I like to do requests when I can, and sadly I was not able to fulfill one last week about Erictho, the amazing witch who appears in Book VI of Civil War. Not only that, but David beat me to it with this excellent post, which you should absolutely read if a grisly witch “in touch with the genuine puppetmaster: not merely abstract Fortune, but the celestial watchmaker of the evil watch himself” sounds like fun to you. (It is.)
So instead of repeating much I’d want to from his post, I’ll use Erictho instead as another window into the discussion of Fortune and the idea that “knowledge is at best useless, and at worst a curse.” Over the course of Book VI, Caesar and Pompey end up in Thessaly, which an editor of my Penguin Classics edition helpfully summarizes as being “a cursed land, long fated and well prepared for this world cataclysm of Roman civil war” because of “geography, mythology, and history.” This is where Sextus consults Erictho. He does so “[s]purred by fear to foreknow the course of Fate”:
impatient with waiting, sick from everything coming, he doesn’t consult Delos’ tripods, or Pythia’s caves, nor is willing to find out what Dodona—who nursed us with first fruits—would sound from Jupiter’s bronzes, or who could discern fates in entrails, or read birds, or watch the flashing sky and scrutinize the stars with Assyrian worry, or any other kind of secret that is permissible. He investigated things the gods above detest, savage Magis’ arcane lore and altars sad with funeral rites, trusting in shades and Dis, and pitifully he was certain the gods above know far too little.
Instead, he goes to see the wicked witch of eastern Greece, who deals not with the gods above but
Continue reading “Unlock the abodes of Elysium and call forth/Death herself, and force her to confess to me/which ones of us she’s hunting.”
The first poem in Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony & God is called “The Glass Essay,” and if you’re anything like me, the title might seem odd. Essay? As Guy Davenport’s introduction to the collection explains, though, Carson’s poems can seem like verse essays: “She writes in a kind of mathematics of the emotions, with daring equations and recurring sets and subsets of images. As with Matthew Arnold, truth and observation are more important than lyric effect or coloring. If a good line happens, it happens.” This seems just slightly unfair since good lines happen more often than not, but it’s accurate.
“The Glass Essay” is, roughly, the story of the aftermath of a breakup between the narrator and her partner Law, after which she goes back home to spend time with her mother (her father is in an elder care home). There is a fair amount of narrative about her activities with her mother, her walks on the moor, and her dreams, many of which are disturbing and features “nudes” that she uses to help guide her on her way to recovery. All this is mixed in with anecdotes and musings on Emily Brontë, a woman with powerful emotions and plenty of sexual energy in her work, though she apparently knew nothing of men and hardly anything even of people outside her own family.
The poem is lovely, but emotional content runs high. I wouldn’t say it was “difficult to read,” but it’s not exactly an upper. A representative passage about Law:
Perhaps the hardest thing about losing a lover is to watch the year repeat its days. It is as if I could dip my hand down
into time and scoop up blue and green lozenges of April heat a year ago in another country.
I can feel
Continue reading “The Glass Essay” by Anne Carson
Robert Nichols, a fellow English war poet, wrote an introduction to Siegfried Sassoon’s 1918 collection Counter-Attack and Other Poems that is reprinted in my Dover Edition of the War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon. In it, Nichols recounts a conversation he once had with Sassoon, on the topic of “certain exalté poems in [Nichols's] Ardours and Endeavours.” Sassoon likes the poems, and says:
“War has made me. I think I am a man now as well as a poet. You have said the things well enough. Now let us nevermore say another word of whatever litlte may be good in war for the individual who has a heart to be steeled.”
I remember I nodded, for further acquaintance with war inclines me to his opinion.
“Let no one ever,” he continued, “from henceforth say a word in any way countenancing war. It is dangerous even to speak of how here and there the individual may gain some hardship of soul by it. For war is hell and those who institute it are criminals. Were there anything to say for it, it should not be said for its spiritual disasters far outweigh any of its advantages.”
War poems are, in some sense, a kind of Remembrance. Many are about individual fallen comrades; many more refer to the unnamed dead. Ghosts are everywhere, and dying men are everywhere, suffering and taking their last breaths. The poems are a record of horror and calamity, and many are also accusations.
How then does one read the poems without thinking of the “hardship of soul” Sassoon gained by the war? It was the war that allowed him to see and understand these things, and the war that allowed him to develop into the poet he did. His poems could only have been written by someone who
Continue reading “Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.”
On Tuesday, one of the poems I wrote about, “To Any Dead Officer,” ends very bluntly, as I noted: “I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.” This kind of bluntness is characteristic, especially as a sort of epigrammatic last line to Sassoon’s poems. “Trench Duty” ends, “I’m wide awake; and some chap’s dead.” “The General,” one of Sassoon’s turns at the vulgarly humorous side of war poetry, finishes abruptly and unfunnily for our two comic actors: “But he did for them both by his plan of attack.” “The One Legged Man” last “thought: ‘Thank God they had to amputate!’”
