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Sir Thomas Wyatt by Hans Holbein the Younger

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503 – 11 October 1542)

A couple of mornings ago, I heard an omen from a solitary jay who alighted on the plum tree outside my front door and gave five sharp bugle blasts of “mean, mean, mean, mean mean.” I remembered her when I sat down to write this post, and heard the tut-tutting of my good angel who stood behind my shoulder and corroborated the jay’s message with a low “wicked,wicked.”  I felt constrained to stop for a short space to examine my soul, and my motivations for the task I had been setting for myself, but finding nothing there to fit the description of either “mean” or “wicked”, I concluded that the words had not been meant to deter me, but referred to people now long dead and buried, about whom I had been thinking.

Ever since I read Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poem “The Lover Showeth How He Is Forsaken of Such as He Sometime Enjoyed” many years ago, something about it bothered me. It felt like a badly put-together puzzle, the pieces of which did not fit, and whose picture  did not make sense. I felt compelled to try and work out why I had found its meaning as well as its construction so aggravating.
I have a few steadfast beliefs about poets and poetry, one of which is that genuine poets are closet moralists, whose morals are not toTW115 be confused with the cheap variety of conventional social and religious prescriptions but rather are the expression of a deep sense of personal integrity and a devotion to honesty in all things. The other is that to be a poet is not simply to have the knack of versifying, nor is it an avocation, or in fact a vocation. It is a matter of whole-hearted dedication to a calling.

Sir Thomas Wyatt was Ambassador to Spain, Special Envoy to France, Marshall of Calais, Sheriff of Kent, Member of Parliament, and Vice-admiral Elect of the Fleet. His patron had been Thomas Cromwell, the cunning and unscrupulous advisor who had replaced Cardinal Wolsey as counsel to Henry VIII. Wyatt was a professional  diplomat who wrote poetry – or maybe I should call it verse – for the purpose of charming and seducing women. Though he had a reputation for being handsome, the portrait of him by Hans Holbein the younger, reveals a balding, pasty-complected man with close-set puffy eyes and a limp beard, who appears much older than his years (Wyatt died at the age of 39).

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Here is the Wyatt sonnet I have been looking over in the last two days.

The Lover Showeth How He Is Forsaken of Such as He Sometime Enjoyed

They flee from me that sometime did me seek               TW125
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle tame and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.
Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
And therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, Dear heart, how like you this?
It was no dream, I lay broad waking.
But all is turned through my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness
And she also to use newfangledness.
But since that I so kindely am served,
I fain would know what she hath deserved.

 

This sonnet leaves its most lingering impression in the potent erotic image which runs like a broken thread throughout its warp, that of a slender, beautiful, bare-footed young girl, diaphanously and negligently clad, who enters the bedchamber of a paramour to slip off her silk chemise and offer herself up to who knows what, with a kiss and a lubricious invitation.

TW130

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rendered in prose it reads something like this:
They run away from me now, who formerly pursued me, even coming to my bedroom half naked, those women who used to be so TW114submissive and tractable.  Now they have reverted to wildness, and forget the risks they took in order to ‘take bread’ from me. Now they busily look elsewhere. Thank goodness twenty times over it wasn’t always like this. One woman in particular came scantily clad in a charming negligee and slipped it off her shoulder, addressed me with an endearment, and  putting her arms around me, kissed me and asked me how I liked it. Honestly, I wasn’t just dreaming, but wide awake when this happened! But now, because of my kind forbearance everything is changed into a kind of rejection, when I have been given permission to leave, and she is free to be as capricious as she would wish. Since now I am the victim of such mistreatment, I would like to know if she has received her just deserts.

Seldom does a poem disclose its flaws so early, so thoroughly and so completely as does Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poem, better known by its first line “They flee from me that sometime did me seek”, and seldom has such extravagant ineptitude and knavery as has been expressed in it been put to such a subtle purpose. The first hint comes of course with the very first word, “they”, followed by  a shamefully unworthy expression of rancour and self-pity.  From there things could only get worse.

C-4266As I see it, a dejected Tom Wyatt is bemoaning his fate at having to forego the ‘favours’ of the women he had formerly been accustomed to enjoy. Since the poem is not dated, it cannot be known for certain whether it covertly refers to Anne Boleyn, but if so, she would have been amply justified in fleeing from him. Wyatt’s patron Thomas Cromwell was Anne’s nemesis. Cromwell’s machinations in bringing trumped-up charges of adultery and incest against Anne and several others were instrumental in her being found guilty of treason. Anne was executed by decapitation. Wyatt, who was a great deal luckier, was released after a few months imprisonment in the Tower of London.

Wyatt begins his poem with the lines They flee from me that sometime did me seek/ With naked foot stalking in my chamber. The unfortunate and inept placement of the word ‘stalking’ close to ‘foot’ shows a singular disregard for the faculty of hearing. I can see how this infelicity occurred. Wyatt must have begun: “….. with stockinged foot entering my chamber.” but then he had the impulse to substitute the more suggestive and evocative “naked” for “stockinged.” So far so good. He then had the idea to change the verb to something more surreptitious; then he realized that he could change “stocking” to “stalking,”  Though why a woman would have to stalk him in his own chamber is a little difficult to imagine. He must have hesitated a bit at the word. Perhaps he thought he might suggest that, as he TW118went about his business brushing his hair, folding his clothes and putting on his nightgown,  some interloper was stepping ever closer to him even as he failed to notice what she was about.  He must have sensed that the inappropriateness of the word might be overlooked in light of the novel suggestion that he, the passive male prey, was pursued and caught by a sexually avid female.  It seems quite clear that from the word “foot” which came shod with “naked” and “stalking” had managed to create an image of predator and prey in the context of an illicit assignation, and so it seems that the single word ‘foot’ wound up  dictating the course of the entire sonnet.

Having committed himself to the ‘wild thing’ conceit, he finds himself stalled in the doldrums for a moment.  How to reverse the image of  male prey and female predator he has already established? He puts down his quill and looks idly around him; his eye falls on a dusty copy of his schoolboy Chaucer.  He picks it up, and leafing through it, stops at “The Squire’s Tale.”  He happens on the lines….
*That ‘Everything, returning to its kind,                     A127
Gladdens itself’; thus men say, as I guess;
Men love, and naturally, newfangledness,
As do these birds that men in cages feed.
For though you night and day take of them heed,
And fairly strew their cage as soft as silk,
And give them sugar, honey, bread, and milk,
Yet on the instant when the door is up,
They with their feet will spurn their feeding cup,
And to the wood will fly and worms will eat;
So are they all newfangled of their meat,
And love all novelties of their own kind:
Nor nobleness of blood may ever bind.

…and suddenly he feels the riffle of a welcome breeze pushing against his sails. He has been able to move forward by making a connection between “stalking” and “wild” with Chaucer to kindly show him how. He hopes that with the the pretty image of some wild creature picking crumbs from his outstretched hand, he has somehow painted over the previous image of himself being stalked.

Perhaps it is no great sin to filch from Chaucer, even Shakespeare did it, (in Two Gentlemen of Verona) and from this very tale, butTW132 Wyatt is not content  simply to  borrow. He distills twelve whole lines from Chaucer, thanks to whom he is out of the doldrums, and halfway through his poem. This in turn gives him the inspiration to think about birds gone wild, and meek women who easily divest themselves of their veneer of civilisation and revert to their crude worm-eating in preference to ‘bread at his hand’. Fleeing birds and flighty women – that’s close enough. He hopes that we might have forgotten that the formerly wild woman who stalked him like an animal is now being compared to a caged bird.  No matter that Chaucer’s point was that even pampered birds prefer rough freedom to luxurious bondage, and remain ever vigilant for the chance to flee their cages. In Wyatt’s mind this idea is distorted, and the point he chooses to make is that women are ungrateful, and unmindful of the men from whom they have ‘taken bread.’

Next he lights on ‘newfangledness’ as suitable polysyllabic filler and filches that as well. Now what? Perhaps an exclamation with a TW138time-muddling indeterminate tense will do the trick: something along the lines of ‘thank goodness!’ Thus we have thanked be fortune if it had been, would it have been or should it have turned out differently, (hath means both had and has) and “Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise, Twenty times better;”.
Having already come up with the adjective of ‘naked’ for foot, and a concupiscent note having been struck, he decides to employ the details of one of his assignations. He forges ahead with…

….but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
And therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, Dear heart, how like you this?

This works well for a few lines. But once again he grinds to a halt. Where can he go from here? Obviously not to whatever actionsTW147 followed the kiss – that would make too much of a good thing – so he hastens to assure us that this incident was not the result of one of those unfortunate dreams of a shameful origin, but a real-life happening, but his demure “it was no dream” tends to give him away. His very asseveration serves to convince me that it was indeed no more than a dream, which he has chosen to enlarge into a boast. But now what? Where is he to go from here? He plugs the gap with two lines of uncertain meaning:

But all is turned through my gentleness, Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
by which he hopes he might persuade us to think of him as resigned and passive and hard-done-by. He entertains the hope that we his readers would not as yet have emerged form the fog of erotic befuddlement cast by lines 9 – 13.

Finally, he has only four lines left to finish, and he begins to wind up his sonnet. Rather unexpectedly he decides in the next two lines, to tell the  obvious truth in however confused a manner: He has been cut loose, by the ‘she’ (which used to be’ they‘) who has so unkindly chosen to go her own way. “And I have leave to go of her goodness, And she also to use newfangledness.”  But this is an untenable situation, and to be deplored – it is against nature for women to decide….

TW141He cannot resist a spurt of sarcasm and rancour and the chance to insert himself and his own agency as being the source of considerable magnanimity. “But since that I so kindely am served, I fain would know what she hath deserved.”

I read it as ironic: ‘since I am so kindly (irony for badly) served, I wonder (actually, I know) what  ought to happen to her. Since she was so unkind to me, I hope something unpleasant happened to her’.

I  think I see him smirk on the word “kindely”. Perhaps he has heard of the swordsman sent for from France to sever Anne’s neck, which also aptly fits the description of “long and small”  which he has earlier applied to a woman’s arms.

Wyatt must have felt some considerable satisfaction at having managed to shepherd his sonnet from its unpromising inception to a passably neat conclusion. He is aware of having nimbly sidestepped a potentially dangerous pitfall presented by the clumping of foot and naked and stocking and stalking, and turned them to his advantage. It was a lucky thing too, happening  in a pinch upon Chaucer’s Squire, and using two sly slippages of meaning  and confusions of tense and reversals in imagery in order to add some depth of suggestion.

He has managed to subtly smear the reputation of a woman some will identify as Anne Boleyn, whom he had previously lusted after,TW111 by craftily suggesting that he has been the recipient of her unsolicited sexual favors. He implies that she had been in some manner kept (‘taken bread’) by him. However, he can plausibly claim that the word “they” implies that no particular woman is being referred to.  Wyatt is well aware that he owes his life to the fact that he had first taken care to shield himself from his sovereign Henry VIII’s paranoid jealousy, having warned him (prior to Henry’s marriage) that Anne  Boleyn would not make a suitable wife.

It matters not whether the “she” of his sonnet was a woman wild or tame, or wild pretending to be tame, or wild then tame and then reverted to wildness. Was she even human, and not merely a passager who refused to be hooded, but drew down her nictitating membrane when she elected not to see him, and at a time when he would have preferred she had. He has kissed and told, and done a great deal better than if he had openly boasted of sexual conquests in a tavern, but done so nonetheless, with great pretense at refinement. He supposes he has enmeshed his readers in an erotically TW116charged fantasy, carefully contrived to infect their minds with an image that is  lubricious and suggestive, that he evidently wishes them to dwell on. As he laid down his pen, Wyatt may have slyly moistened his lips, contemplating the insidious way in which he had managed to enmesh his readers’ imaginations.

