The poetry of Micheal Cuanach

Psalm for Simone Weil

 

From the highest heaven God throws a rope. Man either grasps it or not.

–          From the New York Notebooks of Simone Weil

 

Sir, what is humanity

that you pay such attention to us,

or men and women

that you let us love one another?

 

Words slide from you, dropping down

to where you stride

over glaciers and rocks

and down the icy walks of the sea,

 

trailing behind you a rope, my Friend,

that we can grasp

or at our choosing,

cast away.

 

Simone Weil was not what most people would call a happy or well-adjusted person.  She was tormented by migraines. She was almost certainly anorexic and her death at 34 was probably due as much to self-starvation as tuberculosis.  In 1930s Europe she was in the midst of radical movements, yet never really a part of them. As the Holocaust descended over Europe, she scribbled letters and notes, unable to strike effectively against the Nazis. As far as anyone knows, she never had an intimate relationship, emotional or physical, with any man or woman.  And for all her intense intellectuality, all of her books are posthumous, based on her journals and letters. 

She grew up in a supportive and  secular Jewish family, and at the age of ten she informed her parents that she was she was a Bolshevik and would be reading the communist newspapers.  Her parents were sympathetic to the exiled Leon Trotsky and hosted a meeting for him in their Paris apartment in 1930, where young Simone met him.  But she was incapable, however, of surrendering her independent judgment to any ideology and by the time she was in the university, she wrote papers sharply critical of Marxist theory.

After unsuccessful efforts at teaching and organzing factory workers, Simone joined the Loyalist forces in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. Simone was not much of a soldier and failed even at target practice. After an injury involving a cooking pot and boiling oil she returned to France just before her entire unit was massacred. 

Returning from Spain, she was probably severely depressed. And it was at this point that “after months of inward darkness,” she became very conscious of a personal God. “We do not have to search for him” she wrote in her journal. “We only have to change the direction in which we are looking.”

She experienced a divine comforter beyond doctrine and dogma: “He cannot refuse to come to those who implore him long, often and ardently.” And “if we agree to his entry, he comes. As soon as we cease to want Him, He vanishes.”

Yet Simone saw no contradiction between this loving God and atheism: “An atheist may be simply one whose faith and love are concentrated on the impersonal aspects of God.” And she seemed to think that the soul did not outlast the body.

Her association with Roman Catholicism seems to have grown out a friendship with the priest Joseph-Marie Perrin.  That personal relationship may be why she turned toward Catholicism, rather than seeking out equally rich spiritual traditions within Judaism, in an effort to explain her experience of God.  One might think that the close association between fascists and Catholic hierarchy would have made the church unappealing to her, but evidently she was able to separate her personal experience of the divine from any feelings about the institution.

In 1942 she fled to the US with her parents to escape the Nazis but was soon back in England where she offered her services to DeGaulle’s Free French. Her proposal to organize a unit of nurses who would parachute into France to aid the resistance went nowhere. And as she insisted on limiting her own food intake to the same rations allotted to those in occupied France, she contracted tuberculosis and died in 1943.

Letter to James Wright

 

James, that long suffering and affectionate shadow

passing behind the crowd of students

coming out of Hunter College

might have been yours,

 

still searching  the streets of New York

or along those rivers in Ohio

for the delicate creatures

with emerald bones

 

who came from the other world at a touch

of your hands, older

and younger than any of us.

 

James, I met your friend Robert

whose horse and old dog

you will surely remember.

 

So, please tell all your friends

that you did not waste your life.

 

I wrote this poem after Robert Bly recommended that I read the poems of his friend, James Wright.  His Selected Poems are a beautiful evocation of the American heartland. James drank and smoked too much and died too soon.

Talking on the telephone with Robert Bly

The man, possibly in a black coat

or living in two worlds,

returns my call:

 

an old and courteous voice

sounding across the silence

of snowy fields.

 

This poem was inspired by conversations with Robert Bly in 1995. His encouragement was very important at the time, and his translations of Neruda and Vallejo were a genuine inspiration in my own work. I recently learned with great sadness that this powerful imagination has been stilled by Alzhiemer’s disease.

Sister, My Love

After a lost ghazal by Jalal Ad-din Rumi              

 

Dear one, in the households

women are preparing the evening meal.

 

I once knew your thoughts.

 

Your love is eloquent

but silent. I listen for your voice.

 

You are somewhere in the world.

 

I see you in your absence.

My sister, my love.

 

Your memory destroys my heart.

 

 

Translated from a Letter Sent from Vladivostok by a French Officer, 1919

Canadian soldiers in Siberia in 1919

Some years ago a friend  who works in the field of gentrifying old neighborhoods in New York  found some letters, written in French, in an abandoned apartment building and asked me to translate them.  My French, however, is not very good…

At a Russian barracks called the Riviera near Vladivostok

March 19, 1919

Dear everyone,

It is finally ….to give you my news in a certain fashion… As I said in my letter of February, the (Name of boat – Tomax?) is already at the dock.

This embarkation is going to happen immediately.

There was nothing yesterday but then all our baggage and our gear….

to the Riviera and…a train.. will carry us there in an hour. I have had a pleasant surprise!

The immense barracks lie in a valley with stations and diverse stores. The …who dominate the seaside and the bay… in the village can all be found within twelve kilometers

I have no fear of finding barracks life… I would say it is perfect but…

I have the feeling that we are at the beginning of a (constitutional?) drive…important militarily and internationally.

It is a true novel but an actual situation and the Allied organization   (blurred) !  Something in our newspapers does not give good sense here and the need will be there

the need is great for a unique order and …I believe by the Japanese!

The Americans are content to do business. (Business is business.)

And we…. too much of the world.

The French are near us in Omsk and same plus less or organize a badly defined front on the coast of the Aral Sea.

They are all more active than the British who are not as bad as the Canadians.

The town presents a curious aspect with the (Tajiks?), the Italians, the free Russians…

I find these races almost as curious as the Japanese and the Chinese.

The police are assured by the international detachment and all is calm.

Up to fifty kilometers from the city.

The cannon (or trucks) of the Allied fleet inspire great respect.

In this fashion all regard them as watch dogs (literally earthenware dogs)

and regret the trading of one for the other…

The population appears to be majority Bolshevik but not able to say because the Allies provide them with food and without them, they will be in a famine.

Life is made very simple for the Europeans and Americans who have a beneficial exchange rate.

The ruble goes at this moment …eleven… one hundred fifty francs is worth more than 300 rubles.

We are rich gentleman in this court here…and the high life is for us very cheap.

Diverse rumors circulate and are all about the situation in general.

In all cases elementary precautions border on preventing an attack on the city but not far….

Near Karbine but further than Omsk(?)

The security of the railroad is confronted by small detachments that get on the train in a hunt for loot.

Those people disperse when they pass through (blurry)

they arrive and wait for rear attacks on the food or the munitions trains.

Because of this it is necessary to escort them all.

The travel service is organized almost all the way to Karbine but not quite that far.

The scheduling is irregular and …..

The biggest job of the soldiers who preceded us is to protect these trains and their passengers.

Others drive the trucks and the autos that come from America.

I ignore in this fashion absolutely that which lies ahead…stay here for now at first.

Here it may not be interesting but it is peaceful…

To go to Vladivostok or depart from Omsk but again it is necessary to arrive in order to leave for France.

If I am here, there are two routes, the Orient Express to Marseille and the return via San Francisco, going backwards.

If I am in Omsk the return will be via the Black Sea and the Mediterranean after leaving from Odessa.

One way or another, it will take me at least 45 to 50 days and it is impossible for me to foresee where or when from here.

In any case, don’t worry about me.

The temperature is that of a normal winter at home.

Yesterday there was a little snow but today the weather is clear and dry.

Good food.

Good lodging.

Heat and warm clothes.

I am able to await the return with patience.

I hope this letter finds you all in good health, Papa, Mama (or Emma?), Emmanuelle, Lea, and the little ones. In any case, I send to you all my greatest affection and despite the distance, the greatest kisses from your son and brother.

(Signature illegible)

It is clear that the writer was serving in the Allied forces sent to Russia to suppress the Bolshevik Revolution, and may be a French Canadian.  He knows the mission is a failure. He is eager to return home. There is no way of knowing if he ever did.

The University of Victoria has a good introduction to Canada’s Siberian Expedition.

The Lady Tibors to her Husband, Bernard de Baux

 

My beautiful husband, I tell you truly:

since the summer morning

when you rode into Serignan,

I have desired you without ceasing.