One of the most powerful uses of this blunt instrument is in “Repressions of War Experience,” a poem about a demobbed soldier who is badly shell-shocked. The poem is off-putting in many ways. Sassoon abandons his usual clear if somewhat irregular stanzas for a more open form, and the narrator seems to drift through this open form just as his consciousness, troubled as it is, drifts illogically from one topic to the next (“And you’re right as rain…./Why won’t it rain?…”) Like “To Any Dead Officer,” this poem deals with Sassoon’s view of the afterlife, and like many of his war poems has a strong hint of nature about it.
There must be crowds of ghosts among the trees,— Not people killed in battle,—they’re in France,— But horrible shapes in shrouds—old men who died Slow, natural deaths,—old men with ugly souls, Who wore their bodies out with nasty sins.
There is very little logic to this former soldier’s thoughts, but there is a logic to ghosts, for him: they are here, but not the ones he knew—those ones are back where they died, of course.
The narrator’s mind continues to wander as he complains about constantly hearing guns, and
Continue reading “What silly beggars they are to blunder in/And scorch their wings with glory, liquid flame”
On Monday, Dwight pointed me to an article in The Guardian about new poems by Sassoon recently unearthed by his biographer. As reported, these poems “show how the young poet, who joined his battalion in France in November 1915, did not immediately plunge into writing angry poetry about the horrors of his experience, rather seeing war at first as a heroic venture.”
“It surprised me because we always had this idea that Sassoon, when he went out to France, would have changed instantly from his heroic ideal of war to an anger that burst over into his poetry,” [Dr. Jean Moorcroft Wilson] told the BBC. “So when he gets there you’re not surprised to find him talking about the trenches. But when I found this trench diary, after the angry war poems I found there were poems that were full of the glory of war and the idea that war is a heroic venture.”
Having just spent quite a bit of time with Sassoon, I would like nothing more than to see these poems—my curiosity is aroused, and I’m in as good a position as I’ll ever be to judge how they fit in with the rest of Sassoon’s work. But only a tiny “snippet” of these newfound poems has been revealed:
You and the winds ride out together Your company the world’s great weather The clouds your plume, the glittering sky A host of swords in harmony With the whole loveliness of light flung forth to lead you through the fight
[I imagine there should have been a line break after "light," but it's not in the article.]
This was written sometime in 1916, we learn, the same year Sassoon went to fight. But even with the obvious interpretation so plausible—that “Sassoon, like most young
Continue reading Sassoon in the news—who knew?
Yesterday I ended with a question about Sassoon’s bitterness. Today I want to discuss a theme in many of Sassoon’s poems that is often treated more sweetly than you might expect: death. I mean here the state of death, the afterlife in the most literal sense possible—what happens after life ends.
Sassoon speculates often on what death is like, and though he has several reuseable phrases at hand to euphemise it—“gone out patrolling in the dark”, “beyond the wire”, “gone West”—even these are poignant and not (yet?) cliché. Sassoon’s attitute toward death is one of curiosity and interest; that curiosity may be tinged with sadness but it’s motivated by the care and love he feels for his dead comrades. Here, in “To Any Dead Officer,” he begins:
Well, how are things in Heaven? I wish you’d say, Because I’d like to know that you’re all right. Tell me, have you found everlasting day, Or been sucked in by everlasting night?
Elsewhere these attitudes toward death verge on the playful. In “The Investitute,” a soldier makes his way through the pearly gates, where “God says something kind because you’re dead,/And homesick, discontented with your fate.”
If I were there we’d snowball Death with skulls; Or ride away to hunt in Devil’s Wood With ghosts of puppies that we walked of old. But you’re alone; and solitude annuls Our earthly jokes; and strangely wise and good You roam forlorn along the streets of gold.
These lines, like the ones I quoted yesterday, are a good example of Sassoon’s frequent use of juxtaposition: skull snowballs and puppy ghosts. The puppy ghosts are almost a double juxtaposition; just as the sad ghost conflicts with the cute puppy, the resultant creepy image of ghost-puppies conflicts with what Sassoon is really talking about here, beloved old
Continue reading More on Siegfried Sassoon, bitter and sweet
Why not have a week on Siegfried Sassoon? I mean to say, on his war poems. I can name a few good reasons: I’m not even really supposed to have read them yet; I probably ought to be writing about a lot of other things first; should one shortish book of poetry really make up a week? But as Tom suggested, these war poets make good guinea pigs for poetry-blogging, and Sassoon seems a good place to start.
Anthony recently posted on one of the problems with reading and writing history, quoting a review in the TLS by Joanna Bourke that states that ”it is noticeable that elaborate recitations on the horrors of war do not necessarily translate into a politics of non-violence.”
Geoff Dyer is fairly quick to point this out in The Missing of the Somme.
For all their abhorrence of war the poets of protest like Owen, Sassoon and Graves continued—for very different reasons—to wage it. Dominic Hibberd has pointed out how the official citation for Owen’s Military Cross refers to his having ‘personally manipulated a captured enemy M[achine] G[un]…and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy’; in the Collected Letters Owen’s family offer a milder rewrite of the citation, in which he ‘personally captured an enemy Machine Gun…and took a number of prisoners’. Sassoon seems to have oscillated between bouts of frenzied violence and bitter loathing of the war that unleased this strain in him. Graves recalls that he ‘had never seen such a fire-eater as [Sassoon]—the number of Germans whom I killed or caused to be killed could hardly be compared with his wholesale slaughter’.
