Saturday, October 25, 2008

Give Chase At Once to Soul And Body

Longinus, in A Treatise on the Sublime, describes Sappho's achievement thus:

Do you not wonder how she gives chase at once to soul and body, to words and tongue, to sight and colour, as as if scattered abroad, how, at variance within she is frozen and burns, she raves and is wise? For she is either panic-stricken or at point of death; she is haunted not only by one single emotion but their whole company, All things befall a lover, but she took the extremes of love's history and binding them in one achieved a masterpiece (trans. by Frank Granger).

The description is alluring, especially given the fact that, not withstanding the recent discovery of a nearly whole poem, all we have of Sappho's poetry are fragments. And few, therefore precious, are the glimpses of poetry in this ALSC conference where the linguistic currency is made up largely of abstraction.

I was glad to encounter a poet I did not know in Sarah Barnsley's talk on "Sappho, Mary Barnard and American Modernism." The four Barnard poems on the handout may lack the gemlike radiance of her fellow imagiste H.D., but they still offer the "dull luster of pewter," as one poem has it.

The three-part poem, "The River Under Different Lights," ends with the estuary, that watery border where "fresh water meets salt." In that mixing,

Nothing is sure, neither
tide, season, nor hour
in this flux of stream and ocean,
daylight and fog,
where only the fish,
a secret presence, move
surely on spring's errand.

In the heavy waters of doubt, it is a relief to read the ridiculously light-hearted "on spring's errand." I do feel like a fish out of water in this scholarly conference. It reminds me why I decided not to pursue a PhD in English, but to write poetry instead. I just don't have the wherewithal to bend my being to the task of examining manuscript variants or of digging in archival sources, to prove or disprove an idea. I don't care enough for Truth, but miss Beauty terribly when he is absent.

I wish I had been less tired last night to enjoy more the readings by Joyce Carol Oates and Edmund White, both of whom I heard for the first time. Colleagues in Princeton, Oates was thin and porcelain doll-like, whereas White was big and bearish. Oates read a fictional account of the few hours before Ernest Hemingway shot himself dead; she described him as "mysterious."

In the panel on Literary Biography, Emily Mitchell Wallace defended William Carlos Williams against his biographers' depiction of him as a promiscuous rake who was unfaithful to his wife Florence. While my mind understood the imperative to set the record straight, part of me could not help wondering why marital fidelity (or infidelity) was such a huge deal. I guess I would rather read one of the man's poems again, instead of listening to a 20-minute defense of his chastity. At least that is how I am feeling now.

Queen Anne's Lace

Her body is not so white as
anemone petals nor so smooth--nor
so remote a thing. It is a field
of the wild carrot taking
the field by force; the grass
does not raise above it.
Here is no question of whiteness,
white as can be, with a purple mole
at the center of each flower.
Each flower is a hand's span
of her whiteness. Wherever
his hand has lain there is
a tiny purple blemish. Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end,
until the whole field is a
white desire, empty, a single stem,
a cluster, flower by flower,
a pious wish to whiteness gone over--
or nothing.

*After reading WCW's poem, Singapore Jade sent me a poem by a pair of Victorian lesbian lovers who wrote collaboratively under the pseudonym of Michael Field. Katherine Harris Bradley and her niece and ward Edith Emma Cooper wrote around 40 works together. The imagery of "Cyclamen" has the sharp spareness of the Imagistes, but the last two lines would have failed the requirement "to use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation" (Flint in Imagisme). Like H.D., the women were inspired by Sappho.


They are terribly white.
There is snow on the ground,
And a moon on the snow at night.
The sky is cut by the winter light.
Yet I, who have all these things in ken,
Am struck to the heart by the chiselled white
Of this handful of cyclamen.

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