—Photos Courtesy of Public Domain
I. Its Abuses
If eyes in photos are “windows of human soul,”
Look into the gaze of lost Breonna Taylor
Or George Floyd, all those lives lost from a whole
Humankind. Yes, angels we are, and the betrayer-
Jailors of their potential and of ours:
All that young-undone life, against the grain
Of sacred harvests, payment for short hours
In which to enlist the heart’s blood, nerve and brain,
Too often squandered, that achieving good.
In favor of? Racist perversions, evils, horrors.
In midlife, says a poet, lost in a wood.*
The shadows of that wood, the shapes of error.
How can we weigh these lost lives with full sense?
Touch them, study to know each fine, compacted difference.†
† From “Epitaph” by Thom Gunn
(carved in the AIDS Memorial Grove, Golden Gate Park)
II. Its Right Uses
(Who Owns the Sonnet?)
We speak of privilege, white, or otherwise
Presumed high elevation, birthright, power;
The sonnet form that Shakespeare knew, one guise
In which to project imperial swag, a bower
Of greenest insulation from the market,
The crowded tenement, and, yes, the crowd.
Passed hand to hand in manuscript, who’d hark it,
The sweetness of that music to the endowed?
But some subversion, conned from Shakespeare’s wit,
Implied that this was stuff of the Everybrain.
Sauce for the goose of privilege, was that it?
Was that all, or could others from it gain?
—Ganders by courtly standards, yet still sauced
With savor. Not writ by bosses, but the bossed.
THE POPE SITS FOR HIS PICTURE
(Pope Leo X, with Two Cardinals, 1519)
In Raphael’s Pope Leo, exquisite
In each detail of drapery and flesh,
That dark sheen on each prelate’s face, is it..?
—Five o’clock shadow. Must beard-growth enmesh
Each double chin or lantern jaw or jowl
On otherwise reasonably semi-young
Skin? Would such look nicer under a cowl?
Proof that the Pope and sidekicks, their robes flung
Quickly on, work through hours of water-clock clicks?
Devotion weighed in pints of midnight oil?
Is this a papal politician’s optics?
Are Roman Bishops humbler than most royals?
Luigi de’ Rossi, Giulio de’ Medici,
Won’t tell what shadows tinge their finery.
2020 is the five-hundredth anniversary of the Italian artist, architect, and humanist Raphael’s death (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, 1483-1520).
ON READING JEAN MOORCROFT WILSON’S ROBERT GRAVES:
From Great War Poet to Goodbye to All That (1895-1929)
I. Robert Graves and T.E. Lawrence and Laura (Riding)
Robert Graves and T.E. Lawrence,
Thicker than Ali Baba’s thieves,
Quickly spread long leagues of distance,
Captain Graves from Colonel Lawrence,
Not through any one grudge-instance:
He whom Arabs praised as “Aurens”
Shrank back first when (Riding), Laura,
Shook long friendships through her sieves,
Would stamp and sneer and coldly shriek,
Turn Graves himself opaque, oblique,
Shock clear air tense with Laura-aura.
II. Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Great Lawrence’s great book,
So dashed with sand, salt, heat, and the surreal
Of that strange, fragmentary Arab Revolt,
With intermittent rainless lightning bolts
And thunderheads of blood
It fairly dares you to take a quick first look
And not get sucked into his long ordeal.
Not one detail is empty-desert-filler.
I can’t discern where stands the central Pillar.
III. Graves and Me
For my first thirty years alive,
Robert Graves paced the green earth.
Thirty years on past my birth
The poet (wed to his second wife),
The famous Graves above the grave,
No notion of him in my head
Who’d barely learned to scrape a shave:
This man of force, of verse, of life,
Whose bees-buzz syrup swells his hive.
Immortal bees whose sweet-spilled thread
Gilds the plain grain of my bread
In Castle Beekeep thrive, they dive
And whiz where cell on cell of wax
Drips singing stings, wing-struck soft thwacks,
Noise those bee-squadrons knit into lives
Like Graves, whom the Great War had bled.
Their hive, his hive, thrums in my head.
