Friday, February 20, 2009

Marechera's Love Sonnets. (6).

At the close of his 1984 interview with Flora Veit-Wild, Marechera reflects on his image of women and the ambiguity of the Amelia Sonnets. His exact remarks are:

“This is also what silences me sometimes, usually when I feel that I love somebody. I then remember all the things that I have been brought up with. This is also the reason why some of the poems are about Amelia are ambiguous. In one poem I treat her as if she is dead, in another as if she is a ghost …as a prostitute…[.]” (p.217).

This is what strikes so oddly in the sonnets. Traditionally, the Beloved is perfect. She is immaculate and unitary. She is the One. She is an integral integer. There can be no diversion from a single point-of-view when viewing her. Psychologically, she is the whole, often the Platonic Form, before the fragmented mind of the poet. She is the organising factor. Typically, within his art, Marechera’s Amelia is uneven, inseparable from the discontinuities within the poet. Sonnet IV and VIII are polar opposites. “Primal Vision” unveils Amelia as a succubus. She fornicates with angels in Heaven. The poet, adopting Plath’s vampiric language in Ariel, bares his dripping fangs” at the nightmare. “Cemetery of Mind” laments that the angelic Amelia has died rather than “diseased city whores”. Once more, the language of Plath enters, her “Bright as a Nazi lampshade” is echoed in “Silence wrapped in the bright human skin lampshade”.

There is a wish within the Amelia Sonnets to create a shifting reality. As Marechera allows the fragmentation of the Beloved to exist, a feeling of posturing and artifice enters the sonnet sequence. Sonnet V, “Th’Anniversary”, acknowledges this by referring to Donne’s poem and his love of love and the language of love. Marechera’s sonnet, however, debunks any thoughts of love beyond the grave except as a vile dance of death:

We dined on worms as fat as pickhandles
And she danced on my arm as I led her onto the dance floor;

And in “The Visitor”, Marechera compares the poet-lover to Pygmalion whose unnatural desire brought dead matter to life— who abandoned a real prostituted world for one of unreal idealism. Creativity is a willed act: it is a “terrible pact”, as Marechera says, a Faustian act of denial.

The Amelia Sonnets are interesting, experimental works, but ultimately they lack expressiveness. To judge them in terms of coherence is a mistake. They stand against coherence. They do not achieve a language, however, that convinces a reader of their emotional integrity.

Marechera's Love Sonnets. (5)

Poem III in the Amelia Sonnets, is titled “Her hand my eyes closes”. The closing of the eyes is a familiar image of death, one of the final acts offered to the corpse. The irony here, however, is that the dead (Muse) seeks to close the eyes of the living (Poet). In this poem, Marechera addresses two aspects of love: how the memory of love is attached to objects and how the language of love is open to the demonic.

Sonnet III opens in a plain language. It is a language that fits the ordinariness of objects so close to Amelia.

All that’s left of Amelia is all this pottery,
Silent, soothing, yet eerily arranged around my memories.
All is clay. In kitchen bedroom, bathroom:
All is her nights and days moulded in clay.

The smooth syntax creates a sense of order. There is a sense in which the poet has become an archaeologist surrounded by artefacts.

Pottery provides the central imagery within this sonnet. Marechera is afraid to “dislodge” details, as if details were pots, because his own skull would then “crack”, like baked clay. Amelia is described as “well-kneaded”. Her “integrity” as a whole object was shaped by hands, like potter’s clay. Language also is a receptacle. “We are our own demons”, as Barthes writes in Fragments d'un discours amoreux (1977), “possessed by a demon of language” the lover is “swept away by a flood of thought, desire, rage, regret” (p.81). In the sestet, the order of the octet is broken. A smashed syntax represents the demon of language as it breaks up the poem’s order and mind’s order. Out of this possession, comes a screaming that “crushes down on Church and Parliament”, remembering “serene eyes” in “the hideous darkness” of unreality. Marechera turns Zimbabwe, a House of Stone, into a “glasshouse” smashed by his stone-words.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Marechera's Love Sonnets. (4).

