March 28, 2011
when finally I lie
The boy watches fluid in tubes, lab coats,
Hurried sneakers, hushed exchanges, and thinks
He could grow into one who consults notes,
Gives opinions, adjusts that thing that blinks
Beneath the window that reveals the wall
Of the mall, where later he will sip a shake.
The patient, watching the jagged line fall
That charts his spreading, swelling, burning ache,
Was once the boy and still by habit dreams
Of what he might learn to do and become.
No greater sorrow than to recall your schemes
Of futures past when at last you must succumb.
I am the patient and the boy, hoping I
Will forget these lines when finally I lie.
November 19, 2010
The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis
The first 21 lines of Catullus' Song 64, in my translation:
Sprouted at the peak of Mt. Pelion,
the pines, they say, pushed right through Neptune's waves
to the surf at Phasis, Aeëtes' realm,
when the hand-picked force, those young oaks of Greece,
wanting to snatch from Colchis the Golden Fleece,
risked riding the salty waves on a ship,
and brushed the sky-blue sea with fir-wood oars.
Athena, who protects their citadel,
invented their light flying vehicle,
weaving the pine boards into one curved keel.
This ship was a first for the sea goddess.
When with its prow it plowed her wind-blown swell,
and its oar strokes sprayed white spume on her waves,
a face arose from the froth-covered strait,
a miracle the sea nymphs marveled at.
This one and many others they beheld,
the mortals, staring in the ocean sun:
nymphs rising out, naked, breasts in the foam.
Then Peleus was on fire for the nymph Thetis.
Then Thetis was not above a human match.
Then even father Jupiter knew it:
she was meant to be wife for Peleus.
October 11, 2010
Is autumn the one true season of life?
(Or must a long cold winter follow fall?)
October paints with fragile colors rife
the early twilights, and with black, the nights of strife,
when a suffering wind repeats the call:
"Is autumn the one true season of life?"
Sweet roots and crisp apples under the knife
yield scented juices that summer sun recall.
October paints with fragile colors rife.
With thoughts of fledgling days the small
birds huddle tight as husband clings to wife.
Is autumn the one true season of life?
It is the soft wind whistling like a fife
that spins the dancing leaves, holds them in thrall.
October paints with fragile colors rife.
The vein to the past was cut with a knife.
The days drop like leaves, and ripeness is all.
October paints with fragile colors rife.
Is autumn the one true season of life?
June 1, 2010
Memorial Day, Belmont
Shaw's father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."
--Robert Lowell, For the Union Dead
The VFW Commander in his flat Boston voice
intones the names of the dead:
DeStefano, Haratoonian, Donnelly, O'Neil.
Sweating, Buddha-fat babies watch; their
shrunken grandmas sag into low lawn chairs.
The high school band follows the route we have
marked for them. They play like experts, but they can joke,
knowing they have a few years before they sink
into the chairs along the way.
In this town, Lowell checked himself in
to the loony bin
and glimpsed his future in the faces
of the other mental cases.
(Plath too, and Ray Charles.)
Once John Birch HQ, it knows fear.
Cambridge public housing blocks stand in sight: warnings.
The lady selling cones from the ice cream truck
wears a hijab. Belmont's Finest march to the tune
of Valley Forge, Custer's ranks,
San Juan Hill and Patton's tanks.
And the ditch, it comes closer each year.
Blank shots over the town's war graves.
The bones hear nothing, but the shots and smoke
are for the grandmas, the band, the babies,
for the ravaged veterans of the one war
we all fight alone to the last breath.
March 4, 2010
Emerson begins his poem "Hamatreya" with a list of names: Bulkeley, Hunt, Willard, and the other founders of Concord, Mass. They speak, telling how they made the land theirs, divided it into parcels, and left it to their heirs.
In the second stanza, the earth laughs as these men try to transform her. The narrator says, "The hot owner sees not Death, who adds / Him to his land, a lump of mould the more." The earth then sings in her own voice: "Mine and yours; / Mine, not yours, Earth endures." When her song is done, the narrator remarks, "I was no longer brave; / My avarice cooled / Like lust in the chill of the grave."
That is how Emerson ends. Sixteen decades later, we live not far from Concord. The earth says,
Ralph Waldo is dead, turned to grit and mud.
Eight more generations have wriggled out,
Cried, drunk, grown, worked, shrunk, died since his voice stopped.
