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Monthly Archives: April 2017

Poem: Acon
Poet: H.D.

I

Bear me to Dictaeus,
and to the steep slopes;
to the river Erymanthus.

I choose spray of dittany,
cyperum, frail of flower,
buds of myrrh,
all-healing herbs,
close pressed in calathes.

For she lies panting,
drawing sharp breath,
broken with harsh sobs,
she, Hyella,
whom no god pities.

II

Dryads
haunting the groves,
nereids
who dwell in wet caves,
for all the white leaves of olive-branch,
and early roses,
and ivy wreaths, woven gold berries,
which she once brought to your altars,
bear now ripe fruits from Arcadia,
and Assyrian wine
to shatter her fever.

The light of her face falls from its flower,
as a hyacinth,
hidden in a far valley,
perishes upon burnt grass.

Pales,
bring gifts,
bring your Phoenician stuffs,
and do you, fleet-footed nymphs,
bring offerings,
Illyrian iris,
and a branch of shrub,
and frail-headed poppies.


This poem is powerful because the grief it captures is at once starkly apparent and deeply veiled. That it is apparent hardly needs explication, it comes through so clearly. The third stanza of part I sees to that. So I will talk about the way it is veiled.

The first way in which the narrator’s grief is veiled lies in the poem’s opening stanzas. It does not begin with “Hyella, / whom no god pities.” It begins with the command, “Bear me to Dictaeus,” as if the poet were invoking the muses. And though the next stanza does not involve a request for golden words or a honeyed tongue, as might be expected to follow such an invocation, yet nonetheless it does not clearly break the spell. The poem seems like it is still preparing itself, not yet wholly arrived.

Thus it is a shock to reach the third stanza and to find Hyella “drawing sharp breath, / broken with harsh sobs.” Suddenly the reader realizes that the narrator has been gathering medicine, and that whoever she has invoked (this is still in doubt), it was not the muses. The poem has not been gathering steam, no—it began at the beginning. But this eruption of grief was needed to see it.

And this points to the second and crucial way in which the grief of this poem is veiled. The narrator’s attention hardly turns to Hyella directly: her names appears but the once, and she is the central focus in only two of the poem’s six stanzas (stanzas three and five). The other four stanzas all concern the process of attempting to heal her, the gathering of (and the imploring of various mythological characters to gather) the medicine needed to heal her.

The overwhelming impression is that the narrator is attempting to distract herself from the reality of Hyella’s suffering with this labor. In losing herself in the labor, she can forget, if only for a moment, the harsh truth. And yet the poem reveals that this is only marginally effective. In part I, she can hold it off for two stanzas, but in the third she cannot hold it back, and her mind returns to Hyella gasping in her bed.

In part II, she manages to turn her mind back to her labor, but this only serves to set up the poem’s devastating (I don’t use the word lightly) fifth stanza. Whereas the third stanza offers a brutally direct picture of Hyella suffering, the fifth stanza works through metaphor. All of the plant imagery—to this point quite literal—gathers itself into this one stanza:

The light of her face falls from its flower,
as a hyacinth,
hidden in a far valley,
perishes upon burnt grass.

The attempt to distract herself with the work of healing has not succeeded. It has merely resulted in the physical material of that work, the plants from which the medicine derives, and turned them into a beautiful but terrible reminder of the cause of that work.

Of course, the poem does not end there, for the suffering continues, and so also the search for distraction continues, as the sixth stanza captures. And we are not wrong if we see a hint of Hyella once more in the “frail-headed poppies” with which the poem ends.

Poem: Between Walls
Poet: William Carlos Williams
In: The Voice That is Great Within Us (ed. Hayden Carruth)

Between Walls

the back wings
of the

hospital where
nothing

will grow lie
cinders

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green
bottle


This is a poem that has rewarded re-reading, and I am pleased that it was chosen to represent Williams in this collection, in place of the comparable but dramatically more famous poem about the red wheelbarrow. (It is not the only Williams selection, to be clear, but it is the only selection in this particular mode.)

At its core the poem is an image: the broken pieces of the green bottle lying amid the cinderblocks of an industrial dead zone. Indeed, this image is very nearly the poem itself. I say “very nearly” because there is one bit of editorializing on the part of the narrator. This is the implied comparison between the description of the setting as one in which “nothing // will grow” and the greenness of the broken glass, which, against that background, clearly suggests that we are to take it as a sort of industrial plant.

