Welcome to Plume Issue #113 —
January: and, well, I had written a different introduction, and then the news of the passing of Jean Valentine. We were fortunate to publish her “1945” in Plume, as well as a Featured Selection including an interview (with Nancy Mitchell) and some of her finest, last poems. As you, readers, can easily find the appropriate accolades and links to her poems and books, in tribute, I’ll simply offer another of her poems, one I especially love, originally published in Poetry.
The River at Wolf
Coming east we left the animals
pelican beaver osprey muskrat and snake
their hair and skin and feathers
their eyes in the dark: red and green.
Your finger drawing my mouth.
Blessed are they who remember that what they now have they once longed for.
A day a year ago last summer
God filled me with himself, like gold, inside,
deeper inside than marrow.
This close to God this close to you:
walking into the river at Wolf with
the animals. The snake’s
green skin, lit from inside. Our second life.
So, deep breath, and now to Joseph Campana’s timely thoughts on W.B. Yeats timeless “Sailing to Byzantium”:
It’s a new year, the solstice just barely behind us. The longest night this year was also the night of the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, one not seen for nearly four centuries. It just decades after Galileo first saw those planets through a telescope and Shakespeare was writing his strange, late plays. In Cymbeline, for example, Imogen imagines the image of her departing lover Posthumous:
I would have broke mine eye-strings; crack’d them, but
To look upon him, till the diminution
Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle,
Nay, follow’d him, till he had melted from
The smallness of a gnat to air, and then
Have turn’d mine eye and wept.
William Shakespeare, Cymbeline 1.3.18-24
What a beautiful and gruesome thing to say: I would have broken myself, cracked my eye strings, to watch my lover leave. The lover’s name, Posthumous, is redolent of old losses even as the play seems all about new things, like things seen in telescopes. The lover becomes painfully small, imperceptible, as she tries to look. The consequence of straining to see is sometimes seeing nothing at all. But no better time to try to see, to see clearly and truly, than when it is darkest or when it is hardest to do so.
Equinox is a time of balance, solstice and extremes. And all most people want right now is a peaceful new year with some hope of renewal. I’m not sure why these thoughts bring me to W.B. Yeats, a poet who lived through the early, disastrous decades of the last century. Still, I find myself less in the mood to slouch towards Bethlehem than to sail to Byzantium.
I first read “Sailing to Byzantium” in college—”Modern Poetry” with Anita Sokolsky, a gifted teacher who eschewed the anthology course and instead paired Yeats with James Merrill, Wallace Stevens with John Ashbery, allowing for extended reading of each figure. So much happens in the radiance of its reflected glow, the whole poem lit by the light of attention bouncing off a gold-beaten place and time of the mind, something so ancient and therefore so remote it could be nothing but fantasy, which is where longing lives. It’s a poem of extremes. The old and the young do not coexist. Plentiful life, surging in waters, haunted by death. The only balance, then, is in the mind.
For a poet with a complex metaphysics—I won’t even get started on the “gyre” in stanza three—Yeats had a penchant for brutal directness. I admire the way the first two stanzas open just that way, with a kind of crystalline quotability. Speaking of beginnings. “That is no country for old men” is surpassed by “An aged man is but a paltry thing” only because the latter comes with an image of what it is, “a tattered coat upon a stick.” And why not resent the now aging body for fooling everyone with the promise of sensual music, the feeling that a good thing might last forever. I suppose that’s Yeats’ idea of youth, something I’ve understood more as an idea than an experience. What he’s really talking about it an endless cycle of suffering, the heart “sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal.”
No wonder Yeats wants to escape into something more permanent, more glorious, which is both “song” and “the holy city of Byzantium.” My favorite place in Houston was the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, a part of the Menil Collection, which housed fragments of a 13th century Cypriot chapel that the museum acquired, restored, and exhibited for a couple decades before they were returned to Cyprus. Something about those aureate wonders drew me back for whatever it is we do, I suppose, when we’re looking into “the artifice of eternity” and trying to believe we are not merely “fastened to a dying animal.”
For all the apparent opposition between “sensual music” and “unageing intellect” Yeats also knows the pernicious power of the idea of escaping it all, sailing off to Byzantium. Where does one end up? A mechanical bird on an artificial branch, little more than a novelty in the court of a somnolent tyrant. A century after Keats pinned his hopes for the eternal power of poetic song on nightingales, Yeats found an equally gorgeous but equally futile figure in the hammered, dulcet tones of mechanical wonder.
Perhaps that’s why I was thinking of Yeats. Here at the beginning of this new year it’s hard not to feel older if not necessarily wiser. The temptation to sail off into isolation-sparked fantasy remains intense. But Yeats strains to hear a song “of what is past, or passing, or to come.” Perspective comes with time and age, painfully won, and that’s no “paltry thing.” The year is new and yet it feels dark out. It’s a time to crack our eye strings, to strain to see what’s yet to come.
Sailing to Byzantium
BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.