Monthly Archives: May 2010

White Pink: Lycidas

The white Pink, and the Pansie freakt with jeat
— John Milton, Lycidas, ln 144

Dianthus carthusianorum

Dianthus carthusianorum. Johann Georg Sturm, 1796.

“Pink,” like many words for color, has a long fascinating history. I’ll spare you the full account; you can pull it up and read the sixteen entries and pages and pages of etymology in the OED for yourself–nine nouns, two adjectives, four verbs. Here, in “Lycidas” the word “pink” is a noun. Yes, sometimes “pink” is a verb, I can think of only a couple color words used as verbs, “black” and maybe “purple” (see “Lycidas” line 141, “purple all the ground”) or someday “green,” but in most cases the action finds its roots in the color itself. “To pink” is closer to “pinch” than it is to the color midway between white and red. But here, “pink” is a noun. Sure, all color words can be and are nouns, but again, this is a case in which the color word operates apart from its place on the spectrum. In fact, the “pink” to which Milton refers may be the noun that predates the color. Pinks are flowers in the Dianthus genus, a genus that includes over 300 species. Of these, the Carnations, the Sweet Williams, and the Pinks are the most familiar. I prefer the Sweet Williams, they’re easier to grow, flashier, and sweeter. Also, like Sweet Peas, Sweet William is easy to breed for new colors and forms; one can play with the spectrum between scarlet and white, the number of petals, and (to some extent) the habit.

But back to pink … garden Pinks look best planted en masse in borders (carnations for the cut-flower trade are typically grown in green houses), as a common garden flower, they bloom (here in Indiana) in May. Right now, there are several homes on my street with Pinks, in bloom, edging the sidewalks. Were these the Pinks that Milton knew? Probably not, but it doesn’t really matter … all Pinks have pinked (frilled and pinched) petals. And that is what matters, here. He did, however, have to distinguish the white Pink from the pink Pinks, so he (or the poet from whom he borrowed these lines) paused a bit. A little thought, not this “pink,” but that “pink.” Which is to say: why “white Pink” and not “pink Pink”? No pink a funerals?

This little juxtaposition (“white” against “pink”) reminds me of the challenges of translation. (Although, to read these words in English and not know “pink” as a flower might itself be a failure of translation.) What is a translator to do? Finding the common name for D. plumarius or D. caryophyllus in your language of choice might be an option, a labor intensive option. I am betting, therefore, that most will wimp out and translate without blinking the word for “white” adjacent to the word for the color “pink.” But finding translations of Milton’s “Lycidas” also proves to be labor intensive. Where are the translations of “Lycidas”?! I have retrieved three, mostly old efforts … and a fourth which is not a translation at all. Here they are, if you know of others, please share:

Milton, John. Emile Saillens, trans. Lycidas ; Sonnets. Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1971. [French]

Line 144 translated as: “Œillet blanc et pensée aux jaspures de jet” … that is, literally, a “white eyelet” … “oeillet” being the common name for Dianthus, see:

Milton, John. Simon Grynaeus, trans. Johann Miltons Wieder-erobertes Paradies nebst desselben Samson, und einigen andern Gedichten wie auch einer Lebens-Beschreibung des Verfassers. Basel : verlegts Johann Rudolf Imhof, 1752. [German]

Line 144 in prose (I have trouble with the old German script), approximately: “Die weisse Nagelblume, Die schwarz besprengte Drensaltigfeitsblume,” … I believe that’s literally “white nailflower” (Working from my memory of Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s poem “Supernatural Love“, I am going to guess that “nailflower” is an older German name for Nelken.)

Milton, John. T.J. Mathias, trans. Licida di Giovanni Milton. In: Mathias, Thomas James. Poesie liriche toscane. Milano: Vincenzo Ferrario, 1812. Pgs. 187-212. [Italian]

Line 144 loosely translated as: “Il pieghevol verbasco, e ‘l biancheggiante / Garofano, e ‘l giancinto” … again, “garofano” is the common name for dianthus, carnations, and cloves, see:

Milton, John. Justa Edouardo King naufrago, ab amicis moerentibus, amoris & mneias charin. Cantabrigiae : Apud Thomam Buck, & Rogerum Daniel, celeberrimae Academiae typographos, 1638. Early English books, 1475-1640 ; 761:3. [Not a translation, but a volume of poems, many in Latin, honoring the deceased Edward King, which includes Milton’s poem … in English.]

