Tag Archives: Melville

Tuesday Poem: “A Traveler Wrecked in Seas of Time” by Zireaux

The Little Prince

'...those secluded asteroid isles / where Saint-Exupéry’s prince is taken'

This post is dedicated to Ms. Daisy Green, whose favorite poem is Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith.” She has requested some verses, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to track down the exact stanza — or stanzas — she desires. I offer these as a possibility:

What made my island so unique?

She wasn’t like the others – I mean
those storied isles which through the ages
have charmed lost sailors, thinkers, sages,
attracted whalers, artists, libertines;
imprisoned rebels, convicts, exiles,
and men who crave prohibited sex-styles
(I’m thinking here of one poor Dutchman,
three hundred years ago, who for
that foul offense of being a “touch-man”
was left upon Ascension’s shore
to starve, with just his pen to rise in);
nor like those isles of demons, sirens,
harpies, sea-nymphs, Amazonians,
the ghosts of kings, the Laestrygonians;

or islands in clouds and welkin mists
where fairies live and Peter Pan
and Prospero and Caliban;
those secret realms of scientists,
deranged inventors like Zoreau
(strange typo, that, I meant Moreau!);
or isolated isles where names
find glory in their quarantines,
as Robben spread Mandela’s fame,
or Rikers sold ‘low-riding’ jeans,
or Château d’If changed Dantès to Cristo,
or what’s that island in San Francisco
where tourists flock (just as we know
they’ll one day tour Guantánamo)?

Like none of those my darling was!
Like none of those which constellate
the sphere of books! And oh what great
a sum, what range of islands does
a reader find who journeys far!
What different shapes and styles there are!
How many sea-enveloped lands
have given beds to castaways
and shipwrecked sailors! From ancient sands
which sifted through debris to raise
a slave of Egypt from the surf
and rest him on a verdant turf
all trimmed with grain and incense, lakes
and rivers, ivory, apples, snakes;

to isles of cannibals and skin-mad
colossi who crave that most delicious
cuisine: captive à la carte (Ulysses
blinded the Cyclops; so did Sinbad,
who also met – another chapter
if I recall – an island raptor
who bombed his ship with monstrous stones);
to all those vile-lands that troubled poor Jason,
that isle of rank and murderous crones,
that iceberg isle that nearly encased him;
the isle of Talos, brute of bronze;
the Tohus and Bohus, the Macreons
and all those island beasts that thrive
in Pantegruel, books four and five;

to island-reigning centaurs, dragons,
unicorns, those poor Jurassic
dinosaurs (see Crichton’s classic),
the Liliputians, Brobingnagians,
isles of warring kings and queens
and flying islands rarely seen
against the shimmering azure;
that penguin island France once faked;
ideal, imagined isles, obscure
utopias designed to make
more sense of this, our spinning isle
that hurls each second eighteen miles
around a flaring island sun!

Line none of those she was! Like none

South Pacific

'...sweet Liat on Bali-ha’i / who captivates that Cable guy'

of those secluded asteroid isles
where Saint-Exupéry’s prince is taken,
the isles of Huxley, Lawrence, Bacon,
and countless other islophiles;
Tahitian isles, the warm Marquesas,
or many other South Sea places
where traveling men would sate
there savage needs, and Melville found
his chirping Fay, and Loti’s mate
was courted, bedded, Christian-gowned
and wedded; and countless seraphinas
were inspired – like Wells’s Weena,
that girl who charms (in muted mime)
a traveler wrecked in seas of time;

or what’s her name (she’s also speechless),
oh yes, sweet Liat on Bali-ha’i
who captivates that Cable guy
– and O! Those balmy, palmy beaches!
The coral bays and floral leis,
where hula dancers gaily sway
to songs the ukuleles play…
O how these sumptuous island gardens
are like idyllic fruit buffets
inviting hungry packs of bards in!

And these are just in books! The oceans
of print! How many other island notions,
how many castaways, remade
Atlantisis and Robinsonades,

how many pirates and buried medallions
and secret island laboratories,
tribes of children, animal stories,
island dogs and shipwrecked stallions,
how many blessed isles appear
in other seas! In other spheres
of art! Those same nymphets exist
in Gauguin’s isles and slept with Brando
and in some movie version kissed
a stranded World War II commando;
on TV isles the same survivors
are landed to swallow bugs alive, or
meet that pair on Fantasy’s Wharf,
one debonair, the other a dwarf.

