A Seaside Cemetery — In Its Own Rhyme

A Seaside Cemetery — In Its Own Rhyme

[A creative version of le Cimitière marin]

Don’t rush for the undying, I tell myself.
Use up the tricks of the possible.

(Pindar, Pythian 3)

The graves here in Sète
of gently tilted blue slate
are roofs composed
of sea glare
and deep lavender dust–they don’t require
the mind to penetrate all its poses.

There is the sea–who can consume
a faceted foam?
a Mediterranean peace?
The prickly heat slackens
and if you look at the abyss it looks back.
Any time now you can dream an abyss.

But the Eye–
oh the stabilizing
water-wizard eye, it can freeze
the agitated flame
of the “I am”
like a painter feathering a breeze.

I would love to live in the eye
like a bee
sunk in pure red,
a camellia flower
dripping nectar–
but look, here are the dead.

And what about Taste? Eating fruit
turns absence to delight
but in this bread, these olives,
I taste my future,
salty air
licking the fugitive

shores. Or what about a cosmic
constant, not subject to our comic
senses? What about memory?
They won’t be forced. Anyway, I surrender.
My shadow shrinks under
all radiant debris.

Hey Noon, I’m stripped bare
for your solstice torch–I endure
your rays,
your axed rods, all
your heat and unreasonable
lilac ease.

And now…to the throbbing (what else?) origin
of poetry–a question:
What voodoo zombies draw me out
to this languorous
station? Something in the sparse grass
between vacancy and event,

something I love in the whistling cypresses
almost matterless,
their burnt-umber lambency–
anise and rosemary and cascades
of massed marble trembling over massed shade…

something in a dove’s raspy roucoucou
and this thought-train on deepfreeze tombs–
lovers’ fingers rooting in snow, in rain:
they will pass their whiteness on to flowers,
flowers to ghost-beetles,
beetles to eye-bright brains.

Here’s where I rant about Zeno
and his too, too
infintesimal paradox–analyzing forever
and Carl Lewis
hurdling and striding together–

But today I’ve already tranced enough–
Shake off
your soothing stoniness, body,
and you, mind,
drink in this thick linear wind–
O salted power–Oh, launch me, baby,

into the surf’s endorphic yes–put
on deliriums like panther spots,
a million trillion suns,
a tumultuous
blue hydra’s
coral productions–

The wind, the wind–when it brushes past,
we just have to live. The air so vast.
My book, a synecdoche.
Impertinent swells undulate.
Fly off–I dare you–you stunned pages!
Waves, tear the roof off the sea–the jib-strung sea!


Paul Valéry

Paul Valéry was born 1871. Raised in Montpellier, he studied law there, then moved to Paris and began writing. He quickly became famous as a disciple of Stéphane Mallarmé. At the age of twenty-one, he experienced what he called an existential crisis, and six years later, he ceased writing for about twenty years, a period known as his "great silence." When he returned to writing, he produced La Jeune Parque and le Cimitière marin, two long poems considered central to French modernism. He also wrote essays and worked on philosophy of mind. Throughout his life, even during his silence, he conducted thought experiments in his Cahiers (Notebooks), using drawing and writing as research into consciousness. They are considered by some to be his greatest work. In 1925, he was elected to the Académie française, and in the late 1930s, he was appointed  the first Chair of Poetics at the Collège de France. Though it cost him some of his professional distinctions, he refused to collaborate with the Vichy regime and the Nazis and continued to write and publish during the war, until his death in 1945. His unique position in France can be seen in the fact that he was never attacked by the surrealists.

James Houlihan

(a poem)

I studied beauty in Santa Barbara, reality in Houston. The beauties were
Greek and Latin, Romance philology, a friendship with Jorge de Sena,
translating two of his books, and other velvety evidences.

Now I live in the Gardens of Braeswood where my Indonesian-Chinese
neighbor owes decades of debt servitude to our Hong Kong landlady.

I'm not seduced by unusually sonorous urban birds or the tropical
proliferation of this bayou city with its continental clouds and blithe
raindrops lifting the steam off windowpanes. I mean I've noticed the
beech tree's viridescent dome escaping the courtyard and flinging itself
over the parking lot. And I am grieving the tiny sinuous death that grows
inside me with its own flickering and measured radiance.

James Houlihan's previous publications include The Art of Music (University
Editions, 1988), Thirty-One Superior Poems of Our Time (Inleaf Press, 2004),
Driving Cabeza (Inleaf Press, 2000), and other works. Along with F. Fagundes,
he translated various poems by Jorge de Sena for the collection Metamorphoses
(Copper Beach Press, 1991). He also contributed to The Poetry of Jorge de Sena
(Mudborn Press, 1980).

English translation copyright (c) James Houlihan, 2011.