Wednesday, November 03, 2010

"Prayer", by Carol Ann Duffy

Some poems reach you in just the right moment. And some poems are right for just any moment. Then again, some poems sneak quietly inside you, settle themselves like a pod ready to burst some unknown time inside you, or else just grow greenly away, with you not noticing its unfolding until it takes up as natural a place in you as your, say, thoughts about dinner or next day at school. This poem slid inside in this last way.

It surprised me when I reread this poem and realized how familiar it sounded, and felt the difference from reading it the first time. It simply had familiarized itself to me, turned into the same kind of green and grey my inner landscape can take on when mulling things over or just resting there  - and yet, the freshness and novelty of another's voice. Creating its own space, but strangely attuned to my own. Peculiar.

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, a small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock still, hearing his youth
in the distant latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, a radio's prayer —
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.   

                             -Carol Ann Duffy


The opening sentence -  "Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer / utters itself" points to a feeling I guess many might have had - that something wishes to be uttered, that something is knocking on your door, so to speak, or runs through you, making you part of its way. And this is not connected to anything religious, as I see it. Rather, it is the magic of the everyday, the depth and stillness and simplicity any place or time is a vessel for. "Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth / enters our hearts, a small familiar pain". The truth, painful because of our meandering away from it, and now returning to it again - the small, familiar pain of seeing things clearly and unveiled; sitting in themselves; simple.

And then in the close the naming of barren, lone land. Names that open sea-washed, grey stoned and windswept landscapes inside of us, deeply personal yet quite universally human, I think. Utter simplicity.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Jack Gilbert: Painting on Plato's Wall

In Jack Gilbert's latest collection of poetry The Dance Most of All (which I opened for the first time today) there is a poem called "Painting on Plato's Wall". The title attracted me to begin with - a sense of myth, ancient philosophy and writing on yellowed parchment or even skin was displayed on the clay wall of my mind. Before anything else, let's see the poem:

Painting on Plato's wall

The shadows behind people walking
in the bright piazza are not merely
gaps in the sunlight. Just as goodness
is not the absence of badness.
Goodness is a triumph. And so it is
with love. Love is not the part
we are born with that flowers
a little and then wanes as we
grow up. We cobble love together
from this and those of our machinery
until there is suddenly an apparition
that never existed before. There it is,
unaccountable. The woman and our
desire are somehow turned into
brandy by Athena's tiny owl filling
the darkness around an old villa
on the mountain with its plaintive
mewing. As a man might be
turned into someone else while
living kind of happy up there
with the lady's gentle dying.


I love the image of love (haha) being a something which occurs inbetween other somethings - a quality that arises between us, between ourselves and the things with which we interact: "We cobble love together / from this and those of our machinery / until there is suddenly an apparition / that never existed before." Love is here given a human stamp, a watermark washing through our kind, making us look at love as a human magic - which it also is.

Or perhaps a little more precise, love is something which appears in humans, thereby making humans a conduit for the quality of love. "There it is, unaccountable."

The flowing and easy language of Gilbert's always carries a depth and a certain sense that he possesses a softly deep and sensitive, but also painfully clear and direct part of this universe, and that he is pleased with the normal life, the everyday and the endless opportunities for goodness and beauty and pain and poetry it provides. The depth of everyday life, perhaps. And the love it can hold and emanate.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Page 99 test

A short entry for the fun of it - in a previous post I wrote about how first sentences can tell you a lot about a book, whether you would like to continue reading it or should find yourself something else to do. In the same post I think I wrote that one should be able to read a page almost anywhere in the book and from that sample find whether the book is a worthwile pastime (or rather fill-your-time-with-good-insights-and-beautiful-language-or-an-intricate-and-exciting-story-or-whatever-you-require-from-a-good-read) for you. At least taht is something I believe.

Well, some inventive people have thought just about the same thing, but with a more specific placement in the book in mind than just any old page: Read page 99 of any book to decide whether this is something you should fill your head (soul, heart, anything) with.

