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Blog entries on '20 April 2006'

Thursday 20 April 2006

A reading of Burnside's Septuagesima

Spurred to read John Burnside by Cape's recently issued Selected Poems, I made his poem Septuagesima my Poem of the Week this week. Below is my reading of Septuagesima.

For those of us who only read fluently in one language the epigraph, in Spanish, at the head of John Burnside's poem Septuagesima, is the second hurdle we face after the title of the work itself. Septuagesima is the name given to the third from last Sunday before Lent in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. Known among the Greeks as Sunday of the Prodigal, the title is taken from the Gospel of Luke's famous The Parable of the Prodigal Son, (chapter 15, verses 11-32), which customarily is read on the day. Understanding this, we are immediately tuned to the fact that this may well be a religious poem or a poem where knowing some of the religious connotation or background or resonance of the title is probably of some importance. A poet is not going to choose such a title, and append such an epigraph, carelessly.

Jorge Guillén y Álvarez (1893–1984) was born in Valladolid in Spain and was a member of the so-called Generation of '27 poets. The quote in the epigraph is from Guillén's poem Dawn. In English translation it would read something like: "Names. / Above, below they cover the essence / of things." These words set the theme of the coming poem and are echoed both right at the start of Burnside's verse ("the day before Adam came / to name the animals") and towards the end ("before the names, / beyond the gloss of things).

The first tercet of Septuagesima again tells us that God is in the house - "I dream of the silence / the day before Adam came". And the second stanza's "God's bright fingers" fully confirms the hint of the title, whether we know anything about Burnside's faith or not, that this is indeed a religious poem. The poet dreams of the earth's silence before God had made mankind, way before the events of the Fall. Looking out onto "a winter whiteness" he wonders would that time then be in any way like this time now. Is this light, bright silence in any way like the silence "before Adam"? If it is (and the hint is that it is "like this, perhaps"), what does that tell us?

We read that the "gold skins" of the newly created, at the time of their newness, were "still implicit with the light". The poet seems to be suggesting that the creatures of creation were themselves formed out of this (Divine) light and the "gold" brings our attention to how precious that creation is. I find myself reminded of William Blake's God reaching down, out of the clouds, almost pure light. Perhaps, in times of quiet contemplation, we can get "beyond the gloss of things" by seeing in the day's quotidian light the very Divine light from out of which it was separated? "[B]eyond the gloss of things" is the Divine. And it is all around us; a patina on our fellow creatures; an ever-present companion - who, asked TS Eliot, "is the third who walks always beside you?"

Philsophers have long argued about how to discover the thing itself, language being a bridge to the thing described but, finally, a barrier to it: language merely refers. Burnside suggests that we are "sometimes / haunted by ... the forms / we might have known / before the names". Before the corruption of language, just after God first separated the light from the dark, before the animals were named, the forms of things simply were. In their quiddity, their thing-ness still "haunts" us (note the repetition of "haunting" and "haunted"). But why "haunt"? It seems an oddly non-Christian word (ghosts and ghouls haunt, not the Christian God).

We are sometimes "haunted by the space / we fill". As when we enter a huge, cavernous church or, more simply, just a cave. And sometimes haunted "by the forms / we might have known": the people we might have become or loved; the paths not taken. At the very least, "haunt" suggests the supernatural. It brings our attention to the unnaturalness of God, perhaps even to something frightening about Him. But, despite this one word, the tone of the poem is not fearful, nor fearsome. Burnside dreams "of the silence" before Man was made, and before Sin came. Echoes of those days "before the names", before our Creation and so before our separation from God, can be felt in the light shining now, today, any day, which, finally, is our reassurance: light's silence always speaks of God.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Thursday 20 April 2006

Verso goodies

Always a pleasure to receive books from Verso. And yesterday three gems arrived from "the most radical publisher in the UK and US" (or so they style themselves these days): Negri's Books for Burning: Between Civil War and Democracy in 1970's Italy ("Long before Antonio Negri became famous around the world for Empire and Multitude, he was infamous across Europe for [these] incendiary writings" ... Books for Burning consists of five pamphlets written between 1971 and 1977); David Harvey's Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development; and a backlist title, Franco Moretti's Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900.

For those interested in Moretti, Franco Moretti's Graphs, Maps, Trees: A Valve Book Event ("a series of short essays and comments") is a good place to start online.

For those interested in David Harvey, the first chapter in Spaces of Global Capitalism, Neo-Liberalism and the Restoration of Class Power, is online (beware PDF).

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Thursday 20 April 2006

Freud, Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salomé

Ooh, now I am excited about this: Freud's Requiem: Mourning, Memory, and the Invisible History of a Summer Walk (Continuum) by Matthew Von Unwerth (director of the Abraham A. Brill Library of The New York Psychoanalytic Institute & Society, and coordinator of the Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of Imagination, no less!) The book is billed as an exploration of Freud’s ideas "on creativity and mortality and their roots in his history" and a search for "broader lessons about love, memory, mourning, and creativity."

Written in 1915 during winter and wartime, Freud’s little-known essay On Transience records an afternoon conversation with 'a young but already famous poet' and his 'taciturn friend' about mortality, eternity, and the 'sense' of life. In Freud’s Requiem, the philosophical disagreement between Freud and his companions - who may have been the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and his muse and former lover Lou Andreas-Salomé - becomes a prism through which to consider Freud’s creativity as a response to his own experiences, from his passionately curious, lovestruck teenage years to his death after a long struggle with cancer in 1939. Drawing on a variety of literary and historical sources - Homer, Goethe, as well as Freud’s own writings, including his letters - Freud’s Requiem is both an intimate personal drama and a spirited intellectual inquiry.

For more on similar, Lou Andreas-Salomé's memoir of Rilke You Alone are Real to Me (Carcanet) is thoroughly to be recommended.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Omens, after Alexander Pushkin

I rode to meet you: dreams
like living beings swarmed around me
and the moon on my right side
followed me, burning.

I rode back: everything changed.
My soul in love was sad
and the moon on my left side
trailed me without hope.

To such endless impressions
we poets give ourselves absolutely,
making, in silence, omen of mere event,
until the world reflects the deepest needs of the soul.

-- Louise Gluck
Averno (Carcanet Press)

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Word of the Day

The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or two

Pre-order Anu Garg's new book: The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two: The Hidden Lives and Strange Origins of Common and Not-So-Common Words (ISBN 9780452288614), published by Penguin more …

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The New Spirit of Capitalism The New Spirit of Capitalism
Luc Boltanski; Eve Chiapello
Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM
Steve Lake, Paul Griffiths

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