N a p a l m H e a l t h S p a : R e p o r t 2 0 0 9

 

JAMES RUGGIA

 

 

March 27, 2009

 

 

Stations of the Cross #3 is probably Fernando Pessoa's most quoted poem by those who read him in English translation. I have issues with the English rendering of the poem by Peter Rickard, as I think, he clung to close to the original syntax of the Portuguese in the final two lines. It's a 14 line poem and if it suggests a sonnet, it's more akin to Petrarch's eight and six; than to Shakespeare's quatrain's & couplet.

 

It's the changing nature of the persona in the poem that I find so interesting. As a Station of the Cross, Jesus is speaking at the same time, as Boabdil, the last Moorish King of Granada and Pessoa himself. The reader moves through all of these figures who are being exposed to the same emotional torrents at entirely different times. The opening stanza suggests that Christ is "remembering" the exile of Boabdil which actually took place 1,400 years later. If the reader chooses to locate the voice in Pessoa than it's chronological, but if they prefer, as I do, to locate the voice in Christ it cuts a much more interesting sensibility. I believe both readings are intentionally juxtaposed as part of Pessoa's struggle.

 

Since I first saw this poem in the 1980s, I often considered Christ "remembering" all the subsequent history that moved forward from his death. He remembered from Golgotha, the death camps of World War II, the slaughters of the Crusades, the Black Plague and the whole march of Western history. In the second stanza he says,

 

Perhaps in former time I was, not Boabdil,

 

But merely his last look from the road

 

At the face of the Granada he was leaving, history

 

A cold silhouette beneath the unbroken blue...

 

Boabdil's exodus is one of the most operatic moments in history and the heart break of the Moor fires the legends of Granada; that most tragic and beautiful of Spanish cities. It's said that as Boabdil cried on the road from Granada, his mother delivered the hammer with, "Go on cry like a woman for what you couldn't defend as a man." Ouch.

 

If you've been divorced; evicted from your home and family, you may be able to channel the feelings of Boabdil as he watched Isabella and Ferdinand move into his quarters in the Alhambra.

 

Pessoa, who was a man of many names and many personae, ends his poem with those great six last lines.

 

What I am now is that imperial longing

 

For what I once saw of myself in the distance...

 

I am myself the loss I suffered...

 

 

And on this road which leads to Otherness

 

Bloom in slender wayside glory

 

The sunflowers of the empire dead in me...

 

These tragic images flow through Christ, Boabdil and Pessoa simultaneously; a fusion of religion, history and poetry.

 

 

 

On Two lines by Gabirol

"Be smart with your love," my friend chided,
"Find solid ground for the circle it clears."

 

You could make a case that Shelomo Ibn Gabirol (1021 to 1058) suffered the early incarnation of the soul that tore just as violently through the life of Arthur Rimbaud. In the brief bio that introduces Gabirol's selection in The Dream of the Poem, Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain 950-1492 (Princeton University Press), Peter Cole, the anthology's editor and translator, describes a man who was writing "accomplished poems by 16, important ones by 19." The portrait Cole paints is of a physically ugly man who lived in constant pain due to an unknown illness and who did not suffer fools.

Though he wrote philosophical treatises and many other poems, I have found myself stuck on the lines above since I first encountered Cole's translations on a trip to Andalucia a couple of years ago. The image of love clearing a circle conjures up two aspects of love; the sexual ritual of clearing space to make love and secondly, the clearing of space for a home, and by extension, a family.

That in itself would make the lines worth remembering, but the image also addresses the power of love in an individual, the singular focus of it, so strong that it creates a circle of clarity within the confusions and distractions of life. That emotional focus that is so overpowering when we first fall in love; maybe it's that focus that is so captivating.

It's believed that Gabirol's family may have been dislodged from Cordoba when the fundamentalist Berbers razed the city for being too effete. Cordoba, the smashed hive from which all the honey bees scattered to enlighten other Andalucian cities that include such lost glories as Seville, Cadiz and Grenada. Though they are all beautiful in their own way, Cordoba feels the most essential. The Great Mosque, squats in the middle of it all, its interior arches telescoping deeper into the darkness. To think that Maimonides was a boy strolling past the town's blinding white homes and narrow lanes. After the destruction, all of that creativity that had gathered to the court of the Ummayids was banished to wander town to town.

 

 

March 5, 2009

 

 

With Hopper and Reznikoff in Thailand

 

In today's New York Times, Jori Finkel writes of Edward Hopper's enormous influence on our culture and quotes the owner of a San Francisco gallery as saying, "Hopper is huge, Mr. Fraenkel said. I think hes had a pervasive impact on the way we see the world, so pervasive as to be almost invisible." I'm not as sure as Finkel is, that Hopper was the first artist or writer to capture the spirit that we find in Hopper's paintings, but I agree that his impact is so large as to be invisible. Certainly, the spirit that moves through Hopper, moves with a presence much larger than style, and is more accurately described as a sensibility.

I won't attempt to describe Hopper's impact on others, but I know that his paintings have given me an approach to the situations I find myself in all of the time as a travel writer in strange lands. When you travel alone, and frequently, as I do, you often find yourself in an interior zone that feels much like what comes out of one of Hopper's urban scenes. You're in a cafe, a hotel lobby or buying a newspaper and you're somehow inside of but not part of the social dance going on around you. Simultaneously isolating and comforting, there is a tangible relief in not being attached to your own history.

It calls to mind the Objectivist poetry of Charles Reznikoff. His most famous line describes how the ruins of a building can create that otherworldly feeling.

The house-wreckers have left the door and the staircase,
now leading to the empty room of night

When we rip ourselves out of our normal contexts, we are essentially leaving only the door and the staircase of our lives. As in the poem above, that often frames the edge between where our thoughts & observations border on the big mysterious night beyond.

A few years ago, drinking beers in a ramshackle roadside bar in Pattaya , Thailand , it occurred to me that it was precisely this feeling, as in a Hopper painting, that I was traveling to find. At that moment, the bar maid sat opposite me. She asked where I was from and what had brought me to Pattaya. I answered and asked how things were going for her.

It was a friendly, disanimated conversation between two disconnected lives, looking out from the tangle of their own stories, for a relief from those stories.

 

March 1, 2009

 

[Reprinted from Unacknowledged Legislations, unacknowledgedlegislations.blogsopt.com, by permission of the author.]