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The Piano Student

The scroll of shadows gentles the flat shape
++Of wallpapered surfaces while sunlight,
++++Elliptic and crimped through drawn slatted shades,
++++Understates its own grace notes in grades
++Of gold that no one would die for, or fight
To distraction’s pure gain — so drop the drape
+++++And return to counterpoint’s metronome.
Measured impositions wait to resume.

One moment kills the next in crude cascades
++Of dark on light on final dark. Though night
++++Recites its nocturnes to beautifully ape
++++Conservatory postures, scraps of crape
++Conceal blisters on cherry veneer slight
As settled dust. So Grecian colonnades,
+++++Redundant with gods, once held heaven’s dome.
The measured dispositions must resume.

Practical inspiration finds escape
++In imperfect struggling sounds that, weighed
++++To balance, make a sacrifice of delight.
++++So bully the muse if you must — incite
++The bristled scales on a dragon’s back, trade
On spider webs, hammer the sour grape —
+++++But time with both its hands will push you home
To measured compositions.
+++++++++++++++++++++++Now. Resume.

T.I.P – RPW

Many a Christmas holly leaf ago, Mr. Barker gave me a wonderful collection of interviews with Robert Penn Warren, whose All the King’s Men easily makes the short list of candidates for The Great American Novel. Having just finished this book of interviews, I can’t recommend it enough for all Korrektiv Kollekitivites.  (Talking with Robert Penn Warren has driven me back to the works of RPW – his poems and criticism in particular. I’ve read ATKM twice and probably will again before I’m done – but not this time – the poems are a VOLUME!)

There are many moments in the interviews which reaffirm why we all got into the writing racket in the first place. Here’s just one:

Farrell: While we’re on the subject of writing a successful collection of poems, what would you say is the profession of poet [which RPW means in the expansive sense of “maker” with words – both verse and fiction] means to you?

Warren: Well, there’s something I can say about it. I would say poetry is a way of life, ultimately – not a kind of performance, not something you do on Saturday or Easter morning or Christmas morning or something like that. It’s a way of being open to the world, a way of being open to experience. I would say, open to your experience, insofar as you can see it or at least feel it as a unit with all its contradictions and confusions…

Farrell: Can it be summed up in your phrase, one that goes something like “[It’s] a way to love God”?

Warren: Well, yes, I think so. It’s a way to accept, to deal with the world. A way to love God? – yes, I think it is. If you want to put it that way. The only way some people can live is by assuming that life is worth being interested in. It’s worth giving yourself to, and giving the best you can. I would say that poetry is not like a profession, but a way of life. These are two quite different things. 

Talking with Robert Penn Warrenis also full of insightful anecdotes about everyone from Herman Melville and Malcolm X to RPW’s fellow Fugitives*. Also, a little tidbit that would go mostly unnoticed by any reader but Catholics: RPW took art classes when he was 12 years old from one of the Dominican Sisters of the Congregation of St. Cecilia in Nashville (aka “The Nashville Dominicans”). You have to buy the book to get the full story, but it’s almost worth the price of admission. 

Now, onto the buried lede…

Fisher: When you, Mr. [Cleanth] Brooks and Mr. [Charles] Pipkin founded The Southern Review [funded, as Wikipedia points out, by Huey Long (cf. ATKM) in his attempt to improve LSU’s visibility outside the Bayou State], you published some very fine writers. How did these writers come to your attention, since most of them had yet to make the reputation they later achieved? 

Warren: Let me say one general thing first. In the thirties there were a lot of good writers around who had a hard time getting published. Two things were in our favor. First, there was no money around – and though we didn’t pay much, we paid something – and second, we didn’t have to try to please a mass market. We only had to please ourselves.

Then something else: in that period and the decades earlier, the period of the little magazine, the distinction between the little magazine and the slicks was important. The big slick magazines, things like The Saturday Evening Post, were totally different form literary magazines, which were out for ART. Commercial magazines and little magazines were very distinct. That’s no longer true today.