Those little humps of sand, the lone
dejected palm in those cartoons;
or groups of Giligans marooned
upon some island twilight zone.
Like none of those, I say! Unique,
I tell you! Barren, black and bleak!
A spec of sand, a bit of grit
within a vault of priceless gems;
that’s all she was – an isle unfit
beside her peers, eclipsed by them.
And yet, O reader, the fact is this:
Her matchless unattractiveness
– a somber rock of few pursuers –
is what most drew your poet to her.

_________
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“Requiem,” by John Updike

Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)

Requiem
by
John Updike

It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
“Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise — depths unplumbable!”

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”

For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.

John Updike in 2005

John Updike in 2005


Zireaux’s comments on this poem:
It’s fair to say — or no, it’s correct to say, it’s absolutely truthful to say — that John Updike was primarily a poet.

Even if Updike had never written his eight books of verse (including his posthumous Endpoint and Other Poems, from which the above sample is taken), I can’t see how any reader of Updike’s 21 novels, or his 15 short story collections, or his eight collections of essays and criticism, or his five children’s books, or his play, his memoir — or any of his hundreds of articles and reviews — how any reader of any one of these works could think otherwise.

“I thought he died a while ago.” Yes, they would say that. But they’d also say: “I never knew he wrote poetry.”

How can this be?

The best English novels — and I’m referring here to a very select group of wonders, by writers such as Joyce, Melville, Nabokov, Kipling, George Elliot and yes, Updike — are the fullest expressions of poetry achieved in the language. It’s much harder to think of a master novelist who was not a poet at heart — H.G. Wells, surprisingly, appears to have written nothing but a few lines of verse in Ann Veronica and some other forgotten story — than it is to recall a storyteller of significance who didn’t, at some early stage in life, discover and drink the magic potion of poetry (key ingredient on its label: lyrical metaphor) before setting off on a journey to some Novelayan peak.

At the refined establishment of prose, however, the poet is instructed to remove both wings and hat upon entering the premises; and once inside, our poor sylph is plied with cheap beer and two-dollar cocktails until passing out cold in a bathroom stall with mass-market graffiti on the walls.

A much admired critic, friend and voracious reader once described a small post of mine about a poetic delight in Melville’s Moby Dick with the teaser: “Zireaux explains why he believes Herman Melville is a poet” — as if Melville’s poetic credentials were debatable, or required some explanation. Regardless of whether Moby Dick, the novel, is a work of poetry (it is, of course), one fact can’t be disputed: Melville himself, like Updike, was indeed a poet. Melville wrote many great poems, including an epic poem called Clarabel: A Poem and Pilgrimage to the Holy Land (1876), which he considered one of his few masterworks.

Requiem begins with a nice little joke — the idea that Updike’s literary weight problem only came to him “the other day,” so near to his death. Surely he had more than a mirror to measure his girth, the corpulence of his corpus so to speak. As I mentioned in a review of his Essays and Criticism, Updike was quite able to stand naked on the bathroom scale, and he fully understood the tastes of posterity: It “tends to give novelists a longer ride on one or two big books,” he wrote, thinking of Proust, “than on a raft of smaller ones.”

If anyone could be untroubled by his ever-widening output, it’s Updike, always letting himself go. Whereas most poets fear the shabby and the shallow, or create their own imagined depths, Updike embraced the puerile and the trashy. He found his beauty less in the magnum, less in the monumental, than in the fatty excess of commercial Americana: the candy-bar wrapper discarded on the broken macadam; the contents of suburban refrigerators and closets; a boyish passion for cars; the darkest details of marriage and divorce. Life is “shabby,” he writes, and “death is real, and dark, and huge” — such perfect commas, the pauses of a profound admission.

Even if the raft on which Updike floats is composed with just a few tree-trunk novels, and the rest with branches and twigs, and girlie magazines, microwave popcorn, discarded condoms, and (rummaging through his story, “Learn a Trade”) driftwood sculptures, refrigerator magnets, collages of beach-glass, deflated footballs, cardboard circuses, gadgets whose batteries have given out — it’s still a barge of beauty, magnificent and colorful; and it is his poetry that twines it all together; his poetry that will give this great American bard a very long ride.

