Overweening Generalist

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Sirius the Dog Star in Some Poetry and Prose of Note

As I write, in Northern California, 'tis the Dog Days. The days are still, long, and marked by heat and, lately, drought. In yin-yang fashion, the heat can be modeled physically as atoms moving faster, with more energy. We're exposed all day by Earth's tilt to direct sun, and we're closer to our star, too. Correspondingly, our own atoms seem to slow down. Small exertions bring panting and sweat, and we crave the couch, a ceiling fan, whatever's in the fridge. While no doubt our ever-accelerating capital treadmill will keep many exercising and working to "get ahead" <cough>, the general run of things compass lethargy, languidness, longing.

And yet, this seems a time of supreme weirdness for our species, though this seems underreported.

                            Sirius A and B, simulated by Chris Laurel's 3-D imaging tech
                            named Celestia. Wikimedia Commons.

Here's W.H. Auden, around the Fall of 1949, nailing the listlessness of these days well:

Under Sirius

Yes, these are the dog days, Fortunatus:
The heather lies limp and dead
On the mountain, the baltering torrent
Shrunk to a soodling thread;
Rusty the spears of the legion, unshaven its captain,
Vacant the scholar’s brain
Under his great hat,
Drug though She may, the Sybil utters
A gush of table-chat.

And you yourself with a head-cold and upset stomach,
Lying in bed till noon,
Your bills unpaid, your much advertised
Epic not yet begun,
Are a sufferer too. All day, you tell us, you wish
Some earthquake would astonish,
Or the wind of the Comforter’s wing
Unlock the prisons and translate
The slipshod gathering.

And last night, you say, you dreamed of that bright blue morning,
The hawthorn hedges in bloom,
When, serene in their ivory vessels,
The three wise Maries come,
Sossing through seamless waters, piloted in
By sea-horse and fluent dolphin:
Ah! how the cannons roar,
How jocular the bells as They
Indulge the peccant shore.

It is natural to hope and pious, of course, to believe
That all in the end shall be well,
But first of all, remember,
So the Sacred Books foretell,
The rotten fruit shall be shaken. Would your hope make sense
If today were that moment of silence,
Before it break and drown,
When the insurrected eagre hangs
Over the sleeping town?

How will you look and what will you do when the basalt
Tombs of the sorcerers shatter
And their guardian megalopods
Come after you pitter-patter?
How will you answer when from their qualming spring
The immortal nymphs fly shrieking,
And out of the open sky
The pantocratic riddle breaks –
‘Who are you and why?’

For when in a carol under the apple-trees
The reborn featly dance,
There will also, Fortunatus,
Be those who refused their chance,
Now pottering shades, querulous beside the salt-pits,
And mawkish in their wits,
To whom these dull dog-days
Between event seemed crowned with olive
And golden with self-praise. 
Longing for the earthquake that would astonish reminds me of Kathryn Schulz's recent article in The New Yorker, about the Cascadia fault line/subduction zone, that will leave Seattle in ruins and render, according to one expert, everything west of the Interstate 5 highway "dust." Now that would bring any one of us out of the doldrums, eh?
I marvel at Auden's ability to render the listless, sluggish mental and bodily states brought on by the Dog Days. And "On the mountain, the baltering torrent/Shrunk to a soodling thread" is so Joycean-trippy I'm envious of anyone who writes a line like this... 
Astronomers tell us Sirius begins to rise in conjunction with the sun, for those larks who like to wake with the Sol. For the Egyptians, Sirius's appearance meant very soon the Nile would flood their fertile fields: irrigation from the gods! To the naked eye, only Alpha Centauri is brighter, and Sirius (we're not yet addressing Sirius's cosmic brethren: soon) is the fifth-nearest known star to Earthlings. It's 8.7 light years from us, but let's let Tom Robbins flesh that out in poetic prose.
Tom Robbins

The afternoon lasts approximately as long as fourth grade. However long it takes a wuf of light from Sirius the Dog Star to reach its reflection in a puddle of tar on the Dog House roof, that's how long it takes the afternoon to go by. The afternoon is a million-car train rattling at half-speed through a crossing in a prairie town. - Half Asleep In Frog Pajamas, p.83

James Joyce

In the Ithaca chapter of Ulysses, the style has switched to a series of catechism-like questions, which  are posed regarding the interactions of the young, drunk artist Stephen Dedalus, and his symbolic father, Leopold Bloom. It's around 2AM in Dublin, June 17th, 1904:

With what meditations did Bloom accompany his demonstration to his companion of various constellations?

