Saturday, 14 June 2014

More Poetry Last Month

A COUNTRY WITHOUT A MYTHOLOGY

Poem about Canada
by Douglas Le Pan

No monuments or landmarks guide the stranger
Going among this savage people, masks
Taciturn or babbling out an alien jargon
And moody as barbaric skies are moody.

Berries must be his food. Hurriedly
He shakes the bushes, plucks pickerel from the river,
Forgetting every grace and ceremony,
Feeds like an Indian, and is on his way.

And yet, for all his haste, time is worth nothing.
The abbey clock, the dial in the garden,
Fade like saint’s days and festival.
Moths, years, are here unbroken virgin forests.

There is no law – even no atmosphere
To smooth the anger of the flagrant sun.
November skies sting string like icicles.
The land is open to all violent weathers.

Passion not more quick. Lightnings in August
Stagger, rocks split, tongues in the forest hiss,
As fire drinks up the lovely sea-dream coolness.
This is the land the passionate man must travel.

Sometimes – perhaps at the tentative fall of twilight –
A belief will settle that waiting around the bend
Are sanctities of childhood, that melting birds
Will sing him into a limpid gracious Presence.

The hills will fall in folds, the wilderness
Will be a garment innocent and lustrous
To wear upon a birthday, under a light
That curls and smiles, a golden-haired Archangel.

And now the channel opens. But nothing alters,
Mile after mile of tangled struggling roots,
Wild-rice, stumps, weeds that clutch at the canoe,
Wilds birds hysterical in tangled trees.

And not a sign, no emblem in the sky
Or boughs to friend him as he goes; for who
Will stop where, clumsily constructed, daubed
With war-paint, teeters some lust-red Manitou?

When I was an undergrad, the man who wrote this was my professor for an overview course in English Literature geared to orient students in the Honours English stream. At that time the English department at my university was engaged in a debate as to whether it was relevant to consider the life and times of a poet, his reading and personality, in considering his work. Prof. Le Pan was on the 'no biography' side of the debate. And it never occurred to me to cheat and look him up. 

That may be one of the reasons why his poetry was opaque to me then. It was bitter, mannered, thick with allusion, dark to me. I could not extract much from it. I felt much the same about T S Eliot. And I recall my mother, who was a university lecturer in English literature at that time, telling me that when I grew up I would be able to grasp their meaning and grow to love T S.

My father-in-law fought his way up Italy in WW II, as did Le Pan. Perhaps none of us who have never been so seared can find their way into the world view that war engendered. I think Le Pan must have loved the quiet storied towers of his university a lot and was permanently scarred by being torn from them. He was the most impatient and exigent teacher I have ever had; my impression was that he despised us all, clumsily constructed poor fools that we were.

 "And now the channel opens. But nothing alters,"

What age and maturity have brought me is the ability to pity him. And while I have lines of Eliot's work echoing in my head, I have not reread Le Pan for decades, until today.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Because last month was poetry month.

W. H. Auden, Lullaby 
 
Lay your sleeping head, my love, 
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s sensual ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreadful cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but not from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of sweetness show
Eye and knocking heart may bless.
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness see you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.
 
I would have been in my late teens when I encountered this 
poem, and it shook me to my core.
The song is by a man writing about a man, but that, to me, 
is not important. What resonates, like a peal of bells, 
is the calm, resigned knowledge of the cost of love and 
of its nature. In the still centre of the small hours the 
poet finds acceptance and peace.