Here is another one, recommended by the Milton-L list, but I’ve yet to retrieve it:

Milton, John. Fernand Henry, trans. Les petits poèmes. Paris: E. Guilmoto, 1909. [French]

A librarian I consulted asked me if I expected to earn a PhD with this minutiae. The truth is, silly diversions like these kept me from earning a PhD. (I also have less silly diversions too, such as the obligations eating what’s left of my limited intellect.) A better topic for a short dissertation might be (as one diversion leads to another): what are the factors which make translations of “Lycidas” so rare? Perhaps a comparative literature scholar with an expertise in linguistics and economics could answer the question after five years of research and writing. I’ll skip all that and wing it:

1. “Lycidas” is a minor poem. Is it? Milton is a major poet, isn’t he? I think I can find several English translations of minor poems by Dante.
2. Much is translated into English; less is translated from English. We Anglophones expect others to read English and to do us the service of translating into English. All else will be ignored.
3. Milton in translation is ho-hum, just another treatise on this-or-that. Perhaps Milton’s verse is great, not in its subject, but in its language. (I doubt this and many poems are great in their language; translators persist, see Dante.)
4. Milton is not the “major” poet we, the Anglophones, think he is; or, that is, he is not a “world” poet. If this is true, what does it take? Who are the “world” poets? Homer, Dante, Virgil?

I am not convinced. “Lycidas” needs translators.

[Note: This is the fifth post in a series. See also: The Flowers in Milton’s “Lycidas”, Primrose: Lycidas, Tufted Crow-toe: Lycidas, and Pale Jasmine: Lycidas.]


“M” is for Michaux; “M” is for Mescaline

Henri Michaux. Miserable Miracle.

Henri Michaux. Miserable Miracle: Mescaline. New York: New York Review Books, 2002.

In April I agreed to read and write about Henri Michaux’s Miserable Miracle for the Spotlight Series tour on the NYRB Classics. The book is the first of four about the author’s experiences following self-administered doses of mescaline, a hallucinogen. Although easy enough to read (unlike Octavio Paz, who introduces the book, Michaux is not a show-off), Miserable Miracle demands an unsettling intimacy from its readers. With but a few shifty, though powerful, characters (principally Michaux and mescaline, but also hashish), and sparing concrete context, “you” too (however sober) will stand on the tracks and take measure of the locomotive. There, in the misery, “the whole theater … breaks up” and seizures are “suffered in every part of one’s being” (69).

What can one write about a book, in an orderly manner, when its author insists: “Multiplicity and overlapping are at work in you”? (69). Here, I try merely a few riffs (of thousands) on the letter “M”.

M is for Mescaline

Typically derived from the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii), mescaline is a psychedelic alkaloid. People often puke after consuming mescaline; Michaux imagines the body frantic to rid itself of the poison. Like other psychedelics (LSD, PCP), mescaline plays havoc with the uptake of serotonin (see: NIDA InfoFacts: Hallucinogens). Michaux writes, at the end of an addendum to Miserable Miracle: “Taking some (of these products) every four years, once or twice just to see how one is doing, probably would not be a bad idea” (179). My serotonin system is already shot; I know enough of how I’m doing. Perhaps reading the book every four years is a safer alternative. Perhaps.

M is for Miserable

Even after the puking, mescaline makes Michaux miserable. Early on, he warns us: “[I]n my journal, during all those incredible hours, I find these words written more than fifty times, clumsily, and with difficulty: Intolerable, Unbearable” (8). He is miserable in being overwhelmed. The drug, Mescaline, personified with a capital “M”, rushes Michaux. Even prior to the overdose, it is a rapist, overpowering him, robing him of his will. He is barraged with lights, attenuated shapes, rhythms, colors: green, pink (“pink enough to make you howl, unless you had the soul of a whore and took a flabby pleasure in yielding to it”), and “mad, exasperated, shrieking” white (32, 12). The misery is all the more apparent when Michaux compares mescaline with hashish. Indian hemp is at worst a mocking demon; it accompanies the author and mocks him … “Ha!” is for the deity “Hashish.”  While mescaline is a rushing train, hashish is a pony “capable of surprises” (95). Michaux, however, does experience a kind of joy (is this the “miracle”?), but typically this joy appears after recovering from the drug. He writes, three months after a trip: “And all my strength has returned. Who would have believed it possible? My strength! With what adolescent joy I feel it coming back” (85).

M is for Manuscript

Miserable Miracle, pg 44: manuscript page written under influence of mescaline by Henri Michaux.

