Life – the way it really is – is a battle not between Bad and Good but between Bad and Worse. – Joseph Brodsky

was originally published on Meandering home

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Reading: A Life by Edith Södergran

Edith Södergran (1892-1923) published 5 collections of poetry. She was one of the first modernists of Swedish-language literature. Browsing her poetry, I liked this one, called ‘A life’. I read an English translation by Averill Curdy that goes as follows:

A life
That the stars are adamant
everyone understands—
but I won’t give up seeking joy on each blue wave
or peace below every gray stone.
If happiness never comes, what is a life?
A lily withers in the sand
and if its nature has failed? The tide
__________________washes the beach at night.
What is the fly looking for on the spider’s web?
What does a dayfly make of its hours?
(Two wings creased over a hollow body.)Black will never turn to white—
yet the perfume of our struggle lingers
as each morning fresh flowers
spring up from hell.The day will come
when the earth is emptied, the skies collapse
and all goes still—
when nothing remains but the dayfly
__________________folded in a leaf.
But no one knows it.

The stars we can’t persuade, but the blue waves and the gray stones hold in them a promise of peace and joy, happiness. The reason of this hopefulness seems to be the fact that nature constantly renews herself: The tide / washes the beach at night. So even failed creatures like the lily that withers in the sand or the fly caught in a spider’s web, or a dayfly (the rhyme fly-dayfly sounds better in Swedish: flyga-dagslända) are no evidence that happiness will never come.

The second strophe is pretty amazing and I would have believed it if you’d told me it was written by Silvia Plath. Even though there is no formal hope (black never turns to white) our struggle itself leaves a trace. Hell doesn’t prevail yet, each morning fresh flowers spring up from it.

And what remains after the end of days? The dayfly folded in a leaf, the only image that is repeated in the poem. It is a wild expressionist vision, and I don’t quite get what she wants to say. No one knows that after everything and time itself is over, what remains is de dayfly, that being that never saw the washing tide, let alone become aware of it. A creature that, in this reading, can live without time and expectations will precisely prevail when “all goes still”

Reading: A Life by Edith Södergran was originally published on Meandering home

On people who live on in our dreams

I dreamt that the late British American public intellectual Christopher Hitchens was walking next to me. He was bald, like in the last months of his life when he underwent chemotherapy, but appeared in excellent health and was obviously not aware of his impending death. The image was so vivid that I could see the pores of the man’s skin and the gentle swaying of his untrimmed nasal fur. In my dream, I had recreated him in my image, that is my interpretation of the fragments I have read and listened to. But there he was, as real as any other human primate, as sharp and witty as ever, bounded only by the limitations of my own brain, that staged this exclusive (I am not saying solipsist) show. It was awe-inspiring.

“You know dear Christopher”, I told him. “When I speak in English there is some compelling force within me that makes me mimic your rhythm, your accent and your choice of words.”
“That’s the power of rhetoric” he smiled. “It is in the ardor – I should not say fanatiticism – with which we rationally defend our innermost ethical convictions that we are at our best – that we are most alive. And I think we wouldn’t be too far off when I say that where we feel most alive, we leave the most lasting impression on our fellow man.”
“You are spot-on” I replied. At that point I felt deep empathy for my imaginary friend, being painfully aware that his quest, his life’s work had been about freeing humanity from the the shackles that had hold it back for so long, namely religion, yet here he stood next to me, arguably the greatest master of eloquence of our time, and I was his puppet master. Full disclosure was out of the question, because it could have hurt him too much. I was overcome by a numbing feeling of embarrassment and so we continued walking in silence, me thinking how I would brag about our brief exchange of words to all of my friends and some of my enemies.

We were crossing a street. I remembered that what brought me into the reality of this dream had been several hours of televised debate in which Christopher demonstrated his brilliancy in polite yet devastating rebuttals. I wondered, walking there, in that very moment, next to the man who ironically had become a demigod to many, what would his reaction be when I would break the news that I made his acquaintance vicariously, through his written words and the video recordings of his addresses and debates – that I read after he died?

