You say, Columbus with his argosies
Who rash and greedy took the screaming main
And vanished out before the hurricane
Into the sunset after merchandise,
Then under western palms with simple eyes
Trafficked and robbed and triumphed home again:
You say this is the glory of the brain
And human life no other use than this?
I then do answering say to you: The line
Of wizards and of saviors, keeping trust
In that which made them pensive and divine,
Passes before us like a cloud of dust.
What were they? Actors, ill and mad with wine,
And all their language babble and disgust.
Trumbull Stickney died of a brain tumor at age 30. Born into an accomplished family of academics in Switzerland, he failed to thrive as either student or lecturer, unhappy and unfulfilled in both applications. However, he pursued his artistic aspirations more passionately, writing as zealously as he pursued several affairs of the heart, though neither prospering quite as he had hoped. Following his untimely death, his family destroyed all his correspondence to his lover(s), likely wiping out some of his best work along with it.
I find Stickney’s poetry strangely inconsistent, filled with literary references and his own philosophical musings, that make it feel a bit too academic, mixed with some remarkably modern turn of phrases that are stellar. He was obviously self aware of his mortality. The Soul of Time is an interesting poem with a jolting, unexpected ending. It paints the stark reality of self awareness, the idea that communication with our inner selves with complete honesty is difficult to impossible, let alone those closest to us.
The first poem above is easier to contemplate if you know the definition of argosies, which mean merchant ships. It is a beautiful erasure of the typical myth building of Columbus as hero of the America’s. Instead it casts him in the rather modern light of invading pestilent conqueror whose only real goals were personal wealth and recognition at the terrible consequence of the native people’s already present. I think you could replace Columbus with name Bezos in this poem and raise the same timely issues on whether progress is truly progress or simply an ever increasing defiling of our planet under the ruse of capitalism and industry.
The Soul Of Time
by Trumbull Stickney
TIME’S a circumference
Whereof the segment of our station seems
A long straight line from nothing into naught.
Therefore we say ” progress, ” ” infinity ” —
Dull words whose object
Hangs in the air of error and delights
Our boyish minds ahunt for butterflies.
For aspiration studies not the sky
But looks for stars; the victories of faith
Are soldiered none the less with certainties,
And all the multitudinous armies decked
With banners blown ahead and flute before
March not to the desert or th’ Elysian fields,
But in the track of some discovery,
The grip and cognizance of something true,
Which won resolves a better distribution
Between the dreaming mind and real truth.
I cannot understand you.
‘T is because
You lean over my meaning’s edge and feel
A dizziness of the things I have not said.
“Look around – there’s only one thing of danger for you here – poetry.”
Pablo Neruda, while having his house searched by soldiers on Pinochet’s orders.
By Pablo Neruda
If your eyes were not the color of the moon,
of a day full of clay, and work, and fire,
if even held-in you did not move in agile grace like the air,
if you were not an amber week,
not the yellow moment
when autumn climbs up through the vines;
if you were not that bread the fragrant moon
kneads, sprinkling its flour across the sky,
oh, my dearest, I would not love you so!
But when I hold you I hold everything that is–
sand, time, the tree of the rain,
everything is alive so that I can be alive:
without moving I can see it all:
in your life I see everything that lives
Cien Sonetos de Amor
by Pablo Neruda
Si no fuera porque tus ojos tienen color de luna,
de día con arcilla, con trabajo, con fuego,
y aprisionada tienes la agilidad del aire,
si no fuera porque eres una semana de ámbar,
si no fuera porque eres el momento amarillo
en que el otoño sube por las enredaderas
y eres aún el pan que la luna fragante
elabora paseando su harina por el cielo,
oh, bienamada, yo no te amaría!
En tu abrazo yo abrazo lo que existe,
la arena, el tiempo, el árbol de la lluvia,
y todo vive para que yo viva:
sin ir tan lejos puedo verlo todo:
veo en tu vida todo lo viviente.
