Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

08 MAY, 2015

The Encounter: How Young Vladimir Nabokov Met the Love of His Life and Won Her Over with a Poem

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“Longing, and mystery, and delight…”

On May 8, 1923, a young woman appeared before a young man — an emerging poet — at an émigré charity ball in Berlin. Wearing a black Harlequin demi-mask she refused to lower, she proceeded to produce a verse from one of his poems, which she had clipped from the Russian liberal daily Rul’ some months earlier and committed to memory.

He was instantly besotted.

The woman was 21-year-old Véra Slonim and the man 24-year-old Vladimir Nabokov, and with this Shakespearean encounter began one of history’s greatest romances.

Nabokov had just emerged from the heartbreak of his first great love and was still raw with grief over his father’s death. The encounter with Véra sliced through the thick of this darkness with a luminous beam of possibility — for love, for happiness, for vibrant aliveness. So taken was the young writer with the glimpse of this possibility that he immortalized that fateful moment in a beautiful poem titled “The Encounter,” included in the altogether enchanting Letters to Véra (public library) — one of the best biographies of 2014, which gave us Nabokov’s affectionate bestiary of nicknames for Véra, his clever puzzles and word games for her, and literature’s most entertaining account of food poisoning.

Nabokov mailed the poem to Rul,’ where it was published on June 24. Catalyzing their lifetime of passionate love letters was this most exquisite private serenade performed behind the demi-mask of a public text, translated here by Olga Voronina.

THE ENCOUNTER
enchanted by this strange proximity

Longing, and mystery, and delight…
as if from the swaying blackness
of some slow-motion masquerade
onto the dim bridge you came.

And night flowed, and silent there floated
into its satin streams
that black mask’s wolf-like profile
and those tender lips of yours.

And under the chestnuts, along the canal
you passed, luring me askance.
What did my heart discern in you,
how did you move me so?

In your momentary tenderness,
or in the changing contour of your shoulders,
did I experience a dim sketch
of other — irrevocable — encounters?

Perhaps romantic pity
led you to understand
what had set trembling that arrow
now piercing through my verse?

I know nothing. Strangely
the verse vibrates, and in it, an arrow…
Perhaps you, still nameless, were
the genuine, the awaited one?

But sorrow not yet quite cried out
perturbed our starry hour.
Into the night returned the double fissure
of your eyes, eyes not yet illumed.

For long? For ever? Far off
I wander, and strain to hear
the movement of the stars above our encounter
and what if you are to be my fate…

Longing, and mystery, and delight,
and like a distant supplication….
My heart must travel on.
But if you are to be my fate…

His fate she did become — they were married twenty months later and remained together for half a century, until death did them part. So complete was their union that Véra became Vladimir’s de facto editor, assistant, administrator, agent, archivist, chauffeur, researcher, stenographer in four languages, and even his bodyguard, famously carrying a small pistol in her purse to protect her husband from assassination after he became America’s most famous and most scandalous living author.

Véra and Vladimir Nabokov, Montreaux, 1968 (Photograph: Philippe Halsman)

Letters to Véra is a breathtakingly beautiful in its totality. Complement it with other exhilarating first encounters that sparked some of creative culture’s greatest loves: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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24 APRIL, 2015

What Power Really Means: Cheryl Strayed Reads Adrienne Rich’s Homage to Marie Curie

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A poetic and precise formulation of what it means to be a great artist, a great woman, and a great human being.

“Stories are a meal,” one wise father told his eight-year-old daughter a long time ago. “But poetry is a glass of water, perhaps even a single drop that will save your life.” That’s precisely what poetry became for Cheryl Strayed as she hiked a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail to put herself in the way of truth and beauty in a thoroughly transformative experience that became the magnificent memoir Wild that then became a major motion picture.

In her New York Public Library conversation with Paul Holdengräber, which also gave us her no-nonsense advice to aspiring writers, Strayed recounts her brush with this life-saving power of poetry and reads the first poem from Adrienne Rich’s 1977 masterwork The Dream of a Common Language (public library), titled “Power.” Folded into this nuanced homage to Marie Curie — a woman who died a “martyr to science” after a lifetime of crusading for curiosity and — is an exquisite meditation on what power really means:

POWER

Living in the earth-deposits of our history

Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power

What Strayed observes of Rich is perhaps the single most beautiful and precise formulation of what it means to be a great artist:

Adrienne Rich … did not die a woman who denied that her wounds came from the same source as her power. In fact, she spent her life making power from those wounds [but] Marie Curie… didn’t have that luxury — she had to deny that in order to be who she was in her time. But we don’t. And I think so much of the work I’ve done … and the work I hope I continue to do, is about writing into those wounds.

Complement The Dream of a Common Language, which remains a culturally vital and personally vitalizing masterpiece, with Rich on how love refines our truths, what “truth” really means, and her spectacular commencement address on claiming an education delivered months before this extraordinary book was published, then treat yourself to Rich’s own reading of another piercing poem from the same volume.

Subscribe to the New York Public Library’s always-excellent podcast here and join me in supporting the library in making such fantastic free public programming possible — you know Thoreau and Neil Gaiman would approve.

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22 APRIL, 2015

Beastly Verse: From Lewis Carroll to William Blake, Beloved Poems About Animals in Vibrant and Unusual Illustrations

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“Stories are a meal. But poetry is a glass of water, perhaps even a single drop that will save your life.”

Half a century after Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls, legendary artist Tomi Ungerer’s illustrated compendium of famous authors’ verses about brothers and sisters, another singular illustrator of our own era applies the concept to a different domain of the human experience — the inclination toward thinking with animals in making sense of our own lives.

