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The essays "Where Poems Take Place" and "A Shared Humanity" consider the relation between setting or situation and representation. The psychological roots of narrative are considered in "The Primal Storyteller." But the main interest of these essays is how and why narrative is used as a form. The influence of Robinson Jeffers's style of narrative is argued in "Slip, Shift, and Speed Up: The Influence of Robinson Jeffers's Narrative Syntax." In "The Trace of a Story Line" an argument is made that the poets Philip Levine and Charles Wright employ narration or storytelling in their poetry as a mode of meaning. Other essays consider Donald Davie, Philip Larkin, Herbert Lomas, Louis Simpson, Lyn Hejinian, Tess Gallagher, and Ellen Bryant Voigt.
Mark Jarman's poetry has appeared in many publications, including the American Poetry Review and the New Yorker. He has won the Lenore Marshall/Nation Prize of the Academy of American Poets, a Guggenheim fellowship, and multiple grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is Professor of English, Vanderbilt University.
We cannot know the soul without the body. Not only great religious poetry, but all great poetry teaches us this truth. Whether the body is the one of an artist who considers himself ugly and warped by his work or it is the body of an imprisoned monk, still this radiant node of the senses is where God is apprehended, if one is looking for God, and where the soul, which connects us to God, takes the shape of imagination. In his poetry, Michelangelo carves a soul from the passions of the flesh, often employing Petrarchan conventions of fire and ice as the chisels. St. John of the Cross, in response to his imprisonment, sees his soul escaping in his poetry, in flight as another body, a bird's or a deer's, taking his lead from the author of "Song of Songs." Both poets write to capture God's attention, speaking as if to a lover. In his love poems for other people, men and women, Michelangelo speaks with the same emotion that imbues his poems for God; there is little difference between them. Consistently he sees his physical appearance as evidence of a fall from grace, but intuits salvation through his artistic gifts. He is a more personal poet than St. John of the Cross, and we can trace events in his life through the poems and fragments he left behind. But St. John of the Cross gives us poems with a satisfying intellectual sense of completion, due in part to his enjoyment of paradox. His poetry is less tortured than Michelangelo's, possibly because the monk saw the contradiction in believing the soul was the body's prisoner, rather than its mate.
The subject of a religious poem is clear; it is the real or imagined tie between the poet and God. The urgency with which the poet tries to understand that tie gives religious poetry its power. John Donne fearing for his immortal soul, Gerard Manley Hopkins pleading for divine help-these are obvious examples of why such poetry exists and continues to move us as readers. Whether or not we share the beliefs of these poets, we feel what moves them to write. In "Love (III)," George Herbert's shame and amazement at being welcomed and waited upon by Love itself give us a poignant drama. We all understand how it feels to be grateful for something we do not deserve, to feel gratitude for mercy, whether or not we believe mercy is God-given.
It is very likely that the greatest religious poetry of the European tradition occurred during the Renaissance because of the growth of humanism. Rediscovering the classical emphasis on the human meant recognizing a new relationship between the human and the divine. It meant seeing the divine first in the human, which led to a new glorification and realism in dealing with the body but aroused a troubling responsibility. From this responsibility eventually came alienation and existential courage. But first there was the trouble of recognizing that the God in humanity might be less than the God in heaven, and, in fact, that locating God in the human might paradoxically create a new distance between God and creation. Humanity was alone with its new divinity. Religious poetry during the Renaissance reflects a fear and wonder at a paradoxical, new universe that centered on Leonardo's spread-eagled human figure. Like the other great religious poets of the Renaissance, Michelangelo and St. John of the Cross felt this wonder and fear and responsibility as dimensions of the soul. They felt it in their flesh and blood and in their bones.
