Bryan R. Monte – AQ31 Summer 2021 Book Review

Bryan R. Monte
AQ31 Summer 2021 Book Review

Robert Hazel, Praise and Threnody, Circling Rivers Press, ISBN: 978-1-939530-15-8 (trade paper), ISBN: 978-1-939530-16-5 (hardback), 210 pages.

Recently it was my pleasure to discover the work of Robert Hazel, an influential, post-WWII American poet, who, unfortunately was never mentioned during my undergraduate lit. courses at Berkeley nor in my graduate writing seminars at Brown. As I read Circling Rivers’ recent edition of Hazel’s collected poems, entitled Praise and Threnody, I became fascinated by the richness of his poetic voice, which draws on the traditions of Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, and Dylan Thomas, among others. I was also amazed to discover that this poet’s students included Wendell Berry, Rita Mae Brown, and Bobbie Ann Mason, and that he was briefly The Nation’s poetry editor.
      Hazel’s poetry harkens back to Whitman’s and Crane’s in his description of America and New York, especially, warts and all. In her Foreword, editor Jean Huets quotes Robert Buttel who says that Hazel’s ‘post-symbolist, surreal poems … are the most haunting, brilliant, dramatic and resistant.’ In addition, Huets mentions Wendell Berry’s citation of a section of Hazel’s ‘Celebration Above Summer’:

            Hear dark the priestly insects of my endless summer coast down to cells
                     of wax
           and kind weeds bend my flowers to their colors’ end

which she reports ‘can be read chaotic as an overgrown vacant lot in high summer, chaotic as a disintegrating love affair, chaotic as poetry can be.’
      Hazel is also good at character studies, especially those related to poverty and social protest. However, he also records the joy and beauty he finds in city- and landscapes. In addition, his social themes and their presentation styles also remind this reviewer of Muriel Rukeyser’s attention to the working class and the underprivileged, to John Dos Passos and Alfred Döblin sometimes newsreel or police blotter narrative techniques, to report of social problems, and finally of Allen Ginsburg’s wanderlust in his loving description of America, especially the South.
      In her expanded foreword to Praise and Threnody, Huets adds important facts about Hazel’s childhood and teens including his father’s academic background as ‘at Indiana University’ and later at Kentucky University, where Hazel developed ‘his great love for writing and poetry’. Huets also notes Hazel’s three-year military service in Korea, his Bachelor’s degree from George Washington University and a Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, where he studied with Karl Shapiro and where he met his first publisher, Louis D. Rubin, Jr.
     In her Afterword, Huets explains her organizing principle for Hazel’s collected poems. She decided not to order them chronologically or biographically, but rather thematically: to ‘gather poems loosely based on themes that carry through Robert’s entire corpus of work. I’ll leave it at that; it seems best to allow “who touches this” to discover (or ignore) what those themes might be.’
      I think this method has worked very well. I would divide the parts of Hazel’s collected poetry into four life stages, each prefaced by a prologue or poetic ‘Ceremony” poems I-IV as Huets calls them. The first section is primarily about childhood, youth, family and his early explorations of the world. The second is about young love and youthful adventures. The third section is about mature love and loss including the death of his parents, wife, and child. In addition it has a national focus containing for example, poems about the funeral of US President Kennedy. Finally, the fourth is about preparing for the end and contemplating the meaning of life, with a strong dose of naturalistic nihilism.
      As mentioned above, Hazel’s poetry owes an enormous debt to Whitman, Crane, Thomas, who are sometimes mentioned directly in his poems or in the dedications. This excerpt from ‘Ceremony at Dawn’ demonstrates Hazel’s debt to Thomas:

          east where my fathers worshiped a young dying god
          a chapel of shingles settles in a stillness of bells;
          the tombs on the hill spool fine spiders and ferns;
          immaculate bones turned salt are licked by wild mares

Hazel’s Hopperesque family home and his strict upbringing is described very well in his very short ‘The Pinched Face of Virtue’ quoted here in its entirety

          A correct parlor, a correct wall-clock, a 60-watt light
                   corrected by a plastic shade
          & the sofa dustless & on a dustless end-table
                   the Standard Revised Bible

          Suddenly my father’s bloodless face, legacy of privation
                   & endless correction

His strained family relations are further defined in ‘What Do I Know’:

          What is my knowledge? Parents I can’t find?
          Brothers I visit once a year?     A sister who
          is a Pauline Christian?      A wife anointed by pain?
          And a child who was taken away?