Doesn't look like the site has been put up yet, but we still have libraries, don't we? And in the future, hopefully wonderful e-libraries. (Would love it if they made some kind of library with a graphic of dark wood ailes, shelves, green lamps, chandeliers and the whole lot. Guess I am more of a traditionalist than I originally thought. But still, nothing wrong with beautiful and peaceful surroundings, are there? Library spaces can be so meditative.) You can, of course, already have a sneak-peak in many books at Amazon.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Wallace Stevens: The House was Quiet and the World was Calm

As usual, a few inspired (yes, this is a very inspiring poem!) musings underneath. But first things first:

The House was Quiet and the World was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book. 
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom the book is true, to whom

The summer night is a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

          From Transport to Summer, 1947


Where to begin with Wallace Stevens.

It's like you don't know up or down in this poem, like everything is moving in and out of itself, the whole thing being circular and monistic (as opposed to dualistic). The end of the poem is the beginning, and the beginning isn't really a beginning but a picking up of a thread which has always been, it seems. The book and the reader and the night are all the same, the same substance looking out at the world, inwards at itself, looking not ahead and not back, just existing, being one and the same: "The reader became the book; and summer night / Was like the conscious being of the book."

Even truth gets a say, with "The truth in a calm world, / In which there is no other meaning, itself / Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself / Is the reader leaning late and reading there." The whole poem is a vortex - though a calm one - where things get turned upside down and inside out - I am you, you are me. The consciousness is the same whether it is sitting in words in a book, a summer night or in the human reader. It's there, all the time, part of everything there is. Or rather, everything there is is this consciousness. When it says "The words were spoken as if there was no book", you get a direct sense of this (kind of parallel to another poem of his; "The Plain Sense of Things"). The medium of the book is not needed in order for the content to get through, to be known and understood and lived directly.

And then there is the extention from the poem on the page to me, the reader of the poem of the reader. I get caught up in this poem's loop as well; I partake in this rather mystical but nevertheless often experienced state of oneness that the poem is describing and also expressing quite clearly.

Which makes one wonder whose consciousness is holding whose. And leaves me with the question of whether there just is consciousness, end of story.


(At the Guardian's website I noticed this video, an interview with A. S. Byatt on her novel The Children's Book. What caught my attention was the caption "I don't believe in God. I believe in Wallace Stevens." Quite a statement, and poetic in its own simplicity and straightforwardness. You can see what she means by this around 08.51.)

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Hauge and Dickinson

On the note of poetry and Emily Dickinson in the previous post, I remembered this poem by Norwegian poet Olav H. Hauge, which encapsulates both. It is called "Eg har tri dikt", which means "I have three poems".

Eg har tri dikt

Eg har tri dikt,
sa han.
Seg telja dikti.
Emily kasta dei
i ei kiste, eg
kan ikkje tru ho talde dei,
ho sprette berre ein tepakke
og skreiv eit nytt.
Det var rett. Eit godt dikt
skal lukta av te.
Eller rå mold og nykløyv ved.

I have three poems

I have three poems,
he said.
How about that, counting the poems.
Emily threw them
into a chest, I
cannot think she counted them,
she just slit open a packet of tea
and wrote a new one.
That was right. A good poem
should smell of tea.
Or of raw earth and newly split fire-wood.


In this short, simple poem smelling of earth and tea, there is a closeness to the matter, that of poetry, that I find moving and deeply satisfying. The casual mention of Emily Dickinson, using only her first name, creates an intimate feeling between these two poets, as different and divided by time as they might be. Like there is a fellowship only poets have access to, and that there everyone is on first name terms with each other (like a highly personalized version of intertextuality). A rather romantic notion, I clearly see, but still there is a feeling of the great diversity of poets being united by some common note. As I picture it, they stand underneath the same dome, low-ceilinged and vast at the same time.

You find a sort of poetics here. Poetry is being connected to the earth, to something homely and everyday-like. This I feel quite comfortable with. Again Hauge shows his close connection to simplicity. The language, the props, the normality of it all. Straightforwardness shining through in every stage.

