“Beauty is momentary in the mind…but in the flesh it is immortal”

PETER QUINCE AT THE CLAVIER
~ by Wallace Stevens

I.
Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the selfsame sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.

Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,

Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna.

Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders watching, felt

The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.

II.
In the green water, clear and warm,
Susanna lay.
She searched
The touch of springs,
And found
Concealed imaginings.
She sighed,
For so much melody.

Upon the bank, she stood
In the cool
Of spent emotions.
She felt, among the leaves,
The dew
Of old devotions.

She walked upon the grass,
Still quavering.
The winds were like her maids,
On timid feet,
Fetching her woven scarves,
Yet wavering.

A breath upon her hand
Muted the night.
She turned —
A cymbal crashed,
And roaring horns.

III.
Soon, with a noise like tambourines,
Came her attendant Byzantines.

They wondered why Susanna cried
Against the elders by her side;

And as they whispered, the refrain
Was like a willow swept by rain.

Anon, their lamps’ uplifted flame
Revealed Susanna and her shame.

And then, the simpering Byzantines
Fled, with a noise like tambourines.

IV.
Beauty is momentary in the mind —
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.

The body dies; the body’s beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden’s choral.

Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death’s ironic scraping.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.

##

Here rendered in metaphysical poetry is the story of Susanna from the Book Of Daniel, Chapter 13, in Apocrypha.

Beauteous Susanna is plotted against by corrupt Hebrew elders. They have spied on her bathing in her gated, walled garden. They each try to seduce and molest her. As they are influential at court, they coerce and threaten her: they might make invidious accusations against her wifely virtue if she does not succumb. She cries out against them, bringing servants rushing to her aid — the elders then falsely accuse her of lewd and adulterous conduct.

Eventually, Daniel saves her reputation, demonstrating in court that the elders are lying. The elders are put to death by the court, at which they had been councilors. (Stevens relies on our having awareness of the Biblical literature. I, for one, certainly had to look it up.)

Susanna’s beauty is an immortal memory for her husband, who knew her in the flesh. For the spying elders, it was a fleeting conception, followed by death.

“I shall continue till I die to pay in cash for what I buy”

DOGGEREL BY A SENIOR CITIZEN
~ by W. H. Auden

Our earth in 1969
Is not the planet I call mine,
The world, I mean, that gives me strength
To hold off Chaos at arm’s length.

My Eden landscapes and their climes
Are constructs from Edwardian times,
When bathrooms took up lots of space,
And, before eating, one said Grace.

The automobile, the aeroplane,
Are useful gadgets, but profane.
The enginry of which I dream
Is moved by water or by steam.

Reason requires that I approve
The light bulb which I cannot love:
To me more reverence-commanding
A fishtail burner on the landing.

My family ghosts I fought and routed,
Their values, though, I never doubted:
I thought their Protestant Work Ethic
Both practical and sympathetic.

When couples played or sang duets,
It was immoral to have debts:
I shall continue till I die
To pay in cash for what I buy.

The Book of Common Prayer we knew
Was that of 1662:
Though with-it sermons may be well,
Liturgical reforms are hell.

Sex was, of course — it always is —
The most enticing of mysteries,
But news stands did not yet supply
Manichean pornography.

Then conversation was an art,
Like learning not to belch or fart:
I cannot settle which is worse,
The Anti-Novel or Free Verse.

Nor are those Ph.D’s my kith
Who dig the symbol and the myth:
I count myself a Man of Letters
Who writes, or hopes to, for his Betters.

Dare any call Permissiveness
An educational success?
Saner those classrooms which I sat in,
Compelled to study Greek and Latin.

Though I suspect the term is crap,
If there is a Generation Gap,
Who is to blame? Those, old or young,
Who will not learn their Mother Tongue.

But love, at least, is not a state
Either en vogue or out of date,
And I’ve true friends, I will allow,
To talk and eat with here and now.

Me alienated? Bosh! It’s just
As a sworn citizen who must
Skirmish with it that I feel
Most at home with what is real.

##

Manichean theology, in the early centuries of Christianity, was a dualistic view of the body as a source of evil and the spirit as a source of good.

A construct is a broad unproven conception, often just a working theory. As much as it appears to be an attempt at synthesizing the data of experience, it is a product of one’s cultural background and its underlying assumptions. It is an artifact of one’s society and one’s time.

The Edwardian Era was a time of unusual prosperity, peace, and leisure at the turn of the century, before the First World War, in Auden’s native England. One of the chief constructs of Edwardian times was that civilization had reached an apex of glittering style via a leisure class of country homes with servants, and it would remain always thus. All of which was shattered by the war. The servants joined the army and were slaughtered in the trenches, and the country estates were unable to prosper amid modern mass-commerce and industry. Now the great country houses are mostly museums for the public’s amusement.

