This poem by prominent American poet Mark Strand (1934-2014) was just delicious in its simplicity. I quote from the website of Poetry Foundation:
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.
The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.
Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.
She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.
Strand is known for his fine literary language, which won him a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. In this poem, the very first image with the ink running from the corners of his mouth evokes vampires who have been eating poets, not poetry. Could he not wipe his mouth clean with an handkerchief? Or has he eaten the handkerchief as well, because somebody wrote a poem on it? It’s a nicely silly image, the old poet in the library. When he introduces the librarian and thus takes the nonsense seriously, it’s a fun effect. We see the sad lady who doesn’t know how to ‘handle’ (her hands are in her dress) the situation.
Enter the dogs. Alright, now things are getting serious. Some bloodhound gang has smelled what is going on and is coming up. With the poems gone, they have nothing to fear here. Or are they friendly dogs? The rolling eyeballs of the dogs and their blond legs burning ‘like brush’ are visually powerful, but I refuse to read anything biblical in the burning brush.
Of course the librarian doesn’t understand: This is surrealism! And en passant Mr. Strand has turned into a dog himself, or thinks he has, because he still has knees. It scares the hell out of her. And let us just smile about the imagery, and withold a pompous symbolic interpretation, in which the absence of poetry turns us into animals. The final lines are well crafted: snarl – bark – dark. What is a bookish dark and why is it so joyful for Mark? Is it simply because he has literally incorporated the poems, or because the absence of the poems clears the way for other literary forms (Strand did doubt his own poetry and he has tried other formats).
Today I read a poem by my famous German expressionist, Georg Trakl (1887-1914). I couldn’t find a translation of die Verwandlung online, so I created one myself. There is a website where you can contribute poetry translations, and I added this one. This is what the great German, who died at 27 (sounds familiar) from an overdose of cocaine, looks like through my lense:
Along the gardens, scorched with the crimson colors of the fall:
We see the life of a diligent man.
Who carries the brown grapes in his hands,
While in his look the sullen pain descends.
In the evening: Steps sound on the dark ground
Appearing in the silence of a red beech.
A blue beast wants to bow before death
And an empty garb decays in horror.
In front of a tavern music softly plays,
A drunken face lies buried in the grass.
elderberries, soft flutes and the feminine,
around which the scent of sweet reseda sways.
I quote the German original:
Entlang an Gärten, herbstlich, rotversengt:
Hier zeigt im Stillen sich ein tüchtig Leben.
Des Menschen Hände tragen braune Reben,
Indes der sanfte Schmerz im Blick sich senkt.
Am Abend: Schritte gehn durch schwarzes Land
Erscheinender in roter Buchen Schweigen.
Ein blaues Tier will sich vorm Tod verneigen
Und grauenvoll verfällt ein leer Gewand.
Geruhiges vor einer Schenke spielt,
Ein Antlitz ist berauscht ins Gras gesunken.
Holunderfrüchte, Flöten weich und trunken,
Resedenduft, der Weibliches umspült.
So, what do we have? Autumn gardens with beautiful reddish colors and a diligent (‘tüchtig’) man who picks the newtestamentical ‘brown grapes’. The habit makes this bearable, the human condition is one of soft pain. In the evening, a blue animal (this is a recurring theme in Trakl, and I can’t help thinking of the Blue Man group and Avatar) comes to die. His soul is separated from his body, since what stays behind is an empty robe/garb (leer Gewand). Christian one might say, however: grauenvoll is the decay.
But the people don’t notice: The music that is played in front of the tavern (the autumn is not too cold) is ‘geruhig’. Someone smashed face down in the grass, and even the flutes are inebriated. This is clearly Dionysian and probably influenced by Nietzsche. The smell of reseda/mignonette is something Trakl remembers from Salzburg. The transformation is quite obviously the change from the ‘sanfte Schmerz’ of the habitual, tough life to the bacchanal that is held in denial of death.
I couldn’t get the rhyme to work in English. Perhaps you have a suggestion? Meanwhile, if you like Trakl, I found some other Trakl poems in English translation here.
Today I read the poem White Lie by the Lebanese poet Abbas Beydoun, born in 1945. As usual, I write freely why I think this poem is a good one.
The truth is also blood.
And it might be a piece of tongue
or someting severed from us.
We might find it in semen
or in dust if these two things
are not simply appearances
and if the blood does not suddenly
vanish or whiten as a lie.
Should we let the roses
or the strokes against the chest consume
those who lost their truth
as they fought their lies?