However, in this section is also included Hazel’s awareness of the deleterious effects of social and racial inequality in his poem ‘Who Touches This’, one of Hazel’s finest:

          crying, “Whore of Babylon!”
          Near sleep I heard something
          perfect as a dream
          so certain that I felt
          it would survive my waking.
          It was only the hoarse
          repetitions of a drunk man
          shouting, cursing, weeping
          how this nation was killing
          all his innocent children.
          Yet strangely when he stood
          pounding the garbage cans
          and imploring, “America!”
          the words sounded beautiful
          as if he believed it

      This description is very close to my almost weekly experience in Haight-Ashbury in the early ‘80s, when, in the middle of the night, someone went off his/her meds, or was just fed up with his/her marginal life, until someone from the Free Clinic, across the street, brought them inside.
      The second section begins after ‘Ceremonies II’, and describes his first loves and corporeal experiences in the world, and the changing role of his parents in his life. In ‘Not by Bread’ the poet laments: ‘My father and mother have become my own / children’ It also includes poems about his East Coast exploits such as ‘To A Young Woman of Twenty I Carried On My Shoulders at Five’ which I consider to be one of his clear-voiced poems, possibly influenced by the New York School, about adults exploring roles and costumes, perhaps in the funky dress up days of the Summer of Love:

          I was glad to see you
          despite your Cowboy boots
          Western jacket and hat
          and your air of being interested
          in nothing at all

and ends with:

          I might have said, “Timothy Leary
          loves Doris Day” and you would
          have had to run me through
          with your Army Surplus bayonet

      Praise and Threnody’s third section reveals a more mature poetic voice with poems that represent his grief over the loss of his parents, a wife, a child, some friends, and a president. It is a more earnest exploration of the world, including it social and political problems. His robust travels in the American South as a vagrant poet in the back of a truck, in ‘Shenandoah’ reminds me of Allen Ginsberg’s picaresque adventures.

          In the rack of a cattle truck
          calves scratch my hands with little tongues
          I make my own music
          I catch a hatful of whispers like old rain
          that will not fall as long as I

      It also contains six poems about President Kennedy’s funeral in the subsection ‘Guard of Honor’, parallel to Whitman’s reverence for President Lincoln including Hazel’s poem from ‘Riderless Horse’ with its iconic imagery

          Above the muffled drums, the high voice
          of a young soldier
          tells the white horses how slow to go

          before your widow and children, walking
          behind the flag-anchored coffin—
          and one riderless black horse dancing!

      Huets saves the best for last in the ‘Love, Thou, At Once’ section, when Hazel is at the height of his poetic insight and technique. His lines are no longer overgrown with Thomasesque natural symbolism, but rather pruned to short and powerful lines and stanzas where he has just the right amount of greenery to get his point across.
      This section has finely crafted poems which discuss such weighty issues as President Johnson’s foreign policy in ‘Lines in Praise of Myself, a Frederic Thursz painting in ‘The Red and the Black’, the British Empire in ‘Empire’, and Dachau in ‘Star’. Hazel’s famous ‘Letter to a Kentuckian’ dedicated to his former student, Wendell Barry, is also included here along with ‘Under A Florida Palm’ with a reference to Wallace Stevens and the Sermon on the Mount in ‘Consider the Lilies’. It also comes with a strong dose of naturalistic nihilism and honesty. One such poem, ‘Death Flowers Are’, I imagine depicts a suicide.

          My flowers fan tall on wrists, their fragrance
                    welcome
          as the odor of powder from a fired gun.

      In ‘For the First Day of Benjamin’ Hazel collapses all of the history of human aggression in three short lines:

          All times are evil
          From the first stone thrown
          To the high-blown atom

Finally, this section is crowned with one Hazel’s longest poem, ‘Clock of Clay’, which I think should be considered as his consummate achievement. Here, the poet realizes he is at the end of the road:

          I have no future                  The river
                    is flowing backwards
          My present is my past
          & retort to Charcot, Freud, Husserl
                Binswanger, Heidegger, Buber,
                You tone deaf piano tuners
He continues a few lines later with ‘I am becoming nothing’, and a few more lines after that with the observation:

          I am the man who cannot exceed himself
          Threnody is my name

He reports further that: ‘Christ isn’t there/only a dead Jew my people pray to’ and that ‘I run a treadmill / level with evil – no gain into good’. Hazel also refutes the Bible. ‘The last shall never be first’ and his imagined escape plan from end-of-life-care ‘Before my life is reinvented by tubes / in imitation of the living cord / I shall cut free’. He also mentions that he is grappling ‘in the handcuffs of language’, an appropriate image for the difficulty of the writing process and the limits of language.
      Praise and Threnody is an impressive collection that successfully recapitulates Hazel’s themes as well as his artistic journey. It adds another voice to the landscape of American poetry from the 1950s-70s, which is sorely missing. It is a book by a poet who merits renewed and further consideration. AQ

Meryl Stratford – To the Guardian Angels

Meryl Stratford
To the Guardian Angels

                                         after Rilke

There’s so much I don’t understand about you—
In a German film, Wings of Desire,
two angels wander through post-war Berlin, observing
and making notes. They see everything
in black and white, hear what people are thinking.
One of them falls in love with a beautiful
trapeze artist and takes the plunge into now,
now instead of forever, waking with a wound
on his forehead, discovering the taste of coffee,
seeing colourful graffiti on that famous wall.
For someone who doesn’t believe in angels, I have
quite a collection—an angel on the cover of my notebook,
angels on my chair cushion and hanging over my desk,
a needle-point angel, a letter-box angel,
a beaded angel on my evergreen.
The nuns told us everyone has an angel.
There was a picture on our classroom wall—
two children, a boy and a girl, crossing a rickety bridge,
and an angel following like a celestial body-guard.
Is there one among you who remembers my childhood?
All those hours in the classroom—didn’t you get bored?
And did you enjoy the mornings we sang in the choir?
We sounded nothing like angels.
An angel’s perfection can be terrifying.
It reminds us how far from perfect we are.
Was it just good luck I escaped that burning house,
avoided a car crash, survived the storm at sea?
If I prayed to you now, would you listen?

