Archives for category: Poetry

The wreath of shining laurel lie
upon your shaggy head
bestowing power to play the lyre
to legions of the dead (From Hunter’s Elegy for Jerry Garcia)

The Grateful Dead had two main lyricists – John Perry Barlow (who passed away last year) mostly composed with Bob Weir. Robert Hunter who passed away yesterday at the age of 78 mostly composed with Jerry Garcia (1942-1995). The Days Between is one of the last few songs Hunter and Garcia wrote and was only performed (though quite regularly) in the last two years of Garcia’s life. It’s one of those dancing about architecture songs – I could talk about it or you could just listen…

Robert Hunter wrote straight up poetry as well as lyrics for the Dead (and others) and the words are worth an investment on their own…

There were days
and there were days
and there were days between
Summer flies and August dies
the world grows dark and mean
Comes the shimmer of the moon
on black infested trees
the singing man is at his song
the holy on their knees
the reckless are out wrecking
the timid plead their pleas
No one knows much more of this
than anyone can see anyone can see
There were days
and there were days
and there were days besides
when phantom ships with phantom sails
set to sea on phantom tides
Comes the lightning of the sun
on bright unfocused eyes
the blue of yet another day
a springtime wet with sighs
a hopeful candle lingers
in the land of lullabies
where headless horsemen vanish
with wild and lonely cries lonely cries

There were days
and there were days
and there were days I know
when all we ever wanted
was to learn and love and grow
Once we grew into our shoes
we told them where to go
walked halfway around the world
on promise of the glow
stood upon a mountain top
walked barefoot in the snow
gave the best we had to give
how much we’ll never know we’ll never know

There were days
and there were days
and there were days between
polished like a golden bowl
the finest ever seen
Hearts of Summer held in trust
still tender, young and green
left on shelves collecting dust
not knowing what they mean
valentines of flesh and blood
as soft as velveteen
hoping love would not forsake
the days that lie between lie between

Brodsky was born on this date (May 24) in 1940. I’d only heard of his work, never read any, when one evening in 1999 or so, I heard a recording of him reading ‘A Song’ on NPR. In the twenty years since I heard that recording I can still remember its cadences. This video, with its accompanying Chopin, is close, but it’s not the same. He’d passed away two years before, but this poem enchanted me such that I went out the next day or the day after that and purchased the slim volume So Forth, published by his estate in 1996. I was reading a lot of poetry at the time.

In Moe’s books in Berkeley, someone saw me flipping through Robert Hunter’s Glass Lunch and asked if I’d read his translations of Rilke. Another poet who’s name I knew, but whose work I hadn’t read. Shortly thereafter I started consuming Rilke. The Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus did my head in, as I would have put it at the time, though not in Hunter’s translations which I found online. The Norton Press dual language editions. Housman, Stein, Wilde, and Sharon Doubiago carried me through those years as well.

My memory is that I bought the Brodsky at Moe’s (RIP) as well, but the bookmark inside insists it was Booksmith on Haight Street. I can vaguely picture myself paying for it there, probably having already exhausted the two used bookstores across the street. I don’t know if Austen was still a going concern at that point. I’d worked a couple of stints there, but after Jeffrey died and Brian took it over, it didn’t last too long. That spot might already have become another shoe store by ‘99. I don’t recall the name of the other used bookshop on the street, but for all the paperbacks crammed into the place I rarely if ever found a book there I wanted to buy. And I was voracious.

I’ve not opened So Forth in several years, and find that it still has a blue plastic sticker marking A Song on page 5. The name Joseph at the top of the front cover is sun faded, but the spine is intact, and the glue binding intact. Flipping through it, though, there’s no page that isn’t a joy to read. These poems reward reading aloud. Not to say I and my poor understanding of my iPad’s voice memo function do them justice, but here’s one called Ab Ovo which I quite like…

Note: Copyright in this poem is held, I’m certain, by the estate of Mr. Brodsky. I will remove this recording upon request.

So Forth can be ordered via the links on the publisher’s web site here.

So I reread A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a couple of months ago and was struck by several things – mainly that having read it a couple of times over the last thirty years, I’d never read it very carefully.  The other is that Portrait is easily as brilliant as any of Joyce’s other work – I have tended to rate it rather lower than Ulysses (which I reread last year and also found to be far deeper and wider and taller than I had in the past).

