the trickeries of need

Not having much luck with reading lately. First Louise Gluck’s The First Four Books of Poems was a bit of a slog to get through, especially at the beginning. It got easier by the time we got to Descending Figure and The Triumph Of Achilles, but still felt very much like an intellectual exercise, a rather chilly stroll through a formal garden decorated with bits of white statue (although, yes, there were some warmer, brighter spots).

Then I started The Complete Works of Anne Sexton, and that of course was all wraught and nervy and brilliantly on the edge of cliffs and desperation all the time, and I got Sylvia Plath acid reflux, really I did, and just couldn’t get more than halfway through To Bedlam and Part Way Back, never mind all the other collections in there. Maybe another time.

I also tried The Tree by Colin Tudge, which bills itself as “A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter.’ The preface was the best part of it:

Many a redwood still standing tall in California was ancient by the time Columbus first made Europe aware that the Americas existed. Yet the redwoods are striplings compared to some of California’s pines, which germinated at about the time that human beings invented writing and so are as old as all of written history. These trees out on their parched hills were already impressively old when Moses led the Istraelites out of Egypt, or indeed when Abraham was born.


[Trees] do not have brains. But they are sentient in their way; they gauge what’s going on as much as they need to , and they conduct their affairs as adroitly as any military strategist.

Tudge clearly loves his subject, but just couldn’t keep it from getting all scientific and referencey in the end.

Which is what I should use it for, I suppose.

When I write the series of tree poems I’ve been thinking about forever.


I wanted to share Louise Gluck’s poem of this title, but couldn’t find it anywhere on-line to link to.

Although it’s good, it’s not so good that I’m going to use up five minutes of my life typing it out in this blog post.

Whose loss is that, I’m wondering?

dead Brits – Byron

last of the Big Six, is getting short shrift, I’m afraid. I’ve maundered on about Cain before, but I can’t, just can’t, make myself even begin to read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and/or Don Juan.  I mean, hooray for She Walks in Beauty and So We’ll Go No More A-Roving, but at the moment my brain just scrunches up and starts going mwah-mwah-mwah-mwah when it sees this kind of thing:

Oh, thou! in Hellas deem’d of heavenly birth,
Muse! form’d or fabled at the minstrel’s will!
Since shamed full oft by later lyres on earth,
Mine dares not call thee from thy sacred hill:
Yet there I’ve wander’d by thy vaunted rill;
Yes! sigh’d o’er Delphi’s long deserted shrine,
Where, save that feeble fountain, all is still;
Nor mote my shell awake the weary Nine
To grace so plain a tale — this lowly lay of mine.

I may have overdone the Romantic thing just a tad…..

And not getting on with Byron is stopping me from getting on with the next thing.

So: very sorry George Gordon Byron, later Noel, 6th Baron Byron FRS (12 January 1787– 19 April 1824)!

Catch you later.  Maybe.

What I want to focus on now, I think, are Dead Americans (or actually, anyone who doesn’t say O thou all the time and go on and on about Helen and Troy and Delphi and the topless towers of Ilium, yes ok that was Marlowe but you get my point).

Moving right along here!

dead Brits – Shelley

I definitely struck out here. The Shelley drawer in my head until now has contained a jumble of skylarks, west wind, Defence of Poetry & Ozymandias. I have tried to tidy it up and have dutifully read up on his life and times and — even more dutifully — read, read about, and listened to the Skylark and West Wind odes, plus Hymn to Intellectual Beauty and a huge piece of the (long, long — why is everything he wrote so long?!) Masque of Anarchy. No use — I just don’t have a Shelley lobe in my brain (plus he makes me think of Fotherington-Thomas).

A Defence of Poetry ends with his poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Maybe at bottom my Shelley brain-block is philosophical.

I do have an Ozymandias lobe in my brain, though, like most people, and these are two Shelley moon notes that do actually quite rock, especially the second one (listed as a ‘fragment’):

       To the Moon

       Art thou pale for weariness
       Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
       Wandering companionless
       Among the stars that have a different birth, –
       And ever changing, like a joyless eye
       That finds no object worth its constancy?

and this:

        And like a dying lady, lean and pale,
        Who totters forth, wrapp’d in a gauzy veil,
        Out of her chamber, led by the insane
        And feeble wanderings of her fading brain,
        The moon arose up in the murky East,
        A white and shapeless mass–

(Not sure he meant this one to be funny, though.)

four poets

Reading four things in snatches tonight and last night:

Dark Under Kiganda Stars by Lilah Hegnauer
Book of My Nights by Li Young Lee
Collected Poems, Jane Kenyon
Paradise Lost, John Milton

Have not read much of either Lee or Kenyon before – just the odd piece here and there. But I liked what I read, which is why I went to the trouble of ordering whole collections.

