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Machines

Machines

Dearest, note how these two are alike:
This harpsichord pavane by Purcell
And the racer’s twelve-speed bike.

The machinery of grace is always simple.
This chrome trapezoid, one wheel connected
To another of concentric gears,
Which Ptolemy dreamt of and Schwinn perfected,
Is gone. The cyclist, not the cycle steers.
And in the playing, Purcell’s chords are played away.

So this talk, or touch, if I were there,
Should work its effortless gadgetry of love,
Like Dante’s heaven, and melt into the air.

If it doesn’t, of course, I’ve fallen. So much is chance,
So much agility, desire, and feverish care,
As bicyclists and harpsichordists prove

Who only by moving can balance,
Only by balancing move.

–Michael Donneghy,1988

COMMENTARY: The first poem in Michael Donnegy’s 1988 book Shibboleth, “Machines” asks us to imagine the overlap between two seemingly dissimilar things: a dance and a bicycle, both of which stand, it is understood, for the mechanism of words, the poem, which in its own balance (of rhyme, of word choice, of image) creates movement, and by its movement creates balance. The idea of “playing” and “playing away”–i.e. of disappearing in the act of performing–conjures Robert Frost’s dictum that poetry is like a cube of ice that “rides its own melting.” This is maybe a tricky way of saying “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” I like this poem for the surprise of the comparison and the lovely description of the interlocking gears of the bike which manages to capture both the suggestion of planetary orbs and the intricate and overlooked complexity of an everyday object.

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On the Bridge

The blind man sitting on the edge of the bridge
might be a stone marking the border of the nation
where the empire ends—or the last edge
all of us are, the point a thousand stars
spin around, centering the constellations.

The city passes him, then passes him again.
The blind man sitting on the edge of the bridge
while the water flows under him, far away
might be the keeper of the single passageway
to the Kingdom of Light—ward of the unknown

while they pass him, off to work, going home,
the subways that fly by, quick and flickering,
offering the golden bough or the angels’ key
quietly to the city that never dreams to look for it.

–Rainer Maria Rilke, 1913

The original German title of this poem “Pont du Carrosel” refers to one of the great bridges in Paris over the Seine. The idea that every person, no matter how far beneath notice or “marginalized,” is the center of a universe, a empire which those who pass by have only the briefest, most grazing access to, is evoked in a note that teeters between condemnation (that superficial city) and regret.

Poem

When the rain hits the snake in the head,
he closes his eyes and wishes he were
asleep in a tire on the side of the road
so young boys could roll him over, forever.

–Frank Stanford, 1971

COMMENTARY: A friend of mine got me Frank Stanford’s collected poems for “procrastinator’s Christmas”–a couple weeks ago. He was an Arkansas poet, an imagist who drew on rural, shanty-down, shotgun-&-pickup-truck, mule & cigar-store-Indian Americana. I like this poem for thinking of a snake in a tire and the very subtle rhymes of “head” and “road” and “were” and “forever.”

Mad As Mists And Snow

Mad As The Mist And Snow

Bolt and bar the shutter,
For the foul winds blow:
Our minds are at their best this night,
And I seem to know
That everything outside us is
Mad as the mist and snow.

Horace there by Homer stands,
Plato stands below,
And here is Tully’s open page.
How many years ago
Were you and I unlettered lads
Mad as the mist and snow?

You ask what makes me sigh, old friend,
What makes me shudder so?
I shudder and I sigh to think
That even Cicero
And many-minded Homer were
Mad as the mist and snow.

William Butler Yeats 1918

COMMENTARY: We had a snow storm here today with hard winds blowing the snow up sideways and making a kind of mist, so I thought I’d post this poem. The music speaks for itself, so not much to say about it. Robert Bly apparently used to recite this one during his readings with a ferocious sneer and lots of spitting and hissing on the S’s “”even Cic-er-OWE!”

From Charnel Rose

“Perhaps I came alone on a snow-white horse
Riding alone from the deep-starred night.
Perhaps I came on a ship whose sails were music
Sailing from moon or sun on a river of light.”
He lights his pipe with a streaked and pointed flame–
“Yet there were many autumns before I came
And many springs and more will come long after
There is no horn for me or song of laughter.”

–Conrad Aiken 1918

COMMENTARY: When Conrad Aiken was 11 years old, he was upstairs in his room when he heard two gunshots. He came downstairs where he found both of his parents dead. His father had shot his mother and then himself. It would be the trauma that would define the rest of his life. Though he would go on to have a comfortable upbringing at the hands of wealthy relatives, a good education, a successful career, his later prosperity and success would be tainted, just under the surface of his happiness, by the memory of what he’d witnessed as a child. In much of his writing this theme–delight poisoned by darkness– appears as a contrast of opposites: over here, a rich luxuriance and, over there, just behind it, a darkness that seems to threaten it.

This quick lyric, the opening of a much longer “symphony” is a fair example of this theme. The title, for instance, “Charnel Rose”–graveyard flower–prefigures the opposition of romance/music/light and melancholy/silence/darkness. The striking images of the stanza–the white horse, the starry sky, the ship of song, the river of light are set floating on melodious, richly-rhymed lines. But, just behind this lavishness is the sharp sputtering of the pipe flame and the speaker’s melancholy complaint about time and death–“no horn for me or song of laughter.” The romance of the stanza, therefore, is contaminated by hint of something dark and melancholy just under the surface, a lonely threat camouflaged by the mellifluousness of the language.