Perhaps he would not feel offended but look curiously at the man from the future, and muster his verbal strength to tell me that Cassandra should never have access to a time travel machine. I would nod, hoping he wouldn’t notice the tears flowing down my cheek. I decide there and then that I will not tell Christopher about cancer of the esophagus, the horrible death sentence that will kill him in December 2011. I will not tell him about the brilliant final tribute to life and language entitled ‘Mortality’ that he would write ‘from the country of the ill’. Silently we continued walking; he was going back to his hotel to prepare for yet another round of defense of humanism, freedom and rationality against the dangers of dogmatism. Soon, his contours were swallowed by the thick shadows cast by the tall buildings.

I woke up bathing in sweat and intrigued by what my brain had just done. The Seneca of our century had been so alive, so present. Living on in other people’s minds, my friends, is more than a commonplace consolation in the face of the horror that is death. It is a very real thing if you will accept the idea that these arguments, these endlessly expressive phrases are not a bulwark protecting an innermost ‘you’ against infidel invaders, but constitutes itself your innermost being. To these specific – not to all – intents and purposes, Christopher is alive and will remain so for years to come.

On people who live on in our dreams was originally published on Meandering home

Incitement

I hear the frequency of my kitchen

the deafening sound of appliances

that killed the wind, the quiet

murmur of the grass and the cicadas

and the death throes of little animals

I try to remember the smell of the earth

her dirt, her ashes, her streams, her stones

her forests, her oceans, the long traces

of life in her atmosphere. Instead

I glance at plywood fronts and plastic

and marble and steel and glass and all

brand new, and clean. Inert, threatening

to kill me

I am organic life forgetting itself

forgetting that time is in order

and that I am free, because of it

‘Freedom’. 50x50cm, Acrylic on canvas by Camille van Neer

Incitement was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Lives by Derek Mahon

We travel to Northern Ireland. Derek Mahan (b. 1941)’s poetry has been compared to Louis MacNeice and W.D. Auden. Some critics have called it ‘too controlled’. I found this poem worth reading, with an attribution to yet another famous Irish poet:

Lives

(for Seamus Heaney)

First time out
I was a torc of gold
And wept tears of the sun.
That was fun
But they buried me
In the earth two thousand years
Till a labourer
Turned me up with a pick
In eighteen fifty-four.
Once I was an oar
But stuck in the shore
To mark the place of a grave
When the lost ship
Sailed away. I thought
Of Ithaca, but soon decayed.
The time that I liked
Best was when
I was a bump of clay
In a Navaho rug,
Put there to mitigate
The too god-like
Perfection of that
Merely human artifact.
I served my maker well —
He lived long
To be struck down in
Denver by an electric shock
The night the lights
Went out in Europe
Never to shine again.
So many lives,
So many things to remember!
I was a stone in Tibet,
A tongue of bark
At the heart of Africa
Growing darker and darker . . .
It all seems
A little unreal now,
Now that I am
An anthropologist
With my own
Credit card, dictaphone,
Army-surplus boots
And a whole boatload
Of photographic equipment.
I know too much
To be anything any more;
And if in the distant
Future someone
Thinks he has once been me
As I am today,
Let him revise
His insolent ontology
Or teach himself to pray.
Alright, 1854-2000 = 146 BC: The Battle of Corinth. The “I” was something buried with the dead, a torc of gold in the first instance. That riddle was fun. The oar in the shore happened probably in ancient Greece as well, given the reference to Ithaca.
I found that the Navaho covered the eyes of the dead with some clay. That gives away what Mahon wants to say, that the ‘thing’ is mitigating the god-like perfection, in a way.
The lights going out in Europe never to shine again could refer to the holocaust, if his ‘maker’ is god? Struck by an electric shock in Denver? We might be missing something here.
With Tibet and Africa (heart of darkness) he makes this truly international. But now he is an anthropologist, who feels it is unreal, all these many things to remember. So he is not anything anymore, a rather existentialist anthropologist.
How does he pay respect to all these things, representing all these many lives that were lost and buried with gifts that have lost their meaning? He demands that a future generation don’t identifies with him, it sounds like he wants to break a chain. Or, and he might be well aware of the fact that such is impossible. In that case that future person should teach herself to pray. Indeed, the ontology he describes, the one in which you become the stuff the dead are remembered by and are at some point reduced to such a thing yourself, is insolent and ultimately nihilist. And that is of course why he turns to prayer.
This is a strange enough poem, and I have the feeling there are some more things to be dug up here. Any suggestions?

 

Reading: Lives by Derek Mahon was originally published on Meandering home