Bryan R. Monte – Nobody

Bryan R. Monte
Nobody

The name Odysseus gave Polyphemus
to outwit and escape the ‘rude and lawless’ Cyclops
as he planned his escape from the giant’s cave
with at least some plunder and half his crew after
the giant had boulder-blocked their exit and eaten six men,
violating his divine obligation to hospitality.
‘Who did this to you?’ the other one-eyed giants asked
summoned by Polyphemus’ blinding screams.
And he gave them the name Odysseus had given him:
‘Nobody is killing me,’ which one professor
said Homer meant as comic relief, but others
that the giants interpreted Polyphemus’ pain
as divine punishment, so none offered assistance,
and Odysseus and his crew escaped to their ship.

‘Nobody ever uses this ramp,’
the bus driver says as she reluctantly gets her hook
to pry up and open the folded metal ramp
encrusted with a year’s dirt to the bus’ floor.
‘Nobody ever uses this toilet,’
the concierge says as she leads me through
a warren of passages in the modern building
and asks if I can make it up ‘just two steps.’
‘Nobody has ever graduated in a wheelchair,’
the beadle says the day I receive my PhD,
his office down a spiral staircase with no lift;
all three using a referent that erases my presence.
Unlike Odysseus, I give none of them my name, hoping
to safely navigate in reverse the dangerous way home.