 

I have one regret:

that we did not kiss

in the courtyard at Grasse

when the snow was falling.

 

 

Little is known of the Lady Tibors, said to be born in 1130 and married to Bernard de Baux, who may have died in the Holy Land. She was one of the few women troubadours and wrote in Provencal. A lombard chansonnier in the Vatican Library says this of her:

Na Tibors si era una dompna de proensa dun castel d’En Blancatz que a nom sarrenom. Cortesa fo et enseignada. Auinens e fort maistra e saup trobar. E fo enamorada e fort amada per amor, e per totz los bos homes daquela encontrada fort honrada, e per totas las ualens dompnas mout tensuda e mout obedida. E felz aquestas coblas e mandet las al seu amador. Bels dous amics ben uos puesc en uer dir.[1]

Na Tibors was a lady of Provence, from a castle of En Blacatz called Sarenom. She was courtly and accomplished, gracious and very wise. And she knew how to write poems. And she fell in love and was fallen in love with, and was greatly honored by all the good men of that region, and admired and respected by all the worthy ladies. . .

 

Her only surviving poem was not to her husband:

 

 

Bels dous amics, ben vos posc en ver dir

que anc non fo qu’ieu estes ses desir

pos vos conven que.us tene per fin aman;

ni anc no fo qu’ieu non agues talan,

bels dous amics, qu’ieu soven nous vezes;

ni anc no fo sazons que m’en pentis,

ni anc no fo, se vos n’anes iratz,

qu’ieu agues joi tro que fosetz tornatz;

ni [anc]. . .

Four haiku that mention snow by Kobayashi Issa


snow is a blessing

drifting onto my bed –

from Amida’s heavenly land![1]

 

 

 

is this to be

my grave –

under five feet of snow?[2]

 

 

 

chrysanthemums

on her straw hat  –

morning snow![3]

 

 

 

the snow melts and

suddenly the whole town –

is full of children![4]

 

 

 


[1] arigata ya fusama no yuki mo jodo yori

[2] kore ga maa tsui no sumika ka yuki goshaku

[3]o kiku no sandara-bushi ya kesano yuki

[4] yuki tokete mura ippai no kodamo kana

After Neruda’s “Cuerpo de Mujer”


 

Your body, my woman, white hills

and dark valleys, you entreat me

 

to surrender. Like a laborer

I search for our children.

 

Night invades me. Birds scatter

at the sound of your voice.

 

What vengeance does your body seek,

your arms so strong

 

around me? Desperate thirst,

throat so dry I cannot drink

 

from your breasts, warm

and overflowing with the milk of all mothers.

 

Neruda’s Cuerpo de mujer
Cuerpo de mujer, blancas colinas, muslos blancos,
te pareces al mundo en tu actitud de entrega.
Mi cuerpo de labriego salvaje te socava
y hace saltar el hijo del fondo de la tierra.

Fui solo como un túnel. De mí huían los pájaros
y en mí la noche entraba su invasión poderosa.
Para sobrevivirme te forjé como un arma,
como una flecha en mi arco, como una piedra en mi honda.

Pero cae la hora de la venganza, y te amo.
Cuerpo de piel, de musgo, de leche ávida y firme.
Ah los vasos del pecho! Ah los ojos de ausencia!
Ah las rosas del pubis! Ah tu voz lenta y triste!

Cuerpo de mujer mía, persistiré en tu gracia.
Mi sed, mi ansia sin límite, mi camino indeciso!
Oscuros cauces donde la sed eterna sigue,
y la fatiga sigue, y el dolor infinito.

Vente poemas de amor y una cancion desesperada – Pablo Neruda, 1924

Sappho to Gongyla

My face was hot. My need was strong.

I saw you lifting your arms at the edge of the sea.

 

Did you truly expect to touch the sky?

You did not glance in my direction.

 

You did not hear me breathing as I breathed your name.

When the moon sets, I will still be here counting the stars.

 

 

Inspired by several papyrus fragments from the Greek

Here, Lydia Koniodou recites  Sappho’s “Gongyla” , inspired by a slightly different set of fragments.

Departure by Anna Akhmatova

Although this land is not my own,

I will remember its inland sea

and the waters that are so cold,

the sand as white

as old bones, the pine trees

strangely red where the sun comes down.

I cannot say if it is our love,

or the day, that is ending.

1964

Audio version of the poem from All Spirit Poetry