The absence of love, the salacious note, the whining tone, the lack of sincerity, the arrant denigration implicit in his derisive plural ‘they’ (later slyly modified to ‘she’), the inability to decide if the woman in his poem was the predator or the prey and stick to it, all bespeak shamelessness, falsity and clumsiness. Even the title sounds more like an expression of discontent over loss of privilege than either regret or a lament for lost love. At any rate, he might have thought, he has managed to write a sonnet, and that must count for something. And so, with the initial dejection he felt when he began his poem satisfactorily ameliorated, this non-poet probably put down his quill and blew out his candle for the night.

 

 

 

When probed for its weak spots and with the unnecessary allusion to Chaucer removed, Wyatt’s sonnet might be be made to read thus….

Wyatt somewhat redeemed.

She flees from me that sometime did me seek                 TW113
With stockinged foot entering my chamber
I have seen her gentle, tame and meek
Who now is wild, refusing to remember
That in the past she placed herself in danger
To take my hand, though now far does she range.
Heaven be thanked it was not always so
But in more pleasant times she came to me
Clad thinly in her silks in beauteous guise
Slipped her loose gown which from her shoulders fell
Clasped in her slender arms I heard her tell
Me softly whispering, as we did  kiss
Dear heart, tell me, do you like this – and this?TW117
It was no dream from which I durstn’t waken
And all that I was helpless to prevent
Being lost is lost and now I am forsaken
As she has left me here and flown away.
Now she is willful and intransigent
And so, since I have been thus cruelly served
I wonder if she found what she deserved.

 

*Chaucer’s original, which of course is what Wyatt would have read:

That `alle thyng, repeirynge to his kynde,                 C-5039
Gladeth hymself;’ thus seyn men, as I gesse.
Men loven of propre kynde newefangelnesse,
As briddes doon that men in cages fede.
For though thou nyght and day take of hem hede,
And strawe hir cage faire and softe as silk,
And yeve hem sugre, hony, breed and milk,
Yet right anon as that his dore is uppe
He with his feet wol spurne adoun his cuppe,
And to the wode he wole and wormes ete;
So newefangel been they of hire mete,
And loven novelries of propre kynde,
No gentillesse of blood ne may hem bynde.

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Delmira Agustini (October 24, 1886 – July 6, 1914)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

El Nudo

Su idilio fue una larga sonrisa a cuatro labios…
En el regazo cálido de rubia primavera
Amáronse talmente que entre sus dedos sabios
Palpitó la divina forma de la Quimera.

 

 

En los palacios fúlgidos de las tardes en calma
Hablábanse un lenguaje sentido como un lloro,
Y se besaban hondo hasta morderse el alma!…
Las horas deshojáronse como flores de oro,

 

 

Y el Destino interpuso sus dos manos heladas…
Ah! los cuerpos cedieron, mas las almas trenzadas
Son el más intrincado nudo que nunca fue…
En lucha con sus locos enredos sobrehumanos
Las Furias de la vida se rompieron las manos
Y fatigó sus dedos supremos Ananké…

 

 

 

Delmira Agustini

Los cantos de la mañana, 1910

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Knot

Their idyll was a smile of four lips…                     
In the warm lap of blond spring
They loved such that between their wise fingers
the divine form of Chimera trembled.

 

 

 

 

In the glimmering palaces of quiet afternoons
They spoke in a language heartfelt as weeping,
And they kissed each other deeply, biting the soul!
The hours fluttered away like petals of gold,

 


Then Fate interposed its two icy hands…
Ah! the bodies yielded, but tangled souls
Are the most intricate knot that never unfolds…
In strife with its mad superhuman entanglements,
Life’s Furies rent their coupled hands
And wearied your powerful fingers, Ananké*…

 

 

 

*Ananke: Goddess of Unalterable Necessity

Translation Valerie Martínez

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Al Claro de Luna

La luna es pálida y triste, la luna es exangüe y yerta.    
La media luna figúraseme un suave perfil de muerta…
Yo que prefiero a la insigne palidez encarecida
De todas las perlas árabes, la rosa recién abierta,

 

 

En un rincón del terruño con el color de la vida,
Adoro esa luna pálida, adoro esa faz de muerta!
Y en el altar de las noches, como una flor encendida
Y ebria de extraños perfumes, mi alma la inciensa rendida.

 

 

 

Yo sé de labios marchitos en la blasfemia y el vino,
Que besan tras de la orgia sus huellas en el camino;
Locos que mueren besando su imagen en lagos yertos…
Porque ella es luz de inocencia, porque a esa luz misteriosa
Alumbran las cosas blancas, se ponen blancas las cosas,
Y hasta las almas más negras toman clarores inciertos!

 

 

 

Delmira Agustini 
El libro blanco, 1907

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Light of the Moon

The moon is pallid and sad, the moon is bloodless and cold.
I imagine the half-moon as a profile of the dead…
And beyond the renowned and praised pallor
Of Arab pearls, I prefer the rose in recent bud.

 

 

In a corner of this land with the colors of earth,
I adore this pale moon, I adore this death mask!
And at the altar of the night, like a flower inflamed,
Inebriated by strange perfumes, my soul resigns.

 

 

 

I know of lips withered with blasphemy and wine;
After an orgy they kiss her trace in the lane.
Insane ones who die kissing her image in lakes…
Because she is light of innocence, because white things
Illuminate her mysterious light, things taking on white,
And even the blackest souls become uncertainly bright.

 

 

 

Translation Valerie Martínez

ASLM810

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alfonsina Storni (May 29, 1892 – October 25, 1938)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Palabras a Delmira Agustini

Estás muerta y tu cuerpo, bajo uruguayo manto,
Descansa de su fuego, se limpia de su llama.
Sólo desde tus libros tu roja lengua llama
Como cuando vivías, al amor y al encanto.

 

 

Hoy, si un alma de tantas, sentenciosa y oscura,
Con palabras pesadas va a sangrarte el oído,
Encogida en tu pobre cajoncito roído
No puedes contestarle desde tu sepultura.

 

 

 

Pero sobre tu pecho, para siempre deshecho,
Comprensivo vigila, todavía, mi pecho,
Y, si ofendida lloras por tus cuencas abiertas,

 

 

Tus lágrimas heladas, con mano tan liviana
Que más que mano amiga parece mano hermana,
Te enjugo dulcemente las tristes cuencas muertas.

Alfonsina Storni

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Words to Delmira Augustini

You are dead and your body under an Uruguayan mantle
Rests from its fire, cleansed of its soul
Since now solely from your books does your red tongue call
As when you lived, to love, and to enchant.

 

 

 

If today, a soul among the many judgmental and dark
Comes to bleed your ear with ponderous words
Huddled in your poor crumbling little casket
You cannot answer it, from your grave.

 

 

But upon your breast, undone forever                  
My breast ever keeps tender vigil
And if offended your empty sockets should weep
Your frozen tears such a delicate hand.
A hand more than that of a friend, but the hand of a sweetheart*
Will wipe them sweetly away from the sad dead hollows.

 

 

 

*The word hermana used here indicates a relationship deeper than friends but not quite that of lovers.

Translation Dia Tsung

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alfonsina y el mar

Por la blanda arena que lame el mar
su pequeña huella no vuelve más,
un sendero solo de pena y silencio
llegó hasta el agua profunda,
un sendero solo de penas mudas
llegó hasta la espuma.

 

 

 

 

Sabe Dios qué angustia te acompañó
qué dolores viejos calló tu voz,
para recostarte arrullada en el canto
de las caracolas marinas
la canción que canta,
en el fondo oscuro del mar, la caracola.

 

 

 

 

Te vas Alfonsina con tu soledad

qué poemas nuevos fuiste a buscar,
una voz antigua de viento y de sal,
te requiebra el alma y la está llevando,
y te vas hacia allá como en sueños,
dormida Alfonsina, vestida de mar.

 
Cinco sirenitas te llevarán
por caminos de algas y de coral,
y fosforescentes caballos marinos
harán una ronda a tu lado,
y los habitantes del agua
van a jugar pronto a tu lado.

 

 

Bájame la lámpara un poco más
déjame que duerma, nodriza en paz,
y si llama él no le digas que estoy
dile que Alfonsina no vuelve
y si llama él no le digas nunca que estoy,
di que me he ido.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Te vas Alfonsina con tu soledad              
qué poemas nuevos fuiste a buscar,
una voz antigua de viento y de sal
que requiebra el alma y la está llevando,
y te vas hacia allá, como en sueños,
dormida Alfonsina, vestida de mar.

 

 

 

 

Félix Luna lyrics

Ariel Ramírez music

Ariel Ramírez (4 September 1921 – 18 February 2010)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Félix Luna (September 30, 1925 – November 5, 2009)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alfonsina and the Sea

To the soft sand which is lapped by the sea
your little footprint return no more,
only  a path, a trail of pain and silence
reaching  up to the deep water,
only a path of silent torment
reaching up to the foam.

 

God knows what anguish accompanied you
What ancient suffering silenced  your voice,
to lean back, lulled in the song
of the  seashells
the song which they sing
on the deep darkness of the sea, the conch.

 

 

You went, Alfonsina with your solitude
To find what new poems are left to be found,
An ancient voice of the wind and the salt,
to shatter your soul and convey you,
and you go yonder as in dreams,
Alfonsina asleep, adorned with the sea.

 

 

 

 

 
Five little sirens will bear you
on paths of algæ and coral
and phosphorescent sea horses
encircle  your side,
and the inhabitants of the water
soon come to sport beside you

 

 

 

 

Lower the lamp for me, slightly
Let me sleep, o nurse, in peace
and if he calls, tell him I’m not here
tell him Alfonsina will not return
And if he calls, tell him nothing about me
simply say I have gone away.

 

 

 
You went, Alfonsina with your solitude
To find what new poems are left to be found,
An ancient voice of the wind and the salt,
to shatter your soul and convey you,
and you go yonder as in dreams,
Alfonsina asleep, adorned with the sea.

 

 

 

 

 

Translation Dia Tsung

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alfonsina y el mar, sung by Mercedes Sosa

 

 

 

 

 

These ripples of remembrance and commemoration, are tributes which spread out from the life of Delmira Agustini, an Uruguayan poet of Italian descent, who was murdered by her husband Enrique Reyes, a month after she had divorced him. Agustini had been married to Reyes for a month when the divorce was granted.

Agustini was emphatically a modern poet, who asserted her female voice in a time and place when women were not supposed to publicly assert either themselves or their work.  Her poems were powerful, personal and lyrical, and brought her both fame and notoriety. Fortunately many of her poems, together with English translations, can be found on the web,  and they are well worth finding and reading.  This is a list of her published work.

1907: El libro blanco
1910: Cantos de la mañana
1913: Los cálices vacíos, pórtico de Rubén Darío
1924: Obras completas “Complete Works”: Volume 1, El rosario de Eros; Volume 2: Los astros del abismo, posthumously published, Montevideo, Uruguay: Máximo García
1944: Poesías, prologue by Luisa Luisi Motevideo, Claudio García & Co.
1971: Poesías completas, prólogue and notes by Manuel Alvar, Barcelona: Editorial Labor

Alfonsina Storni, an Argentinian writer and poet of Italian descent, commited suicide by walking into the sea (the Mar del Plata) in 1938, a year after the suicide of her close friend and fellow writer, the Uruguayan/Argentinan (both countries claim him) Horacio Quiroga. She had been suffering from breast cancer. There are many articles on her work and life to be found on the web. This is a link to the Britannica thumbnail listed under her name.

