Friday, October 27, 2006

This is for Noel ...

... Conrad Aiken's "Winter for Moment Takes the Mind":

Winter for a moment takes the mind; the snow
Falls past the arclight; icicles guard a wall;
The wind moans through a crack in the window;
A keen sparkle of frost is on the sill.
Only for a moment; as spring too might engage it,
With a single crocus in the loam, or a pair of birds;
Or summer with hot grass; or autumn with a yellow leaf.
Winter is there, outside, is here in me:
Drapes the planets with snow, deepens the ice on the moon,
Darkens the darkness that was already darkness.
The mind too has its snows, its slippery paths,
Walls bayonetted with ice, leaves ice-encased.
Here is the in-drawn room, to which you return
When the wind blows from Arcturus: here is the fire
At which you warm your hands and glaze your eyes;
The piano, on which you touch the cold treble;
Five notes like breaking icicles; and then silence.

The alarm-clock ticks, the pulse keeps time with it,
Night and the mind are full of sounds. I walk
From the fire-place, with its imaginary fire,
To the window, with its imaginary view.
Darkness, and snow ticking the window: silence,
And the knocking of chains on a motor-car, the tolling
Of a bronze bell, dedicated to Christ.
And then the uprush of angelic wings, the beating
Of wings demonic, from the abyss of the mind:
The darkness filled with a feathery whistling, wings
Numberless as the flakes of angelic snow,
The deep void swarming with wings and sound of wings,
The winnowing of chaos, the aliveness
Of depth and depth and depth dedicated to death.

Here are the bickerings of the inconsequential,
The chatterings of the ridiculous, the iterations
Of the meaningless. Memory, like a juggler,
Tosses its colored balls into the light, and again
Receives them into darkness. Here is the absurd,
Grinning like an idiot, and the omnivorous quotidian,
Which will have its day. A handful of coins,
Tickets, items from the news, a soiled handkerchief,
A letter to be answered, notice of a telephone call,
The petal of a flower in a volume of Shakespere,
The program of a concert. The photograph, too,
Propped on the mantel, and beneath it a dry rosebud;
The laundry bill, matches, an ash-tray, Utamaro’s
Pearl-fishers. And the rug, on which are still the crumbs
Of yesterday’s feast. These are the void, the night,
And the angelic wings that make it sound.

What is the flower? It is not a sigh of color,
Suspiration of purple, sibilation of saffron,
Nor aureate exhalation from the tomb.
Yet it is these things because you think of these,
An emanation of emanations, fragile
As light, or glisten, or gleam, or coruscation.
Creature of brightness, and as brightness brief.
What is the frost? It is not the sparkle of death,
The flash of time’s wing, seeds of eternity;
Yet it is these because you think of these.
And you, because you think of these, are both
Frost and flower, the bright ambiguous syllable
Of which the meaning is both no and yes.

Here is the tragic, the distorting mirror
In which your gesture becomes grandiose;
Tears form and fall from your magnificent eye,
The brow is noble, and the mouth is God’s.
Here is the God who seeks his mother, Chaos, —
Confusion seeking solution, and life seeking death.
Here is the rose that woos the icicle; the icicle
That woos the rose. Here is the silence of silences
Which dreams of becoming a sound, and the sound
Which will perfect itself in silence. And all
These things are only the uprush from the void,
The wings angelic and demonic, the sound of the abyss
Dedicated to death. And this is you.


  1. Thanks for posting this.

    I'm amazed how few younger readers and how few younger writers are familiar with Aiken. His poems are wonderful, but for me, his autobiographical novel,Ushant, is his remarkable masterpiece. Sadly, I don't think it's been in print for over thirty years.

  2. I agree.

    Aiken is a long-standing favorite of mind. I have been re-reading his "Collected Criticism," which is a model of good reviewing: decorous, civilized, thoughtful, even when devastatingly negative.

    Thanks again for posting this. It's wonderful to see.

  3. Anonymous3:11 PM

    Frank, that is beautiful, thank you. By way of return I would like to quote a little from a poem by Shelley I came across recently and that reminds me a little of Aiken's.

    "I met a traveler from an antique land
    Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert ... Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shatttered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away."

    I was going to quote a scene from an old Jack Benny radio comedy show. For what it's worth, here it is:

    One night, the notoriously stingy Benny is walking along a dark city street when he is accosted by a gunman.

    "Your money or your life," rasps the gunman.

    There's a long silence.

    "I said, your money or your life," repeats the gunman, raising his voice.

    There's another long silence.

    "I said, your money or your life!' shouts the now exasperated gunman.

    Benny finally replies, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking."

  4. Hi Noel,
    That's one of my favorite Benny routines - what a funny man he was - and "Ozymandias" is one of my favorite Shelley poems.