To me: a few smooth circuits round the sun.
I'll still be turning when they all are gone,
When something new crawls on my skin, and then
When nothing stirs, and dawn means plain white light
On silent stone.
But they do swarm on me.
Their houses are like dust, but thick dust now.
My hills are hard to notice from their car
Windows as they fly down tarmac ribbons,
Burning carbon they draw from inside me.
I whose motion is endless, effortless
Salute their grim, relentless harvesting.
What are they to me? Just some of my mass,
Quivering briefly on my dry surface.
Yet when I ask what they are, what I am,
What each is for, I find I use their words.
They taught me my Concord was beautiful,
Its misty lowlands and its pale green hills.
If they asphixiate or cook themselves,
Who will remember the Concord they found?
I am no longer brave.
February 10, 2010
Super Bowl Sunday at the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum
Half an hour before the concert starts, I watch the audience file in. The average age is well above seventy; the husbands look slight and bleached beside their wives. A few grandchildren wearing bows and shiny shoes sit between the couples. In the hangings of the Tapestry Room, Renaissance grandees display their courtly manners. Behind me, someone says, "We used to see Archie Cox there all the time."
I try to read Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs, her farm-girl narrator describing a commuter flight to Green Bay: "Then suddenly we were taking off, racing down the runway and lifting into the air like a carnival ride, the plane with a seabird's wobble." It's her first time in an airplane. Near me, a voice asks, "Did you go to any concerts in Paris?" Answer: "We heard the St. John's Passion, of which we are very fond." Apparently, we are not so fond of dangling prepositions.
Moore's leisurely, descriptive style encourages observation. I remember the tiled floor in this very room from when I first saw it, on a trip with my Dad, at age 17. The Bach-lover behind me is recommending the "film version of Cyrano with Depardieu." Each French noun is perfectly pronounced, like an excerpt from a language tape. His mouth is capable of switching from Boston Brahmin to gallic r's and back without slowing appreciably.
My misanthropy now covers the whole audience except maybe the grandchildren. The first piece of music is supposed to rebuke such attitudes. It is a Masonic cantata by Mozart, with German lyrics that recommend: "Love thyselves and thy brothers! Bodily strength and beauty be thy ornament!" I find this advice hard to take, even with Mozart's sugar-coating.
It's the Bartok that snaps me out of it, the string quartet exchanging spiky, stochastic phrases, snatches of folk melody, tragic outbursts. The musicians are young, diverse, and intent, interacting with their bodies and faces as well as the sounds they make. The music was new when the audience first heard it and feels new still. It puts up green shoots.
November 6, 2009
amor mundiRegressions, pentameters, dialogues,
Memoranda of understanding, plots,
Research contracts, policy briefs, lectures,
Op-eds, philosophical arguments,
Budget narratives, translations, fact sheets,
Hortatory afterwords, blind reviews,
Close readings, scatterplots, interview notes.
These are things I write but not as well
As they are written. I read and relish
Much better than I compose and create.
A poor place to be at age forty-two;
The biography shelf stands in reproach.
I plead restlessness and indiscipline.
Dissatisfaction, ambition, ego--
Susceptibility to the thin charm
Of seeing first name, last name, title in print--
Lure of the easy August downhill path
Plus unconfessed daydreams of synthesis
And a hapless, unquenched love of the world.
September 2, 2009
Martha's Vineyard, August 2009
Objects in view: one set of sculpted cliffs,
Venerated by the Wampanoags,
Topped by a Yankee lighthouse whose clocklike beam
Won the Paris Exposition prize, one
Steaming sea stirred by an African storm,
One red sunset, one skipping long-limbed child,
My child, whose footprints the sea erases.
Too much to say about all this, too hard
To say it; too many layers, too wide
The scope, from Pilgrims' footfalls to the trope
Of ocean sunsets as the end of all.
Too much Homer, Arnold, Childe Hassam.
A place we travel hours to admire
Is no sight to try to praise in words.
Better to turn from the loud-resounding sea
To other sites where long-limbed daughters play,
Suns set, and settlers built on worshipped land:
Takeout windows, mowed weeds between sidewalks
And parking lots, driveways, on-ramps, strip malls.
Love not only what glimmers and is vast,
But just as deeply our own darkling plain.
August 11, 2009
One grain of sand is not a heap of sand.