In Beastly Verse (public library), her spectacular picture-book debut, Brooklyn-based illustrator and printmaker JooHee Yoon brings to vibrant life sixteen beloved poems about nonhuman creatures, real and imagined — masterworks as varied in sentiment and sensibility as Lewis Carroll’s playful “The Crocodile,” D.H. Lawrence’s revolutionarily evolutionary homage to the hummingbird, Christina Rossetti’s celebration of butterfly metamorphosis, and William Blake’s bright-burning ode to the tiger.

What makes the book doubly impressive is the ingenuity of its craftsmanship and the striking results it produces. Trained as a printmaker and fascinated by the traditional, industrial techniques of artists from the first half of the twentieth century, Yoon uses only three colors — cyan, magenta, and yellow — on flat color layers, which she then overlaps to create a controlled explosion of secondary colors.

A gladdening resonance emerges between her printmaking process and the craftsmanship of poetry itself — using only these basic colors and manipulating their layering, Yoon is able to produce a kaleidoscope of emotion much like poets build entire worlds with just a few words, meticulously chosen and arranged.

Yoon explains her process:

Seen alone, each layer is a meaningless collection of shapes, but when overlapped, these sets of shapes are magically transformed into the intended image. To me the process of creating these images is like doing a puzzle, figuring out what color goes where and to make a readable image… There is a luminous brilliant quality to the colors when images are reproduced this way that I love.

The project, four years in the making, comes from Brooklyn-based independent picture-book powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books — creator of consistently rewarding treasures — and was a close collaboration between Yoon and ELB founder Claudia Zoe Bedrick, an immense poetry-lover herself, who became besotted with poetry early and has remained bewitched for life:

For my 8th birthday, my dad gave me a book called Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle: a book that now sits on my teenage son’s shelf. His inscription: Stories are a meal. But poetry is a glass of water, perhaps even a single drop that will save your life. At the age of eight, I didn’t fully understand what he meant, but I came to, and have ever since thought of poetry as water: essential, calm, churning, a vortex of light and shadow, refreshingly cool, pleasingly warm, and sometimes just hot enough or cold enough to jolt, charge, render slightly uncomfortable, and bring one fully, deeply to life once again.

Adding to the pictorial delight are four gatefolds out of which the elephant of Laura E. Richards’s “Eletelephony” marches into the living room, Palmer Brown’s spangled pandemonium hides from its hunter, D.H. Lawrence’s hummingbird stretches its beak across evolutionary time, and Blake’s tiger marches majestically into the jungle.

THE TIGER

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake

HUMMING-BIRD

I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.

Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.

I believe there were no flowers, then,
In the world where the humming-bird flashed ahead of creation.
I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.

Probably he was big
As mosses, and little lizards, they say were once big.
Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.
We look at him through the wrong end of the long telescope of Time,
Luckily for us.

D.H. Lawrence

CATERPILLAR

Brown and furry
Caterpillar in a hurry,
Take your walk
To the shady leaf, or stalk,
Or what not,
Which may be the chosen spot.
No toad spy you,
Hovering bird of prey pass by you;
Spin and die,
To live again a butterfly.

Christina Rosetti

THE CROCODILE

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!

Lewis Carroll

THE PELICAN

Captain Jonathan
Found a pelican
On an island in the Far East.

In the morning
Jonathan’s pelican
Laid an egg all round and white.

Out of the egg
Came another pelican
That resembled the first a lot.

In its turn
The second pelican
Laid another round white egg.
And predictably
One more pelican
Came out and laid one more white egg.

This story could go on forever
Unless someone makes an omelet.

Robert Desnos

DREAM SONG

Sunlight, moonlight,
Twilight, starlight —
Gloaming at the close of day,
And an owl calling,
Cool dews falling
In a wood of oak and may.

Lantern-light, taper-light,
Torchlight, no-light:
Darkness at the shut of day,
And lions roaring,
Their wrath pouring
In wild waste places far away.

Elf-light, bat-light,
Touchwood-light and toad-light,
And the sea a shimmering gloom of grey,
And a small face smiling
In a dream’s beguiling
In a world of wonders far away.

Walter de la Mare

Complement Yoon’s immeasurably wonderful Beastly Verse with French graphic artist Blexbolex’s similarly printed, very differently bewitching Ballad, then revisit this fascinating exploration of why animal metaphors enchant us.

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21 APRIL, 2015

Love After Love: Derek Walcott’s Poetic Ode to Being at Home in Ourselves

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“Sit. Feast on your life.”

The great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has written beautifully about why learning to love others begins with learning to love ourselves — a sentiment that the reactive modern cynic might dismiss as the vacant fodder of self-help books, but one which more considered reflection reveals to be deeply truthful and deeply uncomfortable. What, after all, does loving oneself even mean — particularly if we’re aspiring to be unselfish and generous, and to outgrow the illusory ego-shell we call a self?

That’s what Caribbean poet and playwright Derek Walcott (b. January 23, 1930) — a writer of such extraordinary poetic prowess that his 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature appears a wholly inadequate measure of his mastery and mesmerism — addresses with a luminous sidewise gleam in a poem titled “Love After Love,” found in his Collected Poems: 1948–1984 (public library).

On an archival On Being episode titled “Opening to Our Lives,” mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn reads Walcott’s masterpiece — undoubtedly one of the greatest, most soul-stretching poems ever written. Please enjoy:

LOVE AFTER LOVE

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

This reading is part of On Being’s altogether wonderful Poetry Radio Project. Complement it with other poetry-lovers’ readings of favorite poems: Amanda Palmer reads Wislawa Szymborska, David Whyte reads Mary Oliver, Joanna Macy reads Rainer Maria Rilke, and my reading of Mark Strand.

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