Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Stolen Children

I saw the documentary Nepal's Stolen Children on CNN, which featured Demi Moore in virtually every shot. Part of CNN's "Freedom Project", which is committed, brace yourself, to ending modern-day slavery, it was ostensibly about the efforts of CNN's 2010 Hero of the Year Maiti Nepal, who rescues Nepalese women, an estimated 35,000 of which work in Delhi's brothels, from human traffickers and educates Nepalese villagers about the hazards facing them.

Not to be confused with the recent British film on Palestinian children, Stolen Children, Stolen Lives, the title of Nepal's Stolen Children is also somewhat misleading. Stolen Women would've been more accurate, but then it would've reminded people of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1956), which incorporates the historical account of the Roman's rape of the Sabine women.

The Demi Moore documentary also reminded me of a similar one in which Ashley Judd visited the slums and brothels of Mumbai. Celebrities like Moore and Judd affix their names on social causes of one sort or another for all kinds of reasons, not all of which are altruistic. They are welcomed by charities because of their star power - their ability to attract publicity. Even Mother Teresa was capable of it. But the superimposition of a celebrity's face on the problem is, to put it mildly, confusing. I saw the suffering victims of sex trafficking, and then I saw Demi's suffering, as she turned away from the girls (and towards the camera) and wiped away a tear.

Stolen Children just happens to be the title of a 1992 Italian fiction film by Gianni Amelio. originally called Il Ladro di Bambini, or "The Thief of Children", it follows an eleven year old girl whose mother is arrested for selling her for sex - since she was just nine. She and her little brother are escorted from Milan by Antonio, a young carabiniere (similar to a national guardsman), to a children's home. The home refuses to take the girl, so Antonio decides to take the children himself to Sicily, where they were born.

To its great credit, the film avoids making either the children (Valentina Scalici and Giuseppe Ieracitano) or Antonio (Enrico Lo Verso) sympathetic. The boy is at first a virtual zombie and never speaks and the girl is often insufferable and inexplicably defensive. She is clearly the victim of a monstrous crime, but society doesn't know what to do with her. Antonio only volunteered for the onerous job to help a friend, and becomes incensed when nothing goes as planned.

With utterly disarming subtlety, Amelio's film, from an original script, shows us the difficulties that the victims, too, must face when they are "returned to society". By exposing the pettiness of that society when it has to deal with the victims of an unspeakable crime, the film brings out the incipient humanity in Antonio, who pays an exacting price from his superiors for trying to do the right thing.

The final shot, of the two children sitting by the roadside in the early morning, as Antonio looks on from his car, is an image that speaks volumes about a society in such headlong pursuit of success that it is oblivious of its momentary failures.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Inevitable

"Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest." (Ecclesiastes 9:10)

This is an unpleasant subject. Both of my parents breathed their last in hospitals - my father after a mercifully short skirmish - rather than the usual "long battle" - with cancer; my mother after a massive stroke. I'm sure that the setting of their deaths was not what either of them would've liked. When my father was told by his doctor that his case was terminal, he motioned toward the coat rack, as if to say (he had a feeding tube down his nose and couldn't speak) "take me home." His actual dying moment took rather longer than expected, so his doctor helped him along with a large dose of valium.

George Orwell, whom tuberculosis killed at the age of 46, knew enough about people dying in hospitals to never want to end up there himself:

"As I gazed at the tiny, screwed-up face it struck me that this disgusting piece of refuse, waiting to be carted away and dumped on a slab in the dissecting room, was an example of ‘natural’ death, one of the things you pray for in the Litany. There you are, then, I thought, that's what is waiting for you, twenty, thirty, forty years hence: that is how the lucky ones die, the ones who live to be old. One wants to live, of course, indeed one only stays alive by virtue of the fear of death, but I think now, as I thought then, that it's better to die violently and not too old. People talk about the horrors of war, but what weapon has man invented that even approaches in cruelty some of the commoner diseases? ‘Natural’ death, almost by definition, means something slow, smelly and painful. . . . And it is a great thing to die in your own bed, though it is better still to die in your boots. However great the kindness and the efficiency, in every hospital death there will be some cruel, squalid detail, something perhaps too small to be told but leaving terribly painful memories behind, arising out of the haste, the crowding, the impersonality of a place where every day people are dying among strangers." ("How the Poor Die")

How Orwell would've envied the death of Albert Camus, also at the age of 46, in a car crash. Camus once wrote, "I know nothing more stupid than to die in an automobile accident." Yet, for the father of Absurdism, it was a perfectly absurd way to die. A return rail ticket, which his publisher had persuaded him not to use, was found in his pocket.

The concept of "dying with dignity" has only materialized now that people are living longer, perhaps, than they expected. Modern medicine has made it possible for us to survive our first catastrophic illnesses. Obviously it isn't prolonging life as much as forestalling death. We have even reached the point where life could go on even longer if people didn't place caveats in their medical records against further unwanted resuscitations. The feeling has always been that life under any circumstances is preferable to death. Only people who have endured long and wasting illnesses know that sometimes it is better to let go of life.

I had just showed up for work in a hospital ER in 1996. A woman was being taken upstairs to the ICU. Since the trauma room was next to my desk (I was providing armed security), I was given the woman's purse to secure in a safe. When I examined the contents for inventory, I told my partner that the woman and he had the same last name. He took one look at the purse and immediately recognized it as his mother's. She had gone to the trouble of having a "DNR" placed in her medical records, after having gone through the ordeal of resuscitation twice, and the long recoveries. Somehow, the nurses hadn't seen it in her records. My partner received heartfelt apologies from hospital staff throughout the day for saving his mother's life.

Few writers have confronted dying as an event that they will one day have to face as powerfully and as frighteningly as Philip Larkin. To read his biography, he was terrified by death, and his late (1977) poem "Aubade" certainly bears this out.

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

The manner of Larkin's death, from esophageal cancer in 1985, aged 63, was awful enough. His last words, to his nurse, were "I am going to the inevitable." From his last collection, High Windows (1974), the poem "The Old Fools" is chilling.

