Wednesday 30 April 2003

To Make Them Monumental

Sydney Goldfarb's poem, To Make Them MonumentalRecently I’ve been trying to bring some order to my tiny house. Like my mother, unfortunately, I’m a bower bird: I can’t throw anything away. My hallway is stacked with paintings, prints, and photographs that—eight years after I moved in—I’ve never got around to hanging (though, in my own defence, I don’t have the wall space I did in my old apartment). There are crates of books too, since I’ve run out of shelf space. This afternoon, looking for a particular book about Godard, I moved a stack of small framed prints to get at the bottom shelf of the bookcase. Curious, I shuffled through the prints and found a poem that a lover had given me thirty years ago and which I’d subsequently had framed.

The paper is pale brown and mottled and the gum from the tape I used to join the two sheets of photocopy paper has leached through, creating a thick border between the pages. The poem is called To Make Them Monumental and at the top of the left hand page, in my ex-lover’s edgy hand, is written:

Speech, for Instance
                    Sidney Goldfarb

At the bottom of the right hand page she wrote:

from ******** (with the short hair)
                    14/1/72

And the poem itself:

There are only
so many people
that you
can talk to,
and they aren’t
here.
It took you years
to uncover them
and then they disappear.
And then you disappear.

Then you’re in a certain place
with people all around you,
interested, friendly people
in the way that a tribe of natives
might be interested and friendly
but you’re completely alone:
out the window
isn’t the building
he works in, she
doesn’t do her
laundry down the street.

You know where they are:
They’re there
in a marble
remembrance of the gods
that once returned eternally
but never comes back anymore.

Winter is a condition,
spring is spring,
and women are beautiful,
momentarily.
No season holds them
and promises them
in a particular
movement of the earth.
No hand comes
to make them
monumental out of stone.
And you forget
the outline of their faces,
and you can’t taste
their breasts in your mouth,
and their smell is an incense
that always escapes you,
and you don’t remember exactly
their eyes of eternity
in that attic, in that desert,
in that bar that no one
ever went into again.

Only the form of them
can find you, straddling
a crack on any abandoned stretch
to drag an accident of words
out of your mouth
so someone will tow you
into town, so something
will bring them back.

Sydney Goldfarb teaches at the University of Colorado. He published three books of poetry (Speech, for Instance, in 1969) then turned his attention to writing for the theater.

It’s a lovely poem, though I’d be hard pressed to explain why I like it so much. Frequently, though, odd lines will pop into my head:

“in a marble/remembrance of the gods”

“…women are beautiful/momentarily”

“No hand comes/to make them monumental/out of stone”

“…you can’t taste/their breasts in your mouth”

I suspect it’s a man’s poem, if there’s such a thing, though I’m curious as to what others might think or feel about it. A poem about the transient quality of a certain kind of love. A poem that, thirty years later, forces me to reflect on how I was then and the choices I made that have brought me to now.

I know I like To Make Them Monumental infinitely more than when I first received it as a gift, because in a certain sense I’ve lived the poem, so that the experience it describes is no longer abstract. The wonder is that ******** knew me well enough then to divine my future; and that she—who was herself an accomplished writer—knew we couldn’t last and borrowed Sidney Goldfarb’s words to explain, in advance, what had and was bound to happen.

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Comments

Yes, it has those "sharply in-drawn breath" moments, that poem. Have you read the poem by Cavafy --- called "No other city" or a title something like that --- in which he quietly and mercilessly dispels the illusion that the self and its limitations can be escaped by taking up a new life in another place?

Posted by mcloon on 30 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I haven't read any of Cavafy's poems, though I'm familiar with his name because he was much admired by the photographer Duane Michals. Can you tell me anything more about "No other city"?

Posted by Jonathon on 1 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Thirty years ago, hmmm? A small clue. Still assembling an image.

Posted by Liz on 1 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Now I'll have to find out about Duane Michals.

Posted by mcloon on 1 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I performed a quick search on Google: the poem is called "The City". Even this troglodyte found it quite special. I should note that there seem to be a couple of different translations around; the first, that I found yesterday and can't find again, seemed somewhat more moving than the rendition I keep finding today. However, a little more searching turned up this: http://www.bu.edu/arion/Cavafy83.pdf

I hafta say I know squat about Literature despite it being a minor part of my degree. I never went to class and sold most of my texts unopened. But this poem I like.

Posted by andrew on 1 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Thanks, Andrew, that's probably the best translation I've seen. I love the poem in Greek, and I've always thought it a pity that translators don't even try to keep something of the form.

Posted by language hat on 3 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour