from this body
and pain (a condition
Clothed now in light
clothed in abyss, at the prow
of the desert
Mercy on us all
What hard travail God does in death!
He strives in sleep, in our despair,
And all flesh shudders underneath
The nightmare of His sepulcher.
The earth shakes, grinding its deep stone;
All night the cold wind heaves and pries;
Creation strains sinew and bone
Against the dark door where He lies.
The stem bent, pent in seed, grow straight
And stands. Pain breaks in song. Surprising
The merely dead, graves fill with light
Like opened eyes. He rests in rising.
Here, in the final installment of “Mandelstam”, we end roughly where we began, with the poem echoed by Christian Wiman in his outstanding book “My Bright Abyss”. Wiman was my gateway into Mandelstam and his translation has proved to be both thoughtful and moving. This poem also serves as a excellent summary of Mandelstam and his quest to find light amid the darkness.
“Rough Draft” (1937)
Provisionally, then, and secretive,
I speak a truth whose time is not:
It lives in love and the pain of love,
In sweat, and the sky’s playful vacancy.
A whisper, then, a purgatorial prayer,
A testament of one man,…
From the wonderful play The Cocktail Party, well into the poet’s Christian phase. A man’s wife leaves him and an Unidentified Guest – who is almost a bona fide theophany (Eliot’s God prefers gin) – gives the man, Edward, some advice on how to handle his crisis:
Most of the time we take ourselves for granted,
As we have to, and live on a little knowledge
About ourselves as we were. Who are you now?
You don’t know any more than I do,
But rather less. You are nothing but a set
Of obsolete responses. The one thing to do
Is to do nothing. Wait.
But waiting is the one thing impossible.
Besides, don’t you see that it makes me look ridiculous?
Guest: It will do you no harm to find yourself ridiculous.
Resign yourself to be the fool you are.
That is the best advice I can give you.
“Waiting is the one thing impossible” – in Eliot’s spirituality, activity and self-righteousness and pretension must be cleared from the minds of those who know only “a heap of broken images”, who are only that, and cannot be otherwise. For a man as attuned to grace and broken on the wheels of life as he, the one genuine spiritual vocation is the desperate plea, “teach us to care and not to care/ teach us to sit still.”
O Being both far distant and most near,
O Lover embracing all unlovable, O Tender
Tether binding us together, and binding, yea
and tenderly, Your Person to ourselves,
Being both beyond our ken, and kindred, One
whose dire energies invest such clay as ours
with patent animation, O Secret One secreting
life anew into our every tissue moribund,
afresh unto our stale and stalling craft,
grant in this obscurity a little light.
More mind-blowing verse from the Polish master, this one’s right up there with “An Alcoholic Enters the Gates of Heaven” in whatever list we might compile of our favorite poetry (i.e. non-poetry people might want to give this one a shot). A few words about the context can be found here, ht KW:
Raja, I wish I knew
the cause of that malady.
For years I could not accept
the place I was in.
I felt I should be somewhere else.
A city, trees, human voices
lacked the quality of presence.
I would live by the hope of moving on.
Somewhere else there was a city of…
Openness or emptiness, I’m sick of it
Infinity forced down the gullet:
Eat your god, child, and love it!
To be blinded would be a mercy here.
Better to live alluvial,
Better to live layered downward,
To me a man of sand, of hollows, shallows,
To cling to the sleeves of water
And to let them go–
An eon’s tune, an instant’s.
I might have rained the rapids back.
I might have learned to hear
In any random rotting log
A tree release its rings year by slow year.
Spiderlight, sticky expectant dread:
I turn and turn, only more entangled
We need bread, and we need plain air,
But we need, too, some distant unbreathable peak,
Some eye-annihilating glare…
If the ache is nameless, how do I ask for ease?
If the I itself is exile, can the soul survive
Such private ice?
Old touchstone, to touch a stone, but in all that I have known,
Never, not once, such clear
Dreamweeping distillations of atmosphere…
We need poetry to wake the dark we are,
To find us and bind us beyond us
To an age of wakefulness
In the one day’s unentangling sun,
Our breathing easy, ancient, like the pulse and peace
of iambs counting down to silence.
Shut up: to be alone is to be alive,
To be alive to be a man -
Even hazied, even queasied by this madsmash hinterland,
Lost and locked in the sky’s asylum eye.
This is my prayer to the air
To which I turn and turn expecting news or ease,
Nerves minnowing from shadowhands
Toward shadowlands inside of me. This is my prayer
To be of an under a human-scale sky,
To suffer a human-scale why, to leave
This blunt sun, these eternal furrows,
For the one country that comes when I close my eyes.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning
A poem in this month’s Poetry magazine:
When did I learn the word “I”?
What a mistake. For some,
it may be a placeholder,
for me it’s a contagion.
For some, it’s a thin line, a bare wisp,
just enough to be somewhere
among the gorgeous troublesome you’s.
For me, it’s a thorn, a spike, its slimness
a deceit, camouflaged like a stick insect:
touch it and it becomes what it is:
ravenous slit, vertical cut, little boy
standing upright in his white
communion suit and black secret.
There is, I know, a science of separation
In night’s disheveled elegies, stifled laments,
The clockwork oxen jaws, the tense anticipation
As the city’s vigil nears its sun and end.
I honor the natural ritual of the rooster’s cry,
The moment when, red-eyed from weeping, sleepless
Once again, someone hoists the journey’s burden,
And to weep and to sing become the same quicksilver verb.
But who can prophesy in the word good-bye
The abyss of loss into which we fall;
Or what, when the dawn fires burn in the Acropolis,
The rooster’s rusty clamor means for us;
Or why, when some new life floods the cut sky,
And the barn-warm oxen slowly…
This is the 46th segment of “Squarings” from Heaney’s collection Seeing Things (1991).
Like a flat stone skimmed at sunset
Or the irrevocable slipstream of flat earth
Still fleeing behind space.
Was music once a proof of God’s existence?
As long as it admits things beyond measure,
That supposition stands.
So let the ear attend like a farmhouse window
In placid light, where the extravagant
Passed once under full sail into the longed-for.