Sometime early this morning, when it was still dark, a soft rain commenced here in Nashville. So we have the unexpected delight of another cool morning – two in one week is almost unheard of this time of year. I’m out on the porch again, drenched in the blessing of a cool, gray, just-barely-rainy Sunday morning…
For some reason, I awoke thinking of an annual dinner party I have given each December for the past fifteen years. I call it the “Annual Sit Down, Dress Up, No Kids Allowed, Crown Pork Roast Holiday Dinner.” About two dozen friends (many of whom are colleagues) attend each year. Over time, it has evolved from fancy dinner party mode (multi-colored, curly paper crowns decorating the ends of each rib of the roast, and five courses) to something more along the lines of a home-based cabaret of talented friends. (This year, I’m planning to transition us from the full blown crown pork roast in response to increasing vegetarianism among the attendees…) What the shindig now amounts to is a long cocktail hour – which almost-grown offspring are allowed to attend in party dress, before departing for their own amusements and repasts – the sit down meal, and then an after-dinner hour or so of performance. Because several of us are poets, there is always lots of poetry. Original work is read, followed by those of us who are fluent in languages (French, Russian, and Italian) reading some of their favorite poetry in the original. Otherparty guests are tapped to share the English translations. This past year, we heard fabulous renditions of Akhmatova, Pavese, and Neruda. Of course, there is music, too: a wonderful pairing of one friend who is a soprano (Amy Jarman http://blair.vanderbilt.edu/faculty-administration/faculty/amy-jarman ), and another who is a brilliant (and well known, Grammy-winning) keyboardist, songwriter, and session player (Billy Livsey http://www.billylivseymusic.com/ ).
One of the more practical things about writing is the way it can sort out your thoughts for you. So now that I’m sitting here, composing this final BAP post of the week, I realize that the crown pork roast dinner came to mind this morning six months early because of a heart-stopping performance at the December 2010 event, given by my friend and colleague, Vereen Bell. (Vereen is a critic who has worked on Robert Lowell, T.S. Eliot, Cormac McCarthy et al). His contribution to the evening was a reading of some of his favorite Wallace Stevens poems. He started us off with a stapled together, multi- page (front and back) hand out, and a brief talk on Stevens. Those of us who are academics settled right into it; others looked a bit aghast at the sudden (possibly sober) turn the revelries seemed to have taken. But once Vereen – in his still Mississippi-inflected, vowel-bending, marvelously sinuous voice – started reading and reciting the poems themselves, we all became bound in a mutual enchantment. My neighbor at table leaned over and said, “I can’t believe we’re not getting this on video…” I only wish we had…
So: when I awoke a few hours ago, thinking of the crown pork dinner, I was really thinking of Vereen and Stevens: “Sunday Morning,” of course, and a sort of mood-matching between that poem and the actual conditions and state of mind I’m enjoying right at this very moment...
I’ll end this week of blogs with a gentle nudge to those who might take a look at this to read (re-read, surely) one of the grandest achievements of our American poetry, and with a thank you to David Lehman for the invitation to air some random (and otherwise) thoughts about poetry here on the BAP bog over the past seven days. It’s been fun…
Sunday Morning, Wallace Stevens
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkness among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.
Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measures destined for her soul.
Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth.
No mother suckled him, no sweet land gave
Large-mannered motions to his mythy mind.
He moved among us, as a muttering king,
Magnificent, would move among his hinds,
Until our blood, commingling, virginal,
With heaven, brought such requital to desire
The very hinds discerned it, in a star.
Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?
The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain,
And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.
She says, ``I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?''
There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven's hill, that has endured
As April's green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evenings, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow's wings.
She says, ``But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss.''
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires. Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our paths,
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
Whispered a little out of tenderness,
She makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plate. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.
Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?
Why set the pear upon those river-banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Alas, that they should wear our colors there,
The silken weavings of our afternoons,
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.
Supple and turbulent, a ring of men
Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn
Their boisterous devotion to the sun,
Not as a god, but as a god might be,
Naked among them, like a savage source.
Their chant shall be a chant of paradise,
Out of their blood, returning to the sky;
And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice,
The windy lake wherein their lord delights,
The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills,
That choir among themselves long afterward.
They shall know well the heavenly fellowship
Of men that perish and of summer morn.
And whence they came and whither they shall go
The dew upon their feet shall manifest.
She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries, ``The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.''
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or an old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.