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Pre-Plague London

Peter Handke’s Homage to Percy?

In 2019, Peter Handke won the Nobel Prize. I think we reported this already, maybe not — but he’s been kovered by the Kollekitv before at any rate, so let me quickly et to the good part.

Apparently, as already noted, Handke had translated The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman into German. As Mr. Barker noted to me once, “Percy must have been tickled pink to receive such careful attention from a Teutonic existentialist, what with his not-so-sneaking admiration for the German temperament.”

Well, I went ahead and read Handke’s parabolic Absence (2000) and was struck by its patina of lucidity and simplicity overlaying a complex web of symbiotic intricacies. Here, clearly, is a writer concerned about the meaning and state of language in the 20th/21st century…

I was so taken by the novel that I decided to begin at the beginning, and work my way through his other novels. The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972) is the first of his novels to be translated into English. It came in the mail yesterday; I finished it this morning. It tells the tale of Joseph Bloch, a goalie-turned-construction-worker-turned-murderer who attempts to — well, what? Throughout the novel he is trying to assemble some sort of meaning out of the slippage of words with things and things with ideas and ideas with words and ideas, trying to address and perhaps even korrekt the postmodern hash of things… You know, “Like Percy do!”

Much of what Bloch does in The Goalie, not surprisingly, is couched in the tropes of football — for example, his habit of mind is to see telos (i.e. “goal”) without knowing the causes which have led up to the things that happen — including the apparently senseless murder he commits — or even how these causes can be derived from language which has slipped from things which have slipped from ideas which have slipped from… ad infinitum.

And then, look at this! In the midst of the novel, we find a sideways homage to Percy, or at least it sounds like one:

“When [Bloch] stopped and then walked on, the pictures seemed to dim from the edges: finally they had turned completely black except for a circle in the middle. ‘Like when somebody in a movie looks through a telescope,‘ he thought.” [emphasis added]

Is that Handke channeling the ghosts of Binx Bolling and Will Barrett?

As the Jstor abstract notes, Handke didn’t get around to translating Percy until the 1980s, but who’s to say he didn’t have Percy banging around in his imagination even as early as 1972?

Handke is a controversial writer, to say the least, and when he won the Nobel Prize, it was seen by many among the literati as a let down by the Academy. (We all may have our views on this point — but apparently what’s good for the Rushdie goose is not necessarily good for the Handke gander…. Or maybe I should be using metaphors about gored oxen and sacred cows…) But I think Handke rewards study – at the very least as someone carrying the torch for language as the most human of (pre)occupations…

‘… On the Wings of the Wind …’

From the Armadio degli Argenti of Blessed John of Fiesole, OP (Fra Angelico), c. 1450

From the Armadio degli Argenti of Blessed John of Fiesole, OP (Fra Angelico), c. 1450

… he came, cherub-mounted, borne up on the wings of the wind….

Pslam 18:11

“…Aut Pluvius Describitur Arcus”

-For Cecilia

And this makes me remember an invention for making signs appear in the sky,
which would cause great wonder in those who were ignorant of the causes. —Descartes

…or the rainbow is described. —Horace

I (Air)
Remonstratively warbling, robin feels all out
Of sorts as orioles quick-shot repeat her themes,
Yammered by mid-air finch in cinch-winged turnabout—
(Giving as well, caged cockatoos their jungle dreams).
Because of this, the gnatcatcher’s potsherd nest still seems
Inevitable, like the bunting’s bumbling song.
“Verily!” the martins cry. “Spring, be long! Belong!”

II (Earth)
Restless to be wintered out of ash, the fey rose
Obliges poppy fields to keep their ground en masse;
Yes, and grazing dandelions scatter to impose
Gossamer parachutes across vanity’s grass.
Bountiful chicory, meanwhile, disheveled, crass,
Inveigles prodigiously with the rattleweed.
“Verily!” the crocus cries — thus discrete — so decreed.

III (Water)
Resurgent wing and stem aside, the blood and will
Of men, in urgent altitudes of liquid sunlight,
Yearn (as perhaps Noah for chardonnay) to fill
Gangly veins with chlorophyll — chartreuse-bright.
But first to dare the waters, bird and branch alone might
In Saxon dyes anoint and indelibly remark,
“Verily, creation’s arc empurples creation’s ark!”