Esquire, among the pants ads, would publish (they invented this thing, you know, about mixing things up) [F. Scott] Fitzgerald and a few big names of literary value and mix them with pants ads, men’s styles, and a few pinup girls. Now this hash is all over the whole country. Playboy… the editor  [Robie Macauley] of Kenyon Review [founded by RPW’s fellow Fugitive, John Crowe Ransom] became fiction editor of Playboy. That’s how far it has gone. 

____________

*If we’re playing “Six Degrees of Interpersonal Relationships with Walker Percy” here, one of the Fugitives, Allan Tate was married (twice!) to Caroline Gordon who, inter alia, mentored Mr. Percy in his first (and as of yet unpublished) novel. My understanding is that Percy also found Mr. Tate’s input invaluable, although I have no citation ready at hand to establish this as fact…

Meleager’s Curse

The logs I put on this shameful fire are wet
Although I have nothing to base this on
But the fact that they were once collected
Like lost children in the earliest part
Of past spring, encased in a thousand snows,
And sopped through to the pith by rains that March
And April let loose through the haggard woods
Where they first came to life, then were hewn down,
Then split apart by flex of axe and maul.

The logs I put on this shameful fire are wet
And will only sputter now like old men
Faced with an impossible choice between drink
And a winking spark of pert nonchalance
Offered by a pretty slattern’s visit
To the bar, platinum-haired, dolled up and grim
With smiles. The logs now tumble, smoke and hiss—
Dismissing fate, soggy with lassitude,
Indifferent to what burns them at last.

The logs I put on this shameful fire are wet
And daylight tapers outside my window
Into porcelain blue, brittle and fazed
With February weather. I poke the logs;
They answer briefly before returning
To their witless sleep. Or do they dream
They are vaunting like masts amid their days
Of swaying June? Or in their senescence
Are they still flagrant with dreams about fire?

Livy At Washington

Nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus…

If history is one big abortion,
Then we’ve been done in by the specialists,
Whose confidence dims imagination.
The kids are good; the folks are not at home:
Orgasms vie with evolutionists—
And both will consume the same gay freedom
Whereby cool electrons slake the frisson
Of immanent democracy. So make
Mine a concrete, balloted passion—
The kind you get with a penny gumball,
What you might taste in a five-star beefsteak.
But form matters little to the hungry soul
When microphones crackle, truth to tell,
What prompts a heaven in humanity’s hell.

A Book Was Written

And there is a Walker Percy connection, believe it or not

In Memoriam: Paul Zimmer

Paul Zimmer: 1934-2019

I. The Visit

For Paul and Suzanne Zimmer and Cele Wolf

With sunlight pouring through the windows, March
Retreats and winter’s windy shadows shake
The shadows’ fruit from changing light. The lurch
And sway of barren limbs (no leaves to speak
Within the secret ear of spring) now cast
Their shadows through the room. We visit there
And lunch on whiskey’s fire – a sip, a taste,
Enough to warm remembrance with desire.

That afternoon your visit was a gift —
To know that spring came early and put
The bloom of meaning to books and birds.
Our host, the town’s librarian, had laughed
To think that here the dance of drink and thought
Had found a way with words — a way to words.

(For a sampling of Mr. Zimmer’s work, go here.)

A Babbsian Commentary on the Gospel of Aristotle

Today’s world offers an abundance of conveniences for daily life. We are able to order food at the touch of button, have clothing and any other necessity shipped right to our door, and with a simple tap on your screen you can “friend” someone.

This noun, conveying a positive relationship between two people, is now used as a verb — perhaps denoting a shift in the meaning of the word from being an absolute good — something necessary for human happiness — to becoming a contingent good — something useful designed to help us achieve some further goal. After all, the practice of “friending” and “unfriending” seems to carry no more weight these days than balancing one’s bank account or processing an insurance claim….

The Beer Option

Without the benefit of modern central heating, 13th century Norwegians probably had no trouble keeping their beer cold—and their water as well. Perhaps for this reason, Norway’s clergy had a hard time baptizing souls. “Look, Father Olaf!—the font’s frozen solid again!”

