One face looks out from all his canvases, Christina writes.
She’s beauty’s face, he says, the only muse he needs,
the face of his Elizabeth, her wild yet delicate solemnity.
Not often shown full-face, her long, pale profile
faces beyond the painting’s frame, her red mane flares.
She looks remote, mysterious, surely faced poverty
before her face became her entrée to the Brotherhood
and faces even in this new life illness and addiction.
Painter and poet, not merely the model, memorable face
of Dante’s visions, Lizzie will meet the face of death –
their stillborn child – then face her own (an overdose…)
He can’t face life without her, casts his manuscript
into her grave but then repents, exhumes her rotting face
which follows him, now facing sorrow, guilt, disgrace.
Inspired by Luisa’s recent sonnenizios on Donne and Hopkins, this takes a line from In An Artist’s Studio by Christina Rossetti, thought to be about her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his partner Elizabeth Siddall.
The slow and yielding River Marne
slips past an open, spacious and exhausted land
where sleeping villages hatch from the grass
like stars appearing in the sky.
Here, nature has resumed her careless dreaming,
a white workhorse labours at the plough
while old folk wander through a mottled view of vines,
roses still bloom on an autumnal bush,
a greedy goat is tangled in a bramble patch,
the grapes have been gathered in, the hillside sleeps.
Nothing now bears witness to that inhuman business
except a mound that may hide the shape of a body.
This silent soil embraces all the heroes, broken
by fatigue and hunger, who, knowing they would never
see its end, gave their all in the Battle of the Marne.
The land has covered them. We do not know their names.
They have only the grass and the wind to talk to.
They have entered our dreams.
Beyond these hills and hollows, the muffled,
swooning sound of cannon-fire sinks into the ether.
Night begins to fall. The now infamous river,
forever heedless of what happened here,
soaks up the languor of twilight and falls asleep.
Dazed by the shock of fate, my eyes absorb
the indelible glory and calm possessed by things,
even when men are dead.
Les bords de la Marne
La Marne, lente et molle, en glissant accompagne
Un paysage ouvert, éventé, spacieux.
On voit dans l’herbe éclore, ainsi qu’un astre aux cieux,
Les villages légers et dormants de Champagne.
La Nature a repris son rêve négligent, Attaché à la herse un blanc cheval travaille. Les vignobles jaspés ont des teintes d’écaille A travers quo l’on voit rôder de vieilles gens.
Un automnal buisson porte encore quelques roses. Une chèvre s’enlace au roncier qu’elle mord. Les raisins sont cueillis, le coteau se repose, Rien ne témoigne plus d’un surhumain effort Qu’un tertre soulevé par la forme d’un corps.
– Dans ce sol, sans éclat et sans écho, s’incarnent Les héros qui, rompus de fatigue et de faim, Connaissant que jamais ils ne sauront la fin De l’épique bataille à laquelle ils s’acharnent, Ont livré hardiment les combats de la Marne.
La terre les recouvre. On ne sait pas leur nom. Ils ont l’herbe et le vent avec lesquels ils causent. Nous songeons.
Par delà les vallons et les monts On entend le bruit sourd et pâmé du canon S’écrouler dans l’éther entre deux longues pauses. Et puis le soir descend. Le fleuve au grand renom, A jamais ignorant de son apothéose, S’emplit de la langueur du crépuscule, et dort. Je regarde, les yeux hébétés par le sort, La gloire indélébile et calme qu’ont les choses Alors que les hommes sont morts.
Painting: Bords de la Marne by Camille Pissarro, 1866
The turn to a paternal god comes
on the heels of where you end and others take.
The mother’s rage within her power
provides the me and the not-me she may not make.
Why does delivery come at such cost?
What is the rage we should withstand?
The infant’s lack, and so her own,
bathe in the sun to soothe a wound, to fill a void.
Maternal finitude could satisfy desire for anything;
the word I write could value what I am,
what I have lived. There is nowhere to hide the suffering.
Dear lioness, Louise, coming upon
the sonnets was a coup de foudre –
you reached across the centuries
to touch a lonely heart as I thought
nothing old and formal could.
