Seferis, Kizer, Keeley and “The King of Asine” by David Rigsbee
David Rigsbee is author of, most recently This Much I Can Tell You and Not Alone in My Dancing: Essays and Reviews, both from Black Lawrence Press. In addition to his eleven collections of poems, he has published critical books on the poetry of Joseph Brodsky and Carolyn Kizer and coedited Invited Guest: An Anthology of Twentieth Century Southern Poetry. Dante: The Paradiso will appear from Salmon Poetry in 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/david-rigsbee
I remember, as a student, sitting in Carolyn Kizer’s stately living room in Chapel Hill, stacks of new books of poems and literary magazines on every surface. Although she was social by nature, Carolyn lived all of her life surrounded by books, especially books of poems. In some less easily definable but obvious way, she also lived in poems. She was particularly drawn to poems that probed the knots of experience, poems she didn’t necessarily understand, poems that hugged their mysteries. But to live in them was different: they participated in her aesthetic, spiritual, political, and social formation. Working with her was to be confronted with an example of the strength of poetry and its ancient associations of beauty as an image of the Good. One day, she brought out a copy of Seferis’ Collected Poems, recently published by Princeton and translated by her old friend Edmund (“Mike”) Keeley. She had been in frequent correspondence with Mike for years and considered his work as another way of writing poetry. She read us the well-known poem “Thrush” with its talking statues and scatchy phonograph recordings, its linking of alienated moderns with classical predecessors. Her letters to Mike were full of line comments, technical questions, and thoughts on diction and voice. It was the voice of Seferis she found haunting, and she thought he was a more-than-worthy successor to the prim T. S. Eliot when it came to mining the cultural past. It was not surprising that Mike Keeley, like Carolyn, was also drawn to the poems of C. P. Cavafy. She read hjs versions of Seferis and Cavafy both aloud to the few of us who sat there those afternoons, while the Vietnam War protesters marched just a few blocks away before the post office. She would join them later.
It was another poem that caught my ear. It was Seferis’ “The King of Asine,” a poem of searching language, strange and tangled images, and a desolate outlook. And yet it was a poem that staked its authority on the very nothingness it contemplated. Insofar as its descriptions and discontinuous murmurings, gathering force as a poet and a friend search an island for the gold mask of an obscure king, it made, in effect, a literary excavation that leads us to the poem’s—any poem’s—relationship to its own forgetting, and even more importantly, to the eventual forgetting of the last wisp of personal identity.
It’s the kind of poem that seems to come into focus momentarily, then dissolve in its own reflection. And yet it also haunts with a sense of numinous presence, and while such a sense is practically required for a meditational poem, it does nothing to prevent the injunction Wittgenstein imposed against trying to say what can’t be said, from having some kind of force. I suppose most poets have encountered the problem in the course of their work. A typical response is to make gestures of intimation, as though images and poetic strategies peculiar to the art could penetrate the veil, or to pretend that the veil doesn’t exist. Indeed, the problem has reached the status of a commonplace, with images retrofitted as metaphors, with form itself made to stand outside time, which is another zone about which we have nothing to say, having no experience of what it would be like to be there. Seferis was one such poet, as was the Stevens of “To an Old Philosopher in Rome,” a poem Carolyn thought as one that sought the limits. In the case of Stevens, it turns out that this profoundly moving poem of Santayana’s last years in the Convent of the Blue Nuns in Rome was based on a real profile published by Edmund Wilson in The New Yorker (April 6, 1946, p. 59). Far from imagining the angelic stirrings and fluttering nuns, Stevens helped himself to Wilson’s description, in places simply cutting and pasting images to suit himself.
Many have pointed to the influence of Eliot in Seferis’ major poems, and just as many have read the poem as a marker of an historical, between-the-wars interlude (its date of composition was 1938-40), that tries to hold on to some image of trust in Western culture, now that it lay, again, under siege, its treasures facing oblivion. The question arises straightaway: what is the meaning of oblivion? What comes after forgetting? Our identities ride piggy-back on the armature of the culture(s) that allow them articulation. Cultures too suffer from the effects of forgetting, and themselves go belly-up eventually, history crumbling into geology. These are heady things, but Seferis roots his poem in the singularity of a supposed person mentioned in the catalogue of ships in The Iliad, a certain king who, now reduced to a name, sailed to Troy—itself, as George Steiner has remarked, the site of the first world war. In doing so, he avoids airy speculation and grand gestures, by zeroing in on a trace artifact.
My interest in the poem (in Edmund Keeley’s translation) goes back to my own genealogy. I don’t need Homer to tell me that we forget those who came before. I used to ask my students how far back they could remember in their own families, and no one’s backward reach ever went past great-grandparents, although some related an interest in family history, particularly as this related to wars. Of oblivion, we may say that its essence is unsayable. My question was one of identity, i.e., when do we cease being persons? And it seemed to me that, whatever else the poem did, it also raised that question. Moreover, it exists prior to any other question touching on the rise and fall of larger templates, especially cultures.
Personhood has traditionally been the stuff of our lyric poetry, notwithstanding its branchings-out to other genres. When you think about it, this is hardly surprising, since poetry has dealt with this existential honorific ever since the first poems were dandled on the knee of Sappho, but the anxiety about personhood was also not far behind: when did it begin? And when cease to be? Memory and the law make it clear that personhood was never coextensive with our life-dates, and so the hunger to extend it beyond biological life reached all the way to fantasies of immortal fame, even as more modest versions were recognized by other persons and enshrined in culture. Homer himself, whose “Asine te” makes up the whisper in Seferis’ poem, makes one such recognition: the King of Asini was among the Greeks at Troy. While Homer reckoned that Achilles’ quest for immortality in death would come to pass, the King of Asine’s attribution in the Catalogue of Ships was, in Seferis’ words, “only one word in The Iliad and that uncertain.” He also adds that, except for Homer, he was “forgotten by all.”
