Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Poet of Conscience

Selected Poems 

Selected Poems

"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold I know no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry." - Maria Tsvetaeva

Weariness and beauty permeate the poetry of Maria Tsvetaeva. She struggled with life and love over the course of her short existence, but endured, supported in part by fellow artists, most notably Mandelstam, Rilke and Pasternak. The poetry in this selection is arrayed in chronological order and ranges from the "starry nights, in the apple orchards of Paradise"(p 5) to the "muffled blow" of Epitaph (p 106). 

Inspiration from fellow poets Mayakovsky, Blok and Akhmatova impress upon the reader her poetic muse and mystery. I like the poetry infused with literary references, Shakespeare and others, as this is a type that I share with her - in my own humble way. She has a way of making the simplest image seem to embody meaning beyond the possibilities of a finite world. She suggests this and more in lines like:

"a manifestly yellow, decidedly
rusty leaf--has been left behind on the tree." (p 120)

Her poetry exhibits an aesthetic beauty that transcends my ability to describe the feelings it embodies.  Along with Pasternak, Mandelstam, and Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva stands as one of the four great Russian poets of the Twentieth Century and is one of the most important Women writers in the Western Canon.

Here is an example:

Little World 

Children - are staring of eyes so frightful, 
Mischievous legs on a wooden floor, 
Children - is sun in the gloomy motives, 
Hypotheses' of happy sciences world. 

Eternal disorder in the ring's gold, 
Tender word's whispers in semi-sleep, 
On the wall in a cozy child's room, the dreaming 
Peaceful pictures of birds and sheep. 

Children - is evening, evening on the couch, 
In the fog, through the window, glimmer street lamps, 
A measured voice of the tale of King Saltan, 
Mermaid-sisters of seas from tales. 

Children - is rest, brief moment of respite, 
A trembling vow before God's eyes, 
Children - are the world's tender riddles, 

Where in the riddle the answer hides!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Enigmatic Portrait

A Lost Lady 

A Lost Lady

“He came to be very glad that he had known her, and that she had had a hand in breaking him in to life. He has known pretty women and clever ones since then,-- but never one like her, as she was in her best days. Her eyes, when they laughed for a moment into one`s own, seemed to promise a wild delight that he has not found in life. "I know where it is," they seemed to say, "I could show you!”   ― Willa Cather, A Lost Lady

This novella is barely more than a character sketch. The brilliance of Cather’s prose is demonstrated in her portrayal of Marian Forrester, the high-spirited wife of one of the great pioneers and railroad builders. There are also historical implications of Cather’s fable. These are enhanced by the enigmatic and ambiguous elements in Mrs. Forrester’s portrait. On the surface, Marian Forrester belongs to Cather’s long line of restless, magnetic, intelligent women, like Alexandra Bergson, who grows wealthy farming the virgin land in O Pioneers! (1913), Thea Kronborg, the Swedish girl who becomes a famous opera singer in The Song of the Lark (1915), and Ãntonia Shimerda, the heroine of My Ãntonia (1918), who survives tragedy and abandonment to become the mother of many children, “a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.”

One may view A Lost Lady as a brilliant epilogue to Cather’s famous pioneer novels; however, it has a different tone, not heroic and optimistic like the Whitmanesque O Pioneers! but bittersweet and retrospective like Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. As one who loves Cather's beautiful writing style I found this a touching taste from her pen.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Life of Integrity



"That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang."
William Shakespeare

John Williams's Stoner is that rare novel which is almost perfect in every way, from its plain prose style to its subtle portrayal of themes and evocative descriptions of events that are common enough for all adults to have experienced them - in ways that make the narration a pleasure - and which makes you stop and reflect in wonder at the marvels around you, past and present. 

I found the story often took my breath away as I intently pondered the beautiful telling of a story of love and loss. The pain and pleasure were so pronounced that the reality of the images created by the author had an effect that few books ever do. I found the prose style reminiscent of Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road, but with more hope present even as Stoner deals unsuccessfully with the vicissitudes of life.

