The Modern vs. The Cybele

 A Sketch for a Modern Love Poem – Tadeus Rozewicz

And yet whiteness
can be best described by greyness
a bird by a stone
in December
love poems of old
used to be descriptions of flesh
they described this and that
for instance eyelashes

and yet redness
should be described
by greyness
the sun by rain
the poppies in November
the lips at night

the most palpable
description of bread
is that of hunger
there is in it
a humid porous core
a warm inside
sunflowers at night
the breasts the belly the thighs of Cybele

a transparent
source-like description of water
is that of thirst
of ash
of desert
it provokes a mirage
clouds and trees
enter a mirror of water
lack hunger
of flesh
is a description of love
in a modern love poem

Translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz

cybeleI came across this poem of Rozewicz some months ago in a book by Michael Hamburger called The Truth of Poetry. I must admit that I know nothing of Polish poetry and I don’t even remember what Hamburguer was trying to explain with the help of the text, but I guess my ignorance and lack of focus just highlights that amazing quality that can be found in good poetry… Some poems haunt you, they keep talking to you and asking questions even after a long time you read them: somehow their images manage to stay inside you, acting like a slow poison, even though their precise words might be half-forgotten.

I think Rozewicz texts manages to “speak” a lot, in this sense, because it is full of tensions at all kinds of levels. From the basic oppositions between the most “material” imagery: whiteness and greyness, sunflowers in winter time or bread and hunger; to the juxtaposition of absence and abundance; and the “higher” level, so to speak, of the romantic vs. the modern.

The text provides wonderful material for a literature teacher wanting to show a deconstructive approach in action. The poem, in fact, effortlessly deconstructs itself with no need of sophisticated arguments: its apparent thesis, i.e. that the modern is characterised by absence of flesh, by the lack of the sensual, and the vivid, seems overtly contradicted by the text itself… The modern love poem should stress absence, but what Rozewicz really gives us is overflowing abundance: from the most cliched romantic flowers, to sensual eyelashes, lips, breasts, belly, and thighs… a whole catalogue in a few verses! And not only that, our “modern” love poem even ends up invoking a classical Goddess, the Cybele! It seems that Pound was right after all: see, they return! We might ostracise them, but they keep coming back, as if we cannot do without them. It seems as if the Romantic spirit that Rozewicz attempts to leave behind stays stubbornly within us.

Is possible to escape Romanticism once and for all? Of course we would need to define Romanticism first… But I think it is fair to say that T. E. Hulme tried and did quite well. He was not alone: take some of verses of Eliot’s “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”

The lamp hummed:
“Regard the moon,
La lune ne garde aucune rancune,
She winks a feeble eye,
She smiles into corners.
She smoothes the hair of the grass.
The moon has lost her memory.
A washed-out smallpox cracks her face,
Her hand twists a paper rose,
That smells of dust and old Cologne,
She is alone With all the old nocturnal smells
That cross and cross across her brain.”
The reminiscence comes
Of sunless dry geraniums
And dust in crevices,
Smells of chestnuts in the streets,
And female smells in shuttered rooms,
And cigarettes in corridors
And cocktail smells in bars.”

Even though Eliot verses have quite a number of “Romantic” elements such as flowers or the moon, they are overtly de-romanticised—we are not talking about absence but rather, inversion: the moon has smallpox and the geranium are sunless and dry. Their presence is also oppressed by the urban, anti-pastoral imagery, that characterised this early period of Eliot. The profusion of cigarette ends, cocktails, and foul smells… can only choke the frail geraniums. Yet, I think it is important to note that Eliot’s text is not and does not pretend to be a love poem. I suspect his success is, in great part, possible to this fact. But try to sketch a real love poem à la Rozewicz with dry geraniums and female smells in shuttered rooms… That would be feat!

Can we speak of love and avoid flowers, colours, light, and the whole Petrarchan apparel? I don’t think so. And this might be one of the main lessons of the tension of “A Sketch”. The flowers, the smells, and the gods, keep returning when we speak of love… Our lofty feelings somehow keep falling down to earth… to those flowers and colours. And when we really want intensity we end up incarnating them invoking “the breasts the belly the thighs of Cybele” Human, all too human.

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