Grove Koger – Uncertain Landfalls: In Search of Odysseus

Grove Koger
Uncertain Landfalls: In Search of Odysseus

Along with a myriad translations into a myriad languages, a small library of books have been written about the Odyssey, one of the two ancient Greek epics credited to a Greek poet named Homer.
      But we don’t know whether Homer actually existed, or even when, although the epics themselves seem to have assumed their final form in the eighth century BCE. We don’t know how much of the works he (or she) might actually have composed, but it seems likely that they combine individual traditions that had been handed down orally for generations. In the case of the Odyssey, we have no reason to think that Odysseus (or, to use the Latinized form of his name, Ulysses) actually existed or, if he did, that he underwent any of the experiences that he’s credited with. We can be sure that he and his men didn’t encounter a one-eyed Cyclops, but, on the other hand, his voyage from Troy just might reflect ancient Greek sailing techniques and knowledge of actual places.
      As Ernle Bradford puts it in Ulysses Found (Hodder and Stoughton, 1963), ‘Anyone who has ever fallen under the spell of the Odyssey is likely to ask himself…whether the whole poem must be regarded as fiction or may have some basis in fact.’
      People have been asking themselves that question for millennia, and their answers have ranged widely. Ancient Greek geographer Strabo thought that some of the locations in the Odyssey lay in the Atlantic Ocean, beyond what we know as the Strait of Gibraltar. Closer to our own day, nineteenth-century Belgian lawyer Théophile Cailleux argued for similar settings, and placed Troy on the coast of Great Britain. Serbian commentators have identified the locations of Odysseus’ adventures within the Adriatic Sea, which, after all, lies within a few days sailing time of Odysseus’ home on the Ionian island of Ithaca. A Brazilian professor thinks that Odysseus reached South America.
      I’ve mentioned Bradford because, of the legion of writers on the subject, he was one of the few with sea legs. A veteran of the Royal Navy, he could boast of experience aboard vessels ranging from a twenty-ton cutter to fishing boats. ‘For at least three years,’ he writes, ‘I sailed the Mediterranean with the Odyssey in one hand and the charts and Admiralty Pilots … in the other.’
      There’s little point in trying to work out the details of the exact route Odysseus and his men might have taken as they sailed down the Aegean Sea from Troy. Their goal lay off the western coast of Greece, so it would have been necessary to round the entire Peloponnesian Peninsula. However, a north wind carried them southward past the peninsula, and nine desperate days later they reached the land of the Lotus-Eaters. And it’s here, as Bradford admits, that both he and Odysseus are ‘entering upon a world of speculation.’ Having said that, Bradford makes the traditional identification of the land of the Lotus-Eaters with the Tunisian island of Djerba, which lies far to the southwest on the African coast. As for the forgetfulness-inducing fruit itself, he suggests that the sweet, plum-like Cordia myxa or the jujube, Rhamnus ziziphus, might fit the bill, although here his guess is no more convincing than anyone else’s.
      The route of the Greeks’ eventual escape lay to the northeast, toward Ithaca. Instead, they reached the land of the Cyclopes—and it’s at this point that they may have re-entered a geographically identifiable world.
      ‘I find that the navigations of Ulysses from now on bear the distinct hallmark of truth,’ Bradford explains. ‘So many of the places, weather conditions, and even geographical descriptions seem to be accurate.’ He goes on to identify the land of the Cyclopes as the western shore of Sicily, and the much smaller island where the hungry Greeks slaughtered goats as Favignana. Lying about four miles off Sicily itself, Favignana was, it turns out, actually known as Goat Island in classical times!
      Still striving to reach Ithaca, the Greeks next made landfall on the island of Aeolus, King of the Winds. Bradford argues in this case for the little island of Ustica north of Sicily. He thinks that the hapless Greeks were then blown northwestward to the port of Bonifacio in southernmost Corsica, where they encountered the cannibalistic Laestrygonians. When they made their way eastward once again, across the Tyrrhenian Sea, they reached Circe’s island, which Bradford identifies as Cape Circeo on the coast of Italy. While Cape Circeo is not an island, Bradford points out that, from a distance, it appears to be one.
      The next leg of Odysseus’ travels took him (in Robert Fagles’ 1996 Viking translation) to ‘the outer limits, the Ocean River’s bounds’—in other words, to the edge of the known world. Bradford explains that the ancient Greeks had no direct knowledge of the western Mediterranean or the Strait of Gibraltar. They had, however, heard frightening stories from the Phoenicians, who controlled those seas and aimed to keep others out. Bradford also suspects that this episode, in which Odysseus visits the underworld, represents a separate tradition that Homer incorporated into the larger framework of his epic.
      Odysseus’ remaining adventures return us to a recognizable world. Bradford argues for the Li Galli Islands (otherwise known, suggestively, as the Sirenusas) off the southwestern coast of Italy as the lair of the deadly Sirens. He then identifies the Strait of Messina, between Sicily and the toe of the Italian boot, as the setting in which the Greeks encountered the monsters Scylla and Charybdis, and the island of the Sun God as Sicily itself. Calypso’s island is Malta or nearby Gozo, both of which lie directly south of Sicily—another traditional identification. From there, a course of east by northeast would have taken Odysseus home.
      Bradford’s reconstruction is something of a Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, but he argues from personal experience. It is, after all, the ‘accuracy of the framework’ of the poem that concerns him. The same could be said of another British writer/sailor, Tim Severin, whose book The Ulysses Voyage: Sea Search for the Odyssey (Hutchinson, 1987) also attempts to retrace Odysseus’ route.
      Severin specialized in actual recreations of epic voyages, and was a winner of the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. He also had a particular advantage: he was sailing a 54-foot replica of a Bronze Age galley. His expedition turns out to be a circumscribed one confined to the waters of Greece and the African coat south of Greece. But he concludes to his own satisfaction, that ‘the Odyssey is demonstrably true to the realities of sailing and rowing a galley in the Mediterranean.’
      Severin agrees with Bradford and others that a strong north wind blew Odysseus’ fleet past the Peloponnesian Peninsula. He believes that they continued southward under a ‘controlled drift’ for nine days until they reached the land of the Lotus-Eaters on the coast of what is now Libya. This location is much farther east than Bradford and others have argued for, but Severin believes that most commentators have misjudged the abilities of the Bronze age Greeks.
      When it comes to the actual fruit that the Lotus-Eaters consumed, Severin, like Bradford, suggests the jujube, but adds that ‘why it was supposed to make men lose their memories is not clear.’ The problem identifying the lotus highlights the dilemma that any writer on the subject of Odysseus faces: what to accept as possibly genuine and what to ignore as folkloristic embellishment.
      Since Severin locates the land of the Lotus Eaters farther east than other commentators, he places the land of the Cyclopes farther east as well, on the southwestern coast of Crete. He then makes the case for the island of King Aeolus as tiny Gramvousa, off the northwestern corner of Crete. According to the Odyssey, it was here that Aeolus gave Odysseus a leather bag holding the winds—a bag that the foolish sailors later opened while Odysseus slept. Gramvousa was once known as Korykos, which might seem to be of little consequence except that a korykos signified a leather bag to the ancient Greeks!
      Where was the land of the Laestrygonian giants? Severin finds a possibility in the harbour of Mezapo on the Peloponnesian Peninsula. And Circe’s island? The little Ionian island of Paxos fits the bill. But Paxos lies farther north than Ithaca, as do the remaining sites that Severin links to Odysseus’ voyage. The renowned wanderer seems to have ‘sailed straight by his homeland.’ How can that be?
      Severin believes that here we’re reading another interpolation, a ‘separate cycle of tales’ involving the Ionian Islands. He finds confirmation among the geographical features of particular islands and the folktales associated with them, but he doesn’t explain the skewed geographical order of these final adventures.
      Severin supplies a more satisfying answer to a larger question: How did the ‘sites of Ulysses’ adventures, which are first on the logical coasting route homeward-bound from Troy and then in his native archipelago, come to be transferred hundreds of miles [as in Bradford’s reconstruction] to the western Mediterranean?’ He theorizes that as the Greeks spread westward into Sicily and southern Italy, ‘they took their folktales with them,’ pushing the mysterious edge of the world farther and farther west.
      Severin’s reconstruction of Odysseus’ travels is a departure from previous ones, and, after Bradford’s Grand Tour, it’s something of a letdown. That’s no argument against its validity, of course, and it’s not the last word on a subject that, after all, can have no last word. It would be gratifying to listen to Bradford and Severin debate the subject some evening in a seaside taverna, but, alas, Bradford died in 1986 and Severin in 2020.
      And that, in turn, leads to yet another consideration. The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote that at the moment of his death, Shakespeare learned from God that he, like God Himself, was ‘everything and nothing.’ Studied and debated for millennia not just by geographers and explorers but by novelists, poets, anthropologists and philosophers as well, Odysseus, it seems, is everywhere and nowhere.                        AQ