The anti-novel, in the postmodern era of the 1960s and after, dispenses with linear narrative sequence and other novel-writing conventions, instead depicting some of the raw flux of life as is.

The Generation Gap of the 1960s was an opposition between the patriots of the Forties and the anti-war pacifists of the Sixties, their offspring, with all that entailed.

“A Pentecostal hair-do with a woman underneath looked in, copying down my scrawl with a tight grin”

THE CLASSROOM AT THE MALL
~ by R. S. Gwynn

Our Dean of Something thought it would be good
For Learning (even better for P.R.)
To make the school ‘accessible to all’
And leased the bankrupt bookstore at the Mall
A few steps from Poquito’s Mexican Food
And Chocolate Chips Aweigh. So here we are–

Four housewives, several solemn student nurses,
Ms. Light– serious, heavy, and very dark–
Pete Fontenot, who teaches high-school shop
And is besides a part-time private cop
Who leaves his .38 among the purses,
And I, not quite as thin as Chaucer’s Clerk–

Met for our final class while Season’s Greetings
Echo subliminally with calls to buy
Whatever this year’s ads deem necessary
For Happiness and Joy. The Virgin Mary,
Set up outside to audit our last meetings,
Adores her infant with a glassy eye.

Descend, O Musak! Hail to thee, World Lit!
Hail, Epic (‘most of which was wrote in Greek’)
And hail three hours deep in Dante’s Hell
(The occupants of which no one could spell)–
As much as our tight schedule might admit
Of the Great Thoughts of Man– one thought per week.

I’ve lectured facing towards ‘The Esplanade’
Through plate-glass windows. Ah, what do I see?
Is that the face ‘that lunched a thousand ships’
Awash with pimples? Oh, those chocolate chips!
Ms. Light breaks in: ‘Will this be for a grade?’
It’s a good thing the students all face me.

One night near Halloween I filled the board
With notes on Faust. A Pentecostal hair-
Do with a woman underneath looked in,
Copying down my scrawl with a tight grin
That threatened she’d be back with flaming sword
To corner me and Satan in our lair.

Tonight, though, all is calm. They take their quiz
While I sit calculating if I’ve made
Enough to shop for presents. From my chair
I watch the Christmas window-shoppers stare
At what must seem a novelty, and is,
The Church of Reason in the Stalls of Trade–

Like the blond twins who press against the door,
Accompanied by footsore, pregnant Mummy,
Who tiredly spells out for them the reason
I am not price-tagged as befits the season,
Explaining what is sold in such a store
With nothing but this animated dummy

Who rises, takes the papers one by one
With warm assurances that all shall pass
Because ‘requirements have been met,’ because
I am an academic Santa Claus,
Because mild-mannered Pete’s strapped on his gun.
Ms. Light declared she has enjoyed the class:

‘They sure had thoughts, those old guys,’ she begins,
Then falters for the rest. And I agree
Because, for once, I’ve nothing left to say
And couldn’t put it better anyway.
I pack the tests, gather my grading pens,
And fumble in my jacket for the key,

With time to spend and promises to keep
And not one ‘hidden meaning’ in the tale,
Among those drifting schools of moon-eyed teens,
License and credit pulsing in their jeans,
Who circle, hungry for the choice and cheap–
Something of value, soon to go on sale.

“All eyes will watch her rise above her ‘C’ and walk off, like a goddess on the foam”

INTRODUCTION TO POETRY
~ by Paul Lake

She comes in late, then settles like a sigh
On the first day, returning every week
Promptly at ten, each Monday Wednesday Friday,
To study Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, and Blake;

Enters the room to an approving murmur,
Straightens her dress, then, brushing back her hair,
Arches her body with the slightest tremor,
And sits, while the room grows breathless, in her chair;

Sits for an hour, while busy sophomores worry
Each turgid line, a Botticellian smile
On her rapt face, who’s learned how little study
Love involves; who, walking down the aisle,

Knows in her bones how little poetry
Words breathe, and how– on turning to go home–
All eyes will watch her rise above her “C”
And walk off, like a goddess on the foam.