Despite his artistic genius, Michelangelo is, for the most part, a conventional poet of his time. And as such, he expresses himself in the conventions of Petrarch. The give and take between lovers occurs through the eyes and the heart:
If your pitiless arrows missed by far the target of my heart, long years ago, revenge is yours; your eyes, so dazzling, throw far deadlier darts my way, none going wide. (9)
Yet because of his practice as a sculptor, he is also able to employ the ice and fire of Petrarch in dynamic ways:
No ordeal lasts when age begins to tell. That's why I seem like ice the flames enwrap: it shrinks, writhes to escape, but won't ignite. I'm old. (17)
One can see the agony of melting sculpture in that writhing ice. Elsewhere he is less original, referring to his heart as charred and advising others, "Flee from this Love, you lovers; flee the flame! / The burning's bitter . . ." (20). He sees himself especially susceptible in his age, writing in a madrigal when he was at least seventy:
Unhappy soul, with no evasive art at hand those early days, and now on edge to dart and die in many a blaze set long ago! The one no flare could faze in his green age-what truth time's mirror told!- now the least spark consumes-decrepit, old. (127)
Poetry appears to be a medium the older Michelangelo turned to, especially as he felt himself consumed by passion for those he loved, and as he recognized a need to be reconciled with God. Because his poetry was an alternative to his true calling, its quality varies. But when he forgoes convention, he is masterful.
One reads Michelangelo's poetry hoping to see the sculptor emerge, and he does, and when he does, the poetry takes on a freshness equal to its personal urgency. The anatomist who knew the musculature of the body is present in the following passage, in which the Petrarchan eye, that symbolic weapon, comes alive with closely observed detail:
As slowly it stirs beneath the lid, we spy merely a segment of its globe, and so the serenity of its scope is lost thereby. Covered, it doesn't dart much high or low; less lid's apparent when the eye's agape; unfurling, it leaves few crinkles there to show. White's very white, black's black as a funeral drape (if that can be) and lion-like the hue of its fiber-to-fiber reticulated crepe. (23)
When Michelangelo makes an entire conceit of his occupation, he is capable of the wit and sexual punning of Donne, but a hundred years ahead of the English priest. All of sonnet 46 bears reading here:
If my rough hammer shapes the obdurate stone to a human figure, this or that one, say, it's the wielder's fist, vision, and mind at play that gives it momentum-another's, not its own. But the heavenly hammer working by God's throne by itself makes others and self as well. We know it takes a hammer to make a hammer. So the rest derive from that primal tool alone. Since any stroke is mightier the higher it's launched from over the forge, one kind and wise has lately flown from mine to a loftier sphere. My hammer is botched, unfinished in the fire until God's workshop help him supervise the tool of my craft, that alone he trued, down here. (28)
Much of Michelangelo's poetry was written in middle and old age, both extended periods for a man who lived to be nearly ninety. He was enough of a Neo-Platonist to believe that his body reflected his soul, so he suffers the onslaught not only of love but of physical decay. But even as a young man, working on the Sistine ceiling, he depicts himself with a graphic physicality that suggests an uneasy sense of his immortal part:
A goiter it seems I got from this backward craning like the cats get there in Lombardy, or wherever -bad water, they say, from lapping their fetid river. My belly, tugged under my chin, 's all out of whack. Beard points like a finger at heaven. Near the back of my neck, skull scrapes where a hunchback's hump would be. I'm pigeon-breasted, a harpy! Face dribbled-see?- like a Byzantine floor, mosaic. From all this straining my guts and my hambones tangle, pretty near. Thank God I can swivel my butt about for ballast. Feet are out of sight; they just scuffle round, erratic, Up front my hide's tight elastic; in the rear it's slack and droopy, except where crimps have callused. I'm bent like a bow, half-round, type Asiatic. Not odd that what's on my mind, when expressed, comes out weird, jumbled. Don't berate; no gun with its barrel screwy can shoot straight. (10)
He is never so moving as when he writes about his own body, thereby anatomizing and sculpting his most original poetry. This early sonnet brackets his work with a late poem in terza rima, completed when he was seventy-four:
Skull hums like a hornet in a wooden pail; gunnysack skin totes bones and jute around; bladder's a pouch of gravel, edged like shale. My eyes: mauve pigment pestled till it's ground; teeth: oboe-keys that, when I puff out air, whistle it through or else begrudge the sound. My face says, "Boo!" It's scary. Rags I wear rout-without bow and arrow-flocks of crows from fresh-sown furrows even when weather's fair. One ear's all spider fuzz. I've tremolos in the one an all-night vocal cricket chooses. Can't sleep for my raucous snuffling, mouth and nose. (144)
One recognizes Yeats's "tattered coat upon a stick." And Michelangelo does not spare his poetry, either:
Amor, flower-quilted grottos, all the Muses, for these I scribbled reams-now scraps to tot up tabs, wrap fish, scrub toilets, or worse uses. (144)
The Renaissance individual, as we imagine him or her, is a whole person, or at least desires to be whole, despite a beginning awareness of what Eliot would call the dissociated sensibility, the existential inkling of an absent God and an individual's terrible freedom. Michelangelo's appeals to his lord reflect the desire for wholeness that he was able to create in his art. Early in his career he scorned the hypocrisy of the church, and he imagined the inflamed response of Christ to contemporary Italy:
Chalices hammered into sword and helmet! Christ's blood sold, slopped in palmfuls. With the yields from commerce of cross and thorns, more lances, shields. Still His long-suffering mercy falls like dew?