Another interesting thing about this poem for me is how the tea and the raw, black earth seem to take on each others' characteristics - when Emily slits open the packet of tea, it smells like earth, and the earth towards the end smells like tea. This poem evokes these different scents in me which seem to seep out in a thick, golden brown liquid throughout my reading it. First the woody scent of an old chest, perhaps with hints of cherry (for some reason I imagine it must have been a cherry wood chest - the deep redbrown of it). Then the mentioned tea and earth, and then the fire-wood. All brown, promising rich and earthy scents.

I figure I like it when it feels like my toes are embedded in earth and grass when reading a poem. 

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The top of Emily's head

A citation of Emily Dickinson's that I read today went straight into my bones, or rather, made me feel like my bones are hollow and that in them the whispers and fluid starlight of poetry resides:

"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."

Sadly, I do not know where this is collected from, but it is probably from a letter, as we have no other prose from her hand as far as I know. The art of describing poetry - or should I call it the difficulty, the neverending trial of describing poetry, results in many poetic sayings which point directly to the unspeakable, unnamable thing that is poetry itself.

Just in these two sentences, her strange genius is apparent - or rather, her openness to some unknown and unending realm of reality. I don't know a better way of describing the access to poetry - both creating and reading - than to have the daring to look the unknown straight in the eye. There might always be an abyss ahead (probably there is), but there is no saying that abyss won't be filled with startling and altering newness, ready to greet us.

If I should add an entrance to poetry myself, it would in this moment sound like this:

When light and weight, stone and stellar space meet in me and contains a whole new field, I know that is poetry. When light gathers in me and wishes to burst every boundary, I know that is poetry.

...which is rather more ethereal than Emily's quite corporeal and solid way of describing these things poetic. But pointing, I hope.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Midsummer, melancholy

Summer up north is always a melancholy affair - to me, anyway. Hectic, intensely bright and cheerful in a strangely sorrowful way. We live in a bipolar country, weather-wise.
To put it with a well-known bard:

O, how shall summer's honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days

(From Sonnet 65)

Midsummer came and left, and with it my usual midsummer melancholy. This year it seemed like I could feel the break in the light - the turn from light to slightly darker. Almost like the building up of this year's soul has reached its sparkly new shape, and now meets the batterings and toils of the diving into darker and deeper waters. And the beauty of that.

Music that follows my midsummer mood: Cornelis Vreeswijk (for example En visa om ett rosenblad, Grimasch om morgonen), Monica Zetterlund, Lillebjørn Nilsen to name some. All Nordic, I notice, and not very well known outside Scandinavia. I suspect these are striking some kind of mutual melancholy summer string with their fellow Scandinavians. Other artists have been Susanne Sundfør, Schubert (listen to the Fantasy in f minor), and in a strangely different, bubbly-black sort of way: Muse. Not quite so melancholy, but grandiose enough to capture me if I wish to be captured. A kind of humoristic, pompous and melodious mixture that is often quite appealing.

On the movie side, I have had a pull towards The Dark Knight, strangely enough. It has much to do with the sublime, dark imagery and the disturbing undercurrent of madness and chaos. Suits my mood very well. Also the Matrix has been revisited by me this summer, almost to my own surprise. Some movies one has seen a substantial number of times already...

Well, well. I really do enjoy the whole of the summer, and the heavy, breezy green of the late summer is something to walk around in too. And the beginning of the autumn as well, the crispness and sharpness and all that. So no danger, really.

And that's the end of these prosaic musings.

Friday, May 21, 2010

"Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird" by Wallace Stevens

For many weeks now a sole blackbird has been singing outside our window, morning and evenings. Sitting in one of the large trees it keeps unfolding its neverending and everchanging repertoire of variations over the present.

The colour black was never more fitting than on the hue of this bird. The deep peace the blackness promises keeps flowing from its orangish beak, and the rich silky texture of a deep and quiet layer of existence unrolls itself from its tones. They give me the sense of liquid black.

Wallace Stevens gives a series of haiku-like interpretation of the blackbird in this poem.

You don't know where the blackbird ends and silence begins.


Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs


This poem was published in Stevens' first collection of poetry, Harmonium - from which "The Wind Shifts" also comes.

