Why do we attempt a beard?

Derek Walcott’s “Crusoe’s Journal,” published in The Gulf (1970), asks how prose style and poetic sound are hewn from the same materials as everything else the intellect approaches. When we first hear the sonorous rhythms and cadences of biblical language or the professional authority of bureaucratic prose, how is it that we regard this as a language “without metaphors” (Collected Poems, 93)?  When we experience voice and voicing for the first time, does it matter what the ideological concatenations are inside that sound?  Surely, whatever our parents say and we parrot carries a certain tense and tension, strains of privilege or poverty in its sound.

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Why do we attempt a beard?

Lemons and Empire

Gabriel_von_Max_Äffchen_mit_Zitrone

Gabriel von Max, “Saure Erfahrung”

My neighbor gave my wife a bucket of lemons yesterday, and I’m discovering how to make limoncello today.  Apparently, before their circuitous path to the New World and their introduction to Europeans, lemon trees were first cultivated in South Asia, somewhere in the vicinity of Assam.

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Lemons and Empire

“Watteauer and Watteauer”

Watteau,
Detail from Watteau, “The Feasts of Venice” (c. 1717)

In a letter to Cissie Sinclair written in 1937, Beckett wonders if he is avoiding going to see Jack Yeats on his Thursday “at-home” evenings because of the growing significance of Yeats’s work for his thinking about images.  At least, that is one of the implications of the way Beckett talks about Yeats.

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“Watteauer and Watteauer”

nobody loves moralists

Sea Island Hotel (c 1930)
Sea Island Hotel (c 1930)

Episode

Zbigniew Herbert

We walk by the sea-shore
holding firmly in our hands
the two ends of an antique dialogue
—do you love me?
—I love you

with furrowed eyebrows
I summarize all wisdom
of the two testaments
astrologers prophets
philosophers of the gardens
and cloistered philosophers

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nobody loves moralists

denying dunedin

Maurice Utrillo, “Rue du Mont Cenis” (1910)

In 1966 a forty-year-old James K. Baxter returned to the University of Otago, having that year published one of his most successful collections, Pig Island Letters.  Yet the memories and landscapes surrounding his adolescence are not revisited with the same elaborate abstractions that characterized his early verse.  In “Travelling to Dunedin,” Baxter begins to use the unrhymed couplets that will become the dominant medium of his late work.

We ride south on a Wednesday

Into the clearer weather, 

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denying dunedin

“on mirror mirrored”

Norah McGuinness, “First Snow” (1949)

In On the Boiler (1939), W.B. Yeats’s Swiftian impersonation of a “mad ship’s carpenter” in Sligo who used to stand on a boiler to denounce his neighbors, the poet (or the collapsing mind of the speaker) rails against the degeneration of European culture.  The customs and ceremonies of old Europe–including, but not restricted to, the smashed Big House culture in Ireland that Yeats had relied on for so many years–were being degraded by commercial production and fetishized by fascism.  But for Yeats there was no going back, or rather, there was only going back.   The mechanization of art was itself an irreversible return to the originating moment of the Western form of life.  “There are moments when I am certain,” Yeats wrote

that arts must once again accept those Greek proportions which carry into plastic art the Pythagorean numbers, those faces which are divine because all there is empty and measured.  

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“on mirror mirrored”

“of employing my thoughts”

The unemployed in Ford Madox Brown’s “Work” (1865)

‘Enterprise and effort,’ he would say to us (on his back), ‘are delightful to me.  I believe I am truly cosmopolitan.  I have the deepest sympathy with them.  I lie in a shady place like this, and think of adventurous spirits going to the North Pole, or penetrating to the heart of the Torrid Zone, with admiration.  Mercenary creatures ask, “What is the use of a man’s going to the North Pole!  What good does it do?”  I can’t say; but, for anything I can say, he may go for the purpose–though he don’t know it–of employing my thoughts as I lie here. 

Take an extreme case.  Take the case of the Slaves on American plantations.  I dare say they are worked hard, I dare say they don’t altogether like it, I dare say theirs is an unpleasant experience on the whole; but they people the landscape for me, they give it a poetry for me, and perhaps that is one of the pleasanter objects of their existence.  I am very sensible of it, if it be, and I shouldn’t wonder if it were!’ (Dickens’ Skimpole, quoted in Watts, Voices, 20).

“of employing my thoughts”