Tafelmusik

An Illusory Intertwingling of Reason and Response

Literary: Anything waxing literary and Classical goes here. Occasionally I’ll put up a post which is entirely or largely a poem. Those go in Poetry. I even sometimes (though I would be the first to tell you that “literary criticism is bunk”) post some critique.

Tafel :: literary

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Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Men Who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson

The most mind-altering thing about this book is its catalogue record. At least, it's the first thing I noticed when looking for The Men Who Stare at Goats after having it recommended to me.

After talking with a friend, I was told, "If you like all those crazy Cold War spy novels, you'll love it!" Never one to turn down a book recommendation from a fellow addict, I wrote it down and forgot about it. Next time I was at the library, I pulled out The List, re-noticed it, and looked it up.

As I said, the first think I noticed about it was its catalogue record. Specifically, the line that said, "355.3RON; 1 copy; Fiction Book; in Fiction books".

As an astute student, no doubt, of the Dewey Decimal System, you'll probably note an inconsistency right away. See, the 300s are Social Sciences, not Fiction (800s). 355.3, specifically, concerns the "Organization and personnel of military forces".

Of course, even though they'd given it the wrong call number, at least it was part of the fiction collection, so I should be able to find it by last name in the stacks.

No luck.

On a lark, I decided to see if they'd mishelved it amongst the militaria anyway (which would've been immensely amusing — if you know anything about the book, you know it's about "telekinetic special ops" and "psychic spies"); and of course (since you know I did eventually find it) they did. I discussed my amusement about this shelving mistake with the librarian as I checked out.

See, before I go on, you should know that military fiction is a genre with a fastidious readership: their particularity for authenticity and realism is really surpassed only by the "serious historical fiction" and the "hard science fiction" readers. No author knowing the "reality" demands of the military-fiction audience would write anything as crazy as Uri Geller being hired as a psychic spy for a top-secret project inspired by hippies. No author wanting to sell his books to the savvy and shrewd military-history buffs consuming his particular subgenre would dare go so far as to expect his reader to swallow the training of special-ops in Zen-like meditation practices so they could stare at, and will to death, the eponymous goats. And a general who believed he just needed to concentrate a little harder to walk through his office wall would be a character for a comedy author — not a well-researched and serious military-fictioneer. Such an author would be accused roundly of not doing his research, writing sci-fi under the guise of military fiction, and making a mockery of the genre.

So the only way this book got written was by being true.

The mind-altering thing about its catalog record? The call number is correct.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Translation and Critique of Stroope's "Amor de mi alma"

Little irks me like a poor translation. One of my favourite songs that we sang as the PCC Symphonic Choir is "Amor de mi alma", by Z. Randall Stroope. It's a painfully-beautiful setting of Garcilaso de la Vega's "Soneta V" — lovely, that is, until you attempt a reading of the English gloss.

Its abysmality is beyond words. (Of course, I'll try to put words to it anyhow.) It makes no attempt to remain true to the poetic spirit of the original, and makes legion irrational changes in wording and phrasing.

Keep in mind that this isn't simply a gloss intended for the performers — that would be bad enough. The translated text is used in programs and readings for public performances of the piece across the country. Yeah. It's that serious.

Problems start with the very first line. The Spanish, "Yo no nací para quereros" sashays nicely into the literal English, "I was not born but to love you." For whatever heinous reason, Stroope has decided that "I was born to love only you" — colourless and inaccurate — is more apt. May God have mercy on his soul.

The second and third lines set up the evocative image of wrapping oneself in one's beloved like a cloak. Garcilaso sets up his textile image beginning with the cutting of a garment to tailor-fit ("ha cortado a su medida"). Stroope takes the "cortado", which can mean nothing but "cut", and renders it as the more benign and irrelevant "formed".

The third stanza is likewise mangled. Stroope's rendering of "Quanto tengo confiesso yo deveros" (lit. "How much I must confess I owe you") as "All that I have I owe to you" is at once dishonest in its use of the absolute and uninteresting in its lack of poetic vigour.