Like the blackbird, Wallace Stevens is circulating the stillness and emptiness ("When the blackbird flew out of sight, / It marked the edge / of one of many circles" is one example). The whole tone of this poem seems to me that of simplicity emerging from a deep spring, just like the blackbird's song does.

And then there is the mysteriousness of the unwordable sensations the black and the blackbird evokes in us: "The river is moving. / The blackbird must be flying." This I can very well understand, but can I explain it? It's like that other poem of his, "The Plain Sense of Things" -  "The great pond, / the plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves, / Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence/ of a sort". How do you explain the plain sense of things? You don't, you sense it and know it directly. In the same way existence plays itself out. 

Poetry and other kinds of art keep circling the circumference of something much more mysterious and deep than we tend to know, in this way hinting at a vast unspoken dimension. Wallace Stevens' take on the blackbird does this so beautifully and obviously that I probably don't need to write another line about it.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Wallace Stevens: The Wind Shifts

This poem by American poet and lawyer Wallace Stevens was published in 1923, when Stevens was 44 years old. The collection is called Harmonium and was, as far as I know, Stevens' first published collection of poetry.

His poems often have a refined tone, almost as if they are a little out of reach, like slightly unapproachable people who just seem to be a bit better than you in everything, without you really understanding how and why. This poem has a somewhat lighter or more simple tone than many of the poems I have read by him, but a simple surface tends to be quite traitorous.


This is how the wind shifts:
Like the thoughts of an old human,
Who still thinks eagerly
And despairingly.
The wind shifts like this:
Like a human without illusions,
Who still feels irrational things within her.
The wind shifts like this:
Like humans approaching proudly,
Like humans approaching angrily.
This is how the wind shifts:
Like a human, heavy and heavy,
Who does not care.


To me, this poem indicates that great responsibility is laid on our shoulders, that unclarity and unmetabolised thoughts and beliefs are quite as dangerous as more material or physical troubles. What we think and how we act do make an impact, and perhaps more than we normally think. Not only do we impact our surroundings, but also what one could call the human space - our shared sphere of ideas and movement of beliefs and values, really the overall level of consciousness which we create and sustain.

I think it is the general movement throughout this poem which speaks most directly to me. There is a windswept feeling as if someone is unsettling the balance of the finely tuned fugue of Being, gushes of air which are perhaps necessary in order to notice what one made unbalanced in the first place. There really is the sense of a great human breath here, a sense that all our mistakes, disruptions and disturbances of the global environment (spiritually as well as physically) are necessary and simply part of the way the human species is unfolding.

Naturally this reading is quite influenced from the climatic challenges we are now facing, but the sense of responsability and the invisible ways in which our thoughts and murky inner waters influence our space is quite striking to me in this poem. I think I'll explore Wallace Stevens' poetry more. It seems I can choose a random page of his collected poetry and find something of depth and refinement there. How much more recommendation do I need?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

From Little Gidding, fourth of the Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot

This is an excerpt whose rhythm and contents have been ringing through me for a few hours now, so I figured I should take a look at it again to see how it really goes. It is from Eliot's Four Quartets, and I've always loved this passage in the fourth and last quartet's second part (called Little Gidding, the name of a place in England which Eliot had visited in 1936, prior to writing the three remaining quartets. The first, "Burnt Norton", was written in 1935, at first meant to be a single poem, but was followed by three related quartets in 1939-43.).

Like almost every other part of the Quartets, this section offers new layers of insight nearly every time I read it - if thoroughly done.

In the uncertain hour before the morning
      Near the ending of interminable night
      At the recurrent end of the unending
After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
      Had passed below the horizon of his homing
      While the dead leaves still rattled on like tin
Over the asphalt where no other sound was
      Between three districts whence the smoke arose
      I met one walking, loitering and hurried
As if blown towards me like the metal leaves
      Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.
      And as I fixed upon the down-turned face
That pointed scrutiny with which we challenge
      The first-met stranger in the waning dusk
      I caught the sudden look of some dead master
Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled
      Both one and many; in the brown baked features
      The eyes of a familiar compound ghost
Both intimate and unidentifiable.
      So I assumed a double part, and cried
      And heard another's voice cry: 'What! are you here?'
Although we were not. I was still the same,
      Knowing myself yet being someone other—
      And he a face still forming; yet the words sufficed
To compel the recognition they preceded.
      And so, compliant to the common wind,
      Too strange to each other for misunderstanding,
In concord at this intersection time
      Of meeting nowhere, no before and after,
      We trod the pavement in a dead patrol.
I said: 'The wonder that I feel is easy,
      Yet ease is cause of wonder. Therefore speak:
      I may not comprehend, may not remember.'
And he: 'I am not eager to rehearse
      My thoughts and theory which you have forgotten.
      These things have served their purpose: let them be.
So with your own, and pray they be forgiven
      By others, as I pray you to forgive
      Both bad and good. Last season's fruit is eaten
And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.
      For last year's words belong to last year's language
      And next year's words await another voice.
But, as the passage now presents no hindrance
      To the spirit unappeased and peregrine
      Between two worlds become much like each other,
So I find words I never thought to speak
      In streets I never thought I should revisit
      When I left my body on a distant shore.
Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
      To purify the dialect of the tribe
      And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight,
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
      To set a crown upon your lifetime's effort.
      First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
      But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
      As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
      At human folly, and the laceration
      Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
      Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
      Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others' harm
      Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
      Then fools' approval stings, and honour stains.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
      Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
      Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.'
The day was breaking. In the disfigured street
      He left me, with a kind of valediction,
      And faded on the blowing of the horn.


This is an hommage to Dante, whose style Eliot here wished to imitate. He found it very hard, he said, but I find this section lyrical, flowing, musical and with a rather mystical atmosphere placed as it is between midnight and dawn and with its metal leaves rattling like tin over the empty streets. I guess you can spot a few similarities to La Divina Commedia. One, as already mentioned, is the terza rima style which Dante used in his most central work. Another is how the lyrical 'I' meets a person who seems to be guiding him through this transitional place, like Dante's I meets Virgil. It could also be suggested that it is Dante himself the I meets - although this is a rather far stretch, I agree.

Another literary echo seems to be Hamlet, or rather the ghost of Hamlet's father in the beginning of the play. He, too, appears after sundown and fades at the breaking of the day. And the whole setting is equally mysterious - even spooky.

Still it is a piece of poetry closely linked to Eliot's everyday "routine" during the beginning of the war. He used to be part of a fire guard, walking the streets of London at night looking for fires caused by German planes ("the dark dove with the flickering tongue").

Anyway, the piece has value on its own as well as part of a large tradition and Eliot's personal circumstances. The best thing is of course to read the whole of the work, the four quartets together, for a better insight into this surprisingly manifold piece of literature. A good thing is also to listen to it, if you have access to a recording of the Quartets. Then you will really get it under your skin, rhythm and music especially. Which would probably please Eliot, who esteemed the music of language and actively sought to give his poetry that aesthetic quality.

Enough quartet and Eliot-speak for now? Think so.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Form and emptiness

By Taikkun Yang Li at
As the Sunday settles I'd like to highlight a quote from Dalai Lama on form and emptiness, a closely knit pair:

"Since form (phenomena) is emptiness and emptiness is form, then instead of a hand grasping at nothing, it is better to grasp at someone´s nose because this is closer to reality." How can anyone not be fond of this man?

And so, the subject matter. Empty and non-empty are two impossible ways of describing, in lack of a better word, emptiness. Form/phenomena and emptiness are viewed to be two sides of a coin, two ways of describing the same thing. One cannot, it seems, describe and name the things that surpass language, that lie beyond the scope of conceptualization. How, then, can one grasp this notion?

One is through paradox. By embracing paradoxical truths, sitting with them, walking with them, bending one's mind to them. 'Can I contain this? How does this make sense? What part of my being is touched by this?' And then to quiet one's mind to linguistic intrusion. Language is not the place to get what lies in the form/emptiness thought. Toss any pair of concept overboard, and concentrate on the direct knowing of reality: "At the still point of the turning world [...] there the dance is" (T.S. Eliot). Or

Not dependent on another, peaceful and
Not fabricated by mental fabrication,
Not thought, without distinctions,
That is the character of reality (that-ness). (Nagarjuna, Mulamadhyamakakarika, XVIII, 9. Transl. J. Garfield.)

