Saturday, December 19, 2015

POESIS 41: O Fortuna from the Carmina Burana

O Fortuna
velut luna
statu variabilis,
semper crescis
aut decrescis;
vita detestabilis
nunc obdurat
et tunc curat
ludo mentis aciem,
dissolvit ut glaciem.

Sors immanis
et inanis,
rota tu volubilis,
status malus,
vana salus
semper dissolubilis,
et velata
michi quoque niteris;
nunc per ludum
dorsum nudum
fero tui sceleris.

Sors salutis
et virtutis
michi nunc contraria,
est affectus
et defectus
semper in angaria.
Hac in hora
sine mora
corde pulsum tangite;
quod per sortem
sternit fortem,
mecum omnes plangite!

O Fortune,
like the moon
you are changeable,
ever waxing
and waning;
hateful life
first oppresses
and then soothes
as fancy takes it;
and power
it melts them like ice.

Fate – monstrous
and empty,
you whirling wheel,
you are malevolent,
well-being is vain
and always fades to nothing,
and veiled
you plague me too;
now through the game
I bring my bare back
to your villainy.

Fate is against me
in health
and virtue,
driven on
and weighted down,
always enslaved.
So at this hour
without delay
pluck the vibrating strings;
since Fate
strikes down the strong man,
everyone weep with me!

19 December 2015 - Returning to O Fortuna after an absence, working with the poem while on the treadmill at the Y. Could not nail down the first stanza. Kept jumbling up. But Baudelaire's L'Albatross went well as did an initial read through of Harmonie du Soir. Although I did have some issues with Lorca's Pequeño vals Vienés. I do not typically switch back and forth. And I had also run through Estuans inters on an initial read through. So there may have been some overlapping of association. However, I generally don't have as much trouble on pieces that I have previously committed to memory, such as O Fortuna.

After having listened to it in performance and reciting for Medieval Latin pronunciation, it seems fine. In fact, my heightened state of attentiveness to it, along with listening to it being performed by someone else. appears to have engraved it ever deeper into my memory.

I often imagine what it is like to lose your memory. In fact, I am quite paranoid about it. The jumbling up of simple phrases, the holes where you feel something should be, the attempts to fill those hole with another phrase that you know is not right. All extremely disconcerting.

It is worth adding that after months and months of immersion into the Sonnets, the return to non-Shakespearian poetry - especially to non-iambic pentameter - is jarring at times, the prosody feels alien and clumsy, and I it takes me a little longer to find the rhythm, meter.

Currently, I work on non-Shakespearian pieces for about 45 minutes before switching to the Sonnets. The jarring effect works both ways. It takes a few beats to get back in line. Or lines to get back into the beat. The stronger the meter, there reality identifiable, the better in each case. For example, moving from Sonnet 73 in iambic pentameter to Poe's The Raven in trochaic octameter is an easy transition. It is also easy to glide in the Alexandrine lines of Baudelaire's L'Albatross. However, moving suddenly into the fractured fugue of Celan's Todesfuge is jarring and difficult. The music of poetry becomes as shattered glass. And the mind has to fight to commit these images and this language to memory.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Sonnet 73: Ruined Choir

That time of year thou may'st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
   This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Memory work first thing in the morning is always best. Before the internal music and dialogue of the mind gets too complicated. In fact, the more out of sorts I am in the mornings, my head still filled with the stuff of dreams, the stronger the memorization seems to be.

It is best to have three or four sonnets to focus on. My usual practice is to work on one primarily - and this is important with regard to memory - then to sort of casually move through the others. For example, this morning I am working on the sequence from 70 to 73 - with focus on 73 in particular. What happens is this:

There is a quick mumbling out loud read-through scan of the four sonnets 70 to 73.
I note strong imagery in each:
Sonnet 70: A crow that flies in Heaven's sweetest air: Crow
This imagistic line will most likely be the index image that marks the poem. So early on I am searching for that strong image that will stand out.
Sonnet 71: From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell: Worms
Sonnet 72: My name be buried where my body is: Buried Name
Sonnet 73: Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang: Choirs or
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day: Twilight - notable for being the only instance of that word in all the sonnets

There typically will be one that is a favorite, more preferred: Sonnet 73.

After reading through the others out loud, I slow down to listen to the language of 73. Here I try to puzzle out the sequence of dramatic images and begin to get inside the sonnet. Access to the interior architecture of the sonnets takes time and often it is only after having completely learned it by heart that I can begin to understand it's interior meaning.