Is it the alarm clock’s fault
or do we not permit
our clocks such precise appointments.
The sun is our tryst and
we do not know what it gathers now.
We are the meeting of strangers
and we do not ask why love drives free souls
and then abandons them, to scatter,
beneath the heavy rain.
So we are separated from the truth, it is literaly cut off from us like the piece of our tongue or a limb. But it can also lie in the distinction between ourselves and semen (reproduction, love) or dust (demise, death). But only if these two things aren’t ‘simply appearances’ and the blood is real, thick, red blood. What has been said so far? The true essence, the ‘thing itself’ is distinct from us and that is why they become candidates for the truth, which is understood in a Heideggerian way as aletheia or disclosure. The movement of disclosure is the severance of the tongue, which precludes speech and so discloses its ownmost truth.
A ‘white lie’ is of course an unimportant lie told to be tactful or polite, but in this poem every lie ‘whitens’, becomes a less important, frivolous and temporary disruption of the truth and its ‘forcings’ (Badiou). The next question is an ethical one: How do we treat those who lost their truth because they were fighting their lies? Those who got too confused about the world? Should we write them off and let them be consumed by cheap consolances by roses and ‘strokes against the chest’?
The confusion might be caused by the alarm clock (time) or the way we deal with time. It’s not the fault of ‘those who lost their truth’ but consequence of the human condition that we can’t properly discern truth when we are on a deadline. The next line is mysterious: All of a sudden we are going to have a romantic rendezvous with the sun? What is happening? “We are the meeting of strangers”. That sounds lovely. Strangers don’t know each other, they have all the opportunities anew to tell each other white lies. It’s in the unknown, in the Wagnis (risk), in the encounter of ‘free souls’ that we find a shimmer of truth.
The conclusion of the poem with heavy rain sounds commonplace. I see disillusioned lovers clad in heavy raincoats pace homeward, alone. Their search driven by love (not necesarrily ‘for’ love) leads to the meetings that constitute ‘We’. Now we can look back at the question. Isn’t it about those who betrayed love in the name of love? Or can it be read much more down to earth, as a tryst of two lovers where one came late and the other fought the lies she made up (“He will have a reason to be late”). She won’t admit he is disloyal to her and lost her love: the love (which is identified with truth in this poem) is lost. But we shouldn’t be to hard on these lovers, who live by white lies they fight, because that is the essence of being human. The philosophical idea of Truth as Wagnis and I would say event in the sense of Badiou is here expressed in the image of free, longing souls who might experience our essence, the truth that we are the meeting of strangers, only to be abondoned by it for a reason we can or should never ask.
Emboldened by my anthologizing habit, today I discover the Chinese poet Bei Dao (a pseudonym that means “northern island”). As usual, I’ll say what I like about this poem.
I take the elevator from an underground parking lot
up to sea level
deep thoughts continuing up, through blue color
like doctors you can’t stop
them, deciding my whole life:
the road to success
the season’s unrelated to a boy’s shout
he’s growing up, he knows
how to wound others in his dreams
The beginning of the poem makes a rather western impression. I am in a building, pondering deep thoughts in the elevator after parking my car. The thoughts are unstoppable like doctors, who decide my whol life and the road to success. Are these obstetricians helping with a complicated birth where a lack of oxygen can indeed decide what the child will be incapable of later in life? Did I perhaps take the elevator because I cannot walk?
The next strophe comes suddenly and contains the line that does ‘wham’, that poetic thought the poem had been preparing for by making sure we readers aren’t prepared. It’s hard to see what the unrelatedness of the season to a boy’s shout means. These are the deep thoughts I have in the elevator. Thoughts about a shouting, rebellious boy who is growing up and hence “knows / how to wound others in his dreams”. That’s an enigma! Does it mean by growing up the boy (and every human being) learns how to satisfy his sadism in his dreams, so he doesn’t need to wound anyone in the flesh? Or is the boy dreaming of hurting/wounding/leaving a wound in me? Am I feeling forlorn on my visit to a boy in the hospital. Is the boy perhaps my son and had there been complications during his birth? Is that why he shouts?
Does growing up mean we learn how to wound others in our dreams? It doesn’t mean we actually wound others, just that we become aware of their vulnerability. Isn’t that the source of empathy, not yet present in the innocent play of young children? Is the knowledge a fall from innocence, a fall into ‘relatedness’ with other people we know how to affect in our dreams? What about the season? Is it summer (‘blue color’) whereas the unrelated boy’s shout is associated with a darker season?