“October” — May Swenson

May Swenson

A smudge for the horizon
that, on a clear day, shows
the hard edge of hills and
buildings on the other coast.
Anchored boats all head one way:
north, where the wind comes from.
You can see the storm inflating
out of the west. A dark hole
in gray cloud twirls, widens,
while white rips multiply
on the water far out.
Wet tousled yellow leaves,
thick on the slate terrace.
The jay’s hoarse cry. He’s
stumbling in the air,
too soaked to fly.
Knuckles of the rain
on the roof,
chuckles into the drain-
pipe, spatters on
the leaves that litter
the grass. Melancholy
morning, the tide full
in the bay, an overflowing
bowl. At least, no wind,
no roughness in the sky,
its gray face bedraggled
by its tears.
Peeling a pear, I remember
my daddy’s hand. His thumb
(the one that got nipped by the saw,
lacked a nail) fit into
the cored hollow of the slippery
half his knife skinned so neatly.
Dad would pare the fruit from our
orchard in the fall, while Mother
boiled the jars, prepared for
“putting up.” Dad used to darn
our socks when we were small,
and cut our hair and toenails.
Sunday mornings, in pajamas, we’d
take turns in his lap. He’d help
bathe us sometimes. Dad could do
anything. He built our dining table,
chairs, the buffet, the bay window
seat, my little desk of cherry wood
where I wrote my first poems. That
day at the shop, splitting panel
boards on the electric saw (oh, I
can hear the screech of it now,
the whirling blade that sliced
my daddy’s thumb), he received the mar
that, long after, in his coffin,
distinguished his skilled hand.
I sit with braided fingers
and closed eyes
in a span of late sunlight.
The spokes are closing.
It is fall: warm milk of light,
though from an aging breast.
I do not mean to pray.
The posture for thanks or
supplication is the same
as for weariness or relief.
But I am glad for the luck
of light. Surely it is godly,
that it makes all things
begin, and appear, and become
actual to each other.
Light that’s sucked into
the eye, warming the brain
with wires of color.
Light that hatched life
out of the cold egg of earth.
Dark wild honey, the lion’s
eye color, you brought home
from a country store.
Tastes of the work of shaggy
bees on strong weeds,
their midsummer bloom.
My brain’s electric circuit
glows, like the lion’s iris
that, concentrated, vibrates
while seeming not to move.
Thick transparent amber
you brought home,
the sweet that burns.
“The very hairs of your head
are numbered,” said the words
in my head, as the haircutter
snipped and cut, my round head
a newel poked out of the tent
top’s slippery sheet, while my
hairs’ straight rays rained
down, making pattern on the neat
vacant cosmos of my lap. And
maybe it was those tiny flies,
phantoms of my aging eyes, seen
out of the sides floating (that,
when you turn to find them
full face, always dissolve) but
I saw, I think, minuscule,
marked in clearest ink, Hairs
#9001 and #9002 fall, the cut-off
ends streaking little comets,
till they tumbled to confuse
with all the others in their
fizzled heaps, in canyons of my
lap. And what keeps asking
in my head now that, brushed off
and finished, I’m walking
in the street, is how can those
numbers remain all the way through,
and all along the length of every
hair, and even before each one
is grown, apparently, through
my scalp? For, if the hairs of my
head are numbered, it means
no more and no less of them
have ever, or will ever be.
In my head, now cool and light,
thoughts, phantom white flies,
take a fling: This discovery
can apply to everything.
Now and then, a red leaf riding
the slow flow of gray water.
From the bridge, see far into
the woods, now that limbs are bare,
ground thick-littered. See,
along the scarcely gliding stream,
the blanched, diminished, ragged
swamp and woods the sun still
spills into. Stand still, stare
hard into bramble and tangle,
past leaning broken trunks,
sprawled roots exposed. Will
something move?—some vision
come to outline? Yes, there—
deep in—a dark bird hangs
in the thicket, stretches a wing.
Reversing his perch, he says one
“Chuck.” His shoulder-patch
that should be red looks gray.
This old redwing has decided to
stay, this year, not join the
strenuous migration. Better here,
in the familiar, to fade.


Melancholia — Otto Dix

Melancholia, 1930 by Otto Dix (1891-1969)

Why melancholy?

Possibly it is a purely subjective impression, but I seldom face a masterpiece in art without suffering a slight melancholy, and this feeling is never influenced by the subject. The pastoral peace that hovers like a golden benison about Giorgione’s Concert at the Louvre, the slow, widowed smile of the Mona Lisa, the cross-rhythms of Las Lanzas, most magnificent of battle-pieces, in the Velasquez Sala at the Prado, even the processional poplars of Hobbema at the National Gallery, or the clear cool daylight which filters through the window of the Dresden Vermeer—these and others do not always give me the buoyant sense of self-liberation which great art should. It is not because I have seen too often the bride Saskia and her young husband Rembrandt, in Dresden, that in their presence a tinge of sadness colours my thoughts. I have endeavoured to analyse this feeling. Why melancholy? Is great art always slightly morbid? Is it because of their isolation in the stone jails we call museums? Or that their immortality yields inch by inch to the treacherous and resistless pressure of the years? Or else because their hopeless perfection induces a species of exalted envy? And isn’t it simply the incommensurable emotion evoked by the genius of the painter or sculptor? One need not be hyperæsthetic to experience something akin to muffled pain when listening to certain pages of Tristan and Isolde, or while submitting to the mystic ecstasy of Jan Van Eyck at Ghent. The exquisite grace of the Praxiteles Hermes or the sweetness of life we recognise in Donatello may invade the soul with messages of melancholy, and not come as ministers of joy.