I realize more and more how tenuous the right of free speech and political freedom remains around the world. Americans may think because we have access to the internet and rights based on our constitution that free speech is something that is widely protected. However objecting to political dictators and strong men has always carried risks. Around the world politicians are becoming bolder in bolder in silencing their critics, political activists and artists who share a contradictory message, silencing them by any means necessary. The recent killings of journalists in Russia, Africa, the Middle East, even American journalists like Jamal Khashoggi, illustrate how all of us who value the right of free speech need to defend it vigorously. It is why the current voter suppression efforts by the Republicans across this country is so frightening. At the core of this movement by Republicans are not democratic principles to improve the safety of elections, but rather dishonest collusion to silence the vote and voice of the majority of our population through restrictions to voting access that will weaken our nation. Making it harder to vote is suppressing free speech. It will take individuals from across our society, including artists, to step forward and turn back what could become the greatest threat to the concept of the United States of America since its founding.
Pablo Neruda’s death is an example of artistic suppression taken to the extreme. Neruda was hospitalized with cancer in September 1973, during the coup d’état led by Augusto Pinochet. Neruda, an outspoken critic of the regime, left the hospital after a few days when he suspected a doctor of injecting him with an unknown substance, murdering him on Pinochet’s orders. Neruda died at his house in Isla Negra on September 23, 1973, hours after leaving the hospital. Pinochet denied permission for Neruda’s funeral to be public. Chileans ignored the curfew and thousands crowded the streets to honor the poet. Neruda’s death has remained controversial to this day. Although officially his death was reported as heart failure, the Chilean government issued a statement in 2015 saying; “it was possible and highly likely” that Neruda was killed as a result of “the intervention of third parties”.
A far more pleasing topic is to focus on Neruda’s life and mastery as poet. He used the sonnet form it to its full effect, a tour de force in imaginative expression, unique to the Spanish language. Neruda’s sonnets embrace love as a force that gives life, extends life and goes beyond our mortal days.
by Pablo Neruda
If I die, survive me with such pure force
that you waken the furies of the pallid and the cold,
flash your indelible eyes from south to south,
from sun to sun dream through your singing mouth.
I don’t want your laugh or your steps to waver,
I don’t want my legacy of joy to die.
I’m not there, don’t call to my breast in favor,
Live in my absence as in a house.
Absence is a house so vast
that inside you will pass through its walls
and hang pictures on the air
Absence is a house so transparent
that even being dead I will see you there,
and if you suffer, my love, I will die again.
Cien Sonetos de Amor
Si muero sobrevíveme con tanta fuerza pura
que despiertes la furia del pálido y del frío,
de sur a sur levanta tus ojos indelebles,
de sol a sol que suene tu boca de guitarra.
No quiero que vacilen tu risa ni tus pasos,
no quiero que se muera mi herencia de alegría,
no llames a mi pecho, estoy ausente.
Vive en mi ausencia como en una casa.
Es una casa tan grande la ausencia
que pasarás en ella a través de los muros
y colgarás los cuadros en el aire.
Es una casa tan transparente la ausencia
que yo sin vida te veré vivir
y si sufres, mi amor, me moriré otra vez.
nothing false and possible is love (who’s imagined,therefore is limitless) love’s to giving as to keeping’s give; as yes is to if,love is to yes
must’s a schoolroom in the month of may: life’s the deathboard where all now turns when (love’s a universe beyond obey or command,reality or un-)
proudly depths above why’s first because (faith’s last doubt and humbly heights below) kneeling,we-true lovers-pray that us will ourselves continue to outgrow
all whose mosts if you have known and i’ve only we our least begin to guess
Come Back To Me
Christina Rossetti (1830 – 1894)
Come back to me, who wait and watch for you – Or come not yet, for it is over then, And long it is before you come again, So far between my pleasures are and few. While, when you come not, what I do I do Thinking “Now when he comes,” my sweetest when: For one man is my world of all the men This wide world holds; O love, my world is you. Howbeit, to meet you grows almost a pang Because the pang of parting comes so soon; My hope hangs waning, waxing, like a moon Between the heavenly days on which we meet: Ah me, but where are now the songs I sang When life was sweet because you call’d them sweet?
