“A Space in the Air”

A Space in the Air
by Jon Silken

The first day he had gone
I barely missed him. I was glad almost he had left
Without a bark or flick of his tail,
I was content he had slipped

Out into the world. I felt,
Without remarking, it was nearly a relief
From his dirty habits. Then, the second
Day I noticed the space

He left behind him. A hole
Cut out of the air. And I missed him suddenly,
Missed him almost without knowing
Why it was so. And I grew

Afraid he was dead, expecting death
As something I had grown used to. I was afraid
The clumsy children in the street
Had cut his tail off as

A souvenir of the living and
I did not know what to do. I was fearing
Somebody had hurt him. I called his name
But the hole in the air remained.

I have grown accustomed to death
Lately. But his absence made me sad,
I do not know how he should do it
But his absence frightened me.

It was not only his death I feared,
Not only his but as if all of those
I loved, as if all those near me
Should suddenly go

Into the hole in the light
And disappear. As if all of them should go
Without barking, without speaking,
Without noticing me there

But go; and going as if
The instrument of pain were a casual thing
To suffer, as if they should suffer so,
Casually and without greatness,

Without purpose even. But just go.
I should be afraid to lose all those friends like this.
I should fear to lose those loves. But mostly
I should fear to lose you.

If you should go
Without affliction, but even so, I should tear
The rent you would make in the air
And the bare howling

Streaming after your naked hair.
I should feel your going down more than my going down.
My own death I bear everyday
More or less

But your death would be something else,
Something else beyond me. It would not be
Your death or my death, love,
But our rose-linked dissolution.

So I feared his going,
His death, not our death, but a hint at our death. And I shall always fear
The death of those we love as
The hint of your death, love.

“A Toccata of Galuppi’s” by Browning

Robert Browning


Oh Galuppi, Baldassaro, this is very sad to find!
I can hardly misconceive you; it would prove me deaf and blind;
But although I take your meaning, ’tis with such a heavy mind!


Here you come with your old music, and here’s all the good it brings.
What, they lived once thus at Venice where the merchants were the kings,
Where Saint Mark’s is, where the Doges used to wed the sea with rings?


Ay, because the sea’s the street there; and ’tis arched by . . . what you call
. . . Shylock’s bridge with houses on it, where they kept the carnival:
I was never out of England — it’s as if I saw it all.


Did young people take their pleasure when the sea was warm in May?
Balls and masks begun at midnight, burning ever to mid-day,
When they made up fresh adventures for the morrow, do you say?


Was a lady such a lady, cheeks so round and lips so red, —
On her neck the small face buoyant, like a bell-flower on its bed,
O’er the breast’s superb abundance where a man might base his head?


Well, and it was graceful of them — they’d break talk off and afford
— She, to bite her mask’s black velvet — he, to finger on his sword,
While you sat and played Toccatas, stately at the clavichord?


What? Those lesser thirds so plaintive, sixths diminished, sigh on sigh
, Told them something? Those suspensions, those solutions — “Must we die?”
Those commiserating sevenths — “Life might last! we can but try!


“Were you happy?” — “Yes.” — “And are you still as happy?” — “Yes. And you?”
— “Then, more kisses!” — “Did I stop them, when a million seemed so few?”
Hark, the dominant’s persistence till it must be answered to!


So, an octave struck the answer. Oh, they praised you, I dare say!
“Brave Galuppi! that was music! good alike at grave and gay!
“I can always leave off talking when I hear a master play!”


Then they left you for their pleasure: till in due time, one by one,
Some with lives that came to nothing, some with deeds as well undone,
Death stepped tacitly and took them where they never see the sun.


But when I sit down to reason, think to take my stand nor swerve,
While I triumph o’er a secret wrung from nature’s close reserve,
In you come with your cold music till I creep thro’ every nerve.


Yes, you, like a ghostly cricket, creaking where a house was burned:
“Dust and ashes, dead and done with, Venice spent what Venice earned.
“The soul, doubtless, is immortal — where a soul can be discerned.


“Yours for instance: you know physics, something of geology,
“Mathematics are your pastime; souls shall rise in their degree;
“Butterflies may dread extinction, — you’ll not die, it cannot be!


“As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
“Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:
“What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?


“Dust and ashes!” So you creak it, and I want the heart to scold.
Dear dead women, with such hair, too — what’s become of all the gold
Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly and grown old.


Imagine that you are a person sitting in England—or anywhere, really, but you have never visited Italy. As you listen to a toccata by Galuppi (or perhaps you have the skill to play it) images range about your mind.   Art does that for us.  It can transport us elsewhere and to other times and help us to “see” differently.  Before I went to Venice I was able to almost taste it, touch it, feel it through poetry, paintings, novels.    I felt at home there and my first visit was like arriving at a place I had long known and loved.  Venice18thcenturydance

Browning uses trochaic what? Octameter? Heptameter? There seem to be 7 and 1/2 feet in most lines. The effect on the “ear” is very much as if you hear an old clavier tinkling out its song. But the message is one of nostalgic longing for a place and a time the speaker has never known. The “music” of the poem shows how powerful art can be to make us feel a part of a remote past we never knew. Galuppi’s music filled with tinkling lightness is at odds with this evocation of a somewhat seedy, weary past of romance gone boring and parties gone dull. Are people indeed merely born to “bloom and drop?”