Robert Boucheron – Lycidas Redux

Robert Boucheron
Lycidas Redux

John Milton wrote ‘Lycidas’ in 1637 to commemorate the death of a college classmate that year. Perhaps Milton’s earliest publication, the poem gained immediate attention. It has been reprinted, anthologized, and studied in school ever since. It appears for example in The Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics, edited by Francis Palgrave in 1861. Many readers have called ‘Lycidas’ beautiful, a model of lyric verse, and their favourite poem.
      Many, but not all. Samuel Johnson went on a famous rant in his Lives of the Poets in 1789. Here is some of it:
 
One of the poems on which much praise has been bestowed is ‘Lycidas’; of which the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing. . . In this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new. Its form is that of a pastoral: easy, vulgar, and, therefore, disgusting; whatever images it can supply are long ago exhausted.

      By ‘diction’, Johnson means Milton’s unusual word choices, both academic and earthy. The ‘rhymes’ vary throughout in a loose, fluid, complex pattern that Milton may have invented, and that Keats adopted for his odes. Keats also copied the half-lines of three metrical feet that occur here and there. Curiously refreshing, they recall the unfinished lines of Vergil’s Aeneid and some of Horace’s Odes. The word ‘numbers’ refers to the meter, which is rough for eighteenth-century taste, iambic pentameter with many off-beats, as in Shakespeare.
      Johnson further objects: ‘This poem has yet a grosser fault. With these trifling fictions are mingled the most awful and sacred truths’, by which he means Christian beliefs. Also extraneous are some opinions on the ‘thankless Muse’ of literary life, the ‘corrupted Clergy’ of England, and fame, ‘that last infirmity of noble mind.’
      In modern terms, we would say that Johnson condemns the pastoral for being artificial and conventional. Yet Johnson’s poetry is open to the same criticism. He is too clear, rational, and level-headed for our taste. ‘Lycidas’ may be familiar through old acquaintance, but it is strange, and deep emotion runs beneath the surface.
      Edward King was the young man who died, in a shipwreck in the Irish Sea on August 10, 1637. He and Milton were students in Christ’s College, Cambridge, together from 1626. The Scottish professor David Masson wrote in an 1874 edition of Milton’s Poetical Works:
 
Milton, as we know, was indubitably the chief ornament of the little community, its ablest and noblest youth, supreme in everything; and before he left college as M. A. in July 1632, aged twenty-three, this had come to be recognized. . . Probably, however, no one was more liked in the college, both by dons and by students, than Edward King. Indeed, before Milton left the college, King, by what looks now like a promotion over Milton’s head, had become himself one of the dons.
 
      That is to say, Milton was older and more qualified, but when a fellowship became vacant in 1630, it was awarded to King, who showed promise and was a youth of ‘hopeful parts.’ Having read what he could find written by King, Masson adds: ‘This we learn, however, rather from tradition than from any specimens of his ability that have come down to us.’
      Milton returned to his father’s house at Horton in Buckinghamshire, about sixty miles from Cambridge. During the next five years, he may have heard news of King or visited Cambridge, but there is no evidence. King was training for a career in the Church of England, a project Milton had abandoned, when his life was cut short. A few on board escaped. King drowned, and his body was never found. When Christ’s College reassembled after the Long Vacation, someone proposed a volume of memorial verses to be published by the university press. It appeared the next year, a total of thirty-six contributions in Latin and English. Milton’s was the longest, and it was placed at the end, without a title and signed ‘J. M.’
      The placement is deliberate. It accounts for the first three words in Milton’s poem, ‘Yet once more.’ Masson says: ‘All the more striking must it have been for a reader who had toiled through the trash of the preceding twelve pieces’ (I have read them one and all, and will vouch that they are trash) to come at length upon this opening of a true poem:
 
                              Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more,
                              Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
                              I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude.
 
      The poem refers to King only by the pseudonym ‘Lycidas’, which Milton took from the Idylls of Theocritus, a Greek writer of the third century B. C. Originally from Sicily and possibly living in Alexandria, Theocritus wrote long lyric poems called “bucolics,” in which cultivated shepherds speak and sing in Doric, or low dialect. The details of costume and scenery are rustic, but the poetry is urbane. Vergil wrote a set of imitations in Latin, the Eclogues. The Renaissance seized on this bucolic or pastoral convention, and Milton follows the tradition.
      King came from Ireland. The character Lycidas appears in Idyll 7, where he is identified as a goatherd from Crete.
 
                              Soon with a quiet smile he spoke—his eye
                              Twinkled, and laughter sat upon his lip.
      