If one grain is no heap, two cannot be.
If two are not a heap, neither are three.
So keep adding grains from your open hand--
One million's no heap if built up from one.
But if you could find such a thing as a heap,
You'd do no harm by taking part to keep.
A heap's still a heap when one grain is gone.
Now say that this pile of sand's in a glass,
With a neck that allows the grains to slide through,
One or two at a time--now and then, a few--
Til the sand's at the base and no more will pass.
Instant by instant, time, like sand, creeps.
A life is just a heap of time, and so,
Though each day must fall, the life cannot go.
(Unless we believe that there really are heaps.)
March 10, 2009
snapshots from February and March
Out of the bathroom window in the middle of the night, a scene from an expressionist painting. The moon, too large, glares through black tree limbs. Snow forms a smooth shape, a pearly pool, amid the trunks. Houses stand at crazy angles.
- Two people walk through the cold naked grove;
The moon goes with them, they gaze at it.
The moon slips over tall oak trees;
No cloud obscures the heaven's light
Into which the black spikes reach.
(From Richard Dehmel, Zwei Menschen, 1903)
A woman is running, screaming up Winter Hill in Somerville toward a gas station, where a knot of people stands. One of them is a police officer. Her dog lies on his side as if asleep.
False spring on Brattle Street: grand Victorian houses, an anthology of architectural styles. Joggers, toddlers in strollers, buds on the manicured foliage.
On a beach near Gloucester, the vacation houses have a slum-like look. They are small and boarded-up for winter; the streets are deserted in the cold sea air. There's a game of horse-shoe on the sand, and dogs run joyfully in the surf.
January 21, 2009
for I will consider my dog Barkley
For I will consider my dog Barkley.
For he has no inkling of things metaphysical.
For he never meets a creature who is not his friend.
For if he worships, it is done his way.
For first he sniffs incessantly in circles.
For secondly he tugs the leash.
For thirdly he tastes whatever he finds.
For fourthly he chews and recalls.
For fifthly he sits on a lap and sleeps.
For he is an enthusiast.
For he knows not jealousy nor suspicion.
For embarrassment troubles him not.
For when anyone lies on the ground, he rushes to resuscitate.
For, tho he is brave, shadows and mean dogs frighten him.
For sad sounds disturb him.
For he can flatten himself like a gerbil to pass under gates.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent gamboler.
For he can detect tiny scraps of food.
For he is much more waggery than gravity.
December 18, 2008
on cutting and growing
Sticks-in-a-drowse over sugary loam,
Their intricate stem-fur dries;
But still the delicate slips keep coaxing up water;
The small cells bulge;
One nub of growth
Nudges a sand-crumb loose,
Pokes through a musty sheath
Its pale tendrilous horn.
Theodore Roethke, "The Lost Son and Other Poems" (1948)
An aphorism is a "cutting," because the Greek verb aphorizdo is to "cut." So a book of aphorisms is a selection of short pieces cut and pasted together. Wittgenstein was in the habit of writing short passages, cutting them out with scissors, and throwing them in a box. The results were published as a book entitled "Cuttings" (Zettel) which might be considered an unpretentious word for "aphorisms." That form had attained high esteem but also some pomposity with Schlegel, Kleist, Karl Kraus, Walter Benjamin, and other German authors.
Blog posts are also "cuttings" in this sense. I think many people who write or read blogs would be embarrassed to call them "aphorisms," but they hope that the juxtaposition of short snippets of text will be generative, like sticks in wet soil. Good blogs are contributions to something more ambitious and more coherent. Our quick and scattered thoughts have the potential to come together in linear form. Which brings up another meaning of a "cutting"--a piece of a plant that could begin to grow. Theodore Roethke explores that meaning in remarkable pendant poems from 1948.
- Cuttings (later)
This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet.
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?
I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing,
In my veins, in my bones I feel it, --
The small waters seeping upward,
The tight grains parting at last.
When sprouts break out,
Slippery as fish,
I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet.
