Shiva’s giant trident
at Pasupatinath still wet,
a monkey, with child clinging
fast and dry to the belly,
eyes the pilgrim’s steps,
starts, reconsiders, decides
quickly for which tree
she is to run.
I tried to do a voice recording of my latest poem. It was tricky getting it up on WordPress, as it seems I had to make it a video, upload it to YouTube, then post the YouTube link. Let’s see how it came out. Text below.
Hero and Leander (the lamp and the water)
I still walk to that lake, the surface now still,
absence of geometry, ache of tranquility,
a voice but a whisper
soothing, sad, a silver
thorn in the side of love.
What love creates, need destroys.
We put flowers on the table
at the changing of the season.
Then the rains came. We watched
through the kitchen window.
You turned out the lamp.
“I love you more than I need you,” I said.
“Now I know what that means.”
But need, the ache, the silver thorn,
will have its bloody day.
Time passes. Seasons change.
When I walk to the lake I stir the surface,
the glitter of sun, a dangerous swell,
my hand beginning to move
into place a geometry
Hereafter, I use Neruda’s spelling, “Macchu Picchu.”
Translations part mine, part Nathanial Tarn.
Quotes identified by poem number (twelve poems in Neruda’s set).
As with other poems I’ve read by Neruda (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, plus some miscellaneous bits and pieces), The Heights of Macchu Picchu (sic) is built of concrete blocks of imagery – mostly seasonal and nature imagery but with some metals and cosmic flashes too. The images are never remote from subjective coordinates, though, whether the subjective reverberations are those of love and intimacy (as predominate in Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair) or a longing for some lost primeval consciousness (as in The Heights of Macchu Picchu). In the latter case, Neruda stands close to D. H. Lawrence, the prolific English writer of both poetry and prose born one generation before Neruda. Lawrence, too, spent time immersed in the pre-Hispanic cultures of the Americas. He found both the ancient Mesoamerican and the pagan Mediterranean cultures more authentic, more fulfilling of our deepest human needs, than the anemic culture of Christianity and modernity. The longing for that lost authentic mode of being (living “breast-to-breast with the cosmos” Lawrence called it in Apocalypse) takes a theme running through many of Lawrence’s books and threads into this one by Neruda.
Beneath that shared vision, the sense of loss and the urgency of retrieval, I do see a few differences as I read The Heights of Macchu Picchu. Whether these differences point to the subjective registers of my personal response or to something objective in Neruda, you can decide, but they do help shape meaning in my reading of the poems. For one, there is a bit more native American nationalism in Neruda’s response to Macchu Picchu; he seems to feel it as a loss his people have experienced: “Ancient America, bride in the veil of sea … under the nuptial banners of light and reverence … buried America, were you in that great depth …” (X). Lawrence, for his part, seems more tuned to the loss of authentic human spirit in a more general, less nationalistic, way. But, even in Neruda, the nationalism is but a touch here and there, not a dominant idea in the set.
There is also a kind of death-wish that runs through Neruda’s collection, an element of abjection in the poet’s lament: “La poderosa Muerte me invitó muchas veces” (“powerful Death has beckoned me many times,” IV). Although Lawrence (e.g., in the non-fiction Apocalypse or Etruscan Places, or in the novel, The Plumed Serpent) laments the same loss of the primeval human spirit, the driving tone in Lawrence is a defiant celebration of what has been lost. Sure, there is a respect for the great cycles of life and death in both writers, but Neruda’s handling of death is tinged a bit more with melancholy, with a sense of personal abjection, as he feels an irresistible attraction toward “the true, the most consuming death” (VII).
In Lawrence, too, some element of abjection may be attributed to characters in The Plumed Serpent (e.g., modern Mexicans who lack the fullness of life of their pagan forebears and are thus “divided against [themselves]”), but abjection is peripheral, not in the central voice as we find in Neruda. In The Plumed Serpent (set in early 20th-century Mexico), some of the Mexican characters might be seen as working to restore that full pagan consciousness, some of the (modern) Mexican characters merely express the lost greatness of that pagan world as a form of abjection, and the European characters are too caught up in “mechanical dominance” and “mechanical connections” to get it at all, or they are just starting to perceive the big picture of spiritual loss and possible rejuvenation, but from the outside, as it were. To tentatively plot the voice of Neruda’s Macchu Picchu poems into this schema, Neruda feels the full pull of the old world view in his concrete vision of Inca life in Macchu Picchu but also feels the abjection of the modern Chilean, with a more visceral connection and more visceral sense of loss than was perhaps possible for the Englishman. In any event, the feeling you get in Neruda tacks a bit more to the personal whereas in Lawrence you feel more drawn toward the archetypal, despite the large overlap in their visions.
One other difference worth mentioning may be related to Neruda as a craftsman of poetry. If Poem VIII imagines the ancient pagan consciousness, as Lawrence might do, as “a long-dead kingdom” that paradoxically, dormantly “still lives on” but at a depth we cannot see (“El reino muerto vive todavia”), in Poem IX, the structure of the poem itself seems to suddenly emulate the pagan consciousness:
Aguila sideral, viña de bruma. Interstellar Eagle, vine-in-a-mist
Bastión perdido, cimitarra ciega. Forsaken bastion, blind scimitar.
Cinturón estrellado, pan solemne. Orion belt, ceremonial bread.
Escala torrencial, párpado inmenso. Torrential stairway, immeasurable eyelid.
Túnica triangular, polen de Piedra. Triangular tunic, pollen of stone.
Consciousness here takes the form of concrete images, discrete, without all the rational connectors that Neruda (and Lawrence) might associate with modern consciousness. The flow is not one of a causal nexus but of a throbbing heartbeat, uncluttered by the need to reduce everything to rational sequences.