Wholesale slaughter. And this a war poet—a protest poet, that is, who wrote beautifully, heartbreakingly beautifully, on the calamity he witnessed—and perpetrated. Something we should always make sure
Continue reading “The Kiss” by (and more on) Siegfried Sassoon
Kathleen Rooney’s book of poetry, Oneiromance: an epithalamion, is one among several beautiful, extremely human, and extremely thoughtful pieces of literature I’ve read lately on marriage and coupling, and one I would be happy to give to any brides or grooms (if I knew any). It’s divided into six parts: two on a Brazilian wedding (first part the bride’s, second the grooms), two on a Midwestern wedding (same split), a Niagara Falls honeymoon (for the Midwestern couple?) and an epilogue, the epithalamion itself. The titles of most of the poems describe them as a “dream,” but they could just as easily be daydreams as real ones; the Niagara trip is a “scrapbook” instead, and the honeymoon portions of the Brazilian wedding have no special descriptor. The weddings are dreams, the post-weddings not, though both are told in the same snatches of vision and emotion.
It’s impossible to choose a favorite or most meaningful section here; the whole is cohesive and self-referential, with dreamlike imagery encouraging a dreamlike state that, as Sidney Wade blurbs on the back of the book, creates a “poetry of celebbration that doesn’t dismiss darkness but pulls it into hte dance,” and “ends on a quietly moving note that feels both satisfying and true.”
Well-advised by Tom and Emily to just get to the words, damnit, I will. In “Midwestern Groom: Dream No. 1,” “[t]he groom speeds the highway/on the way to his wedding,” contemplating the meaning of his new title: groom. Grooms care for horses; he thinks of the horses on the side of the road.
They toss their tails, they flip their manes. The groom contemplates husbandry. They may have names, but no one remembers, just like those cheerleaders: slutty, anorexic, pretty at one time. A groom is the male participant
Continue reading “Sing it for the bride on her way to the chamber”—Kathleen Rooney’s Oneiromance
down among the old- for-America tall buildings that changed the streets of other cities, circulate elevated trains overhead, shrieking and drumming, lit by explosions of sparks that harm no one
The title of Slow Trains Overhead, a collection of poems and stories by Reginald Gibbons, comes from a different passage in that poem, “Adams & Wabash.” The combination in a single volume of one of my favorite literary forms with the one I probably find most intimidating and least accessible made for an unusual but ultimately rewarding reading experience.
I’m rather a fan of regional literature, and literature that focuses on places I’ve lived or know well has been an interest for a long time. That provided, at least, one point of access to the poems in the collection. Knowing I had been to the place and seen the thing being described or alluded to gave a baseline of comprehension. But I’m still not very “good” at reading poems, whatever that might mean, and the fact that so many seemed to be on almost identical subjects or themes—isolation in the city, work, family, distance from nature—meant that what at first seemed beautiful or powerful eventually began to lose much of its force.
The stories, while not all equally good, were much more effective for me. Most are really more like vignettes, just a page or two describing a single scene. One of the more substantial, “A Car,” makes it to a whopping 4.5 pages, but seems to full encapsulate a city life of a type we’ve become familiar with: single woman, small dog, small job, small quotidian world. That dreary repetitiveness is broken briefly, and in a very small way, when she hears “the wheels of a car spinning, the engine racing, whining,” and knows it doesn’t belong
Continue reading Slow Trains Overhead by Reginald Gibbons
Letter-writing is hardly a modern activity, and there were many epistolographers among the ancients I would like to read someday. I went with fiction: Ovid’s Heroides, a series of fictional letters between mythic figures. The first group are all single letters from a woman to a man; these are followed by three exchanges.
The verse letters give voice to some very famous women (and men): Penelope, Ariadne, Dido, Medea, Paris, Helen… They are stylized and exotic in an ancient sort of way—much rending of clothes from breasts and tearing of hair—but Ovid imbues each character with very recognizable human emotions. Most of the stories are of love lost, women scorned, &tc., all very dramatic.
The epistolary form is relevant here. Harold Isbell, in his very helpful notes, explains that we see, for example, a different side of Medea than Ovid shows in the Metamorphoses, whose “narrator…though apparently all-knowing, quite often misses the subjective states of a character while the objective facts of a character’s actions are recited with apparent accuracy.” Medea’s letter, on the other hand, is all about her subjective state—and she doesn’t exactly have the same opinion of herself we do. Her letter to Jason is particularly vivid:
I have subdued serpents and raging bulls, but a single man I could not control; I have turned back the raging fire with cunning potions, but I cannot turn aside the consuming flames of my desire. My spells, my herbs and all my skill have left me; my goddess has forsaken me, and Hecate ignores the sacrifice I make.
The letter form provides something else for Ovid to take advantage of, a knowledge problem that goes very well with his sense of irony. Letter-writers know only what they know at the time of writing. In epistolary novels, this can often
Continue reading Heroides by Ovid