What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there's really been no change,
And they've always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching the light move? If they don't (and they can't), it's strange;
Why aren't they screaming?

At death you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It's only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
Of being here. Next time you can't pretend
There'll be anything else. And these are the first signs:
Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power
Of choosing gone. Their looks show that they're for it:
Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines -
How can they ignore it?

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside you head, and people in them, acting
People you know, yet can't quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun's
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.
This is why they give

An air of baffled absence, trying to be there
Yet being here. For the rooms grow farther, leaving
Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear
Of taken breath, and them crouching below
Extinction's alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is. This must be what keeps them quiet:
The peak that stays in view wherever we go
For them is rising ground. Can they never tell
What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,
We shall find out.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


When I lived in downtown Des Moines I met a cop who used to handle the city jail's drunk tank before funding was cut off and it was shut down. That left a handful of private shelters as the only places that would take in the city's population of homeless people on cold nights. (On warm nights most of them slept under bridges on the river.)

A few months away from retirement, Jeff, as he asked me to call him, was the only cop patrolling the downtown skywalks (elevated and climate controlled sidewalks), which is where I met him. He shared with me some of his observations about society, based on his experience on the streets of Des Moines.

Working nights in the skywalk put him in close contact with the people, all of them Latino immigrants, who cleaned the office buildings every night. He couldn't prove it, Jeff told me, but he was convinced that a majority of them were illegals. Whenever he ran into them in a break room somewhere, eating their lunches, as soon as they saw his uniform and his badge they would scatter, he said, "like cockroaches when you turn on the light."

He told me that it always amazed him to think how far they had come, from Honduras and El Salvador and even South America, confident that when they got here there would be jobs waiting for them. And the city's homeless, all of them American citizens, couldn't find a job, hit the streets and got shitfaced every night.

He was retiring in a matter of months and knew exactly what he was going to do: he was going to live near Veracruz, Mexico. "On my retirement pay from the city I can choose to live like a bum up here or like a king down there," he said. I wonder if he could see the irony in his plan, exchanging destinies with a Mexican coming all the way to Iowa.

One anecdote stood out. "One night in the skywalk I had to take a shit really bad, but I was too far from the office. I heard some guys speaking Spanish down in the atrium food court, so I got on the elevator and went down. They were mopping the floors and i knew they had the keys to the restrooms. As soon as they saw me running towards them, they started to run, too. So I yelled, "Toileto, toileto! Emerhensiya, emerhensiya! I was putting the accent on the next to last syllable, like 'emerhensiya'.

"As soon as he figured out my problem, one of them took me to the restroom and unlocked the door. He corrected me - the accent is on the third syllable, like 'emerhensiya'. What balls! But I thanked him, and on my way back upstairs I yelled to them, 'Muchas gracias! Buenos noches!' I thought they would laugh but they didn't."

Monday, June 20, 2011

Letters to Juliet

I usually avoid what are generally known as "chick flicks", not because I'm not a chick but because they're so often unwatchable. The notion that books and films can be tailored to appeal to women and not to men is perfectly acceptable as long as it's limited to genres that have no pretensions to quality. Romance fiction is no worse than Mickey Spillane. If women's films come closer to my definition of a good film, being more to do with faces than explosions, they indulge in just as many platitudes as any of the current comic book films. But good fiction is good no matter who writes it - Colette or Montherlant - or for whom they write it. And good films are too few to bother about the sex of their makers. Great art enriches everyone.

I am now at an age when the Shakespeare love poem that appeals to me more is not "Romeo and Juliet" but "Antony and Cleopatra". "Romeo & Juliet" was probably written in 1595, when Shakespeare was 31. "Antony & Cleopatra" was written in 1606, when he was 42. Although there is only eleven years between them, the latter play represents a lifetime of experience of love and literature. It is a hymn to grown-up love, about two people who have seen enough of life's let-downs to swear off love forever. Yet they find in each other reason enough to defy the world.

It is the earlier play, of course, about teenagers in love, that is the most popular. Somewhere in Verona, Italy, the setting of the play, there is even an old balcony to which tourists flock that tour guides have called "Juliet's Balcony". This is where the film Letters to Juliet (2010) takes off, without actually leaving the ground. Based on a non-fiction book about the women who leave letters stuffed in a wall near "Juliet's" balcony, the film tells the story of one such woman, whose letter went unnoticed for fifty years until an American writer finds it and writes a reply to her.

The film is nothing more, really, than an elaborate excuse to reunite two actors, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero. But what fictional story could possibly be more romantic than their true story? They met in 1967 on the set of the movie Camelot; she was 30, and so beautiful that they cast her as Guinevere; he was 26, and so beautiful they cast him as Lancelot. They fell in love, had a child, parted company, met again in 2006, fell in love all over again and got married.

Throughout the film I found myself growing impatient with the story of Sophie and Charlie, which seemed utterly boring, particularly since the actors playing them, Amanda Seyfried and Christopher Egan, are pretty but flavorless. Seyfried can act but has the voice of a twelve-year-old, which is a common shortcoming of American actresses (pace Elizabeth Taylor). When Redgrave was her age, she was already an accomplished actress. It's impossible to imagine anyone wanting to see Seyfried in a film fifty years from now when she's Redgrave's age.

I might have said that the two reasons for watching Letters to Juliet are Tuscany and Vanessa Redgrave. But I stopped looking at Tuscany when Redgrave appeared.* Her political activism, which included her open support of the PLO, earned her no friends in Hollywood - which was their loss. To call her one of the greatest living actresses is too mild. She is easily one of the greatest actresses who ever lived. Franco Nero, who lost his hair decades ago but somehow got it back recently, looks like a grizzled lion beside Redgrave, the fire in his blue eyes dimmed but still burning at 68.

* Redgrave herself directed an off-Broadway production of "Antony and Cleopatra" in 1997.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Coup de Tête

At least three distinct sports call themselves "football": what Americans call "soccer" has the most legitimate claim to the term, since it consists of kicking a ball up and down the playing field and because it is played everywhere in the world; American football is more like rubgy with helmets and pads; Australian Rules football combines elements of rugby and American football.

