Sunday, August 01, 2010

Langour and Luxury

Ocatvio Paz wrote in his important book-length essay, In Light of India, on some essential differences between Western poetry and classical Sanskrit poetry, which is the living foundation of Indian poetry. In Western poetry, lyricism is often accompanied by melancholy. Paz writes:

In Indian poetry, on the other hand, there is a feeling that is rare in ours: luxuriousness, that moment in which the body, without losing its composure, seems to waver, enveloped by extreme pleasure, and falls into a delicious swoon. The poem becomes a naked body adorned with jewels, lying conquered. Luxuriousness is an effluvium that glows and vanishes. It is also an agent of metamorphosis: the male body, weakened by an excess of pleasure, twists into that of a woman; in turn, the female body, goaded by desire, leaps on top like a tiger. The transposition adds ambiguity to the erotic battle: Krishna seems at times like a maiden, and the graceful Parvati, in a flash of the eyes, turns into the terrifying Durga. . . . This is the great difference from Western eroticism, which since the end of the eighteenth century has been largely concerned with infraction and violence. Bataille emphasizes that eroticism is essentially transgression: Hindu art proves him wrong. It is not a legal code but a fan: unfolding, refolding, unfolding again, displaying the whole range of pleasures. An art and a poetry that have never known sadism.

Eroticism in Indian art—eros itself, if you will—is often depicted as languorous, as opposed to conquering. Sexuality is not a war between the sexes, but a blurring of their boundaries. Role-reversals are not uncommon: the woman must ride on top, and be dominant. The rigid gender and sexual roles that have become reified by custom and religious dictates in the West are not present in this poetry. Neither is the Western division of soul and body, the alienation of the flesh, the exaltation of the spirit at the expense of denigrating the physical form. Even Indian food is luxurious, a complex blending of scents and tastes that overwhelm and envelope the senses and the soul alike. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that for me Indian food is comfort food, bringing back memories of my early childhood in Andhra Pradesh. (Comfort food has become even more available now that one can find in the USA restaurants that include or even specialize in South Indian cuisine.)

Yet even within the Western poetic tradition there are eddies and streams of langour and luxury. I find them especially in the poets who write in the Spanish-speaking tradition, both in Europe and in Central and South America. I find these characteristics in Federico Garcia Lorca, in Pablo Neruda, in Antonio Machado, in Xavier Villaruttia, and others in this lineage.

I have maintained for some time that the full flowering of Surrealism was not amongst the French and Italian poets who founded that school, but in Latin America. French Surrealism remained a post-Freudian intellectual game; even as it valued the irrationality of dreams and the unconscious, it valued them primarily as sources of imagery that were mined for use by the conscious craft of the waking poet. There are some marvelous games invented by the Surrealists, but they remained games. And there is little luxury in the artistic results. More paranoia than langour, to be honest. The French Surrealists might have wanted to visit the jungle of dreams, but they didn't trust the jungle to provide for them, and so they never fully relaxed into its embrace. And later Western poetic -isms, in their polished intellectual rigor, have often dismissed langour and luxury as soft and not to be taken seriously as Art. The triumph of the rational insists that the sensual be demonized.

Octavio Paz himself is exemplary of the full flowering of what Surrealism could have become, and did become when it was employed by Latin American poets. In Paz as in the others mentioned above, the tools of Surrealism became fully embodied, fully alive. And this is because, unlike the French Surrealists but like the classical Sanskrit poets, the Spanish-speaking poets involved the physical body and its erotic possibilities in their poetry.

In his many essays on poetry and its history and sources, Paz returns again and again to the eroticism of the physical world, of nature, of the body, and the world as the body. Paz of course was strongly influenced by his many years spent living in India; the small selected poetry volume that speaks to this directly is A Tale of Two Gardens, one garden being Paz' native Mexico, the other India. Paz' poetry, for example Sunstone, is deeply luxurious while simultaneously rigorously formal and profoundly philosophical.

For myself, I often seek a more luxurious, sensual, langourous poetry. I seek a poetry of the body, an embodied erotic poetry, a poetry that evokes the senses as much as the mind. I've long stated that poetry written only from the head ultimately fails, and I stand by that. The soma needs to be part of the experience of reading and re-creating a poem in the reader's own self. It can't be always just dry, dessicated, puzzle-box, intellectual language-based heartless mental games, it needs to be full-body, full mind-body experience. The best poetry sings.

So it is always a pleasure to discover a book of poetry new to me that is also able to evoke a powerful somatic response in the reader. In this case, it's both pleasure and inspiration. Sometimes the world does give you what you've been desiring.

Furious Lullaby by Oliver de la Paz.
(Southern Illinois University Press, 2007)

I was in the bookstore, browsing, when I came across Furious Lullaby. I had never seen this book before. I picked it up and scanned it, then put it back. After awhile, I came back to it, drawn by some unnamed instinct, and picked it up again, and began to read. I was soon completely absorbed. I bought the book, and took it home, and have now read through it several times.

I had never heard of the poet, Oliver de la Paz, and still know almost nothing about him. I am interested not so much in the poet's biography but rather in these poems that emerged from his life and heart.