IV (Fire)
Resplendent as Stravinsky’s shrieking-red firebird,
Ocular as God’s own gold-smoldering vine,
Yawning a blaze of aural variety, the word
Gains a verdant glow: pluvius arcus. The line
By Horace sparkles a certain cerulean shine —
Iridescent bolt from the cobalt to bestow,
Verily, a premise, a promise — the rainbow.

V (Quintessence)
Recurring to causes, his eyes flame-tipped with red
Of dying day, Descartes juices a bitter orange,
Yawning at yellow-bricked truth — the one only road.
Green is time, though. Clearing the air, winds rearrange
Blue thoughts to arc along electric lines. These strange
Integrations involve midnight’s lonely indigo
Verily with lowly violet’s inviolate vertigo.

Burn and Break: An Insomniac’s Anti-Aubade



The three pre-dinner martinis
Compete with the two strong coffees
That brought a cheesecake to its knees;

Eating away at emotion,
My Dead Sea, a bitter ocean,
Nauseates at the mere notion

Or romantic coincidence
(Discount the eclipsed resplendence
Of shared bed space as indolence

And our dawn walks in Radio Park,
Dead signals in a channeled dark —
Like a coronary infarct.)

Now the heart’s a hopped up toad;
The blood flows, arteries corrode,
And the night’s black caffeine cathode

Twitches the clock and tricks the brain
To confess the blunted edge of pain
That bleeds through dark a darker stain.

This vigil’s tortured entropy
Breaks the stars’ monopoly
And burns a private astrology

Of headlights that loom, flash, and crawl
Slow tracers down the bedroom wall
To speed the car of Ezekiel.

In fading hiss of passing wheels,
The Doppler hum of engines feels
Like time reversed in movie reels.

These hours are hounds that found and treed
That possum called sleep — and the need
To meet her fangs becomes a creed

In a molten heat each bitch moans —
And this magma liturgy groans
Tenets my inner ear intones.

Too easily, antacid quit
And its pink liquid conduit
Chalks my tongue on a turning spit:

So are Cupid’s barbs chemical?
Is Venus a blocked ventricle?
(Maybe Mars is too clinical.)

But the bedroom’s uneasy poise
Snags my conscience — just so much noise
Light may know but the dark enjoys.

My fingers range across the quilt
That you had stitched against my guilt —
The flowered pattern in constant wilt.

Then monotony blinks an eye:
The lampstand yanks alive to try
Fabricating my alibi.

With ceiling’s conclusions foregone,
I lie and write this poem on
My heart as upon volcanic stone

Tied with pups in a sack and cast
In a sullen lake, deep and vast
Enough to digest the shotgun blast

Square in the chest which, burning, breaks
With too much love, too many cakes,
And whatever in hell it takes

To leave me waked by dawn. Forget
Reasoned search for scorched regret —
I’ve made my bed. I’ll sleep in debt.

Tulips Sans Chimneys

Tulips for Elsie cover image

Mr. Potter’s given us a bold adventurous book with plenty of sharp turns at high speed, with some gestures toward Neruda and Merwin but also “Sk8,” a gr8 skateboarding poem, and sonnets, and brave ventures into rhymed verse, poems for friends and relatives, “Stopping by Blogs on a Frosty Evening,” and poems of passionate love with angels looking down from above. Plus tulips and Elsie. —Garrison Keillor

I have enjoyed the company of Jonathan Potter’s poetry for years and rejoice at the arrival of this new collection with its unabashed delight, authentic intimacy, and emotionally convincing, often playful music. Potter is at turns a graceful, organic monologist and a wry, deft formalist. These are poems of generous mythmaking, self-deprecating humor, passion, and the glories of fatherhood. They inhabit a Seattle of historical icons and the poet’s own skateboarding youth, a London of “tidy grime” and love, and the derelict and divine streets and poetry community and waterfall of Spokane, this poet’s answer to Williams’ Paterson. By the time Potter wishes he could “become myself with vengeance / and take you with me,” he has done both. —Jonathan Johnson

In an era of poetry that plumbs humanity’s darker depths, it is a pleasant respite to read Jonathan Potter’s Tulips for Elsie, a collection that wears its pathos and its prosody lightly as it confronts life’s familiar concerns—love, sex, family life, and his beloved native place (Spokane, Washington)— with full-bodied affection and gentle irony. Many poems here are sonnets—not just Petrarchan or Shakespearean but also Onegin stanzas!—yet Potter makes rhyming in these conversationally-toned fourteeners look effortless. Particularly engaging are the portrait sonnets featuring poets and writers associated with Spokane (Alexie, Howell, Walter among them), the longer poems about the poet’s lively and accomplished daughters, and the poetic palimpsests replying to or parodying well-known classics. By the time we finish reading, we may feel ourselves, with the poet, to have “co-authored  . . . a beautiful book of longing.” —Carolyne Wright

‘… Still With You.’