The fans of these and other sports demonstrate why the word "fan" is short for "fanatic". Football madness is a worldwide phenomenon, and one of the best illustrations of that madness can be found in the 1979 French comedy Coup de tête. Written by Francis Veber, creator of La Cage aux Folles (1978) and Le dîner de cons (1998), it tells the story of François Perrin, employee of a factory in a town called Trincamp [actually the town Auxerre] and second stringer for the town's football team. Perrin runs afoul of the company and the townsfolk when, during a practice football match, he injures the star player, Berthier. Fired for this infraction, a string of mishaps lands Perrin in jail one night and he becomes the scapegoat for the attempted rape of a young woman.

As Perrin settles in for a long jail term, a bus accident enroute to an away game leaves the Trincamp team one player short. Since football takes precedence over everything else in this provincial town, Perrin is released from jail so that he can play in the game. As soon as the game is over, he is assured that he will be brought back to jail.

Under escort to the game, Perrin escapes and goes to confront the woman who accused him of trying to rape her. Unable to exact his revenge (by actually raping her), he surrenders to his captors and is transported in the nick of time to play in the Trincamp game. How he manages to become the town's hero in the game and how he turns the tables on everyone who wronged him is carried out in uproarious detail by Veber and director Jean-Jacques Annaud.

Coup de tête was Annaud's second film, after having attracted worldwide recognition with La Victoire en Chantant (1976), which was stupidly renamed Black and White in Color for American audiences. (The English title, alas, has stuck so well that the French title was altered to Noirs et blancs en couleur.)

It was following the success of Coup de tête (I first saw it on its initial release, by Quartet Films, in Denver in early 1980) that Annaud embarked on his first super-production, filmed on multiple continents, aimed at an international audience, Quest for Fire (1981). In subsequent interviews, Annaud would look back on his first two marvelous films with an incomprehensible degree of condescension as "art films".

Annaud was evidently unsatisfied by the comparatively modest success of his first two films. He wanted more people to see his work, with the unfortunate consequence of his having to paint on a bigger canvas, make his films less personal and more "accessible" (that dreaded word) to wider audience - even if such an audience has no stomach for qualities like intelligence and taste. Annaud made more money, established his own production company and made an occasional breakthrough like The Lover (1992), which is magisterially erotic.

By now he has degenerated into a kind of unthinking man's David Lean. I found Enemy at the Gates (2001), by far his most commercially successful film to date, completely disappointing. I expected too much, I suppose, from the man who made Black and White in Color and Coup de tête

In Coup de tête, François Perrin is played by Patrick Dewaere, who first attracted attention as Gérard Depardieu's sidekick in Betrand Blier's intentionally outrageous film Les Valseuses (1974) (The Testicles, once again stupidly re-titled Going Places in the States). Handsome and talented, he made only eight more films after Coup de tête. He committed suicide in Paris in 1982 at the age of 35. Coup de tête, among many other films, shows just how much we all lost.

As Trincamp's company director, Jean Bouise is perfect - profoundly ugly, preposterously self-important, whose trophy wife (Corinne Marchand) is titillated by Perrin's antics. And France Dougnac is captivating as the woman who gets inadvertently involved in Perrin's vengeance on Trincamp.

Near the end of the film, Perrin tells a story to a truck driver to keep him awake. It seems to suggest that the whole notion of revenge is a childish fantasy.

"In the service, I had a sergeant named Colombette. He made my life hell for thirteen months! I swore I'd beat him to a pulp if we ever met."

"And then?" the truck driver says.

"Then, in a supermarket, not long ago, I did meet him, pushing his little cart. He smiled and said 'How's it going?' You know what I did?"

"No," the truck driver says impatiently.

"I said, 'Fine.'"

"Yeah, and then what?"

Perrin pauses. "Stop here!" he says. "Let me out here!"

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Curious Case of Roman Polanski

Whatever your opinion of his films, Roman Polanski has lived for 34 years as a fugitive from justice. In 1977, he plea bargained with a guilty plea to "unlawful sexual intercourse" with a minor, was ordered to undergo 90 days of psychiatric observation at California's Chino State Prison, was released after just 42 days and was awaiting the decision of the judge, which Polanski and his lawyer were assured was going to be either deportation from the U.S. or to finish the remainder of his 90-day observation. Amid accusations of outrageous leniency, it was strongly believed that the judge intended to increase Polanski's sentence by several years. Rather than attend the sentencing hearing, Polanski was spirited away to France. Since he was never charged with rape, Polanski cannot be extradited from France, and has made the country his home, where he continued to make films - some of which have been widely acclaimed.

A 2008 documentary called Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired encapsulates the sexual assault case he was tried and convicted of in 1977, and his subsequent flight from justice to Europe. It's a curious title, even when it is given a context by one of Polanski's friends in the film. The film makes Polanski's sojourn in Hollywood sound like a bad melodrama - from extraordinary success and happiness to extraordinary failure and sadness, with sex, drugs, and murder thrown in.

There was never any doubt that Polanski committed the crime of which he was accused, despite the crime being ultimately called "consensual sex with a 13-year-old" - which is legally, if not quite physically, impossible. Not unlike many famous transgressors in the past, he got off with a light sentence - or would have if the judge, under pressure, hadn't changed his mind. Polanski's flight from justice made the American justice system look ridiculous. His subsequent thirty-plus years of liberty have emphasized this. The documentary, which is obviously on Polanski's side, makes it look all that much worse.

You would have to go back to the early 19th century to discover the reasons why some people developed the belief that artists are somehow above common morality. In fact it probably has something to do with common morality in the first place, because artists, you see, are if not above, definitely outside the world of ordinary humanity. I am not agreeing with this belief. I am merely stating what it appears to stand for.

Add to this the notion that an artist's work is sacrosanct, no matter what mischief the artist himself gets up to, and you find yourself in a critical quandary. George Orwell addressed this issue in his review of an autobiography by Salvador Dali.

