Monday, April 12, 2010

"Ghazal" by Zeb-un-Nisa


You with the dark burly hair and the breathtaking eyes,
your inquiring glance that leaves me undone.

Eyes that pierce and then withdraw like a blood-stained sword,
eyes with dagger lashes!
Zealots, you are mistaken - this is heaven.

Never mind those making promises of the afterlife:
join us now, righteous friends, in this intoxication.

Never mind the path to the Kaabah: sanctity resides in the heart.
Squander your life, suffer! God is right here.

Oh excruciating face! Continual light!
This is where I am thrilled, here, right here.

There is no book anywhere on the matter.
Only as soon as I see you do I understand.

If you wish to offer your beauty to God, give
a taste. Awaiting the tiniest morsel, she is right here.

Zeb-un-Nisa (1639-1706)


I'm not sure where I ran across this poem--it's by a Sufi poet whose name is a title that means simply "the most beautiful of women." Her Wikipedia page is sketchy at best and almost makes me think she's apocryphal, but that doesn't change my feelings for the poem, which is earthy and ecstatic, nearly pained with desire. There's something frankly appraising and rather possessive about it that saves it from sentimental swooniness for me. Who needs an afterlife when I have your face right now?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Variations on the Word "Sleep," by Margaret Atwood

Variations on the Word "Sleep"
Margaret Atwood
 I would like to watch you sleeping,
which may not happen.
I would like to watch you,
sleeping. I would like to sleep
with you, to enter
your sleep as its smooth dark wave
slides over my head

and walk with you through that lucent
wavering forest of bluegreen leaves
with its watery sun & three moons
towards the cave where you must descend,
towards your worst fear

I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center. I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands
to where your body lies
beside me, and you enter
it as easily as breathing in

I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.


That's William Blake's drawing of Virgil watching Dante and Statius sleep as they make their way toward Purgatory
The Inferno. I know nothing at all about Statius, although Wikipedia tells me he is the character with the fourth-
largest amount of time in the
Infero, after Dante, Virgil, and Beatrice. He was apparently another poet who Dante
meets on the way.

I went looking for a more traditional image of couples watching each other sleep, but was struck by the way Blake's
visionary, dreamy art fits the mythological overtones of Atwood's poem, which brings
The 12 Dancing Princesses
and Orpheus' descent into Hades to mind for me.

Watching someone lost in dreams which you can't share is usually a melancholy image--Atwood adds another layer
to it by having the narrator long for even that level of bittersweet intimacy with the beloved.


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

"Bonnard's Nudes," by Raymond Carver

Fresca has reminded me that April is National Poetry Month once more!

Bonnard's Nudes
by Raymond Carver

His wife. Forty years he painted her.

Again and again. The nude in the last painting

the same young nude as the the first. His wife

As he remembered her young. As she was young.

His wife in her bath. At her dressing table

in front of the mirror. Undressed.

His wife with her hands under her breasts

looking out on the garden.

The sun bestowing warmth and color.

Every living thing in bloom there.

She young and tremulous and most desirable.

When she died, he painted a while longer.

A few landscapes. Then died.

And was put down next to her.

His young wife.


I'm sure this could be read as the folly of freezing an ideal in time, not allowing your mental picture to match reality. But I feel like if that were the message he could have gone on painting her without her actual presence, as her reality would have become superfluous to him. Instead I like to read it as a discussion of the kind veils our minds can place for us, the way love lets us see the other as glowing even when they are not (and perhaps never were, it probably doesn't matter). The way love transfigures. It's a dangerous power and one that can blind us, but it can also make beauty.

Also, I am quite a bit in love with simple language and grammar at the moment, and so Carver tends to grab me. I wish I could capture that plain luminosity in words half so well.


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

"I Love Me"

One of the things that drives me craziest about romance comics is the advice columns. Most comics would run a "self-help" column--usually, not surprisingly, on how to catch and keep a man. This advice is usually completely crazy-making and I end up with a sense of free-floating anxiety just reading them. Like the following:

A lot of that isn't even bad advice! Don't be narcissistic, get a job (if your husband doesn't mind!), don't worry about your looks because your character is more important. And yet of course the underlying crazy-making is the message "Don't be too obsessed with catching a man--BECAUSE YOU'LL NEVER CATCH A MAN THAT WAY!" There's an insane catch-22 to a lot of this, like the upper right column: you shouldn't be a perfectionist. Why? Because people with unrealistic ideals of beauty often don't even bother trying anymore. So you mustn't be a perfectionist--because it will stop you from looking perfect!

And of course there's a definite feeling that staying too glamorous after marriage is just asking for trouble. No, you should be focused on being emotionally supportive to your husband, not on looking good (because there might be a chance you're dressing up for another man?) Be selfish by appearing to be selfless--men like that in a woman, and so you'll selfishly get to keep your man.

It's like reading a demented Alice in Wonderland set of rules in which every rule ends up doing just the opposite of what it says.


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