The Wings, by Delmira Agustini

I don’t know much about Delmira Agustini, but I encountered a few of her poems in my very favorite poetry anthology some years ago and was absolutely entranced. I wish my Spanish was better so that I could read her work in its intended language, but even in translation, poems like “The Wings” are magnificent.

THE WINGS (excerpt)

Do you remember the glory of my wings?
The golden harmony
of their rhythm, their ineffable
bright colors saturated with all the treasures
of the rainbow — but a new rainbow,
and dazzling, and divine —
so that the Future’s perfect eyes (eyes that can see all
light!) will worship…the flight.

The fiery, ravenous, singular flight
that for so long twisted the heavens,
woke up suns and meteors and storms,
shedding brilliance and fullness
onto lightning and the stars: with enough heat
and shade for all the World —
enough, even, to hatch the idea
of the “Beyond.”

One day, when I lay strangely
exhausted, on the earth,
I fell asleep in the forest’s deep carpet…
I dreamed…divine things!
I thought a smile of yours awakened me…
I did not feel my wings!…
My wings?…

I saw them melt away —  between my arms —
exactly as if they were thawing!

The Widow’s Lament in Springtime by William Carlos Williams

This is probably my favorite poem. William Carlos Williams is certainly not a minor poet and this one is included in most of his collections, but the absolute precision of its language, the intensity of its imagery, and the deep sense of loss it evokes are so powerful that I feel like it is still, somehow, under-appreciated.

THE WIDOW’S LAMENT IN SPRINGTIME

Sorrow is my own yard
where the new grass
flames as it has flamed
often before, but not
with the cold fire
that closes round me this year.
Thirty-five years
I lived with my husband.
The plum tree is white today
with masses of flowers.
Masses of flowers
load the cherry branches
and color some bushes
yellow and some red,
but the grief in my heart
is stronger than they,
for though they were my joy
formerly, today I notice them
and turn away forgetting.
Today my son told me
that in the meadows,
at the edge of the heavy woods
in the distance, he saw
trees of white flowers.
I feel that I would like
to go there
and fall into those flowers
and sink into the marsh near them.

Drowning by María Irene Fornés

Last week, I went to see an incredible evening of one-act plays at The Signature Theater. The one that really floored me, though, was Drowning by María Irene Fornés. It’s a beautiful play and everything about the production was stunning, from the performances to the sets. If you can get to Signature before June 12, it’s well worth the (very reasonable) price of admission just to hear lines like these delivered by brilliant actors:

When I met her I asked her if it felt as good to touch her as it felt to look at her.  She said, “Try it.”

(Moves his head up and from side to side rapturously)

Do you know what it is to need someone?  The feeling is much deeper than words can ever say.  Do you know what despair is?  Anguish?  What is it that makes someone a link between you and your own life?

A Perfect Stanza

Just took out Houseboat Days by John Ashbery for no particular reason, and stumbled onto the opening stanza of “Melodic Trains.” It’s so perfect I had to share it:

MELODIC TRAINS

A little girl with scarlet enameled fingernails
Asks me what time it is–evidently that’s a toy wristwatch
She’s wearing, for fun. And it is fun to wear other
Odd things, like this briar pipe and tweed coat

The whole poem’s wonderful, as is the whole book, but that stanza just took my breath away. Sometimes I forget what an incredible poet Ashbery is.

The Loss of the Creature by Walker Percy

I’m in Patagonia. Yesterday, I attached metal spikes to my shoes and hiked to the top of the Perito Moreno Glacier. The day before, I took a boat ride on Lago Argentino and saw glaciers, icebergs, and rainbows arcing off the lake. I took lots of photographs.

I won’t print these photographs. I’ll post them to my Facebook page and possibly Instagram, and after that initial posting it’s unlikely that I’ll ever spend much time flipping through these online albums. What is the purpose of these pictures?

