Poem of the week

Twilight by Samuel Menashe

In this week’s poem, a beautiful nocturne, the New York poet Samuel Menashe finds transcendence in everyday images

An image of distant spiral galaxy Messier 74 captured using the Hubble space telescope

‘There’s only one star in the poem, but others come out faintly in the auditory imagination’.

Samuel Menashe was born in New York in 1925. His parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants, and his first language was Yiddish. “Scribe out of work/ At a loss for words/ Not his to begin with” he declares wryly in the opening lines of “Curriculum Vitae”. The language of his poetry is certainly unusual, but not because it’s self-conscious or strangely angled. On the contrary, it seems beautifully natural and unforced. Such naturalness, it reminds us, is a rare quality in contemporary poetry in English. It’s not simply that poets feel obliged constantly to do something different and surprising: there’s also the problem of paring down the clutter of modern experience. Menashe’s short poems are stringently economical, but never reductive.

Their central structure of a few sharp images still leaves room for shadows and open questions. Some poems take the form of proverbs or Talmudic snippets of wisdom. Christopher Ricks describes the latter as apophthegms. Whatever their preoccupations, all are invariably songs: lightly woven mnemonic chants reminding you that poetry begins in, and ultimately belongs to, the mouth.

Menashe takes pleasure in rhyme and assonantal echoes. His full rhymes sound out clearly but often evade symmetrical pattern. Sometimes there is no rhyme, and still the melody sings out, as in “Promised Land”: “At the edge/ Of a world/ Beyond my eyes/ Beautiful/ I know Exile/ Is always/ Green with hope –/ The river/ We cannot cross/ Flows forever.” Poems like this one are plainly biblical in their imagery and feeling. Others have an engaging trace of New York wit. Their little jokes may be pleasingly “little”: a closed-down diner, apparently called Homer’s, inspires not the scholarly allusion most poets would strive for, but a streetwise-silly pun: “Where can we eat/ With a garden view/ And a bell tower/ Across the street – / No place like Homer’s” (“Diner”).

Menashe has described how he learnt poetic structure from reading Shakespeare’s sonnets as a young man. A number of poems can usefully be thought of as miniature sonnets: the term alerts us to all the connectedness with which the simple outlines are inlaid, and to the work’s musical, “sounded” quality. This week’s poem, “Twilight”, is typically sonnet-like, and a fine example of the way Menashe parcels mystery in imagistic simplicity, straightforward statement in unpunctuated grammatical ambiguity. Its first three lines contain teasing layers of meaning and sound: “Looking across/ The water we are/ Startled by a star”. The syntax is arranged so that, irresistibly, the reader is reminded that human beings really are, mostly, water – although this is far from the main grammatical intention. We have to read on and find another, plainer meaning, but the inner, teasing, un-meant meaning lingers. Then, the way “startled” contains the “star” that follows it creates a kind of Doppler effect. Perhaps it reminds the reader that the subject of the sentence is plural, and that therefore “we” are two pairs of eyes and see a slightly differently star. That same “ar” or “ah!” sound is then echoed once more in “dark”. There’s only one star in the poem, but other stars come out faintly in the auditory imagination.

In the following rhyming couplet (“It is not dark yet/ The sun has just set”) the lines are not quite metrically compatible. The uneven distribution of stress on the rhyme-words (unlike ‘set’, ‘yet’ is barely stressed at all) softens the emphatic chime that the twin monosyllables may suggest to the eye. The white space between the stanzas, though, is a neat visual effect: we can imagine the stretch of water lies just there, separating the human watchers from the star.

In the next stanza, the same opening lines introduce a different, subtle and perhaps faintly amused emphasis: this time “we are/ Alone as that star/ That startled us.” This might be one of those little jokes, a frail, affectionate, smile-inducing joke between the speaker and his companion. But there is also something startling and unsettling in the poem’s insistence on finding the “star” in “startled”. Again, the syntax seems to draw us teasingly on, as if, each time the reader had reached the end of a line, and cottoned on to what was being said, it turned out instead that there was a further mental distance to travel.

And finally, the questions still hover, unresolved: what are “we” as “far” as, or as far from? Perhaps “we” are two lovers who find that their closeness was illusory? Perhaps the star is now viewing the human beings, and finding them as far away as the star is far away from them. Perhaps there is a biblical hint that we are far from God or the Promised Land. Menashe is the kind of poet who almost makes sense of that vague word “spiritual” – a word I usually try to avoid, but which seems to insert itself quite naturally at this point. Somehow, he anchors a sense of “something else” in the everyday imagery he uses, and nowhere more effectively than in this beautiful little nocturne.

There is a certain resemblance between Samuel Menashe and his near-contemporary, Paul Celan. The scale, the intensity, the Jewish consciousness are a significant shared inheritance. Menashe does not write about the Holocaust, except, perhaps, indirectly in a searing quatrain called “Daily Bread”, but he is at times elegaic and always concerned with mortality, recalling in early poems the hardships of his own military service in Europe during the second world war. Overall, however, he seems less haunted by historical trauma than by the ordinary sorrow and fragility of the human condition. Clear language and flowing melody are still his, a psalmist lit by a clear New World light, keeping his eye on the metaphorical Promised Land lying beyond that forever-flowing river: “Whatever he saw/ Receding from sight/ In the sky’s afterglow/ Was what he wanted/ To see, to know” (“Enlightenment”).

