Posts Tagged ‘Arthur Rimbaud’

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet: Shakespeare, Gioia, and a dash of Rimbaud

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Greg Gioia can whip up one mean drink. Dana Gioia‘s new book, Pity the Beautiful, was fêted by a capacity crowd at Kepler’s last night.  One of the memorable highlights of the evening was Dana’s kid bro making a libation of his own invention, called “The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet.”

I watched him make it.  Parts of something that looked like Campari (but wasn’t Campari), then absinthe, and a few other ingredients, with a twist of orange for garnish.  “The lover,” Greg told me, was the quick spray of rosewater on top.  “The lunatic” was, obviously, the absinthe.

And “the poet”?  Greg told me the drink was a variation of one called “Arthur Rimbaud.”  But it also hearkens back to a line from William Shakespeares A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

It’s also – for a third association – the title of a love poem in Dana’s new collection. Muriel Rukeyser famously said, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”  Dana agrees:  We live by the stories we tell about ourselves, he said.  People who are “stuck” in their lives are in fact enmeshed in a particular narrative about their lives.  Then he read the poem.

It’s so lovely I’ll quote it in full, taking full advantage of Dana’s kind permission to do so:

The tales we tell are either false or true,
But neither purpose is the point. We weave
The fabric of our own existence out of words,
And the right story tells us who we are.
Perhaps it is the words that summon us.
The tale is often wiser than the teller.
There is no naked truth but what we wear.

So let me bring this story to our bed.
The world, I say, depends upon a spell
Spoken each night by lovers unaware
Of their own sorcery. In innocence
Or agony the same words must be said,
Or the raging moon will darken in the sky.
The night grows still. The winds of dawn expire.

And if I’m wrong, it cannot be by much.
We know our own existence came from touch,
The new soul summoned into life by lust.
And love’s shy tongue awakens in such fire –
Flesh against flesh and midnight whispering –
As if the only purpose of desire
Were to express its infinite unfolding.

And so, my love, we are two lunatics,
Secretaries to the wordless moon,
Lying awake, together or apart,
Transcribing every touch or aching absence
Into our endless, intimate palaver,
Body to body, naked to the night,
Appareled only in our utterance.

I think it’s one of his finest (I love the turn in the second stanza) – though I must admit that at some point the liquid form of the “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet,” began to take hold, and everything in the room was illuminated in a sort of roseate glow.  It had been a long week, and I had been fighting off illness.  Before I had a chance to go up for a refill of Greg’s potion, the initial euphoria faded, and I realized that it had only been the tension of a tight schedule that had been holding me together.  Suddenly my bones ached and my head throbbed.

I took Dana’s advice. A dash out the back door into the silence of the cool twilight and then homeward – as Dana suggested, I brought this particular story to bed.

Postscript on 5/6:  If you want Greg’s recipe, it’s here, on “Sidecar Cocktail Blog,”  the blog he’s been running for nine years.  That’s six longer than the Book Haven – whew!  how does he do it?   It’s a pretty good blog, too – clearly, writing talent runs in the family.  Brother Ted Gioia, occasionally mentioned on this blog, is a noted jazz scholar (I’ve written about him here).  His The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire will be out with Oxford University Press next month.  Congratulations to all Gioias!

Happy 90th birthday, Julia Hartwig! Poland’s late-blooming poet is still in glorious flower.

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

The birthday girl in Warsaw (Photo: C.L. Haven)

I wrote about the Polish poet Julia Hartwig some months ago on the Book Haven here – but now there is an special occasion for celebration.  The poet turns 90 on August 14th.

It’s rare that a poet’s supreme moment of recognition should occur so late in life – rarer still that the poet’s productivity is unimpeded by age.  However, the Grande Dame of Polish poetry is clearly an extraordinary woman.

I made sure to celebrate my own way, with an article in the July/August issue of World Literature Today.  It’s not online, alas, but here are a few excerpts to familiarize the West with a poet who received as much applause as Nobel winner Wisława Szymborska when they shared the stage last May in Kraków’s medieval St. Catherine’s Church.

“My way of poetry is a long way,” Julia Hartwig told me on a hot August night in her Warsaw apartment.

Her comment is at once enigmatic and precise. Precise because the poet, who turns ninety this year, has been writing for eight decades, since she was ten. She has been publishing collections of her poems since the 1956 thaw over half a century ago. Yet her long career is still in glorious late flower.

Enigmatic, too: her range of vision roams through centuries, continuing a conversation with her recently dead colleagues, literary forebears, and friends throughout time. All great poetry does that, really—but in Hartwig’s case the search is direct and unambiguous. Titles of poems in her newest collection in English, It Will Return, reference Arthur Rimbaud, John Keats, and Joseph Brodsky as well as Vincent Van Gogh, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Henri Rousseau.

Her life was largely a quiet and orderly one, after the national upheaval of war, when she worked as a runner for the Home Army, and studied in Warsaw’s underground university (the Gestapo’s attentions forced her into hiding for a time).  After the war, she went to Paris on a scholarship and never lost her love for France.  She wrote about Guillaume Apollinaire and Gérard de Nerval and translated Rimbaud:

“What is striking about French literature is the range of scale: the Hugo-style genius of the French spirit and the Rabelaisian bawdiness, de Musset’s charm and Apollinaire’s thrilling melody, Lautréamont’s madness, the inexhaustible passion of Rimbaud’s poetry, the latent sensitivity of Reverdy’s cubism, the inventiveness of the lyrical paradox in Jacob’s work,” she wrote. “Old and new, separate and shared, like the root, stem, leaf, and flower in one plant.”

In 1954 she married the eminent poet, writer, and translator Artur Miedzyrzecki (1922–96), who had served the Polish Army in Italy. She published her first book during communism’s brief 1956 thaw, when she was in her mid-thirties.

“I waited for good poems, it’s true,” she said. “But still the attention was . . . it was remarked.”

I find the frequent comparisons to Szymborska to be a bit offensive, as if there were only one slot were available to a female poet per generation.  I aired my grievances … well, a little, anyway:

May in Kraków – must they be compared?

She is often compared to Wisława Szymborska. One wonders if the association would come less easily if Szymborska were not a woman of the same generation. But it’s not entirely the comparison of poetess with poetess—both have a light, deft touch and a taste for whimsy.

But Hartwig’s terroir extends into a different psychological landscape. She has called her way “reality mysticism,” extending her acceptance of the world to all its horrors, then moving beyond to transcendence. Of the world, she wisely told her translator Bogdana Carpenter, “One cannot set oneself apart from it and be alone like an underground man or a misanthrope.”

But it’s more than that. Reality mysticism doesn’t abstract or withdraw from the present, or use it for a jumping-off point for dreamy speculations, but holds us steadily there, using it to increase our attention, our presence, and our appreciation.

For example, “Return to My Childhood Home” begins with wonder and loss, moving to consolation and light:

Amid a dark silence of pines—the shouts of young birches calling each other.
Everything is as it was. Nothing is as it was. …

To understand nothing. Each time in a different way, from the first cry to the last breath.
Yet happy moments come to me from the past, like bridesmaids carrying oil lamps.

Many more happy moments  in your beloved Warsaw, Julia  – a thousand lamps to greet you on your way!