Miserable Miracle, pg 44

Miserable Miracle includes several of Michaux’s mescaline influenced line drawings. These appear to be recollections of his experiences (not unlike much of the text itself), the drawings are metaphors for the experience. Breaches, fault lines, part reptilian, part infinite abyss, the drawings are inimitable, but recognizably Michaux’s handiwork. The book, however, also includes thirty-two pages of illegible manuscript. Michaux’s attempt to write during hallucinations; Mescaline the amanuensis. These are frightful, but also (as Michaux suggests) the most honest witness to his experience. (After all, one might fake a narrative account of a drug trip, but what genius would ever try to forge Mescaline’s perseverating manuscript?) Mirroring the manuscript, he writes: “having settled on the letters ‘m’ of the word ‘immense’ which I was mentally pronouncing, the double downstrokes of these miserable ‘m’s’ … iMMense terremoto Mense” (11).

M is for Miracle

Miraculous that Michaux endured; the book is without a doubt a great feat of physical and intellectual athleticism. But a “miracle,” too, in that here the author breaks from what comes to him by nature. Without mescaline Michaux’s writings are wonderfully strange, but Michaux hides and Michaux controls. While Michaux would construct, mescaline prefers “covering ground” (64). It “diminishes the imagination. It castrates, desensualizes the image” (61). Though miserable, mescaline is a step toward an infinity; the “miracle”: “against my natural instinct, I had accepted infinite fragmentation, the teeming state composed of what is smallest, which divides and overruns everything” (70).

M is for Michaux

Henri Michaux, by Claude Cahun, 1925

Henri Michaux, by Claude Cahun, 1925

If the experience, for Michaux, is so miserable, why does he take the drug? Some people do not trust their god; others suspect the government, stand apart from their cultures, or feel betrayed by their tongues, but Michaux fears the self. It is for this reason that I have long admired Michaux’s “poetry” … his short prose writings are really a genre of their own. I am mostly drawn to his self-doubting, his hiding and tricks of persona. Michaux is not dishonest (he is unsparingly honest), but he hides. Doubting the existence of a sober, direct voice, Michaux prefers the distortions. The madness that possesses us confirms the honesty of these distortions. In this chaos, which of the self, which of the wills, are we too choose?

In Miserable Miracle, Michaux is at times (as he is nowhere in the “poems”) transparent. In the trauma, in the illnesses and the narrow recoveries, Michaux finds himself at home in his skin. Misery is a price he willing pays for this “paradise” (8). A paradise in which mescaline obliterates both narcissism (“My drug is myself, which Mescaline banishes”) and (“I am being hollowed out”) the accuser with all its masks (85, 12). In return, whatever is left of Michaux experiences a kind of wholeness. This wholeness is painful at times, as he writes in a note remembering the overdose: “The terrible cyclone caught us, me and myself, united so idiotically, so indissolubly, and from that moment, instead of watching them, I received all the blows” (125n).

But at a high price, he persisted “in offering the best [he] had, the most intimate, the most Henri Michaux … like a man whose arm has been caught in a revolving belt and who in spite of himself is drawn toward the center of the machine which in no time will tear him to pieces” (129). Yes, it is a miracle that he survived, that after such thorough self mutilation, he should endure to write this book. In returning, he is found by infinity and he finds the world, and with it (although expressed a decade later) joy:

Suddenly a word came to me, found me. Myriads was the word. Myriads, Myriads. Everything can be found in it … This world that can only describe itself in terms of myriads, I had a share in it, too. A magnificent sense of fulfillment took root in me. Joy! (168).

M is for Me

Will I read this book again? Yes, but next time with friends. Madness is lonely, and I am not one in need of an “experimental psychosis” (81). I know the “ruses of the madman” all too well (133). Next time I aim to share with Michaux his myriads, but not so much his misery.

Thorns and Demons

Among the bitter consolations of the Christian scriptures are Paul’s comments on suffering and weakness. I am reading my way (under heavy cloud cover) through the Pauline letters right now and I am, once again, arrested by his lamentations, redemptions, and (ultimately) affirmations of brokenness. Human grief and pain, the flesh we carry, the cross born in that flesh; as ever, I find sorting it all out a challenge. What is simply sin and (the pain endured) its consequences? What are illnesses and ailments which, by our carrying, we bring glory to God? And what are the afflictions we willingly serve, serve as if a host to demons?

