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As the sun’s last flashing ray,
As the last cool breeze from the shore,
Cheer the close of a dying day,
Thus I strike my lyre once more.
As now by the scaffold I wait,
Each moment of time seems the last,
For the clock, like a finger of fate,
Points onward and onward fast.

— Andre Chénier, 1794

 


(Hiroshima watch, 8:15 a.m. August 6th, 1945)

A rainy day in the Bay Area is perfect for poetry that celebrates the precious solitude lacking from my life these days. I don’t need to blame the mundane circumstances of my life, or the lasting hangover from “art” school. Or the fact that I am trying to write this in a car whose turns are twisting my stomach into nausea all while from the backseat my son repeatedly sings a preciously off-tune version of the Abc’s. Because even so, anything less than what Steiner describes as a writing at “the edge of itself,” anything that falls short of being itself but also “speaking on behalf of the other,” is not a moment of true solitude. Art and writing necessitate a “self-summons” but also a “state of nothingness,” of which I am not capable of right now.

And what analogy is more apt than of a man awaiting guillotine in the last days of Revolutionary France, relying on his art to guide him to the imminent underworld. Again, I hear Orpheus calling on music to forge a path into the unknown. But somehow, thankfully, the situation need not be so dramatic, so dire, nor as politically charged, as to understand that what Chenier describes in his last moments is the human condition we all find ourselves in.

“The Young Captive”
Without fear of the press, on vine branches lithe,
Through spring-tide the green clusters bloom.
Is’t strange, then, that I in my life’s morning hour,
Though troubles like clouds on the dark present lower,
Half-frighted shrink back from my doom ?
Let the stern-hearted stoic run boldly on death!
I — I weep and I hope; to the north wind’s chill breath
I bend, — then erect is my form!
If days there are bitter, there are days also sweet,
Enjoyment unmixed where on earth may we meet?
What ocean has never a storm?
Illusions the fairest assuage half my pain,
The walls of a prison enclose me in vain,
The strong wings of hope bear me far;
So escapes from the net of the fowler the bird,
So darts he through ether, while his music is heard
Like showers of sweet sound from a star.
Comes Death unto me? I sleep tranquil and calm.
And Peace when I waken stands by with her balm.
Remorse is the offspring of crimes;
My welcome each morning smiles forth in all eyes,
My presence is here, to sad brows, a surprise
Which kindles to pleasure at times.
The end of my journey seemed so far to my view;
Of the elm-trees which border the long avenue,
The nearest are only past by;
At the banquet of life I have barely sat down.
My lips have but pressed the bright foaming crown
Of the wine in my cup bubbling high.
I am only in spring, — the harvest I’d see,
From season to season like the sun I would be
Intent on completing my round;
Shining bright in the garden, — its honour and queen;
As yet but the beams of the morning I’ve seen,
I wait for eve’s stillness profound.
O Death, thou canst wait; leave, leave me to dream,
And strike at the hearts where Despair is supreme,
And Shame hails thy dart as a boon!
For me, Pales has arbours unknown to the throngs,
The world has delights, the Muses have songs,
I wish not to perish too soon.
A prisoner myself, broken-hearted and crushed,
From my heart to my lips all my sympathies rushed,
And my lyre from its slumbers awoke;
At these sorrows, these wishes, of a captive, I heard,
And to rhyme and to measure I married each word
As softly and simply she spoke.
Should this song of my prison hereafter inspire
Some student with leisure her name to inquire,
This answer at least may be given, —
That grace marked her figure, her action, her speech,
And such as lived near her, blameless might teach

That life is the best gift of heaven.

(A recent watercolor of an unknown relative, 72 x 33 inches)

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