Theodore Roethke, "The Lost Son and Other Poems" (1948)
In both poems, especially the latter, the verbs are hard to distinguish from the nouns. In "Cuttings (later)", the words "urge," "wrestle," and "cut" are used as nouns. That first sentence has no verb at all. In line three, "strained" is a verb, but it first struck me as an adjective. Plants, of course, are objects; we think of action taking place in the animal kingdom, which is also the realm of suffering. But vegetable cuttings are acting when they begin to sprout--they need verbs. Roethke's language represents the pain of moving into action, of nouns taking on verbs. The verse shifts from objective description (about the plants) to Roethke's own response. The two poems are themselves cuttings, separated from each other in the original volume, removed from any lengthy narrative or argument, but straining to grow and to inspire growth.
December 8, 2008
Clay Pit PondFocus first on the black trunks, then the snow
that beats the ripples, then the wind-whipped flag,
the high school's streaked cement and darkened glass,
like the building I would have trudged up to
twenty-five winters past. He tugs to move,
snuffling his first snow; everything's a first
for him--hunched ducks on logs, the distant train.
In my ears, Albinoni's oboes step
lightly, unruffled by the imminent
coda, and take the repeat serenely,
even though poor old Tomasso's been dead
(of diabetes) more than two hundred
sodden Venetian winters. The coda comes,
the dog pulls me homeward, and where we'd stood,
the patient snow melts back into the waves.
October 15, 2008
from the Vita Nuova of Dante
Here is a poem from Dante's Vita Nuova (xix, 31-36). I originally translated it for my book-in-progress that I'm calling Ethics from Fiction: Philosophy and Literature in Dante and Modern Times. I recently deleted this particular poem from the manuscript because I decided it was a digression. I don't actually like it all that much, and I'm not sure that Dante did, either. Ever since Mark Musa's Dante’s Vita Nuova: A Translation and an Essay (Bloomington, 1973), some have interpreted the Vita Nuova as Dante's self-critique. His main problem is that he doesn't know the object of his love poems, Beatrice, so his poems are self-indulgent. Here he uses the theme of the "Lady Passes" to praise a woman who is a distant figure him:
My lady is desired in highest heaven
And I want you to discern her virtue too.
If you’d seem a noble lady, I say: Go,
Walk with her as she passes through the streets,
For into villainous hearts Love drives ice,
And all thoughts freeze until they perish;
And anyone who dares remain and watch
Must become a noble thing, or else he dies.
It is better in Italian--click below.
Madonna è disiata in sommo cielo:
or voi di sua virtù farvi savere.
Dico, qual vuol gentil donna parere
vada con lei, che quando va per via,
gitta nei cor villani Amore un gelo
per che onne lor pensero agghiaccia e pere;
e qual soffrisse di starla a vedere
diverria nobil cosa, o si morria.
March 10, 2008
To bleg is to beg on your blog, your blog.
A blog made of movies: a vlog.
To twitter's to text folks your latest post;
A flog is a blog by a corporate ghost.
A blath is on math; a blawg covers law;
A troll will pounce on your teeniest flaw.
An attorney whose mind is a fog
Should post his bleg on a blawg web log.
To clog a blog, you jam it with spam:
Just ping that thing a link to your scam.
The blogosphere, it's got it all:
Rolls and blolls and folderol.
Post anything on yours--it's fine;
Just don't forget to link to mine.
Quotes and lies, it all is free;
Just don't forget to link to me.
(If you think I made any of this up, click here.)
October 16, 2007
come with me
Oh, come with me and be my love,
For Saturday night--that's enough.
Next week, I've got a paper due,
A service gig, an interview too.
"Come with me": remember, from our course?
(Also a pun, which I'd better not force.)
Yes, I deleted "live"--but you can stay
'Til ten. Then I'll work on my résumé.
Slippers and buckles of the finest gold:
One day you'll have those, and someone to hold.
But I'm by myself now; the market's tight;
For now, I've got to focus, network, fight.
Wait 'til we're forty, and then maybe
You can be my love and live with me.
September 10, 2007
America, you Jerusalem reborn!
No profligate, old-world, ruined people, you.
Behold: peace. You're principle without pain and dishonor.
Dishonor and pain without principle: your peace.
Behold, you people: ruined world!
Old, profligate. No reborn Jerusalem you, America.
*Distantly inspired by Yehuda Alharizi's "Palindrome for a Patron" [12th or 13th century] as translated by Peter Cole and cited by Harold Bloom in the June 28 New York Review of Books.
May 4, 2006
The secret thoughts of a Maryland School of Public Policy prof
No wonk has ever won a vote, yet we're the ones who rule.
For us, the whole of Washington's become a kind of school.
