Graham Greene never loitered, intentionally or otherwise. The writer who emerges from Richard Greene’s (no relation) new biography let wanderlust transform him into a polymath, comfortable with writing screenplays and film reviews, amiably distant from his children while committed to a Catholicism he on occasion interrogated. Crisply written if often miserly about analysis, The Unquiet Englishman works best as a travelogue: other cultures interested Greene, and the interactions didn’t result in slobbering encomia to empire.
As spare and precise about the symbolism of geography as James Wright, Jane Kenyon died of cancer too soon, leaving a handful of collections of her verse. Continue reading
A colleague and lover of Ezra Pound before realizing her bisexuality, Hilda Doolittle (known as H.D.) emerged from his shadow shortly after her death. Continue reading
Long in the shadow of her brother Dante Gabriel, Christina Rossetti wrote acerbic verse hidden in the brambles of nursery rhymes. She seemed, to quote Keats, half in love with easeful death; immortality didn’t interest her so much as the consequences of desire. No ascetic, she knew more about temptation than she lead on. I have memories of classroom snickers in grad school when our professor read “Goblin Market” aloud as if it were an experiment in camp, which, sure I suppose it can be.
“No, Thank You, John” doesn’t get anthologized much, but it should give readers an idea of how her poetry found strength in renunciation without getting high-minded about it.
I never said I loved you, John:
Why will you tease me, day by day,
And wax a weariness to think upon
With always “do” and “pray”?
You know I never loved you, John;
No fault of mine made me your toast:
Why will you haunt me with a face as wan
As shows an hour-old ghost?
I dare say Meg or Moll would take
Pity upon you, if you’d ask:
And pray don’t remain single for my sake
Who can’t perform that task.
I have no heart?—Perhaps I have not;
But then you’re mad to take offence
That I don’t give you what I have not got:
Use your common sense.
Let bygones be bygones:
Don’t call me false, who owed not to be true:
I’d rather answer “No” to fifty Johns
Than answer “Yes” to you.
Let’s mar our pleasant days no more,
Song-birds of passage, days of youth:
Catch at to-day, forget the days before:
I’ll wink at your untruth.
Let us strike hands as hearty friends;
No more, no less: and friendship’s good:
Only don’t keep in view ulterior ends,
And points not understood
In open treaty. Rise above
Quibbles and shuffling off and on:
Here’s friendship for you if you like; but love,—
No, thank you, John.
Often formatted sideways like an ancient Greek shape poem, “Easter Wings” memorializes the sacrifice of Christ without getting flossy about it. In the twentieth century Frank O’Hara, May Swenson, and James Merrill tried shape poems. The lightness of Herbert’s touch makes his attempts unique. Note how the structure mirrors the speaker’s description of a descent into an internal Gethsemane, contracting syllables until the recovery.
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Oh let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did beginne:
And still with sicknesses and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Let me combine
And feel this day thy victorie:
For, if I imp my wing on thine
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
Once, this was a day of dedication. First the ritual, then the silence. The Catholic Church specialized in filling our imaginative and sacral crannies with noise: hymns, communal prayer, homilies, the clacking of plastic rosary beads. Good Friday service ends with the priest stripping the altar of its cloths: a symbol of Christ’s humiliation on the cross. No Mass until Easter Sunday. Continue reading
Not as recognized as obvious hams like Keats and Shelley, John Clare was the charmer among the English Romantics, the sharpest observer of nature and second to Byron as the dirtiest minded. I discovered him last month after reading Tom Paulinn’s lovely meditation in his collection Minotaur (1992). The approachability of Clare’s verse — the lack of density — does not mitigate the concentration he trains on badgers, woodchucks, and, alas, his own disturbed self. Suffering from what we might call depression now, Clare was in and out of asylums; in 1841 he walked out of High Beech and didn’t stop until he got home four days later. His wife couldn’t deal with it: she sent him back, where he died a few months later.
This month’s poem, “I Am,” is affirmative and clear-eyed.
I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.
Specializing in mordant takes on sexual politics, Erin Belieu is funnier than the competition. She attracted my attention last month after Dan Chiasson reviewed her latest collection for The New Yorker. “In Ecstasy” relies on the reader’s awareness of Bernini’s famous Baroque sculpture in which Teresa of Avila experiences a spiritual rapture akin to a rape or getting stuck with arrows.
No need to be coy—
you know what
And so did Bernini,
when he found Teresa
in the full-throttle of
her divine vision,
caught her at it,
carving this surrender
so fluidly you expect
for her tang to swell up, ripe
as seafoam, from the gulf
of her flushed and falling
figure. Perhaps this is how
God comes to us,
or should come to us, all:
the bluntly and
beautifully corporeal at
prayers in the Sunday
school of pleasure. Why
shouldn’t He come to us
as He did to Teresa? A saint
on her back—
a girl tearing open
the gift He gave her?
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?
The sacral attributes of incense mattered less than the aphrodisiacal. Friday afternoons in high school through junior year I reserved for the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, a brief service in which the unleavened flat toasty bread known to Catholics as a Communion wafer is the subject of prayers and veneration. Clothed in a red chasuble, the priest places the Blessed Sacrament in the transparent center of the monstrance, itself positioned on the altar facing the celebrants. My task as sacristan was to light the coals on which the priest would sprinkle the incense. Mom knew the days of the week by how I smelled: I returned to the house those afternoons stinking like a burning Christmas tree.