As well, the final line, "Y por vos e de morir y por vos muero", rendered to include an improbable and anachronistic "give my last breath", betrays Stroope's lack of research into the linguistic environment of Garcilaso's works. The phrase "[h]e de morir" is a 16th-century Castilian idiom which means, roughly, "I would be obligated to die, were it to become necessary": a depth of meaning lost to the reader of Stroope's gloss.

This depth of meaning greatly reveals the emotions intended resident in the final "muero". "Muero" connotes not simply a literal "I die" but "I am now called on that obligation, and, by dying, fulfill it".

I've skipped over the second stanza temporarily, and now to it return. The entire stanza is difficult to understand in this edition. However, if you realize it has been greatly altered in Stroope's edition even prior to translation, clarity becomes possible. The third stanza is the first stanza in the original, and is here missing a total of eleven words, constituting two lines. The original:

Escrito está en mi alma vuestro gesto,
y cuanto yo escribir de vos deseo;
vos sola lo escribisteis, yo lo leo
tan solo, que aun de vos me guardo en esto.

gives us much more information, where the text of "Amor de mi alma" leaves little to explain the complex phrasing of "que aun de vos me guardo en esto". Reading Garcilaso's original words:

Written it is on my heart your gesto,
and how much to write of you I desire;
you only have written it, and it I read
only, that even from you I hide myself in it.

I'll get to "gesto" later. The rough literal translation above (it's not entirely accurate, but should help those who don't read the Spanish) tells a plaintive tale. "Your gesto is written on my heart, and I want desperately to write so much more of you. None but you has written it, though, and I can only read it, since any more would reveal my love to you, and that I must hide even from you, by retreating to this vision of you."

Okay, not perfect, again, but the paraphrase gets the idea across. The closest English synonym for "gesto" is "countenance" circa AD1600. It means, in this context, "your being, as expressed on your face". However, that's currently beside the point: I just wanted you to be able to read it properly for now. The core problem is the missing eleven words from the beginning of the second line (Garcilaso) almost to the end of the third line (Garcilaso), which fit between the first and second lines (ed. Stroope).

Stroope creates a destructive ambiguity both by leaving out the lines in question, and by skipping an ever-so-important comma between "tan solo" and "que aun". Without knowing that this gesto was written upon the poet's heart without his having the ability to add to what is there written, we have no way of knowing that his love is unrequited. Without this veritable keystone of a comma, we have no way of discerning between the two unrelated meanings: "I only read it" and "I only hide from you". The latter, which is how Stroope seems to parse his edited Spanish when translating it, leaves the original meaning far behind.

Below are Stroope's text and gloss, and a more accurate replacement translation to replace his gloss in performances of the piece. Following are Garcilaso's original text, and an English verse translation thereof.

“Amor de mi alma” ed. Stroope

Garcilaso de la Vega

Yo no nací sino para quereros;
Mi alma os ha cortado a su medida;
Por hábito del alma misma os quero.

Escrito esté en mi alma vuestro gesto;
Yo lo leo tan solo que aun de vos
Me guardo en esto.

Quanto tengo confiesso yo deveros;
Por vos nací, por vos tengo la vida,
Y por vos e de morir y por vos
Muero.

Tr. Stroope

I was born to love only you;
My soul has formed you to its measure
I want you as a garment for my soul.

Your very image is written on my soul;
Such indescribable intimacy
I hide even from you.

All that I have, I owe to you;
For you I was born, for you I live,
For you I must die, and for you
I give my last breath.

Tr. Keith Beckman

I was not born but to love you.
You my soul has cut to its measure:
it’s you I want as a cloak for my soul.

Your every aspect is written on my soul:
I no more than read, that within it,
even from you I might hide myself.

How much I must confess I owe you:
for you I was born, for you I have life.
Were it necessary, for you I would die;
and for you I do die.

“Soneta V”

Garcilaso de la Vega

Escrito está en mi alma vuestro gesto,
y cuanto yo escrebir de vos deseo;
vos sola lo escrebistes, yo lo leo
tan solo, que aun de vos me guardo en esto.