The Stranger

Her eyes are like the seeds of melons. Her breasts are thin and she walks awkwardly. I am in love with her.

With her I have adventured into a new love. In all the world there is no such love as I have for her.

I took hold of her shoulder and walked beside her. We went out of the city into the fields.

By the still road we went and it was night. We were long alone together.

The bones of her shoulder are thin. The sharp bone of her shoulder has left a mark on my hand.

I am come up into the wind like a ship. Her thin hand is laid hold of me. My land where the corn nods has become my land.

I am come up into the wind like a ship and the thin hand of woman is laid hold of me.

–Sherwood Anderson 1918

COMMENTARY: Sherwood Anderson was 36 years old–established, married, well-off–when he had a nervous breakdown and decided to become a writer. It seemed, all other things considered, an unlikely move. He was, at the time, a successful businessman, having founded a company that sold mail order roof-repair kits and other household products. Other than advertisements and company reports, he had written little and had published nothing, and it would not have been unreasonable for those who knew him to assume that he would go on selling repair kits for another 30 years, fiddling with investments, golfing, clicking pens–whatever it is businessmen did in the early 20th century. Then, one day, while dictating a letter to his secretary, he claimed that he felt as if his feet were turning into water and his body was melting. He ran out of the building and checked himself into a hospital. The experience–whatever it may have been–(nervous exhaustion, stroke, angelic visitation)–would change him for the rest of his life. He quit his job, divorced his wife, and devoted himself to his writing, producing several novels, and, more than a decade later, his masterpiece Winesburg, Ohio. Anderson told the story of his “conversion” throughout his career–to the point that it became part of his personal mythology. Whether it really happened or is self-romanticization is, of course, impossible to determine, but it does illustrate a thematic contrast that would be evident in much of his writing: the suffocation of “career” in affluent industrialized America vs. the poetic madness of the inner self.

This poem, part of the collection Mid-American Chants, (one of two poetry collections Anderson published) is a fairly direction treatment of this theme. In the forward to the book, he writes, ” I do not believe that we people of mid-western America, immersed as we are in affairs, hurried and harried through life by the terrible engine industrialism have come to the time of song….Here we stand in roaring city streets, on steaming coal heaps, in the shadow of factories from which come only the grinding roar of machines. We do not sing but mutter in the darkness. Our lips are cracked with dust and with the heat of furnaces. We but mutter and feel our way toward the promise of song.” Backlit by this statement, it’s possible to read this poem not only as a personal love-poem (after his divorce, Anderson had a number of lovers) but as an entreaty to the distant, mysterious, “strange” muse that takes hold of the mind and beckons it into the unknown. The long lines, rough with bare, elemental nouns (bones, field, ship) is half Whitman and half Song of Solomon and suggests a passionate journey towards a dark horizon.

Eldorado

Eldorado

Gaily bedight,
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.

But he grew old—
This knight so bold—
And o’er his heart a shadow
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.

And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow—
“Shadow,” said he,
“Where can it be—
This land of Eldorado?”

“Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,”
The shade replied—
“If you seek for Eldorado!”

–Edgar Allen Poe, 1849

COMMENTARY: Six months before his death, Edgar Allen Poe published this little poem in a popular Boston newspaper, The Flag Of Our Union (generously digitized by the Library of Congress)–a small-print broadsheet that advertised itself as “miscellany of humor, wit, and romance.” A better description would have been “8th-grade bathroom humor for the antebellum Yankees.” The poem appears on the second page buried among scurrilous joke-stories, the two on either side of it being “The Negro Who Did Not Believe In Ghosts” and “Singular Spelling” (about an old doctor who couldn’t spell “cat”). The fact that a writer as serious and cultivated as Poe was publishing in silly rags, though surprising by contemporary standards, was not unusual before the separation between academic and popular domains of printed literature widened in the 20th century. Poe, like many other writers, published where he could sell his work and shared a page (as well as a readership) with hacks and fops and jesters. There’s something charming and organic about that–all sorts of writing shoved together in a messy commune, like human language is anyway.

Publication history aside, the poem is as lovely as any poem Poe wrote, and, like the best of his work, operates at the level of sound prior to the level of meaning. The double-rhymed, 4 syllable lines create a quick two-step that pauses, teeteringly, in each stanza, on the word “shadow” before stepping canteringly away on another two, quick-rhyming lines. The effect is that the music performs the ride-and-search, ride-and-search of the knight’s longing and futile quest. The repetition of the word shadow at the middle of each stanza not only enacts the temporary disappointment (a shadow is a false find) before the search is resumed but also shows the way the search changes in meaning as it progresses. The first shadow means a physical shadow; the second, emotional despair; the third, a ghost; and the fourth, the underworld. The gradual alteration in the meaning of the word is an expression of how the quest, though always meeting the same end, becomes more meaningful (from the physical to the transcendent) with each failure. Eldorado is a mirage, but the search for Eldorado is real and is a means of transformation. But this thematic meaning is ultimately secondary to the dreamy, trance-like, almost immediately internalized music of the piece, a music which, like “The Bells” and “The Raven” fixes itself almost immediately in the memory.