Friday, September 9, 2016

Sunday, August 28, 2016

from rilke's french (a spring poem in summer)



Melody of the sap
rising in the instruments
that all these trees are ---
accompany the singing
of our too-brief voices.

Abundant nature,
we are able to follow
the intricate figures
of your long ecstasy
for but a few measures.

When we fall silent
others will carry on the song.
But how, for the moment,
can I proffer my vast
complementary heart?


Everything readies and rises
toward manifest joy;
the earth and all the rest
unleashes its charms.

We will be well placed
to see all, to hear all;
we will even have to shield ourselves
and sometimes beg, Enough!

More so if we were inside it!
But our excellent seats
are a bit too removed
from the thrilling play.


The rise of sap in the capillaries
suddenly shows old men
the stiffened year hard to climb
and prepares departure in them.

The body, threatened by the power
of brute nature that doesn't know
the arteries where she still beats
withstand poorly an importunate order,

refuses the too brusque adventure;
but as it braces, distrustful,
to get by in its fashion, it makes
this game easy for the harsh earth.


It is the sap that kills
the old and those who hesitate
when this unheard-of air
suddenly floats in the streets.

Those who lack the force
to feel out wings for themselves,
are invited to the divorce
that mixes them with earth.

It is sweetness that pierces
with its exquisite point,
and a caress knocks flat
any who still resist.


How would sweetness matter,
if it were not capable,
though tender, ineffable,
of provoking our terror?

It so far surpasses
all other violence,
there is no defense
against its advances.


The murderess death, in winter,
comes in to sit by the hearth,
seeking sister and father,
and tunes her fiddle to their breath.

But when earth's pulse beats
under spring's first spade,
death roams the streets
and hails the strollers with a nod.


They took Eve
from Adam's side,
but when her life ends,
where will she go to die?

Will Adam be her grave?
Must she, when she wearies,
pry herself an entrance
between his long-healed ribs?

--R.M. Rilke
(my translation)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

thinking of winter

To Wish Not to Move

Mid-winter is no time, unhousing him.
Is it despair he wants in February,
a distance from the floral throb he dreads?
The freezing lake where water at the edge
of ice is colder, more improverished,
than ice. These raw, uneasy clouds, iron-gray,
spit-pale, pearlescent half-shine of burn scars
in the ache of heatless sun that penetrates.
Wind drags a thinning scrim of last night's snow
across the months-old, still unbroken crust,
a sustained sibilance that sharpens or slurs
as the wind rises or slacks, and is meaningless,
not even the terse, shrieked consonants of gulls
to liven it with their bright, famished cruelty.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

chicory begins to fade

The Fifty-Second Summer

The mail is junk, as expected,
and I walk back to the house alone.
Blue chicory begins to fade
at the edge of the road, under dust.
A starved cornfield flows in the wind
like the sound of water, gathering
to rush from a dark sky,
but this sky is faded as the chicory.
In sun the heat is a weight,
the shade as dim as childhood.
I think, July.
Jarflies hammer at the locks.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

this far from the sun now

Note to Erin on Some Details of the World

It is still cool, and the breeze smells like rain.  
The aroma of the wild roses is, in sheltered places, 
as thick and sweet as some pink fluid coating 

my throat, with a faint fraction of decay, at the verge 
between almost too much and more, please.
As I come to the best raspberries, a deer crashes off 

into the shadows. I don't think they eat raspberries; 
it just happened to be there. I sit above the waterfall, 
and light comes down through openings 

in the leaves, reflects off ripples in the pool, 
and back up, onto the leaves' ribbed undersides, 
this far from the sun now, pulsing like pale banked embers. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

"The Battle of Fontenoy" --- translation and commentary

Battle of Fontenoy-en-Puisaye
Jean Fouquet, 1460
from Grandes Chroniques de la France

The Battle of Fontenoy
Angilbert, circa 841

Dawn divided first morning from dreadful night.
It was no Sabbath but Saturn's cauldron, when
the fiend rejoiced at brothers' peace broken.

War shrills. All over, heavy fighting erupts.
Brother plots death for brother, uncle for nephew,
son does not offer father what father has deserved.

Worse slaughter never was on the field of Mars.
The broken law of Christians is bathed in blood
to please hell's rabble, delight Cerberus's gullets.

The mighty hand of God shielded Lothar,
and that hero fought fiercely with his own strength;
if the rest had fought so, truce would have come sooner.

Recall how once Judas betrayed his savior ---
so, king, your dukes betrayed you at swordpoint.
(Beware, lest the wolf take the lamb by stealth.)

“Fontenoy” peasants name that village and the stream
fouled with slaughter and wasted Frankish blood.
The fields trembled, the forests trembled, the fens trembled.

May never dew or rain refresh that grass,
where fell the mighty, the most battle-doctrined,
whom friends mourn, and father, mother, sister, brother.

This obscenity, which I have set to verse,
I saw, Angilbert, fighting with the others,
alone left alive of so many on the front line.

Looking back from a crest, I saw the vale
where Lothar, the mighty king, struck his foes
and drove them fleeing for life across the stream.

On Karl's side and on Ludovic's, too,
the fields turn white with the shrouds of the dead,
just as in autumn they grow white with birds.

