Nov 192010
 

PERILOUS THINGS

Said Myrtias (a Syrian student
in Alexandria; in the reign of
Augustus Constans and Augustus Constantius;
in part a pagan and in part a christian),
“Fortified by theory and by study,
I shall not fear my passions like a coward.
I shall yield my body to sensual delights,
to enjoyments that one dreams about,
to the most audacious amorous desires,
to the wanton impulses of my blood, without
a single fear, for whenever I wish-
and I shall have the will, fortified
as I shall be by theory and by study-
at moments of crisis, I shall find again
my spirit, as before, ascetic.”

ITHACA

When you start on your journey to Ithaca,
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Do not fear the Lestrygonians
and the Cyclopes and the angry Poseidon.
You will never meet such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your body and your spirit.
You will never meet the Lestrygonians,
the Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not raise them up before you.

Then pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many,
that you will enter ports seen for the first time
with such pleasure, with such joy!
Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and ebony,
and pleasurable perfumes of all kinds,
buy as many pleasurable perfumes as you can;
visit hosts of Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from those who have knowledge.

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.

Without her you would never have taken the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you.
With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience,
you must surely have understood by then what Ithacas mean.

DESIRES

Like beautiful bodies of the dead who had not grown old
and they shut them, with tears, in a magnificent mausoleum,
with roses at the head and jasmine at the feet-
that is how desires look that have passed
without fulfillment; without one of them having achieved
a night of sensual delight, or a moonlit morn.

EXPECTING THE BARBARIANS

What are we waiting for, assembled in the public square?

The barbarians are to arrive today.

Why such inaction in the Senate?
Why do the Senators sit and pass no laws?
Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
What further laws can the Senators pass?
When the barbarians come they will make the laws.

Why did our emperor wake up so early,
and sits at the principal gate of the city,
on the throne, in state, wearing his crown?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
And the emperor waits to receive
their chief. Indeed he has prepared
to give him a scroll. Therein he engraved
many titles and names of honor.
Why have our two consuls and the praetors come out
today in their red, embroidered togas;
why do they wear amethyst-studded bracelets,
and rings with brilliant glittering emeralds;
why are they carrying costly canes today,
superbly carved with silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today,
and such things dazzle the barbarians.
Why don’t the worthy orators come as usual
to make their speeches, to have their say?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today;
and they get bored with eloquence and orations.

Why this sudden unrest and confusion?
(How solemn their faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares clearing quickly,
and all return to their homes, so deep in thought?

Because night is here but the barbarians have not come.
Some people arrived from the frontiers,
and they said that there are no longer any barbarians.

And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

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Nov 192010
 


“. . . about the cool water
the wind sounds through sprays
of apple, and from the quivering leaves
slumber pours down . . .”

We lie here in the bee filled, ruinous
Orchard of a decayed New England farm,
Summer in our hair, and the smell
Of summer in our twined bodies,
Summer in our mouths, and summer
In the luminous, fragmentary words
Of this dead Greek woman.
Stop reading. Lean back. Give me your mouth.
Your grace is as beautiful as sleep.
You move against me like a wave
That moves in sleep.
Your body spreads across my brain
Like a bird filled summer;
Not like a body, not like a separate thing,
But like a nimbus that hovers
Over every other thing in all the world.
Lean back. You are beautiful,
As beautiful as the folding
Of your hands in sleep.

We have grown old in the afternoon.
Here in our orchard we are as old
As she is now, wherever dissipate
In that distant sea her gleaming dust
Flashes in the wave crest
Or stains the murex shell.
All about us the old farm subsides
Into the honey bearing chaos of high summer.
In those far islands the temples
Have fallen away, and the marble
Is the color of wild honey.
There is nothing left of the gardens
That were once about them, of the fat
Turf marked with cloven hooves.
Only the sea grass struggles
Over the crumbled stone,
Over the splintered steps,
Only the blue and yellow
Of the sea, and the cliffs
Red in the distance across the bay.
Lean back.
Her memory has passed to our lips now.
Our kisses fall through summer’s chaos
In our own breasts and thighs.

