Sunday, February 6, 2011

Guest Writer, Fred Bassett

This week's blog features a column and poetry by guest writer, author and poet, Fred Bassett.

One of the most compelling topics for poets throughout the ages has been passionate, romantic love. Among the many different types of books of the Bible, for example, there is an extraordinary collection of lyrical poetry which the translators of the King James Version entitled The Song of Solomon. Although the original Hebrew text does not have a title, they gave it one based on the tradition that the lyrics were written by King Solomon. More appropriately, recent English translations entitle the book, The Song of Songs, based on the opening phrase of the text. In the Hebrew language such expressions as “the song of songs” and “the king of kings” are superlatives, meaning “the best song” and “the best king.”

And what is the best song according to this text? It is the song of love ─ that passionate pulling of two people toward a new whole. The love lyrics of this little book, however, proved problematic for both the early Jewish community and the early Christian community. Both communities tended to interpret the lyrics allegorically as expressions of spiritual love between God and the religious community. According to this interpretation, the male speaker is God and the female speaker is Israel or the Church. Other interpreters read them allegorically as expressions of the mystical love between God and the individual.

Modern scholars have rightly concluded, however, that these love lyrics were expressions of passionate love between woman and man. Originally, they were likely oral poems recited at wedding festivals.

What is most striking to me about these lyrics is the bold, aggressive love found in the female voice. Nothing demure or reticent here. Since February brings us Valentine’s Day, I’d like to share four of the seventeen poems that I arranged from the Hebrew text. In 2002, Paraclete Press published them in a little book, Love: the Song of Songs, with illustrations by Valenti Angelo. The poems alternate with the titles “SHE” and “HE” to indicate the speaker.

As an apple tree among
the trees of the forest,
so my beloved
is distinguished among men.
I sat in his shadow
with great delight,
and his fruit was sweet.
He brought me
to the banquet hall
and showered me with love.
Strengthen me with raisins,
refresh me with apples,
for I am faint with love.
Oh, that his left hand
were under my head,
and that his right hand
caressed me!
I warn you fair maidens,
do not stir up or awaken love
before its time.

Oh, that you would set me as a seal
upon your heart,
or as a seal upon your arm.
For love is strong as death,
passion as unyielding as the grave.
It flashes like fire,
like a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.

Awake, O north wind,
and come, O South wind!
Blow upon my garden
that its fragrance
may be carried abroad.
Let my beloved come
to his garden,
and eat its exquisite fruits.
Awake, O north wind,
and come, O south wind!
For I am my beloved’s,
and his desire is for me.

My love is an enclosed garden
with gushing fountain.
She is a luxuriant garden
with abundant fruit and spices.
I will go to my garden;
I will gather my myrrh
with my spice.
I will eat my honeycomb
with my honey;
I will drink my wine
with my milk.
Until the day breaks
and the shadows flee,
I will revel
on the mountain of myrrh.

I’ll conclude The Poet’s Corner with a poem about my first love, long before I met my true love, my wife for 55 years. Our first love teaches us something significant about ourselves. I decided, therefore, to contrast my experience with that of the British poet, George Wither, who takes a very cavalier attitude in his poem, “The Lover’s Resolution:”

Shall I, wasting in despair,
Die because a woman’s fair?
Or my cheeks make pale with care
‘Cause another’s rosy are?
Be she fairer than the day
Or the flowery meads of May─
If she be not for me
What care I how fair she be?
And so, the poet goes on for several more verses, all with the same refrain. My experience was totally different, so I address George Wither directly in the poem.
To George Wither on Love
How clever you were George Wither
never to anguish over love,
to control your heart like a logician
doing dry proofs in a cloistered study,
to care or not to care for any woman
with a rational switch in your mind.
I, not so prepared for Ann McMurphy,
embraced her love with total abandon,
assuming the clocks were set for life.
But she, with a consumer's taste,
left me bobbing like an apple core
in the wake of her thirteenth summer.
Unable to topple its golden idol,
my dumb heart waited for her mythic return
as the years slipped slowly toward manhood.
Oh, you were clever George Wither
to shield yourself from such a woman,
and yet I marvel that I do not envy you.

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