How comes it then that more than two and a half millennia later an unnamed pair of pilgrims sail to Paros to “find” this king? The unidentified members (there is a “you” and “the poet”) never give us the full meanings for their journey, except to mention parenthetically that the King is the one “whom we’ve been trying to find for two years now.” But the King is long gone. All that’s left is a “gold burial mask,” of which Seferis adds, “The King of Asini [is] a void under the mask.” This “void” stands as the marker for that which will never be re-membered:
and his children statues
and his desires the fluttering of birds, and the wind
in the gaps between his thoughts, and his ships
anchored in a vanished port:
under the mask a void.
The poet of course identifies with this. The image, the gold burial mask, is all that is left of the King of Asini, his singularity, if any, transformed into a symbol. Indeed, it is not clear that the mask belongs to the King: it is “like” the gold burial mask. The final trace of his existence, as in the brief mention of his participation in the Trojan War, is a passage from personal singularity to a chance—and public—marker. The last trace of a person is impersonal, a piece of metal: we on the one side, the void on the other, looking back, so to speak, at us. Does oblivion accuse us with its blankness? Is our sentient life, full of ambition and desire for individual recognition, just a cosmic anomaly foisted on a buried mask that possesses neither vision nor character?
And the poet lingers, looking at the stones, and asks himself
does there really exist
among these ruined lines, edges, points, hollows and curves
does there really exist
here where one meets the path of rain, wind, and ruin
does there exist the movement of the face, shape of the tenderness
of those who’ve waned so strangely in our lives
The poet—the maker—Seferis, faced with his own discontinuity, wonders if there is anything intelligible to be derived from the found mask, anything that might support the possibility that human desires and endeavors are not just, as they seem to be in the constant battle between culture’s lifeline and nature’s push-back, something of only limited consequence, to be swept away (“the void always with us”). If there are fragments to be shored against our ruins, must they finally partake of the impersonal character of the mask, mediating our wandering for significance and the earth, our burial place? What of the subjectivity that powered our wanderings in the first place? Or rather, should one conclude,
…perhaps no, nothing is left but the weight
the nostalgia for the weight of living existence
there where we now remain unsubstantial, bending
like the branches of a terrible willow tree heaped in unremitting despair
while the yellow current slowly carries down rushes uprooted in the mud
image of a form that the sentence to everlasting bitterness has turned to stone…
Perhaps it is “nostalgia” to think we could bring meaning to the fact of being forgotten, which begins less to sound like dignified tragedy and more to sound like simple fate. Nostalgia, after all, means something like returning home, and that home means more than that place—space, zone, what have you—where we are at one with ourselves and the other members of our tribe. The re-membering, the reattaching of limbs and reanimation, is as close as we can get to immortality, that not-death. Note that remembering also carries with it the notion that forgetting is to be spread far and wide: a sparagmos, a separating limb-from-limb as if to ensure death is in fact death. Its opposite is a resurrection: no wonder we’re nostalgic for it. But nostalgia carries with it a suggestion of inauthenticity akin to sentimentality. Wishing doesn’t make it so; dreaming comes up short: the poet’s mask—a void. Everyone understands the difference between a lyric victory, say, and a real one, between wish-fulfillment and actual having. And unless we can learn to live within poems, we are on an express to the void. That’s the thing, isn’t it? Wittgenstein understood a lot of things: poetry was not one of them, or so he said. And yet his deeply reductive method resembles the poet’s: What is an image? What does it mean to create one? How does an image connect to my identity? To any identity? And so forth.
Many years later it occurs to me that Seferis’ excavation mirrors our own. We were digging, hoping to find the image, the mask, the poem, that tethered us to who we were, from our origins (themselves tied to predecessors), the other side of which is an unsayable void, to some point in the future when our names have slipped into another (and yet the same) void. Seferis, Cavafy, Stevens, Kizer, even Wilson and Keeley pondered these questions and no doubt came away with a consolation prize, if consolation it is. It was, as Seferis put it, an “image of a form that the sentence to everlasting bitterness has turned to stone:/ the poet a void.” Our poems lengthen out the time to the void, and they do so “with everlasting bitterness.” The stone doesn’t speak, and yet it is the rock on which poetry builds its structures.
Seferis, Stevens, Kizer, all are dead. The house in Chapel Hill belongs to another family. A few years ago, I drove by, trying to remember the inspired readings and conversations whose sound filled the rooms there. The same Kizer who was drawn to Mike Keeley and his translations from the Greek herself wrote “Semele Recycled,” a poem about the re-membering of a torn goddess who is reunited with her unfaithful lover:
Oh, what a bright day it was!
This empty body danced on the riverbank.
Hollow, it called and searched among the fields
for those parts that steamed and simmered in the sun,
and never would have found them.
I read this poem through the lens of Seferis, as I read many poems these days. Elegy exacts its revenge on time more clearly than I would have imagined. But does elegy—to borrow Frost’s term—suffice? Regardless, we live within the poems. But what of the “bitterness of the sentence”? Notwithstanding its bitterness, we continue to read it aloud, that bitter, naming sentence which is the poem—and poems, reading the ones that haunted us, each others’ and our own.
© David Rigsbee