From the Armadio degli Argenti of Blessed John of Fiesole, OP (Fra Angelico), c. 1450

‘… I rose up and am still with you.’

Psalm 139: 18

‘… His Sepulchre Shall Be Glorious.’

From the Armadio degli Argenti of Blessed John of Fiesole, OP (Fra Angelico), c. 1450

In that day the root of Jesse, who stands for an ensign of the people, him the Gentiles shall beseech, and his sepulchre shall be glorious.’

Isaiah 11: 10

‘Let Him Not Lose What He So Dear Hath Bought.’

From Cell 25 of the Convent of San Marco, by Blessed John of Fiesole, OP (Fra Angelico), 15th Century

Think on the very làmentable pain,

Think on the piteous cross of woeful Christ,

Think on His blood beat out at every vein,

Think on His precious heart carvèd in twain,

Think how for thy redemption all was wrought:

Let Him not lose what He so dear hath bought.

–Pico della Mirandola (translated by St Thomas More)

‘… Wounded for Our Iniquities …’

From the Armadio degli Argenti of Blessed John of Fiesole, OP (Fra Angelico), c. 1450

‘… he was wounded for our iniquities, he was bruised for our sins….

Isaiah 53: 5

‘They Parted My Garments Amongst Them….’

From the Armadio degli Argenti of Blessed John of Fiesole, OP (Fra Angelico), c. 1450

‘They parted my garments amongst them; and upon my vesture they cast lots.’

Psalm 22: 19

‘… He Shall Be Led as a Sheep to the Slaughter …’

From the Armadio degli Argenti of Blessed John of Fiesole, OP (Fra Angelico), c. 1450

‘He was offered because it was his own will, and he opened not his mouth: he shall be led as a sheep to the slaughter, and shall be dumb as a lamb before his shearer, and he shall not open his mouth.’

Isaiah 53: 7

‘I am ready for scourges….’

From the Armadio degli Argenti of Blessed John of Fiesole, OP (Fra Angelico), c. 1450

‘For I am ready for scourges: and my sorrow is continually before me.

Psalm 38: 18

‘I have not turned away my face …’

From the Armadio degli Argenti of Blessed John of Fiesole, OP (Fra Angelico), c. 1450

I have given my body to the strikers, and my cheeks to them that plucked them: I have not turned away my face from them that rebuked me, and spit upon me.

Isaiah 50:6

‘… They Strike the Cheek of the Judge of Israel.’

From the Armadio degli Argenti of Blessed John of Fiesole, OP (Fra Angelico), c. 1450

‘ Now shall you be laid waste, O daughter of the robber: they have laid siege against us, with a rod shall they strike the cheek of the judge of Israel.’

Micah 4:14

‘…They Shall Bind You…’

From the Armadio degli Argenti of Blessed John of Fiesole, OP (Fra Angelico), c. 1450

‘And you, O son of man, behold they shall put bands upon you, and they shall bind you with them: and you shall not go forth from the midst of them. And I will make your tongue stick fast to the roof of your mouth, and you shall be dumb….’

Ezekiel 3: 25-26

‘…Even the Man Who Ate My Bread….’

From the Armadio degli Argenti of Blessed John of Fiesole, OP (Fra Angelico), c. 1450

… Even the man … in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has greatly supplanted me.’

Psalm 41: 10

‘…My Victim, Which I Slay for You…’

From the Armadio degli Argenti of Blessed John of Fiesole, OP (Fra Angelico), c. 1450

‘Assemble yourselves, make haste, come together from every side to my victim, which I slay for you, a great victim upon the mountains of Israel: to eat flesh, and drink blood.’

Ezekiel 39:17