Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Venice, Paola Bruna's "City of the Mind"

city of the mind
by childlike fantasies and
worries exhausted
of my mendacious mind
at nothing laughing
and for the flower crying
'cause it dies
not knowing how to save it
so nothing remains for this
fickle mind of mine but
to forget now and hereafter
— as it did before —
and thus continue on its own
to rhyme
lulled by the sea like a fish

by Paola Bruna
This poem is taken from the Venetian poet Paola Bruna's book of poems, which takes its title from the first line of this poem, Citta della mente (City of the Mind), published in both Italian and English (trans. Emma Sereni) by Supernova Edizioni in 2004. I was delighted to find this collection early during my first visit to Venice last year, and bought it less as a memento of the trip, but more as a guide as I anxiously sought to get over the shellshock of arriving at the fabled La Serenissima and find a vocabulary with which I could engage in dialogue and grasp with the wondrous, dreamy realm that had so enchanted John Ruskin when he described in his Stones of Venice like "a ghost upon the sands of sea, so weak—so quiet,—so bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might as well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City, and which the Shadow."

In his poem called "Glass", Robert Francis writes, "Words should be looked through, would be windows. / The best word were invisible. / The poem is the thing the poet thinks." (The reference to a Venetian glass trinket in the poem is purely coincidental, but isn't it amazing how Venice is immortalized in art throughout the world?). Paola Bruna's eighteen poems in City of the Mind, in my opinion, are models of this idea. It was through these lines that I acquired the idioms that would inform my experience of Venice. From the title poem itself I discovered a city with walls shimmering from the sunlight reflected in the canals and a perpetually shifting, watercolour on emerald ground. It is a city that, from the sky, takes a curious resemblance to a fish, "lying pink in the green of the lagoon", says the poet in another piece, with walls of the fondamenta lining its canals rising and falling with the tide. It is "city of silences" where one can wander through a maze of narrow and shadowed alleys to pass by "the dumb fountain / the shattered window / the unhealthy house/ the crumbling canal bank", images that speak of the wabi-sabi quality of Venice, to stop at an unexpected view of the Grand Canal where one might give voice to accompany the sounds of waves lapping on stone to a lyric poem that in its first stanza reveals Bruna's profound existential identification with Venice, a city that hovers between being and nothingness:

double city
contemplating your unquiet image
in the liquid mirror where like you
I see myself
desolate shell on the shore
you oblivious of your pearly heart
I of the sea's voice
I would always remember my late night excursions into the "city of the shadow / darting stealthily along mouldering / walls ...", seeing silhouetted glimpses of other night-walkers flitting across bridges and suddenly disappearing through a darkened opening, "... and farther and farther I track / the trace of the crab that will lead me / out of the labyrinth into the open sea / where to shipwreck at last peacefully," and learning the truth behind the lines of:

desert city
dessicated and shattered
as this soul of mine
that in the labyrinth got lost
and wonders now along shallow
nocturnal canals which cannot
reflect the feebly lingering light
that still shines hidden in its
It is true. Having gotten lost and sat myself on the ledge at the end of a calli that had led to yet another opening to a canal without a bridge, poring over a map, I saw the stagnant water glow dimly from the lights of faraway palaces shimmering through the submerged forests that supports the stones of Venice above, what Marcel Proust described as an "imperceptible echo of a last note of light held indefinitely on the surface of the canals" — "Paola Bruna's Venice is real," says Bruna's compatriot, the literary critic Bruno Rosada, in the preface to The City of the Mind, "Ruthlessly real."

Clearly there is still much to be said about Paola Bruna's poetry. How the unpunctuated verses and indented lines give a sense of flowing water, and if we were to somehow relate the sometimes strangely inverted phrases (which in my opinion is a consequence of translation that leaves something more to be desired, judging by what little I could take from the Italian version presented alongside each poem) to Robert Bly's notion of shaping a poem's flow by —I'm paraphrasing from memory here, having lost the source—introducing linguistic obstacles like rocks in stream where pools of meaning gather and the energies inherent in a poem are shaped.

