retrieval, a poem

This is not a book review but a poem, for a change.

These are the vignettes that have inspired it:

In one of his daily poetry readings, Billy Collins read a poem recently that begins by setting a specific scene and therefore, as he put it, creates the impression that all the things it speaks of have truly happened. I have forgotten whose poem it was but it was beautiful; it contained a sunset, maybe an animal, as well. Billy Collins also has a poem called Forgetfulness and it ends with the moon. ‘Poetry and the Moon’ is a lecture by Mary Ruefle that I have been reading; it’s in the collection Madness, Rack, and Honey, which I was incredibly lucky to receive as a present and which is taking my mind to all the nooks and crannies it had forgotten existed. I am listening again.

Pot-Bouille is a novel by Émile Zola I once studied for a literature course (I even played The Sims with an Octave Mouret character), and that I now barely remember. The title is notoriously hard to translate. I looked back at some of my notes from that year, trying to find what I thought of it back then, and found so many other essay files: final, final FINAL, final (1), really FINAL, check biblio and print, etc., as if at some point thinking ends and the conclusion becomes definitive rather than just tired of its own nuances, exhausted from being revised over and over again. 

I had forgotten where Bulgarian poetry takes me. This reminded me that sometimes, if we’re lucky, we see things, or can wait and wait until we actually come across, the way we want to see them.

I know Luxembourg in vignettes only, through the lens of my camera: the hues of the sky as seen from my window, the brief touristy snap, the sudden art out of nowhere on the side of the abandoned house. But it is also the place where I am listening again:

And finally: waltz music is in 3/4 time, this I vaguely remember from school (but still, I had to double check). Yet when I think of a waltz, I think of Jesse and Céline, and how, when the clock struck midnight on 31 December, I saw those in Vienna who can – and also those who cannot –  literally waltz into the New Year, and also how I have never listened to this in Paris, because I only just discovered the song, but I think that, whatever corner of my mind I invite it to stay in, it will come and go as it pleases, for years, until it decides that it’s time to leave forever, quietly dancing itself out.

This is the poem:

retrieval

memory
like a poem
is never truly finished
like a lifeline 
never really feels completed
even when it seems that way
even when the gaps between its breaks
are stuffed with revelation
milestones
beauty

in some book or other
I can’t recall precisely 
yet it was recent
something or other pleasant
was constantly compared with
champagne bubble lightness
but that is only lovely 
when measured out in thirst
for stimuli without the blues

I’d like to warn against the fate
of Funes the Memorious 
but I don’t remember:
was it a curse or blessing
what Borges gave him?

so in the end 
this memory of ours
it is this:
a thing you sever
push outside yourself 
and think of as a stranger. 
and: 
are you kind to strangers? 
and: 
do you speak to them at all?

but memory is only this right now
because a poem
that is the child of all I have forgotten
and all that I can conjure up
today – or even just this second
compels me to believe:

it is a place 
that’s full of tiny little flowers
so delicate
so gentle
and so many
you almost cannot see
the thieves

Fermata, ed. by Eva Bourke and Vincent Woods (Dublin, Ireland)

And so, it has been years since I wrote a review here, old concept or new one. Right now, it feels like a strange but fitting time to do so, stuck in one place with just books and records and Éric Rohmer films for company. 

In the last few years, I largely neglected novels, finding time for them only occasionally, a brief spurt of summer voracity here, a couple of stolen evenings there. In that time, though, I made a resolution of sorts, to actively immerse myself in both poetry and music (after all, ‘all poetry aspires to the condition of music’), and not just old favourites but new stories told in lines and rhythms. Beyond that: I decided to make an effort to seek out beauty in the mundane, to remember how to observe and savour, linger in a moment. It can be daunting, searching for these ‘sparuti incostanti sprazzi di bellezza‘ on grey cloudy mornings or endless afternoons, and so they are all the more precious when they come unexpected: bus drivers raising a hand to greet each other as they drive past on the serpentine roads of Luxembourg; the stained glass window of someone’s living room; the way light shimmers in a stranger’s curls; the haunting voice of Billie Eilish, her song carrying over Portobello Road Market, amplified as a young girl plays her CD – and all around, dusk alighting on the city I love(d), unchanged but drifting off to someone else’s soundtrack now. And sometimes, it’s the conjuring of beauty out of nothing that does the trick, simply so that it can be passed along as acts of kindness and vulnerability.  

How I remember times in my life when I most felt myself is in snippets of music and words while moving through space, up in the sky, in buses across the continent, commuter trains, the delicate balance of the morning rush hour. It’s that sense of being fully aware of the act of travelling, its fleetingness and preciousness, the endless skin-and-bones-fragility of it all; its inevitable end that is postponed, deferred, then cherished, missed all the more in its absence. The closest my permanently coffee-drenched mind has ever come to a meditative state was when my plane touched down at Sofia Airport five years ago as the sounds of ‘Scarborough Fair’ took me someplace else.

In a way, I want to come back to the original idea behind this blog, which was to slow down with all the garish must-reads and must-sees, the feeling of never catching up to some imaginary canon, and to really pay attention to the words, bring back the pleasure of their sounds, like spells of self-preservation.

This is what I decided I would recapture, in the last few months, and as luck would have it, before the cancellations of the coming days and weeks and maybe months, I managed to make a quick stop in Dublin to visit a friend, and stumble upon, in between windy beaches and heartachingly beautiful light, this collection of poetry inspired by music, hiding in Books Upstairs.

The term ‘fermata’ from the title is explained in the foreword: ‘… the performers must hold the note and stop any metrical measurement of musical time until the conductor or director indicates the reinstatement of the meter. The effect can be extraordinary. If the conductor holds for too long, a point rapidly comes when the tension in the music starts to lose power and the effect is one of anti-climax. If the hold is too short, there can be a sense of disappointment at an emotional opportunity lost.’ It is that singular effervescent moment of tension, missed in a second, the right feeling for a perfect timing. It reminds me of writing, too, of hovering in that space between barely-there meaning and obvious, sentimental kitsch, and how the best poems – or at least the ones I like best – play with both the rich and the sparse, the pale and the saturated.

The book is divided into six chapters, each one with its own theme, so I decided to select six poems, one from each chapter, that resonated with me, to include here:

From Chapter I, inspired by the soundtracks of nature:
Eamon Grennan, Untitled, which is called Starlings in October here

From Chapter II, focusing on the tools of the art: 
John F. Deane, The Upright Piano

From Chapter III, devoted to laments and elegies:
Leontia Flynn, Country Songs

From Chapter IV, which focusses on youth, mostly: 
Ciaran O’Driscoll, Wasps in the Session

Chapter V showcases personal encounters, and this poem is one of the most stunning things I have read lately, and needs to be accompanied by this and this
Mary Noonan, But I should never think of spring 

And finally, from Chapter VI, which includes poems dedicated to musicians:
Sinead Morrissey, Shostakovich

Recently, I read a beautifully written article about Leonard Cohen, suggesting that the real power of his music and words is in their hidden pulse, in the bigger things beyond the lyrics and melody. It’s that someplace else I know too well. In writing, speaking, dreaming out loud about poetry and music, you reach a limit of what you can say, run out of moonbeams to silver your coherence. But the imagery that they evoke goes on, boundless in its combinatory potentialities. It lingers, splattered on the page, lodged in the mind and ears. And around it, this weird, wild world bursts open, shedding its fragility for the briefest of moments, ripe with dandelions in flight, zephyr currents on bare skin, the creamy notes of jazz lifting in a frosty air; that bittersweet ache of pressing down on the future tense of dreams, 

holding, 

holding, 

then letting go, not a second too late, not a second too soon.