Orioles in the woods: length of vowels alone
makes the meter of the classic lines. No more
than once a year, though, nature pours out
the full-drawn length, the verse of Homer.
This day yawns like a caesura: a lull
beginning in the morning, difficult, going on and on:
the grazing oxen, the golden languor powerless
to call out of the reed the riches of one whole note.
[Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, translated by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin]
Rummaging around in the library that day I happened upon this by a favorite former professor, Jody Maxmin (I didn’t know she was also a poet):
When it became apparent
to the long-wandering Ithacan,
weary and morose, far from home,
that Euryalos’ snide sneer —
“you don’t look like an athlete” —
was aimed at the very soul of his being,
his first impulse was to doubt himself,
to doubt he still possessed the
necessary strength to shine
among the curious Phæacians.
His arm seemed too unpractised,
his will worn too thin by the consuming sea,
to lift the discus, let alone attempt to throw it.
But then, remembering the rousing words of Peleus,
“To be the best and excel over others,”
he sensed the fiery old determination
coursing through his tawny limbs,
and he grabbed the biggest discus,
and hurled it way beyond the rest.
[Printed as a headquote in The Ages of Homer: A Tribute to Emily Townsend Vermeule]
You asked me what is the good of reading the Gospels in Greek.
I answer that it is proper that we move our finger
Along letters more enduring than those carved in stone,
And that, slowly pronouncing each syllable,
We discover the true dignity of speech.
Compelled to be attentive we shall think of that epoch
No more distant than yesterday. Yet still it is the same eon.
Fear and desire are the same, oil and wine
And bread mean the same. So does the fickleness of the throng
Avid for miracles as in the past. Even mores,
Wedding festivities, drugs, laments for the dead
Only seem to differ. Then, too, for example,
There were plenty of persons whom the text calls
Daimonizomenoi, that is, the demonized
Or, if you prefer, the bedeviled (as for “the possessed”
It’s no more than the whim of a dictionary).
Convulsions, foam at the mouth, the gnashing of teeth
Were not considered signs of talent.
The demonized had no access to print and screens,
Rarely engaging in arts and literature.
But the Gospel parable remains in force:
That the spirit mastering them may enter swine,
Which, exasperated by such a sudden clash
Between two natures, theirs and the Luciferic,
Jump into water and drown (which occurs repeatedly).
And thus on every page a persistent reader
Sees twenty centuries as twenty days
In a world which one day will come to its end.
[Czesław Miłosz, Bells in Winter (1978)]
So wide the wells of darkness sink,
These having their own light, that are lost with the light,
Appear immersed in mournfulness over the night,
Like things that in sleep will come to the mind’s brink:
The bright Aldebaran, and seven that hover,
Seven wild and pale, clouding their brightness over,
And the flame that fell with summer, and the rose of stars returning,
Like tears piercing the sky;
Glittering without cause, for the piece of a legend,
Wept, I know not why.
O lovely and forgotten,
Gathered only of sleep,
All night upon the lids set burning,
Shaken from the lids at morning.
[Léonie Adams, Poems: A Selection (1954)]
Bat-song, if we could hear it:
ah, eyrie-ire; aero hour, eh?
O’er our ur-area (our era aye
ere your raw row) we air our array
err, yaw, row wry—aura our orrery,
our eerie ü our ray, our arrow.
A rare ear, our aery Yahweh.
[from Les Murray, “Bats’ Ultrasound,” in The Daylight Moon and Other Poems. Full poem at lesmurray.org]
Take from my palms, to soothe your heart,
a little honey, a little sun,
in obedience to Persephone’s bees.
You can’t untie a boat that was never moored,
nor hear a shadow in its furs,
nor move through thick life without fear.
For us, all that’s left is kisses
tattered as the little bees
that die when they leave the hive.
Deep in the transparent night they’re still humming,
at home in the dark wood on the mountain,
in the mint and lungwort and the past.
But lay to your heart my rough gift,
this unlovely dry necklace of dead bees
that once made a sun out of honey. –November 1920
[Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam (tr. Clarence Brown & W.S. Merwin, 1973)]