Friday, May 20, 2016

"Merlin" by David St. John (1991)

I made a copy of this poem sometime back in the early 1990s, and it's been hanging around my files, rising to the top periodically to interest and charm me anew.  It's copied from The Best American Poetry 1991.


Italo Calvino (1923-1985)

     It was like a cave of snow, no...
More like that temple of frosted, milk-veined marble
                I came upon one evening in Selinunte,
Athena's white owl flying suddenly out if its open eaves.
       I saw the walls lined with slender black-spined
                 Texts, rolled codices, heavy leather-bound volumes
Of the mysteries.  Ancient masks of beaten copper and tin,
       All ornamented with rare feathers, scattered jewels.
His table was filled with meditative beakers, bubbling
                 Here and there like clocks; the soldierly
Rows of slim vials were labeled in several foreign hands.
         Stacks of parchments, cosmological recipes, nature's
Wild equivalencies.  A globe's golden armature of the earth,
              Its movable bones ringing a core of empty
       Space.  High above the chair, a hanging Oriental scroll,
Like the origami of a crane unfolded, the Universe inked
             So blue it seemed almost ebony in daylight,
The stars and their courses plotted along its shallow folds
       In a luminous silver paint.  On an ivory pole,
              His chameleon robe, draped casually, hieroglyphics
Passing over it as across a movie screen, odd formulas
        Projected endlessly -- it's elaborate layers of
Embroidery depicting impossible mathematical equations;
                Stitched along the hem, the lyrics
Of every song one hears the nightingale sing, as dusk falls
      On summer evenings.  All of our stories so much
                   Of the world they must be spoken by
A voice that rests beyond it... his voice, its ideal melody,
               Its fragile elegance guiding our paper boats,
                                   Our so slowly burning wings,
Toward any imminent imagination, our horizon's carved sunset
                   The last wisdoms of Avalon

                From Anteaus 

I can only imagine now, some twenty-five years later, what attracted me to this poem in the first place. I imagine it was the name "Merlin" and the fantasy imagery; reading this description of this wizard's "cave of snow" the words sort of begin hovering about you like thick, beautifully scented incense, until you are completely immersed.

In that pre-internet world, one didn't have the immediate capability to google the unfamiliar.  In re-reading this (and typing it out), I'm a bit amazed at what I don't know about the poem now, and apparently didn't enough about to look up then.  What was "Selinunte" (an ancient Greek city, now ruins, which I googled) and while I know who Italo Calvino is (in the vaguest way possible of someone well but not perfectly read or educated), I have no idea why this poem is dedicated to him or what it has to do with him (I know he wrote fantastical things, so perhaps that's it?).  I also never sought the source of this poem (Antaeus, a now defunct literary journal) or bothered to find out anything about David St. John.  Essentially, I read (and probably re-read the poem), fell under its spell, and (lazily?) left well enough alone.  

I think, at the very least, that makes me an aesthetic reader but a piss poor academic.

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