From James Huneker’s “The Melancholy of Masterpieces.” Collected in Ivory, Apes and Peacocks (1915).

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Johannes Vermeer

Breakfast Piece — Herbert Badham


Breakfast Piece, 1936 by Herbert Badham (1899-1961)

Melancholia (detail) — Albrecht Dürer

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Melancholia (detail) — Albrecht Dürer

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Melancholia (detail) — Albrecht Dürer

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The Melancholy — Lucas Cranach the Elder

Melancholy — Lucas Cranach

Melancholy — William Blake

Dull Melancholy/Fantastical Chimeras


The Rings of Saturn — W.G. Sebald


Early on in W.G. Sebald‘s strange and beautiful novel The Rings of Saturn, the erudite narrator (seemingly) offhandedly alludes to Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 engraving Melencolia I. Rings is larded with such references, stuffed to the gills with analysis of history and literature and art (and so much more), but the quick allusion to Melencolia I seems a particularly informative way of interpreting–or at least comprehending–Sebald’s grand, glorious book. Before we begin though, it will be useful to quickly summarize the plot: In 1992, a German intellectual named W.G. Sebald takes a walking tour of the east coast of England. He visits old English manors, the homes of dead writers, decaying seaside resorts, abandoned islands, and many other melancholy spots. In true King Lear style, he wanders the heath a bit. But this walking tour is not the real plot: no, instead, Sebald, in a casual, sometimes wryly humorous, and mostly melancholy tone reflects on the global and historical implications of a host of subjects far too numerous to try to list here. In other words, this is a very smart book about everything.


The Rings of Saturn, as its title suggests, is a book about melancholy (Renaissance medical texts identified Saturn with the bodily humor melancholy–black bile–indicated by sluggishness and moroseness, paradoxically paired with an eagerness for action (hence the modern word saturnine)). The melancholy of Rings pervades the whole text and even infiltrates each sentence. Like Dürer’s engraving, Sebald’s text is complexly and richly detailed, overflowing with allusion and symbolic registry that defies simple or easy interpretation. Just as Dürer situates the winged figure of genius at the (slightly off-) center of his image, contemplative yet dreamy, we find Sebald’s narrator to be a flighty genius made forlorn by the world he sees. And yet, just as Dürer’s figure is ultimately ambiguous (is he despondent or merely in the throes of absent fancy? Is he shirking his duty or contemplating a new grand work?) so too does Sebald’s narrator resist any simple interpretation. The narrative bulk of Rings consists of the narrator’s perspectives on history and memory, art and economics, literature and suffering. Like the myriad strange objects that surround the figure of genius in Dürer’s engraving, the connections between the subjects of the narrator’s lessons seem tenuous at first (indeed, several interpretations of Dürer’s piece have argued that it is simply a failed allegorical vision). As the text develops, we begin to see how the narrator’s obsession with, say, Thomas Browne’s skull connects to a biographical account of Joseph Conrad, or early English colonial forays into Imperial China, or reflections on the life cycle of the herring. Like the objects that litter Dürer’s engraving, the narrator’s varied lessons are detailed things, concretizations of history, or art, or literature, or science, and, at the same time–like Dürer’s objects–the narrator’s lessons are also symbols connected to grander abstractions. The work–and joy–of the reader is to link these symbols, these abstractions, into meaning. This is no simple task, but Sebald’s masterful writing ensures that it is a rewarding (and downright fun) adventure.

The flip side to melancholy is the potential energy writhing within its dramatic inertia. The very nature of the narrator’s simple quest–a walking tour–dramatizes this energy; at the same time, the decay and erosion of English coastal life threatens to overwhelm it for good. The narrator’s access to so much human knowledge, both miserable and horrible, attests to the power of history to survive through–but also to paradoxically crush–the living. This paradox of melancholy, dramatized in Dürer’s Melencolia I, is neatly summed up in a line from the first page of The Rings of Saturn (a page I immediately returned to after finishing the book, I must add):

At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident to me even in that remote place.

In this “remote place,” this forlorn milieu, Sebald’s narrator (Sebald?) again and again uses the lens of history to–again paradoxically–attempt to come to terms with history, both collective and individual.

The result of all this is a wonderful, engaging read, on par with the greatest books I’ve read. Sebald’s command of language, his ability to dip into another’s voice recalls Roberto Bolaño’s great work 2666; Sebald’s narrator, in his will to understand and catalog recalls Ishmael in Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick, as does his human sympathy, humor, and sensitivity. At the same time, Sebald’s scope spills out of the conventional borders of what we’ve come to know as the novel. While hardly as dry–or neutral–as a history or science text, Sebald’s narrator’s takes on sericulture, or the life of Joseph Conrad, or the relationship between art museums and the sugar trade of the 18th century all vibrate with an intense truthfulness that informs and engages the reader without ever falling into didactic prattle.

At the end of The Rings of Saturn, Sebald’s narrator returns to Thomas Browne’s skull again–only this time resurrected, a living brain. He discusses at length Browne’s Musaem Clausum, an imaginary library that Browne invented containing texts, artifacts, and relics of every manner of wonder. Sebald’s narrator goes on for pages listing the contents of Musaem Clausum with fervor and passion–the reader realizes that the book, and the narrator, could go on and on, detailing these wonders and their connected histories under more intense scrutiny. Rings replicates both Browne’s Musaem Clausum and Dürer’s engraving, offering readers a tour through myriad marvels–and if the walk is melancholy and strange, it is also profound and beautiful, and very, very rewarding. Very highly recommended.