ON THE SAME
I struggle to make sense of Robert Graves:
His early childhood, rapturous, all comfort,
Broken into by schools and bruised by slaves
To teenage lusts to punish, quests for consort
In boys of rude or shapely bodies. Meant
To stir or divert strong urges toward a Muse
Whose gold hair and whose ice-floe skin is lent
To Ganymedes great wars rouse to abuse,
To drill, to scar, and to dispose of. Raw fright
“Unseaming from the nave unto the chops,”
Binds them in allegiance, chary of the Night
When star shell or concussion never stops.
Unceasing press of coins to boys’ eyelids.
To souls of these She beckons and She bids.
In plenilunes and silences She comes
Corpse-touching with scents of chrysanthemums…
Her smile tensely stretched on the lips,
With never an open grin.
As sensual, her lips, as hips.
Dimples rose to her cheeks from her chin.
Oh but she was agile and quick.
In photos her hands were her art.
All fingertips touching, one flick,
And her palms joined in a hand heart.
Her agile, alluring large hands
From her meeting thumbs curved a heart-top.
Her hair brown, long, silken twin bands
From a central part. Hopeless. Sheer art-stop,
This helplessness: try to define
How strangely her smile would enlace his
As he watched her hands form an outline
Hatched from ovoids, half-circles. Slim traces
Tapered to her heart’s point. Empty-aired,
No two palms can contain a heart’s core
Of the red blood and pulsebeat that’s flared
In each heart since whenever before.
But to witness her—hand heart and lips,
Dimpled cheeks, tumbling-water dark hair—
Was to fill those palms, those fingertips
With her pulsebeat and blood, there / not-there.
THE FARCÉD TITLE RUNNING ‘FORE THE KING
Film versions two, of Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth,
One by Branagh, one by Olivier:
In one, the solemn moment, grandeur, pith
Of statecraft in the audience chamber, sway
Of a young king many seek to sway or school;
Against the other, earlier film: the laughs,
The rain of writings tossed at the throne of rule,
“The farcéd title running ’fore the king”
In parchment scatters, crumples like Falstaff’s
Doublet-and-jerkin creases. Such a thing
Of farce, in this “cockpit” condescension lurks.
The Salic Law, read right, Elizabeth’s right
And title, they make confetti, lawyers’ quirks,
Word-macaroni. Branagh’s version? Night
Flares danger to Harfleur and Henry’s men,
Famed Agincourt’s a mud-and-blood pigpen;
This king by counsel of wisdom and of light
Admits high devious priests who can support
Royal Henry staunchly as a gate-rotted fort.
OLIVIER’S ASTUTENESS (in Henry the Fifth)
For all that I prefer the Branagh film,
Olivier’s film is frequently astute.
Smug critics with random “errors” have their qualms:
The Constable of France does not from foot
Spring lightly to his saddle, but by hoist
Of pulley is lifted ponderous to his seat.
Yet let not lightly go by a Shakespeare jest
On “stars” that gild the French lord’s armor plate:
Like Goldfinger’s “divinely heavy” gold,
Embossed into his thick black armor, stars
Weighty enough that—cuffed by angry-bold
Royal Henry—he falls like one swept by a spar
From ship’s deck into a heaving sea of death.
Poor Constable, flung off his destrier*
(That proud high steed), concussed from his last breath.
Meantime, the Dauphin, he of giddier
Valor, hangs back, mounted on his “palfrey,”†
“All air and fire.” Dauphin’s hot air? Paltry.
* The classic, more massive warhorse, as opposed to a palfrey.
† The smaller-framed horse for ordinary riding, often termed appropriate for ladies.
Superb the actor, atmosphere of dread
Amid shadowed stairways cameras alone can climb;
Danger crouched at each pillar and bulkhead
Equal to each ominous chunk of rhyme.
Yet so slow is the pacing of each scene
The viewer questions the moves of this “machine”
That is, to him, Hamlet. Line upon line must vanish
Till we think Olivier’s baked us up Rune Danish.
—Medusa, with a good Wednesday morning to you, and many thanks to Tom Goff for talking to us with his fine poetry!
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