Gold colossal domes of cumulus cloud
Lift over the undulant, sibilant forest.
The air presses against the earth.
Thunder breaks over the mountains.
Far off, over the Adirondacks,
Lightning quivers, almost invisible
In the bright sky, violet against
The grey, deep shadows of the bellied clouds.
The sweet virile hair of thunder storms
Brushes over the swelling horizon.
Take off your shoes and stockings.
I will kiss your sweet legs and feet
As they lie half buried in the tangle
Of rank scented midsummer flowers.
Take off your clothes. I will press
Your summer honeyed flesh into the hot
Soil, into the crushed, acrid herbage
Of midsummer. Let your body sink
Like honey through the hot
Granular fingers of summer.

Rest. Wait. We have enough for a while.
Kiss me with your mouth
Wet and ragged, your mouth that tastes
Of my own flesh. Read to me again
The twisting music of that language
That is of all others, itself a work of art.
Read again those isolate, poignant words
Saved by ancient grammarians
To illustrate the conjugations
And declensions of the more ancient dead.
Lean back in the curve of my body,
Press your bruised shoulders against
The damp hair of my body.
Kiss me again. Think, sweet linguist,
In this world the ablative is impossible.
No other one will help us here.
We must help ourselves to each other.
The wind walks slowly away from the storm;
Veers on the wooded crests; sounds
In the valleys. Here we are isolate,
One with the other; and beyond
This orchard lies isolation,
The isolation of all the world.
Never let anything intrude
On the isolation of this day,
These words, isolate on dead tongues,
This orchard, hidden from fact and history,
These shadows, blended in the summer light,
Together isolate beyond the world’s reciprocity.

Do not talk any more. Do not speak.
Do not break silence until
We are weary of each other.
Let our fingers run like steel
Carving the contours of our bodies’ gold.
Do not speak. My face sinks
In the clotted summer of your hair.
The sound of the bees stops.
Stillness falls like a cloud.
Be still. Let your body fall away
Into the awe filled silence
Of the fulfilled summer —
Back, back, infinitely away —
Our lips weak, faint with stillness.

See. The sun has fallen away.
Now there are amber
Long lights on the shattered
Boles of the ancient apple trees.
Our bodies move to each other
As bodies move in sleep;
At once filled and exhausted,
As the summer moves to autumn,
As we, with Sappho, move towards death.
My eyelids sink toward sleep in the hot
Autumn of your uncoiled hair.
Your body moves in my arms
On the verge of sleep;
And it is as though I held
In my arms the bird filled
Evening sky of summer.

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Nov 192010
 

Parable of the Three Fishes

This is the story of the lake and the three big fish
that were in it, one of them intelligent,
another half-intelligent,
and the third, stupid.

Some fishermen came to the edge of the lake
with their nets. The three fish saw them.

The intelligent fish decided at once to leave,
to make the long, difficult trip to the ocean.

He thought,
“I won’t consult with these two on this
They will only weaken my resolve, because they love
this place so. They call it home. Their ignorance
will keep them here.”

When you’re traveling, ask a traveler for advice,
not someone whose lameness keeps him in one place.

Muhammad says,
“Love of one’s country
is part of the faith.”
But don’t take that literally!
Your real “country” is where your heading.
not where you are.
Don’t misread that hadith.

In the ritual ablutions, according to tradition,
there’s a separate prayer for each body part.
when you snuff water up your nose to cleanse it,
beg for the scent of the spirit. The proper prayer is,
“Lord, wash with me. My hand has washed this part of me,
but my hand can’t wash my spirit.
I can wash this skin, but you must wash me.

A certain man used to say the wrong prayer
for the wrong hole. He’d say the nose-prayer
when he splashed his behind. Can the odor of heaven
come from our rumps? Don’t be humble with fools.
Don’t take pride into the presence of a master.

It’s right to love your home place, but first ask,
“Where is that, really?”

The wise fish saw the men and their nets and said,
“I’m leaving.”

Ali was told a secret doctrine by Muhammad
and told not to tell it, so he whispered it down
the mouth of a well. Sometimes there’s no one to talk to.
You must just set out on your own.

So the intelligent fish made its whole length
a moving footprint and, like a deer the dogs chase,
suffered greatly on its way, but finally made it
to the edgeless safety of the sea.

The half-intelligent fish thought,
“My guide
has gone. I ought to have gone with him,
but I didn’t, and now I’ve lost my chance
to escape.
I wish I’d gone with him.”
Don’t regret what’s happened. If it’s in the past,
let it go. Don’t even remember it!