Meeting three other shepherds in the country, Lycidas agrees to a singing contest. He begins:
      
                              Safe be my true-love convoyed o’er the main
                              To Mitylene—though the southern blast
                              Chase the lithe waves, while westward slant the Kids,
                              Or low above the verge Orion stand—
                              If from Love’s furnace she will rescue me,
                              For Lycidas is parched with hot desire.

      The song continues for thirty-nine more lines on his darling and how he will toast her with wine. Then it mentions another singing shepherd, Tityrus, and yet another, Cometas, kept in a cedar chest and fed by honeybees. The whole poem is charming and inconsequential. Milton may have chosen the name ‘Lycidas’ at random, but the lines quoted above mention a sea voyage. King was unmarried, which parallels the situation of the Cretan goatherd. This might explain line 176 in ‘Lycidas’:
 
                              And hears the unexpressive nuptial song,
 
in which ‘nuptial’ is mysterious, and ‘unexpressive’ may mean ‘not expressed’.
      The allusion is far-fetched, but the theme of love is relevant, in the Shakespearean sense of affection. Without delving into Milton’s troubled marriage history and the modern queer critique of male friendship in earlier centuries, we can acknowledge the strength of same-sex bonds. The death of King may have affected his friends in the way a soldier’s death affects his comrades.
      Just as the rhyme and meter constantly shift in a way that recalls the movement of the sea, the voice in the poem moves about restlessly. We hear five speakers: the ‘uncouth swain’ who begins and returns, ‘Phoebus’ who is Apollo, ‘Camus’ who is the River Cam, ‘the Pilot of the Galilean Lake’ who is Saint Peter, and an unidentified voice in the last eight lines. The speakers address in turn the reader, the ‘woeful shepherds’ who are the college friends, mythological persons like the Muses and Saint Michael, ‘Ye valleys low’ who are told to strew flowers on the corpse, ‘O ye dolphins’ who are told to ‘waft the hapless youth,’ and finally Lycidas himself in lines 182-185. Characters appear and disappear as in a dream.
      Lycidas is pictured alternately as dead, his bones washed far away, or lying on a hearse, or in some vague place:
 
                              Where, other groves and other streams along,
                              With nectar pure his oozy locks he laves,
 
or most paradoxically, “sunk low, but mounted high,” like the sun that sets and rises again. In lines 12-13 we read:
 
                              He must not float upon his watery bier
                              Unwept, and welter to the parching wind.
 
‘Welter’ evokes the turbulence of the sea, and by extension the grief of the poet. But ‘float upon his watery bier’ is fanciful. The body disappeared. Toward the end of the poem, line 183 exploits this fact in an image of transcendence. Lycidas becomes a guardian angel:
 
                              Henceforth thou art the Genius of the shore,
                              In thy large recompense, and shalt be good
                              To all that wander in that perilous flood.
 
On hearing of the death of someone we know, sad and confused, we wonder where they have gone. Milton reproduces this emotional confusion.
      Milton had recently written two masques, Arcades and Comus, where humans and spirits enter and exit, make speeches, and use symbolic language. Comus was performed at Ludlow Castle in 1634, with music composed and performed by Henry Lawes. The masque was an aristocratic entertainment with instrumental music, song, dance, painted scenery, and stage effects of lighting, trap doors, and so on. It was a private theatrical production. ‘Lycidas’ could be called a masque of sorrow. Unlike Comus, the poem has no stage directions. It could not be performed, except perhaps in animation, but it can be read aloud. The overall effect is a fluid incantation, a disembodied voice that moves from image to image.
      The movement is easy but illogical. There is no narrative. One image suggests another, while the sea, drowning, singing, the head, and the shepherds recur again and again. Grief is just this unbearable repetition of painful thoughts. The image of the sea leads to Lake Galilee, which leads to Saint Peter, and to the gospel story of “Him that walked the waves.” Though written, the poem is a song, and shepherds sing, and:
 
                              Who would not sing for Lycidas? He knew
                              Himself to sing and build the lofty rhyme.
 
To a Renaissance poet like Milton, these images lead naturally to the Muses and to Orpheus, who was killed and decapitated:
 
                              His gory visage down the stream was sent,
                              Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore.
 
      The most interesting image is that of the shepherds. Milton amalgamates the shepherds of Theocritus with the poetical students of Christ’s College. In real life, these young men will become ‘pastors,’ the Latin word for shepherds. The loss of King, who would have been an asset to the church, prompts Milton in the guise of Saint Peter to denounce clergy who:
 
                              Creep, and intrude, and climb into the fold!
                              . . .
                              Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
                              A sheep-hook, or have learnt aught else the least
                              That to the faithful herdman’s art belongs!
                              These incompetent pastors write badly, too:
                              . . . their lean and flashy songs
                              Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw.
 
Does Milton mean their poetry or the poor quality of their sermons and preaching? This was a lively concern in England, and one of many that would lead to civil war in 1640.
      The most fully sketched of the apostles, Peter is impetuous and brave. In the gospel of John 18:10, in the garden of Gethsemane, he draws a sword and cuts off the right ear of the high priest’s slave. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus says, “I will smite the shepherd,” which alludes to Zechariah 13:7, “Awake, O sword . . . smite the shepherd.” If a sword can be called an “engine,” these passages explain the end of Saint Peter’s speech:
 
                              But that two-handed engine at the door
                              Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.
 