Meditations of evolution increasingly vaster: of the moon invisible in incipient lunation, approaching perigee: of the infinite lattiginous scintillating uncondensed milky way, discernible by daylight by an observer placed at the lower end of a cylindrical vertical shaft 5000 ft deep sunk from the surface toward the center of the earth: of Sirius (alpha in Canis Major) 10 lightyears (57,000,000,000,000 miles) distant and in volume 900 times the dimension of our planet: of Arcturus: of the precession of equinoxes [...] - p. 698 in the old Viking ppbk version.

Bloom was an Everyman of 1904, but he was interested in everything. By 1905 Sirius was measured at 8.6 light-years away from us; Bloom seems to remember it as 10. So, the number for light-years is low and so is the volume: it's not 900 times that of Earth but closer to 2,834,000 times more voluminous. The important thing here is that Bloom is filled with wonder about such things and wants to share his knowledge with the younger man. 
Ezra Pound

The following passage was written under the most extraordinary circumstances: Pound had been captured by the Allies for broadcasting Fascist propaganda (Pound seemed to think he was doing what Thomas Jefferson would have wanted[?], although the broadcasts are filled with disgusting antisemitic remarks; Pound seemed to have some sort of "sickness" I know not what) to the Allies from Italy, with Mussolini's imprimatur. On May 22, 1945, Pound was taken to the Disciplinary Training Center (DTC) at Pisa where he remained for six months, as a political prisoner. At first he was kept by the Americans (Pound was born in Idaho) in a wire and concrete cage six feet by six and a half feet, open to the sky, no protection from wind and rain.  Most of the other prisoners were murderers and rapists. Pound had thought he was exercising free speech with his broadcasts. Two guards watched him at all time, and weren't supposed to speak to Pound. Pound cracked after three weeks. Under these barbaric, insane conditions, he continued with his lifelong work: writing his Cantos, encyclopedic/epic poetry, polyglot, profoundly erudite, a poem with his own version of history as he had made it from his readings. By the time he'd been apprehended, his ideas about how Modern poetry should be had largely "won" with other poets and intellectuals. With the intervention of those he'd influenced and helped (Hemingway and William Carlos Williams were disgusted by what Ez had said, but were committed to defending him should he come to trial for treason): cummings, Eliot, Archibald MacLeish, Amy Lowell, Auden, Katherine Anne Porter, Allen Tate and many others later awarded the section of Cantos that Pound had written while in captivity the Bollingen Prize. He received this award while housed in St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the criminally insane in Washington, DC. Here's a bit with Sirius in it; Pound is in the panther cage and the moon is coming up, along with Sirius:

the water seeps in under the bottle's seal

                Till finally the moon rose like a blue p.c.
of Bingen on the Rhine
                round as Perkeo's tub
then glaring Eos stared the moon in the face
       (Pistol packin' Jones with an olive branch)
       man and dog
                               On the S.E. horizon
               and we note that dog precedes man in the occident
               as of course in the orient if the bloke in the
               is proceeding to rightwards
      "Why war?" sd/the sergeant rum-runner
       "too many people! when there git to be too many
                      you get to kill some of 'em off."
-Canto LXXX

Water seeps through into his cage while the moon rose like a blue postcard. Bingen is a city on the Rhine located near a whirlpool. "Perkeo" was a jester in the court of Karl Phillip of Heidelberg, and an elaboration of this very Ezratic allusion can be found here. Eos is Venus at dawn. Jones is an officer at the DTC. Man and dog refer to Orion and Sirius. Then Pound makes an observation about syntax in chinese writing vs. Indo-European. After "bloke in the" we are supposed to see a Chinese character that shows the characters for "dog" and "man," which, in the text, is shown in the margins. This tiny section of Canto 80 ends with overheard conversation illustrating the almost idiotic level of political understanding by Unistat military; my impression is that not much has changed since 1945.