The politicos are our students; they show up from the sticks
With shiny smiles, fancy suits, and campaign-finance tricks.
But when we talk cost/benefit, chi-squared, or Freddie Mac,
Their brains feel slow, their spirits, low; their mouths look kinda slack.
"You profs," they drawl, "it seems y'all know exactly what to do.
You write the bill, just as you will, and tell us when you're through."
In College Park, we've students, too; they're the ones who pay us.
But they don't exactly have the clout to make us into playahs.
That's why we love the World Bank, C-SPAN, or a think tank,
Anywhere that cameras roll and the offices are swank.
Civic engagement? Sounds like a drag.
Public deliberation? Don't make me gag.
A populist revolt? Not in our time.
The people only care about celebrities and crime.
Youth are dumb and selfish, but that's really no surprise.
Their parents can't detect the most patronizing lies.
Voting's overrated: I've hardly ever done it.
As for the government, who'd really want to run it?
And while I'm getting all of this off my panting chest,
What about the folks who think that Maryland's the best?
Please, a Terp is a turtle with his head up in his ... shell.
Against a Blue Devil, he's got a snowball's chance in hell.
The Terps are meek, the ozone's weak, our troops are up a creek.
Philosophy's obsolescent and the future's looking bleak.
Net intelligence is constant, but the population keeps on growing.
We're out of cash, ideas, and friends, but the mess is still ongoing.
The end is near, I sadly fear, for planet, country, school.
But I get paid for opinions, so my future's looking cool!
September 19, 2005
Miss Mary Bennet
A young lady of deep reflection am I.
I make extracts of homilies, pound my scales,
while Lizzy and Jane, hard at work, catch the eye
of gallant lads with lots of land. To such males
of fortune, we trade my sisters' pretty bodies.
My goods weren't good enough for my own cousin,
though I'd have picked him over those London dandies.
To me, living with just one idiot doesn't
sound so bad. He would never think to explore
what I keep inside books bound as Fordyce's Sermons
To Young Ladies, or, by Miss Hannah More,
Strictures on the Modern System of Young Women's
Education. Open those tomes from which I cite
my platitudes, and you'll find extracts, all right--
of Malthus, Blake, the Philosophy of Right.
I know just for what those wild Frenchmen fight.
August 12, 2005
We are off to Scandinavia until August 26, and I do not intend to post from there. Meanwhile, I leave you with a kind of "e-book"--about half of my long, narrative, formal poem entitled Entropy, now lightly illustrated and formatted to be read easily online. Click here to have a look.
I wrote Entropy in 1999-2001 but have been revising it lately. (I'm not quite finished with the revisions, and that's why the end is not yet online.) I submitted it to many publishers' contests in 2001-2003. It was selected as a finalist three times, but the odds against actually winning--and being published--seemed very low. Meanwhile, I found it difficult to find journals that would even consider running excerpts from a long, plot-driven poem. Hence I am happy to give it away here.
Entropy could be better, and if it were, it would be published by now. In that sense, I have no complaints or regrets. However, I was slightly frustrated that no one mentioned either the plot or the philosophy of the poem in all the correspondence that I received. Every comment, whether positive or critical, concerned the imagery. This response bolstered my prejudice that contemporary poetry is often too narrowly concerned with lyric--with first-person descriptions of images that have emotional significance for the writer. If Entropy has virtues, they are the rather elaborate, original, and (I hope) suspenseful plot; the dozen major characters; and the philosophical structure. This is not lyric.
Entropy posits a fairly serious metaphysics, such as might be argued by a philosopher who sought the truth about our world. It embodies that theory in an invented mythology, with a god to personify each major principle of the system. I don't like allegory, which is conceptual, static, and sterile. Therefore, Entropy puts the myth into motion by introducing contingencies, ambiguities, conflicts, human beings with hopes and despairs: in short, the elements of plot. The metaphysics itself explains why it might be worthwhile to make a plot out of an invented metaphysics.
I have decided to explain some of this structure, without saying so much as to foreclose alternative interpretations, in an "afterword" that is also available via the main page.
November 16, 2004
Here is a great, if difficult, war poem. It's from the first page of La Bufera e altro (The Storm and Other Things), a book that Eugenio Montale began in fascist and Nazi-occupied Italy during the Second World War and published in 1956. My amateurish English translation follows. Click for some commentary and the magnificent Italian text.
