Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Disappearing Fairy Circles

Washboard ripples,
     moving lines of force
In paper-thin intersections,
     slow across glass,
Lilac foam
     as the lavender surf rolls in,
Rainbows in its wake,
     the curtains loosen and tighten,
     that exist for us only as beauty,
As purposeless as we believe
     our lives to be ...

The last spike of peach holds on
     against the human mind.
Everything else has been denied,
     by being understood.
How could we ever be explained
     by the mechanics?
Our lusts, our thirsts, our drives?
     The wall called
Understanding has been placed
      here between us
As the mystery still
      feverishly swirls.
You want to know
      because you already knew
And were waiting for the moment
      to connect.
But now you are disputed.
      The slut, the whore,
How could she
      want me anymore?

Monday, September 26, 2016

Odes by Hölderlin: The Princess Augusta of Homburg

November 28, 1799

Yet kind reluctance separates from your eye
    This year, and the winter sky at evening
         Shines in Hesperian mildness on
              Your gardens, the poetic, evergreen.

And since your party I have pondered and thought,
    What to give you as thanks, yet it lingered there
         On the floral paths, waiting for you
             The flowering crown of what you'll become.

But others prize you, high spirit, the greater
    This more festive time, for the thunder resounds
         All the way down the mountains, see? And
             How clear, like the quiet stars, it goes out,

From long doubts come pure shapes; so it seems to me;
    And lonely, O Princess, the heart of the free,
         Born to a fortune wanted no more;
             Joined in laurel with the worthy hero

The beautifully matured can be genuine;
    The wise men and women as well, for it
         Has worth, the unseen; the ancient ones
             Look on from their rarefied life, solemn.

Shallow seems the dreaming singer to himself,
    Like a child idly plucking at a lyre,
         When from the noble’s joy, from the ply
             And severe of the power awakened.

But I’ve glorified your name in song; the hard
    Augusta! Dare I celebrate; my trade is
         To praise the lofty, and so goes the
             Language of God and the thanks in my heart.

O that this happy day of your birth will I
     Begin as well my age, that finally too
          I’ll become a song within your groves;
             Noble! Prosper, you are worthy of it.
Der Prinzessin Auguste von Homburg

Den 28. Nov. 1799

Noch freundlichzögernd scheidet vom Auge dir
   Das Jahr, und in hesperischer Milde glänzt
      Der Winterhimmel über deinen
         Gärten, den dichtrischen, immergrünen.

Und da ich deines Festes gedacht' und sann,
   Was ich dir dankend reichte, da weilten noch
      Am Pfade Blumen, daß sie dir zur
         Blühenden Krone, du Edle, würden.

Doch andres beut dir, Größeres, hoher Geist!
   Die festlichere Zeit, denn es hallt hinab
      Am Berge das Gewitter, sieh! und
         Klar, wie die ruhigen Sterne, gehen

Aus langem Zweifel reine Gestalten auf;
   So dünkt es mir; und einsam, o Fürstin! ist
      Das Herz der Freigebornen wohl nicht
         Länger im eigenen Glück; denn würdig

Gesellt im Lorbeer ihm der Heroë sich,
   Der schöngereifte, echte; die Weisen auch,
      Die Unsern, sind es wert; sie blicken
         Still aus der Höhe des Lebens, die ernsten Alten.

Geringe dünkt der träumende Sänger sich,
   Und Kindern gleich am müßigen Saitenspiel,
      Wenn ihn der Edlen Glück, wenn ihn die
         Tat und der Ernst der Gewalt'gen aufweckt.

Doch herrlicht mir dein Name das Lied; dein Fest
   Augusta! durft' ich feiern; Beruf ist mirs,
      Zu rühmen Höhers, darum gab die
         Sprache der Gott und den Dank ins Herz mir.

O daß von diesem freudigen Tage mir
   Auch meine Zeit beginne, daß endlich auch
      Mir ein Gesang in deinen Hainen,
         Edle! gedeihe, der deiner wert sei.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Stevens Textplication #32: The Snow Man

“When does a building stop being a product of the reason and become a product of the imagination?” Stevens asked in his 1948 essay “Imagination as Value”. One could ask the same question about a snow man, that anthropomorphized representation of winter that somehow transcends its elementary construction principles to live on as a rather poignant symbol of our own sense of what it is to be alive. To look at one only as an engineering project misses the point, as any child will tell you. Yet focusing on such construction details (the size of the coal, the type of hat, the placement of the carrot) is the only practical thing to do, as any scientist will tell you. For how each of us respond to the particulars of the external world through the prism of our own imaginative facilities creates a unique reality that is not shareable. In other words, to acknowledge the importance of imagination, one has to also acknowledge its isolation. That is the theme of “The Snow Man,” a haunting and austere one-sentence poem from 1921 that has transfixed generations of readers for its unwillingness to translate the feeling its evokes into easy meaning. Here’s the poem:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Notice there are two distinct figures depicted here. The watcher, which one can only assume is some imagined representation of an actual snow man, beholds everything with that cold mind of winter. He is so aligned with the elements he can actually understand what they are, without resort to the imaginative recreation we humans must engage in to comprehend things. The second figure, identified as the “listener,” is implicitly human, the one who associates the sound of winter wind with “misery”, yet who is specifically described as “nothing.” Being nothing, he can only appreciate nothing, much as the “mind of winter,” being of the cold, can only appreciate cold.

These two equivalent figures cohabitate “the same bare place,” yet exist in complete isolation from one another. We feel this as readers before we know it, largely because we are unaware of how completely the poet has stripped the real—or rather the collective illusion of the real—away from this imaginative construction.  

The first line drops us into a state that is not literally possible: “One must have a mind of winter.” Winter, as we understand it, does not actually have a mind, of course. We do, or think we do, however, when we “regard the frost and the boughs / Of the pine-trees” in the fantastical manner of being “crusted”, “shagged” [in this sense, piled coarsely] and “rough in the distant glitter // Of the January sun.” By exaggerating what we see, we feel we have a more visceral, shared sense of what winter really is. The use of the verbs “regard” and “behold” gives away that this depiction of winter is not merely seen, but created, in thought and empathy, out of what is seen.