En esto estoy y estaré siempre puesto;
que aunque no cabe en mí cuanto en vos veo,
de tanto bien lo que no entiendo creo,
tomando ya la fe por presupuesto.

Yo no nací sino para quereros;
mi alma os ha cortado a su medida;
por hábito del alma mismo os quiero.

Cuanto tengo confieso yo deberos;
por vos nací, por vos tengo la vida,
por vos he de morir, y por vos muero.

Tr. Keith Beckman

Your every aspect is written on my soul:
and how much more I desire to write!
None but you has written, and I may only read,
that in reading, I might hide even from you.

In this I am and ever will be settled,
even though I see in you some few incompatibilities
(because I do not well understand what I believe,
already taking my fidelity for granted).

I was not born but to love you.
You my soul has cut to its measure:
it’s you I want as a cloak for my soul.

How much I must confess I owe you:
for you I was born, for you I have life.
Were it necessary, for you I would die;
and for you I do die.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Idea of Her

written October 15th, 2004

The idea of her
(simply thinking: not seeing)
is a thought in general:
the archetype of all I am
and believe
and dream.

She as specific is as a glass
darkly beaming
(and I the Sultán of Mirrors)
what I think she is.

Any She would do, I suppose,
were she content not to
(merely)
be,
but to be what I
(foolish and deluded)
believe her to be.

But shouldn’t every woman do that anyway?


I was looking through one of my old notebooks yesterday and ran across the above piece. It was written in the fall of 2004, and somehow escaped my notice until now. (In fact, until I'd read it through, I had no recollection of it — and half thought that I'd copied it out of a book.)

It's mostly satire aimed at myself, so consider that before you start complaining about what a narrow-minded chauvanist I am.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Absinthe (Fiction)

I see a shuffling form working its way drunkenly along the wall at the opposite end of the lot. It grasps a wine-bottle lovingly — tenderly. I'm rather a curious sort, and the impending evening made me no more cautious than normal: one really ought not approach drunken bums at any hour, but especially not at any hour so rapidly-dimming. My hand slips into my pocket and fondles a revolver — it reassures me, though there's no telling if I could use it should push come to shots.

I peer through the gathering darkness.

No. It can't be. Yet, almost— The drunk stops and looks almost curiously at me, simian in its innocent intrigue. Hmph. Fancy thinking of an innocent drunk. I smile, but the thought is still there.

What arrests me, though, is the face. Before me, separated still by some thirty paces, yet unmistakably for how I knew it, is the face of— Well, I knew that face too well for mere eight-days' unshavenness, a shambling delerium, and a distressing state of unwash to mask. My best, my closest friend, once. Truly? Driven to what extreme?

Pious, righteous thoughts slipped and soared one direction across another of a glorious repentance and reclamation, brought about by his seeing me, realizing his own disgusting state, and renouncing all that had brought him so low. His tearful wife everlastingly grateful for his recovery.

"Hey!" I called. "Loser!" in best imitation of the old times. One doesn't consider the foolishness of calling a possibly-roaring drunk a "loser" to his face at twilight in an empty parking lot when one's mind is full of an imagined (and utterly imaginary) tearful reunion and renunciation.

He stops, hunched a bit, and tries to bring his rebellious eyes to some semblance of focus in my direction. Scowls. No recognition yet. I approach. As I get closer, somehow my face registers with the part of his mind that still recalls that there are certain people from whom insults are not insulting, and he grunts somewhat satisfiedly. Turns away. Continues his shuffle to God only knows where he's going.

"Hey!" I shout again. I'm much closer now, no real need to shout to be heard, but doesn't one always attempt to pierce veiled understanding by overpowering it? He stops again, and this time, as his eyes seem to cooperate somewhat — and perhaps as both of me are recognizably me — my face is noticed by the part of his mind that keeps records of past confederates and confidantes.