Rejuvenating that primeval heartbeat remains a central theme beyond the structural experiment of Poem IX:
“Through a confusion of splendor,
through a night made of stone let me plunge my hand
and move to beat in me a bird held for a thousand years,
the old and unremembered human heart!” (XI)
And on to Neruda’s invocation in Poem XII, and back to an attitude he fully shares with Lawrence:
“Look at me from the depths of the earth
. . .
bring to the cup of this new life
your ancient buried sorrows.
Show me your blood and your furrow
Strike the old flints
Speak through my speech, and through my blood.”
The five poems (or “considerations,” as Donnelly calls them) in this short chapbook focus on five paintings (by Dali, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, O’Keeffe, and Chagall, respectively). Opening on Dali’s “Young Woman in the Window,” Donnelly makes it clear that the operative principle in this collection is a fusion of imagery and reflection. Dali’s painting shows a woman at a window “looking out from shadow to sea.” Outside the window is “distance … space … water.” It is the quintessential image to use as an objective marker of the subjective state of reflection.
There is something holographic about these poems, each like an index to the whole, or each like a pebble dropped whose waves ripple through the other four. I’ll take as my pebble just the first stanza of the second poem (keyed to Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”):
I stopped by, to sit and wonder how you didn’t change
while I clung to the edge of the seat to keep myself
within the skin I was shedding like those petals hanging
onto your brush strokes, though they never met the finality
of their fate.
Note how quickly Donnelly gets to the meat of things. “Consideration” of art and artist absorbs the poet into its own ambiguity in a way that puts this poem in relief against the others. Take for example the second-person pronoun. “You” in the first poem variously references the painting or the figure within the painting, but not the painter himself (Dali). In the third poem (Kandinsky) it references the painting only, and it does not appear in poems 4 and 5. Here, though, in #2 (Van Gogh), the antecedent of “you” is ambiguous. Is it Van Gogh who didn’t change or the sunflowers? Do the petals hang from Van Gogh’s brush strokes or from the brush strokes of the painting itself?
The ambiguity is not just a curiosity. It opens a tension between the ephemeral and the eternal that operates at the core of the poem and perhaps less directly at the core of the collection. On the one hand, the image of a drop of paint hanging, awaiting the finality of the next moment, is as ephemeral an image as we can get. On the other hand, the image fixes the hand of the artist eternally on the canvas. Anyone who has seen Van Gogh’s paintings live will note the visceral presence of the artist in the topography of the paint, where you can see, for example, grooves where he pushed the paint around with the handle of the brush. To see the hand of the artist here, over a century later, to see that ephemeral movement of his hand frozen in time, conjures a sense, or a hope, that art can freeze the ephemeral into something eternal.
The tension between the ephemeral and the eternal is the same tension that animates Keats’s more famous “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The young lovers depicted on the marble urn will remain “forever young,” and therein lies their beauty. But the truth is that they will never feel the warmth of the kiss, their lips forever an inch apart. Thus, in the final lines, Keats’s poem translates that tension between the ephemeral and the eternal into an ambivalence about the relation of truth to beauty.
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Note that the quotation marks are Keats’s, not mine. The lines are attributed within the poem not to the poet but to the urn itself, and they express the urn’s point of view. But the poem is haunted by a sense that maybe beauty is NOT truth. The figures are beautiful but the truth is they will never kiss. Moreover, a kind of melancholy hangs over the poem, as the immortality of the figures contrasts with the mortality of the poet, and Keats may have already felt at the writing of the poem the tuberculosis that would kill him barely a year later. The urn’s beauty lasts forever, but the truth the poet must face is death – and very soon, in Keats’s case.
Turning back to Donnelly’s poem, ekphrastic in the same way as Keats’s, “those petals hanging onto your brush strokes” give us at once an eternal marker of the hand of the artist and reminder that he (Van Gogh), like Keats, was already suffering at the time of “Sunflowers” and that he too would die in a year’s time.
The remaining poems in the collection of five are each their own thing, but this spotlight on the Van Gogh poem hopefully illuminates one path toward them. I will just add – don’t overlook the playful imagination (as in #3, the Kandinsky poem, where Donnelly’s irreverent comparison of “La Ludwigskirche in München” to “a burst bag of skittles scurrying along the wall” rings amusingly true for those who have seen the painting – and, as usual in Donnelly, the irreverent humor is recaptured by something more deeply reflective by the end) and sensuality (as in #4, the O’Keeffe image “spread out, like sex, like sweet sugar / dropped into the milk and up comes the wave … white tongue tingles with emerald envy”).
Back to my keynote. These poems are compressions of imagery and reflection. Let yourself linger. Know that there are always more layers to them, like the “eager green stems” in the Van Gogh painting/poem, “holding hundreds of seeds,” like the “strokes of paint / radiating like halos to fill in the hole left after all the lights / went out.”
Disclosure. This book was a gift. I haven’t met Damien live, but he is in my extended circle, we have swapped poems and thoughts about poems, and I have been on his excellent podcast, which you should all link to below.
Damien’s “Eat the Storms” podcast site linked here.
Stickleback is a chapbooks series by Hedgehog Press. Damien’s chapbook (“Considering Canvases with Boys”) is number XX in the series, linked here.
My Amazon review of Damien’s other chapbook (the “Eat the Storms” chapbook) is here.
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moon, sun, water
the language of stones
a walking shadow
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Swans and apples, balcony breakfasts,
skin hunger, a touch, no, a word,
not even a word
past the cathedral
somewhere in the wind
a sound with just a memory
of meaning, of joy, of sadness
la vie en rose
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