Thanks to Cambridge Arts’ Sidewalk Poetry program, this poem is now imprinted in cement at Clarendon Ave. and Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge (Mass.). The text appeared first on my blog. I meant to answer Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali #20, “On the Day When the Lotus Bloomed,” which begins—in Tagore’s own translation from Bengali—“On the day when the lotus bloomed, alas, my mind was straying, and I knew it not. My basket was empty and the flower remained unheeded.”
By the way, Tagore’s English versions of his own verse are criticized for being sentimental, archaizing, and didactic and less challenging than the originals. For instance, Amit Chaudhuri writes, “Tagore’s English version of the Gitanjali, for which he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1913, is what Mother Teresa once was to Calcutta, the royal family to England, and Kingsley to Gandhi: a tantalising mirage that obstructs the view of what’s behind it.” My response, then, must be even further from Tagore’s Bengali original, which I cannot read. But I think these eight lines convey some of me, and I hope they offer a touch of peace in North Cambridge.
You can’t track swans across the sky. No trace.
The air they’ve passed as clean as what they breathe.
This is because they never cling nor hoard,
Just stretch their necks and feet and beat their wings.
Or so it was said in a treasured verse:
Words uttered and echoed and inked and taught.
Yes, but what of those other travelers?
The ones who have stowed their treasures aboard?
The carpeted cabin is dimmed and hushed.
The engines that thrum and gently shake them
Churn and burn and scrawl a long vaporous line,
Orbiting the orb where swans swim in breeze.
(Weimar, Germany, Nov. 5-6)
A Victorian house on a stately street,
Formal, ornate. The bell breaks the silence.
Would a gift have been wise--something to eat?
When to shift from pleasantries to science?
A ticking clock, long rows of serious books,
China, polished wood, a distant dog barks.
Pay attention, this might have some value.
It's rude to seek help without taking advice.
Now say what you've really come for, shall you?
Then: time to go? Did our talking suffice?
Not for years now have I been the visitor.
This is my parlor and I am the grey one,
The host, the ear, the kindly inquisitor.
How can it be that it's my turn to play one?
See also: Midlife.
Horace wrote his first book of Satires (meaning “medley” rather than “satire” in the modern English sense) no later than 33 BCE. In a passage in the Third Satire, he criticizes the Stoic doctrine that justice has its basis in nature. He suggests that rules are conventions that allow us to prevent conflict with minimal cruelty.
Nothing about his position is unique, but his language is luxuriant: “cum prorepserunt primis animalia terris / mutum et turpe pecus, glandem atque cubilia propter / unguibus et pugnis …” In my version …
When the animals crawled from the new* earth,
That mute and ugly herd fought for a nut
Or a place to rest--with nail and fist,
Then with clubs, then with tools they’d designed for war,
Until they came upon words to mark out sounds
And sense, and names. From then on, war waned.
They walled towns and wrote laws so that no one
Should be a thief, a thug, or an adulterer.
For even before Helen, sex** was a vile
Cause of conflict, but those are forgotten
Who died chasing it, like the bull in the herd,
Cut down by someone more fit than he is.
You have to admit, if you really search the files,
That laws were contrived in fear of injustice,
For nature can’t distinguish just from unjust
As she makes some things safe and others best to shun,
Nor can reason convince us it is just as bad--
And bad in the same way--to step on someone’s
Garden plant as to steal a holy relic
By cover of night.*** Let there be a standard
To tell the right penalty, so the cruel lash
Isn’t used when a regular beating would suffice.
Horace, Satires. 1.3.99-119, my translation
*Literally, “first earth.” **Actually a vulgar, sexist word. *** I’m surprised he doesn’t say: reason can’t convince us it is worse to steal the sacred object.
See also some thoughts on natural law; “The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis“; pragmatism and the problem of evil
A human is a spidery thing: digits,
Appendages for sensing the currents,
Good for catching, clutching, striking, stroking;
An upright anemone, an antenna.
A dog is a nose-delivery system,
Built for forward motion with detours:
A face on propulsive feet, a torpedo
(Until sacked-out, done for now, recharging).
Joined by the filament of a leash that
Ties me to him as much as him to me,
We loop through a net of scents, sounds, memories,
Tugged back to the door that keeps us both safe.