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/567660/Alfonsina-Storni

Félix Luna is listed in Wikipedia as “a prominent Argentine writer, lyricist and historian.” Luna was born on September 30th 1925, Happy Birthday five hours from now Mr. Luna.

I don’t know how coincidences occur, but when I decided to post a couple of poems by Delmira Agustini today, I was led to a tribute to her written by Alfonsina Storni. From there I was led to the poem dedicated to Storni written by Félix Luna. I then found the poem had been set to music by Ariel Ramírez, and found the beautiful version of the song sung by Mercedes Sosa.

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Sergey Aleksandrovich Yesenin (September 21 1895 – December 27 Dec. 1925)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sergei Aleksandrovich Yesenin, Sergey Yesenin or Serge Isenin was born on September 21st 1895 or October 3rd 1895. He died by committing suicide, or was bumped off by the government a few months after his 30th birthday, having the week before sent a farewell poem to a friend or former lover, no one knows for certain. He was married six – or eight – times, depending on the source of information.  The attachments he formed with the women in his life never lasted more than a year, after which time he abandoned them.  One of his wives was Isadora Duncan, and another (the last) Sophia Andreyevna Tolstoya was the granddaughter of Leo Tolstoy. He had four children by three different women; the last, whom he never saw, was  his son  by the poet Nadezhda Volpin: Alexander Esenin-Volpin,  was  later to become a mathematician of note and a Soviet dissident.

Yesenin had longer, and perhaps more durable relationships with men than with women. His liaison with Nikolai Kliuiev  lasted two years, and the one with Anatoly Mariengof, with whom he cohabited and to whom he dedicated many of his works,  lasted four. Yesenin took up with Mariengof a year after his marriage (his second) to actress Zinaida Raikh in 1917. Despite  substantial and undeniable evidence of his homosexuality or bisexuality, (he was very close ‘friends’ with openly gay poets Riurik Ivnev and Leonid Kannegiser, who promoted his career), these facts seem to be ignored in all the popular sources I came across on the web.

Yesenin’s suicide-note, written in blood, was addressed to a young Jewish poet Wolf Ehrlich in whose company he had recently spent the night, Yesenin has never been considered by the Russians, who revere his work, as anything but heterosexual. This should come as no surprise, since Russian society, then, as now, was virulently homophobic, and to acknowledge a ‘national’ poet as being anything but dedicatedly heterosexual would be pure anathema.

Yesenin was a debauchèe from a very young age, given to drinking, and later, drug-taking. He was a philanderer, a wrecker of hotel-rooms, a hooligan by his own admission, who once scrawled obscene graffiti on a convent wall in the name of poetic innovation and, shamefully, he was a batterer of women. He was mentally unstable, having been admitted to mental institutions at least five times during his short life. He doubtless suffered from what we today think of as bipolar disorder, absence of impulse-control, depression, narcissistic disorder, borderline personality disorder and episodes of medium to severe psychosis complete with hallucinations.

He was a poseur, given to costuming himself opulently in pseudo-peasant garb of silk shirt, red boots and gold belt. He relished being accorded what amounted to a semblance of royal patronage when he was asked to read his poetry to the Tzarina. He supported the revolution and applied for (and was refused) membership in the communist party, because he was considered “too individual and alien to any and all discipline.” Later on he was to denounce the revolutionaries as frauds, and there is a suggestion that unnamed and unidentified functionaries of the state compelled him to commit himself into the mental institution from which he ‘escaped’ a few days before his death. His work was banned by Stalin, but secretly devoured by the masses. His poetry is considered quintessentially Russian, and despite his  violent behaviour and many other serious human defects, he is  still considered a hero by the Russian people. Part of the cover-up of Yesenin’s homosexual relationships is the questionable account of the suicide note entrusted to Elisaveta Ustinova,  with the directive that she should not read it immediately. In fact the note was given to the young Jewish poet Wolf Ehrlich, in whose company he had spent the night two days prior.

Anyone who reads Yesenin’s poetry and fails to feel the tectonic  mood shift from ordinary sense into entranced melancholy has to be singularly unfeeling and insensitive, or even in a sense dead.  His poems are powerful, compelling, evocative, persistent, haunting, inducing the mind to take flight and enter the places to which it is effortlessly conveyed. This can sometimes feel like a transplant of mood and emotions – a kind of possession: such intense feelings, such losses, confusion and despair….

One feels that Yesenin’s poetical modus was that of a hunter who was able to  snatch the wild denizens of his symbolic brain from their  forest-dwelling in his intuitive self, and to convey  the essence of their  potent and shadowy existence into poems, while keeping their wildness even as they are tamed by language. He was able to effect their forcible conversion into language, fix them on paper, and there to make them move again, and resume their lives in other minds.

Yesenin is an aberration. His are disturbing poems,  with their dark emotions, and jaunty rhythms, some of which express a kind of insolence, but most if not all, possessing a powerful and seductive beauty. It is clear that he was able to see into the soul of things. His love of nature and animals, the Russian countryside and its people, rings strong and clear. Yet, he resembles in many ways what Robert Graves referred to as the anti-poet. The anti-poet is someone who falsely puts on a poet’s cover, who has an avocation as opposed to a vocation: someone who seduces women rather than reveres them, and who, far from being devoted to a mystical art, is merely a writer of poems. The anti-poet’s muse is an object of desire until it has been captured and claimed, but afterwards becomes a mere possession and a plaything, to be used and abused, degraded and then discarded. A genuine poet is certainly not given to battering the women who inspire his poetry, betraying them, humiliating them, exploiting them and deserting them. A genuine poet is never a misogynist: an anti-poet always is.  Yesenin’s behaviour certainly bore this out. His heartless comment about his marriage to Isadora Duncan whom he battered and humiliated throughout their brief relationship, was that he “married her for her money, and for the chance to travel.” Even after his death, Yesenin continued to be a fatal blight on many of the women who loved him.  In 1926, a year after his death, Galina Arturovna Benislavskaya, who had been his secretary of sorts for several years and who Yesenin had cast aside to marry Sofia Andreyevna Tolstaya, hanged herself on a tree growing by Yesenin’s grave. Isadora Duncan, in a weird echo of  Yesenin’s death, was killed in a tragic motor accident when the scarf around her neck was caught in the wheel of the car in which she was riding. Zinaida Reikh, Yesenin’s second wife  was murdered  by the KGB in 1940.

So it is confusing – this ambivalence I feel, which compels me to examine the grey area where one finds what seems to be genuine poetry written by a dipsomaniacal cad, a drunk, and a mental case.  Yesenin’s poetry moves me, but I cannot repress the feelings of disgust and revulsion which  Yesenin’s character inspires in me. I think I now understand a little better how Christians feel who must for their own peace of mind distinguish the works of the holy spirit from those of the devil, particularly when their manifestations mimic each other. The works, the signs, the marvels which are his poems, are wonderful to contemplate, but they exist in the shadow of something quite monstrous – his outrageous and often contemptible behaviour.

Perhaps in his repeated seductions and betrayals of women Yesenin was re-enacting the desertion he felt when he was abandoned by his parents, who left him with his grandmother when they went off to live in the city. His boisterous uncles treated him roughly – and we cannot be sure if the roughness was altogether good-natured. He was stripped naked and thrown into the water in order to learn to swim, and later on made to serve in lieu of  a dog to retrieve game  when the uncles went duck-hunting. They ‘taught’ him to ride by setting him off  bare-back on a galloping horse. All these apparently rough- and-tumble experiences could have been felt, even if they were well-intentioned, by a sensitive child to be jarring and sadistic, and the damage they may have caused could have led to a permanent lack of mental balance.  It has even crossed my mind that Yesenin might have been illegitimate, or of uncertain paternity – for why was he the only one of his parents’ children to have been cast-off in this fashion….?

It occurs to me that one possible way in which to resolve the paradox of contemptible poet and beautiful, seeming ‘true’ poetry, is to conclude that some of the poetry was genuine, whereas the ‘poet’ was not. This speculation leads directly to another, which is, that we are contemplating not one, but two people. One of these dual personalities is a deeply flawed human being, tormented by mental illness, addiction, conflicted sexuality and a deeply ravaged character with violent and sadistic tendencies. The other produced ravishing  beautiful poetry.

Narcissistic personalities, depending on their level of intelligence (and Yesenin was highly intelligent) are able feign empathetic behaviour while completely lacking the genuine feelings that inspire it.  The dual personality speculation is supported by  Alexandr Voronsky who attempted to get treatment for Yesenin’s chronic alcoholism. Voronsky states that”On the one hand, he was polite, calm, restrained, reasonable and distant. On the other, he was arrogant, boastful and rude.” Voronsky goes on to describe an incident where “Yesenin, extremely drunk, climbed on a chair and began an incoherent, boastful speech. But then a little later, he recited his poetry from memory… It was masterful, hypnotizing. Yesenin was one of the best at reciting poetry in all of Russia. The poems came from his very core, and any excesses came from his heart.”

One wonders about how Yesenin’s life might have been different if he had lived today, when a diagnosis of manic depression, and possible treatment might have provided some relief from his mental torment, and perhaps provided some sense of stability. But it is also very likely that treatment, like the lethal combination of mental illness, alcohol and drugs which fueled his rush to perdition might also have dampened his creative impulse. We cannot know to what extent  his dual personality, narcissistic disorder,  alcoholism, drug abuse, lack of impulse control, his violent outbursts,  grandiosity, promiscuity, and homosexuality  might have been the engine of his genius. Was he an injured and abandoned child or a monster? Was he a pure soul afflicted by mental illness, or a sociopath? An opportunist, or merely an unsuccessful survivor?  Or was he all of these things coexisting in a bedlam of tottering personality?

In the end, above all Yesenin remains a symbol of how perhaps Russians wish to think of themselves. His vigorous strain of melancholy, his blazing talent, his deep love of nature, his vivid and tragedy-infused sense of life, are all things we associate with the Russian ethos. The photograph of Yesenin in his coffin shows stark evidence of the undertaker’s art – the tamed hair, the steps taken to keep the eyeballs from sinking as they are prone to soon after death, all speak of a hopeless attempt to salvage a memory which begs to be retained, but which also must be sanitised, if it is not to be not expunged.  The picture of a ruined life can be endured only if it is rotated to an unfamiliar angle. In the end persists the touching detail that Yesenin did not use a hangman’s noose to end his life, but that he “wound the cord around his neck like a scarf.”

Here are some recollections gleaned from the web of people who knew Yesenin personally:

Vladimir Mayakovsky ‘s description of his first meeting  with Sergei Yesenin.
The first time I saw him he was dressed in a shirt embroidered with some crosses and had bast moccasins on his feet. Knowing how eagerly a genuine – as opposed to a theatrical – peasant changes his attire to town jackets and shoes, I did not believe Yesenin. He seemed to me put-on and showy. All the more so because he was already writing successful poetry and could certainly afford shoes.

 Victor Serge: Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1945)
When I saw Yesenin for the first time, I disliked him. Twenty-four years old, he mixed with the women, ruffians, and ragamuffins from the dark corners of Moscow. A drinker, his voice was hoarse, his eyes worn, his handsome young face puffed and polished, his golden-blond hair flowing in waves around his temples. Dressed in a white silk smock, he would mount the stage and begin to declaim. The affectation, the calculated elegance, the alcoholic’s voice, the puffy face, everything prejudiced me against him; and the atmosphere of a decomposing Bohemianism, entangling its homosexuals and exotics with our militants, all but disgusted me. Yet, like everyone else, I yielded in a single instant to the positive sorcery of that ruined voice, of a poetry which came from the inmost depths of the man and the age.