But beyond that, the poem tells us nothing about how we should feel about the image. And indeed, the justification for the implied comparison between the absent plant life and the present bottle is that it gives shape to the uncertainty of what to make of the scene described.

What, exactly, are we to make of this image? One might read it as a celebration of what is not often celebrated: a dead, ugly looking place—but wait, for there is life here, too, the broken bottle is the vegetation appropriate to such a place, and furthermore, is evidence that humans live here, that there is life even here. It is the task of the poet to find signs of life even where others see only ugliness and decay, and that is the virtue of this poem.

One might equally see in the comparison of the bottle to a plant a statement on just how different they are, how pale an imitation of true life the bottle is. The similarity then serves only to draw our attention to just how dissimilar the two really are. And what sort of life is evidenced by this bottle: a drunk, skulking about hidden places—no life at all. Such a reader might also note a feature of the setting I have thus far left unremarked: that this occurs around a hospital building. The whole setting is one of death and disease.

Well, there are two readings. Does the poem tell between them? Not in the slightest. Both are the impositions of the reader. In the end, there is only the broken bottle amid the cinder blocks. Make of it what you will.

“Fair, fair,” cry the ospreys
On the island in the river.
Lovely is this noble lady,
Fit bride for our lord.

In patches grows the water mallow;
To left and right one must seek it.
Shy was this noble lady;
Day and night he sought her.

Sought her and could not get her;
Day and night he grieved.
Long thoughts, oh, long, unhappy thoughts,
Now on his back, now tossing on to his side.

In patches grows the water mallow;
To left and right one must gather it.
Shy is this noble lady;
With great zither and little we hearten her.

In patches grows the water mallow;
To left and right one must choose it.
Shy is this noble lady;
With bells and drums we will gladden her.


Above is the first poem in the Shijing (The Book of Songs, trans. Arthur Waley, ed. Joseph R. Allen). The interpretation of it that I shall offer does not pretend to accurately capture the intent of its author(s). Or, more precisely, there is an inflection point in the interpretation, which I will try to signal clearly, where I shift from fairly secure to quite uncertain ground.

Let us start with what appears to me beyond dispute. The first stanza introduces us to a lord and his (presumptive—hold the thought) bride. But where the first stanza suggests a poem of celebration, the second introduces a sorrowful note: he seeks her day and night, but she is shy, and evades him. This note is amplified in the next stanza, which confirms (if it was in any doubt) that, though he seeks her, he cannot find her.

Interestingly, the second stanza compares the lord’s search to the search for the water mallow, which grows in patches “to left and right.” I suspect, though I do not know, that “to left and right” is an idiom that means “everywhere” or “all over.” In this case, however, the literal meaning is important, too (here I am trusting that “to left and right” is something like a literal translation). For we see, in the third stanza, the lord’s sleep troubled by his grief: “Now on his back, now tossing on to his side.”

The power of this image comes from the parallel between the search for the water mallow (“to left and right one must seek it”) and the lord’s tossing and turning: he seeks her in his sleep. The water mallow is not a generic image of searching for what is difficult to find, but an image that matches his particular search.

At this point I leave firm ground behind. On a first reading of the poem, the final two stanzas appear straightforwardly to suggest that he has found her, and that now he (and those around him) “hearten” and “gladden” her with zither and bells and drums. The modification of the image of the water mallow (from “seek” to “gather” and “choose”) especially suggests this. Ultimately, I think this is probably the most plausible reading of the poem. But I detect an undercurrent that enriches the poem.

There are a few elements of the poem that speak against the reading just offered. First is the continued description of the lady as shy. She is still evasive, still in need of reassurance, of being heartened and gladdened. And at this point we may recall that the first stanza tells us, not that she is his bride, but that she is fit to be his bride, which is something quite different.

But what most encourages me along these lines is that we are never told that he has found her. The third stanza ends with him seeking her in sleep. It is never indicated that he wakes up. Thus there is the possibility, impossible to rule out, that he has found her only in sleep, that he heartens and gladdens her only in sleep. It is even possible that the zither and drums and bells are not the happy conclusion of a successful search, but tools of the search itself, the means by which he attempts to draw her out of her shyness.

There are thus two possible readings of the poem. On the first, it captures the truest and most poetic of moods, exuberance flecked with sorrow. On the second, the sorrow predominates, the flecks encroach upon and overtake the whole. Were I forced to choose between them, I would likely take the first. But I would resent the choice, for the richness of the poem, as I read it, lies not in either reading but in the antagonism between the two.