Archive for January, 2013

Tuesday Poem: The Seed Shop

Monday, January 28th, 2013

THE SEED SHOP, Muriel Stuart

Here in a quiet and dusty room they lie,
Faded as crumbled stone or shifting sand,
Forlorn as ashes, shrivelled, scentless, dry—
Meadows and gardens running through my hand.
Dead that shall quicken at the call of Spring,
Sleepers to stir beneath June’s magic kiss,
Though birds pass over, unremembering,
And no bee seeks here roses that were his.
In this brown husk a dale of hawthorn dreams,
A cedar in this narrow cell is thrust
That will drink deeply of a century’s streams,
These lilies shall make summer on my dust.
Here in their safe and simple house of death,
Sealed in their shells a million roses leap;
Here I can blow a garden with my breath,
And in my hand a forest lies asleep.

Muriel Stuart , who died in 1967, was at one time a celebrated poet, praised by Thomas Hardy and Hugh MacDiarmid amongst others. She stopped writing poetry in the 1930s and her work is now largely forgotten – but I love this example, especially at this time in the Northern Hemisphere when it’s hard to believe that spring will ever come; that gardens will grow again; that “June’s magic kiss” will bring anything to life once more.

For more Tuesday poems go to the main hub site, if you’re not already there, where a main poem is posted each week. Further poems can be found on the blogs of the Tuesday poet members in the sidebar.

And yes, I know I’ve posted this on a Monday afternoon, but it’s already Tuesday in New Zealand where the Tuesday Poem site originates, and the new main poem that’s just up is so wonderful I have to post this myself. Immediately. Got to be there…

Poetry in the Tower of Song

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

“No comparison can be drawn between Leonard Cohen and any other phenomenon.”

I’ve been thinking about writing a post about Leonard Cohen ever since I saw him in performance in Paris last September. I was completely spellbound by the experience. I haven’t recovered from the spell. I accept that I may never recover, and will probably be the better, and the happier, for that.

But I am still finding it hard to discover the right way to say what I want; maybe I’ve become infected by Leonard Cohen’s well-documented song-writing difficulties. It took him five years to write “Hallelujah” and there are several extant versions of that plus many alternate verses and modifications, and now also a whole published book just about that one song. (The biography of a song, complete with an ISBN? How cool is that?)

Anyway, writing about Leonard Cohen turns out to be, for me, as tricky as herding cats. I get one satisfactory phrase lined up in my mind and the others immediately melt away, or reveal their stubborn inadequacy for the task in hand. Whatever the cause, I just don’t seem to have the words to organise this task – but on the other hand, I certainly know someone who does. One heck of a guy, with a speciality in smoke and mirrors.

The concert in Paris made me re-think the whole idea of good fortune. Leonard Cohen has been part of the soundtrack of my life since the late 1960s, which must be the case for many of my generation and tastes. But I didn’t, back then, put him at the very top of my favourites – I admired him, yes, but it’s only since he started touring again in 2008 that my appreciation deepened into something close to amazed awe. And for me – as for many others – the experience of a live concert changed it all over again. I knew I was in the presence of an extraordinary talent: one I’d not fully recognised before.

Of course, his work has changed over time, as have I. His recent songs seem freighted with layers of meaning and complex emotions that move me deeply. His miraculous creative revival offers truly profound and deeply serious ideas, while his themes of freedom, loss and redemption are universally uplifting and challenging.

My current favourite  is “Alexandra Leaving”, on which Cohen and Sharon Robinson (his long-time writing partner) started work in 1985, and didn’t release until 2001. I first heard it at the Paris concert but it wasn’t until a friend (and fellow Cohen groupie) pointed it out that I realised the song was inspired by a wonderful poem by Constantine Cavafy, “The God Abandons Antony”. The Cavafy poem I love the most is “Ithaka”, which I have long planned to have read at my funeral (friends please take note, though as far as I know there’s no need to start rehearsing just yet), but I did already know and love this poem too; I just hadn’t made the connection. Too mesmerised by the song, I expect. I am now addicted to “Alexandra Leaving” and no day feels complete unless I listen to it at least once. (A really good day is one where I can put it on repeat play for a while. Today is one of those. Yesterday was, too. I’m clearly on a roll.)

In Constantine Cavafy’s poem, the Antony of the title is Marcus Antonius, Cleopatra’s lover. The poem refers to Plutarch’s story that, when Anthony was besieged in Alexandria by Octavian, the night before the city fell into enemy hands, he heard the sounds of instruments and voices making their way through the city and realised that the god Bacchus (Dionysus), his longtime protector, was deserting him. You could also understand it as a poem about facing any other great loss, with Alexandria a symbol for any beloved city or woman or past glory or fading powers, but, above all else, I believe, a symbol for life.

In Leonard Cohen’s song, Alexandria has become a woman – Alexandra – and the lyrics are focused on honouring and regretting the moment when her love has been lost. It captures and develops Cavafy’s poem in moving and memorable detail, and seems to me to make perfect harmony with the original.

See what you think. Here’s Constantine Cavafy’s poem, written in 1911:

The God Abandons Antony

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

Here’s the song written by Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson in 1999:

Alexandra Leaving

Suddenly the night has grown colder.
Some deity preparing to depart.
Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder,
they slip between the sentries of your heart.

Upheld by the simplicities of pleasure,
they gain the light, they formlessly entwine;
and radiant beyond your widest measure
they fall among the voices and the wine.

lt’s not a trick, your senses all deceiving,
a fitful dream the morning will exhaust—
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving,
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

Even though she sleeps upon your satin.
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined,
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for this to happen,
Go firmly to the window. Drink it in.
Exquisite music, Alexandra laughing.
Your first commitments tangible again.

You who had the honor of her evening,
And by that honor had your own restored—
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Alexandra leaving with her lord.

Even though she sleeps upon your satin.
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined,
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for the occasion;
In full command of every plan you wrecked—
Do not choose a coward’s explanation
that hides behind the cause and the effect,

And you who were bewildered by a meaning,
Whose code was broken, crucifix uncrossed—
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

And here is the incomparable Sharon Robinson singing it – the video clip begins with Leonard Cohen reciting some of the words.

And for further indulgence, Leonard Cohen apparently in Henri Cartier Bresson mode.

And here’s a screen shot of the Paris concert, and I swear, I can see myself (and my friend Dee) in the audience. Over on the right, eleventh row back. Yay.