* * *
I’ve been on a vacation from verse, it seems—stymied in my own work, disappointed in the four or five collections I’ve been eking away at for weeks (no need to name names; it may be just my mood, but is recent American poetry not withering from being over-fertilized by cleverness?). Anyway, I recently finished Lawrence Durrell’s Monsieur. Durrell, like Nabokov, was a master stylist and an inventive builder of … how to characterize the novels? Not “baroque”; maybe “Asiatic” in the Gnostic/Cabalistic sense: wheels within wheels, interpenetrating webs of imagery like musical motifs, decline- and death-haunted visions of not-quite-transcendence. (Kenneth Rexroth was much more articulate about Durrell than I can be.) Here are some examples:
[In Venice]—In his little shop, Gabrielli hovered like a most ancient moth, among his exquisite vellums and moroccos. He was finishing the little Tasso which had taken him so many years—and had been destined as an anniversay of marriage present Pia [former wife of the fictional novelist Sutcliffe]. It was at last done, and he had been about to send it to Sutcliffe, who made no mention of Pia, simply saying how very pleased she would be. All of a sudden he had the impulse to lift that withered old craftsman’s hand to his lips, to kiss it with reverence. Looking into the glaucous old eyes he thought: we are the vestiges of a civilisation gone dead as dead mastoid. No doubt these desert boys were right—evil was at the helm and pace was increasing. On could hear the distant thunder of the falls towards which we were sliding—the distant cannonade of doom. Meanwhile here was this little old man who had lived to see so much, frail as a leaf, still quietly working among his colour blocks and gold leaf. The little book glowed in his hand like a fire opal.* * *
[In Venice]—Her warm and capable hands touched his. Somewhere in the romantic and water-wobbled city bells rang out, the tongues of memory, and the faint engraving of human voices scribbled the night with song. They both sat quite quiet, just breathing and looking at each other quietly, with the innocent eyes of the mind.
[Akkad, leader of an Egyptian Gnostic cult, speaking:] “I can give you the rough outline of what we believe as true for this time. The presiding demon is the spirit of matter, and he springs fully armed from the head of classical Judaism of which all European religions are tributaries. The Prince is usury, the sprit of gain, the enigmatic power of capital value embodied in the poetry of gold, or specie, or script. When Chris flogged the money-changers, poor harmless men, he was not behaving in an irrational and neurotic manner. No, he had seen the Prince seated among them, smirking and rubbing his hands.”
Somewhere, thousands of miles away, Akkad was writing: “They refused to accept the findings of direct intuition. They want what they call proof. What is that but a slavish belief in causality and determinism, which in our new age we regard as provisional and subject to scale.”
He believed firmly that one should have the courage to write down even what one did not fully understand..
Her old father, the retired Ambassador, lived on forever in Tangier, stone deaf, going for a drive in his car sometimes, or else passing away a long retirement full of boredom by playing gin rummy or bridge. A sort of benign cyst of diplomacy who had risen by gravitation and sleek kindnesses.
Far away, on the stony garrigues by the fading light of the harvest moon, one could hear the musical calling of wolves. Provence slumbered in the moist plenitude of harvest weather, the deep contented mists and damps of fruition. The dusty roads were furrowed by wobbling wains and carts and tractors bearing their mountains of grapes to the vats. Blue grapes dusted with the pollen of ages. In the fields lines of harvesters moved with their pruning hooks and sickles, followed by clouds of birds.
The art of prose governed by syncopated thinking; for thoughts curdle in the heat if not expressed. An idea is like a rare bird which cannot be seen. What one sees is the trembling of the branch it has just left.
The well of knowledge is deep and the thirst of men is endless. But they know that the wells are drying out, the levels falling.
If man did not have his illnesses he would have nothing to shield him from reality.
People are born with frozen affects, and stalk the planet like dead men. In cold blood. These are the faceless hominids who cause us so much trouble by acting out what we are repressing with such heroism.
Sun’s just up, stars hidden. Each
one’s hand on the other’s hip,
the nameless in her
the nameless in me.
Let breathing be.