As Stevens wrote in “Imagination as Value”, “it is in the nature of the imagination itself that we should be quick to accept it as the only clue to reality.” But it is important for Stevens to remind us that this scene is not real. We do not have the mind of winter, nor have we “been cold a long time,” so we can’t say our experience is of reality.

This sense of reality denying us is accentuated in the next stanza, when after the visuals the sounds begin, and the normal human feelings the winter wind evokes are foreclosed to us: “One must have the mind of winter … not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind.”

To quote Stevens from “Imagination as Value” again: "'It is art,' said Henry James, 'which makes life, makes interest, makes importance. . . and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.' The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us."  The next stanza hints at just how desolate such a world would be: “the sound of the land / Full of the same wind /That is blowing in the same bare place.” Stevens has suddenly stripped everything down to its barest bones, almost to nothing.

Then, and only then, does the listener emerge, as a contrast to the imagined “mind of winter” / snow man. This bare wind blows for him, without the possibility of imaginative recreation. Because it is real, it is nothing, and because it is nothing, he is nothing. So he beholds “nothing that is not there.” In other words, everything that imagination uses to create a picture of reality is all still included: the cold, the snow, the trees, the wind, etc. But what is actually beheld is “the nothing that is.” If imagination is taken out of the equation – or more precisely, before imagination is taken out of the equation – nothing is left to see. All that is of value would have been created by the imagining mind. (Here it might be productive to note that this is the point where all the major spiritual traditions on the planet would remind us that “all appearance is illusion, created by the mind.”) Or, as Stevens says in “Imagination as Value”, “the imagination is the power of the mind over the possibilities of things.”

Still, this effort to strip away all the illusions in an already stripped-away scene does not resolve to a total nullity: it’s an act of imagination to perceive there is nothing. What’s negated is the reader, who cannot know of what this nothing consists, or who perceives it. The cold, barren feeling is not lack of imagination (the poem is, after all, full of imagination), but lack of human connection. The snow man is singular, and, try as we might, we can’t get inside his head to imagine what the world looks like to him. Yet imagination is our original and primary relationship to the world. If, as Stevens points out in “Imagination as Value”, “we live in concepts of the imagination before the reason has established them … reason is simply the methodizer of the imagination,” then reality is singular. There are not six words for snow, but as many as there are snowflakes. The paradox of being an unapologetic individual in a world that elides individual autonomy is Stevens’ “great subject”, one he returns to again and again, never quite accepting that what is life and reality to him can never be so to anyone else. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016


The pink highway
Turns grey
The gold veins
And we're free once again
To believe
It's empty.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Coastline 2

The seagull lands
In the sheen
Possesses the hollow rock
The green seabeard
Or is it possessed
By another eye
As I 
Reach from somewhere unknown
To the unknowable

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Coastline 1

The sea is breathing
—Wind wool—
Reminding us to breathe
Because we, like fools, forget
How to live,
So busy remembering
Shell names.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Odes by Hölderlin: To the Princess of Dessau

From a silent house in a flash will the gods
     Often send their most beloveds to strangers,
          Thus to recall the noble image
              Of how delighted the mortal heart is.

So too you come from the Luisium gardens,
     From a holy threshold where skies are noiseless
           All around, and all around your roof
               Peacefully the gregarious trees play,

Out from the joys of your temple, O priestess!
     To us, for already the cloud bends its head
           To us, long a heavenly tempest
                 ... Changes us over our heads.

O how dear you were, priestess! Because you were
      Protected there in the silent divine fire,
           But you're dearer today, since your time
                 Among the time-bound is consecrated.

For where the pure ones stroll, perceptible, is
     Drawn out of the spirit, and life's dawning forms
            All open with a carefree blossom
                Where a safe and a certain light appears.

And how on a dark cloud the silent one,
     The beautiful crescent blooms, it is a sign
           For a future time, a remembrance
                 Of days of bliss and blessings, that once were,

Such is your life, O holy stranger! If you have
      In the past encountered Italy's shattered
           Pillars, if you saw in the new green
                 Fiercer ages grow toward the future.

An eine Fürstin von Dessau

Aus stillem Hause senden die Götter oft
      Auf kurze Zeit zu Fremden die Lieblinge,
   Damit, erinnert, sich am edlen
         Bilde der Sterblichen Herz erfreue.

So kommst du aus Luisiums Hainen auch,
       Aus heilger Schwelle dort, wo geräuschlos rings
   Die Lüfte sind und friedlich um dein
         Dach die geselligen Bäume spielen,

Aus deines Tempels Freuden, o Priesterin!
Zu uns, wenn schon die Wolke das Haupt uns beugt
     Und längst ein göttlich Ungewitter
          ... über dem Haupt uns wandelt.

O teuer warst du, Priesterin! da du dort
Im Stillen göttlich Feuer behütetest,
     Doch teurer heute, da du Zeiten
         Unter den Zeitlichen segnend feierst.

Denn wo die Reinen wandeln, vernehmlicher
Ist da der Geist, und offen und heiter blühn
     Des Lebens dämmernde Gestalten
          Da, wo ein sicheres Licht erscheinet.

Und wie auf dunkler Wolke der schweigende,
Der schöne Bogen blühet, ein Zeichen ist
     Er künftger Zeit, ein Angedenken
         Seliger Tage, die einst gewesen,

So ist dein Leben, heilige Fremdlingin!
        Wenn du Vergangnes über Italiens
              Zerbrochnen Säulen, wenn du neues
                   Grünen aus stürmischer Zeit betrachtest.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Stevens Textplication #31: Gubbinal

“Gubbinal,” from 1921, has always been one of my favorite of Stevens’ short poems, but until I sat down to write this I’d always assumed the title was an actual word. It turns out it’s not. In the spirit of the refrain, “have it your way,” expertly appropriated by Burger King as one of the 20th century’s most effective marketing slogans, let’s look at what we can make this coined word into.