Music of Japan. Parsimoniously from the water clock the drops unfold in lazy honey or ethereal gold that over time reiterates a weave eternal, fragile, enigmatic, bright. I fear that every one will be the last. They are a yesterday come from the past. But from what shrine, from what mountain’s slight garden, what vigils by an unknown sea, and from what modest melancholy, from what lost and rediscovered afternoon do they arrive at their far future: me? Who knows? No matter. When I hear it play I am. I want to be. I bleed away.
Secret Sonnets – An Incredible Poetry Initiative in Miami in 2015
by Lola Ridge (1873-1941)
infesting my half-sleep…
did you enter my wound from another wound
brushing mine in a crowd…
or did I snare you on my sharper edges
as a bird flying through cobwebbed trees at sun-up
Happiness is impossible, and even inconceivable, to a mind without scope and without pause, a mind driven by craving, pleasure, or fear. To be happy, you must be reasonable, or you must be tamed. You must have taken the measure of your powers, tasted the fruits of your passion, and learned your place in the world and what things in it can really serve you. To be happy, you must be wise.
by George Santayana (1863 – 1952)
O dweller in the valley, lift thine eyes To where, above the drift of cloud, the stone Endures in silence, and to God alone Upturns its furrowed visage, and is wise. There yet is being, far from all that dies, And beauty where no mortal maketh moan, Where larger planets swim the liquid zone, And wider spaces stretch to calmer skies. Only a little way above the plain Is snow eternal. Round the mountain’s knees Hovers the fury of the wind and rain. Look up, and teach thy noble heart to cease From endless labour. There is perfect peace Only a little way above thy pain.
We are at day 23 this summer of days over 90 degrees by end of July, which for central Minnesota is trending towards shattering the record for a season. My partner and I have found our new swimming lake and are trying to get a swim in each night as the sun is going down to relax and cool off, before heading back to a farm house without air conditioning. Although we may someday install air conditioning, there is something about the lack of it that brings us both back to our childhoods, where keeping windows closed during the day and opening them at night with a small fan circulating the evenings cool air, that feels energy efficient and familiar at the same time. Yes, there is a bit more sweat on the sheets some nights and a bit of tossing and turning, but as a Minnesotan that also needs to prepare for -10 to -20 F some night this winter, I see it as my bodies need to store some of that latent heat deep in my bones so that I can call upon it when faced with sub zero temperatures.
I don’t know if I can explain the joy of swimming in clean, clear fresh water, its softness, its crystal embrace. There is no other feeling like when you dive head first into clear water in a lake just cold enough to refresh and yet warm enough to be comfortable. Swimming in fresh water is so different than swimming in the ocean. It smells different, tastes different, feels different. Our new favorite swimming lake has a great city park that is not too crowded, and yet part of the fun is there are others there sharing the lake with us. Most nights we get there about 8:00 pm, and there are several groups of families speaking multiple languages, taking their kids down for a dip in the evening before bed. The scene in the evening are toddlers all the way up through teenagers frolicking in the shallows of the sandy beach up to their waist, throwing balls or wrestling, each age group with its own rituals of rough housing and play, while older kids and adults take out paddle boards and kayaks or swim, like we do each night, out into the middle of the lake and back. Our goal is to swim as many nights as possible the next 2 weeks, each night going a little farther and farther out into the lake, until one night we will swim all the way across it. It’s not a small lake and more than once as we return we get comments from fellow beach goers about how far out we swim each night. We swim close to each other, but not on top of each other, keeping an eye out for the other, but letting each take their own pace, letting the silence of the water cleanse our minds and bodies. There is a family of loons, one juvenile and its parents, that are frequent companions on these swims, diving for fish and swimming close enough we can observe their behavior, their calls of joy punctuating the silence now and again, a sound that connects us to past summer’s swims on lakes far more remote than this one that takes us back in time and connects it to the present. If you haven’t swam recently in a clear, cool lake, particularly one with a loon calling as you swim, seek it out, and get out and dive in sometime in August. Find water worthy of protecting the unique experience, find your own swimming perfection.