He breaks reverie in a toothsome, disturbing grin. "Hey yers-elf!" he manages to get out. He stares at me, and then starts, and looks down at the wine bottle in his hand. Another loving gaze, and the bottle rises and tips to his lips. I can't help but think that it was once all philosophy, art, and science. Difficult even to contemplate him incapable of linear thought — much less thoroughly sauced.

He quickens his pace. I reflexively caress the revolver in my pocket. One never knows one's friends when they're drunk, especially after so many years. One never knows what they might do. Or try to do, but be thankfully uncoordinated enough to manage not doing.

He reaches me, puts an arm comradely around my shoulder and forces sour breath in my face. I duck out of this unwelcome embrace and he stumbles, totters, and rights himself.

"They, ah've, been lookin' — fer you," he says, with some attempt at significance.

"Who?" I ask.

He only cackles.

I shudder inside. For whatever reason, this cackle — this demoniac cackle — is more disturbing to me even than the stench, grizzle, or stagger. One is not truly changed, I suppose, as long as one always laughs the same. One could shockingly and appallingly transform, and yet remain oneself as long as one's laugh remained. But the deep, throaty guffaw was gone. In its place was a thin and wheezy cackle that seemed to find the universe as a whole rather amusing, as non-self and therefore ridiculous.

The last time I saw him, I vowed never to speak to him again. I thought him free of all reason and value. He was less drunk and more human then than now.

"They'ah, asshk, me 'bout you," He continues. He seems to think this is incredibly funny, and breaks into that awful, painful laugh again. "They-ah, do."

"I'm sure." One patronizes drunks almost reflexively. Even the slight drunkenness of one-too-many at a party and those whose wits are kept about them can't help condescending. "What do they want?" I'm still not even sure who "they" is— are?

"Oh-hoho! They'ah, they'ah, lahv, you!"

Ah. They-ah lahv me, do they-ah? If they-ah were an audience or a female, I'd be flattered. As it is, I suspect that they-ah are a workings or figments of his mislaid faculties.

I reflexively duck as a fly whisks past my ear.

"Heehee! They'ah lahv you! They'ah've wait-ed fer you!" He approaches again. For whatever reason, he grasps my arm with both hands, pulling me closer to him — down to his rough, awful face. A beard of sorts scratches my chin, sour air floods my nostrils.

"They'ah—" I fling him off and stumble backwards. He re-orients and manages what passes for a beeline my direction. I manage to back away on a tangent to him and be again several feet distant when he reaches where he'd assumed I'd be.

Outmaneuvering a drunk is no great feat, even backwards. Hardly somewhat of which to be proud. Yet, dreamlike, I seemed to become less able to move — less able to react and dodge and avoid. Less able even to think.

That blasted fly circles my head. Not sure why, in a lot this big, it feels the necessity of being right here, right now.

That blasted giggle — cackle! That blasted "they'ah something or other"!

"Who are they?" I don't know why I shouted. I've had a frenzy of some sort worked up — I don't say I worked up a frenzy: but nevertheless, inexplicably, a frenzy has been worked up.

"Heehee! They'ah, have been lookin' fer you! They'ah, mish, you."

Dark recollections. Shapes in the night. Avoiding. Dodging. Running. Out-running.

"They'ah've been lookin' fer you. They'ah wondered where you gone!" Now of all times to notice grammar? But his speech was once impeccable — every word high rhetoric in the Classical sense. "Where you gone"?

That same "fly" runs dizzyingly through my skull and out my mouth. I stumble in an attempt to get away from— well, from whatever It is.

"What is it?" I cry at him.

"What? It's they'ah! One of them, that is—" Looking momentarily puzzled. It's the first light stroke of humanity I've seen in him. "They'ah tried to follow you, before."

I know. I remember.

All I tried to forget was back and insisting on not being forgotten — not again, not ever.

The utter ridiculousness of it, though! I'm familiar enough with voices — not in my own head, mind you, but in others'. Voices are not unprecedented.

Voices that try to get into your head from someone else's, though?

"What are they?" I insist. Forcing sense and sentience into that skull seems impossible, but I cannot but try!