"The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp ... The important thing is not to denounce him [Dali] as a cad who ought to be horsewhipped, or to defend him as a genius who ought not to be questioned, but to find out WHY he exhibits that particular set of aberrations."(1)

Polanski has admitted to a predilection for very young women - what used to be called "girls" before feminism disapproved of the word. As he has aged, and his work has gone into decline (2), he has managed to keep his nose conspicuously clean, marrying in the meantime the French actress Emmanuelle Seigner (3), who was twenty-three when they married.

High on the list of possible psychological explanations for Polanski's aberrant behavior are the deaths of his mother in a Nazi concentration camp and of his wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson family. One of the things that nobody in Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired thought to mention is that Polanski had lived in communist Poland for the first twenty-nine years of his life - a country in which virtually everyone is a prisoner of conscience. While not explaining - or indeed forgiving - his rape (there's no other word for it) of a 13-year-old girl in 1977, it goes a little way toward our understanding of what a tragic mess this man's life has been. Perhaps his being a fugitive from justice is exactly where he feels most at home?

(1) George Orwell, "Benefit of Clergy".
(2) Polanski's work is grotesquely uneven. He started out with some brilliant short films and made his feature film debut with Knife in the Water (1962), which I have celebrated elsewhere. His best films thereafter were hit and miss: The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) is, as Vernon Young pointed out, a masterpiece of Gothic design, Rosemary's Baby (1968), though ultimately silly, is an extraordinary horror film. Macbeth (1971) is one of the best efforts at filmed Shakespeare I've seen. Chinatown (1974) is a great American film, and his best film outside Poland. His late films, most of which I've seen, fall short of his own standard. His latest, The Ghost Writer (2010), is, for a suspense film, utterly boring.
(3) Seigner was educated at a convent school, a detail I couldn't resist pointing out.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

In Exile

"Ha, banishment! be merciful, say 'death;'
For exile hath more terror in his look,
Much more than death: do not say 'banishment.'

-Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 3 scene III

Banishment must be one of the oldest forms of penal servitude. Being deprived of all the comforts of civilization, particularly those of one's homeland, has often been considered to be worse than death. As late as the 19th century, people convicted of some of the worst crimes in England were sometimes offered a choice between hanging and transportation to the antipodes.

Countries with distant frontiers, like Russia, have long traditions of sending undesirables to the edge of nowhere. Dostoevsky was sent to one such nowhere by Czar Nicholas I, inspiring him to write one of his most moving novels, From The House of the Dead.(1)

Under Communism, the Gulags (2) continued to flourish and were further immortalized in Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The Soviets were also modern practitioners of :internal exile", opting to move some of their more celebratred dissidents, like Andrei Sakharov, to cities that were hard to get to and, of course, even harder to get out of. These "refuseniks", as they came to be known, were quite vocal in their desire to leave the communist state, causing severe embarrassment to its customarily pitiless rulers. For what is there to say in favor of a country from which banishment is a boon?

Chekhov visited Siberia in 1890, and saw firsthand what life was like for prisoners who'd been sent there. The experience inspired one of his most indelible - and stirringly political - stories, called simply "In Exile" (1892).

OLD SEMYON, nicknamed Canny, and a young Tatar, whom no one knew by name, were sitting on the river-bank by the camp-fire; the other three ferrymen were in the hut. Semyon, an old man of sixty, lean and toothless, but broad shouldered and still healthy-looking, was drunk; he would have gone in to sleep long before, but he had a bottle in his pocket and he was afraid that the fellows in the hut would ask him for vodka. The Tatar was ill and weary, and wrapping himself up in his rags was describing how nice it was in the Simbirsk province, and what a beautiful and clever wife he had left behind at home. He was not more than twenty five, and now by the light of the camp-fire, with his pale and sick, mournful face, he looked like a boy.

"To be sure, it is not paradise here," said Canny. "You can see for yourself, the water, the bare banks, clay, and nothing else....Easter has long passed and yet there is ice on the river, and this morning there was snow..."

"It's bad! it's bad!" said the Tatar, and looked round him in terror.

The dark, cold river was flowing ten paces away; it grumbled, lapped against the hollow clay banks and raced on swiftly towards the far-away sea. Close to the bank there was the dark blur of a big barge, which the ferrymen called a "karbos." Far away on the further bank, lights, dying down and flickering up again, zigzagged like little snakes; they were burning last year's grass. And beyond the little snakes there was darkness again. There little icicles could be heard knocking against the barge It was damp and cold.

The Tatar glanced at the sky. There were as many stars as at home, and the same blackness all round, but something was lacking. At home in the Simbirsk province the stars were quite different, and so was the sky.

"It's bad! it's bad!" he repeated.

"You will get used to it," said Semyon, and he laughed. "Now you are young and foolish, the milk is hardly dry on your lips, and it seems to you in your foolishness that you are more wretched than anyone; but the time will come when you will say to yourself: 'I wish no one a better life than mine.' You look at me. Within a week the floods will be over and we shall set up the ferry; you will all go wandering off about Siberia while I shall stay and shall begin going from bank to bank. I've been going like that for twenty-two years, day and night. The pike and the salmon are under the water while I am on the water. And thank God for it, I want nothing; God give everyone such a life."

The Tatar threw some dry twigs on the camp-fire, lay down closer to the blaze, and said:

"My father is a sick man. When he dies my mother and wife will come here. They have promised."

"And what do you want your wife and mother for?" asked Canny. "That's mere foolishness, my lad. It's the devil confounding you, damn his soul! Don't you listen to him, the cursed one. Don't let him have his way. He is at you about the women, but you spite him; say, 'I don't want them!' He is on at you about freedom, but you stand up to him and say: 'I don't want it!' I want nothing, neither father nor mother, nor wife, nor freedom, nor post, nor paddock; I want nothing, damn their souls!"