Ilya Ehrenberg
Yesenin was always surrounded by satellites. The saddest thing of all was to see, next to Yesenin, a random group of men who had nothing to do with literature, but simply liked (as they still do) to drink somebody else’s vodka, bask in someone else’s fame, and hide behind someone else’s authority. It was not through this black swarm, however, that he perished, he drew them to himself. He knew what they were worth; but in his state he found it easier to be with people he despised.

Vladimir Mayakovsky about his meeting with Sergei Yesenin just before his death in 1925.
My last meeting with him made a depressing but great impression on me. By the Gosizdat cashier’s office a man with a swollen face, twisted tie, and cap only by a miracle holding onto his head, caught by a fair lock of hair, threw himself at me. He and his two horrid (to me at least) companions smelled from alcohol. With the greatest difficulty I recognized Yesenin. With difficulty, too, I rejected the persistent demands that we go for a drink, demands accompanied by the waving of a fat bunch of banknotes. All day long I had his depressing image before me, and in the evening, of course, I discussed with my colleagues what could be done about Yesenin. Unfortunately, in such a situation everyone always limits himself to talk.

Vadim Gabrielevich Shershenevich
Everywhere in his verse the single theme began to appear: the theme of death – We thought it was only a literary theme. We thought it was only a poetic device, and yet it turned out to be the terrible truth.

Olga Hasty
Although his suicide was shocking and theatrical, critics and commentators found in his verse no dearth of material for retrospective proof of its inevitability. A fear of losing his poetic abilities was a widely accepted explanation for his suicide and the images of death in his latter poetry.
Leonid Leonov speaking of of all of Esenin’s last poems
He foretold his end in every theme, cried out about it in every line: One merely needed ears to hear him.

Victor Serge account upon entering Sergei Yesenin hotel room soon after he committed suicide.
They found him hanging with a suitcase-strap around his neck, his forehead bruised by falling, as he died, against a heating-pipe. Lying there washed and combed on his death-bed, his face was less soft than in life, his hair brown rather than golden; he had an expression of cold, distant harshness.
Thirty years old, at his peak of glory, eight times married. He was our greatest lyrical poet, the poet of the Russian campaigns, of the Moscow taverns, of the Revolution’s singing Bohemians. He spawned lines full of dazzling images, yet simple as the language of the villages.
He plumbed his own descent into the abyss: (quoting Yesenin) “Where have you led me, you, my reckless head?” and “I have been loathsome, I have been wicked – and all so that I could blaze more brilliantly.”
He had tried to be in tune with the times, and with our official literature. (quoting Yesenin again) “I am a stranger in my own land; My poems are no longer needed now, and myself I am unwanted.”

Regarding Yesenin, his former lover Anatoly Mariengof remarked
If Sergei decided to leave us, he must have somehow come to doubt his own creative powers. There could not be any other reason for his death, just as he had no other aim in life save his poems.

The events leading to Yesenin’s suicide recount a tragic inevitability. An article I found  about him on the internet states:
“The last two years of his life were filled with constant erratic and drunken behavior, but he continued to produce quality works of poetry. In the Spring of 1925, a highly volatile Sergei Yesenin met and married his fifth wife, Sophia Andreyevna Tolstoya, a granddaughter of Leo Tolstoy. She attempted to get him help but he suffered a complete mental breakdown and was hospitalized for a month. On his release at Christmas, two days later he cut his wrist and wrote a farewell poem in his own blood, then hanged himself from the heating pipes on the ceiling of his St. Petersburg hotel room.”

Yesenin was released – some say escaped – on December 27th, and checked into  room #5 at the Hotel Angleterre, and soon thereafter spent the night with Wolf Ehrlich. Yesenin hanged himself on the morning of December 28th 1925. He was 30 years old at the time of his death.

The police report reads:
“…Arriving on the spot I discovered hanging from a pipe of the central heating system a man in the following state: his neck was not held tight in a loop, but only on the right side of the neck, his face was turned toward the pipe, and the wrist of the right hand had caught hold of the pipe. The corpse was hanging just beneath the ceiling, and the feet were about 1 1/2 meters from the floor. Near the spot where the man was hanging there lay an overturned night table, and the candelabrum standing on it lay on the floor. When the corpse was taken from the rope and examined, a cut was found on the right arm above the elbow on palm side, there were scratches on the wrist of the left arm, and a bruise beneath the left eye. He was dressed in grey trousers, a white shirt, and black patent-leather shoes.”

Georgy Ustinov, probably the husband of the Elizaveta Ustinova who was said to be the recipient of Yesenin’s suicide note, (by yet another account the note was also said to have been found beside his dead body) speculated about Yesenin’s death:
“The corpse was holding with one hand on to the central heating pipe. Esenin had not made a noose, he had wound the rope around his neck just like a scarf. He could have jumped out at any moment. Why did he seize hold of the pipe? In order not to fall out  or in order to avoid the possibility of dying? People say that the autopsy established that his death was instantaneous, from a broken spine. Perhaps he had miscalculated the force of his fall when he kicked the stool away from under him  and died by accident, wanting merely to play with death? All this is as yet an insoluble mystery. The doctor who carried out the autopsy said: in answer to my question whether autopsies can reveal anything about the last mental experiences–‘Science is powerless here. We can establish only the physical anomalies, but the psyche flies away together with the last breath.’

In Yesenin’s own words, “Generally speaking, a lyric poet should not live long.”

Yesenin’s farewell poem.

Goodbye, my friend, goodbye.
My dear, you are in my heart.
Predestined separation
Promises a future meeting.
Goodbye, my friend, without handshake and words,
Do not grieve and sadden your brow,-
In this life there’s nothing new in dying,
But nor, of course, is living any newer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

There’s the silly elation,
The garden the windows look on!
Soundless sunset reflection
Swims in the pool, like a swan.     

Greetings, golden serenity,
Shadows of trees, black as tar!
Crows on the roof, in sincerity,
Hold vespers in praise of the star.

Timidly, over the garden
Where the guelder-rose springs,
A girl in a snow-white  garment
A beautiful melody sings.

Like a blue gown, the evening
Cold from the meadow sweeps…
Happiness, sweet silly feeling!
Virginal blush of the cheeks!

1918

2
You were crying on a quiet night,                    
Those tears in your eyes you weren’t hiding,
I was so sad  and so depressed inside,
And yet we couldn’t overcome misunderstanding.

Now you are gone, I’m here, on my own,
My dreams have faded, losing tint and colour,
You left me, and again I am all alone,
Without tenderness and greeting, in my parlour.

When evening comes I often, crowned with rue,
Come to the place of our dating here,
And in my dreams I see the sight of you
And hear you crying bitterly, my dear.

1912-1913

3
What is Gone Cannot be Retrieved

Lovely night, I will never retrieve it,      
And I won”t see my sweet precious love.
And the nightingale”s  song, I won”t hear it,
Happy song that it sang in the grove!

That sweet night is now gone irrevocably,
You can”t tell it: please come back and wait.
Autumn weather has now set in locally,
With perpetual rains, all is wet.

Fast  asleep in the grave is my sweetheart
Keeping love, as before, in her heart.
And however it tries, autumn blizzard
Cannot wake her from sleep, flesh and blood.

So the nightingale”s singing has ended,
As the song-bird has taken to flight,
And I can”t hear the song now,  so splendid,
Which it sang on that sweet chilly night.

Gone and lost are the joyous emotions
That I had in my life and conceived.
All I have now is chill in my conscience.
What is gone can’t be ever retrieved.

1911-1912

4

I do not regret, and I do not shed tears,
All, like haze off apple-trees, must pass.
Turning gold, I’m fading, it appears,
I will not be young again, alas.

Having got to know the touch of coolness
I will not feel, as before, so good.
And the land of birch trees, – oh my goodness!-
Cannot make me wander barefoot.

Vagrant’s spirit! You do not so often
Stir the fire of my lips these days.
Oh my freshness, that begins to soften!
Oh my lost emotions, vehement gaze!

Presently I do not feel a yearning,
Oh, my life! Have I been sleeping fast?
Well, it feels like early in the morning
On a rosy horse I’ve galloped past.

We are all to perish, hoping for some favour,
Copper leaves flow slowly down and sway…
May you be redeemed and blessed for ever,
You who came to bloom and pass away…

1921

5
The tired day droops, slowly waning ,
The noisy waves are now tranquil.
The sun has set, the moon is sailing
Above the world, absorbed and still.

The valley listens to the babbles
Of peaceful river in the dale.
The forest, dark and bending, slumbers
To warbling of the nightingale.

The river, listening in and fondling,
Talks with the banks in quiet hush.
And up above resounds, a-rolling,
The merry rustle of the rush.

6
It’s sad to look at you, my love,
And its so painful to remember!
It seems, the only thing we have
Is tint of willow in September.

Somebody’s lips have outworn
Your warmth and body trepidation,
As if the rain was drizzling down
The soul, that stiffened in congestion.

Well, let it be! I do not dread.
I have some other joyous gala.
There’s nothing left for me except
For brown dust and grizzly colour.

I’ve been unable, to my rue,
To save myself, for smiles or any.
The roads that have been walked are few
Mistakes that have been made are many.

With funny life and funny split
So it has been and will be ever.
The grove with birch-tree bones  in it
Is like a graveyard, well I never!

Likewise, we’ll  go to our doom
And fade, like callers of the garden.
In winter flowers never bloom,
And so we shouldn’t grieve about them.

1923

Poems 1 –6 Translated by Alec Vagapov

7

Now all is set, and I forsake
My homeland’s woods and sunlit glare.
No longer will the poplars cleave
Their winged foliage in my hair.

The low house stoops without my height,
My faithful dog has long licked sod.
On crooked Moscow streets at night
I am to die, so promised God.

This town of elms, I love it well,
Decrepit, flabby – be it so.
And drowsy golden Asia’s swell
Has died upon the rounded domes.

And when the moonlight gilds the sky
Who knows just how it got that far!
My head hung down, I then espy
Across the street a well-known bar.

In foulest lair of noise and grime,
Through all the night until day’s brink,
To hookers I will read sweet rhyme,
And heat my bones with thugs and drink.

 

My heart will rise as throbbing sun,
Then I will say, in whispered shout:
“I’m just like you, O fallen one
I also have now no way out.”

On crooked streets in Moscow bright,
My loving dog has fled the rod;
My measly house has stooped in fright:
I am to die, thus deemed my God

1922

Translation Hadi Deeb

http://hadideeb.com/journal/2009/9/6/esenin.html.

 

8

To Kachalov’s Dog

Come, Jim, give me your paw for luck,
I swear i’ve never seen one like it.
Let’s go, the two of us, and bark
Up the moon when Nature’s silent.
Come, Jim, give me your paw for luck.
Stop licking me, pet, and please do
At least heed this advice I’m giving.
Of life you haven’t got a clue,
You do not realise life is worth living.
You master’s kind a man of note,
And visitors his home are thronging,
They all admire your velvet coat
Which smilingly they love to fondle.
You’re devilish handsome for a dog,
So charming, trusting, un-suspicious,
Not asking if you may or not,
Like a drunken pal, you plaster kisses.

 

 
Dear Jim, I know a great variety        
Of visions of all sorts call,
But have you seen her here, the saddest
And the least talkative of all?
I’m sure she’ll come here. In my absence
Please catch her eye. Go kiss her hand for me,
For all my real or fancied errors asking
Forgiveness of her in humility.

1925

9

The Blizzard
on 26 April 1912

“What do you need?” I pleaded
With the blizzard, “Please depart.
You summon sadness and dread
And worries that sicken my heart;
Why do you howl at my window?
Let me be now, I’m praying;
Move away, or stay and blow,
But don’t listen – I’m crying.

In hot prayers at this hour
I confess my sins to God,
My soul joins the Power;
Lost spirit, forgive me God.

