Thursday, November 19, 2009

To My Mirror



Toweling myself before the mirror in a hotel far
From the unfinished dwellings of my life, I see
How gravely my weight wants to go to earth,
Tugged down by good living, by love,
And by spiteful tiredness brought on by the knuckle-

Cracking Cotton Mathers of cultural bureaucracy.
Was this your fate also, Horace,
To sit in meeting rooms filled with nodding
Heads – that semaphore of acquiescence signaling
An infantile need for the boss’s caress, a desire

To sit at the high table, to learn the secret
Handshakes of power and the muscular exercises of gate-
Keeping? Your friends in high places trusted
Your amiable libations, and those who joined you in the shade
Of the Sabine farm’s leafy awnings knew

That you loved life too much to learn
Those shameful trades. I heard Neruda in London
When my young ambition burned. His huge confidence
Was without ego or neediness and came from the sure
Knowledge that what he gave was his to give

And was wanted by the great crowd that stood on chairs
To applaud the poet. Then he just left –
And I walked out knowing it would be my fate
To see in the dark mirror of some shop window
The sad marks of remorse on my own face.

Ian Wedde’s Commonplace Odes is a volume that represents a literary tradition – the use of an older poem as a model. The original poet was Horace a Roman who lived from 65 to 8 BC. During his lifetime he bragged that his poetry would live as long as there were Vestal Virgins in Rome. Those particular ladies are long gone, but his poems, including 103 odes, are still read. They cover a great number of themes, dinner invitations, wine, woman, song, holiday celebrations, and patriotic hymns – Augustus was emperor, Horace knew on what side his bread was buttered. Many are about his farm in the Sabine hills not far from Rome.

In his accompanying blurb Ian says “having not written for a while I became fascinated again by a tension I’d forgotten, sometimes wry and sometimes dramatic, between the marvellous, surreal details of ordinary life, and the great themes of human existence. … What I rediscovered was the grand themes in ordinary details: the emotional truth of the commonplace.”

Horace faced the dilemma most poets face, how to earn a living while working at their craft. He earned his keep as a bureaucrat, working in something akin to our modern Treasury. The chafing tension between that life and the more precarious life as a free spirit is captured in Wedde’s To My Mirror. As an ex-bureaucrat I can vouch for the authenticity of its sentiments.

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