The title may derive from the British dialectical term "gubbin" or "gubbins", which, no surprise, has three distinct meanings. It is a derogatory term denoting simpleton or country bumpkin. This makes some sense in that the poem at some level is complaining about the understanding of its readers. The term could also refer to gadgetry, so the poem would be "like a gadget." This makes sense too, in that the reader feels subjected to a Mobius strip of repetition that doesn't seem to mean anything concrete. "Gubbins" can also refer to fish parings or refuse, more broadly scraps or bits and pieces. Adding -al to this sense of gubbin seems to this poet a fine way to incorporate lines and fragments lying around unused into an invented poetic form, in this case something resembling the mournful French villanelle, where the 2nd and 3rd line of the first stanza are alternately repeated at the end of subsequent stanzas. Or, all arcane etymological research aside, "gubbinal" could "simply" be a nonsense word—Stevens was no stranger to making sounds into words.

The title could very easily mean any or none of these things, as we shall see. It's a testament to the poetic way information is offered and withheld in it that we truly have to use our own leaps of imagination to interpret it. This is a quality that intrigues with many of Stevens' poems, but this one in particular seems to be about that. Here's the poem:

That strange flower, the sun,
Is just what you say.
Have it your way.

The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.

That tuft of jungle feathers,
That animal eye,
Is just what you say.

That savage of fire,
That seed,
Have it your way.

The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.

What gives the poem its particular cloying quality is how the narrator offers bold, unusual and challenging metaphors for the sun (“that strange flower,” “that tuft of jungle feathers,” “that animal eye”, “that savage of fire,” “that seed”), and immediately foists them off for interpretation onto the reader, concluding they are just what “you” say they are. In between he repeats a seemingly unconnected thought, “The world is ugly, and the people are sad.” So this unnamed “you” who must contend with exotic poetic metaphor must also face a blanket abstraction that the world and its people (all that we know) are in dismal shape. Add in the pervasive repetition and the reader gets the feeling of being hypnotized by ambiguity.

But don’t worry. You can “have it your way,” like a giant, sickening Whopper. As if to seal its hermetic obscurity, the poem does not resolve into the larger statement about belief, reality and/or the imagination that are hinted at. Such implications are truly left to the reader to ponder.

On the one hand, the rich metaphors show the interpretive possibilities for the commonest objects (in this case the sun, perhaps the most common object of all). On the other, the metaphors are only as insightful as the eyes of the beholder. If one can't imagine the sun as an "animal eye", for example, one is indeed not only outside the meaning of the poem, but lacking in the mythic intelligence that can use known things as correspondences to inquire about what is unknown, the ultimate nature of reality.

A simpleton, or gubbin, would not see how the eyes of a tiger could be peering from the sun. Or perhaps only a gubbin would, as the prevailing religion of scientific materialism has foreclosed the possibility for respectable thinkers to seriously entertain such fantasies. Without engaging with the person on the other end of his words, the poet seems to be throwing up his hands (or is it quill?) at the possibility of a common understanding. "The world is ugly, and the people are sad" is all one can say, like "how was your weekend?" or "times are hard." It might as well relate to the poet—a mass of humanity that has no comprehension of his beautiful poem—as to the reader—they are missing out on the opportunity to rise above the limitations of earthly life to perceive a meta-reality through the powers of the imagination.

Yet the poet is grafting his perception directly onto theirs. This is where the second sense of the word "gubbin", as a poetic gadget or contrivance, might come into play. "Have it your way" is the inverse of "you can never see it from my perspective." And "[it] is just what you say" is of course the opposite of "I'm telling you the way it is." The poet accedes to the reader as master of reality, free to make of the poem anything they want, but the reader still must accept the poet's reality of the sun as all manner of chimerical figures. It is a dance, in other words, where the refrain is a general opinion that, because it is unargued perhaps, is the only agreed-upon thing: "the world is ugly, and the people are sad." And, of course, the poet is the one playing the harmonium (the title, not coincidentally, of Stevens' first volume of poetry).

To truly become a poet, however, one must leave that stage of approval and agreement and seek a solitary path. And this is where the third sense of "gubbin" comes in. Scraps of lines where he has described the sun in all kinds of uncanny ways will, if enough will and faith is put into them, harmonize with scraps of overheard conversation (like "have it your ..." and "the world is ..."), things from the mundane human realm that have floated up into the poetic aethers. The poet collects them all to make some kind of music of them. There is no need for ultimate meaning. The poem speaks for itself. It is whatever you want it to be. And the you is no longer outside of the poet, but within.

As we mull through these trajectories of meanings, a sense of freedom is slowly unveiled. The freedom of the poet from the outside is no longer something to be pitied but celebrated. What the poet has—however elliptical, uncooperative or nonsensical—is of such a high degree of perception and expression that others need to—and will—seek it out.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Landscape With and Without Humans

The concrete is alive, and singing to my feet,
The shadows wax more poignant than the leaves,
And the tree hears every word from the gossip birds
And shudders as if to turn the earth
With wren and bumblebee.

A seagull stands in a garland of purple 
On a patch of drooling rock  
Skreaking to all we cannot see
As the green suds swirl around.

The people stand around waiting
For something that may or may not be coming
Or sweep off the changes on the rock.
They look so heartbroken
But cannot say anything.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Seemingly Harmless Reality Program

Whatever figures in robes you remember
Have reduced to characters in script.
The stories where orphans are kings in the end
Blacken the names of eyes brightly gazing.
You are not any other;
The invisible they hang across your face
Has peeled, and something that cannot escape existing
Is finally free from the fear.
It sees the illusion's perfection
When it realizes it is real.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Two Tomato Plants

The two tomato plants in the yard
Despite seemingly insurmountable distances
Find each other
And make love.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Odes by Hölderlin: My Title

Now in its adundance the autumn day rests,
     The clear grapes are ripe and the orchard is red
          From the fruit, while some of the blossoms
               Have fallen in thankfulness to the earth.

And beyond the path where I, the silent, walk,
     The contented are occupied round the field,  
          Their estate has matured and their great
                Efforts have granted them shares of richness.

And heaven on them gazes down, in mild light
     Through the trees, seeking to share with them their joy,
          For as joyful as their toil is,
               The fruit didn’t grow by man’s hands alone.

And you shine, O gold, even on me, and blow
     Again for me, breath of air, as if to bless
          Me with joy, like I once had before,
               You stray to my breast as to the happy?