This is a Midwestern book, set on the plains, about a young man who is schooled in the hardships of farm life but who flowers in an academic setting - up to a point. His taciturn being and stoicism both help him survive and contribute to his downfall in love and learning. In each he fails, even though he does experience small moments of triumph; yet even in failure his determination shines through the pages of the novel and makes this drama somehow less tragic than it might have been otherwise. The difficulty which Stoner has in communicating his feelings is palpable throughout compounding the inevitability of defeat for our hero. 

This novel in all its detailing of the life of William Stoner captures some of the passion and loss that is suggested by Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 (quoted above) that plays a pivotal role in Stoner's education. This is a story of integrity and persistence in living through adversity and loss.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Return to Goethe's Faust

Faust, Part I
A drama by 
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Whatever is the lot of humankind
I want to taste within my deepest self.
I want to seize the highest and the lowest,
to load its woe and bliss upon my breast,
and thus expand my single self titanically
and in the end go down with all the rest.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part I

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust begins with a prologue set in Heaven. The scene is modeled on the opening of the Book of Job in the Old Testament.  While the angels Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael praise the Lord, Mephistopheles mocks human beings as failed creations because reason makes them worse than brutes.  God tells Mephistopheles that he will illuminate his servant Faust. Mephistopheles wagers with god that he can corrupt Faust instead. With the assent of god Mephistopheles goes into action.

In the next scene, Faust appears in acute despair because his intellectual studies have left him ignorant and without worldly gain and fame. In order to discover the inner secrets and creative powers of nature, he turns to black magic. Thus, he conjures up the Earth Spirit, the embodiment of the forces of nature. However, the Earth Spirit mocks Faust’s futile attempts to understand him.  As he despairs of understanding nature, he prepares to poison himself. 
At that moment, church bells and choral songs announcing that “Christ is arisen” distract Faust from killing himself. Celestial music charms Faust out of his dark and gloomy study for a walk in the countryside on a beautiful spring day in companionship with his fellow human beings. Observing the springtime renewal of life in nature, Faust experiences ecstasy. At this moment, Faust yearns for his soul to soar into celestial spheres.

This Easter walk foreshadows Faust’s ultimate spiritual resurrection. However, he must first undergo a pilgrimage through the vicissitudes and depths of human life.  In a famous moment he proclaims that "two souls are dwelling in my breast".  It is in this battle within himself that he becomes emblematic of modern man.  As he battles Mephistopheles offers him a wager for his everlasting soul that will provide him a fleeting moment of satisfaction in this world. Mephistopheles commands a witch to restore Faust’s youth so that he is vulnerable to sensuous temptations. When Faust sees the beautiful young girl Margaret, he falls into lust and commands Mephistopheles to procure her. Mephistopheles devises a deadly scheme for seduction. Faust convinces Margaret, who is only fourteen years old, to give her mother a sleeping potion, prepared by Mephistopheles, so that they can make love. Mephistopheles makes poison instead; the mother never awakens.

Unwittingly, Margaret has murdered her mother. Furthermore, she is pregnant by Faust and alone. When Faust comes to visit Margaret, he finds her brother, Valentine, ready to kill him for violating his sister. Mephistopheles performs trickery so that Faust is able to stab Valentine in a duel. Dying, Valentine curses Margaret before the entire village as a harlot. Even at church, Margaret suffers extreme anguish as an evil spirit pursues her.

In contrast, Faust escapes to a witches’ sabbath on Walpurgis Night. He indulges in orgiastic revelry and debauchery with satanic creatures and a beautiful witch until an apparition of Margaret haunts him. Faust goes looking for Margaret and finds her, in a dungeon, insane and babbling. At this moment, Faust realizes that he has sinned against innocence and love for a mere moment of sensual pleasure. Even though it is the very morning of her execution, Margaret refuses to escape with Faust and Mephistopheles. Instead, she throws herself into the hands of God. As Faust flees with Mephistopheles, a voice from above proclaims, “She is saved!”

Goethe will continue his drama with a second part, but the narrative from this first section has become one of the markers for the beginning of the modern era of human culture. I have previously written about some of the ideas in this drama in my discussion of "Active vs. Reactive Man".  Translated by many over the two centuries since its original publication it has become a touchstone for the study of the development of the human spirit.  It has also inspired other artists to create operas and novels based on the characters from Goethe's drama.