So for now what I am interested in are the memorable elements that immediately strike out at me. With assistance Booth and Paterson, I can break the quatrains into mapping images:

Q1: Tree

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake

Q2: Day

Twilight of such day

Q3: Fire

There is also movement

from year to day to immediate temporality

That time of year / twilight of such day / glowing of such fire

from cold to hot: 

shake against the cold / glowing of such fire

from light to dark: 

behold when yellow leaves /
thou sees the twilight /
as after sunset /
black night doth take it away /

So with these mapping images in place, I work out the essential narrative:

Shakespeare tells the Young Man in three different ways that he is getting older, many believe the yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang are coded reference to his baldness. It makes no difference if this is true or not, it is a strong image to hold on to. So he's getting old and decrepit, hair falling out, his arms like old tree limbs shaking against ruined choirs in ruined cathedrals where there is only a distant memory of birdsong.

He says he is so old that he is like the twilight, which is after the sun has set below that horizon, and that the figure of black night as Death's second self is sealing up everything. There is a striking image of stitching up the eyes of the dead that is resonate.

He says he is so used up, he as a fading fire that is burning on the ashes of his former, youthful self and these ashes [empty memories] are the only fuel left to feed this flame. There is no more substantial fuel and the fire is consuming itself. [ Direst echo back to the first Sonnet. ]

Since the Young Man can see all of this and still continue to love such a balding, decrepit, blackened, and used up near dead creature indicates the Young Man's love must be strong and true.

So now I have a sense of the story of the sonnet and I start to actually memorize.

At this point it is helpful to take notice of repetition of word and phrase, meter and rhyme.

I take it a Quatrain at a time.

That time of year thou mayest in me behold

I know what the sonnet is about and can safely imagine a bleak winter as the time of year. Then I imagine this winter personified as an old man. This Old Man is beaten down with age almost equivalent with a personification of Death, something out of a Holbein print: skeletal thin, flesh hanging from his bones, scraps of hair upon his skin covered skull.

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

and since these lines are enjambed, I include the next two in my imagining:

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

I see the Old Man Shakespeare as a skeletal tree with arms for tree limbs. There is a shifting image here of the yellow autumnal leaves, now shivering on the limbs, now the limbs are bare, actually, just a few leaves remain. The tree stands in a ruined Cathedral in a bleak twilight winterscape, next to it are the remains of a ruined wooden choir, empty bird's nest visible. The cold wind shakes the branches against the choir. I can hear the rattling sound and there is the nostalgia for the song of the absent birds and, layered underneath, the singing of the choirboys when in bygone days before the Cathedral was ruined and the god departed the world.

In me thou see'st the twilight of such day, 
As after sunset fadeth in the west,  

I take note that that Q2 begins as a variation of the the first line of Q1: me thou sees / year thou mayest. Also, knowing it's a rare word in Shakespeare, I make special note of Twilight. Above the the tree with a few yellow leaves next to the ruined choir haunted with absent birdsong, it is Twilight. I can hear the poet taking a breath and speaking with a voice full of resignation. Shakespeare knows he looks the end of a long day. There is not golden sunset on his features. He is beyond that. The sun no longer shines for him. It has set below the horizon.

Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest. 

Black night and Death are waiting, seeping into the world like ink into water, eclipsing all light. The image of Black Night as Death walking slowly along, sealing the tombs with darkness, stitching up the eyes of those in sleep. Resonance with Sleep as the Brother of Death.

In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire 
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie

Q3 follows the same first line pattern, repetition as incantation, of Q2: In me thous seest. The final image of Shakespeare as the used up Old Man is the self-consuming fire. Reference back to Sonnet 1. The image is not of a burning fire throwing off light and energy, but of one that has died down to a glow, all of the wood burned to ash. I see here a few pulsing red coals on a bed of ash. Those last breaths of life.

As the death-bed whereon it must expire 
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by. 

The Pulse of the fire, that low glowing flame aura, barely hovering over the ashes, on the utmost point of going out.

   This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

And now, I see Shakespeare and the Young Man in some tavern, sitting across from each other at a table. Shakespeare with tired resigned eyes. However, the Young Man still looks upon him with love and passion. Shakespeare says, after all of this I have shown you: the balding, skeletal, blackened and used up creature, after all of this,  if you still love me, then your love must be strong. Especially to love this thing that you know will not be here very much longer.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

This forgetting is our curse

As I lay in bed earlier, I considered the distance between thought and action, whether that action be creative expression or just cleaning the apartment. At times, it seems a chasm. And the undone actions gather an almost romantic anxiety around them. They become distant and forbidding peaks of mountains ever out there on the horizon. Cloud capped castles of an opium laced dream. And I am left here in my sweat soaked bed impotent to take even the first step towards them. 