At the same time: words are needed in order to get our thoughts out there, and of course to learn what other people are thinking. There's obviously a necessity to travel from a non-verbal state as an infant, into the world of concept and language and then to take a few steps (or more) into the wordless, timeless sphere. "Only through time time is conquered" (my friend Eliot again).
In this wilderness of concepts and words and what one really means by the words one speaks, Dalai Lama seems to have a wonderfully pragmatic and playful approach to it all - at least when he is speaking to us laymen. He seems to emanate a wonderful and easy lightheartedness, a true kind of contentment. To me, only a look at his face makes my heart lighten up. And forget about any tight knot of ideas and language and fuzzy thinking. Life can be so light!

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Name of a Fish by Faith Shearin

Don't you just love this title? And the smooth summery cool it brings along. As well as a quiet blue hope for tomorrow. I didn't know I was looking for this poem before I found it.

The Name of a Fish

If winter is a house then summer is a window
in the bedroom of that house. Sorrow is a river
behind the house and happiness is the name

of a fish who swims downstream. The unborn child
who plays in the fragrant garden is named Mavis:
her red hair is made of future and her sleek feet

are wet with dreams. The cat who naps
in the bedroom has his paws in the sun of summer
and his tail in the moonlight of change. You and I

spend years walking up and down the dusty stairs
of the house. Sometimes we stand in the bedroom
and the cat walks towards us like a message.

Sometimes we pick dandelions from the garden
and watch the white heads blow open
in our hands. We are learning to fish in the river

of sorrow; we are undressing for a swim.

by Faith Shearin
from "The Owl Question", 2002


How well caught the image of the cat walking "towards us like a message". The silent dignity of their charachter transferred to you in a flash.
Then there is an underpinning of water throughout the poem, making it flowing, cool and hydrating while at the same time it is carrying a soothing and reassuring note - and just a hint of melancholy.

Then again, it is the whole of the poem rather than its parts which makes the impression, wouldn't you say?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Lyndall Gordon on Emily Dickinson

I just bought this book at Norli in Oslo, Norway, and I can't wait to read it. Lyndall Gordon, the author, is also the author of a well-documented biography on T. S. Eliot which I found interesting and balanced.

Earlier I have read the biography by Richard Sewall, which I can recommend. His book treated Dickinson's whole life, while this one seems to focus on her past few years, and the way her family's different intrigues affected not only her remaining years, but also the handing down of the myth of her life. One of Gordon's theses is that the family's feuds disturbed and restructured Emily Dickinson's legacy. Without a quarreling and intriguing family, whose members wanted to be the ones to administer and own the 'truth' about Emily Dickinson, there might not be such a mystery enveloping this poet today.

I probably wouldn't have bought this book if it hadn't been for the author. Many books on Emily Dickinson are treating rather obscure issues only, it seems, to earn some money on her famous name. And, of course, because so many books have been written about her already. This book might be one of those, but I hope that Gordon, who amongst other things is a senior research fellow at St Hilda's College, Oxford, is able again to balance a lot of information and possible rumours that might make this kind of book into a (better selling) pile of (more or less) baseless slander.

Anyway, can't wait to read it. It is always rewarding to read another person's take on poems you have read many times yourself. And, of course, the person behind the poems is set in a much bigger context than you yourself would be able to dig up if you were to read dissertations and history books and link everything together on your own. A book like this holds more interest to me than many novels. A book filled with citations of some of all time's most introspective, strange, innovative and ethereally beautiful poems and probably some background information of their issues and themes - how much more interesting can it get?