One of the most loathed texts of Modernism was Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. Wordsworth, represented by “She was a Phantom of Delight” (CLXXIV), was one of its many objectionable texts. Wordsworth’s poem of worship to his wife, Mary, draws upon Gothic imagery: “Phantom” (1), “Apparition” (3), “Spirit” (12). She is an other-wordly being, but of this world, “with something of an angel light” (30). In Sonnet II, “A Phantom of Delight”, Marechera begins an anti-Romantic autopsy of love. It is a brutal sonnet in which he desires to “crush” “love’s false city…And bury it”.

Were these fists boulders
And these shoulders a sudden earthquake
And my disgust lakes of seething lava
I would love’s false City crush
And bury it ever underneath my cooled passion.

Meaning rolls on through the internal rhyme “boulders” “shoulders”, linking the body and seismic activity into a whole, such that anger becomes volcanic, and by implication, a mirror-image of sexual explosion. Metaphorically, volcanic emotion (miming orgasm) buries a place that falsely promised delight. If Wordsworth’s poem upholds the phantasm of love, so Marechera’s poem condemns the phantasmagoria of love: the “hellish vision” that engulfs the lover entirely.

The text, as it appears in Cemetery of Mind, isn’t that clear. It has 15 lines and an awkward line 5 that reads: “I would love’s false City Crush”. This problem illustrates a point that always has to be remembered when reading Marechera’s poetry. Much of what exists was published posthumously, is restored from drafts, and these are sometimes rough in terms of finish. As the other sonnets are allusive sonnets (they refer to the sonnet tradition by virtue of their line count), the text would appear to be faulty. (An identical problem occurs in Sonnet IV). Clearly, “Crush” is incorrect. It isn’t a capitalised noun. It does not create a Marecheran compound “City-Crush”. It has to be the verb that gives meaning to the line: “I would crush love’s false City”.But the verb is displaced for emphasis: “I would love’s false City crush/And bury” (5-6). Little is gained by placing “Earthquake” on its own line (3). It makes more sense to read this as a continuation of line 2: “And these shoulders a sudden earthquake.”

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Marechera's Love Sonnets. (3)

Sonnet 1, “When Love’s Perished” opens with a piece of self-mockery. The drama of love is cast in a rhetorical idiom.

“Here comes one who in silence
Howled a thousand torments.”

There are cultural echoes here of The Bible, of burial in silence, and the following lines develop the opening with “silence” becoming “polite phrases” and “howled” transforming into “screamed terrible curses”. The first quatrain of the sonnet focuses on the suppression of grief. A typical Marecheran ambiguity begins in lines 5-6:

“One whose slow measured pace to the altar
Raised more dust that buffalo stampeding.”

The “One” is both the poem and the poet: the first line moves exactly at the pace of a mourner. Then, this is undercut with an image in which the dust of burial becomes a commonplace, a profanity. This suggests that the elegiac pace of the speaker shows more reverence than the hurried wailings of the many. “Altar”, here, appears as an image of Death and sacrifice, not Life and marriage. The poet comes to the altar of love's death and the poem's heightened language to its source: altar equals "high" place.

At the core of the sonnet, the animalisation of the speaker develops from the buffalo metaphor:

“The soft sweaty palm in limpid handshake
Hid a grizzly bear’s hairy powerful claws.”

A social gesture of subjection, mimicking the lover’s typical handshake, conceals brutal emotions. And all of this is denied by art, the smooth “mirror” of life, the poem.