Once it was me, but ah, it’s temporary,
     Like roses the pious life. And too often
          It still reminds me that the meek stars
               Are all that remain of the flowering.

Happy is the man with a pious woman
     To quietly love, a suitable oven
          And respectable lives, secure that
               The sweet light on their floor comes from heaven.

For, as plants can’t take root in an alien soil,
     The soul of mortals eventually decays,
          The one with only the light of day
               Is left to wander on the holy ground.

You are just far too powerful! You draw me
     Up in storms to your heavenly heights, and on
          Glorious days you sustain me in
               Your moving breast, your transformative force.  

But now let me trust the still and silent path
     Among the trees, their canopies adorned with
          The gold of dying leaves, and garland
               My forehead with their sweet memories too!

And also that I save my mortal heart,
     As others may attain a permanent home,
          For the soul is the homeless not I
               Over a lifetime of sighing alone,

You be, O singing, my friendly asylum!
     You be, source of happiness, what cares for me
          In love, the garden where I wander
               Among the flowers, the forever young,

And live, in safe simplicity, while outside
     The waves of the mighty ages roar remote,
          And all that is changeable changes,
               And the sun promotes my work in silence.

O powers of heaven! Your blessing is kind
     To mortals, you allocate each to its own,
          O blessed be my title as well,  
               So the fates do not end the dream too soon.

Mein Eigentum

In seiner Fülle ruhet der Herbsttag nun,
     Geläutert ist die Traub und der Hain ist rot
          Vom Obst, wenn schon der holden Blüten
               Manche der Erde zum Danke fielen.

Und rings im Felde, wo ich den Pfad hinaus,
     Den stillen, wandle, ist den Zufriedenen
          Ihr Gut gereift und viel der frohen
               Mühe gewähret der Reichtum ihnen.

Vom Himmel blicket zu den Geschäftigen
     Durch ihre Bäume milde das Licht herab,
          Die Freude teilend, denn es wuchs durch
               Hände der Menschen allein die Frucht nicht.

Und leuchtest du, o Goldnes, auch mir, und wehst
     Auch du mir wieder, Lüftchen, als segnetest
          Du eine Freude mir, wie einst, und
               Irrst, wie um Glückliche, mir am Busen?

Einst war ichs, doch wie Rosen, vergänglich war
     Das fromme Leben, ach! und es mahnen noch,
          Die blühend mir geblieben sind, die
               Holden Gestirne zu oft mich dessen.

Beglückt, wer, ruhig liebend ein frommes Weib,
     Am eignen Herd in rühmlicher Heimat lebt,
          Es leuchtet über festem Boden
               Schöner dem sicheren Mann sein Himmel.

Denn, wie die Pflanze, wurzelt auf eignem Grund
     Sie nicht, verglüht die Seele des Sterblichen,
          Der mit dem Tageslichte nur, ein
               Armer, auf heiliger Erde wandelt.

 Zu mächtig, ach! ihr himmlischen Höhen, zieht
     Ihr mich empor, bei Stürmen, am heitern Tag
          Fühl ich verzehrend euch im Busen
               Wechseln, ihr wandelnden Götterkräfte.

Doch heute laß mich stille den trauten Pfad
     Zum Haine gehn, dem golden die Wipfel schmückt
          Sein sterbend Laub, und kränzt auch mir die
               Stirne, ihr holden Erinnerungen!

Und daß mir auch, zu retten mein sterblich Herz,
     Wie andern eine bleibende Stätte sei,
          Und heimatlos die Seele mir nicht
               Über das Leben hinweg sich sehne,

Sei du, Gesang, mein freundlich Asyl! sei du,
     Beglückender! mit sorgender Liebe mir
          Gepflegt, der Garten, wo ich, wandelnd
               Unter den Blüten, den immerjungen,

In sichrer Einfalt wohne, wenn draußen mir
     Mit ihren Wellen allen die mächtge Zeit,
          Die Wandelbare, fern rauscht und die
               Stillere Sonne mein Wirken fördert.

Ihr segnet gütig über den Sterblichen,
     Ihr Himmelskräfte! jedem sein Eigentum,
          O segnet meines auch, und daß zu
               Frühe die Parze den Traum nicht ende.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Stevens Textplication #30: The Doctor of Geneva

I adored as a young boy a short-lived 1960’s ITC British secret agent TV drama called The Champions. It involved three young Interpol agents (a la The Mod Squad or Lady Antebellum depending on your frame of reference), although what they actually did escapes me, and the twist was they had some kind of super powers from crashing their plane in the Himalayas, although what those were is also unrecoverable. All I really remember – the reason I liked the show so much in the first place – is that each week they stood in front of this immense fountain looking suave and British. It was in Geneva, you see, home of Interpol, so the landmark Jet D’Eau graced every episode.

There are two reasons I recall this in relation to “The Doctor of Geneva,” published in 1921. One is that, contrary to the superficial sense of the poem, Geneva is no slouch when it comes to the power and beauty of water. The second lies in the sheer power of imaginative transport such a detail provided me, and that feeling, I think, is what this poem is really about. Don’t be fooled by all the interpretations of it as the results of a conservative burgher being para-consciously moved by his first exposure to the Pacific Ocean. The poem is actually much more beautiful than that. Here it is:

The doctor of Geneva stamped the sand
That lay impounding the Pacific swell,
Patted his stove-pipe hat and tugged his shawl.

Lacustrine man had never been assailed
By such long-rolling opulent cataracts,
Unless Racine or Bossuet held the like.

He did not quail. A man so used to plumb
The multifarious heavens felt no awe
Before these visible, voluble delugings,

Which yet found means to set his simmering mind
Spinning and hissing with oracular
Notations of the wild, the ruinous waste,

Until the steeples of his city clanked and sprang
In an unburgherly apocalypse.
The doctor used his handkerchief and sighed.

Most readings recognize this doctor as one of Stevens’ many imagined tropes (he often uses doctors, rabbis and professors to evoke studious, serious and noteworthy people), and view his dimly conveyed Geneva as something lifted from books not actual experience. What they don’t similarly acknowledge is that it was highly unlikely at this time for Stevens to have had any actual experience of the Pacific Ocean either.