Update February 13th: I came across this article in the Guardian today, written by Lyndall Gordon herself. It seems that she is professing a theory about Dickinson quite similar to something I have thought myself for a long time: that the poet wasn't a shy and fragile recluse, but rather a passionate, inventive and decided person following her own tune. She did, as we know, write about "A still volcano life" in one of her poems, seemingly a good description of the kind of existence I imagine she had. Perhaps she decided that the only way a woman like her could live out her passion to write and be free, was to withdraw from society and its rather constricting rules of how to live and what to do.

"Uncomprimising", Gordon calls her. Seems like a good one-word summary of this intense and brilliant creature. And this sentence I love: "This woman was not like us: to know her is to encounter aspects of a nature more developed than our own."

Yes indeed.
Another update
: As I'm reading this book it turns out that it is actually a biography of Emily's whole life, but with her more as a part of the Dickinsonian circumference, the family's affairs, doings and dynamics etc. Which I think is a really good idea to portray the person in the poet in a fuller way.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ian McEwan - Atonement

To anyone who has searched around this blog a bit, you may have noticed my fondness for Ian McEwan in general and the novel Atonement especially. I just ended my fourth read of this novel a few days ago, and to me it just keeps getting better. Probably for as long as I shall live, this will be one of my favourite books.

When I ask myself why, there is no one bright and shiny answer to this, but many small slightly shimmering ones which do, I believe, flow from the same mysterious something, like a well of things coming together and creating a whole which is bigger than its consistent parts. And this something seeps through the whole of this story. The way it is told, what is being told, the characters of the story who are carrying the tale forward. All refined and believably real -- and then real in a good way. All are interesting characters with personified traits. I have really started to like the ordinariness of Cecilia, for example. There is great power in ordinariness as long as one fills it and leaves it be, without trying to become something much more than what one actually is. In Cecilia's case, it turns out she is strong-willed with a pure mind, something which in combination with her ordinariness makes a solid character. And Robbie is of course a guy with which I would very much like to be acquainted -- filled with a kind of vitality and initiative and a self-made sharpness which is something to reach for in one's own life.
And then there is Briony, the eye and mind of the whole story, the narrator and the closer and the genesis of the narrative in this form.

The whole novel is in a way about writing, of genre, style and the nature of narrating. It is about how good stories have an intelligence of their own, and how when mixed with real lives, horrible things might happen. The language captures all of this completely. McEwan's endless sensibility in the land of words, rhythms, sounds and associations leads you through this painful and beautiful, dreamlike and starkly realistic story. Some of the beauty is the mixture of the flowing of the words and the characters' thoughts on the one hand, and on the other the brutality of the events spiralling out from the central point of the plot: Briony's lie, spun around a scene of two lovers which this thirteen year old girl cannot understand. It is her imagined version of reality which is setting the frame for this story and which makes the tragedy happen.
There is a whole line of the discussion of this novel which can be spun around the role of the author in modern society, the place and/or danger of a vivid imagination etc. and these are interesting thoughts. I just don't have room for them in this posting.
And then, of course, there is the beautiful tragic love story at the centre of the plot. I find it impossible to keep my eyes dry when watching the movie (by Joe Wright). Two lovers undeservedly ripped apart and the lifelong atonement of the storyteller gets me every time. I try to cling to the fact that it is all fictional, but that doesn't do any good of course (and what is the difference between reality and fiction when it comes to how and what really moves us?). Again I realize that there is nothing like a strong love story to have me coming back to a story over and over. I mean, why else would I read Pride and Prejudice so many times? And although Atonement doesn't actually end happily, I am still drawn towards this book. The beauty of the language, the aliveness of the characters, the poetry of frame, actions and history seeping through every word. To me the story even has a scent, a watery, pure, fresh and sweet scent. (Did Wagner ever include smells in his idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk?)
In a way I believe that it is the story which attracts the author, the story which comes to the author and starts unwinding itself in the author's sensory field. Of course it takes a fine mind to give the story flesh and colour, sound and breath the way McEwan does it but it is still my belief that many of the best stories have presented themselves in some way (and artists seem to be people who are more sensitive to this) and that it is down to the writer to try to uncover and convey it the best way possible.
Here is an excerpt of McEwan's next novel Solar, taken from The New Yorker, a weekly magazine. No need to say that I am looking forward to this one.