Read an ExcerptThe Next Bend in the Road
By MICHAEL FRIED
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
Copyright © 2004 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
The hummingbird looks up from his flower punchbowl with an expression of pure dazzlement. The May morning is that perfect, our eleven-month-old daughter in her Grandma's-gift raspberry sundress is that astonishing.
She came here in stages from Wuhan, China, where we adopted her in the eye of a cyclone.
En route from the orphanage all the while Anna slept in your arms her birth mother's tears rose wavelike from the dusty earth to speed us on our way.
Days of the Comet
Your mouth opens in a disbelieving laugh as tears stream down your face. Definitely excess of joy.
The snipers are gone from their leafy beds above the city. (So too are the elms that lined the boulevards.)
In the Northern sky a never before seen comet approaches earth near the century's end.
Let the heavy oar doze in its oarlock. It is time to seek the poem with both hands!
Dale limosna, mujer, por que no es en la vida nada como la pena de ser ciego en Granada. -INSCRIPTION ON A WALL AT THE ALHAMBRA
The summer I was twenty-two I hitchhiked from Fuengirola to Granada, and spent several ardent, unforgettable days at the Alhambra. Mainly just walking up and down and seeing, or finding a secluded spot in which to read the great modern Spanish poets I had recently come to love-Jiménez, Machado, Lorca. The sun exploding continuously in a cobalt sky made the simplest nouns incandesce: hombre, caballo, sueño, naranja, muerte. Hour after hour I inhaled the exotic blossoms of the Generalife, descended with icy waters from the Sierra Nevada, contemplated in a kind of rapture the carved stucco tracery that (I later learned) everywhere intricately repeated the name of God until there was no space for anything else. Sail-shaped and starlike colored tiles fitted together unexpectedly, like noon and midnight, conquest and silence. I knew I couldn't stay forever, in fact I had to leave almost at once, but part of me, a scrap of my immortal soul, was unwilling to accept this and remained behind: a small mongrel dog, quick enough not to get caught, wandering aimlessly in shadows that are filled with light.
To be nothing but fire not even the fuel that feeds it
wasn't my father's style. When the time came for him to die
(of a cirrhotic liver caused by poisoned blood
flushed through him one winter dawn to fight a bleeding ulcer)
he found a stone wall with, at its base, a tunnel
just too narrow to admit a man. Undaunted he crawled through
hand over hand to the other side.
April 4, 1968
I remember that day; I remember crying hysterically. It remains the worst day in my life not directly personal.
When the day ended the sun went down, stars came out, flames leaped heavenward. He had been to the mountain top but we, we had not.
the brim of his derby low over his eyes
Passing each other on a narrow road I nod to him in my friendliest manner he glares at me with what's left of his face
for Allen Grossman
The badger knows several great artists intimately. This is said without irony; he thinks of them as great because they have made numinous paintings and sculptures that will last thousands of years if care is taken of them. But will care be taken of them? The badger is worried.
He has an older friend who collects ancient pots. The friend is a poet, of a breed altogether beyond the badger's comprehension, who spends hours looking at the pots admiring their form and markings, and imagining how they were once used. In the dimness of predawn the poet's apartment is like a cave in neolithic China, minus the harsh rich smell of burning dung.
Recently the poet acquired another pot, minuscule, exquisite. Of hard gray stone worked to absolute smoothness. Egyptian.
He is convinced it was a scribe's inkwell. When the time comes he will dip his pen in it to write his gravest songs.
It turns out that Kafka always wanted to draw, "to hold fast to what was seen," as he put it. He also said of the little cartoon-like men in his drawings: "They come out of the dark to vanish into the dark." And: "My drawing is a perpetually renewed and unsuccessful attempt at primitive magic." Was he dismayed by that unsuccess? It seems not-he accepted without complaint that his drawings' magic was imperfect, that between the pencil in his hand and the sheet of paper on his desk something intervened to derail his best efforts to capture the shapes of life in their endlessly seductive but also undeniably comic, therefore inescapably tragic, vitality. The surviving drawings suggest, against all likelihood, that it was precisely the dimension-the perspective-of the tragic that eluded him.
The Realm of Spirit
When I wrote my poems and kept them in a drawer I believed I was William Blake in a closet.
The pathos of my unappreciated genius bowed my shoulders but put spring in my step.
In that divided mood each line I composed seemed to me a triumph against prodigious odds.
I communicated this sense of struggle to my friends who treated me with the respect due a warrior.
And I exhaled contempt for the famous names whose anodyne verses collected yearly prizes.
I lived like that for decades, impregnable in the knowledge that my castle had no drawbridge.
Then one day in a trance of inadvertence I sent my poems to an editor, who published them.
Now the drawer is empty and the closet is sealed and I know that in the realm of spirit I am nothing.
In the Asian galleries of the Seattle Art Museum I discover a painting on silk and, almost, a prose poem. The painting, by Li Anzhong (active 1120-1160), is of a hawk chasing a pheasant. The almost-poem-the wall label-reads: "The desperate situation of the pheasant is emphasized by its gasping mouth, and the hawk's determination is conveyed through its raised neck and tightly closed beak. The brushwork is so subtle and light, however, that the chase is imbued with a dreamlike quality." What the label doesn't say (I glimpse it in the hawk's ruby eye) is that in the merest fraction of a second the unfair chase will be consummated dream or no dream.
