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Five Found “Annie Dillard” Poems, expressed unconventionally and so “explained”

April 4, 2012

Here are five poems I’ve found recently. They’re each “Annie Dillard” poems. Let me let her explain.

Annie Dillard, in her Annie Dillard Reader, includes a section on “Poems.”  The first two poems there are her own; the last are “Four Found Poems.”  Let me briefly mention the four and then I’ll post below Dillard’s second poem in the chapter, since it requires explanation.

Dillard, introducing the “Four Found Poems,” begins:  “Poems seldom require explanation, but these do.  I did not write a word of them.”  Her explanation is offered particularly as so, to explain generally why “They differ, however, from what we usually think of as found poems.”  What she says is just fascinating, but it’s what she doesn’t say that I want to point out.  Dillard doesn’t explain that these poems, in English, are not originals.  She does not explain the poems as unconventional, as poems in translation. Rather, it’s only in the brief titles and dates and bylines, that I reproduce below, that Dillard offers us her readers the fact that they are, indeed, translated poems:

Dash It
— MIKHAIL PRISHVIN, NATURE’S DIARY, 1925, TRANS. L. NAVROZOV

I Am Trying to Get at Something Utterly Heart-Broken
— V. VAN GOGH, LETTERS, 1873-1890, ED. I. STONE, TRANS. JOHANNA VAN GOGH

An Acquaintance in the Heavens
— MARTHA EVANS MARTIN, WHO SEEMED LONELY IN THE FRIENDLY STARS, 1907, REV. DONALD HOWARD MENZEL, 1964

The Sign of Your Father
— E. HENNECKE, NEW TESTAMENT APOCRYPHA, VOL. I, ED. WILHELM SCHNEEMELCHER, ENGLISH TRANS. ED. BY R. MCL. WILSON, 1963

What I’m trying to stress here is that we, Dillard’s readers, get the fact that these poems that she reproduces on pages 256, 257, 258, and 259 are poems that are found in translation.  But we get no explanation of the fact that they are translated poems.

We get no explanation except, perhaps, from the fact that Dillard already gave us an earlier, original, poem on pages 254 and 255.  Perhaps that earlier poem is setting us up to read the rather unconventional poetry in translation.  The prior poem is one Dillard had written in 1971 and had found published on page 279 of Volume 42 of the journal, The American Scholar. The prior poem then appears before Annie Dillard reproduces and “explains” the “Four Found Poems,” those found in translation. So how might that explain anything? And what’s that prior poem?  Here it is.

But let me offer a bit of an explanation first.  The prior poem is Dillard’s response to Jorge Luis Borges’s response to C. K. Chesterton’s response to Robert Browning, whom Chesterton has written an entire book about.  Chesterton had written, rather prosaically, the following about Browning:

He delighted, with a true poetic delight, in being conventional.  Being by birth an Englishman, he took pleasure in being an Englishman; being by rank a member of the middle class, he took a pride in its ancient scruples and its everlasting boundaries.  He was everything that he was with a definite and conscious pleasure — a man, a Liberal, an Englishman, an author, a gentleman, a lover, a married man.  This must always be remembered as a general characteristic of Browning, this ardent and headlong conventionality.

But this bit is not what Borges remembers of what Chesterton had written about Browning, about his conventionality.  Rather, in an interview with César Fernández Moreno, in Spanish, Borges remembered something that Chesterton, about poetry, had written, again rather prosaically, in English:

Poetry deals with primal and conventional things — the hunger for bread, the love of woman, the love of children, the desire for immortal life. If men really had new sentiments, poetry could not deal with them. If, let us say, a man did not feel a bitter craving to eat bread; but did, by way of substitute, feel a fresh, original craving to eat brass fenders or mahogany tables, poetry could not express him. If a man, instead of falling in love with a woman, fell in love with a fossil or a sea anemone, poetry could not express him. Poetry can only express what is original in one sense — the sense in which we speak of original sin. It is original, not in the paltry sense of being new, but in the deeper sense of being old; it is original in the sense that it deals with origins.

Dillard reads what Borges has said originally in Spanish as translated into written English, and she responds to the conventionality of these men, rather originally, rather poetically.  So here is that original poem by Annie Dillard (which might just serve also as her fuller explanation of those “Four Poems Found”):

The Man Who Wishes To Feed On Mahogany

.
Chesterton tells us that if someone wished to feed exclusively on mahogany, poetry would not be able to express this. Instead, if a man happens to love and not be loved in return, or if he mourns the absence or loss of someone, then poetry is able to express these feelings precisely because they are commonplace.
–Borges, Interview in Encounter, April 1969

Not the man who wishes to feed on mahogany
and who happens to love and not be loved in return;
not mourning in autumn the absence or loss of someone,
remembering how, in a yellow dress, she leaned
light-shouldered, lanky, over a platter of pears-
no; no tricks. Just the man and his wish, alone.

That there should be mahogany, real, in the world,
instead of no mahogany, rings in his mind
like a gong-that in humid Haitian forests are trees,
hard trees, not holes in air, not nothing, no Haiti
no zone for trees nor time for wood to grow:
reality rounds his mind like rings in a tree.

Love is the factor, love is the type, and the poem.
Is love a trick, to make him commonplace?
He wishes, cool in his windy rooms. He thinks:
of all earth’s shapes, her coils, rays, and nets,
mahogany I love, this sunburnt red,
this close-grained, scented slab, my fellow creature.

He knows he can’t feed on the wood he loves, and he won’t.
But desire walks on lean legs down halls of his sleep,
desire to drink and sup at mahogany’s mass.
His wishes weight his belly. Love holds him here,
love nails him to the world, this windy wood,
as to a cross. Oh, this lanky, sunburnt cross!

Is he sympathetic? Do you care?
And you, sir: perhaps you wish to feed
on your bright-eyed daughter, on your baseball glove,
on your outboard motor’s pattern in the water.
Some love weights your walking in the world;
some love molds you heavier than air.

Look at the world, where vegetation spreads
and peoples air with weights of green desire.
Crosses grow as trees and grasses everywhere,
writing in wood and leaf and flower and spore,
marking the map, “Some man love here;
and one loved something here; and here; and here.”

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