"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Lot's Wife, Who Gave Her Life
For a Single Glance

"The Sodom and Gomorrah motif
from the Nuremberg Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel, 1493.
Note Lot's wife, already transformed into a salt pillar, in the center."

A couple of connections to my two most recent previous posts:

1. Together with my Penelope poems, I have a collection of poems about a few more long - suffering legendary heroines, the nameless wife and daughters of the infamous Lot, Abraham's nephew, who ushers his small family away from the Biblical destruction of Sodom. His wife is often portrayed as shallow or heedless, with her priorities all mixed up, but these poems show otherwise.

2. One of my favorites is "Ms Lot" by Muriel Rukeyser, who also wrote "Waiting for Icarus" (click or scroll down). The voice of Lot's daughter is similar to that of Icarus's girlfriend, particularly the combination of lament and outrage. She is humiliated by her father's treatment of her, his inability to treat her or her mother with respect. How can he accord them so little dignity? Would he really have done away with his own daughters so easily? She does not question her mother's priorities, but she questions her father's:

Ms Lot
Well if he treats me like a young girl still,
That father of mine, and here’s my sister
And we’re still traveling into the hills—
But everyone on the road knows he offered us
To the Strangers, when all they wanted was men
And the cloud of smoke still over the twin cities
And mother a salt lick the animals come to—
Who’s going to want me now?
Mother did not even know
She was not to turn around and look.
God spoke to Lot, my father.
She was hard of hearing. He knew that.
I don't believe he told her, anyway.
What kind of father is that, or husband?
He offered us to those men. They didn't want women.
Mother always used to say:
Some normal man will come along and need you.

by Muriel Rukeyser, 1913 - 1980

Avant - gard band, Charming Hostess has set Rukeyser's lyrics to music: click to listen and analyze.

Lot Fleeing With His Daughters From Sodom
by Albrecht Durer
, 1471 - 1528

Another long - time favorite, from which I take my title today is the lyric poem "Lot's Wife" by Soviet modernist Anna Akhmatova, who wrote from personal experience about flight, exile, and staying put. During the 1920s and 30s, she saw many friends and fellow writers leave St. Petersburg, but she herself declined the option to flee. In the poem "When in Suicidal Anguish," she writes:

I heard a voice. It called consolingly,
It said, “Come here to me,
and leave your backward, sinful land,
abandon Russia for all time. . . .

But indifferently and calmly
I covered up my ears
so this dishonorable speech
could not defile my grieving spirit."

These stanzas suggest that Akhmatova understood very well the dilemma of Lot's wife. Thirty years ago, I typed up Akhmatova's poem, neglecting to include the name of the translator. Google has revealed a number of translations, though none precisely like this version from my personal archive:

Lot's Wife
And the just man walked behind the one sent by God
Enormous and bright along the black mountain
But alarm spoke loudly to the wife
"It's not too late; you can still take a look

At the red towers of your native Sodom
At the square where you sang, at the courtyard where you spun
At the empty window of the tall house
Where you bore children for your dear husband."

She glanced -- and riveted by a deadly pain
Her eyes were no longer able to look
And her body became transparent salt
And her quick feet grew to the earth.

Who will mourn for this woman?
Does she seem any the less for her losses?
Only my heart will never forget
She who gave her life for a single glance.

by Anna Akhmatova, 1889 - 1966
[Very similar to translations by Judith Hemschemeyer & Richard Wilbur]

Scholar and translator Clare Cavanagh mentions Akmatova's poem briefly in contrast to a longer poem on the topic, also entitled "Lot's Wife" (click to read) by recently deceased Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, 1923 - 2012 (excerpt):
They say I looked back out of curiosity.
But I could have had other reasons. . . .
I felt age within me. Distance.
The futility of wandering. Torpor. . . .
I looked back involuntarily. . . .
I crept, I flew upward
until darkness fell from the heavens
and with it scorching gravel and dead birds.
I couldn't breathe and spun around and around.
Anyone who saw me must have thought I was dancing.