These lands are lands He'd better not come through. If He did, His blood would boil, seething sky-high, what with his flesh on sale in good supply. (12)
As a young man, Michelangelo had heard similar things from the mouth of the fanatical Florentine reformer Savonarola. But at the end of his life, as his eyesight failed, he sounds a note we will not hear again until Gerard Manley Hopkins:
Oh let me see You everywhere I go! If mortal beauty sets the soul afire, Your dazzle will show how dim it is; desire for You burns high, as once in heaven's own air. (146)
The body that he knew as intimately as any artist before or since becomes "a monstrous stone" in which he is "enclosed and hidden" (147). The last fragment of his poetry asks for release and reminds God, "You peel of flesh the same souls You appareled / in flesh . . ." (156). The paradox of Renaissance Christianity emerges from this poetry like one of the great sculptor's slaves, struggling in stone.
Michelangelo died in 1564, the year of Shakespeare's birth. Thirteen years later, in Spain, the Carmelite friar Juan de Yepes was imprisoned in Toledo by fellow Carmelite monks, who opposed the reforms of which he was part. He escaped and found refuge, first in a convent of Carmelite nuns, then in a hermitage in Andalusia, his home. During that tumultuous year, he wrote over a dozen poems which are masterpieces of religious yearning and devotion. According to the critic and translator Willis Barnstone, "From the darkness of the whale he came into the clarity and beauty of the Andalusian landscape. Here in solitude his career as a poet was fixed." Fray Juan de Yepes, who would be canonized in 1726, 135 years after his death, as St. John of the Cross, was the descendent of converted Jews. It seems fitting, then, that it is the poetry of the Old Testament, specifically "The Song of Songs," that we hear in his verse. It is also notable that his gift for paradox, his ability to contain contradictory ideas within a single image, may have reflected his own dual identity.
In "Spiritual Canticle," a bride complains that her bridegroom has fled, leaving her alone:
Where have you hidden, my Love, why have you left me moaning? Like a stag you fled from having wounded me: I cried for you, but you were gone. (3)
And, as in "The Song of Songs," the bridegroom answers, as if it were she who had left:
Return, my dove: the wounded stag, now bounding up the slope, stirs at your flight, breathing the fresh air. (7)
The pair speak to and of each other antiphonally, separated and united in a setting that recalls a medieval world of strongholds penetrated by lovers who meet in gardens, but in this case the lovers "push into the wilds more deeply" (15). They penetrate the landscape of St. John's Andalusia:
And then we'll go on up, up to the caverns of stone that are so high and well hidden. And there we will enter to taste wine pressed from pomegranates. (15)
Surely, he knew the thrill of escape, of flight, and he understood that the sexual excitement of lovers escaping to be alone together mirrored the paradoxical pleasure of being alone with God.
The flight of the prisoner is always a paradox, resolved because it is mental flight. St. John of the Cross actually escaped his imprisonment, but what strikes a contemporary reader is that the poet expresses his communion with the holy not only in erotic terms, but as if engaged in a secret tryst:
In darkness and secure, down the secret ladder, disguised, O joyful chance!, in darkness, and shielded, my house lying silent at last,
one joyful night, in secret: no one was watching and I saw no other thing, my only light and guide the light that burned in my heart.