"I dun't know what they'ah are," he says unhelpfully, "but I think they were." That's not bad grammar. Oh, how I wish it were!

"They were," rattles between my ears. One can't think! I half-run as I feel It near. Two Its now.

"What do you mean, 'they were'? Were they people?"

"I dun't know. But they'ah mish you! Especially her!" He points near my head, and I duck to hear something swish lightly overhead.

They can't be real. This has to be some elaborate hallucination brought on by — if only I could think of something it could be brought on by! It would be better than being forced to believe it.

But they can't be real. Let's think rationally about this. Not real. No, never, can't be ever. He's thinking about them. He's making them. Making them in my mind. Not real, can't be.

"Stop it!"

He stops in his tracks. He had been coming — leering — across the asphalt towards me.

Two streetlights flicker on.

"One of them," he begins. "One of them wenn-t home wit you lasht time."

I stop backing away. I remember. I believe.

"How?" I ask. But I need no answer. I remember the chill sitting in my suitcase as I opened it. I remember.

"What—" No! I can't be asking this! I can't believe it, it's too preposterous! Say something, anything, to show up the preposterousness of it!

"I don't suppose 'they' were cute when 'they' were alive, were they?" Visions of succubi.

"I dun't know. I dun't know what they'ah were. I think they'ah were," he trailed off.

It, It, It. It approaches, just above eye level. I don't know how I know this, for I see nothing. Just another streetlight as it flickers to life. Not many clouds tonight, but a bright one covers the moon from view.

I feel It ruffle my hair like a slight, cool breeze. Or like welcome slender fingers.

My resolve to not believe is dissolving.

"How did she — get home — with me?" I manage to get out.

"In yer suit-cashe."

Yes. I know this. Weakly, I nod.

A caressing around my neck. Oddly, within my neck. The sensation drifts upward and settles between my forehead and occiput. Yes, "oddly" is still how to describe it. One's brain cannot be tousled playfully, can it?

"What—" I begin, but break off. He looks at me expectantly.

I finger the hammer and trigger in my pocket. The metal is so warm. I must have been clasping it for some time now. No longer cool, it feels alive to my touch. Soft. Comforting.

"What was her name? The one who came home with me?" My fingers close around the polished wooden handle. I've never cared for mother-of-pearl.

"Rebekah."

Yes. It makes sense. She had come home with me. I knew it then and I know it now.

He continues to look at me, intrigued by something.

I stop resisting, and even purr a little as It playfully strokes my brain.

He's still there.

I take the revolver from my pocket, pull back the hammer, point it in his general direction, and work the trigger. It jumps a little in my hand, and he settles to the ground. I return it the pocket, feeling it's short barrel lovingly as I do. Agreeably warm, now. Close to hot, but not quite. Just pleasant.

As I start walking towards the motel on the other side of the lot, I carefully step around fragments of a wine-bottle. A large jagged discus must have been the bottom.

It — no, She — strokes my brain again, and twirls a pretty little pirouette between my ears.

I purr contentedly.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Still a Moon

Many a star I strew across my path,
and rolling, bouncing, running, laughing,
roll they past.

The very dimmest — least aglow —
sit, ’till shooed,
but ne’er a bright.

On I tread, tracking ever,
ere a-sky they flee,
but no more see.

In pity I would stop and weep,
but still a moon walks with me.


* Thanks to L.E., who rescued this for me. I've mislaid a lot of writings over the years, and have rarely gotten them back.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Translation of Baudelaire's "Harmonie du soir"

Debussy's "Prelude from Book I, No. IV", "Les sons et les parfums ournent dans l'air du soir", is in interpretation of Charles Baudelaire's "Harmonie du soir", from Les Fleurs du mal. I recently heard the piece performed by Oni Buchanan as part of her "Poetry in Piano" tour, and was highly disappointed to find that, of all the English translations available, not one was both poetic and true to the spirit of the original.

