Sunday, 20 September 2015

Guy Goffette's 'Elegy for a Friend': A Long Journey

Nicolas Vigier, Rain in Paris. Public domain

When I first read 'Elegy for a Friend', a sequence of thirteen-line poems by Guy Goffette written for his friend Paul de Roux, I was left overwhelmed and in tears. This reaction came from the pure beautiful power of the poem and its wonderful translation from French by Marilyn Hacker. It probably also had something to do with the fact that elegy has unfortunately been quite relevant in the lives of my family and friends in the past twelve months (not to speak of most of my life, it seems.) But when I started thinking about how I could write about the poem, it took me on a long and revealing journey of its own.

'Elegy for a Friend' has a certain focus on the cumulative effect of words, of events, and of simply living a life, which is perhaps also why it hit me so hard (a couple of years ago, a close friend and I were discussing the fact that 'cumulative' was one of the words of the year, and not in a good way.) Looking back on his relationship with his friend, the poet wishes that certain patterns could have been broken.

          Always, still, tomorrow, these paltry
          words, thrown off in passing, overflow us. 


          if we had known
          that, would we have stayed
          sitting so long in our afflicted bedrooms?


          It’s the same story always and we blame ourselves
          afterwards for having in the heat of words
          and wine allowed dark clouds to rise
          on the friend’s brow

Beyond this, on further readings I found myself quickly associating this poem with Ecclesiastes and re-reading it through that filter. The final stanza is, to me, overwhelmingly reminiscent of Ecclesiastes 12: "One day we must depart, no longer knowing/anything of what was at the source/of the fire...", alongside the vivid description of the decline of a human being with age: "before the silver cord is removed, and the golden bowl is crushed, and the jar at the spring is broken..." The conclusions are different: Ecclesiastes 12:13 says "Fear the true God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole obligation of man," whereas the poem is secular and contemplates the meaning of life and art ("written, read and reread/by a blind man dancing in the fire"), but it seems to me that both arise from a similar line of questioning.

I first read 'Elegy for a Friend' some months ago and have been thinking about it - and thinking about writing about it - for some time, whether actively or subconsciously. Recently, in relation to the Goffette poem, these lines by another poet came back to me: 

Do you know how it is when one wakes
at night suddenly and asks,
listening to the pounding heart: what more do you want,

I was so convinced that these lines were from Rilke that I leafed through my entire volume of his collected German poems and finally realised they weren't. The lines hadn't come back to me in an exact enough form to Google them accurately, but eventually I remembered enough key words to find them - in this poem by Czeslaw Milosz, 'Farewell' (scroll down to find it).

The connection isn't entirely clear to me: I think there are some stylistic similarities (although the fact that one poem is originally French and the other originally Polish may cloud this somewhat, in translation.) There are echoes of imagery across the poems: the suddenly beating heart, the self-questioning about life, meaning and desire. Milosz also asks: "From life, from the apple cut by the flaming knife,/what grain will be saved", which seems to echo the final lines of Goffette's poem. (Very starkly, Milosz concludes: "Nothing remains.") Milosz's poem is, too, a kind of elegy, though it seems to me to mourn the loss of places, groups of people and moments in time, than a single person.

In the past week, when I re-read the first stanza of Goffette's poem, something started nagging at me, and I had a feeling it had to do with TS Eliot. Granted, when things nag at me and they involve poetry, it's not that uncommon for them to have something to do with TS Eliot. (Also, I had just been listening to Viggo Mortensen read The Waste Land at the British Library, and I met him afterwards, and it's safe to say all of that had a lasting effect.) But eventually, after digging around for a while in a) my mind, and b) the Internet, I finally figured it out. It wasn't The Waste Land: it was a poem I have never loved quite as much, 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock'.

'Prufrock' opens with an epigraph from Dante's Inferno, which translates as:

If I but thought that my response were made
to one perhaps returning to the world,
this tongue of flame would cease to flicker.
But since, up from these depths, no one has yet
returned alive, if what I hear is true,
I answer without fear of being shamed.