But whatever the reason, as R. Jared Staudt relates in his book The Beer Option: Brewing a Catholic Culture Yesterday and Today, back in the day, Norway’s chilblained clergy had opted to baptize with beer instead of water. It was apparently just something one did in the Land of the Midnight Sun.

That is, at least until warmer heads in Rome prevailed—and Pope Gregory IX put the pontifical kibosh on the whole suds-as-salvific idea. Quoting from Gregory’s official buzz-killing letter regarding the Norwegian innovation, Staudt writes: “‘Since according to the Gospel teaching, a man must be born again of water and the Holy Ghost,’ Gregory writes those are not to be considered validly baptized who have been baptized with beer.”

Acknowledging the dangers of this and other more earthly instances of beery excess, Staudt has written a sober book-length case for restoring to its proper Catholic context the frothy brew that made Milwaukee—and many a monastery—famous.

Make and Model

The strict manners that make a spider’s Tuesday
Computes the butterfly on spring’s flywheel—

It spins with stark confabulations, say,
Of deeper truths than those left to unreel

The darkest places, full of silences,
Which make of flesh a creeping thought, abstract

And let of blood. Lost as alliances
Among the vehicles of man’s exact

Discourse with mystery, the earth will preach
Of stars’ infinitude, soliloquies

That pulse the veins and carry (more than reach)
Shivering spasms of an April breeze.

The one possible prayer is day to night—
A web ensnared in dew, tattered by light.

Quo magis mutatur, eo magis statur…

I notice that a breed of people is emerging which my soul deeply abhors. I do not see anybody becoming better, but everybody worse, at least those I know. And so I am deeply grieved at having preached freedom of the spirit in my earlier writings. I did so in good faith, without any suspicion that such a breed would result. I was hoping for a decrease in human ceremonies with a consequent increase in genuine piety. Now the ceremonies are discarded, but the result is not freedom of spirit but unbridled license of the flesh.  Some cities in Germany are filled with vagabonds – monks who have fled the monastery, married priests, most of them starving and naked. All they do is dance, eat, drink, and go whoring. They do not teach and do not learn. There is no moderation, no genuine goodness. Wherever such men exist, good learning and piety are in a state of collapse. I would write at greater length on this subject, if it were safe to commit it to writing…

– (emphasis added) Erasmus, from “Letter to a Monk,” Basel, Germany, October 15, 1527 (which sought to refute a popular saying at the time about the Protestant Revolt: “Erasmus laid the egg; Luther hatched it.”).

Carthage Nights

Nunc medea Aenean secum per moenia ducit
Sidoniassque ostentat opes urbemque paratam,
incipit effari mediaque in voce resistit…
– IV.74-76

I
This sword of honor leaves you unimpressed
And beds were made for peaceful war because,
My Dido, beauty bares a naked breast

Against the hilted scabbard’s fitness test,
These Carthage nights. But love at last withdraws —
Its sword of honor leaves you unimpressed.

You watch me, crucified by lust, but blessed
Enough to know. I grasp for words like straws:
“My Dido’s beauty bares a naked breast,”

I say as we, two stars the dark undressed,
Are drifting, driven, set apart by laws
My sword of honor leaves. You, unimpressed,

Sought to sound the distance with bitter jest:
“Carthage hides from light yet shines its flaws
In Dido. Beauty bares its naked breast

But Dido spreads her legs for any guest
Who promises to lie before he draws
His sword for beauty. Leave me. Unimpressed,
So did — o honor — bare its naked breast.”

II
Aeneas mistook her little black dress
For armor. Queen of cocktails, so precise,
This princess, green-eyed, was a hot mess
Amid the hors d’oeuvers and the cracked ice.
A royal battle ensued – he overdrank
Her lethal concoction of ruby lips
And slender arms until he failed to rank
His forces and dribbled out easy quips
About the night that glows like amethyst,
The whole city lit like a shaking torch –
Then let slip Carthago delenda est
Between kissing sips on her painted porch.
His word of honor left her unimpressed —
So Dido’s beauty bared a naked breast.