Milton’s note in 1645 makes this a prophecy after the fact: ‘In this Monody, the Author bewails a learned Friend . . . and, by occasion, foretells the ruin of our corrupted Clergy.’
      Last but not least in the catalogue of speakers and hearers, ‘Lycidas’ the poem addresses the preceding elegies. King’s college friends are present in the pages of the book. Various meanings of ‘the shepherds’ oscillate in the reader’s mind. Johnson says ‘there is nothing new,’ but he seems not to notice Milton’s sleight of hand. The complex imagery produces a dizzy effect that is both new and strange.
      The poem won praise for the beauty of its language, its technique, and the deft way it handles a wealth of images, inherited from classical antiquity and taken from the natural world. Milton learned a great deal from Shakespeare and shows he is a worthy successor. The machinery of seventeenth-century verse does not prevent us from understanding and enjoying Shakespeare, and the convention of the pastoral should not deter us, either. American readers find a direct parallel in country-western songs, which pretend to be by and about simple country people, just plain folks. Nashville is our answer to Sicily in the third century BCE.
      For all its poetry, the psychology of ‘Lycidas’ may be a stronger claim to fame. Milton shows a mind in the throes of grief. He requires effort and attention, homework to the reader today, but the reward is great. As for Lycidas, his reward is in heaven:
 
                              There entertain him all the Saints above,
                              In solemn troops and sweet societies
                              That sing, and singing, in their glory move,
                              And wipe the tears for ever from his eyes.
                              The saints replace the shepherds,
 
and ‘wipe the tears’ leads to the next line:
 
                              Now, Lycidas, the shepherds weep no more;
 
      The address to Lycidas, the change in tone, and the repetition of ‘no more’ from earlier lines induce a slight jolt. But why does the dead man weep? The image of a celestial choir gives way to the image of ‘the Genius of the shore,’ which refers back to Saint Michael, patron of mounts and capes, in lines 159-163. Again, this is muddled and strange. Do these contradictory and impossible statements about Lycidas console anyone?
      The last eight lines are an epilogue that does nothing to clear up matters. We are told:
 
                              Thus sang the uncouth swain to the oaks and rills
 
Since morning, he has been ‘warbling his Doric lay,’ and now it is sunset. He sings to nobody, and nobody tells us this. The pronoun ‘I’ is not in the poem, and the poet is absent. Is absence the message? The final couplet, an image of departure, seems to say so:
 
                              At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue:
                              Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.
 
      The glorious language and images vanish. It was only an insignificant person who sang for his own pleasure. In musical terms, the masque of sorrow ends on an unresolved note.             AQ

Nan Cohen – On Mentors

Nan Cohen
On Mentors

Mentor—the same word in English, Dutch, and more than a dozen other languages—is easily defined. In actual use, however, it is a slightly fraught term. Mentoring implies disparity—in age, in experience, almost certainly in power. To have, or to be, a mentor requires a degree of consensus between mentor and mentee, but this is usually unspoken, and there are no real rules or rituals around the connection.
      Some institutions have attempted to formalize mentoring. At the school where I teach, for example, each new teacher is assigned a ‘mentor’ who offers informal guidance and helps the newcomer learn the culture of the place. The connections that form from these arrangements are often collegial and warm—but are they truly mentorships? I think not. Particularly in the arts—I’m thinking primarily of writers here—authentic mentorship is not bestowed by institutions. Perhaps it is, at its root, anti-institutional, the organic symbiosis of two individuals’ idiosyncratic needs.
      And it is temporary. To be someone’s mentor is a role, not a permanent appointment. We see this even in the story of the original Mentor, in Homer’s Odyssey. Sailing off to the Trojan War, Odysseus left Mentor in charge of his house; twenty years later, the place is overrun by Penelope’s suitors. Mentor speaks up for Telemachus’s plan to set out in search of Odysseus, but the suitors shout him down. He’s of no practical help—until Athena takes on his appearance.
      Once she does, the plot starts moving. In ‘the voice and guise of Mentor’, she promises Telemachus she will help him get a ship and crew: ‘You will achieve the journey that you seek,/since I will go with you, just like a father’ (in Emily Wilson’s translation, 2.268, 285-6). She recruits a crew, borrows a ship, casts a sleeping spell on the suitors, and hustles Telemachus to the ship and out to sea.
      And then she leaves him! In a showy way; after delivering him to his first host, Odysseus’s old Trojan War companion Nestor, she transforms into a bird and flies away, so that it’s obvious to everyone that Telemachus has been companioned by a god. Still, she’s gone. So much for going with him ‘just like a father’! Like his real father, she’s left him before he’s ready for her to go.
      The man called Mentor is no one’s mentor: Athena is. She comes in many guises, and she keeps showing up. She watches over Odysseus, sending him fair winds on his long journey home. She appears at crucial moments—as a king, a shepherd, a young girl—to point one of the heroes in the right direction, to get them moving.
      As in other myths, her supernatural transformations reflect the magical changes that are possible in the lives of ordinary humans. Rather than a permanent role, ‘Mentor’ may be a sudden infusion of the mentoring spirit into an ordinary person. Perhaps this is even truer for writers, who are most fully themselves when they are alone (like the ancient goddesses and gods, whom mortals cannot safely behold?), but who somehow keep finding ways to guide one another.
      Our true mentors may not even wear the guise of writers. A grandmother may assign us a quest; a friend might give us a magical object; a conversation with a stranger can point us in the direction we need to go. Only rarely will our mentors accompany us far on the journey. Sometimes what they have said to us becomes an inner voice that we can hear long after they have gone.
      And some leave us merely a sentence or two, delivered at the right time, remembered forever. Before Athena leaves Telemachus, he asks her, in her Mentor disguise, how to approach Nestor for help. He is too young, he says, untutored in speaking to kings. Looking ‘straight into his eyes’, she responds (3.24-28):

