Thin glitter of water

Another letter to Donald Revell on Ezra Pound. (Queuing up a few in the lull between writing camp and Christmas).


Dear Don,

I’ve been thinking about the “lyrical principle” as Kenner frames it. “That words or names, being ordered in time, are bound together and recalled into each other’s presence by recurrent sounds.” As Pound’s practice develops, seems to me, the elements that recur grow larger and larger, until in the Cantos, as he manages recurrence on varying scales, from phoneme to homeomorph, he makes lyric a mode of logic. A logic that loses not one eyelash of particular existence, because it doesn’t abstract or deduct, but exemplifies and counterpoints.


In his early Provençal translations the recurring element is the phoneme. The effect is loyal to the troubadour and his rhymes and clanky maybe in a modern English ear:

“Up! Thou rascal, Rise,
        I see the white
        Light
        And the night
                Flies.”

No less dense, but more subtly modulated, is a later (1951) rendering of Montanari:

A swallow for shuttle, back,
Forth, forth, back
        from shack to
marsh track:
        to the far
sky-line that’s fading now

The consonantal music is so finely tuned that one might miss the quieter more drawn-out play of the vowels: swallow – forth – now. Not to mention the aural pleasure of the switch to long i and a sounds in the last line, enacting the swallow’s sudden shot off into the distance.


A long time before, in Cathay, Pound had brought the work and play of recurrence and departure to whole words — the refrain-words I spoke of before in “Song of the Bowmen of Shu” and “The River-Merchant’s Wife.” And in “The Beautiful Toilet” he mixes, as Kenner shows, the word-repetitions of the original Chinese (blue … blue) with lighter aural ligatures (willows – overfilled) that convey the spirit of the Chinese original’s musical patterning and avoid the clunky literalisms of Waley’s rendering.


In the Cantos the repeated elements grow larger — words, phrases, motifs — but the arrangement, and the intelligence it calls into play, remain musical. In Canto IV Diana bathes in a forest pool. The air is “alight with the goddess” herself, her limbs loading and endowing matter with divinity —

Ivory dipping in silver,
        Shadow’d, o’ershadow’d
Ivory dipping in silver,

Hidden by a forest canopy impenetrable to sunlight, the goddess lives in an eternal present, a light at once flowing and still.

What that image does in the eye (light made liquid) the music of recurrence (a word lightly varied nestled in a phrase exactly doubled) does in the ear. So that time circles round, flows but stands in place, in us also.


Then Actaeon, poor boy, blunders in:

The dogs leap on Actaeon,
        ‘Hither, hither, Actaeon,’
Spotted stag of the wood;
Gold, gold, a sheaf of hair,
        Thick like a wheat swath,
Blaze, blaze in the sun,
        The dogs leap on Actaeon.

The paradisal now of the goddess meets historical (tragic) human time. The word spoken twice aloud, hither, hither, urges haste, propels time body matter forward, while those repeated silently, gold, gold blaze, blaze, fix attention, intensify the sensory moment, hush and slow the mind. Meanwhile, on a larger scale, the phrase that bookends the scene, “The dogs leap on Actaeon,” fixes the unfolding action in place, so Actaeon enters mythic time.

Not, it has to be said, on the same terms as a god would enter.


With Actaeon’s entry the sun blazes into the scene. And this penetration of myth by history, of a divine now by historical time, releases light into the world. “Thus the light rains, thus pours, o lo soleils plovil.

Carroll finds in this line “the important canto motif of the light-water-stone progression which finally ends in crystal, i.e., the transmutation of the fluid transparency of subjective experience into the objective solidity of stone through poetry.”

If this is right, and if the light is that of a goddess, too, set loose in the world, and also the light of the Paradiso, which it must be, then the goddess can be nothing but an instance (purified, rarefied) of consciousness.

And if that’s right, there’s no divine eternal now after all, just human time, mostly fallen into history, but at certain points — points at which, for which, gods stand — fleetingly redeemed.


Getting too lofty and well ahead of me. No time here, or space now, for the homeomorphic rhymes, Cadmus and Odysseus, venturing they know not where, Itys and Cabestan, their hearts served up on plates, Actaeon and Vidal, gotten in their own trouble. But to note as I sign off a point or two where the poem wells up with an image of its own activity.

The liquid and rushing crystal

and

Ply over ply, thin glitter of water;
Brook film bearing white petals.

and

Adige, thin film of images,

 and

And Tian … with his hand on the strings of his lute
The low sounds continuing
        after his hand left the strings,
And the sound went up like smoke, under the leaves,

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headComposter

I write draw teach blog in and from the Pacific Northwest of America.

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