I have not read these poems for some time, until I decided that I would write about them for Puisi-Poesy today, and reading them again I found myself returning to Venice. These poems were the glass through which I saw Venice, and looking through them again, I see my memories more clearly than a photograph or a painting could evoke—Robert Francis' "Venetian trinkets".

It seems that I could go on, because I've barely scratched the surface of the wealth of poetry and art that has been inspired by Venice, but I leave you now with the final lines of the last poem in Paola Bruna's The City of the Mind, where the poet resorts to French phrases, as a way, perhaps, to tell us, how much of its story of it's past and present is left untold, ineffable:
dell'incontro e dell'addio— e
cosi sia piacendo a Dio —
del je t'aime e dell'I love you
dell'io e del tu
del rien ne vas plus


of encounters and adieus
— God willing it may do —
of je t'aime and I love you
of me and you
of rien ne va plus
And the final line, looking towards the future, the surrender of a drowning city: rien ne va plus, the die is cast.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

"Very Like A Whale"

"Very Like A Whale"

by Ogden Nash

One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by the authors of simile and
Authors of all races, be they Greeks, Romans, Teutons or Celts,
Can't seem just to say that anything is the thing it is but have to
go out of their way to say that it is like something else.
What does it mean when we are told
That that Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold?
In the first place, George Gordon Byron had enough experience
To know that it probably wasn't just one Assyrian, it was a lot of
However, as too many arguments are apt to induce apoplexy and
thus hinder longevity.
We'll let it pass as one Assyrian for the sake of brevity.
Now then, this particular Assyrian, the one whos cohorts were
gleaming in purple and gold,
Just what does the poet mean when he says he came down like a
wolf on the fold?
In heaven and earth more than is dreamed of in our philosophy
there are great many things.
But I don't imagine that among them there is a wolf with purple
and gold cohorts or purple and gold anythings.
No, no, Lord Byron, before I'll believe that this Assyrian was
actually like a wolf I must have some kind of proof;
Did he run on all fours and did he have a hairy tail and a big red
mouth and big white teeth and did he say Woof woof woof?
Frankly I think it is very unlikely, and all you were entitled to say,
at the very most,
Was that the Assyrian cohorts came down like a lot of Assyrian
cohorts about to destroy the Hebrew host.
But that wasn't fancy enough for Lord Byron, oh dear me no, he
had to invent a lot of figures of speech and then interpolate them,
With the result that whenever you mention Old Testament soldiers
to people they say Oh yes, they're the ones that a lot of
wolves dressed up in gold and purple ate them.
That's the kind of thing that's being done all the time by poets,
from Homer to Tennyson;
They're always comparing ladies to lilies and veal to venison,
And they always say things like that the snow is a white blanket
after a winter storm.
Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a six-inch blanket of
snow and I'll sleep under a half-inch blanket of unpoetical
blanket material and we'll see which one keeps warm,
And after that maybe you'll begin to comprehend dimly
What I mean by too much metaphor and simile.


The kind of rhymed poems I love the most are the kind that I read without realising the rhyme, where rhyme doesn't overpower the poem. I know it's a personal preference, but I find rhyming to be cloying too often, and something quite difficult to master (needless to say, as a reader I think very few people have mastered it). I read through "Very Like A Whale", laughed through many parts, loved it, and read it again -- only then noticing the rhyme. Enough. I was hooked.

I love how funny it is, how clever it is, how tongue-in-cheek yet not very subtle at all it is. No doubt Leon would be able to give you a much more comprehensive analysis of the poem's structure, its syntax and syllables, but I respond to art (in general) on an unsophisticated gut level. The title, of course, is a naughty paralleling of Byron's "wolf on the fold" -- there is nothing like a whale in this poem, just as there is nothing like a wolf in Byron's.