The fact he is making up both the European and American poles of this vignette is highly significant to the meaning of the poem. Imagine for a moment that this doctor is actually Stevens himself – not too much of a stretch if you think of it. What does it do to the meaning of the poem to know that this “doctor” is not only not a doctor, but has never been to Geneva or the Pacific Ocean? It allows us to read the strange phrasings of the poem so that it finally makes sense!

In the first stanza, he “stamps” the sand and “impounds” the ocean. These are not accurate descriptions of tasks a doctor would do, or what anyone for that matter would do at a beach. They are, however, what an attorney would do, quite frequently and drearily one might add. Who can blame a man for dreaming a little while marking legal documents for future disposition? Oh to be walking the sand by the mysterious Pacific Ocean. Or, better yet, as a distinguished gentleman from an equally strange and mysterious place, Geneva. Or both! He “pats” his stove-pipe hat in approval (with no fear of looking queer on the streets or having it blown from his head by the unforgiving ocean gusts), and he “tugs” his shawl, as if to literarily embellish the story his imagination is unreeling.

A Genevan, as representative of one of the most important lacustrine (lake) cities, would have to contend with the unfamiliar nature of ocean. Staying in character, “long-rolling opulent cataracts” are a great way for him to describe this in the terms of a lake or river, cataracts being waterfalls or white-water rapids that are inexact similes for rushing waves. Inside Switzerland he would not be “assailed” by the ocean “unless Racine or Bossuet held the like.” In other words, he could not appreciate the ocean’s powerful reality unless he had read about it somewhere, which makes sense since he isn’t actually standing in front of the ocean. 

Fortunately, our well-read protagonist could go back to the 17th century and consult the major dramatist Jean Racine (1639 – 1699) and the court theologian to Louis XIV Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627 –1704), both of whom wrote elegantly and fluently (one might say volubly) in the French language of Geneva, and often did so in praise of the power of the ocean.

Here’s Racine from his sea-set tragedy Phèdre, where characters jump or are tossed into the ocean:

“Un effroyable cri sorti du fond des flots
Des airs en ce moment a troublé le repos;
Et du sein de la terre une voix formidable
Répond en gémissant à ce cri redoubtable.” (1507-1510)
[Suddenly, from the depths of waves arose a frightful cry, which shattered the repose, and from the earth’s bosom there came in reply a thunderous groan, as frightening as the cry]*

And here’s Bossuet, to whom “water was the manifestation of God in the world”:**

“Un océan immense où se trouve la plénitude de la vérité” [An immense ocean where one finds the fullness of truth]

“He did not quail” (cower, tremble or flinch) before this imagined scene: “A man so used to plumb / The multifarious heavens felt no awe.” “A man so used to” carries an interesting double meaning: a man accustomed to, and a man in service to. “Plumb” means “measure”, often with a connotation of downward (“plumb the depths”). Here, the plumbing goes upward, which perhaps explains why the water coming down again in a deluge doesn’t concern him. The sense is interesting regardless of context: that one measures the circumference of heaven by viewing real or imagined things. That one is in the service of heaven by observing is even keener. And what he observes, “visible, voluble delugings,” is also striking. Deluge, from the Latin diluere (“to wash away”) most commonly means “flood,” and the sense is of an apocalypse seen and heard, a chatty apocalypse at that. He isn’t afraid of the end of the world as he knows it. That’s because it’s a world he has created in order to comprehend heaven, or something resembling a plan for all that lies below.

Or so he believes. These delugings “yet found means to set his simmering mind / Spinning and hissing.” Since neither an ocean nor a dream would find means in any literal sense, one has to view the deluge more closely, even more metaphorically. It may very well be the workings, the floodings, the articulations, of his mind, not imagined water. Spinning is a particularly interesting word here, implying the Fibonacci spiral, the basic path of life on its growth trajectory, as from imaginings are created ideas, even actual things (if only solid as gossamer things like poems). Spinning also invokes a downward maelstrom, as in water to the abyss. And hissing mimics both the ocean and the snake-like noise taken by so many cultures to be the sound evil makes. Creation may be achieved in these fantasies, but perhaps more so destruction, “oracular / Notations of the wild, the ruinous waste.” The problem is that it is not real. The dream (and the mind that created it) has become unmoored from the senses, from the earth, much like a heavenly day turns suddenly dangerous. It becomes bigger than its maker.

Until, finally, “the steeples of his city” (representing spiritual belief and community) “clanked and sprang,” as if the churches in watchmaking Switzerland were no different than clocks. The apocalypse of a failure of imagination is indeed “unburgherly.” He cannot really be the doctor he pretends to be. The real has intervened, like an alarm clock waking one from sleep.

“The doctor used his handkerchief and sighed,” the poem concludes. All one can do when confronted with the dominance of the real over the imagined is a prosaic act. This quality is far less apparent today than when the poem was written. Today we think of men with handkerchiefs as a distinct kind of rare breed not unlike this doctor: officious, stodgy, old-fashioned, conservative, even burgherly. In 1921 everyone had, and used, handkerchiefs. And the usages were varied: to wash one's face (my preferred sense here, as it would represent the miserliness of real water vs. the torrents just imagined), wipe sweat off (from all the conjuring work), to signal for attention (the narrator could be waving the white flag of surrender to the real), to bandage a wound (to pride or sense of proportion), to clean one’s glasses (and wipe away the rose color perhaps), as a blindfold (to hide the real), and, of course, to blow one’s nose (to move on from the explosion of fantasy). He became, in other words, a normal man again, in some enigmatic way. But he still held on to the doctor title, as if to show us this battle wasn’t over, it was simply marked “to be continued.”

As indeed it would be throughout Stevens’ poetic career.

