Cherry-blossom sigh

All is despoiled, abandoned, sold;
Death’s wing has swept the sky of color;
All’s eaten by a hungry dolor.
What is this light which we behold?

Odors of cherry-blossom sigh
From the rumored forest beyond the town.
At night, new constellations crown
The high, clear heavens of July.

Closer it comes, and closer still
To houses ruinous and blind:
Some marvelous thing yet undivided,
A fiat of the century’s will.

“To N.V. Rikov-Gukovski”
—By Anna Akhmatova

A Timbered Choir

Even while I dreamed I prayed that what I saw was only fear and no foretelling,
for I saw the last known landscape destroyed for the sake
of the objective, the soil bludgeoned, the rock blasted.
Those who had wanted to go home would never get there now.

I visited the offices where for the sake of the objective the planners planned
at blank desks set in rows. I visited the loud factories
where the machines were made that would drive ever forward
toward the objective. I saw the forest reduced to stumps and gullies; I saw
the poisoned river, the mountain cast into the valley;
I came to the city that nobody recognized because it looked like every other city.
I saw the passages worn by the unnumbered
footfalls of those whose eyes were fixed upon the objective.

Their passing had obliterated the graves and the monuments
of those who had died in pursuit of the objective
and who had long ago forever been forgotten, according
to the inevitable rule that those who have forgotten forget
that they have forgotten. Men, women, and children now pursued the objective
as if nobody ever had pursued it before.

The races and the sexes now intermingled perfectly in pursuit of the objective.
the once-enslaved, the once-oppressed were now free
to sell themselves to the highest bidder
and to enter the best paying prisons
in pursuit of the objective, which was the destruction of all enemies,
which was the destruction of all obstacles, which was the destruction of all objects,
which was to clear the way to victory, which was to clear the way to promotion, to salvation, to progress,
to the completed sale, to the signature
on the contract, which was to clear the way
to self-realization, to self-creation, from which nobody who ever wanted to go home
would ever get there now, for every remembered place
had been displaced; the signposts had been bent to the ground and covered over.

Every place had been displaced, every love
unloved, every vow unsworn, every word unmeant
to make way for the passage of the crowd
of the individuated, the autonomous, the self-actuated, the homeless
with their many eyes opened toward the objective
which they did not yet perceive in the far distance,
having never known where they were going,
having never known where they came from.

A Timbered Choir, Wendell Berry

Catholicism and the arts

I’ve shared some of Dana Gioia’s poetry before, and I just recently discovered his Napa Institute talk from a few years ago:

He speaks about “the problem of beauty’s absence from modern thought and daily life. He makes the bold assertion that this absence is the biggest issue facing our culture today. A fantastic meditation on the idea of beauty and its importance in our lives, and how to begin to put it back.”

Family letters

Enjoy “Finding a Box of Family Letters” by Dana Gioia:

The dead say little in their letters
they haven’t said before.
We find no secrets, and yet
how different every sentence sounds
heard across the years.

My father breaks my heart
simply by being so young and handsome.
He’s half my age, with jet-black hair.
Look at him in his navy uniform
grinning beside his dive-bomber.

Come back, Dad! I want to shout.
He says he misses all of us
(though I haven’t yet been born).
He writes from places I never knew he saw,
and everyone he mentions how is dead.

There is a large, long photograph
curled like a diploma—a banquet sixty years ago.
My parents sit uncomfortably
among tables of dark-suited strangers.
The mildewed paper reeks of regret.

I wonder what song the band was playing,
just out of frame, as the photographer
arranged your smiles. A waltz? A foxtrot?
Get out there on the floor and dance!
You don’t have forever.

What does it cost to send a postcard
to the underworld? I’ll buy
a penny stamp from World War II
and mail it downtown at the old post office
just as the courthouse clock strikes twelve.

Surely the ghost of some postal worker
still makes his nightly rounds, his routine
too tedious for him to notice when it ended.
He works so slowly he moves back in time
carrying our dead letters to their lost addresses.