Of course, it's always better to read literature — particularly poetry — "in the original Klingon"*; however, Broca's speech area of the brain being what it is, this is regrettably seldom possible for all but a small subset of readers.

Thus, translations. However, a translation must remain true in every way possible to the original work. This is doubly important in poetic works, since subtleties of language often carry immense gravity.

For instance, in the poem below, "Harmonie du soir", mystico-sacred imagery is mingled with a nearly Classical æsthetic and a profoundly-disturbing picture of death. Much of the interplay between these three themes is carried on the connotations of words, rather than their literally-translatable definitions.

I've taken the liberty to approach this piece with lexicon and poetic sense in hand, and no particular education in French literature and the exegesis thereof, and propose that the translation below, while departing slightly in wording from a literal translation, remains truer in spirit to to Baudelaire's original both in form and meaning.

“Harmonie du soir”

From Les Fleurs du mal, by Charles Baudelaire

Voici venir les temps où vibrant sur sa tige
Chaque fleur s’évapore ainsi qu’un encensoir;
Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir;
Valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige!

Chaque fleur s’évapore ainsi qu’un encensoir;
Le violon frémit comme un cœur qu’on afflige;
Valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige!
Le ciel est triste et beau comme un grand reposoir.

Le violon frémit comme un cœur qu’on afflige,
Un cœur tendre, qui hait le néant vaste et noir!
Le ciel est triste et beau comme un grand reposoir;
Le soleil s’est noyé dans son sang qui se fige.

Un cœur tendre, qui hait le néant vaste et noir,
Du passé lumineux recueille tout vestige!
Le soleil s’est noyé dans son sang qui se fige . . .
Ton souvenir en moi luit comme un ostensoir!

“Evening Harmony”

From Flowers of Evil, by Charles Baudelaire; Tr. Keith Beckman

Now twilight, when, shivering on its stem,
Ev'ry blossom, censer-like, smoulders;
Sounds and odours turn in the evening air;
Melancholy waltz! Languorous vertigo!

Ev'ry blossom, censer-like, smoulders;
The violin quivers as a love-afflicted heart;
Melancholy waltz! Languorous vertigo!
The sky is sad and beautiful like an immense tomb.

The violin quivers as a love-afflicted heart;
A gentle heart, hating the vast and black Void!
The sky is sad and beautiful like an immense tomb;
The sun has drowned in its own thickening blood.

A gentle heart, hating the vast and black Void,
Of the luminous past hoards any vestige!
The sun has drowned in its own thickening blood . . .
Your memory shines in me like a sacred urn.


Just a few notes on the translation. First, lines one and two are departures in wording from the literal French. However, the meaning is identical, and the imagery comes across more accurately in English such, than in a literal translation.

The same goes for the double-exclamation in lines four and seven: "Melancholy waltz and languorous vertigo!" is much less evocative than the equivalent French. "And" is such a weak word . . .

"Love-afflicted heart"? Well, the French literally translates to "a heart one afflicts", meaning "another's heart afflicted by one's spurning of its love". I'm still toying with this stanza, because no English translation (this one as well) keeps the personal grasping-point of "a heart one afflicts".

Line eleven is perhaps the greatest departure from previously-published translations. "Reposoir" is almost always rendered as "altar", in keeping with the religious imagery of the piece. However, this rendering has the unfortunate effect of confusing its interpretation by implying a sacrifice of the sun. One literal translation comes closer to the goal by using simply the coldly descriptive "resting-place". Rendering "reposoir" as "tomb" brings across the original idea of a dead sun leaving the dolorously-lovely night in his place.

The final line is a difficulty. An "ostensoir" is nothing but an urn or vessel holding the Eucharist for consecration: in English the Catholic term is "monstrance". However, few besides a large minority of Roman Catholics have heard and could define "monstrance". Likewise, "Host", used by two translations, falls on unperceiving ears more often than otherwise. While I still think it seems overly objective and lacking the colour of the rest of the piece, "sacred urn" is a rendering which both communicates the true meaning of "reposoir" to as large an audience as possible, and yet is immediately recognizable as the Monstrance to a well-versed Catholic.