I’ll be in a grave soon; blow hard,
Moan over me then, blizzard,
But now, please go away,
Or, for my sinful soul, please pray.”

10

The grove of golden trees has fallen silent,
Shorn of its gay leaves, in mute silhouette,
And so the cranes in sad file past it flying
Have no cause any more to feel regret.

For whom, for what? We are all rovers, starting
Out, coming home awhile, then traveling on.
The hemp field’s dreaming of all who departed
And there’s a full moon gazing at the pond.

I stand alone, the bare expanses viewing,
While on the wind the cranes are borne away.
Remembrance of my merry youth pursuing,
I find nothing I would relive today.

I don’t regret the years that I have wasted,

 
I don’t regret the lilac time of life.
A rowan fire is in the orchard blazing
But none shall from its brightness warmth derive.

Red rowan-berry clusters cannot scorch you,
The grasses will no yellow and decline.
As leaves fall softly from a tree in autumn
So I let fall these mournful words of mine.

And if time with its breezy broom should pile them
Into a heap to burn without regret…
Just say this … that the golden grove fell silent,
Shorn of its leaves, in pensive silhouette.

1924

11
Letter to Mother

Still around, old dear? How are you keeping?
I too am around. Hello to you!
May that magic twilight ever be streaming
Over your cottage as it used to do.

People write how sad you are, and anxious
For my sake, though you won’t tell them so,
And that you in your old-fashioned jacket
Out onto the highroad often go.

 
That you often see in the blue shadows
Ever one dream, giving you no rest:
Someone in a drunken tavern scuffle
Sticks a bandit knife into my chest.

Don’t go eating your heart out with worry,
It’s just crazy nonsense and a lie.
I may drink hard, but I promise, mother,
I shall see you first before I die.

I love you as always and I’m yearning
In my thoughts for just one thing alone,
Soon to ease my heartache by returning
To our humble low-roofed country home.

I’ll return when decked in white the branches
In our orchard are with spring aglow.
But no longer wake me up at sunrise,
As you used to do eight years ago.

Do not waken dreams no longer precious,
Hope never fulfilled do not excite.

Translation  poems 9 – 11 by K.M.W. Klara

And this, perhaps the most hallucinatory of Yesenin’s poems

12
Black Man

My friend, my friend,
I am very sick. Nor do I know  
Whence came this sickness.
Either the wind whistles
Over the desolate, uninhabited field,
Or as September strips a copse,
Alcohol strips my brain.

My head waves my ears
Like a bird its wings.
Unendurably it looms my neck
When I walk.

 
The black man,
The black, black,
Black man
Sits by me on the bed all night,
Won’t let me sleep.

This black man
Runs his fingers over a vile book,
And, twangling above me,
Like a sleepy monk over a corpse,
Reads a life
Of some drunken wretch,
Filling my heart with longing and despair.

 
The black man,
Oh black man.

“Listen, listen”–                     
He mutters to me –
The book is full of beautiful
Plans and resolutions.
This fellow lived
His life in a land of most repulsive
Thieves and charlatans.

 

 

And in that land the December snow
Is pure as the very devil,
And the snowstorms drive
Merry spinning-wheels.
This man was an adventurer,
Though of the highest
And the best quality.
Oh, he was elegant,
And a poet at that,
Albeit a slight
But useful gift.
And some woman,
Of forty or so,
He called his “naughty girl,”
His “love.”

 

 

 

Happiness–he said–
Is a quickness of hand and mind.
Slow fools are always
Known for being unhappy.
heartaches, we know,
Derive
From broken, lying gestures,

At thunder and tempest,
At the world’s cold-heartedness,
During times of heavy loss
And when you’re sad
The greatest art on earth
Is to seem uncomplicatedly gay.

 

 

 

“Black man!
Don’t you dare!
You do not live as
A deep-sea diver.
What’s the life
Of a scandalous poet to me?
Please read this story
To someone else.”

 

 

 
The black man
Looks me straight in the eye
And his eyes are filled
With blue vomit–
As if he wants to say,
I’m a thief and rogue
Who’d robbed a man
Openly, without shame.

Ah friend, my friend,
I am very sick. Now do I know
Whence came this sickness.
Either the wind whistles
Over the desolate uninhabited field,
Or as September strips a copse,
Alcohol strips my brain.

 

 

The night is freezing              
Still peace at the crossroads.
I am alone at the window,
Expecting neither visitor nor friend.
The whole plain is covered
With soft quick-lime,
And the trees, like horsemen,
Assembled in our garden.

Somewhere a night bird,

 
Ill-omened, is sobbing.
The wooden riders
Scatter hoof-beats.
And again the black
Man is sitting on my chair,
He lifts his top hat
And, casual, takes off his cape.

“Listen! listen!”–he croaks,

 

 

 
Eyes on my face,
Leaning closer and closer.
I never saw
Any scoundrel
Suffer so stupidly, pointlessly,
From insomnia.
Well, I could be wrong.
There is a moon tonight.
What else is needed
By your sleep-drunken world?
Perhaps, “She” will come,
With her fat thighs,
In secret, and you’ll read
Your languid, carrion
Verse to her.

Ah, how I love these poets!
A funny race!
I always find in them
A story known to my heart–
How a long-haired monster
Profusing sexual languor
Tells of worlds
To a pimply girl-student.

 

 

 

I don’t know, don’t remember,
In some village,                          
Kaluga perhaps, or
Maybe Ryazan,
There lived a boy
Of simple peasant stock,
Blond-haired
And angel-eyed…

 

 

 

And he grew up,
Grew up a poet
Of slight but
Useful talent,
And some woman,
Of forty or so,
He called his “naughty girl,”
His “love.”

“Black man!
Most odious guest!
Your fame has long resounded.”
I’m enraged, possessed,
And my cane flies
Straight across
The bridge of his nose.
The moon has died.
Dawn glimmers in the window.

 

 

 
Ah, night!
Look, night, what have you done?
I stand in a hat.                                
No one is with me.
I am alone…
And the mirror is broken.

 

 

 

Translated by Geoffrey Hurley

 

 

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Luis de Carrillo y Sotomayor (circa 1582 – January 22, 1610).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A la ligereza y pérdida del tiempo

¡Con qué ligeros pasos vas corriendo!
¡Oh cómo te me ausentas, tiempo vano!
¡Ay, de mi bien, y de mi ser tirano,
cómo tu altivo brazo voy siguiendo!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Detenerte pensé, pasaste huyendo;
seguíte, y ausentástete liviano;
gastéte a ti en buscarte, ¡oh inhumano!: 
mientras más te busqué, te fui perdiendo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ya conozco tu furia, ya, humillado,
de tu guadaña pueblo los despojos;
¡oh amargo desengaño no admitido! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ciego viví, y al fin, desengañado,
hecho Argos de mi mal con tristes ojos
huir te veo, y veo te he perdido.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On how time flees and is lost

With what light steps I see you running by!
Oh how you forsake and leave me, Time so vain!
Aye, tyrant of all my goods, and of my self,
Oh how your high-handedness now makes me feel!

 

 

 

I thought to detain you, but you fled away,
To follow you, but blithely you went speeding.
In seeking I squandered you, Oh inhuman one!
The more I sought you, the more of you I lost.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now I know your fury, now admit I’m humbled,
By your scythe’s sweep is made a town of the despoiled,
Oh harsh disappointment, I still cannot accept!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Blind did I live, now at last being undeceived,
An Argus made of my ills, with saddened eyes
I see you flee, see now that you are lost.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Translation Dia Tsung

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luis de Carrillo y Sotomayor, who wrote this sonnet, has been associated with the style referred to as Culteranismo, which in turn is classed as a development of the style called Góngorismo, after Luis de Góngora, one of the foremost poets of the Siglo de Oro, the golden age of Spanish literature.

Comparing de Carrillo y Sotmayor to Góngora seems to me inept and unfair, since Góngora’s style is overly-embellished, wordy, windy and bloated. It is replete with worthless classical conceits, and quiet bereft of real emotion and real meaning. De Carrillo’s is decidedly not.

I have not, by any means, read all of Luis de Carrillo y Sotomayor’s work, but the poems I have read do not reveal any of the vanity and prolixity so typical of Góngora, so I am left figuratively scratching my head, and wondering why I am unable to see what common characteristics (besides language) are to be found in the work of these two men.

The genuine sense of distress, and regret and frustration in this poem, which sounds and feels as if it had been written by a much older man and not one in his twenties, seems difficult to fathom. Francisco Quevedo y Villegas gives the year of Carrillo’s birth as 1582, which means de Carrillo was only about 28 years old when died, and a young man by any account.Though I could find no mention of any physical infirmity in any of the biographical material about him I came across on line, I wondered if de Carrillo might have had a premonition of his early death. Why else would he feel so acutely the sense of being imposed upon and cheated by time?

Did this man feel he had arrived at the end of his life without having achieved his goals and ambitions? Or was there some other cause for great unhappiness?

There is insufficient information in the historical record to answer these questions, and precious little personal information. So it seems, we must satisfy ourselves by trying to understand the state of mind in which this poem was composed and written.

These seem to me to be the words of a man who is unable to see himself in time’s reflection. There is a sense of something more than loss, which to me resembles rejection and erasure. He is absented – he cannot move out of time – yet time speeds away without him. He seems to be in a state of shock, as he realises that there is no temporal fixity. He on the other hand has been fixed by time, in such a wise, that the distance between him and that fast receding figure of Time grows ever longer.

Time is forever, and he is made of the mortal stuff which soon returns to dust. There is a real sense of mortality, and of desperation, and of a painful realisation, which seems likely to have been based on an event, about which we have not been given any hints.

Nor is there any hint of him reaching reflexively for the religious consolations normally resorted to in such moments of exigency. One gets the feeling that he knows it would do him no good to reflect on the fact that he is made in God’s image, if that image is only too susceptible to decay. It would seem that when Time disappeared into the unfathomable distance, de Carrillo found himself staring into the void.

Time is a thing that clocks measure, but we ourselves are clocks – we are the measure of time, even though our parts, unlike the works of clocks, wear out much sooner. We are the battleground of flux and fixity,  and even as we try to hold our place in space and time, they recede and leave us behind. Flux always wins. The question which seems to be asked in this poem, though it is not made explicit, is, “if matter does not matter, what is left that does matter?”

And if the answer is “nothing”, then what is there left to do but despair?

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Juana Inés de la cruz (12 November 1651 – 17 April 1695)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soneto 164

En que satisface un recelo con la retórica del llanto.

 

Esta tarde, mi bien, cuando te hablaba,
como en tu rostro y tus acciones vía
que con palabras no te persuadía,
que el corazón me vieses deseaba;

 

 

y Amor, que mis intentos ayudaba,
venció lo que imposible parecía:
pues entre el llanto, que el dolor vertía,
el corazón deshecho destilaba.

 

 

 

Baste ya de rigores, mi bien, baste:
no te atormenten más celos tiranos,
ni el vil recelo tu inquietud contraste

 

 

 

con sombras necias, con indicios vanos,
pues ya en líquido humor viste y tocaste
mi corazón deshecho entre tus manos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sonnet 164

In which she allays mistrust with the rhetoric of tears.

 

This evening, my love, as I with you I was speaking,
When on your face, your feelings I observed,
And when my words I saw could not persuade you
To see whereof it was my heart desired,

 

 

Love came to my aid, to help me with my cause
And win what seemed to be beyond achieving.
Then between the ache and flooding tears
Was the essence of my dismantled heart distilled.

 

 

 

Enough my love, be done with harshness: Cease!
Neither let tyranny and jealousy torment you
Nor let vile suspicions your concern obstruct

 

 

With foolish shadows tinged with vanities,
When now in liquid form you see and touch
My heart unmade, undone, within your hands.