A look at Stephen’s alienation in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Through the course of A Portrait, James Joyce builds a compelling argument for Stephen’s flight from Dublin. At every turn of his upbringing, city, family, or the church conspire against Stephen’s artistic freedom. One might argue that these elements conspire against his soul.

Prefects, professors, and deans all exercise the will of the church over Stephen in such away that he desires to pull out from under its authority. At one end, we have the church, in the form of Father Dolan and his swishing soutane and pandybat (chapter I), physically punishing Stephen for no other reason than sadism. This unreasoned sadism reflects that of the other boys at Clongowes Wood College, the Jesuit boarding school he is sent to at the age of about six. At the other end, we have an English dean of studies, a convert to Catholicism, who argues the words funnel and tundish with Stephen. The first is an offense against Stephen’s person, and perhaps against his self-mastery. The latter is an offense against his linguistic mastery, which is already a point of pride, ‘The little word seemed to have turned a rapier point of his sensitiveness against this courteous and vigilant foe’. (Chapter V)

jj-psSomewhere in between these two events, Father Tate, leading an English class, calls Stephen out for blasphemy in a sequence that evokes in the reader a sense of the secret mysteries of the church (chapter II). The teacher cites merely a fragment of a sentence, ‘”Without a possibility of ever approaching nearer.” That’s heresy.’ Stephen backs down, saying, ‘I meant ‘Without a possibility of ever reaching.’ The teacher accepts this, ‘O. That’s another story.’

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Considering ‘Cleanness’, translated by Marie Borroff, amongst other things. Borroff has published translations of all of the works found in the manuscript containing ‘Gawain and the Green Knight.’ In this essay, I reference The Gawain Poet Complete Works, published by W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.

In her introduction to the collected translations, Dr. Borroff presents her credentials as deriving from her study of philology and her work as a poet. Her introductionborroffs and notes also evince a strong Christian background. Born in 1923, PhD 1956 Yale, English professor (first such at Yale). Does the fact that she was in her 70s when she undertook ‘Cleanness’ have bearing? Possibly.

Her translation of ‘Cleanness’ was first published in 2001 which, by my reckoning, is awfully late for such a work to be introduced and explicated with references to sodomy and sins of the flesh being the those things most abhorrent to G-di. The poet, she tells us, was ‘devout, deeply thoughtful, and offers a window on one version of medieval Christianity.’ii The issue isn’t that she’s explaining the poet’s position as such, but that she does so without much comment. To be fair, the first sentence of the poem’s introduction indicates that of the five available works by the poet, ‘Cleanness’ ‘is the least accessible to the modern reader.’ This might be her concession to the gap between medieval doctrinal Christian morality and modern acceptance of multiple sexualities.
After retelling the parable of the wedding feast from the Gospel of Matthew, the poet tells us ‘Uncleanness is the one sin that rouses G-d to merciless anger. Lines 193-204 earn no footnote, but set the stage for the main sections of the poem. Indeed, one could, as Borroff suggests in her introduction to the poem, read these lines as the poem’s thesis:

But I have listened long and hard to many learned clerks,
And in writings well reasoned read it myself,
That the peerless Prince who in paradise rules
Is displeased at every point appertaining to sin.
But I have never seen it set down in a book
That He punished so impatiently the people He had made,
No avenged Him so violently on vice or on sin,
Nor so hastily did harm in the heat of His anger,
Nor so severely and swiftly sought to destroy
As for filth of the flesh that fools have practiced.

The poet quickly addresses The Fall of the Angels, The Fall of Man, and The Corruption of Adam’s Progeny followed by a detailed retelling of the story of the Flood. Before moving on to a lengthy treatment of the destruction of Sodom, the poet provides another Warning Against Uncleanness. The warning concludes:

But when the folk fall into foul deeds of defiling lust
He loathes so that lewdness, He lashes out at once,
Cannot bear to hold back, but abruptly strikes,
And that was openly proven by a punishment once.

That last line obviously refers to the Flood. The poet does a very clear job of retelling the story of Lot, his daughters, and G-d’s angels at the gates of Sodom. He isiii quite clear that the desire of the men of Sodom for the angels is unacceptable in the eyes of G-d, but presents Lot’s offer of his virgin daughters without any judgment. Lot tells the men of Sodom, when they demand the angels a second time:

My abode here is blessed by two beauteous daughters;
They live with me alone – no lover has had them;
None seemlier dwell in Sodom, though I say so myself.
They are ripe and ruddy fleshed; they are ready for men;
To embrace such bonny maids will bring you more pleasure.
I bestow them with my blessing, that are buxom and blithe,
And lie with them as you like, and let my guests be.