A certain man caught a bird in a trap.
The bird says, “Sir, you have eaten many cows and sheep
in your life, and you’re still hungry. The little bit
of meat in my bones won’t satisfy you either.
If you let me go, I’ll give you three pieces of wisdom
One I’ll say standing on your hand. One on your roof.
And one I’ll speak from the limb of that tree.”

The man was interested. He freed the bird and let it stand
on his hand.
“Number One: Do not believe an absurdity,
no matter who says it.”

The bird flew and lit on the man’s roof. “Number Two:
Do not grieve over what is past. It’s over.
Never regret what has happened.”

“By the way,” the bird continued, “in my body there’s a huge
pearl weighing as much as ten copper coins. It was meant
to be the inheritance of you and your children,
but now you’ve lost it. You could have owned
the largest pearl in existence, but evidently
it was not meant to be.”

The man started wailing like a woman in childbirth.
The bird: “Didn’t I just say, Don’t grieve
for what’s in the past? And also, Don’t believe
an absurdity? My entire body doesn’t weigh
as much as ten copper coins. How could I have
a pearl that heavy inside me?”

The man came to his senses. “All right.
Tell me Number Three.”

“Yes. You’ve made such good use of the first two!”
Don’t give advice to someone who’s groggy
and failing asleep. Don’t throw seeds on the sand.
Some torn places cannot be patched.

Back to the second fish,
the half-intelligent one.
He mourns the absence of his guide for a while,
and then thinks, “What can I do to save myself
from these men and their nets? Perhaps if I pretend
to be already dead!
I’ll be belly up on the surface
and float like weeds float, just giving myself totally
to the water. To die before I die, as Muhammad
said to.”
So he did that.

He bobbed up and down, helpless,
within arm’s reach of the fisherman.

“Look at this! The best and biggest fish
is dead.”
One of the men lifted him by the tail,
spat on him, and threw him up on the ground.

He rolled over and over and slid secretly near
the water, and then, back in.

Meanwhile,
the third fish, the dumb one, was agitatedly
jumping about, trying to escape with his agility
and cleverness.
The net, of course, finally closed
around him, and as he lay in the terrible
frying-pan bed, he thought,
“If I get out of this,
I’ll never live again in the limits of a lake.
Next time, the ocean! I’ll make
the infinite my home.”

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Nov 192010
 

The Speakers

“A equals X,” says Mister One.
“A equals B,” says Mister Two.
“A equals nothing under the sun
But A,” says Mister Three. A few
Applaud; some wipe their eyes;
Some linger in the shade to see
One and Two in neat disguise
Decapitating Mister Three.

“This age is not entirely bad.”
It’s bad enough, God knows, but you
Should know Elizabethans had
Sweeneys and Mrs. Porters too.
The past goes down and disappears,
The present stumbles home to bed,
The future stretches out in years
That no one knows, and you’ll be dead.

A Distance from the Sea

To Ernest Brace

And when the seven thunders had uttered their voices, I was
about to write: and I heard a voice from heaven saying unto
me, Seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered, and
write them not. —REVELATIONS, x, 4.

That raft we rigged up, under the water,
Was just the item: when he walked,
With his robes blowing, dark against the sky,
It was as though the unsubstantial waves held up
His slender and inviolate feet. The gulls flew over,
Dropping, crying alone; thin ragged lengths of cloud
Drifted in bars across the sun. There on the shore
The crowd’s response was instantaneous. He
Handled it well, I thought—the gait, the tilt of the head, just right.
Long streaks of light were blinding on the waves.
And then we knew our work well worth the time:
The days of sawing, fitting, all those nails,
The tiresome rehearsals, considerations of execution.
But if you want a miracle, you have to work for it,
Lay your plans carefully and keep one jump
Ahead of the crowd. To report a miracle
Is a pleasure unalloyed; but staging one requires
Tact, imagination, a special knack for the job
Not everyone possesses. A miracle, in fact, means work.
—And now there are those who have come saying
That miracles were not what we were after. But what else
Is there? What other hope does life hold out
But the miraculous, the skilled and patient
Execution, the teamwork, all the pain and worry every miracle involves?