That battle is unworthy of praise or song.
Morning noon evening and night
let us mourn those who died at such a waste.

Cursed be the date, unmarked on the calendar.
Let it be stricken from all memory.
May it have no sun, and no dawn at its rising.

And the night, that bitter night, harsher than any,
in which the strong fell, the most battle-doctrined,
whom friends mourn, father, mother, sister, brother.

I will describe no further weeping and keening.
Whoever can, let him restrain his tears,
and now all pray to the Lord for those poor souls.

Thole and lamentation! The slain are looted.
Vulture, crow, and wolf ravage their flesh.
They sprawl unburied. Naked corpses gape.

(my translation)


On this day, June 25, in the year 841, three grandsons of Charlemagne --- Karl, a.k.a. Charles the Bald, Ludovic, a.k.a. Louis the German, and Lothar, just plain Lothar --- met in battle near the small village of Fontenoy-en-Puisaye, in Burgundy, in what is now north-central France. The recent death of Charlemagne's son and inheritor, Louis the Pious, had left the issue of succession unresolved, and each of the grandsons wanted as large a piece of the empire as they could get. At Fontenoy, Karl and Ludovic (I prefer the Germanic forms of the names; these men weren't yet French) were united against Lothar, though side-pacts and allegiances, some whispered obscurely, were labyrinthine and involved their cousin Pepin II of Aquitaine, Nominoƫ, chief of the Celtic tribes of Brittany, and perhaps a secret deal between Lothar and the Viking outposts of the Frisian islands, who ascended the Loire and sacked the city of Nantes in a maneuver that seemed especially well timed to distract Karl's and Ludovic's armies. Essentially, everyone had to take a stand, and the outcome of the war between the grandsons established, roughly, the nations of western Europe as we know them today.

The historical tension of these war years, and which has not been put to rest yet, was between the promise of a Christian unity, under the sacred and secular power of pope and emperor, or some sort of nationalist / ethnic / tribal fragmentation. (What is the European Union, if not a transposition into secular terms of “Christendom”? The underlying question for the Ninth Century was “Leave” or “Remain.”) Charlemagne had worried about whether the Empire would continue intact after him, or whether the Christian peace he had established was merely a thin mask over an essentially pagan violence, reportedly wondering, near death, “whether we are really Christian....”

We don't know much about the author of “The Battle of Fontenoy.” Angilbert (or Engelbert, or some other variation) was presumably a monk, based on the suspicion that no one else could have managed such graceful Latin, and he tells us in the poem that he was an active participant in the battle, serving in Lothar's army. The fact of a soldier-monk isn't much of a surprise. The supply of monks at the time made for a buyer's market, and they often had side occupations, including military service, when there weren't enough monkly duties to go around. If he wrote anything else besides this poem, it didn't survive, at least not with his name attached.

“The Battle of Fontenoy” seems to me one of the great Medieval battle poems, as incisive and achieved as “The Battle of Maldon,” though strangely it has seldom been translated or commented on, outside of military histories. (I wanted to link to another translation for comparison, but there was none available.) It is modern in mood, not so much about the battle itself as about the aftermath of the battle, and ragged with divided feelings. On the one hand, Angilbert wants to celebrate Lothar's heroism and prowess, the heroic ideal inherited from a not-so-distant, pagan and Germanic past. On the other hand, he feels nothing but horror at the waste of human life in this contest of Frank against Frank, Christian against Christian. It is a politic position to take: Karl and Ludovic had won this battle, though the war would drag on, and they were eager to promote their victory as the result of trial by ordeal, a sign of God's favor. Angilbert's poem counters that the battle had nothing to do with God, that it was the inspiration of the devil.

But I can't believe Angilbert's condemnation of the battle of Fontenoy is only good propaganda. His revulsion at seeing the slashed and desecrated corpses lying on the fields in their burial shrouds, making the hillsides “turn white with the shrouds of the dead, / just as in autumn they grow white with birds,” is intimate and palpable and heartfelt. I believe Angilbert's horror at this mass slaughter, measured against a “patriotism” that suddenly seems small and cheap by comparison (as patriotism always is at its small, cheap heart), would have been immediately recognizable to other great poets of war who saw through the same charade eleven hundred years later, such as Wilfred Owen or Ivor Gurney. I can only imagine that Angilbert would have agreed with them that dying for the Cause is neither "dulce" nor "decorum."

Monday, June 20, 2016

an open vein of fear

Lascaux: Virginia, c. 1968

The chubby boy who dreams of dogs: a pack
of slat-ribbed, fever-eyed strays, snapping mouths
raw with mange. Hemmed in, no running back
or forward on the mud path behind the house,
a cramped passage between the weedy hill
too steep for escape and a hopeless blank wall
of tar paper siding. As they slouch in for the kill,
he swings a broken stick, is too soft, is small.

Often, paralyzed, the dogs. Then the night a horse
steps into his room, nothing funny, uncombed mane,
hooves strange on the floor, moving like a horse
toward the bed. He tastes an open vein
of fear spilled in his throat. He thinks he is awake
and dreads knowledge, knowing the horse will speak.