It’s certainly much like other Victorian poets who view nature, ominously, as “red in tooth and claw” and ready to assault us, gleefully, with the grim reaper striking out wildly in all directions. I like the way that Browning uses the past, particularly the past of Renaissance Italy, to reflect upon his present.

Recent Reading and Rereading

CARHART, Thad:  “The Piano Shop on the Left Bank:  Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier.”  (memoir).  A beautifully written book for those interested in pianos, music, France, and French passions and obsessions.  He is an American ex-pat in Paris.

JOYCE, Rachel:  “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”:   A man goes out to mail a letter—then realizes that his words are not adequate to the occasion.   This extremely well-written novel is about love, loyalty, walking, regret.
ROONEY, Kathleen:  “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk”:  a lovely novel about an 84 year old woman who was a feminist before her time.  Talented, ambitious, and richly observant, Lillian Boxfish is a compassionate story about aging and reflecting back upon one’s life.  Writing is almost poetic.  Recommended for those who like NYC, character driven books, and the history of women’s work through the 20th century (although written recently, the book is set in 1984).
SIMONSON, Helen:  “The Summer Before the War”.  (she wrote “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” also).  It’s 1914 and this historical novel, set in England, has an inevitable sadness and nostalgia because you know that the war is coming (the characters don’t know that).  It’s great for fans of “Downton Abbey”, small English towns, and Barbara Pym and Jane Austen.  Latin teachers!  Social banter!  Complex characters!  But the title warns us that all cannot end well.
LEVY, Deborah: “Hot Milk” (Booker prize finalist).  Not really a comfortable book but the intricate plotting and the inspection of a mother/daughter relationship that stifles the growth of the daughter is fascinating.  Begins with too much of a post-modern jolt, but something captivated me and kept me reading.  I now understand why Levy is an important contemporary author.   Probably would not have nominated for book club but at 200 pages it’s  a tightly woven web of allusions and symbolisms tied up with an enigmatic  resolution.   “My love for my mother is like an axe.  It cuts very deep.”
McEWAN, Ian:  “Nutshell”  McEwan’s pyrotechnic prose and unusual situations are profound and funny.  I would not have recommended this book to the club, but I do recommend it to anyone who enjoys a wicked sense of humor that leads to very deep issues—McEwan has done the same sort of thing in “Atonement,” “On Chesil Beach,” “The Children Act,” “Solar,” “Saturday,” “Sweet Tooth,”  etc.  His works are compulsively readable and  they always bring up big issues— his books bring up moral, ethical, often life-and-death  dilemmas that extend far beyond their particular characters and plots. Chewy books:  they read like candy but the aftertaste is  filled with big ideas.
BROOKNER, Anita and
FITZGERALD, Penelope  Not exactly Barbara Pym, but related.  Pleasurable, intelligent mostly slender reads.   They are quiet novelists who can pack a huge punch.  Their talent is so profound and deep that it’s really hard to actually catch them in the act of being talented.
CONNELL, Mrs. Bridge:  Perhaps the most compelling novel of character I have ever read.  If you want to understand your mother (or maybe even yourself) this is a great way to begin.  NOTE:  The relationship between this book and the film is tenuous.  The film dumbs the whole book down and changes major plot points.
Now, in review, I would call all of these books “quiet” and rather old-fashioned (although most of them were written recently).  They are primarily about characters rather than plot.
I have not paid much attention to this blog of late.  I’ve been feeling the interiority of life (not an unsatisfying position).  I’ve had another birthday.   I’ve had some failed social encounters that have left me baffled by the ever mysterious nature of other people.  My life is shot through with melancholy covfefe.
Some Villa-Lobos today has made me feel like writing.  I’ve been listening to music lately.

“Unsaid” by Dana Gioia



So much of what we live goes on inside–
The diaries of grief, the tongue-tied aches
Of unacknowledged love are no less real
For having passed unsaid. What we conceal
Is always more than what we dare confide.
Think of the letters that we write our dead.

I love this six line poem. Dana Gioia’s work is always impeccably and meticulously crafted. The first five lines are fairly regular iambic pentameter and the final line gallops off with dactyls, leaving “dead” as the final emphasized syllable. “Dead” appears here as a kind of formal bullet–swift, sharp, and solitary. It also underscores the use of plosives in the language.

Anyone who dwells inside (I think I’m inadvertantly cribbing from Hopkins here) will understand this poem immediately and cherish it for its understanding of the “unsaid,” unarticulated emotions.