That same light led me more surely than the noonday sun to where one was waiting, the one I knew would come, where surely no one would find us. (19)
Desire for anything, including closeness with God, cannot be expressed except in terms of the body's longing, and gratification of desire cannot be expressed except in the same way. Yet throughout his poetry, St. John of the Cross also speaks of elevation, an upward flight:
Longing for a love affair in hope of love I did not delay but flew up so high in the air that I caught up with the prey.
In order to catch up to that divine affair, I had to fly so high I flew straight out of sight. (37)
Such spiritual aspiration is part of the paradox: for the body does not have wings, though the mind does. The desire for transcendence is also bound up with erotic longing. Although the poet may claim, "My soul is unattached / to any created thing" (51), yet Love
turns into my delight making my soul like itself. And so, in the delightful flame that I feel within myself, swiftly and thoroughly I consume myself completely. (51)
It is possible, too, that St. John of the Cross was comfortable with paradox because he believed in the paradox of the incarnation. He could imagine intangible and ineffable concepts alive in flesh and blood:
God, lying in the crib, cried out loud and groaned
And his Mother was aghast to see this transformation: mankind's grief become God's and joyfulness come to man, when usually each one is estranged from the other. (79)
The problem for human beings, for whom St. John speaks in his poems, is that their very means of knowing God can keep them separate from God. For a Christian like St. John of the Cross, the body's senses may exalt him, but they also make him sin, which leads to death:
Take me away from this dying, my God, and give me back to life: do not hold me down like this, bound up here so tightly. (33)
And yet if the body were actually an incarnation of God, it would not sin or die. Here is the crux of Christian anxiety in the Renaissance and after. If the body is our only way of knowing God, and if the soul can express itself only in physical terms, how can a transcendent divinity exist? Recognizing this anxiety, St. John of the Cross resorts to his ultimate paradox. In "There Is No Kind of Beauty," he rejects the testimony of the senses, yet rests his paradox on a sensual image:
Tell me: from such a lover would you receive any pain? Of all things in creation, only he has no flavor. Simple, shapeless and lacking all substance and location, reveling, there in that something that fortune puts into our hands. (57)
A negative definition of the senses still requires an experience of them. Ontologically, we cannot think beyond the body. Christianity's ingenious way of accommodating this limitation is the incarnation, God in the human body of Christ. Nevertheless, what we hear in St. John of the Cross, for all his piety, is a restless pursuit-pursuit itself is one of his metaphors-born of a new uncertainty.
Neither Ken Krabbenhoft nor John Frederick Nims gives us ideal translations of these wonderful poems. As a translator, Nims tends to heat up Michelangelo's poetry, making it more inventive and slangier than it appears in Italian, closer respectively to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Nims himself. He does, however, provide background for the poems, notes on their date of publication, and an explanation of his aims as a translator. Krabbenhoft, on the other hand, cools down St. John of the Cross's poetry, mostly forgoing its rhyming and metrical patterns, elements that surely must contribute to the poetry's excitement in Spanish. He produces a serene, detached translator's free verse à la W. S. Merwin. Anyone who wants to get a truer flavor of St. John of the Cross in English should find Willis Barnstone's translation, published thirty years ago, which does attempt to reproduce the Spanish verse forms. Barnstone also provides an extensive background for the poetry, which is more helpful than Krabbenhoft's half-page preface.
Excerpted from Body and Soul by Mark Jarman
Copyright © 2002 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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|Preface: Remembering D. D.|
|The Body on Fire, the Soul in Flight||1|
|Where Poems Take Place||12|
|A Shared Humanity||32|
|The Primal Storyteller||47|
|Slip, Shift, and Speed Up: The Influence of Robinson Jeffers's Narrative Syntax||53|
|The Trace of a Story Line||71|
|On Either Side of the Water||91|
|Journals of the Soul||101|
|Body and Soul: Parts of a Life||115|