Pavane pour une infante défunte

June 20, 2012

Each year I hold her ancient body in my arms
as if she were a little child again. I tell
her not to listen to the sound the river makes
behind the clouds and fog. We’ll pretend it’s
only the sun the hills have hidden, not the words
we can no longer read. We’ll pretend sunshine is
neither a song nor a poem.  You must listen only
to my voice, I tell her; not to its whisper.

And so each year we add to her mysterious poem.
Each year she trembles in my arm,
once again my captive. Her muscles fade
into what they must stand for—

Your dreams defy death as night ends,
I whisper.  You aren’t really asleep.

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6 Responses to “Pavane pour une infante défunte”

  1. extrasimile Says:

    And John, thank you as well We have discussed this before. Coming back to a poem is the ultimate complement. Hope you had a nice holiday.

  2. extrasimile Says:

    Thomas, thank you. This is a beautiful reading of what is a difficult poem. I had tears in my eyes as I read this last night. The Revel music is perhaps too romantic for its own good, but sometimes, ah, sometimes the romantic can be a vehicle of revelation. The slow dance we all dance, holding and being held. And of course you raise some good questions. I don’t know if I have good answers to them, but I will try to clarify my own thoughts.
    I didn’t quite say that the princess/ infante(P) is my mother—though I won’t quite deny it either. And the narrator of the poem is not quite me—of course, it’s not quite not me either…
    Okay, I’m supposed to be clarifying: my point is that the biographical background is of only minor importance. In the poem, the first thing you learn is that this is something that happens each year. Much of the large scale processes of nature are cyclical. Our lives are linear. We grow old and die (if we are lucky). The narrator is talking about doing something I cannot do. The care and the love N expresses, which you perfectly illumine, is clearly what this poem is about. There is a line from Wallace Stevens—As part of nature he is part of us—that nicely sums up who N is. Part natural process and part me, part us. Likewise the ‘princess’ (P), who is not named in the poem, is part my mother, sure, but also part of a larger being. One question that needs answering is: who is N talking to?
    Compounding this is the distinction N makes between his voice and his whisper. It seems to have, shall I say, ontological status. What is all the bother with whispering? You whisper to tell secrets. You whisper not to disturb. Maybe you whisper to focus attention on what you are saying. Maybe you whisper because your voice can no longer sustain itself. Life without tears, as it is wept.
    So, here we are: a voice speaks. In an impossible situation. The poem seems to be something of a ceremonial dance. Each year I hold her ancient body in my arms as if she were a little child again. A mysterious being is being created.
    You are on the right track: …what the poem says is that the poet is remembering the aged loved one inside their dreams, letting the loved one’s dreams, perhaps in themselves, continue their life, especially as night ends and morning comes. In this the whisper that knows death has come, but does not accept that what is, is: “You aren’t really asleep,” but awake in who the poet is as a son.
    The only thing I would add is that the poet is also speaking to himself. Why would he whisper? Why would I whisper? Why would anyone whisper?
    I think we all know the answer to these questions.

  3. John Stevens Says:

    This is, as Thomas says, a hauntingly beautiful poem. I’ve only just come to it, having returned from holiday.
    There are puzzles in some of the lines of course, but fewer than in some of your poems, and Thomas does a grand job in offering insights and elaborations.
    But, with or without full comprehension, these lines are exquisite – and immensely poignant.
    I shall come back to them from time to time.

  4. Thomas Davis Says:

    Jim, one of the things I have been wondering about is the relationship of the poem to Maurice Revel, the Spanish composer, and the title, which, of course, is the title to his piece.
    I find the poem hauntingly beautiful. I am glad you told me that the princess in this case is your mother. That helps with understanding. These lines are devastating:
    …. I tell
    her not to listen to the sound the river makes
    behind the clouds and fog. We’ll pretend it’s
    only the sun the hills have hidden, not the words
    we can no longer read.
    The princess in the poem is obviously aged, but the poet clearly loves her and tells her to ignore reality, pretend that the river (Lethe perhaps) behind the clouds and fog is really only the sun hidden by the hills. It is not the words that the princess can no longer read.
    What has given me the most trouble are the next two lines:
    You must listen only
    to my voice, I tell her; not to its whisper.
    You must listen only to my voice, the poet says, and ignore the river behind the clouds and fog. But why should she not listen to the poet’s voice’s whisper? I have thought and thought about this. The only thing that I can think of is that inside the poet’s whisper is the realization of coming death, and therefore the poet does not want the aged person he loves so deeply to hear the whisper.
    The next line is so beautiful:
    And so each year we add to her mysterious poem.
    I believe, and want to believe, there is poetic truth here. I hope that we are all a mysterious poem and that each year adds to the poem. This is really an expression of how beautifully wonderful your mother must have been.
    Each year she trembles in my arm,
    once again my captive. Her muscles fade
    into what they must stand for—
    This is a painful description of the debilitation of old age, of course, the failure of our bodies and the dependency upon others that come with the final movement in our lives. This too is a beautiful expression.
    Then the final two lines:
    Your dreams defy death as night ends,
    I whisper. You aren’t really asleep.
    These lines have kept me from commenting for awhile. Again the poet’s whispering comes up. I have decided, perhaps wrongly, that what the poem says is that the poet is remembering the aged loved one inside their dreams, letting the loved one’s dreams, perhaps in themselves, continue their life, especially as night ends and morning comes. In this the whisper that knows death has come, but does not accept that what is, is: “You aren’t really asleep,” but awake in who the poet is as a son.
    Pavane pour une infante défunte is slow and has a beautiful depth. This poem has something of the same quality. Its overall effect is one of a sense of loss in the face of beauty and an acceptance through denial of that loss. This is a really complex idea, but also a compelling one.

  5. extrasimile Says:

    Hi Thomas–
    A couple of thoughts: The title comes from a Maurice Revel piece and is generally translated ‘Pavane for a dead princess’—though an infante is not strictly speaking a princess. You can find this music on the internet. It’s quite beautiful.
    I made a point of putting up on the 20th of June. It is the summer solstice, and thus at the other end of the calendar year from ‘St. Lucy’s Day.’ It also happens to mark the date one year ago that my mother died.
    Philip Larkin:
    Truly, though our element is time,
    We are not suited to the long perspectives
    Open at each instant of our lives.
    They link us to our losses: worse,
    They show us what we have as it once was,
    Blindingly undiminished, just as though
    By acting differently, we could have kept it so.

    A pavane is a courtly dance. It is performed slowly.

  6. Thomas Davis Says:

    Jim, I haven’t forgotten this is here. I’m still working on what I see in it.


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