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“To Contradiction” (My India Tour Continued) by Zireaux

Indian Film Star, Sushmita Sen

Indian Film Star, Sushmita Sen

A distant homeland, far-off terra.
And when I spoke to little Clara
on Sheela’s cell-phone yesterday,
she asked me why I’ve kept away.

“My work,” I wept. “How’s your brother?”

“He’s fine,” she said.

                               My Clara’s smart.
I spoke of beauty, love and art,
then heard a voice:

                                “Who’s that?”

                                                      Her mother.

The line went dead and how it died
was obvious — a homicide.

Now ask my Clara what has happened!
Ask five-year-old, precocious Jake!
What gales of sense their minds will flap in,
what flights of fancy they will take!
Who knows what trumped-up sort of traitor
I am — a Voldermort or Vader?
Or just another man remiss,
a Crusoe to their Family Swiss?
Or maybe something better, Wells’s
adventurer, or even Swift’s?
On what soft wind or dreamy drift
of thought, or mum-propulsioned swell is
their absent father carried on?
What lands are dreamt? What maps are drawn?

O Contradiction! Neutral zealot!
You are the mirror dandies kiss.
You show the face and even sell it,
with lips impossible to miss…
then watch as puckered papules crash-in
to glassy, stone-cold, anti-passion!
Judicious tyrant, the clef, the thing
which holds the notes all Byrons sing.

"...these vain young men / who hangle from a crippled, wheezing / municipal bus..."

"...these vain young men / who hangle from a crippled, wheezing / municipal bus..."

No poetry can be constructed
without your mix of kings and slaves,
the sort of things your skill and luck did
for Shakespeare’s globe and Melville’s waves;
What monuments you’ve built, smart fellow!
Your Eiffel Proust, Chicago’s Bellow,
immense designs with concrete walls
and dainty streams and waterfalls;
and you, a tiny, scarred and ugly
philanderer with silver hair
and secret kids from two affairs;
and strong opinions brandished smugly
from dingy offices in which
you dig your quarry (and your ditch).

This world, reader! See it shiver
to life? The swallows skim across
the dusky brown and red-rust river
to leave a trail of silver floss.
No hearts will ever show more feeling,
or hold endearments more revealing,
that those which love Sushmita Sen
and throb inside these vain young men
who hangle from a crippled, wheezing
municipal bus (these men — poor dears! —
if they could tune their off-key ears,
perhaps they’d sing without eve-teasing.
And Sen might hear a deeper love
than any Bachchan’s1 spoken of;

and let’s not close this parenthetical
without an arrow shot up high
and tipped with fire most heretical,
and aimed directly toward Mumbai.
Toward you, great actors! And you, believers,
who worship them! We pay deceivers
to thrill us on the screen — and this
they do. But careful. Don’t dismiss
or over-praise -– they’ll turn their acting
to life, and start to star off-screen,
and make a living making scenes
they know will be most fan-attracting;
a puja, say, with feet unshod,
as if their role were cast by God).

Amitabh Bachchan performing his famous barefoot puja.

Actor Amitabh Bachchan performing his famous barefoot puja.

O how it gives the world dimension!
Or maybe it is something else;
and all examples of dissension
are really just strange parallels
of chance; a cosmic deck of cards might
confine (or circumscribe!) what bards write.
(And maybe Douglass Adams knew
the key to life is 52!).
But I trust you, dear Contradiction,
to be my muse (for now). I know
your strict neutrality can grow
fantastic realms without restriction,
and like this world of ours set free
an infinite plurality!

For those who say our world is shrinking
(there are pizza parlors in Chennai!)
are stricken by a lack of thinking.
Quot hominês, tot sententiae.2
For how the world expands with every
new birth and brain; each pod of reverie
a dynasty! A fresh campaign
of conquest! Fifteenth century Spain
repeated every .4 seconds
(or so the population clock
keeps time). This India could stock
another Spain, it’s reckoned,
in just one year! Despite such facts,
still people claim the world contracts.

And this, precisely this initial
assumption (worse than a cliché!)
is what transforms the superficial
— the Nike shoes, or Starbucks, say —
from bridges tempting mass migration
to Bering Straits of separation.
I side with Kipling here! The “twain”
may share a coffee, entertain
each other, come to understandings
— but like the stars and galaxies
which travel through the blackest seas
of space (that always are expanding)
their gravities can’t overcome
that first-force which they started from.