From the Wave
By Thom Gunn
It mounts at sea, a concave wall Down-ribbed with shine, And pushes forward, building tall Its steep incline.
Then from their hiding rise to sight Black shapes on boards Bearing before the fringe of white It mottles towards.
Their pale feet curl, they poise their weight With a learn’d skill. It is the wave they imitate Keeps them so still.
The marbling bodies have become Half wave, half men, Grafted it seems by feet of foam Some seconds, then,
Late as they can, they slice the face In timed procession: Balance is triumph in this place, Triumph possession.
The mindless heave of which they rode A fluid shelf Breaks as they leave it, falls and, slowed, Loses itself.
Clear, the sheathed bodies slick as seals Loosen and tingle; And by the board the bare foot feels The suck of shingle.
They paddle in the shallows still; Two splash each other; Then all swim out to wait until The right waves gather.
A power of Butterfly must be – The Aptitude to fly Meadows of Majesty concedes And easy Sweeps of Sky –
A Bird Came Down The Walk
by Emily Dickinson
A Bird came down the Walk— He did not know I saw— He bit an angle-worm in halves And ate the fellow, raw,
And then he drank a Dew From a convenient Grass, And then hopped sidewise to the Wall To let a Beetle pass—
He glanced with rapid eyes That hurried all abroad— They looked like frightened Beads, I thought— He stirred his velvet head
Like one in danger, Cautious, I offered him a Crumb, And he unrolled his feathers And rowed him softer home—
Than Oars divide the Ocean, Too silver for a seam— Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon, Leap, plashless as they swim
I have struggled lately to listen to the news on NPR (National Public Radio) on my daily commute. It feels like a drum beat of negativity on COVID, environmental degradation, global warming, growing political ineffectiveness. I find myself disconnecting from the chaos of the outside world and drawing back inwards and outwards towards nature. It makes me appreciate the pheasant feather I found in the driveway, the butterflies resting in the sun along our sidewalk, the red deer standing in the hay field, the sand hill crane calling from the wet land, the lilies blooming in the garden, the little birds flitting about in the garden. The crazier the world becomes the more solace I find in the tiny slice of nature I am able to experience on a daily basis. The problem with science and technology is the endless improvement in efficiency of natural resource extraction. We are becoming so highly specialized in every field of mining and drilling we are getting too good at draining the natural world of its resources.
I spent last Saturday with my father and we visited the house and town he grew up in from age 3 to 5th grade. The house is still there, as are most of his neighbor’s homes from that period, but the connection to the simplicity of his life that prepared him for the modern world is gone. He described his childhood as idyllic, a small town in Iowa in the 1930’s, surrounded by farms, forests and meadows. He described learning to swim in the nearby creeks in the summer and sledding on the local hills on home made sleds made from crate lumber from the town’s feed mill. He grew up in the depression, when everyone was on a level playing field economically, trying to scrape by with big gardens, chickens, and resourcefulness to make your own things and make your own fun. I took a picture of him out front of the house on Saturday in what was then Ontario, Iowa, now lost inside the city limits of Ames. We later that day were given a picture of him around 4th grade outside the same house, in a hand me down overcoat, far too big for him that he had yet to grow into, but had fond memories of being worn by all the boys in his family that had preceded him. Maybe its inevitable that modernity slowly devours the past. But I am grateful the one room school house my father attended from Kindergarten through 5th grade still stands, even if it has been re-purposed as a single family home.
The inventiveness of Dickinson’s poetry continues to surprise and delight me as I become more familiar with her work. Her ability to invent language is remarkable. I had to look up several versions of the poem above to confirm that plashless was indeed accurate in its spelling of what she intended. Splashing is something different than plashing and the absence of plash with a butterfly on a pool of water is the kind of unique observation of the natural world that makes the poem live in imagery far beyond the words. As I mentioned early in the month, Frost seems to be on my mind right now in ways I can’t explain. I find his poem below remarkable in its ability to convey an aroma that only a person with an apple tree in their yard or farm can understand. The smell of slightly fermenting rotting apples upon the ground that bequeath one final act of benevolence in their gift as an apple, an aroma of the potential that was once their bounty.
by Robert Frost
A scent of ripeness from over a wall. And come to leave the routine road And look for what had made me stall, There sure enough was an apple tree That had eased itself of its summer load, And of all but its trivial foliage free, Now breathed as light as a lady’s fan. For there had been an apple fall As complete as the apple had given man. The ground was one circle of solid red.
