This new book of poems by Sarah White has three different parts. In the first, which bears no title, she assumes her lifelong role as teacher. To listen to the opening poem, it is not an assumption free of conflict:
coming to the campus,
and the Dean
coming to my office,
saying I had tenure.
and thinking nobody
make love to me again.”
Teaching old poetry to the young, instilling the disciplined love for the far-off land in those who have felt only an intimation, is like prophecy or like keeping a sacred fire, requiring to become sacred or consecrated oneself: not a calling that one should hearken to with a light heart. The hardest thing for such a teacher must be the premature death of a gifted student. Sarah White dedicates her book to six names that seem to be all of girls, perhaps all students of hers: Marion is one of them. We learn that she is dead:
“My student has learned a poem by Verlaine.
She hasn’t learned it.
She has, but something has happened.
The poem has spilled onto the lanes
Of a Maryland road—
what has become of you,
I find these few lines perfect, and do not hesitate to compare them to Rilke’s magnificent Grabmal for Wera Knoop. From the unavoidable contradiction of mortal being (and what other being is there?)—is and isn’t, has and hasn’t—something has happened: Verlaine’s poem—«Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit »—has been spilled onto the asphalt with Marion’s limbs and brains, and now the teacher-poet performs the pious task of picking up its last two lines,
«Dis, qu'as-tu fait, toi que voilà,
De ta jeunesse ? »,
and she lovingly transforms them into an epitaph,
what has become of you,
The second part, titled “Travelogue,” is prefaced by a quote from Horace to the effect that those who cross the seas change skies, but not their minds (caelum, non animum mutant, Epist. I.11). “Never mind,” White brushes that aside, “Here are diaries of some journeys.” The reader will understand, perhaps even welcome, this change of sky: Verlaine’s ciel, si bleu, si calme, blue and calm and so tragic withal, is not easy to stay under. So here we have a respite while White takes us to Europe and to Dante’s Purgatory for a brief guided tour, just as in classical music between two impassioned movements there is a little joke, a playful pause, a scherzo like a sorbet to clear our soul and ears with.
In the third part, titled “Analogue,” the poet goes back to the road that matters most, and travels in time. The first and the last poems here are love poems, sort of sonnets; the opening sonnet proposes the medieval Christian reconciliation with absence and mortality: just as Dante lost his earthly Beatrice, only to recover her as his angelic guide to Paradise, Sarah White writes:
“I found my own
when I lost you.”
The closing sonnet does, in a way, the opposite: in the manner of Quevedo’s “Amor constante más allá de la muerte” whose famous last line predicts of the poet’s veins, marrows and sinews:
“Polvo serán, mas polvo enamorado” (They shall be dust, but dust in love),
Sarah White, too, in her “The Improbables,” defies oblivion and its outrages: after a list of outlandishly improbable events, she concludes,
“I swore I’d forget you when all
these things came to pass. And none has.
Your memory greens in me like the grass.”
Between those two love poems we find a wealth of beauty, and homages to Barrett Browning, Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Charlotte Bronte, Akhmatova, and still others. My favorite homage is the one White dedicates to “Two Occitan Poets Lost as in New York I Study Their Language.” Bernard Manciet (1923-2005) and Max Rouquette (1908-2005): I had never heard of them. Here’s how this pearl of a poem begins:
“News is posted on the Web:
Bernard Manciet is dead.
I never met him
haven’t read him
yet, but I’ve read lines
by Max Rouquette
about the spider
who sets his net
in a stream of clar
de luna and thinks
the woven web
pale with respect.”
And here’s how it ends:
in a vacant web
We can tell, from these lines and the ones in between, how much our poet loves language, over and beside all other loves in her life; and we can tell that—sh..!—she’s having an affair with Occitan. Somehow I find it entirely justified, for just as those modern Occitan poets are avatars of the medieval troubadours and their amor de lonh, Sarah White is a paradigm of the modern trobairitz.