November 12, 2019

TWO AUTUMNS


This haiku by Buson appeared in my social media feeds recently, posted by American poet Sean Singer.

                           I go,
                    you stay;
                           two autumns.

How well I know it!

Its simple arithmetic of movement and stasis neatly sums up the late Augusts of my last twenty or so years: summer comes to a close; I leave my partner and rural home and writing life for the city and my teaching job.

Now, though, I've left that job, and for the first time in a long time I experience autumn in increments instead of decisive dates. Small pockets of shadow in a warm garden, a pinkish hue in the woods, fruit fallen from trees. Bear scat close to the fence. Look, a dragonfly! We'd thought they were gone. Writing no longer happens in the off-season, in a second home. It happens, or doesn't, period. What will that be like?

Buson's poem speaks directly, and deftly, of parting: friends, perhaps, or lovers. The separation itself becomes a form of autumn -- or rather two forms, for the person who goes has a different experience of separation from the one who stays. And couldn't the I and the you be the same person, youth falling back, age moving in?

I haven't read a lot of Buson. Generally among the classical haiku masters I've been more drawn to the sharp turns of Issa and resonant depths of Basho. (Robert Hass's The Essential Haiku, where this Buson poem is from, has been a favorite source.)

Here's another Buson autumn haiku, also posted by Singer:

                    Crossing the autumn moor --
               I keep hearing
                    someone behind me!

and from Basho:
           
                    Seeing people off,
               being seen off --
                    autumn in Kiso.

Loss, diminishment, drawing in: the genre of autumn poems isn't confined to haiku. To catalogue a very few others: Jean Valentine's "October Premonition," the same author's "October morning", both also recently shared by Singer (whose regular posting of poems and excerpts from poets' letters, diaries, etc, is one of the best things in my social media); whole families of Keatsian mists and mellow fruitfulness; the autumn leaf-burning that pervades the pages of Louise Glück's A Village Life: 
               
               The fire burns up into the clear sky,
               eager and furious, like an animal trying to get free,
               to run wild as nature intended --

And the shiver (I see it in yellow aspen leaves across the pond) that is Alice Oswald's luminous poem, "Almost as Transparent." Listen as she observes the birches: "And all those half-finished half-beginnings of forms, being made of both the clarity and ambiguity of autumn, could not have been more tree-like. No human could grow like that: the more upright, the less certain."

From this stance of wonder, the poem moves to a transformation in which the human, herself made of clarity and ambiguity, "vitrified," could not be more tree-like.



I go and I stay, two autumns.

November 5, 2019

THE TUNE THAT LIFTS: ANNE ARCHER ON PATRICK KAVANAGH

In today's post, poet-musician Anne Archer considers Patrick Kavanagh's "On Raglan Road."

A few months ago, on a whim or perhaps a nudge from the cosmos, I spent a morning listening to various versions of On Raglan Road, a poem by the 20th-century Irish writer Patrick Kavanagh, set to The Dawning of the Day, a 17th-century tune attributed to Thomas Connelan.

At first hearing, the narrative seemed familiar—a ballad of unrequited love in which the lover knows from the start that the love is doomed. He predicts that the beloved's 'dark hair will weave a snare,' and hopes that his impending grief will be ephemeral and passing, 'a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.' Shades of Down by the Salley Gardens, I thought. Though we never hear directly from the object of the speaker's affection, I assumed that, like the beloved in Yeats's ballad, Kavanagh's dark-haired girl bids him 'take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree.' Whether 'young and foolish,' as in Yeats's case, or reputedly old and jaded, as in Kavanagh's ballad, both speakers love 'too much,' and hence forfeit happiness. Same old story, case closed.

Well, not quite. There's a quirk in Kavanagh's poem that continues to puzzle and haunt and intrigue me. On Raglan Road veers from -- or rather, off -- that 'old high way of love' (pace WB). Unlike Yeats's lover, who is 'full of tears' at the end of the poem, Kavanagh's speaker is ostensibly more relieved than rueful. In fact, he had almost made a fatal mistake, and acknowledges: 'That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay--/When the angel woos the clay he'd lose his wings at the dawn of the day.' Hmmmm.