“Your mother tongue nurtures, has subtleties which give flavor to words”

CANZONE
~ by Marilyn Hacker

Consider the three functions of the tongue:
taste, speech, the telegraphy of pleasure,
are not confused in any human tongue;
yet, sinewy and singular, the tongue
accomplishes what, perhaps, no other organ
can. Were I to speak of giving tongue,
you’d think two things at least; and a cooked tongue,
sliced, on a plate, with caper sauce, which I give
my guest for lunch, is one more, to which she’d give
the careful concentration of her tongue
twice over, to appreciate the taste
and to express– it would be in good taste–

a gastronomic memory the taste
called to mind, and mind brought back to tongue.
There is a paucity of words for taste:
sweet, sour, bitter, salty. Any taste,
however multiplicitous its pleasure,
complex its execution (I might taste
that sauce ten times in cooking, change its taste
with herbal subtleties, chromatic organ
tones of cloves and basil, good with organ
meats) must be described with those few taste-
words or with metaphors to give
my version of sensations it would give

a neophyte, deciding whether to give
it a try. She might develop a taste.
(You try things once; I think you have to give
two chances, though, to know your mind, or give
up on novelties.) Your mother tongue
nurtures, has subtleties which give
flavor to words, and words to flavor, give
the by no means subsidiary pleasure
of being able to describe a pleasure
and recreate it. Making words, we give
the private contemplations of each organ
to the others, and to others, organ-

ize sensations into thought. Sentient organ-
isms, we symbolize feeling, give
the spectrum (that’s a symbol) each sense organ
perceives, by analogy, to others. Disorgan-
ization of the senses is an acquired taste
we all acquire: as speaking beasts, it’s organ-
ic to our discourse. The first organ
of acknowledged communion is the tongue
(tripartite diplomat, which after tongu-
ing a less voluble expressive organ
to wordless efflorescences of pleasure
offers up words to reaffirm the pleasure.)

##

Marilyn Hacker (linguist, great poet, teacher, erudite translator from the French) makes a comprehensive disquisition on the many meanings of tongue. Tongue as one’s language, as one’s speech, as one’s organ of taste — even as a delicatessen meat. Also as tongue kisses. And, let us not forget, as oral-sex lovemaking. And especially cunnilingus!

Marilyn Hacker has a particular weakness — a gift really — for writing in forms with repeating elements (villanelles, sestinas, pantoums, and sonnet crowns) the repeating elements often meaning something entirely different in each new context, the new contexts often produced by ingenious and subtle enjambments and caesuras. She produces these poems with a versatility that is quite unrivaled in late-twentieth-century literature in English. She has almost single-handedly revived the highest sorts of standards for the use of form among our poets. We have been reading her astonishing works since the 1970s. She carries forward the traditions of masters like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, W. D. Snodgrass, Anne Sexton, and Adrienne Rich in writing openly autobiographic works about significant personal relationships and their vicissitudes.

One of the best poems to introduce readers to her use of repeating elements is Marilyn Hacker’s “Villanelle For D.G.B.,” one of our favorite poems.

Every day our bodies separate–
exploded torn and dazed.
Not understanding what we celebrate

we grope through languages and hesitate
and touch each other, speechless and amazed;
and every day our bodies separate

us farther from our planned, deliberate
ironic lives, I am afraid, disphased,
not understanding what we celebrate

when our fused limbs and lips communicate
the unlettered powers we have raised.
Every day our bodies’ separate

routines are harder to perpetuate.
In wordless darkness we learn wordless praise,
not understanding what we celebrate;

wake to ourselves, exhausted, in the late
morning as the wind tears off the haze,
not understanding how we celebrate
our bodies. Every day we separate.

“Walk, never run, between points: it will save your breath, and hypnotize him”

TENNIS
~ by Robert Pinsky

1. The Service
The nerve to make a high toss and the sense
Of when the ball is there; and then the nerve
To cock your arm back all the way, not rigid

But loose and ready all the way behind
So that the racket nearly or really touches
Your back far down; and all the time to see

The ball, the seams and letters on the ball
As it seems briefly at its highest point
To stop and hover — keeping these in mind

The swing itself is easy, forgetting cancer,
Or panic learning how to swim or walk,
Forgetting what the score is, names of plants,

And your first piece of ass, you throw the racket
Easily through Brazil, coins, mathematics,
And haute cuisine to press the ball from over

And a slight slice at two o’clock or less,
Enough to make it loop in accurately
As, like a fish in water flicking itself

Away, your mind takes up the next concern
With the arm, ball, racket still pressing down
And forward and across your obedient body.

II. Forehand
Straightforwardness can be a cruel test,
A kind of stagefright threatening on the cold
And level dais, a time of no excuses.

