Poetry Friday: 1935 and Countee Cullen

I know it’s been a slow week here at FP, but it’s been a busy one in my world, as my mother’s visit has been a lot of fun—family history research at the Newberry Library, poking around a few new neighborhoods (and some old favorites) to show her the city, etc.  Anyway, to kick off our return to more normally-scheduled programming, who better than one of my favorites, the beautifully structured and emotionally precise Countee Cullen, whose The Medea and Some Poems was published in 1935, the year of my current Pulitzer novel.  For our collective consideration, I present his work, “Every Lover”:

There were no lovers bowed before my time;
Before this treachery was none betrayed;
No blown heart pricked and thinned; drained as a lime;
Interred beyond the skill of pick or spade.
Mine is the first that like an egg Love sucks,—
Sly Love the weasel, Love the fox, the asp,
Love wearing any guise that rends or plucks,
Slits with hid fang, binds with a golden clasp.
This pain is my sore heart’s unique distress,
An alien humour to thy common brood,
Invading once in time our littleness,
Mingling a god’s disease with mortal blood.
Surely this visitation is divine;
No breast has fed a malady like mine.

Look how smoothly Countee captures the gross egotism of heartbreak, the way we immerse ourselves in the emotions and almost deign to pity those stone-hearted others who will never feel the agony we feel.  The epic grandeur of his pain is almost funny, but not really funny (is it), because we all know how easily we fall into these moods ourselves.  Even if we know as we think these thoughts that they are not accurate, we cannot help relishing them—why, I cannot say.  Is it because it allows us to live out the pain as if on stage, somehow remote from our mundane lives?  Or because it makes us feel special at a time when we feel very un-?  There’s something in us that wants that feeling of being the lone Dido on the burning pyre, the one scorned like unto whom Hell hath no fury.  Something that I think we dare not feed too often, lest it outgrow its cage.

And Countee is such a sly one, isn’t he, with these phrases that just make your mouth drop open.  “Sly Love the weasel, Love the fox, the asp”—it’s like reading Sophocles in translation, some kind of antique wisdom, because for all our technology and modernity we are still the soft-skinned primates, weak to fang and claw and the bite of love.  His little allusions to the “god’s disease” I think must arise from his translation work on Euripides’ Medea, which fills the first half of this book of his, and I like the way he plays with myth here because that’s really what we do in these moments.  We cast ourselves as something more (and less) than human, like one of the demigods who live somewhere between the humdrum world of the Greek peasant and the mercurial angers and passions of the Olympian immortals.

Okay, okay, I dig Cullen too much, but not many 20th Century pens had his way with a sonnet (did you catch that? 14 lines, people.  The Muse is strong with this one) and Cullen can make even our pettiest feelings and thoughts seem just slightly important because he knows what really goes on in our hearts—what we are proud of, and what we would rather deny.  More from Now in November, my current (and promising) novel on this crazy journey, coming up in a day or two: until then, enjoy the weekend.


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