What, for that matter, is the purpose of sightseeing? We make more or less elaborate plans in the hopes that we’ll gain access to some sort of experience that is more transcendent or meaningful or enjoyable than our ordinary experience. From the moment we reach our destination, we evaluate the quality of our trip. Was the food authentic? Was the landscape beautiful? Was this all worth it? Given that traveling for pleasure is a privilege denied to the overwhelming majority of the world’s population, what could “worth it” even mean? Is this exclusivity a part of what makes traveling pleasurable?

In his wonderful essay “The Loss of the Creature”, Walker Percy examines the experience of sightseeing. He focuses much of his essay on the Grand Canyon– or on the experience of visiting the Grand Canyon, noting that it is “almost impossible to gaze directly at the Grand Canyon…and see it for what it is.” Percy argues that this is because the canyon is no longer available to the sightseer as a manifestation of natural beauty:

The Grand Canyon…has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind…by picture postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon.

Thanks to the weight of cultural significance and expectation, it is impossible to simply see the Grand Canyon. What’s more, Percy notes:

Seeing the canyon is made even more difficult by what the sight-seer does when the moment arrives, when sovereign knower confronts the thing to be known. Instead of looking at it, he photographs it. There is no confrontation at all. At the end of forty years of preformulation and with the Grand Canyon yawning at his feet, what does he do? He waives his right of seeing and knowing and records symbols for the next forty years…

Writing some fifty years ago, Percy was grappling with the problems of photography and experience in ways that seem incredibly prescient. How does our desire to record experience affect our capacity to experience? What purpose does this act of recording serve?

Returning to the Grand Canyon, Percy argues that the massive weight of expectation and cultural significance attached to the canyon inhibits the traveler’s ability to simply perceive the thing. Thankfully, Percy offers a variety of tactics and scenarios by which the sightseer may “recover the Grand Canyon”. My favorite is this:

[The canyon] may be recovered in a time of national disaster. The Bright Angel Lodge is converted into a rest home, a function that has nothing to do with the canyon a few yards away. A wounded man is brought in. He regains consciousness; there outside his window is the canyon.

This last example embodies everything I love about Percy’s writing: it’s playful, direct, poetic, and boundlessly humanist. Splicing Percy’s essay with my own poorly articulated thoughts does not do the thing justice, but I’ve given you a good enough taste to convince you to read his piece in its entirety. It’s well worth it.

For the Very Soul of Me by Charles Simic

Charles Simic is one of my favorite poets and this, taken from his fantastic collection Night Picnic, is one of his most beautiful poems:

FOR THE VERY SOUL OF ME

At the close of a sweltering night,
I found him at the entrance
Of a tower made of dark blue glass,
Crumpled on his side, naked,
Shielding his crotch with both hands,
His rags rolled up into a pillow.

The missing one, missed by no one,
Bruised and crusted with dirt,
As all the truly destitute are
Who make their bed on the bare pavement.
His mouth open as in death,
Or in memory of some debauchery.

The city at this hour tiptoe-quiet,
A lone yellow cab idling at the light,
The sleep-woozy driver taking a breath
Of the passing breeze,
Cool and smelling of the sea.

Insomnia and heat drove me out early,
Made me turn down one black
And not another, as if running
With a hot cinder in my eye,
And see him lying there unclothed,
One leg quivering now and then.

I thought, What if the cops find him?
So I looked up and down the avenue
All the way to where the pyre
Of the sunrise had turned the sky red,
For something to cover him with.

The White Lilies by Louise Gluck

I’m in a melancholy mood tonight and few books work that mood for me better than The Wild Iris. Of all the treasures to find in that gorgeous volume, this is my favorite:

THE WHITE LILIES

As a man and woman make
a garden between them like
a bed of stars, here
they linger in the summer evening
and the evening turns cold with their terror: it
could all end, it is capable
of devastation. All, all
can be lost, through scented air
the narrow columns
uselessly rising, and beyond,
a churning sea of poppies–

Hush, beloved. It doesn’t matter to me
how many summers I live to return:
this one summer we have entered eternity.
I felt your two hands
bury me to release its splendor.