I suppose I was reminded of this for two reasons, both of which are found in the first poem/stanza of 'Elegy for a Friend'. This section refers to the friends "slipping from the métro to Dante’s/hell without changing faces or/pace", and then moves on to imagery of flame and finally "that shadow/that burns all shadows while it waits for us". I don't know whether or not Goffette intended a direct reference. But I do know that by the time I had tracked down the 'Prufrock' epigraph, I felt as though I had travelled a long journey.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Dublin and Yeats: 'The Municipal Gallery Revisited'

Sarah Purser, WB Yeats, c. 1904. Hugh Lane gallery, Dublin

I was in Dublin for a few days last week. I used to live there - ten years ago and more - as readers of this blog may already know, but I hadn't even been back for a visit for several years.

This felt like my most successful visit back to Dublin so far. I had an informal to-do list - seeing friends, catching up with family, the seaside, galleries, the theatre (Brian Friel's version of Turgenev's A Month in the Country, at the lovely Gate Theatre), the pub. And I got through everything on that list. Notably, my relationship with Dublin felt happier than for a long time. Dublin still lives in me, in the way that a city where you spent some of your formative years (my early twenties) will do that. I stared at the dank Liffey and the springy Ha'penny Bridge, thought about history in front of the General Post Office, sheltered from the rain in the Winding Stair bookshop, and on Grafton Street I realised that someone there is always playing Hallelujah. I also remembered the time a bus driver flirted with me by paraphrasing Yeats's 'He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven'. (Quoting poetry will always get you points for effort, boys.)

On my last day I went to the Hugh Lane gallery. They were featuring an exhibition based on the Yeats poem 'The Municipal Gallery Revisited', where Yeats revisited friends - Synge, Lady Gregory and others - and great figures of the time, by gazing on their paintings at the gallery. They had pulled out those very paintings he gazed upon and put them together, with the full poem reproduced on the wall and then the specific lines next to each painting. It was extremely moving. Yeats had a way of transfiguring people - of course, he knew some of the strongest and most influential personalities of his time, but through his eyes they became sort of super-cinematic, in the most profound way. So many things inspire me about Yeats's poetry, but perhaps more than anything, no one else can retain and glorify the personal, the public and the symbolic so powerfully. The people in his poems are living breathing friends, enemies and lovers, but they are also archetypes.



Around me the images of thirty years:
An ambush; pilgrims at the water-side;
Casement upon trial, half hidden by the bars,
Guarded; Griffith staring in hysterical pride;
Kevin O'Higgins' countenance that wears
A gentle questioning look that cannot hide
A soul incapable of remorse or rest;
A revolutionary soldier kneeling to be blessed;


An Abbot or Archbishop with an upraised hand
Blessing the Tricolour. 'This is not,' I say,
'The dead Ireland of my youth, but an Ireland
The poets have imagined, terrible and gay.'
Before a woman's portrait suddenly I stand,
Beautiful and gentle in her Venetian way.
I met her all but fifty years ago
For twenty minutes in some studio.


Heart-smitten with emotion I sink down,
My heart recovering with covered eyes;
Wherever I had looked I had looked upon
My permanent or impermanent images:
Augusta Gregory's son; her sister's son,
Hugh Lane, 'onlie begetter' of all these;
Hazel Lavery living and dying, that tale
As though some ballad-singer had sung it all;


Mancini's portrait of Augusta Gregory,
'Greatest since Rembrandt,' according to John Synge;
A great ebullient portrait certainly;
But where is the brush that could show anything
Of all that pride and that humility?
And I am in despair that time may bring
Approved patterns of women or of men
But not that selfsame excellence again.


My mediaeval knees lack health until they bend,
But in that woman, in that household where
Honour had lived so long, all lacking found.
Childless I thought, 'My children may find here
Deep-rooted things,' but never foresaw its end,
And now that end has come I have not wept;
No fox can foul the lair the badger swept --


(An image out of Spenser and the common tongue).
John Synge, I and Augusta Gregory, thought
All that we did, all that we said or sang
Must come from contact with the soil, from that
Contact everything Antaeus-like grew strong.
We three alone in modern times had brought
Everything down to that sole test again,
Dream of the noble and the beggar-man.


And here's John Synge himself, that rooted man,
'Forgetting human words,' a grave deep face.
You that would judge me, do not judge alone
This book or that, come to this hallowed place
Where my friends' portraits hang and look thereon;
Ireland's history in their lineaments trace;
Think where man's glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends.