Ben Wolfson has a most lovely post about reading books in which his mother has scribbled (helpfully) in the margins, and how re-tracing her thoughts and translations is endearing, charming, and humanizing:
I'm moved to post this because one of the old books with which I came away a few weeks ago was a copy of Frisch's Homo Faber that she read while taking classes at, I assume, a UCLA extension program when teaching in LA. It's very interesting! She has helpfully underlined and defined in the margins the words she didn't know, but only on their first occurrence, which is extremely helpful to me because it means about 90% of the words I don't know have a definition right there. Some phrases, which presumably were found important, are also underlined (eg "Ich fÃ¼hle mich nicht wohl, wenn unrasiert") and some of the words underlined to be defined are kind of endearing (eg Maxwell'schen DÃ¤mon; I can't actually read the definition given for this). In fact the whole thing is rather endearing and charming—imagining her reading through with a dictionary and pencil and whatnot. One's parents: formerly ordinary humans! Who knew?
I am myself moved to interrupt all of this social science and the sleep-deprived busy life I have been living these first few weeks of the term and give you, dear reader, some poetry about margins, although I'm avoiding the obvious choice of Billy Collins' Marginalia, which is a little too fluffy for this blog. These are long poems, but well wrth it. Whoever says that modern poetry has no art is smoking crack for breakfast.
Poem With Wisteria Growing Along its Margin
by Gerry LaFemina
The five cool stars above this town look down
upon the main drag & the bar where a guy once fired
four bullets into a biker who said nothing
to the man, who had just laughed too loud & at an inappropriate moment.
The first shot sounded like the break
of an eight-ball rack, but louder
more resonant. The subsequent squeezes
of the trigger--redundant, more resounding
as they mixed with the shrieks of beer-drinkers.
Hysteria speading among them like wisteria
along a garden fence; its occasional balloons of violet
flowering vividly in the green mesh of its leaves. I remember
lying in such a garden.
remember the lush cologne of pollen & the garnet bees
buzzing their cargo routes between blossoms & a distant apiary.
I had thought there was nobody else
in that place, so I was surprised then, when walking its paths later,
to hear weeping. I was amazed
by how sudden & communicable sadness can be--
and how embarrassed the woman became when she glanced up
to see me standing there, the white heart
of a wisteria blossom barely beating in my extended hand. She shook
her head & smiled.
Her face so fragile I thought she'd shatter.
Consider the ordinance of griefs:
should one begin with the phenomenal or the ordinary?
I count them on the threads of my shirt
and on the gem-like sparkling of dust
in the slide of light that entrusts itself to my vision.
Then I lose track, distracted by a concert of ambulances & police cruisers: their cacophonic call-and-response.
The next morning I heard how the biker's wife insisted--
insisted was the paper's word--it was all her fault:
she had wanted to go out that night.
And her husband, because he loved her
and because it was a lovely October evening & he knew soon he'd have
to stow the Harleys away for winter, because of these thing
she agreed, although it was a weeknight
and there'd be an early morning the next day, driving a propane truck.
The jukebox was shaking AC/DC's "Shook Me All Night Long"
and he had just gotten up for another round . . .
She never mentions the expression on his face, mouth agape,
suddenly soundless. Then the remaining patrons screaming.
After the questioning
and after the gunman took his position in a squad car's back seat &
shrank to two dimensions with its slamming door, the officers
let the bartender back inside
and the owners. The three men sat at a table while one of them
poured whiskey into tall tumblers cored with ice. Nobody spoke.
When they finished their drinks
they simultaneously stood, and, still speechless,
went about cleaning up: one of them counting the till;
the others filling buckets with rags & suds
to start removing blood from the walls & carpet--
a task they knew to be futile
like this poem, in the end, whatever its message.
Weeks passed & still his bike, a 67 Roadster, stood
outside the bar, reverent as a statue.
Then it was gone although nobody knew where it went
or who took it. But I last saw it
parked there beneath a thin skin of fresh powder
and the splayed glove of light from the bar's bay window.
Inside: a small splatter of what may have been blood
blemished the pool table felt like a location on a map
you can't return to, & the new barmanp
olished the heavy glass mugs with a rag. Outside
the snow wafted scattershot
like blossoms on a dark wall of ivy.
by Rosanna Warren
The last string quartet (Leoš Janáček and Kamila Stösslová)
She reads romances, she spells poorly, she’s full-breasted,
broad in the beam, matron in a cloche hat,
bulky knee-length skirt, apron, thick calves, white stockings, Mary Janes.
Her heels go click click on the pavement.
She has those dark Gypsy eyes and the wide laugh.
He loves it when she tosses her head like that.
And here she is in long skirt and embroidered blouse, posing
by her dwarf ornamental orange tree on the balcony:
high pale forehead, stacked dark hair, heavy jaw, bust cleaving forward like a prow.
And here she is on holiday with her husband the businessman the perpetual traveller
with the commanding walk and striped tie and blunt mustache.
“Two decidedly Jewish types,” writes Zdenka Janáčková, J’s wife:
they send her, in the last year of the war,
bread, butter, eggs, semolina flour, geese
from the husband’s military contacts.
“My dear dark dove,” J calls Kamila, “My little one.”
He has taken dictation from every fountain in Hukvaldy,
where he was born to endless mumbled rosaries of water.
He notes the gush and prattle of the Fox’s Well
as the beech tree flashes its sleight of leaf, and fox kits hide in the rocks;
the public fountain, “a fine of ten crowns
on those who fail to replace the cover”:
and when the cover is replaced
the fountain closes her eyes;
the castle fountain, handsome, broad and brimming, but scuttled into pipes
for manor farm, brewery and slaughterhouse
where the stream blurts out in blood;
and the little well hidden through tall grass at Kazničov,
springing up through the roots of three lime trees, “Helisov’s Well,”
chants the little girl, and he notes that too, the quavering fall
of the name; and watches water bugs skitter
and green moss, darkling, at the bottom, and shards of sky.
Bread, butter, eggs, semolina flour, geese.
Kamila knows nothing of music, she worries about her dress
for the première of Jenůfa in Vienna.
She has two little boys, Rudi and Otto.
Otto the baby swims on her hand
and she leans over him, soft as night, one eyebrow tilted up
as at a dream of which she is hardly aware.
“She was of medium height, dark, curly-haired like a Gypsy woman,”
writes Zdenka, “with great, black bulging eyes.
The voice was unpleasant, shrill.”
—That once again he saw “her raven hair, all loose,”
and she was barefoot in the house
and she climbed a ladder to pick apricots from the tree
and she refused the gift of the knitted silver bag
“And your eye has a strange depth, it’s so deep it doesn’t shine.”
Night leans hugely.
He sleeps alone, in his study, upstairs at the Organ School.
Zdenka sleeps in their villa across the yard.
He who had scrawled
on his cuffs, on envelope scraps, on market paper, in his little pad,
robins’ trills, girls’ chatter at the railway station,
fox bark, thrush whistle, hen cackle,
kitten mew, bee hum, “the chord of stalagmites covered with hoarfrost,”
the airy, bell-like patter of fountain spray,
in a notebook
years before Kamila
in a notebook
2 A.M. 24 February 1903
his daughter’s dying
dying, age 21—
in a notebook—
“Now I remember that I’m supposed to die”
(a little string of quarter notes, B and middle C)—
“What walks we took on the corso”—“We
should say so much—”
He tells her,
“You are the most beautiful among them,” and she smiles,
in his notebook she smiles.
And, down to a G,
“Something gets lost so well, no one can find it.”
In a notebook—
2:45 A.M. 25 February 1903, Olga,
her light hair spread across the pillow,
“A-y-a,” two drawn out B’s, scrupulously noted by her father,
and in the margin,
“God be with you, my soul.”
What can be assimilated into song?
The rivers of Lachia: the River Lubina
falls from a ridge of the Radhošť Mountain
into an abyss, to seethe of silver, crash of dark;
the Ondřejnice dabbles through the village of Mĕrkovice,
past mossy banks, shallow, beery-blonde, tepid, where goslings swim
dunking for weeds and bugs; and the River Ostravice
is the color of steel, and smites the wrist with cold:
and all the Lachian rivers run
through cello depths, horn hurtle, foam-spray of glockenspiel,
clash of cymbals at the smoky inn
where Sofie Harabisová flies from arm to arm
in the glare, smoke, sweat and stamp of feet:
“Where is the poet Šťastný or Professor Batĕk or Mrs. Marie Jungova now?
Gone, all gone, those who took part
that wild summer night, forty-five years ago!”
Kamila reads romances.
“There’s no love just innocent
friendship. My husband’s
away all the time he’s always
got things to do.”
“Your raven hair—
I write these lines so they’ll be read, and yet unread
So it’s like a stone falling into water—”
“You’re the star I look for in evening—”
“I was your shadow—”
“Even thoughts become flesh—”
in the fountain bubbling up among the lime tree roots,
mumbling its prayers over and over, tonguing the stones.
Now after the war, no need
for bread, butter, eggs, semolina flour, geese delivered
by special connection
and Czechoslovakia is free in the Sinfonietta, in the razzle of brass:
an ordinary woman Your heart would stop
aching if you saw me more.”
There’s Rudi, there’s Otto,
and her husband always dealing in his antiques.
No we cannot attend the première in Prague no we cannot.
Now after the war.
For that cold: boil three onions with marjoram and lemon peel
and drink it like tea with sugar.
Your raven hair.
I was your shadow, when you reached for the apricots.
Gut scrapings: the bow scrapes sunlight from that summer day at the spa at Luhačovice
where she sat on the grass “like an exhausted little bird”:
“Dear Madam, Accept these few roses as a token”
where she sat on the grass, scrape sunlight
from the inner petals, scrape the dark from
her pupil, so deep it doesn’t shine.
“Silence goes to sleep under every tree.”
Under the tilt of her shadowed brow.
His baby son died those years ago
and Olga’s hair
spreads wide across the pillow where she sighs.
He sleeps alone
it’s like a stone
gut scraping, fracture, a waltz
falters, the schmaltzy tune with raven hair
whispers, breaks off, and the hand she lets him
touch, for the first time, she does not draw away
the first time, “your little hand,”
in eleven years, under the linden boughs.
“That dark Jewess,” writes Zdenka, “I rather
liked her at first, but I held my position.
You know how artists are. They have to be
handled. I would not
let him go.”
“These letters were written in fire.”
the Gypsy girl, Káťa Kabanová, the Vixen, Aljeja,
the little hidden well by the lime trees at Kazničov,
the military fanfare on the promenade,
trumpet, oboe, piccolo squeal
when the Austrians march out, the Empire crashes, and the country is,
like the high-wire flute notes, finally, free.
Zdenka must acknowledge this:
were written in fire.
By now Kamila’s boys have been stuffed into trousers, stiff collars, and neckties.
They’ve grown leggy, their faces are plump.
It’s a question of tempi slightly retarded, a vertigo
the viola suffers, following the violins.
Silence goes to sleep under every tree.
The cello drags
gusts of confetti, repetition, emotion is all
pulled by twisted horsehair
out of gut.
My dear dark dove, a form of mourning,
that too is a form
Why don’t you write.
So when, those last days, she has come
at last, with little Otto, respectably
to visit the upstairs room he has built and furnished for her
in his summer cottage in Hukvaldy,
furnished according to his dream—
“I want to have the painting of those two cherubs, a writing desk, a communal table,
a comfortable bed, perhaps of brass, a wardrobe with mirrored doors, a marble wash-stand,
and four chairs, each from a different part of the world—”
(the question is, what can be assimilated
she peels oranges, makes tea,
they shop in the market and play and walk
and August 8, on the walk up the Babí hůra Hill, Otto gets lost in the woods and ravines—
Something gets lost so well, no one can find it—
and Leoš seeks and seeks the child in drenching rain
as if searching for his own
in the woods and ravines
under the wing of her darkly tilting brow
In a notebook no one writes, no one scores his cough.
10 August 1928 J consents to go
to the hospital in Ostrava
What walks we took on the corso
Something gets lost so well
So it’s like a stone
Silence goes to sleep under every tree
I was your shadow
I burned your letters but I keep
No one scored the sleep rattle in Ostrava
12 August 10 A.M. Sunday Kamila at his side,
a heavy woman who spells poorly, broad in the beam,
with thick knees and white stockings,
who reads romances,
who will die of cancer
seven years later
and be buried in the Jewish cemetery in Písek.
“And I kissed you
And you are sitting beside me and I am happy and at peace
In such a way do the days pass for the angels.”
No one scored the sleep rattle Sunday 12 August.
Only then, by his order,
and arrives by train.
These letters were written in fire.