Lot's Wife
by British artist John Bulloch Souter, 1890 - 1972

A few more recent poetical discoveries:

1. "Lot's Wife
by Katha Pollitt

2. "What Lot's Wife Would Have Said (If She Wasn't a Pillar of Salt)
by Karen Finneyfrock:

3. "Mrs. Lot"
by Vassar Miller

And, to conclude, one last favorite from my old notebook. It would have been nice if four of the seven poets mentioned here had not picked identical titles for their poems. We will, however, just have to work around the repetition. I'm sure that I can think of a subtitle for each. Akhmatova, obviously: "Lot's Wife: A Single Glance." For Szymborska, I'm thinking: "Lot's Wife: Involuntarily Dancing." And for Pollitt: "Lot's Wife: What Did She Expect?" Finally, I think "Lot's Wife: Drawn to Earth" captures the essence of Batey's message:

Lot's Wife
While Lot, the conscience of a nation,
struggles with the Lord,
she struggles with the housework.
The City of Sin is where
she raises the children.
Ba'al or Adonai--
Whoever is God--
the bread must still be made
and the doorsill swept.
The Lord may kill the children tomorrow,
but today they must be bathed and fed.
Well and good to condemn your neighbors' religion,
but weren't they there
when the baby was born,
and when the well collapsed?
While her husband communes with God,
she tucks the children into bed.
In the morning, when he tells her of the judgment,
[that is, God's decision to destroy the city]
she puts down the lamp she is cleaning
and calmly begins to pack.
In between bundling up the children
and deciding what will go,
she runs for a moment
to say goodbye to the herd,
gently patting each soft head
with tears in her eyes for the animals that will not understand.
She smiles blindly to the woman
who held her hand at childbed.
It is easy for eyes that have always turned to heaven
not to look back;
those who have been--by necessity--drawn to earth
cannot forget that life is lived from day to day.
Good, to a God, and good in human terms
are two different things.
On the breast of the hill, she chooses to be human,
and turns, in farewell--
and never regrets
the sacrifice.

by Kristine Batey, b. 1951

Lot's Wife Looking Back at the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
by Toussaint Dubreuil, 1561 - 1602

Previous References to Muriel Rukeyser
on my daily blog The Quotidian Kit
All the Little Animals
Another Good Poem by Muriel Rukeyser
The Wrong Answer

Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, November 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

And check out
Prodigal: Poems by Francine Marie Tolf

which includes this poem:

One Family's Story
Genesis 19

Her body shook from the explosions,
hot wind and horror sang in her ears.
She looked back at what had been home,
not prudent like her husband
who did not waste a glance on her cinder.
An expedient man. Quick to choose,
years earlier, the greenest pastureland
when he and his herdsman brother parted ways,
but ingratiating when it served--
offering, in those days before catastrophe,
his own daughters to drunken thugs,
rather than risk insult to guests
who could help him escape.
He made forgetting an art,
but could never erase his wife's last soft cry,
or the moans of his two girls,
pressed against him on the cave's floor
that evening the sheets of fire
finally stopped raining,
and the three of them drank a calfskin of wine
to celebrate their deliverance.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Icarus, Who Really Fell

Landscape With the Fall of Icarus, 1588
by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1525(?) - 1569

In this book, Gabriel Deblander creates a narrative
to accompany story told by the painting:
Currently out of print, but used copies available.

For today's post, I thought I would continue with the theme of Greek mythology -- last time it was patient Penelope, wife of adventurous Odysseus; this time the impatient Icarus, son of the inventor and designer of the Labyrinth, Daedalus, in which they are subsequently imprisoned. In the ancient myth, Daedalus devises an ingenious plan for himself and his son: they will build wings and fly to freedom. [How do they obtain supplies and materials in prison? You'll just have to suspend your disbelief on that one]. When the wings are ready, Daedalus forewarns Icarus of the need to fly well below the sun. The escape, as the story goes, is successful, but Icarus, exulting in his newly found power of flight, pays no heed to his father's advice. Despite the repeated cries of Daedalus, Icarus flies too near the sun, his wings melt, and he falls to his death in the sea.

Many artists have illustrated the glory and fate of heroic, foolhardy Icarus, but none so memorably as Bruegel the Elder. Particularly in his insignificant placement of the title character, his finely detailed "Landscape" is like no other. A close look at the lower right - hand corner reveals the ill - fated, despairing Icarus, his flailing legs slipping away forever beneath the surface of the sea.

Two modern poets, Williams Carlos Williams and W. H. Auden, have approached the painting very differently in their ekphrastic poems (click for examples, including Bruegel / Auden / Williams). In contrast to the intricate beauty of Bruegel's painting, Williams provides five sparse sentences:

Landscape With The Fall of Icarus
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

by William Carlos Williams

Williams' poems is incredibly straight forward. After showing my students the connections between this poem and the painting, I always thought it was fun to diagram and punctuate the sentences. Auden's poem is dense, requiring perhaps some art history and additional work by Bruegel to truly comprehend.

Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap

Musee des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

W. H. Auden

It's fairly easy to find essays comparing these well - known poems by Auden and Williams. However, I like to read them along with a couple of other, less well - known Icarus poems by two writers who look at the mythological story from an amazingly unique perspectives: "Where You Go When She Sleeps" by T. R. Hummer; and "Waiting for Icarus" by Muriel Rukeyser.

In "Waiting for Icarus," Muriel Rukeyser embellishes the already existing myth, writing from the perspective of a character of her own invention, the girlfriend of Icarus. Alluding to Daedalus and Icarus, and their attempt to escape the Labyrinth by flying to freedom, Rukeyser alters the circumstances somewhat, and her adjustments serve the poem well. In the original myth, there is no mention of a girlfriend for Icarus; and if there were, her last contact with him would have been before his imprisonment in the Labyrinth, making it impossible for her to know of his attempted escape. But this narrator knows all about the wings and the wax. As she waits, she tells of her past with Icarus and hints at the conflict that must have existed between him and his father. She reminisces of the better days, reluctant to admit that Icarus may really be gone or dead, and not coming back.

She loses track of time, and even as she waits, the doubts planted by others sift through her thoughts. She reveals uncertainty, despair and, near the end, another sentiment as well -- the frustration of waiting impotently at home, maintaining the status quo, like Penelope; while Icarus, like brave Ulysses seeks out action, adventure, experience.

Waiting for Icarus
He said he would be back and we'd drink wine together
He said that everything would be better than before
He said we were on the edge of a new relation
He said he would never again cringe before his father
He said that he was going to invent full-time
He said he loved me that going into me
He said was going into the world and the sky
He said all the buckles were very firm
He said the wax was the best wax
He said Wait for me here on the beach
He said Just don't cry

I remember the gulls and the waves
I remember the islands going dark on the sea
I remember the girls laughing
I remember they said he only wanted to get away from me
I remember mother saying : Inventors are like poets,
a trashy lot
I remember she told me those who try out inventions are worse
I remember she added : Women who love such are the
Worst of all
I have been waiting all day, or perhaps longer.
I would have liked to try those wings myself.
It would have been better than this.

Muriel Rukeyser
from The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser.

In the nearly mystical "Where You Go When She Sleeps," T. R. Hummer starts by comparing a woman's hair to the color of golden grain. Mesmerized by her hair, he next compares himself to the farmer's son who fell to his death when gazing over the edge of a silo mesmerized by the swirls of oats. Then he imagines the thin - armed boy as Icarus with his fabled wings. Both boys forget their fathers' words of caution, both feel the sun hot on their backs as they grow dizzy and fall, one into the ocean, one into the sea of grain.

An agricultural safety brochure depicts the danger

I can't help but notice the similarity between the silo victim and
Matisse's paper cutout of Icarus:

Where You Go When She Sleeps
What is it when a woman sleeps, her head bright
In your lap, in your hands, her breath easy now as though it had never been
Anything else, and you know she is dreaming, her eyelids
Jerk, but she is not troubled, it is a dream
That does not include you, but you are not troubled either,
It is too good to hold her while she sleeps, her hair falling
Richly on your hands, shining like metal, a color
That when you think of it you cannot name, as though it has just
Come into existence, dragging you into the world in the wake
Of its creation, out of whatever vacuum you were in before,
And you are like the boy you heard of once who fell
Into a silo full of oats, the silo emptying from below, oats
At the top swirling in a gold whirlpool, a bright eddy of grain, the boy
You imagine, leaning over the edge to see it, the noon sun breaking
Into the center of the circle he watches, hot on his back, burning
And he forgets his father’s warning, stands on the edge, looks down,
The grain spinning, dizzy, and when he falls his arms go out, too thin
For wings, and he hears his father’s cry somewhere, but is gone
Already, down in a gold sea, spun deep in the heart of the silo,
And when they find him, he lies still, not seeing the world
Through his body but through the deep rush of grain
Where he has gone and can never come back, though they drag him
Out, his father’s tears bright on both their faces, the farmhands
Standing by blank and amazed - you touch that unnamable
Color in her hair and you are gone into what is not fear or joy
But a whirling of sunlight and water and air full of shining dust
That takes you, a dream that is not of you but will let you
Into itself if you love enough, and will not, will never let you go.

~ T. R. Hummer
from The Angelic Orders

Another version of The Fall of Icarus
by Henri Matisse

Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, October 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading