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Friday, 10 July 2009

Keats: Coda: Echo and Variation


Archivo:8 - AmStar 7.JPG

The calculable law of tragedy -- Hölderlin


Mariners don’t think too much about the deeps

Of the Other at the bottom of the ocean.

Like a sort of north star which in shining

Accelerates all my thought from far off,

Identity presses on me so all day

As to tease sleep out of my anxious mind.

Melancholy lunes, identifying with

Tom dismal and forlorn and spitting blood.

Heart, ever out of its element, keeps

Identifying with Hamlet, a dying

Sun beats down, the confused heifer lows,

Feeling nature’s mass fall and spill like

A blade. Light plays cleanly upon bronze.

Above the victim’s head the priest suspends

Our fear of death. And this abandoned town –

Where love melds into death, and vanishing

Sleep fills itself with ominous programs,

The whole fate drama hoving into view

Before dawn under the lyric stars –

Tacks around the cove and disappears.


A boat tacks around the cove and disappears

From the world on paper liberty wings.

At five o’clock of a summer morning

Sleep fills itself with ominous programs,

The whole fate drama hoving into view

Before dawn under the lyric stars.

She comes, she comes again, sighing like

Poetry and not any woman

I’ve floated with, through that melancholy

Marshlife of some primordial littoral

Where love melds into death, and vanishing

Riverine currents of language swirl

Like death on my tongue poisonous as

The word she breathes into me like a fate.


As time washes round these human shores

It must be poisonous to life itself,

The stubborn desire to find something outside

The perfidy of that deceptive voice.

Identity presses on me so all day

I’m obliged to go out, and when I come in

To somewhere even more crazy and strange

I plunge into abstract images to ease

Being in that circle of sad hell

Nature normally holds off from us.

A strange adolescent beside her strange body,

I can never forgive my mother for dying.

But everything’s explained in advance,

What’s planned falls away before what happens.


The same old narrative of loss replayed

On her glowing sweat beaded shoulders,

The night wanderer pulled by gravity

Sinking into a desired release again.

Outside the gaslights of Gloucester Square went dark,

Street vendors came out to air their morning cries.

I and a pale lady seemed to swirl

Through hell space, joined at the mouth

While the slow making of souls overshadows

Every thing in this vale of sorrows –

Lovers floating and fading, all mindless,

Assassins of innocent nature –

My blood over-heats, the world-wind blows,

I must write to chase them from my mind.

File:Powerlines Over Fields Erzhausen.jpg


She moves in next door, we huddle over

Paolo and Francesca in Dante: Fate

Floats through the whirling atmosphere

Of the sexual, and is consumed

While in Hampstead the god keeps being born;

Sweet surrender tastes like poison in my mouth,

My blood over-heats, the world-wind blows

Every thing in this vale of sorrows

Through the whirling atmosphere of hell

To London, depression, withdrawal –

Warning, betrayal and death deep

At work in every little thing – seeing

London as Atlantis, that sunken city

Sifting like glittering dust through the stars.


The moving waters at their priestlike task,

Polaris growing brighter against the sky

Like an evening glory, with Vega

Swimming, an incandescent sea of gas

That surrounds its central star the way

A modal continuum of quiet

Keeps the Ring Nebula in Lyra spinning,

Show the magic hand of chance at work:

She moves in next door, we huddle over

The doomed infatuated ones in Dante,

The burden of the mystery producing

A mimetic touching of the strings

With which we might identify

Deneb and Altair locked across the dark.


The night wanderer’s pulled by gravity

Through hell with a beautiful figure whose lips,

Those flowers of death’s close growth and breathing,

Glow like irritated raspberry marks

Once the swarming of phenomena begins.

The story of Paolo and Francesca

So spooks me my heart’s too small to hold

The elegiac silver lining

Once the swarming of phenomena begins

To wed your loveliness with the hour of my death.

We dine, and our fate is sealed. Like a recurrence

The doomed infatuated ones in Dante

Who cannot see what flowers are at their feet

Once the swarming of phenomena begins

Cry out into the archaic Saxon dusk

Where ecstasy once poured forth, with

Shadowy thought left to supply its own

Sheath of feeling in which I hang all through

That aching starlit spring in Hampstead,

Once the swarming of phenomena begins.


When I say “I” it isn’t I I mean,

This idle, empty scarecrow figure,

Unborn thing in its larval sac suspended,

Though I am forever stretching out my hand

When I know all thoughts ought to be on you –

Better perhaps to guess than to see

Poetry in the mimetic touching of

A future I am not fated to be in –

The brevity of life, its tenuousness –

Faint luminous phosphorescence, rising

Desire – myself the hunted one consoled –

To slip the grasp of a familiar ghost

Causes me to stop and catch my breath,

Happy when I am alone and not myself.


Wreck of the American Star (formerly SS America), Fuerteventura, Canary Islands: photo by BLueFiSH, 2005
A powerline stretching over winter fields near Erzhausen, Germany, looking westward: photo by Ingolfson, 2007
Deterioration and disintegration of the American Star: photo by Art Kuhne, 2007-2008


Phanero Noemikon said...

give me that old time religion!
It's good enough for me..

Amen brother Tom!

Anonymous said...

How many ideas flowing into one main theme. In our solitude, whether enjoyable or not, we all need that “sort of north star” to guide our way through the rocks. And sometimes the sky is overcast and we cannot see it, “the star to every wandering bark” –quoting Willy-, but we get along, we keep thinking it is there, somewhere, “stretching out (our) hand north”…
And then, these verses, which have certainly dazzled me:
“As time washes round these human shores
It must be poisonous to life itself,
The stubborn desire to find something outside”

Stubborn seems to be the most appropriate qualification. We keep searching beyond ourselves, forgetting our own essence, who we are and what we want. So much so that we end up being someone else when we are alone. And there comes the finale: “Happy when I am alone and not myself”.

I have read it like six times already and every time something else comes to mind. It is just so full of images and sensitivity…

TC said...

Brother Lanny,

Forgive me my filial projections, but I believe we are both devotees of that same old time religion, the one whose canons and precepts waft over, above and around us night and day... the faith, perhaps, of

Something In the Air... You Just Felt It


Thank you so much for finding, or feeling, that one main theme. It is as you describe it.

With this piece you see I was continuing to try to locate the key to the locked doors of John Keats's private mind, as, though still a very young man in his early Twenties, he found himself swirling downward into a state in which he found illness had robbed him of the strength to write; for as he explained to an imperceptive friend who was then vigorously prompting him to do so, the composition of poetry had always required of him all his vital resources; and so he demurred, saying simply that the energy to summon up "primitive information, light and shade" had departed him.

I imagined his mind at that point to have been full of the sort of bewildering, almost hallucinatory doubts and delusions which we find expressed in his heartbreaking late letters to his sweetheart Fanny Brawne, full of implications and suspicions that were both completely out of keeping with "objective reality" and completely inconsistent with the sweet, generous, "unmisgiving" person his friends had always taken him to be.

Of course over the years many have tried to read, or more like read-into, the state of this sensitive young man's mind in those difficult late times. Having composed a whole book of poems attempting an evocation of his life and work, I was just another bewildered seeker in that long lineage of unknowingness. The temptation to read the life from back to front, seeing all earlier events as shadowed by the early demise, came finally to seem problematic. Speculation and hypothesis, struggling to reconstruct things from scraps and hints and clues--by the end of the book I was asking myself, Have I not overdetermined the story by imposing upon it a dramatic arc of my own creation, when for all I know the real curve of the life narrative may have been past all knowing?

The problem kept me from completing the book for a while. Then I tried a different method. I took all the poems I had written, inscribed individual lines on hundreds of thin strips of paper, and began to put the strips back together in ways that were semi-accidental... I was "dowsing" for a different kind of meaning, trying to allow the story to tell itself without that authorial intervention or "forcing" that had been making me more and more uneasy. And I found when I surrendered control in that way, the new combinations seemed to speak for Keats, or to allow Keats himself to speak, in a way that brought at least an element of balance into the project, an element of creative uncertainty perhaps permitting the narrative, at last, that "pleasure in not knowing" which JK himself had called "Negative Capability".

I have been hesitant to post this piece for fear of it seeming crabbed or mystifying; but then, by now having over six months or so posted some half dozen or more of of the individual poems from which this one was made, I thought perhaps readers might be able to get at least some dim sense of what I was up to, and thus be enabled to put things together for themselves, in their own ways, from the available bits and pieces, so that in the end the tale would have as many shapes and as many meanings as it had readers.

Of course to have even one reader as attentive and sensitive as you is more than I or any writer have a right to expect, and when such a reader arrives, one can only feel grateful and honoured.

Anonymous said...

Now that I have read your poems I get the idea of what you did -or rather let be done- with this one. Your creativity is admirable. I have found this work very mind-opening.

And a phrase from the lyrics of a song by Sting came to mind: "the sacred geometry of chance".

Zephirine said...

Ah, and the concatenation (not a word I often use, but it seems to be the right one here) of word and image is extraordinary in this post. That poor dying ship, across centuries and miles in a most unlikely way is Keats, driven onto the rocks and fading fast...

TC said...

Zeph, thank your for bringing up the boat. And for "getting it".

The American Star was the final incarnation of one of the world's grand ocean liners, the SS America. She was built in 1939 to the design of a great naval architect, William Francis Gibbs, worked all through the war as a troop ship, then served for many years as a passenger carrier on the transatlantic run. She was a more spacious and well-appointed ship than her running mate and younger sibling, the SS United States, launched in 1952 and at that time the swiftest big liner ever built (three and a half hours to cross the Big Water, though of course that was never going to be fast enough to stay competitive with air crossing).

I got aboard both ships, one (the America) in harbour, one (the United States) on the full crossing. The America was far more a throwback to the great luxury liner days--though she was no match for luxury with the QE or the QM (I rode the Mary once, the beauty she was). The America was the USS West Point in wartime, then got her name back, and then began a long period of decline in which ownership transferred from one international cruise line firm to another, the ship slowly degrading all the while, as the SS Australis, the SS Noga, the SS Alferdoss, and finally the SS American Star.

Once she was no longer seaworthy, her final owners meant her to be a floating museum and attempted to tow her across the Atlantic in winter. She ran aground in a storm off the Canaries in January 1997 and from that point on, written off as a wreck, was left to slowly disintegrate. By last year all that was left was a bit of her bow above the tides. And yes, as you have seen and said, I took her fate as a metaphor for the fate of the poet who is the subject of this poem.

Here she is in the foreground with her little brother the United States behind her, in New York Harbour, sometime in the 1950s, in their glory days:

SS America and SS United States

TC said...

I'm afraid I've exaggerated a bit the speed of the United States--she made that crossing in three and a half DAYS not hours (as I said).

Speaking of breaking up on the rocks...