* And let us not forget Racine Wisconsin, conveniently located near Lake Geneva Wisconsin, an area Stevens did undoubtedly visit. Such a fortuitous combination of historically and culturally redolent names can inspire quite extraordinary fancies.
** Smoot, Jean Johannessen, “Variations In Water Imagery In James Joyce And Bossuet," Romance Notes, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Spring, 1968), p. 252 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Keanu as Dick Diver on a Park Bench Feeding Pigeons Like a Bum

There are no second acts
Only a past that never was
Projected on a dim screen

The proof is only in
An over-egged pudding
Not eaten

The not having it
That's the dream

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Eternal Subject, Updated

Helicopters circle
       The drain,
Lightbulb eyes peer
        Like voyeur whores
        From street corners,
And listening dishes rest
        Like pigeons homing
        Above the towers
But no one watches
        Or is listening

It is white noise
        What we say
        What we do
As we cruise
        The obscelescing
For signs of our humanity

As does the semi-nude
       On display before
       The barber pole at Rudy's
Looking for communion
       When watching is
       No longer prosecuted

For the same invisible
       Mate still
       Checks us
Despite the best
       Better mousetraps can buy

The eyes of God still
       Glare at us
Behind the blackest
       Rayban shades

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Heartsick Redux

The broken beaus
By Roosevelt Milk
See only the empties
Left behind,
Opportunities squandered
For lessons learned,
Where pain was transferred
Like smiles,

Too stricken to see
The bottle's been filled
And the thrown away will return
Like butterflies,
With eyes on the road behind
Waiting for the heavy truck
No longer making rounds.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Odes by Hölderlin: Palinode

What dawns on me, earth! Your cordial green?
    What wafts again, breeze, as once came towards me?
       In all the treetops shrieking, …

What’s this soul you awaken? What disturbs
    From the past! And so, with your good graces,
       Save the ashes, let them rest, while those
           Of my friends you merely mock! O transmute,

You gods free of fate, bloom already gone,
    In ageless youth, you desire mortals,
       Would join them oh-so-willingly in
          Bounteous play, as the virgins blossom

In the morning, a young and beautiful
    Hero, opaque eye beside the happy-
        Cheeked, and a tintinnabulation
          Around the lovely effortless singing.

Ah! The small murmur, the source of the song
    That used to move my breast, the heavenly,
          Shining from the eyes

Rapprochement, O reunion, you benevolent,
    Never-changing gods, so embrace,
       Because your pure springs love ...


Was dämmert um mich, Erde! Dein freundlich Grün?
   Was wehst du wieder, Lüftchen, wie einst mich an?
      In allen Wipfeln rauschts, ...

Was weckt ihr mir die Seele? Was regt ihr mir
   Vergangnes auf, ihr Guten! O schonet mein
      Und laßt sie ruhn, die Asche meiner
         Freunden, ihr spottet nur! O wandelt,

Ihr schicksallosen Götter, vorbei und blüht
   In eurer Jugend über den Alternden
      Und wollt ihr zu den Sterbliche euch
         Gerne gesellen, so blühn der Jungfraun

Euch viel, der jungen Helden, und schöner spielt
   Der Morgen um die Wange der Glücklichen
      Denn um ein trübes Aug und lieblich
         Tönen die Sänge der Mühelosen.

Ach! Vormals rauschte leicht des Gesanges Quell
   Auch mir vom Busen, da noch die Freude mir,
      Die himmlische, vom Auge glänzte

Versöhnung, o Versöhnung, ihr gütigen,
   Ihr immergleichen Götter, und haltet ein,
      Weil ihr die reinen Quellen liebt . . .

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Between the Senses and the Burning House

The sun
In the wet sand
Burns cool to the touch
A lilac batter folds across
Says "this is real"

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Dragonflies at Sunset

Dragonflies at sunset,
Their motion can't be caught —
Sense trembles
How survival requires darkness,

As do I, a witness to an order
Who knows nothing of its nature.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Hölderlin Epigram: Root of All Evil [Wurzel alles Übels]

Agreed we exist, that’s god-like and good; then where does it come from,
    This dismal addiction, that but one and one only exists?

Einig zu sein, ist göttlich und gut; woher ist die Sucht denn
    Unter den Menschen, daß nur Einer und Eines nur sei?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Hölderlin Epigram: The Comedians [Die Scherzhaften]

Always must you joke and play? Always! O friends! I leave it
    To the soul, for it has desperation only.

Immer spielt ihr und scherzt? ihr müßt! o Freunde! mir geht dies
     In die Seele, denn dies müssen Verzweifelte nur.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Hölderlin Epigram: The Angry Poet [Der zürnende Dichter]

Don’t fear the poet when, in noble rage, his quill kills,
     For the spirit makes spirits come alive.

Fürchtet den Dichter nicht, wenn er edel zürnet, sein Buchstab
    Tötet, aber es macht Geister lebendig der Geist.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Hölderlin Epigram: Sophokles

Many tried in vain to tell of happiness happily,
     Here at last it speaks to me, as it mourns itself.

Viele versuchten umsonst das Freudigste freudig zu sagen,
     Hier spricht endlich es mir, hier in der Trauer sich aus.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Hölderlin Epigram: Προς εαυτον [To himself]

Learn art from life, life learns from the work of art,
     See one right, see the other truly.

Lern im Leben die Kunst, im Kunstwerk lerne das Leben,
     Siehst du das eine recht, siehst du das andere auch

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Dancing at the Fountain of Colored Lights

The keys are dropping in the bowl next door,
The street camera lights surveil the neighborhood,
The children are safely possessed by radiation for the night,
And the pharmanaut takes his daily microdose
Like a rat in a labyrinth lab.

There's always news in this brown yellow sadness
Of some volley to come from the other side,
To keep inconsequential the living room shrapnel,
For we all have to work much harder now, for the privilege
Of being a slave, with no system to speak of anymore,
Just fiefdoms of power-mad terror disguised as the thing
That might save us from consensus of death.

The best escape like cranes into cane-break,
The rest feign ignorance of the lies they profess,
And the most ill-at-ease with the chaos of order
March closest to the front, not because some cold force
Has coerced them, but because that's just the way it is.

I served this world without regret, when it was still a world,
But it never did learn the Pythagorean temperament,
The respect for the lost note and the note up ahead
That never can be reached, much less the self.