 

 

Translation Dia Tsung.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is late afternoon or evening somewhere in the Colonial Mexico of over three centuries ago. Dusk has not yet fallen, and two young women are locked together in the grip of shared emotion. Tears are shed, words, exchanged, and a lovers’ quarrel or lovers’ misunderstanding is being intently addressed. One of the women  is a noble of the viceregal court, in fact she is  married to no less a personage than the viceroy of Mexico himself. The other is a nun and a poet.

Perhaps the evening light pouring through the window finds them ensconced in a quiet room, the nun’s private quarters, a large room filled with hundreds books and several scientific instruments, or perhaps they are in a secluded spot in the palace grounds or a convent garden. They are alone in each others’ company.

The nun is speaking urgently and sincerely, trying to persuade and convince the lady that she has no need to feel tormented. In fact, it is the nun who has the most cause to be jealous and suspicious, because it is the lady who has other calls on her affections. But since it is the nun who happens to be the gallant in this pairing, it is she who must minister to the other’s need.

It may appear to an onlooker – if indeed there was one to watch the scene form behind a tree or a curtain (as we the readers do now) – that the scene is simply of one woman pleading with another to not be upset. But what we are really seeing is a highly skilled emotional operation – that of open-heart surgery.

The chest is cut open, and delved into. It must be so, because all the symptoms of lovesickness so dictate. Acute longing, ardent emotions, jealousy, insecurity, anxiety, tears and pent-up emotion have brought about a crisis. It is a tender but dangerous moment, and must be handled with the greatest care. The cause of all the trouble, jealousy,  mistrust, disquiet and suspicion, must be found, and lovingly addressed.

Everyone longs for this –  to not have to speak or explain, but to have one’s expressions, one’s feelings, perfectly intuited, one’s mind read, one’s heart seen into and touched, the vulnerary applied, the wound soothed and dressed and set well on its way to healing. Does the lover exist who who does not fervently long for this –  For her lover to see what is worrying and disturbing her and to tenderly  and gently administer the remedy?

And all this must be accomplished before the lady will consent to wipe away the tears of the nun, for the tears are a required propitiation, the price that must be paid. The nun’s tears are the proof of her devotion and of her surrender.

Therefore she must be assiduous. She must enter and delve into the lady’s heart, leaving nothing undone to appease it and heal it, to reassure and restore calm. She must not  seem detached, but be fully engaged in every instant. Her skill as a lover and a psychologist must exceed even her skill as a poet. All, and not just some, of the ingredients of healing an emotional wound must present, a wonderfully deft treatment and a profound understanding of female psychology must be brought to bear if the destructive event is to be made to pass peacefully. Complete healing is required, and not mere amelioration.

As we watch, we see that such is her perfection of insight and comprehension she that she is able to formulate and express the other’s feelings, to speak for her. She knows the torment of jealousy is corrosive, and with her unwonted skill she must catch it at its inception and lead the way from confusion to comprehension, and from the heavy sense of unknowing within the clouds of feeling into a peaceful clarity, yet remain within the ambiance of the cloud. She must understand the nature of limmerance (a ‘psychosis’ of sorts, related to falling in love, of limited duration and a word which will not be invented for several centuries), and reason must be so sweetened as to please, and  to not be rejected.

The nun seems to have succeeded in assuring the doubter of her love and of her constancy. It was as if Thomas did not even have to lift a finger to have his doubts and  suspicions allayed, but that Christ had himself tenderly taken the hand of the doubter and placed it on the wound. The one with a greater wound heals the one with the lesser.  Surely the lady, though married, possessed a vastly more ample freedom than the cloistered nun, and far less cause for jealousy. Nevertheless, she is the one who now receives the other’s care and comfort.

This is a profound feat of healing, requiring a perfect touch, almost an excess of skill, like a surgeon, a doctor, diagnosing, opening up the body, removing the obstruction, applying the remedy, closing the wound, and then caring for the post-operative trauma of the patient.

Nor, I surmise, was the lady disappointed. Her emotions were read and  sedulously interpreted. She was reassured and comforted. The storm  has spent itself into a gentle rain. The last line with its erotic tinge suggests that thirst has been quenched and all is refreshed with he tears which have been shed onto her palms. It is as if  though at first, in the kind of at-sea-ness of love, she has been safely guided to the shore.

This is one of  Juana Inés’s best-known poems, I wonder if it is it a scene from the past she recalls, or is it more immediate? An old memory? Did she present the lady with this sonnet the following day, or did she dispatch a servant of the convent  to carry it to the viceregal court, accompanied perhaps with a box of the best convent confections?  Or did she write it years later, when the lady had long since left for Spain, and when the news of her death reached Juana Inés in Mexico?

The poet is a secret jeweller and goldsmith, who is well able to recognise a gem, to hold it until the right moment, which may come years later, and cut and polish it and persuade it to reveal its inherent brilliance and glory in a setting of her apt devising. It demands seemingly mutually exclusive skills, those of complete immersion and complete objectiveness.  But if not objective but still in love, at what pains was she to achieve the distance to create this accurate account and set it in a sonnet from like a gem in an elegant ring?

Perhaps it is the inspiration of the personal transcending Muse who is able to transmute the variegated mass of personal feeling into the clear colour of  flawless poetry.

“Love came to my aid,” writes Juana Inés, but what was ‘Love’, if not her own intuition, and her own virtuosity in matters of love?

 

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Giovanni Placido Agostino Pascoli (December 31, 1855 — April 6, 1912)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

X Agosto

San Lorenzo, io lo so perché tanto
di stelle per l’aria tranquilla
arde e cade, perché si gran pianto
nel concavo cielo sfavilla.

 

 

 

 

 

Ritornava una rondine al tetto :
l’uccisero: cadde tra i spini;
ella aveva nel becco un insetto:
la cena dei suoi rondinini.

 

 

 

Ora è là, come in croce, che tende
quel verme a quel cielo lontano;
e il suo nido è nell’ombra, che attende,
che pigola sempre più piano.

 

 
Anche un uomo tornava al suo nido:
l’uccisero: disse: Perdono ;
e restò negli aperti occhi un grido:
portava due bambole in dono.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ora là, nella casa romita,
lo aspettano, aspettano in vano:
egli immobile, attonito, addita
le bambole al cielo lontano.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

E tu, Cielo, dall’alto dei mondi
sereni, infinito, immortale,
oh! d’un pianto di stelle lo inondi
quest’atomo opaco del Male!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

August 10th

Saint Lawrence, I know why so many                          
shooting stars in the tranquil air
blaze and tumble: it is because of the great weeping
in the glittering vault of heaven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A swallow was retuning to the roof:       
they killed her – she fell among thorns.
She held in her beak an insect,
the dinner for her little ones.

 

 

 

 

 

Now she is yonder – as on a cross –     
proffering the worms to the distant sky
and in the shadows of her waiting nest,
the chirping grows ever fainter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Likewise a man, also returning to his nest,
they killed him – he said “I forgive.”
And in his open eyes there was stuck a cry:
he was carrying two dolls as a gift.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now over there, in the lonely house
they await him, but await him in vain.
He immobile, in dazed surprise,
the dolls pointing to far-away heaven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And you, heaven, from on high,                       
above the worlds, serene, infinite, immortal,
Oh, with a single lament of the stars,
you flood this opaque atom of evil.

 

 

 

 

 

Translation Dia Tsung

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tenth of August is when Italians commemorate the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. It is the night when meteor showers are expected to be most intense, and a magical night, when it is believed that such wishes as are ‘wished upon a star’ are likely to come true.

For twelve year-old Giovanni Pascoli, the tenth of August was a night on which his wishes were blighted. His father was killed while on his way home from a local fair, and the mare came home pulling the cart with the dead man in it. The murderers were never apprehended.

This poem was (and perhaps still is) standard fare for generations of  Italian school-kids, many of whom are likely to cry their little eyes out when they first read it. It also  serves as an excellent way in which to introduce these hapless mites at an early age, to the fact that life is uncertain, unpredictable and unfair.

The sense of tragedy and grief that pervades this poem was something Pascoli carried with him for the rest of his life. His father was killed in 1867, and several bereavements followed. His sister Margherita died in 1868, and soon thereafter, his mother and three brothers. One of these brothers was the oldest, who had been supporting the family, and after his death the family fell into severe financial difficulty.

I cannot help comparing Pascoli with another Italian ‘poet of pessimism’ Giacomo Leopardi. I admit this is unfair to Pascoli and no doubt unjust, but it is exceedingly tempting to compare the work of these two tormented men, erudite philologists who both loved nature, were preoccupied by loss, and who lived darkly unfulfilled lives.

Pascoli’s particular strain of melancholy clearly lacks the mordant acerbity of Leopardi’s. Pascoli, due to his academic credentials and success as a latinist, (he was a university professor, and won a significant sum in prize-money for his Latin publications) was professionally and financially successful during his lifetime,    whereas Leopardi barely managed to scrape by.

Leopardi, by far the greater intellect, was brilliantly despairing and clear-eyed about his deformity and doomed existence, but Pascoli, with his fervent idealisation of childhood and without Leopardi’s capacity for falling in love, seems to have sunk into a stupour of weak pessimism and resignation, from which no sparks seemed to fly. His alcoholism – and perhaps his success – seemed to have diverted him from taking the next step of staring unblinkingly into the abyss, something that Leopardi repeatedly and unflinchingly did throughout his literary life.

One wonders about the internal emotional traumas Pascoli sustained, that prevented him from finding any satisfaction – or consolation even – in his life. Though his appearance suggests a jolly, portly, country-gentleman, his writing is full of grief and loss and bereavement, and an unassuageable unhappiness with his life and what it had to offer. Pascoli dismissed religion as well as science, and deprecated politics. He fostered his affinity with the natural world, and dwelt lovingly on the beauty of nature, but this love was never sufficient to sustain him. To read his poetry is to feel muddled and sad and damply depressed. I prefer the salt and acid Leopardi seems to revel in pouring into the same sort of wound.

The religious symbolism in this poem – and the sense of passive resignation to the gratuitous cruelties and vicissitudes of existence – belie the fact that Pascoli was an atheist.  His uneasy mind seems to have been held the captive of a profound and troubled melancholy throughout his life. He never married, perhaps due to a reluctance to disrupt the ‘family’ life he had contrived to foster with his two sisters Ida and Maria, who had at first been intended for convent life, though neither took religious vows.

It has been elsewhere suggested that Pascoli’s attachment to his sisters was not altogether filial, a suggestion that finds some support in Pascoli’s description of the year preceding his  favourite sister Ida’s marriage, as being the most terrible of his life. His almost hysterical outpourings at the prospect of their separation and the thought of forfeiting her affection, attest to an intense attachment and a profound sense of loss.

In 1895 he set up house with his sister Maria (Mariù), in Castelvecchio, in Tuscany, where he lived for the next 17 years, until his death of liver cancer in 1912.

Mariù survived him by some forty years, and the two share adjacent tombs in the Castelvecchio cemetery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://sauvage27.blogspot.com/2009/10/assai-meno-vistosa-ma-piu-penetrante-di.html

http://sauvage27.blogspot.com/2009/04/giovanni-pascoli.html

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Afterlife

Constrained in that narrow crib
for the turning of many seasons
sleepless he lies: Covered with unkind dust
which palls the hollow sockets and heedless grin,
haunted by an anxious wakefulness.
What went so badly wrong? Here’s coin in mouth
ready for the boatman, a yellowed warning
“Don’t drink the water”,  Clothes sober for the judgement….
He learns too late, and cruelly
that the memory of clods falling will re-echo
through the succession of rustling days
unmarked by the timepiece nestling in his ribs.
Still more unbearable the thought, how,
after such painful patience, to give up  hopes
of hearing the promised notes blast through his cell
to end this irremediable fever
filled with the memories of persistent senses –
belated taste for life,
sight, smell, sound and touch….
His cry’s silent reverberation,
“Too much.”