Twilight

Looking across
The water we are
Startled by a star –
It is not dark yet
The sun has just set

Looking across
The water we are
Alone as that star
That startled us,
And as far

• “Twilight” is published in Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems, ed Christopher Ricks.

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Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/feb/15/samuel-menashe-twilight-bloodaxe

The Birds of America

Picoides pubescens  Pic mineur ( mâle et femelle)  /  Downy Woodpecker (male and female)

birdsofamerica 112

We owe the Downy Woodpecker much respect and attention, simply because it destroys great quantities of insects that are harmful to the environment! It is present in leafy and mixed forests, orchards, parks and wooded neighborhoods in cities, and feeds mainly on insects found in rotten wood, in the form of eggs or larvae. It complements its diet with seeds and wild fruits and will appreciate, on occasion, a piece of suet and some running maple sap. Spread roughly throughout the North American continent down to the Gulf of Mexico, the Downy Woodpecker is seen all year round in Québec and elsewhere in Canada. Its length is 15 to 18 cm.

On doit au pic mineur respect et attention, tout simplement parce qu’il détruit de grandes quantités d’insectes nuisibles à l’environnement! Présent dans les forêts de feuillus et mixtes, les vergers, les parcs et les quartiers boisés des villes, il se nourrit principalement d’insectes trouvés dans le bois pourri, à l’état d’œuf ou de larve. Son régime alimentaire se complète de graines et de fruits sauvages et il peut apprécier, à l’occasion, le suif et la sève d’érable. Réparti un peu partout sur le continent nord-américain jusqu’au golfe du Mexique, le pic mineur est observé à l’année au Québec et au Canada. Sa longueur est de 15 à 18 cm.

Musée de la civilisation,
collection du Séminaire de Québec,
The Birds of America,
John James Audubon,
112/1993.34713
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Sialia sialis  Merle bleu de l’Est  /  Eastern Bluebird  
birdsofamerica 113
Although it eats fruits in the winter, the Eastern Bluebird feasts mainly on locusts, crickets, and beetles that it finds on the ground, in hedged farmland, pastures, clear woodlands, fallow fields and orchards. It is found in the agricultural regions of southern Québec and New Brunswick, and is also seen in the eastern United States. As two-thirds of its diet is made up of insects, the Eastern Bluebird finds it necessary to leave its northern nesting range and travel south as soon as summer ends, which brings it to Mexico. Though not a threatened species, the Eastern Bluebird population has been in decline over the past few decades, as its nesting range is being increasingly occupied by starlings and sparrows. In order to stabilize this sad situation, an efficient means for enhancing the reproduction of the Eastern Bluebird has been to install nesting boxes. Its length is 17 to 20 cm.

Bien qu’il consomme des fruits en hiver, le merle bleu de l’Est a pour principal festin les criquets, les grillons et les coléoptères qu’il trouve au sol, dans les paysages de bocages, les pâturages, les bois clairs, les champs en friche et les vergers. Rencontré dans les régions agricoles du sud du Québec et du Nouveau-Brunswick, on l’observe également à l’est des États-Unis. Son régime alimentaire étant au deux-tiers insectivore, le merle bleu de l’Est se voit dans l’obligation de quitter son aire de nidification nordique pour le Sud dès la fin de l’été, l’amenant ainsi au Mexique. Bien qu’il ne soit pas une espèce menacée, la population du merle bleu de l’Est se voit décliner depuis quelques décennies, son aire de nidification étant occupée de plus en plus par les étourneaux et les moineaux. Afin de stabiliser cette triste situation, on reconnaît en l’installation de nichoirs un moyen efficace à la reproduction du merle bleu de l’Est. Sa longueur est de 17 à 20 cm.

Musée de la civilisation,
collection du Séminaire de Québec,
The Birds of America,
John James Audubon,
113/1993.34714
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Zonotrichia leucophrys  Bruant à couronne blanche  /  White-crowned Sparrow 
birdsofamerica 114

The habitat of the White-crowned Sparrow includes the Nouveau-Québec and Basse-Côte-Nord regions, as well as the Canadian subarctic regions. Passing through all the other regions of the country, it seeks refuge in the southern United Stats in the winter, where it will be able to feed on fresh-grown clumps of moss, seeds and black flies, and the fluffy shoots of willows, along with insects and spiders. The tundra is its preferred landscape. Its length is 17 to 19 cm.

Le bruant à couronne blanche a pour habitat le Nouveau-Québec et la Basse-Côte-Nord ainsi que les régions subarctiques canadiennes. De passage dans toutes les autres régions du pays lors de la saison migratoire, il se réfugie dans le sud des États-unis en hiver, là où il pourra se nourrir de jeunes capsules de mousse, de graines et de mouches noires, ainsi que de chatons de saule, d’insectes et d’araignées. Amateur des paysages de la toundra, il mesure entre 17 et 19 cm.

Musée de la civilisation,
collection du Séminaire de Québec,
The Birds of America,
John James Audubon,
114/1993.34715
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See also: Rêverie – Dreaming
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