The mirror image becomes the traditional sonnet break between octet and sestet. And at this point, there is a shift from the speaker hidden behind the tight lipped, formal phraseology of “One”, to culture and why the poem cannot speak. The poem, “sticky” with “sleep” has become an eye glued shut and unable to see. A lack of “iron” technique has left it weak--a neat pun in "aenemic"!--as has its commitment to political slogans, bon mots, rather than original thought. Culture resembles the inactive, melancholic lover of Romanticism. In a reversal of Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, the "mottoes on sundials" or the slogans of a particular era have become the new diversion for the out-of-date poet.

The first sonnet concludes with its eyes on what poetry might become. Not a wedge that prevents conversation between Europe and Africa, such that one looks upon the other with dismay (prophetically, Marechera saw Hove’s rejection of his poetry because it was too European for African tastes), but as troubled lover, picking at its “stanza-lips”, threatening awkwardly to shape its words.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Marechera's Love Sonnets. (2)

Heine’s Walpurgisnacht is very much a night of the Romantic imagination. (It is neither a Satanic image nor a Pagan image). Love is connected to darkness and witchcraft, marking sexual emotions as a product of enchantment and women’s sinister power. The Amelia Sonnets are written in this vein, offering an ambiguous image of women and poetry. The sonnet tradition is almost inseparable from that of Amor. The poet’s relationship to the Beloved is cast as poet-muse. Amor creates poetry and Divine Love is enshrined within the Beloved. Shakespeare’s sonnets to the "Dark Lady" are an inversion of the tradition as it stretches from Cavalcanti, Dante, Petrarch into the Elizabethan sonneteers. In an introduction to the eight Amelia Sonnets, Marechera dwells on the link between love and mortality. This suggests an Orphic pattern to his sequence. Amelia is dead. So, he approaches her as Orpheus to Euridice. His own “Dark Lady” is a woman of power, one who has the power to make him surrender his self. Marechera refers to Sylvia Plath in the introduction, in fact, he actually quotes her. “To love is to die. And as Sylvia Plath said, dying is an art.” The reference is, of course to her 1965 poem, “Lady Lazarus”:

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

(Ariel, p.9).

Marechera’s Beloved differs from the traditional in some significant ways. He imagines her as a woman from the moon’s dark side, not just a virginal, crescent Artemis. Like Plath, she is a woman bound to death, a muse/projection uniting Thanatos and Eros. She is a muse that has been entered, sexually and psychically, not a woman worshipped from a distance, an untouchable Beloved.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Marechera's Love Sonnets. (1)

Marechera wrote the Amelia Sonnets in 1984, after his return to Zimbabwe. In a December interview with Flora Veit-Wild, he offered a biographical background. The muse of the title takes her name from Heine’s letters to Amalie Heine/Friedlander. The poems describe an inter-racial sexual attraction: Black male-White female. Following Burgess’s suggestion in Nothing Like the Sun (1964) that Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” of the Sonnets was African, Marechera takes Shakespeare as a forerunner of the Amelia Sonnets in terms of inter-racial sexuality. During the discussion with Veit-Wild, Marechera plays-down the importance of the Black-White duality: “for me, personally, it is not a problem. (Cemetery of Mind, p.125). Yet, Marechera was the person who brought the duality into the conversation and linked it to a noted historical precedent. Marechera does not specify the connection between himself and Heine. He merely says that Heine represented a “kind of emotional chaos” and a “mystical…nightmare…terror” element found in love (COM, p.126) and he found this whilst reading about Heine’s life. This passage from Heine seems to be the doppelganger:

“All the madhouses had let loose their lunatics and driven them at my throat. The mad company celebrated its Walpurgis Night in my brain, my chattering teeth provided the dance music, and warm streams of red, red blood gushed from my heart” (Heine in a letter to Heinrich Straube, on losing his beloved.).

The Amelia Sonnets are a dark collection. Though they originate in a specific relationship, according to Marechera, their focus is the universal: the terrorism of love.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Elizabeth Alexander's Poem.


Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no morethan you need.
What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

This inauguration poem by Elizabeth Alexander has produced a divided response among readers and hearers. Some responses reflect nothing more than ignorance: it is a poor poem because it doesn’t rhyme; it is nothing more than mediocre prose; it is plain shit…Such comments do not reflect on the poem, merely on the prejudice and illiteracy of the commentators.