Semyon took a pull at the bottle and went on:

"I am not a simple peasant, not of the working class, but the son of a deacon, and when I was free I lived at Kursk; I used to wear a frockcoat, and now I have brought myself to such a pass that I can sleep naked on the ground and eat grass. And I wish no one a better life. I want nothing and I am afraid of nobody, and the way I look at it is that there is nobody richer and freer than I am. When they sent me here from Russia from the first day I stuck it out; I want nothing! The devil was at me about my wife and about my home and about freedom, but I told him: 'I want nothing.' I stuck to it, and here you see I live well, and I don't complain, and if anyone gives way to the devil and listens to him, if but once, he is lost, there is no salvation for him: he is sunk in the bog to the crown of his head and will never get out.

"It is not only a foolish peasant like you, but even gentlemen, well-educated people, are lost. Fifteen years ago they sent a gentleman here from Russia. He hadn't shared something with his brothers and had forged something in a will. They did say he was a prince or a baron, but maybe he was simply an official -- who knows? Well, the gentleman arrived here, and first thing he bought himself a house and land in Muhortinskoe. 'I want to live by my own work,' says he, 'in the sweat of my brow, for I am not a gentleman now,' says he, 'but a settler.' 'Well,' says I, 'God help you, that's the right thing.' He was a young man then, busy and careful; he used to mow himself and catch fish and ride sixty miles on horseback. Only this is what happened: from the very first year he took to riding to Gyrino for the post; he used to stand on my ferry and sigh: 'Ech, Semyon, how long it is since they sent me any money from home!' 'You don't want money, Vassily Sergeyitch,' says I. 'What use is it to you? You cast away the past, and forget it as though it had never been at all, as though it had been a dream, and begin to live anew. Don't listen to the devil,' says I; 'he will bring you to no good, he'll draw you into a snare. Now you want money,' says I, ' but in a very little while you'll be wanting something else, and then more and more. If you want to be happy,' says I, the chief thing is not to want anything. Yes....If,' says I, 'if Fate has wronged you and me cruelly it's no good asking for her favor and bowing down to her, but you despise her and laugh at her, or else she will laugh at you.' That's what I said to him....

"Two years later I ferried him across to this side, and he was rubbing his hands and laughing. 'I am going to Gyrino to meet my wife,' says he. 'She was sorry for me,' says he; 'she has come. She is good and kind.' And he was breathless with joy. So a day later he came with his wife. A beautiful young lady in a hat; in her arms was a baby girl. And lots of luggage of all sorts. And my Vassily Sergeyitch was fussing round her; he couldn't take his eyes off her and couldn't say enough in praise of her. 'Yes, brother Semyon, even in Siberia people can live!' 'Oh, all right,' thinks I, 'it will be a different tale presently.' And from that time forward he went almost every week to inquire whether money had not come from Russia. He wanted a lot of money. 'She is losing her youth and beauty here in Siberia for my sake,' says he, 'and sharing my bitter lot with me, and so I ought,' says he, 'to provide her with every comfort....'

"To make it livelier for the lady he made acquaintance with the officials and all sorts of riff-raff. And of course he had to give food and drink to all that crew, and there had to be a piano and a shaggy lapdog on the sofa -- plague take it! ... Luxury, in fact, self-indulgence. The lady did not stay with him long. How could she? The clay, the water, the cold, no vegetables for you, no fruit. All around you ignorant and drunken people and no sort of manners, and she was a spoilt lady from Petersburg or Moscow....To be sure she moped. Besides, her husband, say what you like, was not a gentleman now, but a settler -- not the same rank.

"Three years later, I remember, on the eve of the Assumption, there was shouting from the further bank. I went over with the ferry, and what do I see but the lady, all wrapped up, and with her a young gentleman, an official. A sledge with three horses....I ferried them across here, they got in and away like the wind. They were soon lost to sight. And towards morning Vassily Sergeyitch galloped down to the ferry. 'Didn't my wife come this way with a gentleman in spectacles, Semyon?' 'She did,' said I; 'you may look for the wind in the fields!' He galloped in pursuit of them. For five days and nights he was riding after them. When I ferried him over to the other side afterwards, he flung himself on the ferry and beat his head on the boards of the ferry and howled. 'So that's how it is,' says I. I laughed, and reminded him 'people can live even in Siberia!' And he beat his head harder than ever....

"Then he began longing for freedom. His wife had slipped off to Russia, and of course he was drawn there to see her and to get her away from her lover. And he took, my lad, to galloping almost every day, either to the post or the town to see the commanding officer; he kept sending in petitions for them to have mercy on him and let him go back home; and he used to say that he had spent some two hundred roubles on telegrams alone. He sold his land and mortgaged his house to the Jews. He grew gray and bent, and yellow in the face, as though he was in consumption. If he talked to you he would go, khee -- khee -- khee, ... and there were tears in his eyes. He kept rushing about like this with petitions for eight years, but now he has grown brighter and more cheerful again: he has found another whim to give way to. You see, his daughter has grown up. He looks at her, and she is the apple of his eye. And to tell the truth she is all right, good-looking, with black eyebrows and a lively disposition. Every Sunday he used to ride with her to church in Gyrino. They used to stand on the ferry, side by side, she would laugh and he could not take his eyes off her. 'Yes, Semyon,' says he, 'people can live even in Siberia. Even in Siberia there is happiness. Look,' says he, 'what a daughter I have got! I warrant you wouldn't find another like her for a thousand versts round.' 'Your daughter is all right,' says I, 'that's true, certainly.' But to myself I thought: 'Wait a bit, the wench is young, her blood is dancing, she wants to live, and there is no life here.' And she did begin to pine, my lad....She faded and faded, and now she can hardly crawl about. Consumption.

"So you see what Siberian happiness is, damn its soul! You see how people can live in Siberia....He has taken to going from one doctor to another and taking them home with him. As soon as he hears that two or three hundred miles away there is a doctor or a sorcerer, he will drive to fetch him. A terrible lot of money he spent on doctors, and to my thinking he had better have spent the money on drink....She'll die just the same. She is certain to die, and then it will be all over with him. He'll hang himself from grief or run away to Russia -- that's a sure thing. He'll run away and they'll catch him, then he will be tried, sent to prison, he will have a taste of the lash...."