Serial Dreams

Look at the parameters of this mirror… – St. Clare of Assisi

I
The first, Italian Baroque, with its warmth
The kind you find in California hills
At midday – and in it, St. Francis speaks
Not as the Hallmark saint that loves the birds,
A daffy hippy with a crazy gaze,
But verging tears, wickedly specific
About my sins. A shadow falls across
His joy — like algae blooms in a fountain:
“I cannot serve you, king, who have no being,
For sorrow’s bread is full of murdered yeast.”

II
The second, like the first, but more measured —
With columns and clean form, as classical
As the staff lines of hemp stretching to catch
The taut tendrils a busy vine-dresser
Attends to, bidding fruit with sharpened shears
And grafting twine. In it, St. Thomas laughs
At me, part Falstaff and part Friar Tuck,
And more jolly than the dour word Summa
Might connote: “Ha! but to sell your body
At power’s price!” He lifts a cup and drinks.

III
Third and final, back to early music,
Choired voices chanting like a fresh pack
Of cards — no saints and no holy counsel,
Only a mirror from which Dante peers,
But not at me. The human hum of song
Mortars his meaning, cosmic as all flesh –
So modern souls may follow suit — now, today,
Hodie: “Gentlemen, time’s fine spirit
Winnows the parse of being from nothing
Doing.” I look again to see myself.

Lake

for Ann Althouse

What makes the lake a body of its own
Is blue and cold, acceptable as prose,
Unexpected as poetry that’s grown
Beyond its words – a liturgy that grows

And glitters, glacier-like, while weighing down
With weathered time the slowly massing floes
That squeeze a lake’s existence out of stone.
So passing passion into patience slows

The blood but speeds the wave to the tideline
In a land of lakes and stars; both repose
In the other’s eye — fire and water shine
Together secrets each the other knows.

Mira Elizabeth L.

April 15, 2019

This is a desert place, and the hour is now past:
send away the multitudes…

– Matthew 14:15

Miracles are hard to come by these days;
Ides will thus warn us: wonders that profess
Resplendence ache to sing our debt to praise —
And yet we only envy happiness.
“Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!”
Laments our world, fast in its barren tracts.
In Sisyphus we find no Calvary:
Zygote and embryo and fetus – facts.
Accounted human, though, such accidents
Belie necessity’s phantom commands —
Each birth, though fixed as stars or blowing sands,
Translates as one of nature’s sacraments.
Here, then, is life – given frame in its breaching;
Less taken, the more gifted in its reaching.

“Quel Giorno Più Non Vi Leggemmo Avante.”

                          —Inferno V.138

We lean above the book and fateful page
    And lean into its words. You speak. I hear
    The husked seeds split, and they bleed down the page:
You tuck a strand of hair behind your ear
    And strings that knit the constellations twinge
    Like mandolins beneath the earth —so near
Commingled shade and soil to unhinge
    The grave; yet far as moonlight in a pond
    That blinks with nightjars rippled on the wing.
Though grassy spring now shimmers green with frond
    And shoot within your eyes, your beauty stares
    From violet shadow, Cimmerian, beyond
The swallowed source of bowered light that flares
    Within your eyes. They tear my heart away
    With a single glance. Eurydice wears
Your smile — anticipating hope, yet fey
    As autumn apples dropping from their limbs
    Will roll, gather into gullies, and lay
In wait: a sudden winter rain floods and brims
    The world in multiples of fallen time,
    The same that fuel in sullen throb the hymns
Of Orpheus, hemorrhaging grief in rhyme.
    But different tunes ignite our desire’s root –
    Their trace, emerging vines that merge and climb
The walls within the halls of Hades. Mute
    And vanished as night, yet here you remain
    A muse that breathes her fire upon a flute:
The pomegranate and its crimson stain
    Upon your lips, at dawn, upon my lips —
    Yet I am sure of nothing but the train
Of Venus, gown of ebony which strips
    This morning’s meaning, held out as a gift.
    My tongue takes these words as one, but trips
Upon your name. I hear each quench and sift
    It murmurs, blown upon the wind, and us
    With it, now bound by cords, now set adrift,
Regret our only landfall, tremulous
    Desire our only compass – this final page,
    The desperate map that charts us in our loss.
You arch your back and lean into the page
    Again, again I dare to lean as near —
    And further — but no farther than this page,
The compass needle driving through the air.

