After all my musings on the astronomical and astrological Neptune, it was fascinating to explore the sea god’s literary lineage in two evenings at Fabrica Gallery this month, the first dedicated to poetry, the second to prose. Though Neptunian themes of illusion, fear, chaos, spirituality and transcendent beauty overlapped both nights, the poetry I found mainly explored submerged and interior worlds, while the prose pieces I chose also took us out into the heavens. Let’s begin with the poems.
In homage to the Greeks, who still defiantly call Neptune Poseidon, I started with the Homeric ‘Hymn to Poseidon’. This ancient song opens by acknowledging the earth shaker’s desolate domain, but ends with a trusting appeal to his better nature:
You are dark-haired
you are blessed
you have a kind heart.
Help those who sail upon the sea in ships.
from The Homeric Hymns (Penguin, 2003)
translated by Jules Cashford
Is this really a hymn to wishful thinking, Neptune’s powers of illusion, the remarkable human ability to see what we want to see in difficult people or tyrannical autocrats? Or did Poseidon in fact harbour a secret tenderness for us poor humans he had lost by the time the Romans got hold of him? Classicists, please enlighten us!
Contemporary odes to Neptune were harder to come by, but divine intervention ensured I found one that mentioned him by name. One of the highlights of my recent trip to Odesa, discussed here on the blog, was a visit to the literary museum, which houses a small collection of Anna Akhmatova’s work. The statuesque Russian poet, melancholic lover and resolute witness to the Stalinist terrors, was born near Odesa and spent her childhood summers in the region. The display included a palm-sized booklet of the long poem ‘Close to the Sea’, or as my host translated, ‘very close’: an intimate relationship. I looked it up in The Complete Poems when I got home and assumed it must be ‘By the Edge of the Sea’. The ballad of a fierce young woman willing the arrival of her beloved from the waves, the poem was too long for the workshop and extracts would not do it justice. A shame, I thought, setting down the 950 page book, which promptly fell open to:
A huge underwater step
Leading to Neptune’s kingdom ―
There Scandinavia chills, like a shade,
All of it ― as a single shining apparition.
Song falls silent, music is dumb,
But the air burns with their fragrance,
And white winter, on its knees,
Observes everything with reverent attention.
Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966)
translated by Judith Hemschemeyer
Workshop participants were arrested by these lines, spending some time discussing their ambiguous fusion of land and sea, silence and scent, pagan and Christian imagery. Perhaps all poems require us to take that ‘huge underwater step’ into a world of fluid associations – powerful enigmas also wash through ‘Convoy’ by Charles Causley, the Cornish poet and schoolmaster whose early work reflects his first career in the Royal Navy:
Draw the blanket of ocean
over the frozen face.
He lies, his eyes quarried by glittering fish,
Staring through the green freezing sea-glass
At the Northern Lights.
He is now a child in the land of Christmas:
Watching, amazed, the white tumbling bears
And the diving seal.
The iron wind clangs round the ice-caps,
The five-pointed Dog-star
Burns over the silent sea.
And the three ships
Come sailing in.
Charles Causley (1917-2003)
Here the bright Christmas miracle merges with a cold sea tragedy – or many tragedies. For the anonymous drowned man evokes the Unknown Sailor, remembered in Odesa by a coastal obelisk – built to honour the sailors who attempted, on land, to defend the city from the 1941 Nazi invasion:
A small but rich poem, in two deft strokes ‘Convoy’ alludes to both Shakespeare’s Full Fathom Five and Auden’s ‘The Old Masters’, which famously ends with the image of a ship sailing serenely past the drowning Icarus. Causley’s three ships evoke the joyous Christmas carol, triumphant vessels that, in the poem, may have survived a human tragedy but in the cold eyes of commerce or war arrive complete. Or perhaps the paradox suggests something more consoling – the acceptance of loss, and the renewal of faith in life’s abundance after a harrowing bereavement.
Emotional loss was also the subject of the night’s last poem, Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lyonnesse’. We discussed the complex nature of the Lyonians’ god – no lusty Neptune, but a bored, cerebral giant, lonely and weary, in a moment of sensual langour abandons those who, the poem’s opening lines suggest, depend on him for their very existence. While compelled by the poem’s mythological grandeur, and not wanting to sink into a shallow autobiographical reading, we also wondered if it might be possible to interpret it as a metaphor for a family governed by a self-absorbed, absent father. Two Plathian scholars give their view here, but I’ll leave you with the poem, and perhaps, like me, with a desire to visit the Seven Stones reef between Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, said to be the site of a beautiful land with 140 churches, lost to an earthquake and tsunami on the night of November 11th, 1099 . . .
Sea-cold, sea-cold it certainly is.
Take a look at the white, high berg on his forehead-
The blue, green,
Gray, indeterminate giltSea of his eyes washing over it
And a round bubble
Popping upward from the mouths of bells
People and cows.
The Lyonians had always thought
Heaven would be something else,
But with the same faces,
The same places…
It was not a shock-
The clear, green, quite breathable atmosphere,
Cold grits underfoot,
And the spidery water-dazzle on field and street.
It never occurred that they had been forgot,
That the big God
Had lazily closed one eye and let them slip
Over the English cliff and under so much history!
They did not see him smile,
Turn, like an animal,
In his cage of ether, his cage of stars.
He’d had so many wars!
The white gape of his mind was the real Tabula Rasa.