 

 

 

 

Dia Tsung

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is my attempt at a Spanish translation. Readers are invited to point out mistakes and make corrections.

 

 

La vida futura

Restringido en esa estrecha cuna
durante el paso de tantas estaciones
inerte yace: cubierto de un polvo cruel
que rellena las órbitas vacias, la sonrisa inadvertida,
poseido por un exasperante desvelo.
¿Cuál fue el gran error cometido?
Aquí llevo la moneda en la boca,
listo para el que me conduciría a través del río,
una nota añeja y amarillenta
“no bebas el agua,”
Sobria vestimenta para el juicio –
Aprende demasiado tarde, y cruelmente
que el recuerdo de los terrones cayendo
resonará a través de la sucesión
de los días susurrantes,
que el reloj anidado en su costillas
no puede medir…
Aún más insostenible el pensamiento,
cómo luego de tanta paciencia que hiere
abandonar la esperanza de escuchar
el estruendo de aquellos sonidos prometidos
que resquebraja su celda para dar término
a esta fiebre  irremediable,
llena de recuerdos que despiertan los sentidos –
tardía el gusto por la vida
vision, audicion, olfato, tacto….
escapa la reverberación silenciosa de su grito
“Es demasiado.”

 

Dia Tsung

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One night, when I was in my mid-thirties, I dreamed that I was in a graveyard. The sky was dull, the light fading, the time dusk. The graves were overgrown, rank with shrubs and scrub, green as holly, tangled and dark and resembling a labyrinth.

Owls nested high in the cottonwood and oak trees, and swooped down to carry away any creature which moved below. I examined the charred remains of a fire upon the surface of a grave, and pondered its effect on the thing buried within it. Immediately I  ‘saw’  through the surface of the ground, and through the wooden box. I gazed at its contents. The remains inside resembled a wax effigy. Its original definition and clear delineation seemed to have been slightly blurred from the heat of the now extinguished fire, which had recently burned above-ground. The folds of the grave-clothes, which were the muted, earthy saffron of a renunciant’s robe, fell in the slightly unreal arrangement of a medieval illumination.

The wearer of these clothes did not seem like anything which had ever been alive, or fashioned of human flesh. It was a person unknown to, and unrecognised by me. I looked at the dark hair and skin the colour of an unbleached almond. I thought it was perhaps a woman. Perhaps it was myself.

I wonder that this dream habit of mine, (which seems to have been shared by  the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi) of  ‘seeing’ into graves, is not that unusual. Only in my case, I seemed to be in some sense the occupant as well as the observer. I wrote several poems predicated upon the persona of someone who is not completely dead (and even perhaps excruciatingly alive) and who has been inappropriately, prematurely, unwillingly or unwittingly interred, and then in some mysterious way, resurrected.

I have always loved graveyards, They retain a marvellous echo of life to my inward ear. “Graves, after all,” as Rita Mae Brown observed, “are our only permanent residences.” Nevertheless, the thought of burial has always been repugnant to me. Even the naturely metaphor of returning to the ‘earth womb’ has done little to diminish my revulsion. I  still quail at the thought of inhumation. I remember, as a young child of perhaps six or so, imagining and envisioning what it might feel like to be dead.

Since I grew up with my grandparents, I was aware from a very early age, of living with the nagging anxious and very realistic fear, they would die long before I did, and that I would be left destitute of all love and care. My solution to the terror induced by these secret, never-communicated and very real thoughts, was to create in my mind a scenario in which I would not outlive my grandfather.  I would close my eyes at night, and watch the two of us lying side by side in the  silence of the grave, hands clasped, turned to two human-shaped piles of fine dark dust.  From where we lay, I  remember watching the midnight sky above me through the transparent earth, wrapped in a vast and palpable silence, both internal and external. I sensed I inhabited a realm of timelessness, a place of absolute stillness, of soundless thoughts. Years later, after I learned to meditate, and to describe the experience to myself as “entering the silence”, I began to sense the similarities between that past and the present.

With age, my concept of death became less idealised, and more real. When I was a child, my young ayah repeated to me fragments of Buddhist sermons with graphic descriptions of decomposition she referred to as “the opening of the nine doors.”  Ever year during Wesak (the annual commemoration of the Buddha’s birth, life, enlightenment and death) I gazed avidly at the graphic dioramas  mounted on ‘floats’ which passed our home, which vividly  illustrated these phenomena, and there began to form in me a mistrust for the illusion of  the wholeness and wholesomeness of life. The Buddhist description of the human body as “a cage of corruption” during life, which only worsened after death, offered a much more repellent image than the peaceful one of my earlier devising and gave me a permanent horror of the prospect of burial.

I remember the eerie sense of familiarity which came over me when I saw the movie Dr. Zhivago, which began, I think, with the burial of his mother, when Zhivago was a child. As I remember it, the camera provided a grave’s-eye-view of the burial, and I immediately identified with the corpse, which I felt to be sentient, lying there helplessly in her coffin, watching and hearing the clods rain down and shutting out her last earthly glimpse of light from the small glass ‘window’ above her face.

I also have a vivid memory, as a young child, of listening to  Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher on the radio.  All these things separately and accumulatively began to blur the line drawn by others to stand between what it meant to be alive and what it was to be dead. My mind had made the vague, but still very convincing, formulation that even after I was dead, I would continue to know what was going on around me as I did while alive.

One winter, when I was in my early thirties and living in an apartment building, I awoke one night, perhaps from a dream, with the unshakable conviction that the apartments were really burial vaults, and we the inhabitants were entombed, row upon row, layer upon layer, entrapped forever in our adjacent silences, in a post-mortem hallucination of life. It terrified me, since the conviction persisted long into my subsequent ‘awakened’ lucidity. I remember that in order to quiet my sense of terror I reasoned myself into the conclusion that in order to be ‘alive’ one had to live with a moment to moment conviction that one was not separate from life – that oneself and one’s life were one and the same.

It was around this time too that I wrote several poems inspired by the Muse as Persephone. Persephone, above all others offered me an understanding of the kind of  love which satisfied the conditions of my experience, and though it has proved to be a tangled thread, I still cherish the conviction that certain myths are potent tools, and have the virtue of being able to lead to a deepened understanding of my intuitive self.

Ever since I was a young child, I was drawn to the myth, related to me by my aunt, of Orpheus and Eurydice.  I gazed with rapt attention to the reproduced  engravings in the illustrated encyclopedia of Eurydice’s wraith-like form retreating back into the darkness of the underworld, while a startled Orpheus stood frozen in his backward glance.  I thought I could sense the reverberations, coming through the thin gloss of the pages and seeping into my fingers, of his feelings of mingled love and loss and remorse and horror.

But we are never quite dead – are we? We seem to  persist as a halved onion does, when it is carelessly left on the kitchen table, on a summer night and is  seen the next afternoon to have forced the section of  its decapitated shoot through the heart of its body, greening already with the defiant hope, the unquenchable expectation of a continuing life.

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Robert Graves (July 24 1895 – December 7 1985)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Pinch of Salt                       

When a dream is born in you
With a sudden clamorous pain,
When you know the dream is true
And lovely, with no flaw nor stain,
O then, be careful, or with sudden clutch
You’ll hurt the delicate thing you prize so much.
Dreams are like a bird that mocks,
Flirting the feathers of his tail.
When you seize at the salt-box,
Over the hedge you’ll see him sail.

 
Old birds are neither caught with salt nor chaff:
They watch you from the apple bough and laugh.
Poet, never chase the dream.
Laugh yourself, and turn away.
Mask your hunger; let it seem
Small matter if he come or stay;
But when he nestles in your hand at last,
Close up your fingers tight and hold him fast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Babylon

The child alone a poet is:
Spring and Fairyland are his.
Truth and Reason show but dim,
And all’s poetry with him.

 

 

 

 
Rhyme and music flow in plenty
For the lad of one-and-twenty,
But Spring for him is no more now
Than daisies to a munching cow;
Just a cheery pleasant season,
Daisy buds to live at ease on.

 

 

 

 
He’s forgotten how he smiled
And shrieked at snowdrops when a child,
Or wept one evening secretly
For April’s glorious misery.

 

 

 

 

 
Wisdom made him old and wary
Banishing the Lords of Faery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Wisdom made a breach and battered
Babylon to bits: she scattered
To the hedges and ditches
All our nursery gnomes and witches.

 

 

 

 

 
Lob and Puck, poor frantic elves,
Drag their treasures from the shelves.

 

 

 

 

 

 
Jack the Giant-killer’s gone,
Mother Goose and Oberon,
Bluebeard and King Solomon.

 

 

 

 

 
Robin, and Red Riding Hood
Take together to the wood,
And Sir Galahad lies hid
In a cave with Captain Kidd.

 

 

 

 

 
None of all the magic hosts,
None remain but a few ghosts
Of timorous heart, to linger on
Weeping for lost Babylon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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María Elena Walsh (1 February 1930 – 10 January 2011)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

El 45

Te acordás hermana qué tiempos aquellos,
la vida nos daba la misma lección.
En la primavera del 45
tenias quince años lo mismo que yo.

Te acordás hermana de aquellos cadetes,
del primer bolero y el té en El Galeon
cuando los domingos la lluvia traía
la voz de Bing Crosby y un verso de amor.

Te acordás de la Plaza de Mayo
cuando «el que te dije» salía al balcón.
Tanto cambió todo que el sol de la infancia
de golpe y porrazo se nos alunó.

 

 

Te acordás hermana qué tiempos de seca
cuando un pobre peso daba un estirón
y al pagarnos toda una edad de rabonas  
valia más vida que un millón de hoy.

Te acordás hermana que desde muy lejos
un olor a espanto nos enloqueció:
era de Hiroshima donde tantas chicas
tenían quince años como vos y yo.

Te acordás que más tarde la vida
vino en tacos altos y nos separó.
Ya no compartimos el mismo tranvía,
sólo nos reúne la buena de Dios.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Nineteen Forty-five

Do you remember, Dear, those far-off days,      
When we learned life’s lessons the same way ?
It was during the spring of nineteen forty-five
When you were just fifteen, and so was I.

Do you remember, Dear, the cadets?
The first bolero? And our tea at ‘El Galeon’?
Sunday when the rain contrived to bring us
The voice of Bing Crosby and a verse of love.

Do you remember the day at Plaza de Mayo
When “The one I told you of” came to the balcony?
So much was changed of our sunny childhood,
And suddenly it was graduation day.

Do you remember those hard-up times,                 
When one little peso could be stretched,
And pay us for an age of playing hooky?
Life then was worth more than a million todays.

Do you remember, Dear, from far away,
That distant scent that made us mad with fear?
Hiroshima was a place where many girls
Were fifteen years-old like you and me.

Do you remember how later on in life,
High heels came along to separate you and me?
Now we no longer take the same tram together –
Now life brings us both together only haphazardly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barco quieto

No te vayas, te lo pido,                                     
de esta casa nuestra donde hemos vivido.
Qué nostalgia te puedes llevar
si de la ventana no vemos el mar.
Y afuera llora la ciudad
tanta soledad.

Todo cansa, todo pasa,
y uno se arrepiente de estar en su casa,
y de pronto se asoma a un rincón
a mirar con lástima su corazón.
Y afuera llora la ciudad
tanta soledad.

No te vayas,
quédate.
que ya estamos de vuelta de todo
y esta casa es nuestro modo
de ser.