May something go always unharvested! May much stay out of our stated plan, Apples or something forgotten and left, So smelling their sweetness would be no theft.
The crystal stream wherein my love did swim, Melted in tears as partners of my woe; Her shine was such as did the fountain dim, The pearl-like fountain whiter than the snow; Then like perfume, resolvéd with a heat, The fountain smoked, as if it thought to burn; A wonder strange to see the cold so great, And yet the fountain into smoke to turn. I searched the cause, and found it to be this: She touched the water, and it burned with love. Now by her means it purebased hath that bliss, Which all diseases quickly can remove. Then if by you these streams thus blesse’d be, Sweet, grant me love, and be not worse to me.
by Giles Fletcher Jr.
LOVE is the blossom where there blows Every thing that lives or grows: Love doth make the Heav’ns to move, And the Sun doth burn in love: Love the strong and weak doth yoke, And makes the ivy climb the oak, Under whose shadows lions wild, Soften’d by love, grow tame and mild: Love no med’cine can appease, He burns the fishes in the seas: Not all the skill his wounds can stench, Not all the sea his fire can quench. Love did make the bloody spear Once a leavy coat to wear, While in his leaves there shrouded lay Sweet birds, for love that sing and play And of all love’s joyful flame I the bud and blossom am. . Only bend thy knee to me, . Thy wooing shall thy winning be!
There is a bit of insanity in dancing that does everybody a great deal of good.
by Edwin Denby (1903 – 1983)
A governing and rouged nun, she lifts the cubed Jewels, garlanded heavy on hair, shoulders Breasts, on hands and feet, the drak-blue the cell-roomed Splendor’s fountain lifts sunken to Him Who holds her; But the emperor is running to his pet hens Cackling like a hermit, and his foolish smile Alone on the vacancy of noon-glazed fens Haunts a blossoming water-capital’s guile; Holy placidity of lilylike throats Ravenna of fleets, silent above the cows A turnip plain and stagnant houses floats Exultance of sailor hymns, virginal vows; In a church’s tiered and April-green alcoves Joy rises laughing at ease to love God’s loves
Edwin Denby was born in Tientsin, China in 1903. He spent his childhood first in Shanghai, then in Vienna, where his father served as consul general from 1909-1915, before coming to the United States in 1916. He attended Harvard and University of Vienna without completing a degree. He found his life long partner Rudy Burckhardt in Switerland in 1934 while looking for someone to take his passport photo.
Denby is an artist’s artist. He is one of those names whom you have never heard of but seemed to rub shoulders with the artistic elite in New York and Europe. Long time friends with Willem de Kooning, Orson Welles, John Houseman, Paul Bowles, Eugene Labiche and Aaron Copland just to name a few. He is best remembered as a ballet critic in New York and Europe and for adapting several scripts for theater and movies.
As a fellow lover of ballet, I had come across his name in his main area of work back as a writer about ballet in the 1980’s when I had season tickets to Northrop Ballet Series and the best in the ballet world would come to town including Baryshnikov with American Ballet Theater more than once. So, I was pleasantly surprised to discover he wrote poetry and excellent poetry at that as well. Denby published multiple books of poetry over a 25 year period.