Firstly, it has to be said that the poem is a poem. It is not prose. Each idea is confined into a three line stanza, except at lines 25-30 where the poem relaxes into a six line structure. The poem is tautly constructed and in that pressure exists the tension of the occasion.

The first line is not a surprising opening. It is a flat, cliché. The following lines question the simplicity. The reader’s eye walks, is pulled to the extremity of a line and is then caught, on the turn, with “eyes”. The poetry works through a fine mimetic structure, which focuses on how we see, but do not see. In daily attention, there is inattention.

In the following stanza, the theme of isolation is developed. Again, in a simple image pattern of ABBA: noise, bramble, (bramble) thorn, din (noise), the mind is wrong-footed, unbalanced and thrown towards a precise image “each/one of our ancestors on our tongues.” Instead of babble, the reader is given a scrabbling of the word: “bramble”, knotted and prickly utterances, and instead of babel comes tongues that speak of history, with the guidance of ancestral memory.

At this point, the poem could deepen and run away with itself, but Elizabeth Alexander pulls it back, back to the commonplace, for commonality matters: it is the theme of Obama’s new America. Lines 9-15 embrace America, as Whitman did, and the ordinary is celebrated.
The images of “stitching”, “darning”. “hole”, “patching” announce what must be done to “repair” America. And in those humble acts lie the images of subversion, the place of women in history, the other weave, the acts that have made the “uniform”, the historical terrain of America.

The poem lives through small details. So, as the transition begins from mending to music and how it has played its role in resistance and healing, there comes a momentary musical rhyme: “somewhere” catches “ repair”, but the song is deflected into a different kind of concord. America is glimpsed through its variety of sound, images that conjure stratas of society. Lines 13-15 could slip into rhetoric. The heavy meaning, however, is left to direct images and key words: “wait”, “changing”, “Begin”. Like children starting a test, America waits to be tested and counted once more.

Briefly, the poem develops through a well-known conceptual metaphor, LIFE IS A ROADWAY, and it grows towards mysticism, “we cannot yet see.” And it is pulled back again into the realm of common speech: “Say it plain”, with a gentle pun on “plain” as the roads and plains of America, the flatness of land, becomes the flatness and plainness of speech.

“That many have died for this day” opens an elegiac note, yet one so directly expressed that sacrifice, survival and celebration co-exist in a harmonious balance.

As the poem draws towards its conclusion, it pin-points the core of Obama’s address.

…the time has come to set aside childish things…
As we consider the road that unfolds before us…

The context, here, is Corinthians 13, and the need to grow through love. The poem began by varying the words of Corinthians 13: speech is nothing but noise and din without love. At its close, the poem widens into a vision of love, a love that makes people speak truth. AMOR:ROMA. Civilization is the reflection of love. (Pound out of Dante). And the light of love is caught in the final images: “today’s sharp sparkle” scintillates through its crisp sound. Love becomes a quality of the cutting day, “this winter air”. And the poem closes, not with redundant repetition as some have claimed, but variation and pendency. “On the brink” lifts the mind prophetically to a mountain of vision, to a suggestion of where America has come: disaster. This is then varied into “On the brim” which suggests emotion almost too great to control, but which must be controlled. Then this is transformed to “On the cusp” which picks up the point of the pencil (line 15). This day is ultimately seen as a pointed day, a point for point making, and transition.

