Monthly Archives: November 2007

On nights like this 3

LC: Well, you know, there’s depression and depression. What I mean by depression in my own case is that depression isn’t just the blues. It’s not just like I have a hangover in the weekend… the girl didn’t show up or something like that, it isn’t that. It’s not really depression, it’s a kind of mental violence which stops you from functioning properly from one moment to the next. You lose something somewhere and suddenly you’re gripped by a kind of angst of the heart and of the spirit…

— Leonard Cohen, French interview (trans. Nick Halliwell)

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On nights like this 2

Someday, emerging at last from the violent insight,
let me sing out jubilation and praise to assenting angels.
Let not even one of the clearly struck hammers of my heart
fail to sound because of a slack, a doubtful,
or an ill-tempered string. Let my joyfully streaming face
make me more radiant; let my hidden weeping arise
and blossom. How dear you will be to me then, you nights
of anguish. Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you,
inconsolable sisters, and, surrendering, lose myself
in your loosened hair. How we squander our hours of pain.
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end. Though they are really
seasons of us, our winter-
enduring foliage, ponds, meadows, our inborn landscape,
where birds and reed-dwelling creatures are at home.

— Rilke, Duino Elegies  (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

The Only Poem

This is the only poem
I can read
I am the only one
can write it
I didn’t kill myself
when things went wrong
I didn’t turn
to drugs or teaching
I tried to sleep
but when I couldn’t sleep
I learned to write
I learned to write
what might be read
on nights like this
by one like me

— Leonard Cohen

The vogue of ordinariness

Most contemporary novels are not really ‘written’. They obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of a novel is not composed of these noises consists of a prose which is no more alive than that of a competent newspaper writer or government official. A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give.

— From T.S. Eliot’s preface to Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, 1927

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Certain producers of plain prose have conned the reading public into believing that only in prose plain, humdrum or flat can you articulate the mind of inarticulate ordinary Joe. Even to begin to do that you need to be more articulate than Joe, or you might as well tape-record him and leave it at that. This minimalist vogue depends on the premise that only an almost invisible style can be sincere, honest, moving, sensitive and so forth, whereas prose that draws attention to itself by being revved up, ample, intense, incandescent or flamboyant turns its back on something almost holy – the human bond with ordinariness. I doubt if much unmitigated ordinariness can exist. As Harold Nicolson, the critic and biographer, once observed, only one man in a thousand is boring, and he’s interesting because he’s a man in a thousand. Surely the passion for the plain, the homespun, the banal, is itself a form of betrayal, a refusal to look honestly at a complex universe, a get-poor-quick attitude that wraps up everything in simplistic formulas never to be inspected for veracity or substance. Got up as a cry from the heart, it is really an excuse for dull and mindless writing, larded over with the democratic myth that says this is how most folks are. Well, most folks are lazy, especially when confronted with a book, and some writers are lazy too, writing in the same anonymous style as everyone else.

Paul West

Double

You who’ve watched me all my life. My double, my enemy. You, standing on the other bank, watching. I imagined you tut-tutting at me, accusing me by your very presence. I called you a coward, but you followed me. You live on. You make me cryptic, turn me against myself.

Ungraspable One

Don’t think that I’m wooing.
Angel, and even if I were, you would not come. For my call
is always filled with departure; against such a powerful
current you cannot move. Like an outstretched arm
is my call. And its hand, held open and reaching up
to seize, remains in front of you, open
as if in defense and warning,
Ungraspable One, far above.

— Rilke (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

Inner space

The bird is a creature that has a very special feeling of trust in the external world, as if she knew that she is one with its deepest mystery. That is why she sings in it as if she were singing within her own depths; that is why we so easily receive a birdcall into our own depths; we seem to be translating it without residue into our emotion; indeed, it can for a moment turn the whole world into inner space, because we feel that the bird does not distinguish between her heart and world’s.

— Rilke, letter (tr. S. Mitchell)

Alive

When I awoke this morning everything had been cleaned by the rain. The colours had returned and I found I was clinging to an ugly little totem of the night before. I drew aside the curtain and let the sun flood my room. The things in my room stretched on their toes and looked around like a clutter of cats — alive.

Night came into my room

Night came into my room in the middle of the day as I was reading. It peered through the door and when I was off guard slid in over me like a dark fog. I fell asleep and dreamt that a black rain was pattering on my eyelids. I couldn’t move. When the moon found me everything in my room was the same colour — inert.

The last seed blows off the stem

She knew there was someone out there for her, someone just like her, and that she would find that someone eventually. But they told her that to find him she would have to go out and do things, make friends, maybe even travel. And she thought that if she went out and did these things, she might be taken out of herself, become a different person, and then she wouldn’t know what kind of someone she wanted because she wouldn’t know who she herself was. She would be a different person, and if then she met him how would she know it was him? If she met him now, if he came to her door, or if he picked up her keys when she dropped them on the street, today, on the bridge, she would know, they would both know instantly, they would recognize it in each other’s eyes, that thing that made them different from the others, the thing the others couldn’t understand. That’s how they would know each other, they would recognize themselves in each others’ eyes instantly, wordlessly. But if she went out and did all those things to find the one who was meant for her, she might become like them, and then he would fade away and multiply and become an anyone rather than that someone. But, she thought, I’ve stayed here for so long alone, and if I remain here will I continue to be myself? Will I even know who I am? Will I be able to respond when someone calls my secret name? Why do I long to meet him if not to find myself in him, to be completed in his eyes? Can I continue to live like this without losing so much of myself that I won’t recognize myself in him if I see him? Maybe he’s living the same way, thinking these thoughts at this moment, somewhere in this city, the one among millions, and maybe he too feels it’s getting late, that if he doesn’t find me soon it will be too late, he’ll have lost so much of himself that he won’t be able to recognize himself in me if he sees me. Then maybe if we do meet we’ll think one another just another of the millions, just one of the others, and he’ll hand me my keys without looking at me and I’ll mumble thanks and we’ll go on our way in opposite directions across the bridge over the dirty water, thinking the same thoughts as each other. Then we’ll both have to choose between going out or dying inside, we’ll be forced to give up on the idea of each other, on our idea of ourselves in each other, on our idea of ourselves. We’ll finally have to become like the others, we’ll lose the only beautiful thing in the world and disperse into the others, become dirty water, become fish, multiple, and all will be lost.