I am particularly taken with Song. It is obviously inspired by his experience with his partner Burkhardt. It is a simple poem, but expresses the gift of true love as good as any. Its rhyme makes the serious a little less serious, the playfulness of love, more playful, the force of love, more forceful. Its meter sneaks up on you and is more sophisticated in its construction than on first glance when read the second time through. It is the kind of poem if it was written for you it might be better than a wedding ring. It is the kind of poem that everyone should write for their true love. And, if you aren’t up to that task, read them this one over breakfast tomorrow and clink your coffee cups in honor of Rudy and Edwin.
by Edwin Denby
I don’t know any more what it used to be Before I saw you at table sitting across from me All I can remember is I saw you look at me And I couldn’t breathe and I hurt so bad I couldn’t see.
I couldn’t see but just your looking eyes And my ears was buzzing with a thumping noise And I was scared the way everything went rushing around Like I was all alone, like I was going to drown.
There wasn’t nothing left except the light of your face, There might have been no people, there might have been no place, Like as if a dream were to be stronger than thought And could walk into the sun and be stronger than aught.
Then someone says something and then you spoke And I couldn’t hardly answer up, but it sounded like a croak So I just sat still and nobody knew That since that happened all of everything is you.
“It’s all right if you grow your wings on the way down.”
by Tomas Transtromer Translated by Robert Bly
After a black day, I play Haydn, and feel a little warmth in my hands.
The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall. The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.
The sound says that freedom exists and someone pays no tax to Caesar.
I shove my hands in my haydnpockets and act like a man who is calm about it all.
I raise my haydnflag. The signal is: “We do not surrender. But want peace.”
Anlatamiyorum (I Can’t Explain)
by Orhan Veli Kanik
If I cried, could you hear My voice in my poems, Could you touch my tears With your hands? Before I fell prey to this grief, I never knew songs were so enchanting And words so mild. I know there’s a place Where you can talk about everything; I feel I’m close to that place, Yet I can’t explain.
This is the slyness of art: If you tell enough lies, you’re bound to say something true.
by William Meredith
Touching your goodness, I am like a man Who turns a letter over in his hand And you might think this was because the hand Was unfamiliar but, truth is, the man Has never had a letter from anyone; And now he is both afraid of what it means And ashamed because he has no other means To find out what it says than to ask someone.
His uncle could have left the farm to him, Or his parents died before he sent them word, Or the dark girl changed and want him for beloved. Afraid and letter-proud, he keeps it with him. What would you call his feeling for the words That keep him rich and orphaned and beloved
William Meredith, poet, academic, translator, editor and one toughbird, wrote formal poetry at a time when formal poetry was revered. His talent was recognized young by Archibald MacLeish following his service in World War II. His writing received many awards including the Pulitzer Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the National Book Award and the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, the International Vaptsarov Prize, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship in Poetry, two Rockefeller Foundation grants just to name a few. Meredith’s remarkable success for an extended period of time feels a bit foreign now given how out of fashion his writing is today. It shows how challenging it is to remain relevant in poetry and how fast reader’s tastes and times change.
In 1983, Meredith had a stroke and began experiencing aphasia, limiting his speech, forcing retirement from teaching. Meredith recovered some speech after years of rehab but it forever altered his experience of communication. In part because of it, Meredith received the National Book Award for Poetry for Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems (1997). Meredith died in 2007 at the age of 88, having been lovingly nursed through his long illness by his partner, the poet and fiction writer Richard Harteis. Harties, himself a talented poet and author, is still alive and published a recent book of poetry; Plague Poems: 2020 Vision. Here’s a Youtube video of Harteis reading poetry this past New Year’s Eve. Meredith is quoted as saying; “Life is some kind of loathsome hag who is forever threatening to turn beautiful.” It feels to me that Meredith experienced ultimate beauty; love.
Words After Midnight, Forbidding Remorse
by William Meredith
Do not say to the gay game nay now lover Under cover of love enough; does puritan twinge Predict, against respite from passion, real change? No, we shall want again later and greatly all over. If the angular sky was not fashioned to conform To these warm doings, then the stars there err, For this our way always; therefore have care That no third sleeper come to our bed bringing harm: Forbid Fear, whether his face be righteous as this is And his talk scriptual of ultimate places, Or whether he wear rather War’s unfeatured face Who sleeps out nightly now and seduces Many men and innocent women in their beds; Say always to strangers that I am all your needs.