I think of Colin Wilson's Mind Parasites. What was and is still a revelation to me about that book was the day to day truth of its central conceit: that there is a parasite feeding off out our vital energies. I feel this. Of course, I feel it as an aspect of human nature and not an alien being attempting to domesticate and harvest our energies for their own use. But in my moments of paralyzed lassitude, of black depression, even the most mundane of actions seems a Herculean - better not to do it all. 

However, the instant I take action, a clarity comes over me and I see how I had been making mountains of molehills, how I had lost perspective, making fundamental errors in reasoning. The question - which I believe is at its heart a religious question - is how to keep the hold on perspective. 

This forgetting is our curse, the essence of our tragic condition.

Don't--don't hang back with the Brutes!

The apartment that where I am living is an apparent chaos of books, open boxes, papers, stacks of files and hundreds of antique shaving mugs. By these last - an inheritance of sorts - I make my livelihood. As I thread the path through it to the kitchen, I wonder if this also is a sign of the sickness, this certain disorder in my dress? A cluttered room of memory that would scandalize Simonides.

As I am heating the milk and honey, I consider that Simonides was right there in my back pocket. That's got to be a good sign. I smile at the irony that one devoted to memory practices attributed to the wily Greek might forget that name. And for the millionth time, wonder about the metaphysical mystery of Shakespeare's Young Man. That the Sonnets have, as Shakespeare himself
predicted time and time again, endured through hundreds of years as a testimony to the Young Man's beauty, but his name and identity have not.

Watched Tennessee Williams' / Kazan's Streetcar Named Desire last night. Williams is always entertaining and quotable but oddly opaque, as if the innermost watchsprings of his characters are a mystery also to him. Like Tarantino, he writes great dialogue, but to what end? It seems enough that Stanley Kowalski and Blanche Dubois are classic American archetypes, wound up to spin around the drama. But I wonder about this winding: MacGuffins stand there where primal totem poles should be, not to be questioned and existing only to power the plot along in the most entertaining way. That being said, I enjoyed the film immensely.

"Maybe we are a long way from being made in God's image, but Stella--my sister--there has been some progress since then! Such things as art--as poetry and music--such kinds of new light have come into the world since then! In some kinds of people tenderer feelings have had some little beginning! That we have got to make grow! And cling to, and hold as our flag! In this dark march toward whatever it is we're approaching. . . . Don't--don't hang back with the Brutes!"

It is just after midnight

I wake up after only a few hours of sleep. The dream is trembling there, just on the edge of being forgotten. If I keep my consciousness as still as possible, it seems as if I might be able to recollect it. I am in the middle of a room with millions of spider web threads, each connected to me. The slightest movement, difference will sever them. The intentionality of my awareness is the focused energy of a lighthouse. I try to keep it as dim as possible, but it burns through the gossamer threads of the dream, vaporizing them instantly in the light. I lay on the bed staring at nothing, the dream utterly dissipated. As it is with every other thought these days, I wonder if I am losing my mind.

I recall the first Sonnet. Recite it in lazy silence to myself, starting fast.

From fairest creatures we desire increase
That thereby Memory's Rose might never die
But as the riper should by time decease
His tender heir might bear his living...

And here I realize I've made an error. How many thousands and thousands of times have I recited Sonnet 1? Without every making that error? Beauty's Rose. Beauty's Rose. So that they quatrain finishes with "bear his living memory." That odd rhymed coupling of "never die" and "Memory." How could I forget? It is a synchdoche for the entire Sonnet sequence, a self-evident axiom, as impossible to forget as 2+2 = 4.

The dread thoughts of sickness and disease step from the shadows like a host of cartoon wolves, jackals, hyenas, snakes, foul worms and maggots. All have been down there in the rag and bone shop of my mind, gorging upon the memories that make up my mind. The totems of the Sonnets, ritually placed around the clearing of my being, have served their purpose. Like watchmen on the towers or canaries in the coal mines, by their alert and alteration, diminishment or decay, I know the Memory Worms have now arrived, those eggs of disease have now hatched and the maggots are voraciously feasting upon the essence of all that I am.

I return to the presence of Sonnet 1 and recite that entirety without error. With a sign of slight relief, as that relief one feels after checking that the doors are locked on a dark night, I rise from the bed to begin my day. It is just after midnight.