This poem does an enormous amount of work in six lines. It sums up, I think, the essence of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

You don’t need to speak up for things to be real. Nor is it foolish to speak to the dead. It’s one of the best ways of figuring things out.

Random thoughts

Poetry is personal:   My mother used to have a “pizza frolic” when she came to town.   She maintained the “habit of frolic”.  The word always evokes her for me.  She stamped “frolic” with a copyright sign in my brain.  Today I get “frolic” second-hand through my cats.
I wish I had started the habit of “signing up for gaiety and grace”.  I wish I could embrace my own nuttiness instead of clinically examining it for signs of dementia.  I began the day wondering which of the characters from Muriel Spark’s delightful novel, Memento Mori I am most like.
I could not get my previous entry to look well on the page.   For some reason the final two paragraphs, which I’ve cut and pasted above, jogged out into an unsightly and unreadable column.   I was unable to fix it and so muster-flustered into a state of flurry-scurry and a bit of self-disgust, I’ve tried to remedy the situation by starting off a new entry.
Senescence continues apace.  I’m trying to keep up my spirits by being active in a Trollope group and a Booker Prize group.
I’ve become a bit preoccupied with William Logan recently.  His pronouncements about certain poets are ones that I have made (in my own mind).  It seems scurrilous to condemn those poets who actually have managed to win a few readers and yet they are so often vapid, predictable, artless, and disappointing.  I’ve ordered his books–both his poetry and his criticism.

“The habit of frolic”

“In My Seventy-Third November”–the ‘habit of frolic’

Broughton, James, 1913-1999: In My Seventy-Third November [from Packing Up For Paradise: Selected Poems 1946-1996: James Broughton (1997) , University of Pittsburgh Press ]

Perseverance furthers says the I Ching
but body cells get tired along the way
and cease dividing.
Hard to accept: running at half speed
mistaking targets
being embraced nightly by a backache.

Despite my belief in urgency
and my respect for discipline
I have never learned to train my vaguery
or budget my vagaries.
Though I still consider myself
potent passionate and proliferant
I excel in doodle dawdle and drowse.

Don’t blame me for being what I am.
We are all more things than we seem.
I haven’t relinquished amazement
nor have I forgotten how to cherish.
If I am staring out the window at nothing
maybe it is something worth looking at.

In spite of my chronic torpor
I cling to the habit of frolic,
I keep signing up for gaiety and grace.
Regardless of my dwindle I know I am loved,
because of my nuttiness I know I am blessed.
Laughter said Victor Hugo is the soap of the gods.
I scrub daily to be dafter hereafter.

( 1986 )




Broughton’s poem speaks of the November of one’s life–the “damp, drizzly November” in the soul as Melville writes in Moby Dick.  And what fine sound-effects in the final two lines.

Broughton remains  able to frolic, to sign up for gaity, to persevere. I appreciate this reminder: the aching back and the mistaken targets have become so peremptory that I rarely leave room for the cherish and the amazement.

“The Bee Code of Hywel DDA”


THE BEE CODE OF HYWEL DDA [from Kinderlieder (1992)]

The worth of an old colony is twenty-four pence

The worth of the first swarm sixteen pence

The worth of the bull-swarm twelve pence

The third swarm is worth eight pence

The first swarm to come from the primary swarm is
worth twelve pence

The first swarm to come from the bull-swarm eight

The first swarm to come from the third swarm is worth
four new pence
& it should not swarm until after the first of August
& it is called a wing-swarm

The worth of the mother of a hive of bees: it is worth
twenty-four pence

& so they bide until the first of November
From the first of November onwards each one is an old
colony & is worth twenty-four pence except for
the wing-swarm:
it is not an old colony until the first of May
for it is not known till then if it will live

© Copyright John James

This poem is taken almost verbatum from a tenth-century book of laws–the bees are snuggled in the index betwen “bed-ridden” and “beheading”. The book was tranlated and published right before the reign of Queen Victoria in England. I like the incantatory qualities of this poem/law code.

Something in the back of my mind called forth the rhythms and money of this poem. I like the unexpected syntax. It is a great addition to the bee poem in general–and the only poem I can think of that codified bees and their lives and their value. Originally this text is part of the Law Code of Hywel DdaIn another poem James speaks of a “quiet little / cuddly bee”.

Hywel Dda was a tenth-century Welsh king who evidently codified a lot of laws in his time. I think his name might translate to “Howell the Good”. “The Bee Code of Hywel Dda” is weird and compelling in the best way. I like the way that James has taken the original and carefully selected which parts to keep and how to arrange them. I think that Wallace Stevens would have enjoyed it, among others.

Life has tugged me away from the internets of late.  I’m reading more about nature and animals and have set up an elaborate bird feeding system in my back yard (no, my cats never never go outside and there are many safe measure against them doing so).