Yesterday I was struck by the strangeness of one of these passages. In the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul finds himself apologizing left and right for having to boast. He’s “boasting” because the Corinthians are mighty impressed with a few of Paul’s rivals. Apparently, the believers are too fond of some very charismatic voices and are willing to give those voices an authority that they do not deserve. Paul tries to bring them under his influence by reminding them of his credentials as an apostle. Although I have never been entirely persuaded by Paul’s modesty, perhaps because we see ourselves in others and I am a person of much false modesty, Paul seems to have forced himself into some very uncomfortable “boasting.” Indeed, he shares one of his ecstatic experiences by beginning with “I have this friend who ….” In just a few verses, however, he comes clean and owns the experience. Apparently Paul visited paradise and saw and heard things that should not be shared; they were ecstatic experiences for Paul and for Paul alone. There’s nothing too special about that, we all have experiences which are given to us for our own edification, but Paul goes on and shares an oracle in God’s voice. Having had a great time in paradise, Paul needs something to keep him grounded. And so, in chapter twelve, Paul writes: “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated” (12:7). Paul begged the Lord to take the affliction away, but God replies: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9). God replies!

Beyond the Gospels and the book of Revelations, there are few, very few, passages in which God speaks to his people in the manner of the prophets. Of course, but for the Gospels and the book of Revelations there are few Christian scriptures that were not authored by Paul. So, perhaps it is Paul’s Christianity which seeks to de-emphasize the role of the oracle in the Christian experience. Afterall, if we are alive in Christ, why should we need special messages, mediated through a prophet to find our way, the Way?

Such a strange and bitter consolation, this rare oracle. I am a weak person; I have my thorns (most inflicted by that most ready accuser, the self); and I cannot see past them. What was Paul’s “thorn”? No one knows. Some have argued for a physical affliction (an illness, a disability, an addiction) and others for communal affliction (perhaps an actual heckler, perhaps the opposition of Jewish leaders he wanted to persuade, perhaps perpetual unemployment and growing debt), but only Paul knows. I am, of course, partial to reading my afflictions into the account; I live with broken people, sick people, disturbed people. I too am a broken, sick, and disturbed person “… for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbour” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q.5). We are, together, a great thicket of thorns. What power is to be found in this weakness; this weakness which works counter to love? But for grace, I am nothing.

Oppen in Lumps and Chunks

A year ago I promised to write about the final section of George Oppen’s poem “Image of the Engine” (See: Remembering Oppen: Image of the Engine). I had put it off because I was flummoxed. I’m still flummoxed, but a year is too long to keep a promise. At its core, the “Image of the Engine” is a poem about life (or, to be more precise: dying … but, some would say that life is about dying). While the engine might be thought of as the body (or, in the first section, as the heart), the image could be understood as the “soul”. I am, although a Christian, uncomfortable with the vocabulary of the “soul”. When believers toss around the Greek verbiage of metaphysics, I’m wary that they have little certainty of what they are doing. What exactly is the soul, the spirit, the mind, the heart? Conveniently, for my notions, Oppen too dodges the issue; he describes the entity as “A still and quiet angel of knowledge and of comprehension”. But that is the end of the first section, and I have promised to write about the concluding, fifth, section.

In the fifth section, Oppen begins with the italicized portion of this quotation from Ecclesiastes: He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart[s], so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end (3:11 KJV). Although not entirely against the grain of the text it was taken from, this is an appropriation, not a commentary. Oppen snatches the verse to be used (with its connotations) for his own ends. It is an appropriate appropriation.

While acknowledging the engine, the body, the limits of life, the poem turns to desire. A kind of fuel, that foolishness which inflames the young, the desire for company (which also will end) keeps the engine running. (In the second section, Oppen suggests that we would not live without this fuel: “I know that no one would live out / Thirty years, fifty years if the world were ending / With his life”.) But facing death (or ignoring it, or blind to it?), every generation goes out and seeks this companionship “like children, seeking love / At last among each other”.

Fuel, however, is spent and spending is expense and, like nothing else, desire is expensive. “Even the beautiful bony children” leave behind a grimy pile of detritus–rubble, commerce, death.

As I write this my autistic son … will he ever “go” out? what would he seek, companions? My autistic son views and reviews, cycles through a School House Rock video about the carbon foot print. The kid in the cartoon learns his lesson, in part, by eyeing the size of the actual “carbon” foot prints he tracks across the screen. They grow larger or smaller to reflect his various rates of consumption. The diddy urges: Don’t be a carbon sasquatch. Desire, sexual selection, meeting and mating, and what we leave behind: our grimy prints and at great expense.

Vanity. As the engine, as our engines, all, everyone of us, gurgle along, heading to a final stop, the poet weighs the vanity. In great lumps and chunks, vanity. And were are locked out, locked out of a more sensible way. The world is set in our hearts:

In flood, storm, ultimate mishap:
Earth, water, the tremendous
Surface, the heart thundering
Absolute desire.