Elizabeth’s Alexander’s verse is not “bureaucratic” poetry. It is finely judged verse, walking its way between common speech and uncommon echoes. The consensus of opinion is that the poem let-down the political event. It did not. The poem strikes a modest note. It honours its President, without being sycophantic. It varies his vision, yet offers its own, for as HD acknowledged, the poetic role is never bureaucratic, never administrative: it creates and legislates. The poem remembers that inauguration is connected to augury-- it is a wise reading of the signs. And praise be to it, for it is "hand-lettered" carefully, with craft and skill.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Art of Reading. Communion

"But there were times when Miss Keough all but confided that the requirements of knowing the code of Literature were tedious; and there were other times when—even among these things we were supposed to read—she would present some poem or story as if it belonged, not to a reading list but to her own life...This poem "Heat" by H.D. we understood was offered so. It belonged not to the order of poems and stories that we must know all about if we were to be accomplished students. It belonged to the second order that seemed to contain a personal revelation. It was the ground for a possible deeper communion."

Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book.

Monday, February 02, 2009

HD, Notes on Thought and Vision.

Notes on Thought and Vision has never rated highly among HD scholars. Barbara Guest describes it in embarrassed terms as full of “super” terms, by implication, a little too elitist and Nietzschean; too much of it reading like DH Lawrence (God, forbid!) on his philosophical coal-heap. It is interesting to note that the strong intellectualism of the pamphlet is associated with maleness. Rachel Blau Du Plessis sees the book as a response to patriarchy, to the Promethean actions of HD’s brother. But Janice S Robinson seems to be closer to the truth when she aligns it with female intelligence. The intellectual assertiveness within Notes on Thought and Vision takes a male muse in female form as its driving force, HD’s lover, Bryher/Winifred Ellerman. (Bryer insisted that HD used “he” as a form of address). The sheer brain-power of Bryer, her reputation as an intellectual debater, offers a source much closer to home, for HD, than patriarchs such as Lawrence.

Because of its psychological nature Notes on Thought and Vision has been inevitably viewed in relation to Freud and Jung. Gelpi, in his introduction to the Peter Owen edition makes the point that Freud would have disliked HD’s terms, though they would have been much to the liking of Jung. This suggests an affinity that does not really exist. HD revered Freud—though they differed—and abhorred Jung as a thinker. Trying to twist HD’s thought into patriarchal lines is never wise and one of the problems with Notes is that it stands as a corrective to the male tradition. Notes on Thought and Vision is HD’s only extended statement on poetical theory. And it is a very odd statement in relation to HD’s outer world. It bears no resemblance to the bombastic utterances of Pound…to Imagism…to Vorticism. It also differs from the Poundian view in a very significant way. For Pound, the artist was the “antennae of the race”. Cultural demise was caused by a lack of quality artists. For HD, there is a belief that the artists exist. Cultural collapse has come about because the many do not know how to decipher the dashes and dots of vision.

Notes on Thought and Vision, as HD acknowledges, began with childbirth. The trauma that followed the birth of her daughter created a heighted state of mind which led to the formation of her views. It is tempting to push Notes on Thought and Vision into the backward stream. And with some justification. Life and art were inseparable for HD. But this does not mean that the pamphlet, however odd it may seem, for whatever reasons, belongs to some hysterical stage of HD’s life.

Central to Notes on Thought and Vision is HD’s belief in the over-mind, a “jellyfish” state, a kind of lens which allows vision. This is complimented by another lens, the love-mind. These lenses, when adjusted, when operating in relation to one another, create the focus, artistic production and birth. Janice S Robinson writes intelligently of HD’s vision in Trilogy, especially the elements that make Tribute to the Angels. She observes that the second book is written in the key of Venus/love/the angel Annael. It is, however, written in a double-key, of war-love, Uriel-Annael. The two lenses of Notes and Thought and Vision, Uriel/over-mind and Annael/love-mind return in Trilogy to create an art of sublimation and transubstantiation. By writing about love in a time of war, HD intends to create in Trilogy (1944-46) what she sensed in Notes:

Man’s chief concern is keeping his little house warm
and his little wall strong.

But the artist’s role is hermetic, and far-ranging, and born out of autobiography, which ought to be translated as self-life-writing. The walls of the self are not little when expanded by over-mind.