Your lute-songs, silliness and sorrow
inspired me to wordplay – hours
of delight today, tomorrow…
You ambushed me with memories,
a buried sense of self – so long since
I’d been young, yet I was moved.
Nearly five hundred years apart
and some things never change: yours,
Louise, is the lasting roar of love.
The men were lithe, dark-eyed and curly-haired, stepped out
of a Roman mosaic, the women massive, with sea-green medusa hair
and soup-stained bosoms. An ancient, noble family used for centuries,
in their palazzo high above the Bay of Naples, to owning servants,
this new one a lost girl, spewed out from education
with no notion of who to be, still shaken by the death of a father
I didn’t love enough.
Yelled at for not understanding, you learn a language fast: sporco,
dirty, presto, hurry, you, now, no! No doubt about the no: no free time
except grudgingly on Sundays, no breakfast not even a cup of coffee
before washing dirty nappies, no sleep with a little one wailing all night
and who could blame him, plucked from his mother’s breast to be dumped
on this girl with a bottle and no clue. You learn fast, too, about babies,
even more about myself, all the love, patience and nurturance
I never knew were inside me.
And Napoli, encircling vision of grandeur, with its secrets,
poverty and crumbling art and the blue, blue bay to be seen from
every ivy-shaded window of the ducal mansion? Truly, I was too tired
to pay attention. Life narrowed to slow-motion endurance of routine,
the fog of longing for rest, grateful for the baby nodding off
or for a good meal – and meals, prepared by Lola the malevolent,
were huge: the sweating beef and luminous tomatoes, pasta piled
and steaming above sticky kitchen oilcloth.
So I grew a belly for the first time, watched it with growing dismay
but continued eating, even when the fat tubes hot with angry chillies
grew cold before I was allowed a moment to fall to. And once or twice,
on Sundays off, quick, groping sex in the woods or in the back of his car
with a man who looked a little like my dad, succumbing half-ashamed,
this too a way to feel my body, briefly know myself as less diminished,
more than foreign skivvy.
Now like a far-off dream, that season of cavernous apartments,
harpy voices and cowed failure to tell the dreaded duchess vaffanculo!
Only a tiny taste of servitude, never destined to last more than
a few months, but it left scars and, familiar to women everywhere
who care for other people’s babies, a bittersweet remembered love.
Forty years later I spell out the long, absurdly grandiose family names
and there he is – my bambino’s middle-aged face
on the Internet.
To be in nature like a human tree, your desires
spread out like deep, luxuriant foliage, and feel,
on peaceful and on stormy nights alike, the universal
sap flow through your hands. To live with the sun’s rays
warm on your face, drink the scorching salt of sea-spray
and of tears, and hotly taste the joy and then the grief
that fashion foggy human forms in space. To feel
in your own beating heart the turbulence of air and fire
and blood like wind upon the earth, reach for reality
and stoop to mystery, embrace the rising daylight
and the falling dark. Like evening’s purple and cerise,
to let the flame and flood flow from the crimson
of your heart while your soul, like pale dawn resting
on a hillside, sits beside this world and dreams…
La vie profonde
Être dans la nature ainsi qu’un arbre humain,
Étendre ses désirs comme un profond feuillage,
Et sentir, par la nuit paisible et par l’orage,
La sève universelle affluer dans ses mains !
Vivre, avoir les rayons du soleil sur la face,
Boire le sel ardent des embruns et des pleurs,
Et goûter chaudement la joie et la douleur
Qui font une buée humaine dans l’espace !
Sentir, dans son coeur vif, l’air, le feu et le sang
Tourbillonner ainsi que le vent sur la terre.
– S’élever au réel et pencher au mystère,
Être le jour qui monte et l’ombre qui descend !
Comme du pourpre soir aux couleurs de cerise,
Laisser du coeur vermeil couler la flamme et l’eau,
Et comme l’aube claire appuyée au coteau
Avoir l’âme qui rêve, au bord du monde assise…
From Anna de Noailles’ first collection, Le Coeur innombrable / The Uncountable Heart (1901). A fairly close translation, but lately I’ve been writing dense 14-line poems and this seemed to pour itself so naturally into that shape… More of my translations of Anna de Noailles on Via Negativa are here and here.