27 May 2012

The Untouchable

by John Banville 

In a letter to his friend Paul Fréart de Chantelou in 1649, Poussin, referring to the execution of Charles I, makes the following observation: "It is a true pleasure to live in a century in which such great events take place, provided that one can take shelter in some little corner and watch the play in comfort." The remark is expressive of the quietism of the later Stoics, and of Seneca in particular. There are times when I wish I had lived more in accordance with such a principle. Yet who could have remained inactive in this ferocious century? Zeno and the earlier philosophers of his school held that the individual has a clear duty to take a hand in the events of his time and seek to mould them to the public good. This is another, more vigorous form of Stoicism. In my life I have exemplified both phases of the philosophy. When I was required to, I acted, in full knowledge of the ambiguity inherent in that verb, and now I have come to rest -- or no, not rest: stillness. Yes: I have some to stillness.
         Today, however, I am all agitation. The Death of Seneca is going for cleaning and valuation. Am I making a mistake? The valuers are very dependable, very discreet, they know me will, yet I cannot suppress the unfocused doubts that keep flying up in me darkly like a flock of restless starlings at the approach of night. What if the cleaners damage it, or in some other way deprive me of it, my last solace? The Irish say, when a child turns from its parents, that it is making strange; it comes from the belief that fairy folk, a jealous tribe, would steal a too-fair human babe and leave a changeling in its place. What if my picture comes back and I find that it is making strange? What if I look up from my desk some day and see a changeling before me?
          It is still on the wall; I cannot summon up the courage to lift it down. It looks at me as my six-year-old son did that day when I told him he was to be sent to boarding school. It is a produce of the artist’s last years, the period of the magnificent, late flowering of his genius, of The Seasons, of Apollo and Daphne, and the Hagar fragment. I have dated it tentatively to 1642. It is unusual among these final works, which taken together form a symphonic meditation on the grandeur and power of nature in her different aspects, shifting as it does from landscape to interior, from the outer to the inner world, from public life to the domestic. Here nature is present only in the placid view of distant hills and forest framed in the window above the philosopher’s couch. The light in which the scene is bathed has an unearthly quality, as if it were not daylight, but some other, paradisal radiance. Although its subject is tragic, the picture communicates a sense of serenity and simple grandeur that is deeply, deeply moving. The effect is achieved through the subtle and masterful organisation of colours, these blues and golds, and not-quite-blues and not-quite-golds, that lead the eye from the dying man in his marmoreal pose -- already his own effigy, as it were -- through the two slaves, and the officer of the Guard, awkward as a warhorse in his buckles and helmet, to the figure of the philosopher’s wife, to the servant girl preparing the bath in which the philosopher will presently be immersed, and on at last to the window and the vast, calm world beyond, where death awaits.
         I am afraid.

(pp. 180-182)

20 May 2012

Four by Fargas

Translated Either As 'Experience' Or 'Suffering'
In the Agamemnon, wisdom comes dripping
like saline on a cancer ward.
Approaching what is merciless in us with mercy,
following pain back like a red thread toward its source.
Some say it's matter of noticing we're already inside.
Pathei mathos. Something teaches us. The moth at the lamp,
the lesson braided in the wick.


At Poplar Pond
There are angels right there between those trees.
Don't be frightened, I'm not seeing things.
The spaces we call empty are full of—
not tree, not sky, but us. We station our angels
aloft to mark our place in the holy ordinariness.
So these simples—chalky water, poplar,
moth-flown light—are that blind, sacred flesh.

A Little Champagne Music
Should there be a poetry of men? "Why do you suppose
everyone's writing about God these days?"
Taffy-colored hair and damselflies, amaryllis
vulgar as a flatted horn, clavicles and happenstance.
We should be coupling and uncoupling like the Atchison,
Topeka, and the Santa Fe. Our daily bread
and foxtrot. And a-one and a-two . . .

If There Is A
If there is a God, he has a lot to answer for.
Crocuses, purple cups that bloom through snow.
Cerulean, cornflower, azure, turquoise, ultramarine.
Mist of round haybales along the Sand Road
just after 5 a.m., when the foxes go to ground.
Not only the obvious evils, but also these other things
we should not mistake for easy.

by Laura Fargas

13 May 2012


Galway Kinnell

One day, when they were little, Maud and Fergus
appeared in the doorway, naked and mirthful,
with a dozen long garter snakes draped over
each of them like brand-new clothes.
Snake tails dangled down their backs,
and snake foreparts in various lengths
fell over their fronts, heads raised
and swaying, alert as cobras.
They writhed their dry skins
upon each other, as snakes like doing
in lovemaking, with the added novelty
of caressing soft, smooth, moist human skin.
Maud and Fergus were deliciously pleased with themselves.
The snakes seemed to be tickled too.
We were enchanted. Everyone was in love.
Then Maud drew down off Fergus’s shoulder,
as off a tie rack, a peculiarly
lumpy snake and told me to look inside.
Inside that double-hinged jaw, a frog’s green
webbed hind feet were being drawn,
like a diver’s, very slowly as if into deepest waters.
Perhaps thinking I might be considering rescue,
Maud said, “Don’t. Frog is already elsewhere.”

Lisel Mueller
After the kill, there is the feast.
And toward the end, when the dancing subsides
and the young have sneaked off somewhere,
the hounds, drunk on the blood of the hares,
begin to talk of how soft
were their pelts, how graceful their leaps,
how lovely their scared gentle eyes.

06 May 2012


               Diane Blakely Shoat

Bones litter this grass. The moon grows
full and rises like my mother's eye,
though milk-white and blind as hers never was.
She knew my secrets: I remember waking
from a childhood dream to find her beside me,
her gigantic palm drawn back to erase
what I'd seen there and wanted to sail toward
forever, my mouth tasting salt breeze. Moonlight
streamed through our cave. Her breasts
shown white in the flash of her gesture;
I took the bright nipples for stars.

But even she's gone. I'm tall as my brother;
when I was twelve he set out in a ship
half as big as this island, crafted
from the timbers of wrecks. Gulls wheeled
around sails so enormous they must have thought
they'd flown too high, were beating their wings
against clouds. Some panicked and died
in the wind-tautened mainsheet; from short
I could see the shimmer of hundreds of feathers.
Halfway to the western horizon, my brother threw
a survivor to me, my feet sinking in wet sand.
Although I was still small, I heard my mother's
wails and knew I'd need patience, not wings.

The years have flown by, and Mother taught me
the folly of travel, a man's hunger
for something not home. I'm happy enough here,
counting my goats and each season's stars,
tracing maps in the sand and now dreaming
whatever I want. Other pleasures we shared,
one at this table. I've built a fire:
at dusk I watched a ship mount the horizon;
it will founder by dawn among rocks.