If you have any comments on my translation (which is rather quick-and-dirty — I only gave it ten minutes), I'd love to hear them.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Unsatiation

Yours is a friendship I would die to keep,
and I may.

To love and not be sated,
but live pinioned as companion
(with never more than simply
enough hope to pin me down)
might kill —

and in cessation of existence,
my dying lips would breathe
of thee.

Thunder

I hope it rains like this all night. I’d like to go to sleep to it.

When my soul to weeping turns,
a dull and pleasant gloom
steals o’er my soul; and there I learn
true pleasure from the pain.
When before I shunned it,
now I glory in the rain.

A thunderstorm is always nice, especially in light of the depressingly fair and even weather we’ve been having recently. And we’re in the thick of it: I was outside and watched a tendril of lightning pry through the air, touch the ground, and instantly embolden before losing all existance in twenty seconds of thunder. Blind and deafened, I exulted in the water and sound.

The rain that on my head she falls,
her fog that ’round me shrouds
the world in closer gath’ring walls:
these my muses be.
’Twixt all that sorrow tells me,
all but love soon palls.

A whistle of wind, catlike (in a stormy, caterwauling way) follows on the tail of the thunder. Such a wonderfully and duly depressing sound is ambrosia to my soul now: the strains of love unrequited and nearly-requited and even (dare I think?) unwittingly (“Spring Fever”-like) requited are wearing on me even among their pleasance.

The whisper now rides with the wind,
and my love shall surely mend.
I savour now the siren-song:
pariah’s right’s not lightly won.

Sometimes I wonder if I will ever have her. No matter, really. It is not the having her which is necessary, but the desiring — that nigh-on holy respectful worship of the Eternal Feminine* embodied in her.

I shall hear what’s death to hear;
be succoured by the night.

*****

* By this, I of course mean the concept of the Woman as I regularly expound here. I consider myself one of the few of the old guard who still worship women as they deserve to be worshipped.

The poem intercalated here was originally written on December 25th, 2001, and has been tentatively titled (though I in general despise titles) “Siren’s Rain”.

Friday, February 18, 2005

“The Garden”, by Ezra Pound

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall,
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens,
And she is dying piece-meal
To a sort of emotional anæmia.

And round about there is a rabble
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.

In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.
She would like some one to speak to her,
And is almost afraid that I
Will commit that indiscretion.

*****

“The Garden” holds out, “like a loose skein of silk”, the wealthy and wise whom Pound despised, to be soiled by contact with what is less delicate, and in his view, of more worth. Those “sturdy, unkillable infants” who would inherit the earth deserved the earth, since they were the “very poor” generated by the years of privilege which had bred this exquisite, bored beauty.

“In her is the end of breeding.” Yes, we all know that Pound was opposed to any sort of elite. However, the picture of her we see is one of a woman truly deserving of our contempt. Lest we feel justified in loving or allowing the wealthy (in the which case, her mere station — which was Pound’s cause against her — would not be enough to prejudice us against her), Pound ensures that wealth is coupled intimately with a character innately disturbing.

In her “exquisite and excessive” boredom, the woman meandering through Kensington Gardens is a commentary on what the elite had become by Pound’s day. While fortunes were built on foundations both good and bad (the oppressive foundations of wealth predictably dwelt upon by Pound’s contemporaries), they eventually became self-existent entities of a being entirely separate from those who owned them. The elite became no more elite by right and by labour, but elite by mere descent. The woman is not a victorious, worthwhile producer of wealth, but merely an end user of her parents’ and grandparents’ work. She is our decadent.

However, hate for its own sake is never so strong as a justified disliking. Pound never gives us a woman to hate, but rather, nearly an inamorata into whom we see too much to allow us to act upon our love. We feel appropriate and unbiased in condemning her decadence, since we are acting contrary to the strong drawing power she has upon our emotions (hence, contrary to our surface bias): we cannot be reacting unjustly, since we are in love with our beautiful, silken, “end of breeding”.

