Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Proust on Skates (not roller)

(That's a Mendini Proust chair. Link below.)

I grabbed Anthony Hecht's Flight Among the Tombs from off library shelves a few weeks ago, thumbed through and landed on "Proust on Skates." I liked the poem for its biographical fiction, its lovely rendering of the most horizontal or writers momentarily vertical. Its formal control, something I don't aim for in my poetry but admire.

Oddly simultaneous with my reading of Hecht, I saw this comment from poet and critic Dan Chiasson, who writes, "Anthony Hecht, to me the most wearisome of plausible poets."

On the one hand, I admit that as I read other poems in the collection I wasn't impressed or drawn in, although to see my thoughts voiced so vigorously gives me pause. Anyway, here's the poem I did admire.

Proust on Skates

He stayed in bed, and at the beginning of October still wasn’t getting up till two in the afternoon. But he made a seventy-mile journey to Chamonix to join Albu [Louis Albufera] and Louisa [de Mornand, Albufera's beautiful mistress] on a mule-back excursion to Montanvert, where they went skating.    Ronald Hayman, Proust: A Biography

The alpine forest, like huddled throngs of mourners,
Black, hooded, silent, resign themselves to wait
As long as may be required;
A low pneumonia mist covers the glaciers,
Spruces are bathed in a cold sweat, the lat
Sun has long since expired.

Though barely risen, and the gray cast of the day
Is stark, unsentimental, and metallic.
Earth-stained and chimney-soiled
Snow upon path and post is here to stay,
Foundered in endless twilight, a poor relic
Of a once gladder world.

Spare café patrons can observe a few
Skaters skimming the polished soapstone lake,
A platform for their skill
At crosscut, grapevine, loops and curlicue,
Engelmann’s Star, embroideries that partake
Of talent, coaching, drill,

While a few tandem lovers, hand in hand,
Perform their pas de deux along the edges,
Oblivious, unconcerned.
This is a stony, vapor-haunted land
Of granite dusk, of wind sieved by the hedges,
Their brances braced and thorned.

Escaped from the city’s politics and fribble,
Hither has come an odd party of three,
Braided by silken ties:
With holiday abandon, the young couple
Have retreated into the deep privacy
Of one another’s eyes,

While the third, who in different ways yet loves them both,
Finds himself now, as usual, all alone,
And lacing on his skates,
Steadies himself, cautiously issues forth
Into the midst of strangers and his own
Interior debates.

Sweatered and mufflered to protect the weak
And lacey branches of his bronchial tree
From the fine-particled threat
Of the moist air, he curves in an oblique
And gentle gradient, floating swift and free –
No danseur noble, and yet

He glides with a gaining confidence, inscribes
Tentative passages, thinks again, backtracks,
Comes to the minute point,
Then wheels about in widening sweeps and lobes,
Larger Palmer cursives and smooth entrelacs,
Preoccupied, intent

On a subtle, long-drawn style and pliant script
Incised with twin steel blades and qualified
Perfectly to express,
With arms flung wide or gloved hands firmly gripped
Behind his back, attentively, clear-eyed,
A glancing happiness.

It will not last, that happiness; nothing lasts;
But will reduce in time to the clear brew
Of simmering memory
Nourished by shadowy gardens, music, guests,
Childhood affections, and, of Delft, a view
Steeped in a sip of tea.

Anthony Hecht, from Flight Among the Tombs (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995)

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