"Good! good!" said the Tatar, shivering with cold.

"What is good?" asked Canny.

"His wife, his daughter....What of prison and what of sorrow! -- anyway, he did see his wife and his daughter....You say, want nothing. But 'nothing' is bad! His wife lived with him three years -- that was a gift from God. 'Nothing' is bad, but three years is good. How not understand?"

Shivering and hesitating, with effort picking out the Russian words of which he knew but few, the Tatar said that God forbid one should fall sick and die in a strange land, and be buried in the cold and dark earth; that if his wife came to him for one day, even for one hour, that for such happiness he would be ready to bear any suffering and to thank God. Better one day of happiness than nothing.

Then he described again what a beautiful and clever wife he had left at home. Then, clutching his head in both hands, he began crying and assuring Semyon that he was not guilty, and was suffering for nothing. His two brothers and an uncle had carried off a peasant's horses, and had beaten the old man till he was half dead, and the commune had not judged fairly, but had contrived a sentence by which all the three brothers were sent to Siberia, while the uncle, a rich man, was left at home.

"You will get used to it!" said Semyon.

The Tatar was silent, and stared with tear-stained eyes at the fire; his face expressed bewilderment and fear, as though he still did not understand why he was here in the darkness and the wet, beside strangers, and not in the Simbirsk province.

Canny lay near the fire, chuckled at something, and began humming a song in an undertone.

"What joy has she with her father?" he said a little later. "He loves her and he rejoices in her, that's true; but, mate, you must mind your Ps and Qs with him, he is a strict old man, a harsh old man. And young wenches don't want strictness. They want petting and ha-ha-ha! and ho-ho-ho! and scent and pomade. Yes....Ech! life, life," sighed Semyon, and he got up heavily. "The vodka is all gone, so it is time to sleep. Eh? I am going, my lad...."

Left alone, the Tatar put on more twigs, lay down and stared at the fire; he began thinking of his own village and of his wife. If his wife could only come for a month, for a day; and then if she liked she might go back again. Better a month or even a day than nothing. But if his wife kept her promise and came, what would he have to feed her on? Where could she live here?

"If there were not something to eat, how could she live?" the Tatar asked aloud.

He was paid only ten kopecks for working all day and all night at the oar; it is true that travelers gave him tips for tea and for vodkas but the men shared all they received among themselves, and gave nothing to the Tatar, but only laughed at him. And from poverty he was hungry, cold, and frightened....Now, when his whole body was aching and shivering, he ought to go into the hut and lie down to sleep; but he had nothing to cover him there, and it was colder than on the river-bank; here he had nothing to cover him either, but at least he could make up the fire....

In another week, when the floods were quite over and they set the ferry going, none of the ferrymen but Semyon would be wanted, and the Tatar would begin going from village to village begging for alms and for work. His wife was only seventeen; she was beautiful, spoilt, and shy; could she possibly go from village to village begging alms with her face unveiled? No, it was terrible even to think of that....

It was already getting light; the barge, the bushes of willow on the water, and the waves could be clearly discerned, and if one looked round there was the steep clay slope; at the bottom of it the hut thatched with dingy brown straw, and the huts of the village lay clustered higher up. The cocks were already crowing in the village.

The rusty red clay slope, the barge, the river, the strange, unkind people, hunger, cold, illness, perhaps all that was not real. Most likely it was all a dream, thought the Tatar. He felt that he was asleep and heard his own snoring....Of course he was at home in the Simbirsk province, and he had only to call his wife by name for her to answer; and in the next room was his mother....What terrible dreams there are, though! What are they for? The Tatar smiled and opened his eyes. What river was this, the Volga?

Snow was falling.

"Boat!" was shouted on the further side. "Boat!"

The Tatar woke up, and went to wake his mates and row over to the other side. The ferrymen came on to the river-bank, putting on their torn sheepskins as they walked, swearing with voices husky from sleepiness and shivering from the cold. On waking from their sleep, the river, from which came a breath of piercing cold, seemed to strike them as revolting and horrible. They jumped into the barge without hurrying themselves....The Tatar and the three ferrymen took the long, broad-bladed oars, which in the darkness looked like the claws of crabs; Semyon leaned his stomach against the tiller. The shout on the other side still continued, and two shots were fired from a revolver, probably with the idea that the ferrymen were asleep or had gone to the pot-house in the village.

"All right, you have plenty of time," said Semyon in the tone of a man convinced that there was no necessity in this world to hurry -- that it would lead to nothing, anyway.

The heavy, clumsy barge moved away from the bank and floated between the willow-bushes, and only the willows slowly moving back showed that the barge was not standing still but moving. The ferrymen swung the oars evenly in time; Semyon lay with his stomach on the tiller and, describing a semicircle in the air, flew from one side to the other. In the darkness it looked as though the men were sitting on some antediluvian animal with long paws, and were moving on it through a cold, desolate land, the land of which one sometimes dreams in nightmares.

They passed beyond the willows and floated out into the open. The creak and regular splash of the oars was heard on the further shore, and a shout came: "Make haste! make haste!"

Another ten minutes passed, and the barge banged heavily against the landing-stage.

"And it keeps sprinkling and sprinkling," muttered Semyon, wiping the snow from his face; "and where it all comes from God only knows."

On the bank stood a thin man of medium height in a jacket lined with fox fur and in a white lambskin cap. He was standing at a little distance from his horses and not moving; he had a gloomy, concentrated expression, as though he were trying to remember something and angry with his untrustworthy memory. When Semyon went up to him and took off his cap, smiling, he said:

"I am hastening to Anastasyevka. My daughter's worse again, and they say that there is a new doctor at Anastasyevka."

They dragged the carriage on to the barge and floated back. The man whom Semyon addressed as Vassily Sergeyitch stood all the time motionless, tightly compressing his thick lips and staring off into space; when his coachman asked permission to smoke in his presence he made no answer, as though he had not heard. Semyon, lying with his stomach on the tiller, looked mockingly at him and said:

"Even in Siberia people can live -- can li-ive!"