The men of Sodom reply that Lot is a newcomer, though in Sodom he has grown rich. Regarding Lot’s offer, Borroff makes no comment. Her omission suggests that the Sodomites’ rejection of the female is sufficient demonstration of how they have earned G-d’s wrath.

Without evidence, she also suggests that the punishment suffered by Lot’s wife has something to do with her salting the meal served to their guests. In a footnote (p.91), she writes, ‘According to the version of the story that most closely resembles the poet’s, the angels visited Lot during Passover, and that is why Lot insisted that they be served unleavened bread, containing neither yeast nor salt…It seems clear from the poet’s treatment of the story that he had read one or more of the Jewish commentaries on Genesis, presumably in Latin translation.’

Her assertion that Lot was entertaining the angels during Passover is as patently ridiculous as the presence of whole loaves of bread on the table of the Last Supper, a not uncommon sight in medieval/renaissance depictions. The story of Lot predates the Exodus by multiple generations. (Quickly: Lot is Abraham’s nephew. Abraham is the grandfather of Jacob who brought his entire household into Egypt at the end of the book of Genesis. At the beginning of the second book of the bible, Exodus, we learn that the generation of Jacob’s offspring (14 children) were all deceased, but their descendants had multiplied such that pharaoh was alarmed. This is the beginning of the story that culminates in the Jews’ escape from Egypt. It is this story that is told at Passover each year. The event that the Passover holiday commemorates hadn’t occurred at the time of the destruction of Sodom.)

But, listen. I’m an atheist bisexual and a non-practicing Jew. My passing interest in Christian doctrine derives from my study of English literature and a desire for accurate allusions in my own writing. I might be the wrong person to criticize Borroff’s ignorance or omissions with regard to her presentation of the work in question. I came of age in the 1980s and studied literature (including her go-to translation of ‘Gawain’) at San Francisco State at the height of the AIDS crisis, so I have a certain bias.

My own sense of morality enables me (and entrusts me) to side with victims of sexual assault, and at the very least look askance at those who commit assault or stand by when assault (or invitation to assault) occurs. Angel of the Lord or no. Consensual sex, regardless of parts, is up to those participating. I come at this poetry from the firm belief that we must be clear and open about who we are in order to give strength to those who are increasingly persecuted. These are treacherous bloody times in which to be dishonest and not open to the needs of those without choice. If being public about who I am comes by way of literary examination, so be it.

The question is perhaps, ‘Does the poetic translator bear a responsibility to question such a stark moral dichotomy?’ Does the editor bear some responsibility in this regard. I say yes to both, but only partly because the poems aren’t necessarily presented as doctrinal texts. In many ways they reflect doctrine, certainly. Borroff says that the poet’s suggestion that G-d taught sexual pleasure to mankind is outside Christian doctrine because it ‘omits…the intention on the part of both man and woman to conceive a child’ (p.41):

When two were tied together with true minds and hearts,
Between a man and his mate would mount such delight
That the pure joys of Paradise could scarce prove better

The blaze of love between them so bright and so fierce
That all the mishaps on earth could not hold back its heat.

I find ‘Cleanness’ to be problematic not only for its treatment of sexuality but for the implicit comparison of men to the holy vessels of the Temple. It’s no secret that women are responsible, biblically speaking, for the ills of the world (Do I need to rehash Eve giving the apple to Adam?), but the poet takes this assertion to the next level in his retelling of the story of Balthazar.

After an interlude instructing how to emulate Christ’s purity, nearly half the poem is spent retelling the story of the Babylonian exile. It’s a leap from the mythology of the first book of the bible to an event that is documented both in the bible and elsewhere, with a firm date in the 6th century BCE. We learn first how the last king of Jerusalem and Judea ‘used abomination, bowing to idols / And prized little the laws he should loyally have kept.’ G-d therefore uses Babylonian king Nabugodonosor (Nebuchadnezzar) to destroy Jerusalem, raze the temple, and enslave the Jews. Nabugodonosor is mostly loyal to G-d, and he never uses the treasures taken from the Temple of Solomon. When his son Balthazar inherits the throne, he orders the holy vessels of the temple be brought out during a drunken feast. In retaliation for this sin, G-d invites the Persians to sack Babylon and kill Balthazar, much as He had invited Nebuchadnezzar to sack Jerusalem and kill or enslave its inhabitants.