It’s silly to get sentimental.
The dead have moved on. So should we.
But isn’t it equally simpleminded to miss
the special expertise of the departed
in clarifying our long-term plans?

They never let us forget that the line
between them and us is only temporary.
Get out there and dance! the letters shout
adding, Love always. Can’t wait to get home!
And soon we will be. See you there.

Fire this gentle

It’s been a while since I shared poetry I’ve liked, so here’s Las Animas by Dana Gioia:

Fire everywhere, soft fire of brushwood, fire
on walls where a faint shadow flickers
but lacks the strength to imprint itself, fire
in the distance rising and falling across the hills
like a bright thread through the spreading ashes,
fire in flakes from the trellised vines and branches.

Here neither before nor after its proper time,
but now that everything in this festive,
sad valley exhausts its life, exhausts its fire,
I turn back and count my dead,
and their procession seems longer, trembling
leaf by leaf from the first felled tree.

Grant them peace, eternal peace, carry them
to safety—far from this whirlwind
of ash and flame that twists choking
through the ravines, wandering the paths,
spinning aimlessly, then disappears.
Let death by only death, nothing other
than death, beyond struggle, beyond life.
Grant them peace, eternal peace, appease them.

Down there where the harvest is thicker,
they plow, they roll their barrels to the spring,
they whisper in the quiet transformations
of each hour. A young dog stretches out
in the corner of the garden for a nap.

A fire this gentle is barely enough, perhaps
not even enough, to cast light long
on this life’s undergrowth. Only another fire
can do the rest and then more—
to consume these remains, to change
them into light, clear and incorruptible.

Requiems from the dead for the living, requiems
in each flame for the living and the dead.
Stir the embers: night is here, the night
that spreads its pulsing web between the mountains,
now the eyes fail, but from the heat,
from the darkness, they know what remains.

(From the Italian of Mario Luzi)

Cato: A Tragedy

Reading Joseph Addison’s “Cato: A Tragedy.” A few of my favorite parts:

Juba:

Honour’s a sacred tie, the law of kings,
The noble mind’s distinguishing perfection,
That aids and strengthens Virtue where it meets her,
And imitates her actions where she is not

Sempronius:

Not all the pomp and majesty of Rome
Can raise her senate more than Cato’s presence

Portius:

I’ll thunder in their ears their country’s cause,
And try to rouse up all that’s Roman in them.
‘Tis not in mortals power to command success,
But we’ll do more, Sempronius — we’ll deserve it.

No lazy lover

I’m standing outside of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. Michael Novak’s funeral took place just hours ago in the Crypt Church, where I’d estimate some 400 or so came together to recognize death and to pray for a man they knew who has left the stage.

The funeral was also occasion to remember Fr. Richard Novak, Michael’s brother. I worked on a manuscript with Michael a few years ago, telling the story of Fr. Richard’s life through his letters. (We never found a publisher, but I hold out hope that the book will see life in some form in time.) Fr. Richard was killed in January 1964 in East Pakistan (Bangladesh) during sectarian conflicts between the Hindus and Muslims. Fr. Richard’s body was never recovered, but his chalice made it back to the states. That chalice was used during Michael’s funeral mass today.

In tribute to them both, I’m sharing some of Fr. Richard’s poetry:

I Am No Lazy Lover
Fr. Richard Novak, C.S.C.
1962

I am no lazy lover
With sweeping grandeurs
of small talk. Words, you discover,
are passing; love endures.

Proffered is no measured length
of the potential soul.
Rather, influence of strength,
corner-stone, cemented whole.

The senses know the form
and smile and eyes
of love, but the lover’s norm
is to pierce through this disguise

to spirit which is all things
does love intensify
to ripened being. Each day that sings
our love is more July.

Sand below and stars above
give instancy of me.
Mine is no lazy love;
come taste my love and see.