The lyrics seem to suggest that the beloved, who is made of clay, is earthbound, and, well, common. The lover, on the other hand, is not only an 'artist' who has 'known the true gods of sound and clay,' but an 'angel,' apparently godlike. The lover’s lack of humility here is matched by his petulance in the penultimate stanza: 'I gave her gifts of the mind I gave her the secret sign.' Oh, you silly girl, the speaker seems to crow, for who indeed could resist, not just poems, but 'the secret sign,' an unfortunate phrase which is akin in my mind to a misplaced masonic handshake? How very Henry Higgins!

And yet, the tone in the various sung versions is anything but arrogant or spiteful or malicious. In fact, it’s hard to pin down, possibly because there is a general clumsiness to the poem that endearingly undercuts the denouement. Not only is the syntax convoluted in places—try singing the lyrics, and you don’t know where to put the emphasis—but some of the rhymes are obsessive and throwaway. 'Too much' is paired with 'such and such,' and the line, 'The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay' is both arresting and silly. Here is the heart of the poem, so to speak, according to my band mate, Shane Dunne, and I see his point: I am moved by these images even as I cringe.

Not long ago, my group, The Kingston Ceili Band recorded On Raglan Road. We had just received some bad news about one of our fiddlers, and as a way of coping and of honouring our mate, we made music. Perhaps it was the sense of impending loss that made me hear the song differently.  I was struck, not by the poem’s flaws and inconsistencies, but by its beauty. The specificity of place -- 'On Raglan Road on an autumn day' and 'Grafton Street in November' -- acts to ground and transform the poem’s raw, complicated emotions. And Kavanagh meant the poem to be sung: the exquisite tune that he had in mind during the writing of the ballad lifts and shapes and releases his creation.  Have a listen…

(Click here for mobile version)


This essay is dedicated to Maggie McIver, fiddler extraordinaire.
          --- Anne Archer 

November 1, 2019

LATE AUTUMN: TWO POEMS



November, and here in the northern hemisphere, days are getting shorter. Light is thin and clear, or thin and grey; all but the most tenacious of leaves are down. Storms are predicted. It's the time of year some say the walls between living and dead are at their most fragile.

I dig out my painted La Catrina tile, build a little shrine with my love, light candles early. Time itself feels fragile -- a moment ago, wasn't it yesterday, wasn't I just stepping across the threshold of school on my first day? Wasn't I sitting beside my father, saying goodbye, saying hello?

Almost by accident I found three poems by Mexican poet Carmen Boullosa, whose work is new to me, in the journal Latin American Literature Today. I fell in love with those poems. Here is one.


     CRINOLINE VARIATIONS


     Everything rushes
                                   (the fish, the ant)
     and I toward the tomb,
                                   my final crinoline.
     ...

     I run, from the basting and the grammar of my dresses
                                  (great crinoline),
     toward the laughter drawn on the dead man's skull.
     ...

     "Goodbye," her final words. "Death to the power of the crinoline!"
     ...

     I travel aboard my tomb,
                                                     in a crinoline my entire life.
     ...

     "Hush,"
     said the fish,
     "I'm out of here in a crinoline."
     ...

     It journeyed and journeyed,
     the whale;
     the sea was its crinoline.
     ...


     Everything rushes,
     and I to my tomb
     to take off my crinoline.
     ...

     From the governance of the crinoline,
     they take from me an oar
                                                          and a chocolate.

                    -- Carmen Boullosa, translated by Lawrence Schimel

And this, which lives inside me, though I'm completely incapable of memorizing poems, by the great Wisława Szymborska. 

     NEGATIVE
    

     Against a grayish sky
     a grayer cloud
     rimmed black by the sun.

     On the left, that is, the right,
     a white cherry branch with black blossoms.

     Light shadows on your dark face.
     You'd just taken a seat at the table
     and put your hands, gone gray, upon it.

     You look like a ghost
     who's trying to summon up the living.

     (And since I still number among them,
     I should appear to him and tap:
     good night, that is, good morning,
     farewell, that is, hello.
     And not grudge questions to any of his answers
     concerning life,
     that storm before the calm.)
                -- Wisława Szymborska, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh


Images of "Twenty Views of the Lachine Rapids" by Klaus Pfeiffer/by permission