The mind, they say, is the only hiding place left,
Though strange hands and gloves send invaders inside
Every orifice, mapping and blocking all exits,
Still, the uncharted impossibilities lie within
To those courageous and sense-deranged enough
To ride the wild current in the desperate hope
Of a story to tell in the end, of how we might,
If we keep dancing at the fountain of colored lights,
Survive this war on humanity, become prophets
Without need of a flock.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Flash Smiles as the Distance Darkens

Inspired by this.

The buddha dragon, in prayer pose, meditates on the screen door.
Other reptiles come in through the TV, say "love me" and
          "Here's some Oblivion for the pain."
Their world collapses downward to non-threatening dust
          Instead of the upward trajectory of seeds.
Sterility, it seems, must be programmed into those who breed.

There is no world to take this weed,
The sprays have long overtaken a tolerance and taste
         For anything but death
Except in rebel strain patches, reframed to show the need for control,
         Growth choking, life blithe to shared life
As if the most eccentric is not the most at home in the one.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Odes by Hölderlin: The Main

Perhaps there’s many lands of the living earth
   I’d see, and my heart over the mountaintop
       Often hurries, desires wander
           Across the sea, to the shore, that before

All others is praised, that I would know myself there;
    But no kind place is in the distance for me,
        Only the site where the sons of god
           Are sleeping, the grieving land of the Greeks.

Oh! To touch down once onto Sounion’s coast
    Among those columns of yours, Olympian!
        The north storm there still nonetheless asks
             In the rubble of Poseidon’s temple

If their idol-gods have buried you as well;
    How long you stand lonely, O pride of the world,
        The what is no longer! – And you, the
              Beautiful islands of Ionia,

Where the air wafts cool by the warm edge of sea,
    And where the powerful sun ripens the grapes,
         And in golden autumn the sighs of
              The poor have metamorphized into songs.

Where the afflicted now in their lime forest
    And pomegranate trees, full of purple
         Apples, sweet wine, drum and zither are
              Invited to labyrinthine dance—

To you perhaps, O islands, there will still come
    A homeless singer; for wander adrift he
          Must, from a stranger to a stranger,
              And, like the earth, must be free, yes, alas!

Instead he serves the fatherland, for his life,
    And his death – But I never will forget you,
          As I wander away, beautiful
              Main, from your shore, that made many happy.

I received hospitality, you took pride!
      And you playfully tested the stranger’s eye
          And taught me the test of quiet songs
               And of gliding along a silent life.

O soundless with the stars, you fortunate one!
       You flow headlong from your morning to evening,
            To your brother, to the Rhine, and then
                Join him with joy downward to the ocean.

Der Main

Wohl manches Land der lebenden Erde möcht
   Ich sehn, und öfters über die Berg enteilt
      Das Herz mir, und die Wünsche wandern
         Über das Meer, zu den Ufern, die mir

Vor andern, so ich kenne, gepriesen sind;
   Doch lieb ist in der Ferne nicht Eines mir,
      Wie jenes, wo die Göttersöhne
         Schlafen, das trauernde Land der Griechen.

Ach! einmal dort an Suniums Küste möcht
   Ich landen, deine Säulen, Olympion!
      Erfragen, dort, noch eh der Nordsturm
         Hin in den Schutt der Athenertempel

Und ihrer Götterbilder auch dich begräbt;
   Denn lang schon einsam stehst du, o Stolz der Welt,
      Die nicht mehr ist! - und o ihr schönen
         Inseln Ioniens, wo die Lüfte

Vom Meere kühl an warme Gestade wehn,
   Wenn unter kräft'ger Sonne die Traube reift,
      Ach! wo ein goldner Herbst dem armen
         Volk in Gesänge die Seufzer wandelt,

Wenn die Betrübten itzt ihr Limonenwald
   Und ihr Granatbaum, purpurner Äpfel voll,
      Und süßer Wein und Pauk und Zithar
         Zum labyrinthischen Tanze ladet -

Zu euch vielleicht, ihr Inseln! gerät noch einst
   Ein heimatloser Sänger; denn wandern muß
      Von Fremden er zu Fremden, und die
         Erde, die freie, sie muß ja, leider!

Statt Vaterlands ihm dienen, solang er lebt,
   Und wenn er stirbt - doch nimmer vergeß ich dich,
      So fern ich wandre, schöner Main! und
         Deine Gestade, die vielbeglückten.

Gastfreundlich nahmst du, Stolzer! bei dir mich auf
   Und heitertest das Auge dem Fremdlinge,
      Und still hingleitende Gesänge
         Lehrtest du mich und geräuschlos Leben.

O ruhig mit den Sternen, du Glücklicher!
   Wallst du von deinem Morgen zum Abend fort,
      Dem Bruder zu, dem Rhein, und dann mit
         Ihm in den Ozean freudig nieder!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Odes by Hölderlin: In the Morning

From dew the lawn shines, lithe the awakened source
    Springs already quickening; inclines the beech
        To shake her head and reads her leaves with
            Rustling and a shimmer; and streaks the gray

Clouds with the fuchsia of prophesying flame,
    To undulate noiselessly over our heads;
         The way waves flood on the shore, swaying
             Higher and higher, ever-variable.

Come now, O come for me, hasten not too fast,
     Your golden day, away to summit heaven!
          For your flight will open when my eyes
             Are closed, more unconcealed, more ecstatic,

In the look of luminous youth, your beauty
     Not yet too gorgeous, or too swollen with pride;
          As if forever you would race time,
              Would I, wanderer divine, go with you!

In merry arrogance you smile, that he could
      Be equal to you; bless me instead of my
           Mortal needs, and beam serene again
              Today, gracious one, on my silent way.

Des Morgens

Vom Thaue glänzt der Rasen; beweglicher
   Eilt schon die wache Quelle; die Buche neigt
      Ihr schwankes Haupt und im Geblätter
         Rauscht es und schimmert; und um die grauen

Gewölke streifen rötliche Flammen dort,
   Verkündende, sie wallen geräuschlos auf;
      Wie Fluten am Gestade, wogen
         Höher und höher die Wandelbaren.

