from my commute this morning

On the Train
Two well scrubbed boys
in suits and ties
ruined my morning with their talk,
feigning interest in my book
and where I’m from
and friendly lies
the way they’re taught, to draw me in
till they can teach me of my sin.
Listen here, my shiny lads,
would-be rescuers of my soul—
but here’s your stop, so shake my hand
and go your way and wish me well.
A narrow Heaven chafes your thought,
unlike my light, loose-fitting Hell.

…and now for something completely different.

You Have Been Warned
Der Tod wird kommen, und deine Augen haben.
—Cesar Pavese, selbstmord 1950

You have been warned. It should be no surprise
when blood and breath resign the long campaign.
Death will come, and he will have your eyes.
All things must pass, and everybody dies.
(Give thanks!—Were life less brief, all art were vain.)
You have been warned, it should be no surprise
to grasp the brass ring, catch the final prize,
and find that neither sleep nor dream obtain.
Death will come, and he will have your eyes,
and after that—nothing. The poet lies
for profit, and the priest looks to his gain,
but you’ve been warned. It should be no surprise
when flesh the sovereignty of will denies:
there is no will, all’s chaos and chicane.
Death will come, and he will have your eyes,
and that’s an end to it. Say your goodbyes
early—who knows what hours remain?
You have been warned, it should be no surprise:
Death will come, and he will have your eyes.

The quote comes from this poem (from here):

Der Tod wird kommen…
Der Tod wird kommen und deine Augen haben,
der Tod, der uns begleitet
von morgens bis abends, schlaflos,
dumpf, wie ein alter Gewissensbiß
oder ein törichtes Laster. Und deine Augen
werden ein leeres Wort sein,
ein verschwiegener Schrei, ein Schweigen.
So siehst du sie jeden Morgen,
wenn du dich über dich neigst, mit dir allein
im Spiegel. O teuere Hoffnung,
an jenem Tage werden auch wir es wissen,
daß du das Leben bist und das Nichts.
Für alle hat der Tod einen Blick.
Der Tod wird kommen und deine Augen haben.
Das wird sein wie das Ablegen eines Lasters,
wie wenn man ein totes Gesicht
wieder auftauchen sieht im Spiegel,
oder auf eine verschlossene Lippe horcht.
Wir werden stumm in den Strudel steigen.
Cesare Pavese, geschrieben 1950,
wenige Wochen vor seinem Freitod

Here’s a translation, as close as I could get to word-for word with no attempt at poetry (I know I have a few readers who speak German — corrections/improvements are always welcome):

Update: already there are two comments improving my translation. 🙂 Also, Ralf points to the Italian original; I knew Pavese was Italian but had only ever seen the German version of this poem, without any translation credit, so I thought he wrote also in German.

Death will come…
Death will come and have your eyes,
Death, who attends us
from morning until night, sleepless,
muffled, like an old conscience-prick
or a foolish vice. And your eyes
will be an empty word,
a secret cry, a silence.
So you see them every morning,
as you lean over yourself, alone with you
in the mirror. O expensive hope
on that day we also will know
that you are Life and Nothingness.
Death has a glance for everyone.
Death will come and have your eyes.
That will be like the unloading of a lorry letting go of a vice,
as when one sees a dead face
rising up again in the mirror,
or listens to a fastened lip.
We grow mute as the maelstrom rises We will step silently into the maelstrom.

out of season

I’ve been meaning to post more verse — my own, and other people’s. Blame Jason for reminding me of this one, even though it’s the wrong end of the season (and I’m nowhere near a campus these days):

Autumn Song for Alec
or, Who’s that dirty old man leering out of the Chem Dept window?
Summer slowly fades away,
campus flowers even brighter:
hectic striplings seize the day,
shorts get shorter, tops crop tighter;
one last blaze of youth and skin,
refracted in the cooling prism
of early autumn; let’s hope win-
ter eases Alec’s priapism!

(How you doin’ Alec? I hope you’re OK.)

Jan Vermeer to his Model.

Jan Vermeer to his Model
(Girl with Pearl Earring, ca. 1665)

All the light at my command is in this brush:
I bid a skyful crowd into a pip
and place, with painter’s hand and lover’s touch,
reflections in your eyes and on your lip.
I pour the day like water from the side,
and caught between the woman and the girl,
as where a twilight and the sea collide,
I find these careful shadows for your pearl.
I have no words for this, I cannot name
the strange sense of a flower in your face;
but I can paint the way it waits to bloom,
and stop time on this cusp of quiet grace.

We just watched Girl With A Pearl Earring, the movie based on Tracy Chevalier’s debut novel (which now I think I’d like to read). The movie is very pretty — too pretty at times for its less glamorous subject matter, but beautifully evocative of Golden Age Dutch art in the scenes where it matters. It builds a fine, slow suspense, and if the eponymous painting has ever held you in its famous spell you will enjoy the way the film treats it.
I dug this verse out and decided it wasn’t completely worthless — mainly for the third stanza. It’s not known who the model really was; when I wrote this I had in mind the most popular theory, that she was Vermeer’s eldest daughter, and my own idea (which Chevalier apparently shares) that the painting has too much of a sexual undertone for that to make complete sense. Let me know what you think.