______________________
1Amitabh Bachchan, the most famous and prolific film star of all time.
2As many men, so many opinions.

Read more about my poetry tour of India…

 

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Part II of Lines from Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

Ivan Aivazovsky's The Ninth Wave

Ivan Aivazovsky's The Ninth Wave

For next Tuesday’s Poem I’ve asked Immortal Muse to purchase the reprint rights to Lee O’Neal’s delightful poem about the 2003 America’s Cup regatta, “Interview with the Wind.” The Muse has dutifully agreed; and we’ll conclude our children-vs-nature theme with that poem.

In the meantime, I’ll add some ballast to my claim that paragraph 4 of Moby Dick‘s 114th chapter represents one of the most impressive paragraphs in American literature. I’ve elucidated its poetic qualities (briefly). Take a moment to view the ordinary objects of your world — the trees and plants around your home, a shampoo bottle, a sandwich, an overweight cat, a fortune-telling octopus — as children, as toddlers, infants, babes; and you will experience an unquestionably poetic vision. “Grass is itself a child,” writes Whitman, “the produced babe of the vegetation.”

Apart from a few references to Ahab’s son, or sailors as children, or Ahab himself as a kind of orphaned hell-child, children are rarely mentioned in Moby Dick. But Ishmael’s poetic vision in Chapter 114 — his seeing children in the waves, “sleeping in these solitudes” (still 21 chapters before the Epilogue) — brilliantly foreshadows not just the eventual drowning of his shipmates (Ahab’s children) with the sinking of the Pequod, but the very last line of the book, where Ishmael is rescued by a ship named The Rachel. “It was the devious-cruising Rachel,” Ishmael concludes, “that in her retracing search after her missing children, found only another orphan.”

It’s sometimes said that poets retain the minds of children. Or that children are naturally poetic. Neither is true. But the poet as a kind of orphan, a free-floating exile, unbound to any ship — a state which characterizes a well-nurtured child — this seems an essential ingredient to so many great works of art. (For additional comments on the poet as exile, see my review of Barbara Reynold’s fascinating biography of Dante).

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Lines from Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

“The long-drawn virgin vales; the mild blue hillsides; as over these there steals the hush, the hum; you almost swear that play-wearied children lie sleeping in these solitudes, in some glad May-time, when the flowers of the woods are plucked. And all this mixes with your most mystic moods; so that fact and fancy, halfway meeting, interpenetrate, and form one seamless whole.”


Zireaux’s comments on this poem:
Speaking of the sea, speaking of children (see last Tuesday’s Poem), let us ride on one of Melville’s waves: The fourth paragraph of Chapter 114 (“The Gilder”) of Moby Dick. Feel the rocking onomatopoeia of his phrasing, the lurch and lull of his commas, the rolling motion of the “m”s, the spewing pitch of his spondees (“long-drawn,” “mild blue,” “glad May,” “halfway,” that frame-rattling “interpenetrate”).

Ivan Aivazovsky's The Billowing Sea

A poem such as this — and one finds countless such poems in Moby Dick — should not be attempted without experienced sea-legs; or no, an oxygen tank, so high can it swell, into such thin air can it lift the unsuspecting voyager. In my long, mood-mixing conversations with Herman — who once stayed with me as a year-long guest in a cliff-side house above an orca-filled Wellington Harbor, New Zealand, 1999 — his thoughts would always return to that “seamless whole.”

Here he compares the ocean to land, waves to virgin vales and blue hillsides; and thus, despite the sea-level setting of Moby Dick, we can place its poetry on literature’s highest mountain peaks without fear of some metaphorical mismatch. By the time the introverted father of four became an honest Customs Inspector on Gansevoort Street, Manhattan, dear Herman was first and foremost a poet. At the shivering altitudes of his brilliance we find only Walt Whitman, a precise contemporary of Herman’s, sniffing at the snow — sniffing, I mean, at real snow, “For there is a scent to everything,” writes Whitman in Leaves of Grass, “even the snow.” (Tell this to Wallace Stevens, see comments on “Poems of our Climate”); and at last, at last, having never met in the world of the living (imagine!), the two great poets can sit together, play-wearied, on that poetic peak, on that frozen water, that land-sea of life, high above the America they composed.

Read Part II of this post…

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