Komm nun, o komm, und eile mir nicht zu schnell,
   Du goldner Tag, zum Gipfel des Himmels fort!
      Denn offner fliegt, vertrauter dir mein
         Auge, du Freudiger! zu, solang du

In deiner Schöne jugendlich blickst und noch
   Zu herrlich nicht, zu stolz mir geworden bist;
      Du möchtest immer eilen, könnt ich,
         Göttlicher Wandrer, mit dir! - doch lächelst

Des frohen Übermütigen du, daß er
   Dir gleichen möchte; segne mir lieber dann
      Mein sterblich Tun und heitre wieder
         Gütiger! heute den stillen Pfad mir.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Odes by Hölderlin: Evening Imagination

Before his hut cool among the shades sits
   The plowman, and to the rationer of smoke on his stove.
      Guest-friendly vespers for the wanderers resound
         In the quiet village curfew bell.

Perhaps the mariner returns now to the harbor and,
   In distant towns, the clamor of the market stalls
      Fades happily away; in a silent arbor
         The convivial table of friends sparkles.

Where shall I go? It is the mortal life
   Of work and wages; alternating test and rest
      All are joyous; why then does the spike
         Sleep only inside my breast?

In the evening sky a spring blooms on;
   Innumerable bloom the roses and the golden world
      Calmly shines; O take me there,
         Purple clouds! May I melt

In light and air above my ​​love and suffering! -
   But, as if frightened away by a silly plea, the magic
      Flees; it is dark and I am blind and
         Lonely as always under the sky -

Come now, gentle slumber! The heart demands
   Too much; you burn out, youth, at last! Yes, you,
      Restless ones, preoccupied with dreams!
         The aged are then docile and carefree.


Vor seiner Hütte ruhig im Schatten sitzt
   Der Pflüger, dem Genügsamen raucht sein Herd.
      Gastfreundlich tönt dem Wanderer im
         Friedlichen Dorfe die Abendglocke.

Wohl kehren itzt die Schiffer zum Hafen auch,
   In fernen Städten, fröhlich verrauscht des Markts
      Geschäftger Lärm; in stiller Laube
         Glänzt das gesellige Mahl den Freunden.

Wohin denn ich? Es leben die Sterblichen
   Von Lohn und Arbeit; wechselnd in Müh' und Ruh
      Ist alles freudig; warum schläft denn
         Nimmer nur mir in der Brust der Stachel?

Am Abendhimmel blühet ein Frühling auf;
   Unzählig blühn die Rosen und ruhig scheint
      Die goldne Welt; o dorthin nimmt mich,
         Purpurne Wolken! und möge droben

In Licht und Luft zerrinnen mir Lieb' und Leid! -
   Doch, wie verscheucht von töriger Bitte, flieht
      Der Zauber; dunkel wirds und einsam
         Unter dem Himmel, wie immer, bin ich -

Komm du nun, sanfter Schlummer! zu viel begehrt
   Das Herz; doch endlich, Jugend! verglühst du ja,
      Du ruhelose, träumerische!
         Friedlich und heiter ist dann das Alter.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Odes by Hölderlin: The Spirit of the Age

For too long now you’ve prevailed above my head,
   In your darkened cloud, the god of the age
      Too feral, too fearful throughout, in
          Ruins and trembling, wherever I look.

But, like a boy, I often look to the ground,
    Seek in the cave deliverance from you, and want,
       Idiotic, to track down a place,
           All-of-the-earthquaker, where you are not.

Let me finally meet you, Father, with eyes
  Wide open! Have you not awakened my
      Spirit first with your radiance? I am
          Brought so exquisitely to life, O Father! –

Well-ripened on young vines is our holy force;
   In milder air we’ll encounter the mortals
       Who silently wander the grove
          Serene as a god; but almightier

You rouse now the pure souls of youth, and teach
   The wise elders arts; only the fallen
         Will fall again, thus it sooner ends,
             Once you, earthquaker, take them.

Der Zeitgeist

Zu lang schon waltest über dem Haupte mir,
   Du in der dunkeln Wolke, du Gott der Zeit!
      Zu wild, zu bang ist's ringsum, und es
         Trümmert und wankt ja, wohin ich blicke.

Ach! wie ein Knabe, seh' ich zu Boden oft,
   Such' in der Höhle Rettung von dir, und möcht',
      Ich Blöder, eine Stelle finden,
         Alleserschütt'rer! wo du nicht wärest.

Laß endlich, Vater! offenen Aug's mich dir
   Begegnen! hast denn du nicht zuerst den Geist
      Mit deinem Strahl aus mir geweckt? mich
         Herrlich ans Leben gebracht, o Vater! -

Wohl keimt aus jungen Reben uns heil'ge Kraft;
   In milder Luft begegnet den Sterblichen,
      Und wenn sie still im Haine wandeln,
         Heiternd ein Gott; doch allmächt'ger weckst du

Die reine Seele Jünglingen auf, und lehrst
   Die Alten weise Künste; der Schlimme nur
      Wird schlimmer, daß er bälder ende,
          Wenn du, Erschütterer! ihn ergreifest.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Nostalgia in Talbert Park

A walk in the open woods:
New wild roses,
Fresh bamboo,
But then the mangy tree,
The past
That never stops

The hands – clasped – 
Like vine to branch,
Still drinking of your sun, 
With a power far beyond
What is long dead, 
For this one
Never existed.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Nostalgia at Dume Point

The fichus trees still buzz above the hubbub,
The streams still gurgle wide of every circuit
And frogs and baby squirrels mark the time.

The waves speak secret things
In curves of foam we hear
Without awareness.

The rocks face toward the sun,
Each one with more intelligence
Than we possess.

They wait in stillness
For us to discover what they know.

And then one day our thinking ends
On a rock blackened by battenings of foam
To find that all along we’ve known

How threads connect in current splay,
What seals and seagulls say
In nature’s constant “look at me,”

What the late sun helps the stones to speak.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Nostalgia at Morro Bay

The rock that holds the town
Has disappeared in fog,
As if what lives are built around
Is no longer there.

But glints of bluing day
Etch pictures out of mysteries
Like truth revealed, enough at least
To glimpse in rolling cloud
Worlds larger than oneself —

Until, in majesty of sun,
It gleams again its certainties,
And one's not really sure
It ever was there.