Poem on Your Blog Day

It’s Poem On Your Blog Day, to mark the end of National Poetry Month. The original idea was to post about your favourite poem and link to a bio and/or other work by the same poet. I don’t have a favourite poem, and for the rest I’m pressed for time as always so I’ll just point to this post about AE Stallings, my favourite contemporary poet.
But I feel bad not posting any verse at all, so here’s one I’ve been meaning to put up:

The Love-Song of Vice-Chancellor Prufrock; or, Prufrock Among The Students

Not the least of T.S. Eliot’s
contributions to literature is
the opportunity for gratuitious
parody afforded by ‘Prufrock‘.
Senza tema d’infamia…

Let us go, then, you and I,
When the campus is spread out beneath the sky
Like a student stupefied by a timetable;
Let us pass by certain half-deserted rooms
Wherein, one just assumes,
Some course on T.S. Eliot drones on;
Pass by the roses, ornaments and ponds,
The fountains, gardens and the sculptured hedges
(Where, along the edges,
Poorer students have been known to make their homes)—
The grounds this time of year are just exquisite;
Let us go and make our visit.
Through the windows student faces peer,
Desperate for passing-grades and beer.
The greasy smog that drips from eaves
And eats away the drains…
The greasy smog that settles down and leaves
My Beemer stained…
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that oozes from the labs,
Etching black streaks down the sandstone walls,
For all the corpses on the med-school slabs
And all the corpses in the Admin. halls;
Time for Law, and Arts, and time
Especially for Engineering
(A million dollar grant this year,
From MIM and Hastings-Deering);
Time to put on gowns and meet the press,
Then let some junior Dean assume the mess—
(Pause here; observe the humble stance
Of department heads who overspent their grants)—
In a minute there is time
For conclusions and exclusions which my secretary signs.
Through the windows student faces peer,
Desperate for passing-grades and beer.
And indeed there will be time
To wonder whence the funds next year will come;
Time yet to rouse the dragon from its slumbers,
To further raise the numbers
Of full-fee-paying students from overseas—
(They will say: “He doesn’t care about our own!”)
It is impossible to please!
I’d like to do more, Heaven knows,
But how could I let the Staff Club close?
For I have known them all already, known them all,
Known every meeting and the people in it,
I have measured out my life with transcribed Minutes;
I know Departments dying with a quiet moan,
So how can I go on?
And how should I begin?
With wild demands and waving hands,
Like students sitting-in?
Or shall I make requests through all the proper channels?
Approach each Government Department mandarin
With humble mien and careful creases in my flannels?
Do I dare to make a speech?
I shall turn the voice-mail on, and take off for the beach!
I should have been four furry little paws,
Scuttling across the floors of silent refectories.
And would it have been worth it, after all,
After all the heads brought in on platters,
After graduations and initiations,
And the gossip, and the post-exam-week chatter?
Would it, after all, have been worth while
To have brought the Student Union to its knees,
Assured each valued colleague of their tenure,
To sit, proud puppet-king, among these
Trophies—and smile as janitors smile?
Is any thing worth while?
I grow old… I grow tired…
How long before the Trustees have me fired?
I have been feathering my own nest all along,
Without regard or pause for right or wrong.
I have heard the students laughing, singing songs;
I suspect what they were laughing at, was me.
We have lingered in our chambers, half-asleep
On pillows made of crumpled formal gowns;
What student’s voice would dare to wake us now?

weekly verse

Still can’t stick to Fridays, but I’m trying to post some verse every week.

Catharanthus roseus
Vinca, myrtle,
sorcerer’s violet,
my mother’s favourite
of dull corners,


world travellers,
in native dress—
bright little faces
in odd places.

Friday Poetry Blogging (yup, late again)

Wrong Number

Thalia kissed me where I stood,
Passing thousands by to gird me—
I’d undo it, if I could:
I’d rather she had never heard me!
It wasn’t she I quested after—
I’d hoped Erato might enlist me—
All my verse occasions laughter,
Since Thalia kissed me!

Someone once asked me if this was a dig at Leigh Hunt. It does look like one, but I honestly meant it only as a dig at myself.

some translations; or, thanks JD, we’d love to.

JD has a thing for poetry, and his friend Jeremy likes Rilke’s Der Panther, which is all the excuse I need:

Der Panther
(Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris)

Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.
Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.
Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf —. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille —
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.

I know the original by heart, and have even had the temerity to translate it:

The Panther
(In the Paris Botanical Gardens)

(Rainer Maria Rilke, trans.)
The bars it rubs on wear his vision down,
sweep by sweep on every coiled pass,
until he sees a thousand bars surround
him — and no longer any world behind the bars.
The padding heavy steps, the supple gait,
the tightening circles, turn and turn and turn,
are like a dance around a single point
in which a vast Will, hypnotised, stands stunned.
Only sometimes will the pupil

the grinning butcher

Beside the block the butcher stands,
a cleaver in each meaty hand,
who flays away the tender skin,
exposing flesh and blood within,
and with an evil grin, begins
to ply a blood-bespattered trade:
with eager eye and shining blade,
trims off gristle, sinew, fat—
the butcher has no use for that—
plucks the entrails, out they go!
Heedless throws the heart away,
along with liver, spleen and brain,
and then begins to break the bones
with mighty overhanded blows,
to make the limp and lifeless form
closer match the current norm.
For this the butcher hacks and rends,
discards with savage glee, and then—
prepared and packaged, skinned and stripped—
sends me back my manuscript.