Visionaries tossing in their beds, haunted and racked
By questions of Messiahship and eschatology,
Are like the mist rising at nightfall, and come,
Perhaps to even less. Grave supernaturalists, devoted worshippers
Experience the ecstasy (such as it is), but not
Our ecstasy. It was our making. Yet sometimes
When the torrent of that time
Comes pouring back, I wonder at our courage
And our enterprise. It was as though the world
Had been one darkening, abandoned hall
Where rows of unlit candles stood; and we
Not out of love, so much, or hope, or even worship, but
Out of the fear of death, came with our lights
And watched the candles, one by one, take fire, flames
Against the long night of our fear. We thought
That we could never die. Now I am less convinced.
—The traveller on the plain makes out the mountains
At a distance; then he loses sight. His way
Winds through the valleys; then, at a sudden turning of a path,
The peaks stand nakedly before him: they are something else
Than what he saw below. I think now of the raft
(For me, somehow, the summit of the whole experience)
And all the expectations of that day, but also of the cave
We stocked with bread, the secret meetings
In the hills, the fake assassins hired for the last pursuit,
The careful staging of the cures, the bribed officials,
The angels’ garments, tailored faultlessly,
The medicines administered behind the stone,
That ultimate cloud, so perfect, and so opportune.
Who managed all that blood I never knew.

The days get longer. It was a long time ago.
And I have come to that point in the turning of the path
Where peaks are infinite—horn-shaped and scaly, choked with
thorns.
But even here, I know our work was worth the cost.
What we have brought to pass, no one can take away.
Life offers up no miracles, unfortunately, and needs assistance.
Nothing will be the same as once it was,
I tell myself.—It’s dark here on the peak, and keeps on getting
darker.
It seems I am experiencing a kind of ecstasy.
Was it sunlight on the waves that day? The night comes down.
And now the water seems remote, unreal, and perhaps it is.

Interregnum

Butcher the evil millionaire, peasant,
And leave him stinking in the square.
Torture the chancellor. Leave the ambassador
Strung by his thumbs from the pleasant
Embassy wall, where the vines were.
Then drill your hogs and sons for another war.

Fire on the screaming crowd, ambassador,
Sick chancellor, brave millionaire,
And name them by the name that is your name.
Give privilege to the wound, and maim
The last resister. Poison the air
And mew for peace, for order, and for war.

View with alarm, participant, observer,
Buried in medals from the time before.
Whisper, then believe and serve and die
And drape fresh bunting on the hemisphere
From here to India. This is the world you buy
When the wind blows fresh for war.

Hide in the dark alone, objector;
Ask a grenade what you are living for,
Or drink this knowledge from the mud.
To an abyss more terrible than war
Descend and tunnel toward a barrier
Away from anything that moves with blood.

End of the Library

When the coal
Gave out, we began
Burning the books, one by one;
First the set
Of Bulwer-Lytton
And then the Walter Scott.
They gave a lot of warmth.
Toward the end, in
February, flames
Consumed the Greek
Tragedians and Baudelaire,
Proust, Robert Burton
And the Po-Chu-i. Ice
Thickened on the sills.
More for the sake of the cat,
We said, than for ourselves,
Who huddled, shivering,
Against the stove
All winter long.

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Nov 192010
 

Charles Algernon Swinburne

In days now past there lived an adamant old man;
His brow was calm, his eye unflinching: Death trembled
At the sight of him, vanquished by his satyr-gaze;
And Pain, that gnaws and gnashes, grinding with steel teeth,
Squirmed beneath his foot like a whipped, whimpering dog.
Now and then from his swelling heart a word or two
Burst forth, corrosive, cynical, appalling;
The whole world bowed before this aged colossus,
Hate along with Love, Evil along with Goodness:
To see him laugh and dream was to know that nothing –
Not Desire, whose sparkling eye bedazzles,
Not Man who roars, not God who trumpets and thunders,
Not frightful Virtue, scourge of the embittered heart –
Could cause the slightest lifting of his ancient brow.
He saw the world as vast, vacant, and unchanging;
Gomorrah bathed him in the light of its red fires,
And all of vicious Capri blazed before his eyes;
He ponders; and seems to hold in the hollow of his hand
That great lost age, now faded into ghostly mist;
Sporus, blood-soaked, in bed with Elagabalus,
And pleasure hidden within the deepest horror,
And the hideous baths of that grim emperor
Who forced ravished little children and weeping girls
To nibble his naked flesh like frightened minnows
And picked the fairest boys to prick and suck their blood;
The succubus who prowls and laughs among the tombs;
Semiramis swooning, pleasured in the stable;
And Lust dining next to Murder at the table;
And savage Sappho, fire racing through her body;
And the abyss: and love, lawless and unbridled,
That thing a lewd faun hides beneath his garments;
And the queen, beast-besotted in her appetites,
Panting in ecstasies of monstrous, sweet delight,
Mother of the Minotaur and Phaedra’s sister;
And dread Venus of Aphaca, nature’s monster;
All the blazing fires with all the vile rottenness;
And Retz, inhaling ashes redolent of flesh
And smoke of roasting corpses, wafted in the breeze;
Cinyras debauched, lying on his daughter’s breast;
All that arouses, resonates, thrills, and explodes;
The earth inflamed, a monster at feverish sport;
The heavens, a whorehouse painted bawdy blue
In which a phallic God lets loose, spurting and gushing,
His metallic juices erupting in torrents;
Where the moon cruises, hunting for satisfaction;
Where the mighty sun penetrates with brazen rays
And, hot and naked, shamelessly, ceaselessly spills
The surging flood of his prodigious blood-red seed;
(For sunbeams defile; the dark side of heaven
Is the foul, putrid bowel of the universe);
With a deep and wild look, he paced; and all
Sodom Sprang to life, dreamed its dreams, burned, and shrieked within him.