Princes have no eyes to see these great marvels
Their hands now serve only to persecute us
--Agrippa D'Aubigne, à Dieu
The storm that drums on the hard
leaves of the magnolia its long March
thunder and hail,
(the sounds of crystal in your nocturnal
nest surprise you, of the gold
squandered on the mahogany, on the gilt edge
of the bound books, a sugar grain
still burns in the shell
of your eyelids)
the flash that candies
trees and walls and surprises them in this
eternity of an instant--marble manna
and destruction--that you carry
carved in you by decree and that binds you
more than love to me, strange sister,--
and then the rough crash, the sistri, the shudder
of the tambourines above the ditch of thieves,
the tramp of the fandango, and above
some gesture that gropes. --
just like when
you turned around and with your hand, cleared
your brow of its cloud of hair,
waved at me--and went into the darkness
(See the online Italian text here.) This poem makes repeated, if oblique, reference to Canto V of Dante's Inferno. Like Paolo and Francesca, the narrator and the tu of "La Bufera" are bound together in a hellish storm for an unchanging eternity by something that resembles love, without exactly being love. Like Montale's you, Francesca was a "strange sister," since she was both Paolo's sister-in-law and his lover. The tu in Montale's poem has been sentenced ("condanna"), just like one of the damned in the Inferno. Finally, Montale chooses for his title "la bufera," a highly unusual word for "tempest." Given the rareness of the word, it clearly alludes to Canto V (lines 31-33):
The hellish tempest that has never stopped
whips the spirits in its passion:
a twisting, hounding, mad assault.
La bufera infernal, che mai non resta
mena li spirti con la sua rapina
voltando e percontendo li molesta
Several features of "La Bufera" are typical of the poems in Montale's three major books, which he presented as a trilogy comparable to the Divine Comedy. The diction is stark, astringent, and basically informal, although there is much specialized vocabulary. (For example, "sistri" is the Latin word--retained in both Italian and English--for the rattles shaken by ancient Egyptians.) Occasionally, Montale uses traditional forms such as the Shakesperean sonnet, but usually, as in "La Bufera," he prefers free verse that is distinguished from prose by density of imagery, heavy alliteration and assonance, and significant line endings and breaks. Like many of his poems, "La Bufera" consists of a list of objects and actions; it is not a complete sentence, because there is no main verb. As in all of Montale's writings, there are layers of reference to past literature. Finally, the poem is an intimate address to an unnamed "you," a female who is known to the narrator and who shares private references and memories with him. This "tu" frequently appears, and the narrator always has intense difficulty communicating with her.
One way to read "La Bufera" is biographically. Montale knew an American scholar named Irma Brandeis in Florence before the War. Later, both parties were reticent about the nature of their relationship; we do not know that it was romantic. When Brandeis left Italy in 1938, Montale lost contact with her and may have feared that she was dead. Brandeis was a Jew, and Montale was aware of the Holocaust. Thus the storm of "La Bufera" is fascism, the War, and Nazism. Brandeis is the "you" who is surprised by the breaking of crystal (perhaps a reference to Kristalnacht) and who disappears in the last line of "La Bufera," bound to the narrator more by fascism than by love. (The subject of the phrase "binds you to me" is the "flash" of lightning that stands for tyranny or war.) For the rest of the book, she is absent--just as Brandeis was actually away while Montale wrote--but she acquires profound symbolic meaning. Already in the title poem, she combines Jewish and classical references ("marble" and "manna"); these recur throughout the book, and there is an additional sense that she has become a Christ-figure or a Christ-bearer, suffering to redeem a sinful Europe. The narrator struggles to understand her, sometimes resorting to angry, misogynistic complaints about her absence and infidelity; sometimes worshipping her. I suspect that there is dramatic irony in both extremes; there is no reason to think that the author shares the narrator's full range of emotions.
There is plenty of evidence to support this biographical reading, including Montale's own notes. It is, however, only one layer of meaning. The "you" of the poem is also a kind of avatar of Beatrice, Francesca, Laura, and the other famous lovers from Italian poetry. Montale's predecessors had had trouble understanding the women they loved and usually failed to win their faithful attention; but in La Bufera e altro the problem is no longer moral. It is not the narrator's unworthiness or the lover's infidelity that prevents the two from communicating. Now the problem is political and epistemological: political, because the fascists have driven Irma Brandeis out of Europe and imposed silence and fear on all Italians; and epistemological, because moderns know that nothing can be represented or understood realistically. Connecting with "you" is the narrator's moral and spiritual goal, yet it is impossible. As Roberto Unger writes, "The modernists often combine acknowledgement of the supreme importance of personal love with skepticism about the possibility of achieving it or, more generally, of gaining access to another mind."
