There’s a lot of great poetry out there in the world, but I’ll admit it’s surprisingly hard to pin down poems from a particular year. I had excessive good luck with 1936, but am straining a little to find poems I want to talk about that were published in 1937. So I’m shifting back to a trick I used two weeks ago, which is to use a poem written about 1937—a poem by Giorgios Seferis, a noted (and Nobel Prize-winning) poet from Greece. This is “Epiphany 1937”, or more precisely, the English translation of that poem by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard:
The flowering sea and the mountains in the moon’s waning
the great stone close to the Barbary figs and the asphodels
the jar that refused to go dry at the end of day
and the closed bed by the cypress trees and your hair
golden; the stars of the Swan and that other star, Aldebaran.
I’ve kept a rein on my life, kept a rein on my life, travelling
among yellow trees in driving rain
on silent slopes loaded with beech leaves,
no fire on their peaks; it’s getting dark.
I’ve kept a rein on my life; on your left hand a line
a scar at your knee, perhaps they exist
on the sand of the past summer perhaps
they remain there where the north wind blew as I hear
an alien voice around the frozen lake.
The faces I see do not ask questions nor does the woman
bent as she walks giving her child the breast.
I climb the mountains; dark ravines; the snow-covered
plain, into the distance stretches the snow-covered plain, they ask nothing
neither time shut up in dumb chapels nor
hands outstretched to beg, nor the roads.
I’ve kept a rein on my life whispering in a boundless silence
I no longer know how to speak nor how to think; whispers
like the breathing of the cypress tree that night
like the human voice of the night sea on pebbles
like the memory of your voice saying ‘happiness’.
I close my eyes looking for the secret meeting-place of the waters
under the ice the sea’s smile, the closed wells
groping with my veins for those veins that escape me
there where the water-lilies end and that man
who walks blindly across the snows of silence.
I’ve kept a rein on my life, with him, looking for the water that touches you
heavy drops on green leaves, on your face
in the empty garden, drops in the motionless reservoir
striking a swan dead in its white wings
living trees and your eyes riveted.
This road has no end, has no relief, however hard you try
to recall your childhood years, those who left, those
lost in sleep, in the graves of the sea,
however much you ask bodies you’ve loved to stoop
under the harsh branches of the plane trees there
where a ray of the sun, naked, stood still
and a dog leapt and your heart shuddered,
the road has no relief; I’ve kept a rein on my life.
and the water frozen in the hoofmarks of the horses.
Seferis’s poem is image-laden to the point of being almost overloaded—a cornucopia of vivid moments, generally connected with the natural environment, that all seem to circle around an unnamed person and the feeling that he has “kept a rein on his life”. But what does all this signify?
I’m fascinated by the poem because I feel tantalized by it…always on the verge of understanding it but never quite getting there. For a while I was convinced that this was an expression of his closeted affection for a man—his hiding these feelings being the “rein” he’s kept on his life, but the effusion of lush imagery being an expression of this passion felt for the other person alluded to at times. Except that I went searching for information about Seferis this week, and I didn’t turn up anything in the usual biographies that indicates any known gay or bisexual relationships with men. Maybe I missed something, but it kind of looks like it’s back to the drawing board.
I really like the opening stanza because its structure suggests that it is a key—a list of images presented simply, with no analysis or explanation of their connections. What do these things have to do with each other? Simply a passionate night spent in that “closed bed”? But the emphasis is all on the world outside and not the humans present—the sea aflower and the stone by the fig trees, the pairing of the Northern Cross (Cygnus, the Swan) and the giant red star Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, the Bull. It is a slightly weird world—I’m not sure how easy it would be to see both Cygnus and Aldebaran at the same time (they’re a good ways apart), and honestly I don’t know that Cygnus is ever visible in Greece in January. But maybe I’m overthinking that kind of detail….if they weren’t actually there, though, it makes me wonder what the symbolism is of using those two celestial objects.
I like the sense of “about to happen” that pervades the poem, the feeling that whatever reins have been kept on life thus far, the steed is about to be given his head to gallop. And there are some gorgeous lines—“under the ice the sea’s smile” is a doozy, and “that man / who walks blindly across the snows of silence”. Shoot, half the poem is that beautiful. So what is it about this snow and ice, other than being the surroundings Seferis would have seen on January 6, 1937—what does it represent in connection to that missing someone, who murmurs “happiness” in memories, whose scarred knee and golden hair haunt the poet? Why does the poem end so starkly, not with the beloved and missed, but with the snow and the (ominous?) hoofmarks full of ice?
Why is the poet so isolated—beggars do not beg him any longer, faces do not question? Who is on the road without relief—the poet on his journey, or the missing someone on theirs? Or both?
I am bewitched by the poem, and think I need to read some more Seferis. For now, I am hesitant to commit to a reading of the poem. The one reading I have not yet suggested is that it is a farewell, that the rein on his life has been Seferis waiting for this missing someone, and that he is turning away and riding off now. It feels as though the poet’s summer of his great content has been made desolate winter, and that in some ways he has made peace with that change. I do not detect that another season is necessarily imminent—the changes seem to be inside him, and not pregnant in the world around him. But maybe I’m missing something in the flurries of imagery. I do love to read it, though, and I hope you did too. If anybody thinks I’m misreading this one (or overthinking it), speak up, will you?