And these poems are immensely satisfying to read. They are fierce, intelligent, often surprising, coming from oblique angles at otherwise familiar topics, deeply felt, occasionally funny, and altogether stunning. I haven't been turned on by a new book of poems like this in a long time. (Let's face it, most of what gets published these days is dull, dry, overly thought-out, self-conscious to a fault if not outright narcissistic, and lyrically bland.) De la Paz' poetic antecedents are Lorca, William Blake, perhaps Neruda or Paz or Machado. The poems remind of the suppleness of the Spanish-speaking tradition, both in terms of the surreal juxtapositions of images and objects, and in terms of the erotic language. There is a luxurious use of language here, a frequent display of pyrotechnic technique, but not for its own sake, rather in the service of what is being given in the poem. I feel no words are in excess, nothing needs to be trimmed away, it's all quite precise even in those moments of extremity or ecstasy.

The lyric poem is lately a small thing focused on small moments, small events, personal reflections, too much of smoke and mirrors. All too many MFA workshops teach poets to think small. In this book, to the contrary, de la Paz finds (as did Blake) whole universes in the grains of desert sand that scorpions clatter across. His poems often open outwards, taking in wide vistas, before returning in the end to where they began. Zoom out, zoom back in.

There are several Aubades in Furious Lullaby, for example, Aubade with a Thistle Bush Holding Six Songs, which has as its opening lines:

A man told me that he had wasted his life. I did not know him.
We were on a train moving from one trespass to the next,
the fields in the windows shifting utterly into daybreak.

He told me about the guitar he bought with a little cash
saved at odd jobs, how he could not play but kept the thing
as a symbol for failure.

An aubade, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is 1. a song or poem greeting the dawn; 2. a morning love song, or a song or poem of lovers parting at dawn; 3. morning music. (The latter being the opposite of a nocturne, an evening or night music.) The tradition of aubade in poetry is something one finds more often in the Romance languages than in the Anglo-Saxon rationalistic tongues. Some mornings one lingers, in langourous pleasure, in memory, before arising. Each of the several aubades in contains aspects of morning, of music, of lovers parting. Sometimes it's implied that lovers will rejoin come nightfall, but not always. Aubades can be both praise and farewell, and both tones are struck here.

Many of de la Paz' titles in Furious Lullaby are themselves intriguing enough to mention:

Aubade with Doves, a Television, and Fire

My Dearest Apostasy

What the Scapula Said

Epitaph for the Musculature of the Neck

The art of finding a great title for a poem is one that perhaps de la Paz might consciously work at, but these seem so effortless, so natural and un-mannerist, so fresh they take the breath away. Poems with "My Dearest" and "Aubade" in their titles outnumber the rest here; which itself lends a certain tone to the collection. As though an wordly cavalier, a learned aristocratic lover, was writing florid farewell and hello letters to the body, to lovers, to the Devil, to himself. There is wit, regret, langour, and sharp observation of the familiar here, all made sensual by the sparkle of a turn of phrase. I discussed Sanskrit poetry earlier, and there are connections here to that tradition as well, both sensually and philosophically.

I am taken back to my own childhood in tropical India, for example, by Aubade with Scorpions and Monsoon:

Little sleeper, I mentioned the scorpions
were thoughtless in the rain, as they swarm down

the length of the green skins to the flood, eel-like
with furious tails. Earlier, the sky

had turned a mustard color proving that August
and its rains would soon bathe the desert, making

the whole thing become a dark scar. Water caused
the scorpions to shelter against the cacti

spikes. . . .

Rather than quote the whole poem, I want to give just enough of a taste to inspire the reader to go seek out the rest.

I could go on and on, droning away with insufficient, inarticulate praise, and suffice to say Furious Lullaby rewards each reading.

The highest praise I can give a poet or book of poems is that reading the poems inspires me to write. When I re-read Rilke's Duino Elegies, I want to write. When I read Coleman Barks' luminous versions of Rumi, I want to write. When I re-read Jim Harrison's Letters to Yesenin, or Jean Valentine's Ordinary Things, or Sam Hamill's lucid translations of the Japanese haiku masters, or Octavio Paz, Federico Garcia Lorca, or Odysseas Elytis, I want to write. I don't write in imitation, but in response. Reading such poetry evokes a creative response; I discover that I have something to say back. I am triggered not by every poem, or every poet, but by those who speak most directly to my experience, and to my peculiar mindset or way of thinking about the world. Poems that speak to the whole self, to the soma as well as the mind, are often the most reliable triggers.

I find myself writing an aubade or two, in the current series of poems that have been coming to me this summer, after a long period of writing nothing much; and I have de la Paz to thank for kick-starting me. I also, in this new series of poems, have Jim Harrison to thank, for likewise kick-starting me as I re-read Letters to Yesenin, which are some of the most brilliant and gutsy prose-poems of the last fifty years. Both of these books were there in late June, when chronic illness was dragging me down, depressing me, and gradually wasting me away towards that edge of a precipice that's hard to climb back from. It was reading these two books of poems that opened that door in me that had been closed for many months, and new poems began to spill over the jamb. Now I find myself feeling better, surprised by a new treatment regimen that promises to turn around the downward spiral, not surprised so much by a cautious optimism that doesn't quite dare to assume the best since the worst has so often been the pattern these past few years. And as I feel better, surprised by it, I am equally surprised by the fierce will to make poems, make art, make music, that is rekindled in me. As though making poems were a pure reminder that I'm still here, still alive. And so I go on.

Furious Lullaby made me want to write, in response, and as I say, that's the highest praise I can give a book of poems.

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