This is actually a very incisive poem, cloaking under humour a generous dose of snarkiness. How many of us have secretly groaned at the poems of the so-called greats? Leave be the work of the definitely-non-greats and the just-not-our-cups-of-teas. This cheeky poem is a very nicely-executed reminder to not get carried away with the canonized stuff, to look at poems for what they are worth, not for what their writers' names are worth.

This is a poem about poetry, and it is wonderful in its irreverence. Nash takes on Byron himself, and wins!

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

"Crucifixion of the Skyscraper"

Let me first begin by apologising for how belated this post is, and for the irregularity of updates on this blog over these past weeks. Again, busyness has come into the picture, and as they say, things get harder in the second year, especially with energies flagging; plus this time round, I am embarking on my Masters, on a topic I’m not too confident of pulling off (that’s also the reason why I’m doing it, haha); but we’ll still do our best to keep things going at puisi-poesy, ok? :) Anyway, here’s an interesting poem for this week.

Crucifixion of the Skyscraper

Men took the skyscraper
And nailed it to the rock. Each nerve and vein
Were searched by iron hammers. Hour on hour,
The bolts were riveted tighter. Steel and stone
Did what they could to quench the fiery core
That blaze within. Till when the work was done,
Solid as sepulchre, square-rooted to the rock,
The skyscraper, a well polished tomb of hope,
Guarded by busy throngs of acolytes,
Shouldered aside the sun. Within its walls
Men laid a little gold.
But yet not dead
However long battered by furious life,
However buried under tons of frozen weight
That structure was. At night when crowds no more
Jostled its angles, but the weary streets
Of a worn planet stared out at the stars;
Its towering strength grown ghostly, pure, remote,
Lone on the velvety night in flights of gold
The tower rose. The skyscraper dripped light.

by J. Gould Fletcher

When I first read this poem, I was struck by the inventiveness of its imagery. I wouldn’t exactly call it beautiful, but it had its own particular vision that made me view the familiar sight of the city with its skyscraper in a whole new different light.

Those of us who live in cities are so used to seeing skyscrapers, not to mention, being totally dwarfed in by them that we hardly ‘see’ them at all. This poem, I believe, was written in the early days when skyscrapers started going up, filing the city skyline. In a way, a skyscraper must have been something of a novelty then, with its tall, solid brashness.

The poem begins with the building of a skyscraper, which gets transfigured into a crucifixion scene, with the skyscraper turned into a living being, with “nerve and vein” (steel beams and girders). Emptied of its Christian significance, this image suggests that something momentous and groundbreaking is taking place. In a sense, it’s a religious moment of sorts during the first half of the 20th century, heralding an insistent urban modernisation. The fire image which definitely stumped me at first later began to take shape as one that perhaps draws from the image of a metal forge with its red hot furnace burning, as metal works are being hammered out… which may be drawing a bit of the mythical, I think… the Roman god Vulcan in the volcano working on metal tools and weapons for the gods.

While the skyscraper now stands as a mighty edifice against the sky, it is described paradoxically as a “tomb of hope”. This commingling of two antithetical concepts makes the skyscraper a place and symbol of both death and hope. The tomb metaphor connotes an emotional coldness in the pursuit of wealth, but one where people’s hopes and lives are also pinned or build upon; hence they become ‘instruments’ to the company, made to ‘lay’ gold, much like the goose in the children’s fairy tale which hatched golden eggs.

At this point, the poem breaks off and pauses. The skyscraper though ‘crucified’ as a monument remains very much alive…. as if its occupation of physical space as a hive of human activity and commerce lends it a life of its own, weathering the ‘battering’ of life and its burden. With the day’s cycle, evening comes and all the busyness ends, leaving the skyscraper in a final image, silhouette against the night sky in its steel, chilly beauty ‘dripping light’.

I am very much intrigued by this poem, and the idea of buildings and physical spaces being alive... (not forgetting, the crucifixion metaphor.) To me, this poem seems rich in its ambivalence, describing our human relationship to urban modernity. What do you think?

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