There was a triumphant expression on Canny's face, as though he had proved something and was delighted that things had happened as he had foretold. The unhappy helplessness of the man in the foxskin coat evidently afforded him great pleasure.

"It's muddy driving now, Vassily Sergeyitch," he said when the horses were harnessed again on the bank. "You should have put off going for another fortnight, when it will be drier. Or else not have gone at all....If any good would come of your going -- but as you know yourself, people have been driving about for years and years, day and night, and it's alway's been no use. That's the truth."

Vassily Sergeyitch tipped him without a word, got into his carriage and drove off.

"There, he has galloped off for a doctor!" said Semyon, shrinking from the cold. "But looking for a good doctor is like chasing the wind in the fields or catching the devil by the tail, plague take your soul! What a queer chap, Lord forgive me a sinner!"

The Tatar went up to Canny, and, looking at him with hatred and repulsion, shivering, and mixing Tatar words with his broken Russian, said: "He is good ... good; but you are bad! You are bad! The gentleman is a good soul, excellent, and you are a beast, bad! The gentleman is alive, but you are a dead carcass....God created man to be alive, and to have joy and grief and sorrow; but you want nothing, so you are not alive, you are stone, clay! A stone wants nothing and you want nothing. You are a stone, and God does not love you, but He loves the gentleman!"

Everyone laughed; the Tatar frowned contemptuously, and with a wave of his hand wrapped himself in his rags and went to the campfire. The ferrymen and Semyon sauntered to the hut.

"It's cold," said one ferryman huskily as he stretched himself on the straw with which the damp clay floor was covered.

"Yes, its not warm," another assented. "It's a dog's life...."

They all lay down. The door was thrown open by the wind and the snow drifted into the hut; nobody felt inclined to get up and shut the door: they were cold, and it was too much trouble.

"I am all right," said Semyon as he began to doze. "I wouldn't wish anyone a better life."

"You are a tough one, we all know. Even the devils won't take you!"

Sounds like a dog's howling came from outside.

"What's that? Who's there?"

"It's the Tatar crying."

"I say. . . . He's a queer one!"

"He'll get u-used to it!" said Semyon, and at once fell asleep.

The others were soon asleep too. The door remained unclosed.

What Chekhov was writing about was life in extremis: how suffering throws into high relief the seeming madness of always the same struggle with the way things are. Or its exact opposite: the acquiescence into total passivity. One side or the other must be taken - either one chases after dreams on awakening from them and engages in the tug-of-war of trying to take what can only be given, rushing after something already lost, making preparations for an arrival that never comes. Or else one simply gives it all up and lives on a subsistence of cruelly diminished expectations. The advantage of being a stone is that one cannot be bruised. But it is clear whose side, the Gentleman's or Canny's, Chekhov is on.

This is what makes this story political - in fact it is a kind of political allegory. Chekhov's characters never say "why can't we love one another more?" Or "Why can't we make the world a better place for love?" They always say simply "Just look at us and the way we are living!" This is also true of "In Exile," but he powerfully shows us opposing styles of survival: how two very different people have chosen two very different ways of dealing with their distressing lives.

(1) Czech composer Leos Janacek made it into an extraordinary opera.
(2) Acronym for Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies (Russian: Главное Управление Исправительно-Трудовых Лагерей и колоний) of the NKVD

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


I knew a woman in Des Moines who was a social worker for the city. One of her "clients" - a drug-abusing ex-con - lived in my apartment building. Since he suffered from unpredictable crack-ups (drug-induced, I guessed), she gave me her number so she could get to him before the cops did.

She was trying to find a suitable job for him, and I asked her if his jail record made it impossible for him to really "return to society". She replied that it did not because, she believed, "we all break the law but only some of us get caught." I had no reason to doubt her, but such a view was prejudiced in the extreme against ordinary, law-abiding people - most of whom manage to avoid going to jail merely by being decent to one another.

But her view may have been slightly more advantageous in her profession than the one held by Jack Mabry in the extraordinary film Stone (2010). He is six months away from retirement as a parole officer in a prison outside Detroit, and has a few cases to finish, one of which involves a man named Gerald "Stone" Creeson, who took part in the murder of his grandparents (though his brother evidently carried out the killings), and the arson of their home.

In the course of the period covered by the film, both men undergo transformations - Stone discovers a modicum of peace within the chaos of prison and Jack finds that his life, his career and his marriage, have amounted to nothing. Involved in these transformations is Stone's pretty wife Lucetta, who is apparently a hooker, and who seduces Jack to win favor for Stone.

There is a fine irony in an evidently religious man who listens to "inspirational" radio and talks to his minister not believing in another man's spiritual awakening. And Lucetta's sexual favors nearly ruin Stone's efforts to convince Jack that he's serious and that he's changed.

By the time of his parole hearing, Stone's "epiphany" (his word) has made him almost indifferent to the outcome. Jack is so disturbed by his awakening to a pointless life that he grows resentful of Lucetta and of Stone and believes he's been "conned" by them.

"I am who I am," Stone tells Jack. "And that's ok." Jack asks Lucetta, "Do you go to church?" "No," she answers bluntly. "There's no such thing as God." And Jack's alcoholic wife asks him "You have something to say to me?" All Jack can say is "I can't even think of what I've been wanting to say."

What struck me most about the climax of the film was the, to me, surprising restraint of the filmmakers. A film with such a powerhouse cast would usually have gone on an unnecessary detour into violence. That it managed to avoid the unfortunate tendency of American film to lapse into melodrama made Stone all the more remarkable for it. (Notice how the film avoids using any music on the soundtrack.)

As Jack, Robert de Niro is intensely and beautifully believable, a man who has the power to release men behind bars but who can't find his own way out. His authenticity is the anchor of the film. I loved that last moment when he's sitting alone in his office with the contents of his desk assembled in boxes. His last gesture is to look up.

As Stone, Ed Norton has never been better. Even his spiritual epiphany convinces because of his earnestness with the fumbling words he uses to express what's happened inside him. He proves to us how much better a man he is than Jack, and how much fitter he is to live in society.