The poet implicitly equates Balthazar’s sin with that of the Sodomites and of Noah’s contemporaries; the poet equates the desecration of men through sins of the flesh with that of those cups from the temple. Men are the holy vessels and women are as nothing, even to the point of being raped by those same men. Is it any wonder women are repressed in the Church, and in orthodox Judaism for that matter?

Leaping forward a couple of centuries, Jonathan Edwards, in his sermon ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry G-d’ (1741) exemplifies the same kind of disdain of those considered sinners as the poet of ‘Cleanness’, though Edwards spreads the damnation around. He also ascribes to G-d a kind of infinite wrath that the poet only hints at. It’s a guess that most faithful in these times would find that kind of wrath unlikely.

“And it shall come to pass, that…all flesh come to worship before me, saith the L-rd. And they shall go forth and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me; for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched, and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.” (Isaiah 66:24) It is everlasting wrath. It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty G-d one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity. There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see a long for ever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all. You will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains.iv

While the excesses described have been mirrored elsewhere (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for example), it is reflected more obviously (in my reading) in works of cosmic horror and performed by creatures from outside the realm of Christian mythology. The eternal torments meted out by G-d to the unbaptised and unsaved in Edwards’ sermon are similar to those inflicted on the narrator of I Have No Mouth and I Must Screamv, forced to perform unspeakable acts by an omnipotent intelligence.

Assuming that the poems of the manuscript are all by the same poet, he presents a vision of heaven in ‘Pearl’ that offers biblical basis for the afterworld as earned by what the Puritans would later call The Elect.

‘Pearl’ sets forth what is essentially an ecstatic dream vision that assumes the dreamer and the reader will achieve, or can achieve, this heaven by staying on the path of righteousness. Borroff is clear and consistent in providing the biblical sources for the poem, specifying the translations used and obviously works from the assumption that the poet wasn’t being somehow satirical. From my perspective, being at this late date more familiar with the Old Testament than the New, I find the poet’s take on G-d’s perspective, even as Jesus was supposed to have been the answer to and resolution of Mosaic law, a little hard to take.

What we come away with is that while G-d can be forgiving and recognise the human struggle for grace, there are places where the L-rd’s ways are not our own, but distinctly reflect human prejudices. And, yes, we should be over that by now, except that they’re set forth in the holy books.

Occasionally I read, and utter, the opinion that those who preach against homosexuality should also heed the other dictates of the Old Testament, especially those set out in the book of Leviticus. Have you mixed cotton and linen in the same fabric, eaten shellfish (or cheeseburgers), had sex outside of marriage? These all earn punishments similar to those for homosexuality. The argument is that while Jesus is the way and the light and is the new embodiment of the law set down in the Old Testament, not all of the old sins hold equal weight. There seems to be a distinction drawn between what is immoral and what is simply illegal.

As I’m considering how to conclude this, I’ve come across an opinion in the NY Timesvi that suggests the prohibition against homosexuality in Leviticus was originally a prohibition against homosexual incest, but later editors fudged it. Biblical scholar Idan Dershowitz argues that the glosses on a couple of sentences seem to contradict or subvert what might have been the more limited earlier prohibition. While it is nice to see this matter considered, what preachers old and new (including the poet of ‘Cleanness’) are elucidating is not the specific legal prohibition, but the evidence in the earlier stories that specifies what G-d Himself finds odious.

The problem is that all of our understanding of human biology; of the nature of love, lust, and desire; and of the importance of living in honesty with oneself goes head on with two thousand years of anti-gay interpretation of scripture. The power of that interpretation undermines any other way of looking at scripture and practicing most established versions of Christianity.

i I follow here the Jewish tradition of not spelling out the complete name of G-d or any of its synonyms.

ii I’m unable to find the reference – I’m pretty sure it was in the general introduction to the volume.

iii I operate from an unfounded assumption that the poet is male.

Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye Words and Music – 29 May 2018 de Duif, Amsterdam
The monsoon hit yesterday as I was on my way to this church in the middle of Amsterdam. The weather had been hot and humid and then the rain came down. My friend Carrie was coming up from Utrecht and we didn’t have time to meet for supper, and by the time she arrived, drenched, most everyone had filed in for the 8:30 show. As we leaned on a wall near the back of the venue, someone told the man next to us that there were seats upstairs. In front of the organ. With a clear line of sight to the stage. Perfect.
smith-kaye-20180529I’d never seen Smith perform, but I’ve been listening for ages. In high school, friends from New York put Piss Factory and her version of Hey Joe (with the Patty Hearst intro) on a mix tape for me. And of course I’d heard Because The Night because it was all over the radio. Later I’d listen to those first four Arista albums but not really understand a lot of them. Gloria I got. The title track of Horses was overwhelming. In college picked up Radio Ethiopia because Dramarama had covered Pumping My Heart, but aside from that song and Pissing In A River, again, it was overwhelming. When Dream of Life with its single People Have The Power came out, I was working in a record store in San Francisco and the manager was crazy excited that she had a new record after eight years off the musical radar. I wasn’t impressed with it and went back to listening to Wave and Easter which had the punk sensibility that affected me most in her work.
Anyway, when tickets went on sale for this gig, I was keen to get them because sometime recently (possibly after hearing about the Horses tour a few years ago) I decided that I didn’t want to miss seeing her perform. (At 71, she’s still going very strong, but as I wasn’t the first to note a couple of years ago, 69 [David Bowie amongst others] is the new 27 [Brian Jones, Hendrix, Joplin, Winehouse and a whole slew of others].)
She and guitarist Lenny Kaye walked on stage and she opened by saying, ‘Behind those clouds is a beautiful full moon.’ She said that she’d wanted to read this old piece of hers, but didn’t have a copy, but found it on the internet. In the course of the show, she read two excerpts from a new volume called New Jerusalem which offers some poetic response, among other things, to the Trump presidency.
Early on, Smith and Kaye performed a lovely rendition of Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather. I’m not sure if she gets sufficient credit for her interpretations of other people’s songs. Early in her recording career, her version of Van Morrison’s Gloria was hailed, but that was for the intensity of her re-interpretation. I want to say recently, but it was probably eleven or twelve years ago, she released a full album of other people’s songs that she managed to make her own with some success. After the Dylan song, Kaye stepped up and dug his heels into Waylon Jennings’ Love of the Common People which felt unlikely but absolutely in place at the same time. I was certainly game for whatever they chose to bring on. Either they had a really good rapport with the audience or the room was as game as I was for the experience.
The poems she read included Pythagorean Traveler and another segment of New Jerusalem called Prophecy’s Lullaby. Pythagorean Traveler was preceded by the song My Blakean Year (which makes thematic sense – as many of the poems she shared make use of William Blake’s imagery and vocabulary). At one point she asked if anyone had any questions. The only one to step up could only ask in French. Neither Smith nor anyone near the asker could speak French to which she added, ‘We have in common that none of us can read Rimbaud in the original.’ The question was lost but it was an amusing moment.
In my favourite of the spoken word moments, Smith asked the audience if anyone had brought a copy of Just Kids, her memoir of living poor in New York with Robert Mapplethorpe at the turn of the 70s. Several hands went up as she explained that it would be Allen Ginsberg’s birthday next week and she wanted to read an excerpt. Copy in hand, she flipped through it trying to find the page, which a reader of that copy had handily bookmarked. It’s a very sweet tale that you can find below. (She read from ‘Horn and Hardart, the queen of automats’ on the left page through the bottom of the right.) In her reading, you could feel the love she felt for Ginsberg beyond the words.
As for the musical numbers, they performed (among others) ripping versions of Dancing Barefoot, Pissing in a River, Because the Night, and People Have The Power.
When they were about a verse into the last song, someone at the front of the audience put something on the stage, which might have been flowers, and she had to stop, explaining that the stage had to be kept clear. It was a really odd moment, but she backed up and she and Kaye played a really touching rendition of Presley’s I Can’t Help Falling In Love (which was the proper encore the following night). I’ve always found this particular track to be really kitschy, but I was totally sucked in. The audience sang along and it felt like we were all around the same campfire for a few minutes. In an evening full of touching moments, that one was, inexplicably, as well. And then they topped it all off with a full-throttle go at People Have The Power.
Set list:
Little Moon (poem)
New Jerusalem excerpt (poem)
Ghost Dance (s)
Boots of Spanish Leather (Dylan’s birthday a couple days ago)
My Blakean Year
Lenny Kaye solo – Love of the common people
Pythagorean traveler (poem)
Dancing barefoot
Meeting Allen Ginsberg from Just Kids
Southern Cross
Prophecy’s Lullaby (poem)
Pissing in a river
Because the night
People have the power (cut off)
I can’t help falling in love with you
People have the power