W.S. Merwin

Heavily influenced by Pound, Merwin won his second Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his 2008 book The Shadow of Sirius. I read this luminous book and, while there are no poems "about" Sirius, reading Merwin we must keep in mind that, for him, creativity comes from something inside us that we didn't know about: our Shadow. So, his poetry comes from the "shadow of Sirius," as Sirius is a strange star system (more later). Here's a section from a transcript of an interview Merwin had with Bill Moyers, after Merwin won the Pulitzer:

BILL MOYERS: He does leave his island reverie from time to time to read his work at universities and libraries — and to pick up his Pulitzer Prize. Here's the book that won, THE SHADOW OF SIRIUS. Its author is with me now. W.S. Merwin, welcome to the Journal.
BILL MOYERS: You titled this new book, the one that just won  the Pulitzer Prize, "In The Shadow of Sirius". Now, Sirius is the dog star. The most luminous star in the sky. Twenty-five times more luminous than the sun. And yet, you write about its shadow. Something that no one has ever seen. Something that's invisible to us. Help me to understand that.
W.S. MERWIN: That's the point. The shadow of Sirius is pure metaphor, pure imagination. But we live in it all the time.
W.S. MERWIN: We are the shadow of Sirius. There is the other side of-- as we talk to each other, we see the light, and we see these faces, but we know that behind that, there's the other side, which we never know. And that — it's the dark, the unknown side that guides us, and that is part of our lives all the time. It's the mystery. That's always with us, too. And it gives the depth and dimension to the rest of it.
(for entire interview see HERE.)

In Voltaire's Micromegas he's invented a giant from the planet Sirius. It's a proto-science fiction story. This giant promises to give men - "infinitely insignificant atoms" - the secrets of nature in a large volume of philosophy. When the Society of the Academy of Sciences opens up the book, it's nothing but blank pages. "Aha!," says the Secretary: "Just as I expected."


"Well, Lew angled his thumb aloft and eastward, where sure enough a very bright, luminous object had been slowly on the rise all evening, "it's a good one to get, all right." It was the Dog Star Sirius, which ruled this part of the summer, and whose blessings, tradition held, were far from unmixed." - Against The Day, Thomas Pynchon, p.901 


Eric Wagner said...

Great, great. Bob Wilson would have loved this.

Eric Wagner said...

Also, your Pound exegesis particularly reminded me of Bob's writing.

I have contemplated inundating myself with Sirius inspired music and observing the results: Julius Hemphill's "Dogon A.D.", the Art Ensemble's "Sirius Calling", Stockhausen's "Sirius", etc.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Is this part one of a series? I have been meaning to tackle the Pound "Cantos," but it seems like it would be a daunting prospect, and I already have too many other reading projects.

Eric Wagner said...

Tom, I bet you would enjoy the Cantos.

michael said...

Eric:I found a used copy of Zukofsky's _A_ in a used bookstore when I had gotten lost in a part of town of which I was unfamiliar. I called my contact and apologized and we rescheduled, then I happened upon a bookstore, went in, and there was a pristine copy for $4!

So far, I've only thumbed around in it (I call it taking x-rays), but aye! it does seem daunting. It's already done a number on my brain. I'm not sure all readers - however intelligent - have the sort of weirdness to enjoy tackling Finnegans Wake, The Cantos or A. There is some scholarship about reading that backs me up here, but suffice: my main model for the phenomenology of reading very dense, difficult books is that we're never done reading them. We enter in, lose track of time (this seems essential to me) and find the efforts worthwhile enough to pick the work up again and again. If a fantastically intelligent reader does not enjoy these kinds of things, I quote Wilson: "Different lanes for different brains..."

Eric Wagner said...

Hot dog! The power of the Dog Star! I plan to do my annual reading of "A" in December if you'd care to join me. Fly and some others might want to join in as well. I love Zukofsky's poetry - what a wonderful ear and sense of humor.