                                                  You will work out what to do,
               through your own wits and with divine assistance.
               The gods have blessed you in your life so far.                              AQ

Askold Skalsky – Faust, Dying

Askold Skalsky
Faust, Dying

After he had out-striven the Spirit That Denies
and handed God the wager, though not without
ambiguity, the mothers prepared to bear the prudent
mystagogue into the Olympus of pagan bards, restless

and dissatisfied with birthing a whole canon out
of the Weimar hinterland, pinched by anxiety, and talking,
talking and reading, anything—the railway nexus in France,
the liberation of new metals around the high electrode—

drawing arabesques in the air with his free hand
(Gretchen held the other) and tracing words across his coverlet,
gaping into the limpid prism of his solitude. Open the shutters,
he said, tracing more words, more enigmatic letters

in a macrocosmic alphabet, invisible even to him,
who had probed spring’s greenest diastole, so close, so far.

Jane Blanchard – Ars Moriendi

Jane Blanchard
Ars Moriendi

                after Death and the Miser, Hieronymus Bosch, c.1485/1490

We like to think that we can still decide
As Death comes through the door—at last reject
All stores of worldly treasure and elect
A present, thus a future, without pride—

But there will be competing lights and voices
While good and evil forces battle on—
Plus, any power of judgment may be gone
Or limited by many former choices—

So it is prudent to convert before
The final arrow—lifted, aimed, released—
Hits home—since sickly sinners, once deceased,
Are out of time and cannot ask for more—

Yet even though this lesson is well-known,
Too few alive lose faith in what they own.

Jane Blanchard – The Dying Gaul

Jane Blanchard
The Dying Gaul

                Capitoline Museum, Rome

He is about to meet his fate.
His next breath may well be his last.
One arm supports his naked weight.
He is about to meet his fate,
Or does he seem to hesitate?
His side is pierced, his head downcast.
He is about to meet his fate.
His next breath may well be his last.

Simon Brod – Joab’s Plea to King Solomon after David’s Death

Simon Brod
Joab’s Plea to King Solomon after David’s Death

Now you and I both know what David said
about me when he died—he wished me dead.
Yet no servant ever was more loyal.
Not once did I let a man’s blood soil
your father’s royal hands. Through war and strife
from childhood side by side we stood. My life
was pledged to him to keep his kingdom whole.
I lied for him, I spied for him, I stole
for him, I killed for him; I made my name
to be despised forever. Now the same
is pledged to you his heir. So stay your hand
before you carry out his last command.

Relax! Your throne calls me not. I’m a man
of action, not words. David was a man
of action too once—I remember when
he slew the giant—none of the hard men
of Israel dared to do it, but he did.
My mother—his sister—and he, they slid
across the ground to see the foe close up,
spent a long time talking; then he sprang up
and loosed his famous slingshot. Even now
I see her smile at that blow. That was how
they always were together, she and he.
Always whispering and plotting, any
act of boldness undertaken clear-eyed.
He really went to pieces when she died—
never recovered. Lost that keen sharp sight
he had had. Left everything to me

                                               —right
until the time your mother came to us.
We’d never seen him making so much fuss
over anyone. After that he went
soft, lost his stomach for the fight. He spent
his time praying, writing speeches, talking
all Israel and Judah into walking
in the ways of the Lord. And they bowed to
the beauty of his music and vowed to
dance with him.

                             Only not everyone did.
A few – his own flesh and blood—made their bid
for his throne, thinking themselves too much loved
to be resisted. But the Lord’s iron-gloved
hand reached out in wrath, and each one perished.
David mourned these traitors he had cherished
to the point of madness. Blinded with grief,
he bemoaned their fate. This is how our chief
came to misjudge me. Yet that’s how it goes:
the Lord struck down each one of David’s foes.

Each one slain was a heavy deed: the weight
of brothers’ blood—killed gently, not from hate
but love of our king—tears cannot atone.
This dance of death I danced to save your throne.

Our clansmen speak of these events with dread.
But I say all the blood I spilled, was shed
so well, no more blood flowed. And safe and sound
our children and our women slept, all wound
up in their little lives.

                                           Long may they live
as free from fear as they were then, and give
homage to you, great king Solomon, wise
as no man, lord of all beneath the skies.