Tantas charlas, tanta vida,                      
tanto anochecer con olor a comida
son una eternidad familiar
que en un solo día no puede cambiar.
Y afuera llora la ciudad
tanta soledad.

Estos muros, estas puertas,
no son de mentiras, son el alma nuestra,
barco quieto, morada interior
que viviendo hicimos, igual que el amor.
Y afuera llora la ciudad
tanta soledad

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quiet Boat

Don’t go away, don’t leave, I beg of you,                           
from this our home, where we have lived.
What nostalgia you can bring about,
If from the window
We don’t look out at the sea –
And outside the city cries
So desolately.

Everything tires, everything passes,
So that one feels a pang to be at home,
And suddenly turns away to face a corner,
To gaze with pity at one’s heart,
And outside the city cries
So desolately.

 

 
So many talks, so much of life…                                       
There were so many evenings, with the scent of food,
For a familiar eternity…
That can’t be changed in a single day –
And outside the city cries
So desolately.

These very walls, these very doors,
They do not lie, they are our souls,
A silent boat, an inner abode,
Where we have lived, as love has lived –
And outside the city cries
So desolately.

Translation Dia Tsung.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

María Elena Walsh was a Argentinian writer, who was known and loved for her books, poetry, drama and music.

These songs reveal her singing at its best, her  warm, mellow, expressive voice, revealing the depth of intensity and emotion of her lyrics. She was one of those rarities, someone who writes her own lyrics, composes her own music, and performs it as it was intended.

She was a very popular writer of children’s literature, but under the playful lyrics of her songs, ran a subversive message discernible to adults, which was critical and disparaging of the military dictatorship and excess of the government of Juan Perón.

Walsh was of mixed British, Irish and Spanish descent, and spent part of her life in  Paris, Spain, England and the U.S.
During her self-imposed exile in the ’50s, she and her girlfriend  at the time Leda Valladares made their living singing in clubs in Paris.

She returned to Argentina after the revolution which ousted Perón, and continued singing, composing, writing and performing. She  also made a film called “Let’s Play in the World” in partnership with Maria Herminia Avellaneda.

María Elena Walsh won many honors from her country for her art, and was loved and appreciated for being a voice that never fell silent as long as one was needed to speak out on behalf of her fellow-citizens. Argentinians  recognised and understood her message, even when it came to them under cover of ‘nonsense’ rhymes and children’s songs.

The last 31 years of her life were spent with her partner, photographer Sara Facio.  Walsh died of bone-cancer in January of 2011.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mar%C3%ADa_Elena_Walsh

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In lieu of an image of Francisco de Medrano, (1570 – 1607) this portrait by El Greco.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know not how or when or what it was

I know not how or when or what it was        
I felt, that me replete with sweetness made.
I know but to my arms such beauty came
To partake with me of bliss so avidly.

 

 

I know she came, although with shrinking look,
Almost, I could not then withstand her face,
So stunned was I, as one in obscure night
Loses his bearings, and dares not take a step.

 

Following this great bliss, astonishment – or dream –
I knew not when, nor how, nor what had been
That made all sense and senses quiescent seem.

 

 

 

 

To know nothing at all is yet to know,
So slight is that which merely sense can grasp –
A compass which the soul alone could fit.

 

 

 

 

Translation Dia Tsung.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No sé cómo, ni cuándo, ni qué cosa

No sé cómo, ni cuándo, ni qué cosa         
sentí, que me llenaba de dulzura;
sé que llegó a mis brazos la hermosura,
de gozarse conmigo codiciosa;

 

 
sé que llegó, si bien, con temerosa
vista resistí apenas su figura;
luego pasmé, como el que en noche oscura
perdido el tino, el pie mover no osa.

 

 

Siguió un gran gozo a aqueste pasmo, o sueño;
no sé cuándo  ni cómo  ni qué ha sido,
que lo sensible todo puso en calma.

 

 

 

Ignorarlo es saber; que es bien pequeño
el que puede abarcar solo el sentido,
y éste pudo caber en sola la alma.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I set out to attempt the translation of a poem, I usually resort to pen and ink. The keyboard does not connect with my brain as when my hand accepts the task of forming letters. The liquid ink seeping into the paper, the angle of the nib, and even the necessity of coaxing the pen, all play their part in how my mind is enabled to enter the poem. The movement of the hand, helped by the pen, the ink and the paper, forms a system of communication with the mind, as it simultaneously tries to work on several levels.  As the stream of one language flows in, it is welcomed by a different one, and words are exchanged and greeted – or asked to leave. The sound and rhythm is a music provided by an invisible conductor and musicians in the back of the room, and a helpful adviser of sorts sits off to the side at a desk and  busily sorts out the words, explaining  their meanings and deciding on their suitability.

Over all these, there hovers an unseen, but powerfully-felt presence, who draws in all the participants, placing them in accord with each other, while containing the indispensable sense of wholeness  and protecting the atmosphere within  where all things seem to flow within a suspended space.

In order for any of this to happen, the original work must first cast its spell on me, place my mind in accord with its own frequency. I feel this as an indescribable  sensation, which seems to make itself felt in a soundless buzzing behind my forehead, and a feeling of ‘lifting up’ on the top of my head. My hair feels somewhat detached, and there is a tingling along the outsides of my ears.

First drafts, with all their flaws, create the most excitement. All the collaborators work hard to play their parts, and then come the second and third, and as many drafts as are needed in order to feel that there is a ‘fit.’  Then sometimes there has to follow a hiatus – a time of separation and detachment, since the synthesis of all the players makes  further discrimination impossible at that moment.

After that there is a return. The words have determined their places on the page, and have been able to work out their differences, and they have made decisions about where they wish to be placed. Some must leave, and there is a flurry of rearrangement, and some newcomers arrive.  The musicians again begin to play, and the lexical entities determine if they are in accord with their vocable counterparts.  A sober schoolmistress is invited to sit at the head of the classroom, and the students present themselves to her. Sometimes she is pleased, and gives them her nod.  Sometimes she shakes her head and says nothing, and sometimes she comes up with a suggestion, but sometimes she walks out without a word.

Without the Muse there are no acceptable translations – that is if her presence has been evoked in the original work to begin with. Only the Muse can help the translator to mediate between two languages without falling  away from chastity into falsehood. Her stern insistence on clean hands and devoted mind are the only assurance that no lies will  spoken, and no infelicities permitted to  intrude.  The translator must humbly, yet willingly, enter this liminal space, or the result will fail to satisfy.

Besides the presence of  two languages, a third is required – and that is the language of poetry itself. This is the holy trinity. This is the language the original poet and the translator must have in common. If all this sounds like so much presumptuous nonsense, experience must provide the only possible veto.  In my case, there is no other way that can lead me to my desired destination.

When I first read this poem by Francisco de Medrano, it drew me instantly in. I saw and heard and felt some essence of observing the unfolding images which passed before my inward eye, which is how the conviction came to me that the poem was real. The feeling and images lingered in the back of my mind for three or so years, until last night the moment came when they reasserted themselves, and I took up the task of translation.

Medrano, who was born in Seville in 1570, was a Jesuit priest, who gave up religion for poetry, which of course is the more divine vocation of the two.  I wish more people could do this, but alas the inferior requirements of religion are much more easily satisfied than those of poetry, which might account for the greater popularity of the former.

Despite his initial clerical misstep, de Medrano did find his way out of the darkness of the church. He spoke of love in a way that is clearly not merely mystical hocus-pocus. That he felt the influence – or presence – of St. John of the Cross seems evident in the subject and circumstances of the poem, as well as its imagery and vocabulary, yet it is very different from the poetry of St. John.  The locutions suggest to me (perhaps it is from the gender of the nouns) that de Medrano’s Muse, unlike St. John’s, was adamantly female.   This makes his poem more have for me a greater feeling of conviction – of genuineness.  de Medrano’s choice of the last three words of the poem, which include the choice of ‘la alma’ over ‘el alma’ (alma is generally a masculine noun which turns feminine in the plural)  not merely as a preference for the sake of how it sounds, thereby changing the gender of the (singular)  soul to female, seems to affirm this.

When I first read this poem, I felt it was a little creepy – as the suggestion of night visitants are apt to be.  It has the sense of a nightmare, one which had the ambivalent elements of both horror and bliss. Who was this presence who came to Medrano’s darkened room in the obscurity of the shadow-steeped night? Jungians no doubt would say it was his Anima, and that his soul’s shocking encounter with its oppositely gendered part, accounts for the events related and emotions felt.

I cannot refute such an argument, because however she is named, this presence attends all the uncanny states which accompany genuine poetic experience.  I have to stress the word ‘genuine’, because so much twaddle is passed off as poetry as to make the separation of wheat from chaff an onerous job, for the quantity of chaff is vast in comparison to the few grains which might appear at the end of an exhaustive winnowing.  What convinces me that de Medrano’s poem is genuine, besides my own vicarious experience, is that it follows the steps beginning with a feeling of infiltration which then goes on to overcome, and ends with a lysis (not in the pathological sense, or the priggish pederastic sense of Plato, but as the wall or barrier which breaks to permit access to a meaning which can be accessed) that feels true and right.

Genuinely inspired works stand out  brilliantly from among their dull pretenders. When one comes across the former, one feels a sense of wholeness, as when one is swept in the glissando of a well-structured drama which faithfully follows the structure of  rising action, crisis, denouement, and then leaves one with the small grain of resolution that endow it with the power to linger on in the mind, resonating with a persistent tenacity  for months and even years. de Medrano’s lips are sealed about the identity of his visitor – but  of course he knew who she was:  he really did. She was never a stranger to him.

Synchronicity can sometimes be made to serve as evidential proof that one has stumbled across a bit of contagious magic, and so it was last night. My search for a copy of this poem to cut and paste in this post took on a life of its own. Quite by chance (?) I came across a lesbian writer and singer from Argentina, María Elena Walsh, whose work is bound to make a future appearance in this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herewith a brief biography of de Medrano for those who can read Spanish, which I found at this site.

http://www.apoloybaco.com/Francisco%20de%20Medrano.htm

 

Nació en Sevilla hacia el año 1570. Perteneció a la orden de los jesuitas, hasta que en el año 1602 decidió abandonarla y retirarse a disfrutar de una vida sosegada, donde la poesía fue su principal actividad. Se sabe que estudió en Córdoba y Salamanca cuando aún pertenecía a la compañía.

Era un poeta que cultivaba una poesía clásica, de características muy similares a la de los poetas salmantinos del siglo XVI, basando su obra prácticamente en las traducciones de obras clásica, y realización de poesía a imitación de autores del mismo corte, principalmente Horacio. Así el crítico Adolfo de Castro lo refleja, dictanimando que Medrano es, sin duda alguna, el mejor de los imitadores españoles de Horacio.
 
Su escritura era correcta, huyendo del estilo gongorista que se impulsaba en la literatura española de aquella época. Escribió cincuenta y dos sonetos, dotados de una especial sensualidad, además de diversas odas y romances. Entre sus poemas más conocidos se encuentra la oda de La profecía del Tajo -que aquí les muestro- muy similar a la que escribió Fray Luis de León con el mismo título.
 
La muerte pronto vino a visitarle; murió en el año 1607.
Era un poeta que cultivaba una poesía clásica, de características muy similares a la de los poetas salmantinos del siglo XVI, basando su obra prácticamente en las traducciones de obras clásica, y realización de poesía a imitación de autores del mismo corte, principalmente Horacio. Así el crítico Adolfo de Castro lo refleja, dictanimando que Medrano es, sin duda alguna, el mejor de los imitadores españoles de Horacio.
 
La muerte pronto vino a visitarle; murió en el año 1607.

 

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