She is also described as emotionally anemic. Herein, I think, is Pound’s reason for ascribing a greater worth to the “sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor”. Pain produces emotion, and if she is both worthless and without emotion, one might deduce (subconsciously, of course) that those who possess emotion are inherently of greater value.

So he destroys, in an act of beauty, a moral segment of society by its association with her problems. “The Garden” is, regardless, an act of beauty.

The image of the silk blowing up against a wall is pregnant, somehow, with a power which only grows the more familiar the image becomes. At the first, I was able to read swiftly past it, noting in the first stanza nothing more than “ . . . Kensington Gardens . . . dying . . . emotional anæmia.” However, upon successive readings, the opening image rose in my mind to the point that, before remembering even the garden (though that is second), this poem comes to my mind as a white drapery of silk being held (off-camera) so that it hangs next to a river-stone wall of about six feet in height, and perpetually blowing, caressingly, against the smooth stones and grey mortar.

The “exquisite and excessive” boredom is that carried by generation upon generation of women who are familiar with the sound of men’s hearts shattering. The sound, after so long, does not produce in her any more the thrill it once did, and indeed, she secretly wishes both to hear and to not hear the faint cry of one more. Her beauty, though, precludes any hope of her not hearing such a cry.

The tense thoughtfulness which is fondly thought to reside in such unattainable women by the men who worship them is present in her desire (at least from the man’s perspective) to be spoken to, and in her fear that he of all men will be the one to do so. Pound must have felt at least a twinge of desire for this woman whose class he detested and feared, and in whose “breeding” he saw no purpose. Only one who knew the allure of an exquisitely bored woman — of the challenge it would be to demolish that willful boredom — would know her fear.

And, in the fourth stanza, written in the margins only by the imaginations of those who have known and loved such women, her fears are realized; for I know that the indiscretion must be committed. “I will commit that indiscretion.”

Sunday, February 13, 2005

“The Tragedy: La Dame aux Camélias

from Baby Bell and Other Poems
by Thomas Bailey Aldrich
etext

La Dame aux Camélias, —
I think that was the play;
The house was packed from pit to dome
With the gallant and the gay,
Who had come to see the Tragedy,
And while the hours away.

There was the ruined Spendthrift,
And Beauty in her prime;
There was the grave Historian,
And there the man of Rhyme,
And the surly Critic, front to front,
To see the play of crime.

And there was pompous Ignorance,
And Vice in flowers and lace;
Sir Crœsus and Sir Pandarus, —
And the music played apace.
But of all that crowd I only saw
A single, single face!

That of a girl whom I had known
In the summers long ago,
When her breath was like the new-mown hay,
Or the sweetest flowers that grow;
When her heart was light, and her soul was white
As the winter’s driven snow.

And there she sat with her great brown eyes,
They wore a troubled look;
And I read the history of her life
As it were an open book;
And saw her Soul, like a slimy thing
In the bottom of a brook.

There she sat in her rustling silk,
With diamonds on her wrist,
And on her brow a gleaming thread
Of pearl and amethyst.
“A cheat, a gilded grief!” I said,
And my eyes were filled with mist.

I could not see the players play:
I heard the music moan;
It moaned like a dismal autumn wind,
That dies in the woods alone;
And when it stopped I heard it still, —
The mournful monotone!

What if the Count were true or false?
I did not care, not I;
What if Camille for Armand died?
I did not see her die.
There sat a woman opposite
With piteous lip and eye!

The great green curtain fell on all,
On laugh, and wine, and woe,
Just as death some day will fall
’Twixt us and life, I know!
The play was done, the bitter play,
And the people turned to go.

And did they see the Tragedy?
They saw the painted scene;
They saw Armand, the jealous fool,
And the sick Parisian queen:
But they did not see the Tragedy, —
The one I saw, I mean!

They did not see that cold-cut face,
That furtive look of care;
Or, seeing her jewels, only said,
“The lady’s rich and fair.”
But I tell you, ’t was the Play of Life,
and that woman played Despair!

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