Needing a preface for my first real book of lyrics, Tribesmen of the Telos-Caster, God blessed me to write an essay sometimes risking overdisclosure, and grandiosity, nonetheless the result is personal and sincere. Any responses to my preface to Tribesmen of the Telos-Caster are very welcome. I look forward to any comments.
This poem was written for my champion dear dog, Sunny Freckles. She is an Aussie/Catahoula mix, and very beautiful and smart. I suppose this poem is written on the theme of trusting the beautiful and smart.
I feared her heart was the type
to snarl and strike,
and so raised up her lip,
but she was fanged
with milk horns.
Whereupon, as live snail
quick in the grace of animal
love leap upon their brides,
her tongue in grateful emanation
darted me a lick, and swung away
contented, departing to the cool tents
of unicorn stripe and nursing brides.
Sunday at the State Hospital
I am sitting across the table
eating my visit sandwich.
The one I brought him stays suspended
near his mouth; his eyes focus
on the table and seem to think,
his shoulders hunched forward.
I chew methodically,
pretending to take him
as a matter of course.
The sandwich tastes mad
and I keep chewing.
My past is sitting in front of me –
filled with itself
and trying with almost no success
to bring the present to its mouth.
translated by Willis Barnstone
To me he seems like a god
as he sits facing you and
hears you near as you speak
softly and laugh
in a sweet echo that jolts
the heart in my ribs. For now
as I look at you my voice
is empty and
can say nothing as my tongue
cracks and slender fire is quick
under my skin. My eyes are dead
to light, my ears
pound, and sweat pours over me.
I convulse, greener than grass,
and feel my mind slip as I
go close to death,
yet, being poor, must suffer
The ancient literary critic Longinus is the only reason we have this fragment, one of Sappho’s longest surviving works. (Though she was a fairly prolific and well collected writer in ancient times.) Longinus quoted this fragment to show the ecstasy of its lyric, attaining a sublime pitch through reproducing the almost diagnostic details that accompanied her experienced emotion. The following is from Longinus’ work, “On The Sublime”.
“Are you not amazed at how she evokes soul, body, hearing, tongue, sight, skin, as though they were external and belonged to someone else? And how at one and the same moment she both freezes and burns, is irrational and sane, is terrified and nearly dead, so that we observe in her not a single emotion but a whole concourse of emotions? Such things do, of course, commonly happen to people in love. Sappho’s supreme excellence lies in the skill with which she selects the most striking and vehement circumstances of the passions and forges them into a coherent whole.” (Longinus, On the Sublime).
In a book review by Edith Hall in the NY Review of Books, she says, “public access to Sappho’s poem was widened by Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux’s French translation of Longinus (1674). Running through more than twenty editions by 1740, and published in English translation in 1711, Boileau’s Longinus put sublimity at the center of literary debate and laid the foundation-stone of the invention of aesthetics as a discrete philosophical field by Burke and Kant.”
One could then make a case that the lyric ecstasy of Sappho, presented historically by Longinus and Boileau, managed to exert a strong influence on the emotional shape of the Enlightenment and Romantic literary and philosophical periods, as well as the Victorian era and it has not died out yet I am sure. This influence is summed by the word, sublime, but takes strange shapes, from grand and terrifying landscapes, to Yeats’ tragic joy.
In her early 70s, in 1992, Mona Van Duyn became the first woman U.S. poet laureate. She is not showy, but she is smooth, genuine, and moving. From the Academy of American Poets online, poets.org, is the following profile.
“Poet Alfred Corn has said, ‘Mona Van Duyn has assembled, in a language at once beautiful and exact, one of the most convincing bodies of work in our poetry.” Cynthia Zarin has called her poetry “notable for its formal accomplishment and for its thematic ambition,” adding that the “searching intelligence of the persona we have learned to know in her poems, combined with the humor, technical ease, and the blend of the abstract and the quotidian that the poet has made her own have resulted in that rare good thing: a strong, clear voice, original without eccentricity.'”
“Van Duyn was awarded the Bollingen Prize, the Hart Crane Memorial Award, the Ruth Lilly Prize…as well as fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.”
“Van Duyn has said, ‘I believe that good poetry can be as ornate as a cathedral or as bare as a pottingshed, as long as it confronts the self with honesty and fullness. Nobody is born with the capacity to perform this act of confrontation, in poetry or anywhere else; one’s writing career is simply a continuing effort to increase one’s skill at it.’
Read this superb, somehow surprising, somehow delightful poem of hers here. (Portrait above was painted by Marion Miller in 1993.)
For us, break the tablets Levi.
These profligate days
and criminal nights run riot.
I want the tight juicy thighs
that don’t break.
I want the decadent dog
to lay there and wait.
Summer is a spoiled rotten Christmas.
Humid as beer breath,
Summer puts his equatorial arm around my shoulders.
Wearing a slick, grassy pompadour,
he cajoles and jollies and is a grueler that all love.
A grove of doves, like you Tata-Lucia,
white wings curving,
that is all the hope in my world.
The grape of doves and proper riches.
The Hero says,
“those who live only for pleasure are dead.” *
But who could stand to live for anything else?
And Tacita-Lucia, my wages will be coming in.
Now let’s get to my house,
nothing is waiting for us here.
The Pride of Williamsburg
All the scholars concede giants.
Monarch Nephilim may survive,
at least their bones, and why not
I? My breath snatched away,
beneath this huge mastodon frame –
the mastoid process is the carriage.
At last Williamsburg is suddenly swept
away by time, New York
teaming the carriage of my faith
with enormous showstoppers,
stopping even perhaps my heart?
For the history museum cracks me
like a fossil egg, my cold sweat, my
curious eye, the fantasy of ancient
universal power, the magisterial Hand
of the Living One I recognize,
where the heads of the sauropods,
like shoe horns; I climb step by step
up the ladder of their ponderous grace.
They are deft zeppelins
whose height in naked faith,
appears with no wig in the clumsy
windless exhibition hall.
Here no breath against the page,
no cubit, sterling, sage,
inside these locks I am fine, mounted
upon the sauropod, mounting screws,
a lab of plaster. Some day my frame
known resting in beauty,
the A train the same, Strayhorn,
and sterling fortitude for love.