Friday, May 15, 2015

Poems for May 14 + Tranströmer

as in O Pen: See May 11
The Amen Stone by Yehudi Amichai
Dear Mr. Bukowski by Claudia Cornelison
The Lanyard by Billy Collins
To my favorite 17 year old High School Girl by Billy Collins
The Streets of Shanghai, by Tomas Transtromer

To continue with Billy Collins, I remember reading the Lanyard and chuckling at the wit, the perfect set up to honor parents, especially mothers. The conversational style, the brief repetitions of the child giving a lanyard, and finally the archaic truth, which depending on your mood will say something about instinctive needs for gifts, narcissism of children, unconditional love of mothers.

To my favorite 17-year-old High School Girl, again depending on your mood, you might appreciate the sarcasm behind the passive-agressive parental approach. Would this work as a small essay on why we expect more out of our children? Is there any tenderness? Any sense of knowing the people involved? It seems to be more a commentary on how parents handle/mock the onus on self-esteem... On Monday, the discussion revolved to how we don’t take humor seriously, and how the subject has nothing solemn to warrant anything but the hint that it would be great to have a child able at least to help around the house, without mentioning a deeper subtext of expectations. The double messages leave a sense of dissatisfaction, perhaps irritation, but in a hollow, surface manner. Collins is capable of addressing big subjects, but more comfortable, it would seem to adopt this flip irony.

Tranströmer is quite the opposite. As psychologist, a non-academic, his concern is neither wit, nor aesthetic satisfaction, but rather keen observations. The Streets of Shanghai starts with a white butterfly, with an metaphorical underpinning on the nature of truth. Depending on which translation, the wording will change slightly, but as in the poem, "Alone", there is an extra stanza in the version presented, which is some versions is deleted. How does it change the poem not to have this final line:

"We look almost happy out in the sun, while we are bleeding fatally/From wounds we don't know about."
Looking at the three exclamations, one in each of the stanzas is one approach:
1. "butterfly as a floating corner of truth!" A sense of revelation and excitement perhaps. Faith and streets in motion with an impact on setting our "silent planet going."
2. "Mind the labyrinths to left and right!" Amid the observations, the 8 different faces, the invisible one one doesn't talk about, the sense of Confucian principles, the laundry, the aliveness of the street, the "shoals of cyclists" there is a contrasting sense of the speaker as poised and unconnected: an old tree "with withered leaves that hang on and can't fall to the earth".
3. The crowds keep the motion going, the street now compared to a deck of a ferry... What is the cross--
Christian, a crossroads? I think not a Swedish flag, since the "us" includes everyone in the street.
Apparently, Tranströmer avoids trappings of religion, but there is a sense of deep connection to something spiritual. It is not abstract, some distant concept, disconnected or uncomfortable enough to be avoided, but rather, embraces the unknown that is part of our existence. But this third exclamation mark gives it a playful quality, a teasing quality that invites us to wonder "who it is" that creeps behind us, covers our eyes and whispers "Guess Who".

In the Robert Hass introduction to his selected poems, 1954-86, he says this: "Tomas Tranströmer's poems are thick with the feel of life lived in a specific place: the dark, overpowering Swedish winters, the long thaws and brief paradisal summers in the Stockholm archipelago. He conveys a sense of what it is like to be a private citizen in the second half of the twentieth century. His voice, spare and clear."

In the poem discussed Monday, The Dispersed Congregation, we spoke at length about Nicodemus, his role. The inner/outer, hidden/apparent... The Address, as the speech we expect to hear, the address we look for but don't find. Images such as slum, sewer, the church as the plaster bandage around the broken arm of faith... where we pass the begging bowl, the bells tolling under our feet, reveal the unkempt and dark part of us...
If religion must be reformed, so must civic life. Poems, brief as they are, can rattle the cages of “approved ideas,” even if only for a moment.

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