Balls

Non-sovereignty
Without a vote
Is slavery –
That’s all she wrote.

4 Million Wonders of the Bronx

"WELL,  WELL, WELL. WILL YOU LOOK AT THAT,” SAYS MR. PORTER. "IT LOOKS LIKE BABBSIO WENT AHEAD AND GOT HERSELF A BLOGGY THINGY... GOD BLESS HER HEART!"

“WELL, WELL, WELL. WILL YOU LOOK AT THAT,” SAYS MR. PORTER. “IT LOOKS LIKE BABBSIO WENT AHEAD AND GOT HERSELF A BLOGGY THINGY… GOD BLESS HER HEART!”

O’Brien on O. Henry:

In 1906, following the successful publication of his first collection of short stories, Sydney William Porter, under the pen name O. Henry, published a collection titled The Four Million. Included in this collection was his famous, well-loved Christmas story, The Gift of the Magi. The author wrote this series of stories in response to Ward McAllister’s statement of “there are only 4 hundred people worth noticing in New York City” – at a time when the city’s population was approximately 4 million. On February 16th, 1892, this self-appointed arbiter of New York society proceeded to publish a list of these “worth noticing” people in The New York Times. But in O. Henry’s mind, every human being in New York was worth noticing – the socialite and the downcast, the banker and the street vendor. He believed that every person had a story to tell and a life worth noticing. He set out to prove this belief and the result was his collection of short, witty stories with characters modeled after the downtrodden and everyday members of society.

Although the population of this metropolis has doubled since the publication of The Four Million, I, like O. Henry, want to find and notice all the unnoticed people of New York City. I am not a blogger but I will attempt in this blog to relate all of my experiences as a long-time “country mouse” living among the “city mice.” I have never written anything publicly so please forgive my early attempts at self-published work. I am neither an eloquent nor a brilliant writer, but I try to write as I wish to speak – simply, clearly, and honestly.

I hope my stories and reflections help you see a little of the world I see everyday.

The Sea as Heartbreak

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             I
A wave. —A wave. —Another wave retells
The gain and loss, the wealth without a cost—
Recalling how each wave crashes memory,
So far from home and counting what to see.
I stand upon the shore, where wind is tossed
As infinitely as clattering shells

Upon the shore. She greets my eyes with bold
Surrender, nothing returning but wave
And tide. As sun and cloud beseech their home,
So I had begged for shelter. Now sands comb
Debris, the shipping bits that time will save
As cold comfort. The shadows grow old

And light that windows offer to my room
Has nowhere to go, now shunted and lamed
By dying shades. She comes to bring me back
With meats and wine, with spells that crack
An ancient code: your deeds are lost, unnamed
By fame, undone by beauty’s beckoning doom.

             II
We watch cloudy shadows with sunlit cast
Across the waves, like dark monsters beneath
Our vision. Hand across your brow, you peer
Where sea and sky are married, lost in vast
Declensions: wind and water—spangled breath
Of glittering gems that glow and disappear

Beneath our separate islands. Though we share
A single epic, lyric solitude
Maroons these comic palms, their offered green
Is lost in ocean’s grey. For ghosts that bear
The memories of tragic war intrude,
Insisting a claim on blood, true and clean

As bodies washed ashore. Such is the loom
In Ithaca that plucks Ogygia
From its threads, woven poor with cramped regret…
Tonight the stars dine alone and assume
A feast of meats we would call nostalgia—
And waves. —And waves. —And other waves forget.