Then there's Milla Jovovich. She has struggled for years with her extraordinary looks to gain respect as an actress. She can relax now. As Lucetta, whom Stone himself admits is an "alien", she gives us a complete, if deeply flawed, human being. The worried look on her face when she confronts Stone in civilian clothes as they are about to walk out of the prison together is astonishing.

Stone arrived here in the Sticks completely unannounced to once again challenge my conviction that the American film hasn't come of age.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Grating Dane

Easily the biggest jerk of international film at present is the Dane Lars von Trier. At last month's Cannes Festival he surprised the crowd that had turned up to hear his remarks about his latest film Melancholia by declaring himself a Nazi and an admirer of Hitler. Festival organizers promptly banned him from the remainder of the proceedings, but it didn't stop judges from awarding the Best Actress Palm d'Or to the film's star, Kirsten Dunst, who nevertheless thanked Trier for giving her the part.

Trier, for those of you who are blissfully unaware of him, adopted the nobiliary particle "von" in honor of Josef von Sternberg. Sternberg himself, just like Erich von Stroheim, adopted the "von" to give himself aristocratic credentials in Hollywood that, again like Stroheim, he didn't possess.

It is simply impossible to imagine anyone in touch with reality to say what Trier said in Cannes without understanding the outrage it would inspire. What he said was not simply stupid but quite intentionally outrageous: "I thought I was a Jew for a long time and was very happy being a Jew ... Then it turned out that I was not a Jew ... I found out that I was really a Nazi which also gave me some pleasure ... What can I say? I understand Hitler. He did some wrong things, absolutely, but I can see him sitting there in his bunker at the end ... I sympathise with him, yes, a little bit ... But come on, I am not for the second world war, and I am not against Jews. I am very much for Jews; well not too much because Israel is a pain in the ass. But still, how can I get out of this sentence ... OK I'm a Nazi."

The statements came as a response to a question from a reporter about his "German origins", which may have been a dig at his use of the "von" in his name (the term, though used in Sweden, isn't used in Denmark). Since Trier sees himself as some kind of unsolicited agent provocateur of film, using his film company, Zentropa, for example, to produce hardcore pornography in the late 1990s, his statements should be considered par for the coarse.

It should also be pointed out that the Cannes organizers who banned Trier this year were the same people who gave him Palm d'Ors for The Element of Crime (1984), Europa (1991), Breaking the Waves (1996), and Dancer in the Dark (2000). It's been suggested that his latest remarks about Hitler would have been considered "career suicide" anywhere other than in the "rarefied atmosphere" of Cannes. However you may feel about artists' work being somehow above common morality, any artist deserves to be held accountable to standards of common decency.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Why does my Muse only speak when she is unhappy?
She does not, I only listen when I am unhappy.

"My Muse"

I stayed up late a few nights ago to watch a film called Stevie. It wasn't the Stevie I hoped it would be, a marvelous film written by Hugh Whitemore, with Glenda Jackson in the title role of the poet who called herself Stevie Smith (1902-1971). Her real name was Florence Margaret Smith, got the nickname "Stevie" because of her resemblance to a contemporary jockey, and she wrote some of the finest poetry in English while everyone, it seemed, was dithering over the "importance" of Sylvia Plath. (Plath was a fan of her work, and, according to accounts, had an appointment to meet her but killed herself before the date.)

Smith lived, it seemed, in a state of perpetual depression, but she learned to master it with an often ironic - and biting - sense of humor. Her "fascination" with death was actually a courageous facing up to her own unhappy life, which she was smart enough not to expand into a human condition.

She wrote three novels, all of them semi-autobiographical. They are, like her, beautifully unconventional, and relate her unhappiness in love. The last of them, The Holiday, published in 1949, was said by Smith to contain portraits of Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, a longtime friend and, rumor had it, her lover. She said of The Holiday that it was "richly melancholy like those hot summer days when it is so full of that calm calm before the autumn, it quite ravishes me." Her poetry, to which she devoted the rest of her life, came into its own in the fifties and sixties.

Philip Larkin admired her and captured, in his poem "Mother, Summer, I" something of the same wistful melancholic tone:

My mother, who hates thunder storms,
Holds up each summer day and shakes
It out suspiciously, lest swarms
Of grape-dark clouds are lurking there;
But when the August weather breaks
And rains begin, and brittle frost
Sharpens the bird-abandoned air,
Her worried summer look is lost,

And I her son, though summer-born
And summer-loving, none the less
Am easier when the leaves are gone
Too often summer days appear
Emblems of perfect happiness
I can't confront: I must await
A time less bold, less rich, less clear:
An autumn more appropriate.

Not Waving But Drowning was published in 1957, the title of a collection, and is Smith's best-known poem.

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

From the same collection, I suppose my own favorite is "Away Melancholy".

Away, Melancholy

Away, melancholy,
Away with it, let it go.

Are not the trees green,
The earth as green?
Does not the wind blow,
Fire leap and the rivers flow?
Away melancholy.

The ant is busy
He carrieth his meat,
All things hurry
To be eaten or eat.
Away, melancholy.

Man, too, hurries,
Eats, couples, buries,
He is an animal also
With a hey ho melancholy,
Away with it, let it go.

Man of all creatures
Is superlative
(Away melancholy)
He of all creatures alone
Raiseth a stone
(Away melancholy)
Into the stone, the god
Pours what he knows of good
Calling, good, God.
Away melancholy, let it go.

Speak not to me of tears,
Tyranny, pox, wars,
Saying, Can God
Stone of man's thoughts, be good?
Say rather it is enough
That the stuffed
Stone of man's good, growing,
By man's called God.
Away, melancholy, let it go.

Man aspires
To good,
To love

Beaten, corrupted, dying
In his own blood lying
Yet heaves up an eye above
Cries, Love, love.
It is his virtue needs explaining,
Not his failing.

Away, melancholy,
Away with it, let it go

It is because we cannot let it go, I suppose, that we turn to art. Stay, melancholy, do not go away.