detective novel, as the amusingly renamed Jonas Berry). These translations are part of a larger body of Ashbery’s work that has served to offer us — his largely monolingual Anglophone readership — access to poets of another culture, either foreign or earlier in time. (Notable, for instance, is his keenly investigatory, instructive and engrossing “Other Traditions,” the six Norton Lectures that open our eyes to the work of such luminaries as John Clare and Laura Riding.) In tandem, then, with his own 20-plus books of poetry (not to mention his teaching and his critical writings on the visual arts), Ashbery has extended his generous explicating intelligence to the work of many others, most recently in “Illuminations.”
In a meticulously faithful yet nimbly inventive translation, Ashbery’s approach has been to stay close to the original, following the line of the sentence, retaining the order of ideas and images, reproducing even eccentric or inconsistent punctuation. He shifts away from the closest translation only where necessary, and there is plenty of room within this close adherence for vibrant and less obvious English word choices. One of the pleasures of the translation, for instance, is the concise, mildly archaic Anglo-Saxon vocabulary he occasionally deploys — “hued” for teinte and “clad” for revêtus, “chattels” for possessions— or a more particular or flavorful English for a more general or blander French: “lush” for riches, “hum of summer” for rumeur de l’été, “trembling” for mouvantes.
Even a simple problem reveals his skill. In one section of the poem “Childhood,” there occurs the following portrayal of would-be tranquillity: “I rest my elbows on the table, the lamp illuminates these newspapers that I’m a fool for rereading, these books of no interest.” The two words sans intérêt (“without interest”) allow for surprisingly many solutions, as one can see from a quick sampling of previous translations. Yet these other choices are either less rhythmical than the French — “uninteresting,” “empty of interest” — or they do not retain the subtlety of the French: “mediocre,” “boring,” “idiotic.” Ashbery’s “books of no interest” is quietly matter-of-fact and dismissive, like the French, rhythmically satisfying and placed, like the original, at the end of the sentence.
It takes one sort of linguistic sensitivity to stay close to the original in a pleasing way; another to bring a certain inventiveness to one’s choices without being unfaithful. Ashbery’s ingenuity is evident at many moments in the book, and an especially lovely example occurs in the same poem: he has translated Qu’on me loue enfin ce tombeau, blanchi à la chaux as “Let someone finally rent me this tomb, whited with quicklime.” Here, his “whited with quicklime” (rather than “whitewashed,” the choice of all the other translations I found) at once exploits the possibilities of assonance and introduces the echo of the King James “whited sepulcher” without betraying the meaning of the original.
Some of the translations in this book have appeared previously in literary journals one by one over the past two years or so — evidently done slowly over time, as translations ought to be, especially of ­poems, and especially of these poems, given their extreme compression, their tonal and stylistic shifts, their liberating importance in the history of poetry. We are fortunate that John Ashbery has turned his attention to a text he knows so well, and brought to it such care and imaginative resourcefulness