Reading: Don Juan in Amsterdam by Daryl Hine

Today I honor another master of words, Daryl Hine (1936-2012). We was a remarkably gifted poet whose language has been praised as acceptional. He studies the classics and philosophy, and that clearly influenced his poetic eye. Ormbsby says it better: Hines is “a poet in whom an almost irresistible exuberance of language brims to the utmost; a fierce jollity, a luxuriance in the elemental stuff of words, propels his verse.” Here is Don Juan in Amsterdam.

Don Juan in Amsterdam
“e to allor li prega
Per quell’ amor the i mena, e quei verranno.”

INFERNO V

This also is a place that love is known in,
This hollow land beneath a lifeless sea
Opposite to the place that he was born in,
How far it is impossible.
The brackish water as I crossed
A bridge was delicately creased
And stained and stale, like love-disordered linen.

Lovers here must meet on unsure ground
Like strangers in a circumspect hotel
Which, although luxurious and grand,
Trembles beneath their feet like earth in hell.
Lifted on concentric gales
Scraps of paper, leaves and gulls
Fluttered dismally aloft and groaned.

Here darkness grows and light itself decays;
Rain falls from time to time and night falls too
Upon earth’s civil centre that decoys
The eternal with the promise that is now.
There were no corners, every street
Ran on infinite and straight,
There is no gate, no warning and no keys.

I hear a step approaching and refuse
To look aside, a while your silhouette
Persists, the fire illuminates your face
From under as you light a cigarette;
All-knowing, arch-angelic eyes,
Human features cut in ice—
The spark you struck at once attained the fuse.

I recognize the vanity and scorn,
The fear, the greed, in short the mask of love,
Familiar and disdainful, and I turn
About. Like children sharing what they have
We learned in that experiment
What the spirit’s weakness meant,
The nature of the torment to be borne.

What shall I give you? What will be your price?
Your body’s mine, the rich, fantastic horde
Of your embracements—angels live on praise,
Take it, it is all I can afford.
Outside a centrifugal wind
Sustained a freight of souls that whined
And wept along the terrible canals.

And when I close my eyes I see a ship
At anchor in the water of a bay.
I cling to that imaginary shape
Capable of taking me away
To I do not know what ports.
Perhaps tomorrow it departs,
Anonymous, invulnerable, free.

Dante would be proud. Lines like “Upon earth’s civil centre that decoys / The eternal with the promise that is now” look like the great Italian. Hines’ Beatrice would of course be a man. This is a formally rather brilliant verse about a love affair. Note the clunky intended rhyme in the indented/inundated lines (crosses-creases; eyes-ice; wind-whined;ports-departs; experiment-meant; street-straight; gales-gulls) and also in the other lines decoys-keys; in-linen; ship-shape; scorn-turn; refuse-face;ground-grand and on and on. When you read this aloud, rhyme is raining all around you. It is insanely skillful; functionally it signals some tension: Hine doesn’t like Amsterdam so much: The canals are terrible and he dreams of a ship taking him away to freedom.

There is a lot of things going on in this poem. Note the ‘concentric gales’ stirring up leaves and paper, and later on the ‘centrifugal wind’ that sustained a freight of souls. Note the openness of the city, the absence of corners, gates and keys, and how that contrasts with the tormenting lovemaking experience the lyrical I had in Amsterdam, the self-imprisonment behind the mask of love, the conscious embrace of scorn, fear and greed.

How different is Hine from Cavafy?

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