He belonged to a golden age, to ancient gods;
His presence struck sparks of fascinated terror;
His massive jaw hinted at enormous appetites;
He had an air of glorious, satanic boldness;
When he kissed, he wanted blood; he was voracious;
His wolfish smile gleamed, a gaping, dazzling rictus;
His hot breath blew like a desert wind, furious;
He called to mind Priapus in the garden shade
Gnawing his nymph’s bronzed nape with his beautiful teeth
This was the Infinite’s vicious younger brother.

Furrowing his brow, he saw his past come alive,
The Marseilles saturnalia spiced with Spanish fly,
The lair in Arcueil, unguents, and the keen knife
He used for slicing open naked, living flesh.

A bitter, cold contempt swelled his turbulent breast.
The Empire had caught him in its filthy clutches;
Yet, though imprisoned, he smiled. He had his own gods.
He saw and understood it all; nothing surprised him.
A fierce hunger stirred in the soul’s depths of a man
Greater than Bonaparte, greater than anyone.

Now, one night a youth – he was only twenty-two
Saw that pale, proud face, the crown of silvery hair,
Those dark eyes and the cunning, imperious mouth;
The young man trembled. That night he was reading Justine;
As if in prayer, he looked upward, lifting his gaze
From the forbidden page to the smiling old man.
Awestruck and amazed, he asked, “Who is standing there?
What sort of man is he? I’d like to know his name.
His face, the movements of his hand, bring to mind
The splendid, sportive wantonness of ancient Rome;
All the great ones, immortalized in infamy,
Who played the husband to women and the wife to men;
All the bedazzlement within the deepest nights;
The gutted gladiator, naked in the ring,
His neck crushed beneath the heel of an emperor
Whose beardless lips brush a eunuch’s downy cheek;
All that nature abhors and that a jealous God,
Craven and envious, drowns in a sea of fire;
And all that rises again, hidden from His ire;
All that Socrates dreamed and Tiberius wrought;
The lewd, salacious teat on which the whole world sucks,
And the roadside signal silently acknowledged;
The tricks a roving satyr liked to teach the shepherd,
And all that deadly virtue castrates and crushes;
The sounds one hears at night; whinnying and roaring;
And all that flows out in streams and all that glitters;
The unconquerable man, his lordly spirit all aglow,
Who grabs God by the ear, calling him ‘old fellow’,
Contemplates eternity and snaps his fingers;
Who holds quivering virtue sobbing in his hands;
And the dark blood spurting hot; and hidden alcoves;
And shameless women, beautifully disgusting;
And the laughter of the man sharpening his teeth
On smooth, pearl-white shoulders and hot; heaving breasts.
All these thoughts come and go, revealed in his bright eyes,
And in the curling of his lascivious mouth.
Who are you, then, old man? Whence come you? What gave you
The mournful air of a silent, beckoning god?
What superhuman hand placed that arrogant smile
On your pale and haughty lips? What is the meaning
Of the flame burning in the black depths of your eyes
Like lightning flashing in the night, enlivening
The drab face of things with bursts of radiant gold?’

“My child”, the old man replied, “I am called de Sade.”

Translated by Elisabeth Gitter. Published in TLS 2003.10.10

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