Before a Duel
The snow was so deep the seconds in their heavy boots had to tramp it down for almost an hour before there was a clear field of fire. At a proper, i.e. simultaneously respectful and contemptuous, distance from each other the intended combatants sat waiting, one smoking a long thin clay pipe, the other paring and eating an apple. Both were wrapped in monumental pelisses that gave them the deceptive appearance of friendly bears but can hardly be imagined to have made them indifferent to the subarctic cold. Both followed to the letter the agreed upon script: throughout the lengthy preliminaries neither so much as glanced in the other's direction. Even then and there men felt it would be interesting to know what one of them was thinking.
Lubricated in fish blood, tears, semen.
We wake in the dark to great flashes of light. The drought is history.
Each time the thunder crashes the barn walls shake. Is that our daughter crying?
No: she's sound asleep in the arms of the storm. Oh firm-fleshed Anna!
We stand over your crib scarcely breathing. Though we're not needed our lives are complete.
The Rape of Nanking
Reading about the Rape of Nanking my mind clouds over.
Tell me God how can human beings, even "hardened" soldiers, have done the things it's documented these did? (And not in anger or sexual release but deliberately week after week.) I ask this in all humility, one killer to another.
In Jerusalem I stared through the noonday glare at the Western Wall. I felt inside me no emotion I could recognize.
Something stirred in those lightstruck depths. Breathed for only an instant and then died baffled and helpless.
I shut my eyes and counted to a thousand. When I opened them nothing fundamental had changed in the sky or on the ground.
The sun blazed. On the stones powdering in the glare. On the noonday religious rocking in their shoes. On the unmoved visitor and unmoving dirt-colored personnel carrier taking everything in.
For several years before she died we occasionally spent an evening in the company of Paul Celan's widow, the etcher Gisèle Lestrange. We met her first at a party thrown by Parisian friends to celebrate their engagement. She was charming, with the indefinable magnetism certain older cultivated European women possess whether or not they were beauties in their youth. And a great directness, which led her once when driving across the Seine in the company of an American translator to observe in an ordinary tone of voice that just below was where Celan had drowned himself. (Her words "took my breath away," the translator recalls.) Until that night I had never seen her etchings. Our friends owned three or four, and what surprised me was their restraint, as if the artist had been too familiar with the demands of art to wish to satisfy them completely. On closer view, the bite of the acid was everywhere deliberately reined in, not from excessive finesse but from an unwillingness to mark deeply. I thought: she has experienced illuminations she has no desire to impart other than by the faintest shiver of contrast.
Months later, after a chance meeting at a concert, Gisèle Lestrange came back to our recently acquired pied-à-terre and sat and talked for an hour over a glass of wine. Then I went down with her into rue Lafayette to help hail a taxi. Rain was falling, and it took a few minutes before I captured one and held the door open as she got in. That was the nearest I have come to touching poetry's hem.
Our joy is so great it casts a shadow across all the future we dare to imagine
Nevertheless we cheer Anna on as she toddles on sturdy legs toward a sunlit meadow in which we are not
Above the pines a red hawk tracks her on a whim I want to warn her, to call out, but my voice is frozen
Carefree and high-stepping Anna plunges ahead Her mother too sees the hawk Her tears flow in profusion
Our daughter hears them fall Laughing she turns and waves Hell raging in his heart the red hawk sails out of sight * * *
And now peaceful night shakes out its many worlds The meadow, the sunlit meadow, will be back tomorrow
Oriented to the stars the poet marches briskly due north on a windy night in his fifty-eighth year. The sensory deprivation of Iowa City (in the words of his host) surrounds him on four sides, but who cares, it's pitch black and the wind is trampling on his face with such unbridled élan that he laughs out loud. A new, more refined intuition of mortality enters his heart like the blade of a spear on which has been engraved the figure of a heart.
The Dream He came to me and said I want you to take her. How can I, I said, you know I'm not free and even if I were doesn't the lady have a vote? He shook his great head. She will do what I say; when I was alive she never refused me. How much less will she now when I am no more, when my only covering are the tatters of your dream.
The Next Bend in the Road
If there's a mention of eyelashes, then it's about Osip. -NADEZHDA MANDELSTAM
The young man with long thick eyelashes is unapologetically drunk with the world's beauty despite or possibly because of the hollowness at its core which he confirms in the slightly dead timbre of the distant church bells sounding the hour. Meanwhile the little horses jog onward without the least appearance of strain, their breath issuing visibly in twin dissolving plumes of cloud, and the extraordinarily pretty woman (scarcely more than a girl) whose head rests on the young man's shoulder, although she has a husband to whom she will return, is for the moment all his. Just beyond the next bend in the road, or if not the next the bend after that, still hidden by the towering fir trees, their dark drooping vigorous branches loaded with snow (I forgot to say that this is a winter scene, that the youthful lovers are in a sleigh, that they are both poets, that they will come to similar ends), the Revolution waits.
In Boris Pasternak's Essay in Autobiography the story is briefly told of how he came to lose almost a hundred letters written to him over two decades by Marina Tsvetayeva. The disaster (my word, not his; by the standards of the time the loss was scarcely an event) occurred during the Great Patriotic War when Pasternak entrusted the letters, along with others from his parents, Maxim Gorky and Romain Rolland, to a close friend on the staff of the Scriabin Museum. The friend deposited most of Pasternak's hoard in the fireproof museum safe; but fearing the worst she kept Tsvetayeva's letters with her at all times, never letting them out of her sight. The denouement might have been predicted. One winter evening, walking utterly exhausted through a dark wood between the station and her home outside the city, she realized that she had left her attaché case containing the letters on the train from Moscow. "That was how Tsvetayeva's letters were borne away and vanished," Pasternak concludes. Stoic toward all concerned he says not a word about the reaction of his friend, the nameless heroine of this exemplary tale, when she grasped what she had done. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Next Bend in the Road by MICHAEL FRIED Copyright © 2004 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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