But think about the word “stroke,” how it means
What one does to a cat’s back, what a brush
Does through a woman’s hair. Think about

The racket pressing, wiping, guiding the ball
As you stay on it, dragging say seven strings
Across the ball, the top edge leading off

To give it topspin. Think about the ball
As a loaf of bread, you hitting every slice.
Pull back the racket well behind you, drop it

And lift it, meeting the ball well out in front
At a point even with your left hip, stroking
To follow through crosscourt. The tarnished coin

Of “follow through,” the cat, the loaf of bread,
“Keep your eye on the ball,” the dull alloy
Of homily, simile, and coach’s lore

As maddening, and as helpful, as the Fool
Or Aesop’s Fables, the coinage of advice:
This is the metal that is never spent.

III. Backhand
Here, panic may be a problem: in the clench
From back to jaw, in manic you may come
Too close, and struggling strike out with your arm,

Trying to make the arm do everything,
And failing as the legs and trunk resist.
All of your coinages, and your nerve, may fail…

What you need is the Uroborus, the serpent
Of energy and equilibrium,
Its tail between its jaw, the female circle

Which makes it easy: all is all, left
Reflects the right, and if you change the grip
To keep your hand and wrist behind the racket

You suddenly find the swing is just the same
As forehand, except you hit it more in front
Because your arm now hangs in front of you

And not behind. You simply change the grip
And with a circular motion from the shoulder,
Hips, ankles, and knees, you sweep the inverted swing.

IV. Strategy
Hit to the weakness. All things being equal
Hit crosscourt rather than down the line, because
If you hit crosscourt back to him, then he

Can only hit back either towards you (crosscourt)
Or parallel to you (down the line), but never
Away from you, the way you can hit

Away from him if he hits down the line.
Besides, the net is lowest in the middle,
The court itself is longest corner-to-corner,

So that a crosscourt stroke is the most secure,
And that should be your plan, the plan you need
For winning — though only when hitting from the baseline:

From closer up, hit straight ahead, to follow
The ball to net; and from the net hit shrewdly,
To get him into trouble so he will hit

An error, or a cripple you can kill.
If he gets you in trouble, hit a lob,
And make it towering to make it hard

For him to smash from overhead and easy
For you to have time to range the backcourt,
Bouncing in rhythm like a dog or seal

Ready to catch an object in mid-air
And rocking its head — as with your plan in mind
You arrange yourself to lob it back, and win.

V. Winning
Call questionable balls his way, not yours;
You lose the point but you have your concentration,
The grail of self-respect. Wear white. Mind losing.

Walk, never run, between points: it will save
Your breath, and hypnotize him, and he may think
That you are tired, until your terrible

Swift sword amazes him. By understanding
Your body you will conquer your fatigue.
By understanding your desire to win

And all your other desires, you will conquer
Discouragement. And you will conquer distraction
By understanding the world, and all its parts.

##

Robert Pinsky has produced here an entire instruction guide to tennis. First, really cut loose on the serve, and put the opponent back on his heels. Then, hit diagonally crosscourt from the back of the court; brush-up the back of the ball to lift it clear of the net and deep into the corner. Make sure to really coil before unleashing a crackling backhand along the opposite diagonal angle. Mainly, aim to use crosscourt strokes to make your opponent cover the widest and deepest part of the court — make him have to run! When he hits a ball that is weakly struck and falls short, come flying in for the volley and angle the ball away. Finally, stay focused on every point, and remain undiscouraged by small setbacks (do not give in for a second!) as you must stick to your game and win those points, one after another! …That’ll be fifty dollars. Sure, a check’s okay.

“One feels like the lady in Leeds who has seen The Sound Of Music eighty-six times”

AGAINST COUPLING
~ by Fleur Adcock

I write in praise of the solitary act:
of not feeling a trespassing tongue
forced into one’s mouth, one’s breath
smothered, nipples crushed against the
ribcage, and that metallic tingling
in the chin set off by a certain odd nerve:

unpleasure. Just to avoid those eyes would help —
such eyes as a young girl draws life from,
listening to the vegetal
rustle within her, as his gaze
stirs polypal fronds in the obscure
seabed of her body, and her own eyes blur.

There is much to be said for abandoning
this no longer novel exercise —
for not “participating in
a total experience” — when
one feels like the lady in Leeds
who had seen The Sound Of Music eighty-six times;

or more, perhaps, like the school drama mistress
producing A Midsummer Night’s Dream
for the seventh year running, with
yet another cast from 5B.
Pyramus and Thisbe are dead, but
the hole in the wall can still be troublesome.

I advise you, then, to embrace it without
encumbrance. No need to set the scene,
dress up (or undress), make speeches.
Five minutes of solitude are
enough — in the bath, or to fill
that gap between the Sunday papers and lunch.