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The Good Bits #1

22 May

The tears filled his mild eyes; something precious had passed away. This was the pang that had been sharpest during the last few years – the sense of ebbing time, of shrinking opportunity; and now he felt not so much that his last chance was going as that it was gone indeed. He had done all that he should ever do, and yet he had not done what he wanted.

-Henry James, “The Middle Years”



9 Jun


So it came time 
for me to cede myself 
and I chose 
the wind 
to be delivered to 

The wind was glad 
and said it needed all 
the body 
it could get 
to show its motions with 

and wanted to know 
willingly as I hoped it would 
if it could do 
something in return 
to show its gratitude 

When the tree of my bones 
rises from the skin I said 
come and whirlwinding 
stroll my dust 
around the plain 

so I can see 
how the ocotillo does 
and how saguaro-wren is 
and when you fall 
with evening 

fall with me here 
where we can watch 
the closing up of day 
and think how morning breaks

(A.R. Ammons, 1955)

Wallace Stevens at the River

28 Nov

There are certain personal associations between literature and place that are so strong you never quite lose them. I cannot visit a beach without recalling L’Étranger. Lately when I go to a river I think of Stevens’ poem about a woman who “sang beyond the genius of the sea”…

The Idea of Order at Key West

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.
If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.


17 Nov

I’ve written about Auden elsewhere (like on my Japanese blog, introducing the poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”), and just thought I’d include here one of his relatively less anthologised poems (though a very good one).


“Epitaph on a Tyrant”

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,

And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;

He knew human folly like the back of his hand,

And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;

When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,

And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

Shirley Geok-lin Lim

8 Nov

I’m presently in Singapore, and actually happened to visit the Edwin Thumboo exhibition at the National Library (more on that to come). Today I thought it might be good to introduce a poem written by an author with close Singapore connections. This is “My Father’s Sadness” by Shirley Geok-lin Lim.

“My Father’s Sadness”

My father’s sadness appears in my dreams.
His young body is dying of responsibility.
So many men and women march out of his mouth
each time he opens his heart for fullness,
he is shot down; so many men and women
like dragons’ teeth rising in the instance
of his lifetime. He is an oriental. He claims
paternity. But in his dreams he is a young body
with only his life before him.

My father’s sadness masks my face. It is hard
to see through his tears, his desires drum in my chest.
I tense like a young man with a full moon
and no woman in sight. My father broke
with each child, finer and finer, the clay
of his body crumbling to a drizzle of silicone
in the hour-glass. How hard it is
to be a father, a bull under the axle,
the mangrove netted by lianas, the host
perishing of its lavishness.