Convinced I could will myself to believe by steeping myself in ritual, I realized much later that this is precisely what distinguishes the Church from other Christian sects. To believe and to observe the sacraments amount to the same thing. If a Catholic is overcome by awe, credit the sheer weight of tradition and the enthusiasm with which its servants teach a tradition they are only too pleased to embody. My holy orders were to serve literature, a duty which, like the addled and dying servant in Gustave Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” who confuses her dead parrot with the coming of the Holy Spirit, I had confused with the worship of the Divine.
So moved was I at twelve by a children’s Bible account of the Taking of Enoch, read while waiting for a haircut, that I vowed to be taken too. The terse rhythms of the King James version were more chilling: Enoch “walked with God: and he was no more; for God took him.” My parents, decent if inconsistent Catholics, didn’t hide their confusion but okayed my going to Mass. A lot. To be taken meant I had to do the work. Later I became aware of the sexual undertones of the King James translation; the passivity of worship links Christianity and Islam, the latter meaning, of course, submission to Allah. For the moment, though, I understood this much: Catholicism required me as an object. The sensations produced by responding to the children’s Bible, flinching from the watery grainy texture of the ashes rubbed on my forehead, and the inhaling of incense a year later functioned as synesthetic pleasures. Whether the Church had this in mind I don’t know, and from my experience with priests their sensitivity towards the numinous dissipates when the robes are off and they’re stuck in US-1 traffic. The ritual gave me pleasure; my pleasure may have pleased God; and finding the profane in the sacred may have exceeded the fondest hopes of the St. Brendan’s clergy.
Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still.
By eleventh grade I had abruptly and to the distress of our chaplain rather rudely renounced my Catholicism, never to return. Before the pandemic family functions brought me to churches a couple times a year, and I’d read the psalms and excerpts from the Old Testament and the Gospels in the seasonal missalette, still hypnotized by the rhythm of the sentences, their ability to form a union of parrot and spirit — the “function” of literature insofar as it needs one. The words survive the soundest blows. More than a decade after my Ash Wednesday epiphany, the body of St. Brendan’s pastor was found dead in a Bahamas hotel room months after two former altar boys accused him of sexual abuse.
Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.
A Black lesbian poet who made no secret of her political activities, Audre Lorde held no attraction for Harold Bloom, I can safely write; and it’s true that some of her verse consisted of sloganeering. But she also wrote a few things I treasure, none more so than “A Litany for Survival,” whose relevance no one will doubt upon finishing the first stanza.
For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours;
For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.
And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.
Myth and memory intermingle in Jay Wright’s poetry, some of the densest of the last half century. I don’t see him cited much as an influence; I came across him in the Best American Poetry series. Below is “The Cradle Logic of Autumn.”
En mi país el Otoño nace de una flor seca,
de algunos pajaros; . . .
o del vaho penetrante de ciertos rios de la llanura.
—Molinari, “Oda a una larga tristeza”
Each instant comes with a price, the blue-edged bill
on the draft of a bird almost incarnadine,
the shanked ochre of an inn that sits as still
as the beavertail cactus it guards (the fine
rose of that flower gone as bronze as sand),
the river’s chalky white insistence as it
moves past the gray afternoon toward sunset.
Autumn feels the chill of a late summer lit
only by goldenrod and a misplaced strand
of blackberries; deplores all such sleight of hand;
turns sullen, selfish, envious, full of regret.
Someone more adept would mute its voice. The spill
of its truncated experience would shine
less bravely and, out of the dust and dunghill
of this existence (call it hope, in decline),
as here the blue light of autumn falls, command
what is left of exhilaration and fit
this season’s unfolding to the alphabet
of turn and counterturn, all that implicit
arc of a heart searching for a place to stand.
Yet even that diminished voice can withstand
the currying of its spirit. Here lies—not yet.
If, and only if, the leafless rose he sees,
or thinks he sees, flowered a moment ago,
this endangered heart flows with the river that flees
the plain, and listens with eye raised to the slow
revelation of cloud, hoping to approve
himself, or to admonish the rose for slight
transgressions of the past, this the ecstatic
ethos, a logic that seems set to reprove
his facility with unsettling delight.
Autumn might be only desire, a Twelfth Night
gone awry, a gift almost too emphatic.
Logic in a faithful light somehow appeases
the rose, and stirs the hummingbird’s vibrato.
By moving, I can stand where the light eases
me into the river’s feathered arms, and, so,
with the heat of my devotion, again prove
devotion, if not this moment, pure, finite.
Autumn cradles me with idiomatic
certainty, leaves me nothing to disapprove.
I now acknowledge this red moon, to requite
the heart alone given power to recite
its faith, what a cradled life finds emblematic.
A poet who found her fame late in life, Kay Ryan has specialized in a particular kind of poem whose circumlocutions don’t prevent the poems from landing on gnomic truths; she’s a wryer A.R. Ammons. Belos is “Surfaces,” on which I wish we spent more time than on purported depths.
their own purposes,
strive to remain
constant (all lives
want that). There is
a skin, not just on
peaches but on oceans
(note the telltale
slough of foam on beaches).
Sometimes it’s loose,
as in the case
of cats: you feel how a
second life slides
under it. Sometimes it
fits. Take glass.
Sometimes it outlasts
its underside. Take reefs.
The private lives of surfaces
are innocent, not devious.
Take the one-dimensional
belief of enamel in itself,
the furious autonomy
of luster (crush a pearl—
it’s powder), the whole
of how we’re each surrounded
and what it doesn’t teach.