I think I’m having a bad night because the Li Young Lee is not striking me well at all – feeling him thin and trying too hard and soooo abstract. In an airy Rilke-esque, Khalil Gibran-esque here is great wisdom sort of way that makes my head hurt. Lots of talk of night and dark and thirst and home and love and truth and almost no pictures. Jane Kenyon is solider, much more texture and more to actually grasp, clever and craftsmanlike, whimsical. But not exciting. The one that unsettles and puts me on edge in a good way is the Lilah Hegnauer, whom I’d never heard of. A young Catholic volunteer from Minnesota teaching school in rural Uganda writes poems about her experience – trying to walk in her students’ shoes; puzzling over social practices she cannot accept; caring about and feeling what is joyful and difficult for them. Milton is cool as ever, at least some of the time, and he’s playing an anchoring North Star sort of role between the other three. (I’m not reading Paradise Lost all over again, by the way – the horror! I hear you say  – I just got my own copy in the mail so am going through it and scribbling on all the best bits while I still remember where they are. I’m still totally a Lucifer fan.)


Trying out metrical reading on A Sound Blog. The stuff I find I really want to read is not BV at all (yay for anapests and Annabel Lee and The Destruction of Sennacherib!) so here’s a compromise — Marvell (in IT, thanks, Harry), because Marvell is mostly fun (he’s the one with the lady raving over entrails in a cave. With horrid care, no less.)

I’m mulling over a passage in heroic couplets (thanks, Harry) – from Pope’s Essay on Criticism – that I may record and put up later. Or not.  

I have to say that some of that old BV stuff (Milton, Keats, Shelley, anyone?) is seriously unenthralling. At the moment.


Lorsque, par un décret des puissances suprêmes,
Le Poète apparaît en ce monde ennuyé,
Sa mère épouvantée et pleine de blasphèmes
Crispe ses poings vers Dieu, qui la prend en pitié:

— «Ah! que n’ai-je mis bas tout un noeud de vipères,
Plutôt que de nourrir cette dérision!
Maudite soit la nuit aux plaisirs éphémères
Où mon ventre a conçu mon expiation!

etc etc. This stuff barely works in the original, and has pretty much no chance in translation (scroll down at link).  

I suppose back in the day being a poet was a trade, a profession, a thing one was. Now it’s just a fold in one’s life, a crease, a thing that the important people in one’s life cannot fathom and have zero interest in. A sixth finger kind of thing.

a book trail

I have Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God to hand. It’s been on my shelf for a few years now. What I want to write about is not it, particularly, but I’ll do that quickly and move on.

Much interesting about Rilke’s attitude to God at this period. In paraphrase: – You are not where or what I have thought you to be. I create you. You need me as much as I need you. And oh, what will you do when I am gone? You are my heir, my protégé.

He writes, and this strikes one as  signature:

I feel it now: there’s power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world.

I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All becoming has needed me.
my looking ripens things
and they come toward me, to meet and be met.

Who knows what would have happened if I had read this at the right time? Which would have been, would it not, the time I bought it. But I almost never (that bad fairy at my christening) buy a book and read it. The burst of light and eagerness in which I buy, and that in which I read, always seem far removed from each in other in color, in quality, in intensity. With my books I have to squint hard – very hard, sometimes – to remember that first light, how first acquisition felt. So, puzzling over the presence of Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God in my bookcase, I have thought a bit, squinted a bit, and reconstructed the book trail, the thought/feel trail, that led me to it. As follows:

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden.

Story of a high-powered female executive in the very early 20th century who throws it all in to join a Benedictine monastery, she becomes a Benedictine nun. This is where I first focused on the beauty of the Divine Office, in concept and execution, and on the Liturgy of the Hours, the eight of them: -Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline.

Then China Court also by Rumer Godden.

A story about a story about a story of a strained, impoverished country house and a fabulously valuable Book of Hours.

Then (or before, or during?) – the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, that of a sudden sprang out of worn mumbo-jumbo meaningless back-groundness into clean bristling gleaming language. Suddenly, just like that.

Followed by The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark.

About many things, including and especially that language. The steadying, rallying bone-clean language of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

And so to Rilke.

But, once again, the light in which I bought is not the light in which I read. I read it as rather thin,  now, and disappointing. Its appeal very intellectual. One is constantly presented with broad literal (if that is not a contradiction in terms) abstractions –  love, blindness, peace, wretchedness, loneliness, silence. As a reader you are asked to do a great deal of filling-in (fill in lonely, loving, wretched sensation here), but not in a bracing challenging way, just in wearying  draining way, at the end of the day.

Much spiritual shorthand, requiring the sort of brainwork that would be (one can easily tell) easier and more joyful and much more resonant were one in the proper spiritual place.

Which one isn’t at the moment, but, oh well.

Update: Thinking about it and realizing that St. John of the Cross and On A Dark Night should be in there too, somewhere. George Herbert and Henry Vaughan too, probably, if one were going to be properly accurate. I haven’t ever tried to map a book trail before. Better luck next time.

Are you a mom or a fresh pancake?

If you weren’t a mom, you’d be a fresh pancake.

So my six-year-old son informs me this evening. The same one who sings: A+A=B! and D+M=4! The same one who has memorized my cell phone number and calls me at work to tell me his name is Alan. (Which it isn’t. Even remotely.)

I think he’s channeling Plath. I think she snuck growling into the house through the attic (or through Ariel, which is as good as any attic) and slunk invisibly down the loft ladder and possessed him while I was cooking.