The book La Bufera e altro has been compared to a novel and analyzed for its plot and characters. But if it is a narrative, it's a strange one. The reader cannot tell what literal events have occurred or in what order, or even how many major characters there are. (Is the "you" always the same person? Is the narrator always identical?) Montale admired novels and operas, but in La Bufera, he indicates that he cannot tell a coherent story. All he can do is to string together fragmentary, personal images in a poignantly failed attempt to depict another human being and express his love for her.
Montale belongs to school of Modernism in which literal truth is treated as elusive, and the attention of the reader or viewer is directed instead to the work of art itself. It is very easy to notice and enjoy the sounds of Montale's words, but difficult to concentrate on what, if anything, is being described. The opposite is true in more traditional poetry. Usually, writes, Charles Rosen, "first we take in the text visually, and we understand it almost as we take it in, and afterward we find it interesting or beautiful." So we immediately know what Pope or Wordsworth is writing about, and we must force ourselves to notice the poet's technique. But Stéphane Mallarmé and his successors stood "the classical way of reading poetry on its head" by making their subjects and plots very hard to decode. "Withholding the referential meaning concentrates attention initially upon the technique of representation: the poem refuses to allow the reader to substitute immediately the concept for the description. To understand we must return over and over again to the lines. Mallarmé fixes the attention of the reader where it properly belongs--on the words of the poem, the assonance, the rhythm, the juxtaposition of images, the emotional associations." The same could be said of Montale. However, while Mallarmé (and Rosen) think that it is right to focus on the form of poetry, Montale appears to struggle to use his poetic language for representation. He wants to tell us about his "you," even though what we see most easily is the poem's assonance, imagery, and the shape of the lines on the page. Although the aesthetic aspects of Montale's work are the most accessible, he is against aestheticism--for moral reasons.
The best Italian text is in Jonathan Galassi, ed., Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale, 1920-1954 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998), p. 268. Unger, from Passion: An Essay on Human Personality (1984), p. 38. Chares Rosen, from "Mallarmé the Magnificent," The New York Review of Books, May 20, 1999
May 14, 2004
We like to bomb from 30,000 feet,
fly back to Whiteman, MO after the run,
then drive to the mall for something to eat,
Or wire funds to the guys who buy the guns
that jab into the backs of old women
who stagger away from burning homes.
We don't do firing squads, rape rooms, mass graves,
midnight arrests; we think we don't know how.
A GI is a big buzz-cut guy who saves
The cowering victims of a foreign war,
or despotism, or incompetence.
We can even oust regimes from afar.
Dick and Lynne, in the VP's residence,
once more shoulder the burden to maintain
security, order, and common sense.
They're grandparents with degrees, guardians
of churches, agencies, and industries:
they know just how to handle ruffians.
Saddam built his own Lubyanka, grim and dank.
Isaiah asked: "How hath the oppressor ceased?"
The new commandant of Abu Ghraib's a Yank.
And Babylon shall be as Sodom and
Gomorrah; by her shall we sit and weep.
February 19, 2004
a free novel on this site
In 1995, I published a mystery with St. Martin's Press, entitled Something to Hide. I then wrote another novel, a thriller called Tongues of Fire. I accumulated some flattering letters from publishers, but no contract offers for this second book of fiction. Yesterday, it suddenly occurred to me that I should give it away on my website. That's the 21st-century way, after all. Click here to read the beginning and then download the whole thing if it appeals to you.
By way of background: Tongues of Fire is a thriller set just before the Second World War. The Nazis believe that they will gain enormous power if they can put together the shards of a universal language that are preserved in the various occult traditions of the world. Our skeptical hero, an American linguistic professor, begins to investigate their plot only because he has been forced into service by a Soviet agent (who is the main female character).
This isn't Literature, but I think it's fun. It's also slightly "educational," since the plot revolves around some issues in the philosophy of language. If one person enjoys the online version, that will be one more person than if I had left it on my hard-drive.