ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998

A Poem Has Reasons: A Story of Far Love, by Sarah White, reviewed by Ricardo Nirenberg.

     A Poem Has Reasons, Dos Madres Press, Loveland, Ohio, 2022, dedicated to Sarah’s mother, is both a collection of poems and a memoir, thus a fusion of two genres, a fusion that has a long history which some may start at Ovid’s Latin laments from exile, some even further back, but which for us, as readers of this stirring book, should begin with the troubadours of the 12th and 13th century, who wrote in Occitan, or Langue d’Oc.

Doesn’t it sound good that in those medieval times different Romance languages were designated by their word for Yes, suggesting (fallaciously, of course) that in their realms all was harmony and love?  France was linguistically divided into two parts, the North, where Yes was oïl (whence the modern oui), and the South, where Yes was oc.  The former comes from Latin hoc ille est (that’s it) and the latter from Latin hoc (this).  Similarly, in the Inferno Dante calls his Tuscan country, “il bel paese là dove il si suona” (the beautiful land where the si sounds).  Si, from Latin sic (thus, so).  The tongue of Oc is now called Occitan; you can still hear it in Southern France if you go around looking for it; its closest Romance sibling is the now well-established Catalan.  Occitan, the tongue of the troubadours, is paramount among Sarah White’s loves, and rightly deserves to be considered a far one, as in her subtitle, “A Story of Far Love.”

Far in time, as other loves are far in space.  Amor de lohn, in Occitan.  In the best-known example of a love far in space, the troubadour Jaufré Rudel, Prince of Blaye, falls in love with the Countess of Tripoli without ever having seen her, just from hearing pilgrims coming from the Holy Land sing her praises.  He longs for her and sings to her, but only meets her as a dying man, and dies in her arms.  Sarah White also had her loves in distant places, and wonders which suited her best, far, or close by, and how to handle the change from one to the other:

“Many people have trouble with that shift. The troubadours, for example, never made it. It was far love they needed most. I need both, but when given the choice,
I’ve tended to take far.”

When she was still a girl, her mother used to take long trips to France, leaving Sarah in the care of others. When the mother returned — but let Sarah say it:

“When the Traveler returned, she told everybody how happy
we were, she and I, and, at the time,

I believed her.”

Those are the last three lines of the poem titled “I, Who Never Learned to Long,” on page 51 of this book.   It is one of my favorites, previously published in Offcourse, because of the deftness with which the poet indicates her preference for loving her mother from afar (“at the time,” yes, but what about a bit later?  And “I believed her” rather than something like “I agreed,” or “I shared her feelings”).  The space before the last line shows that the preference for loving at a distance goes deep.

Sarah White gives us the outlines of her life at the time she wrote these poems, and the reason for each, starting with a text titled “Six Words and Several Flowers,” a sestina and a flower-like painting encased in a prose explanation of the reasons for them, which was published in The Village Voice.  In this she followed the troubadours, who similarly gave the reader what we would call a “biography,” a rather recent coinage (in medieval Latin it is “vita” and in Occitan “vida”).  They gave, as well, the “reason” for the writing of the poem, which in Latin is “ratio” and in Occitan razo.  It is not easy to delimit what’s vida from what’ razo; in any case, there you have the reason for Sarah White’s title, The Poem Has Reasons.  In my opinion, the reader should somehow extract the razo from the vida, but for such extraction some risky hermeneutic guessing is needed.

For example, on page 20 we find Sarah teaching at Franklin & Marshall College — French, old French, and Occitan, I suppose; subjects that at the time were still taught there — and she reminisces:

“I was keeping house, teaching students, and earning a salary, but I was cloistered, unhopeful, attending mostly to dreams, and reading Borges. I had discovered fausse érudition, the literary genre that playfully falsifies learning for the sake of discovery, not deception.  In those days, the woods, especially Argentinian and Italian woods, were full of fausse érudition.  That’s where I wanted to play and live rather than in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I was keeping house, teaching students, and earning a salary.”

I was surprised, delightfully surprised, when I read that, of all distant places, the ones where our poet desired to live were Italy and Argentina, this latter my native country, which I left at twenty-four to come to the U.S., and that of all writers and poets she could have been reading, she was reading Borges, whose poems and fictions are never far from my mind.  Yet when the surprise subsided, I began to think about this thing called fausse érudition.  It stands to reason (razo) that a poetical, imaginative college professor, expected steadily to produce erudite books and papers, could get fed-up and long for something else, less subject to citation of sources and more open to the imagination.  Hence, I submit, the longing for false erudition.  Sarah was reading Borges.  There is a piece by Borges, “Acercamiento a Almotásim” (The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim) of 1935, which is an example of false erudition — a non-existent work by a fictitious author, the Bombay attorney Mir Bahadur Ali, is said to have been criticized by a whole bunch of reviewers: the reviews are fake, but the reviewers are real people like Phillip Guedalla or Cecil Roberts, British writers who had been to Argentina, whom Borges likely had met, whose airs he didn’t like, and whose legs he wanted to pull.  I wrote about that in “Borges and the European Visitors”, Offcourse, July 2006.

So, Sarah was reading Borges and longing for a distant land, un pays où fleurisse la fausse érudition.  Indeed, her poem “Six Words and Several Flowers” is a flowering of false erudition about the Occitan troubadours.  Perhaps it was a way of maintaining her love for troubadour poetry at a distance, as an amor de lohn?  I imagine Sarah traveling to Buenos Aires and visiting Borges in his apartment on Calle Maipú, telling him about her love for Occitan poetry, and reciting for him one of her skillful sestinas.  The lover of labyrinths might have challenged her to a tenso, a poetic game in which two troubadours or trobairitz discuss, by turns, matters of love and of amor de lohn.  And it occurs to me that Borges, happy to have found such a fit poetic playmate, might have told Sarah about the possible influence of Occitan poetics on local rural or gaucho poetry, and pointed out to her that the troubadours’ tenso, or contention, has a gauchesco equivalent in the payada.  I can almost hear Borges mentioning José Hernández’ “El Gaucho Martín Fierro” and reciting for Sarah the payada between Moreno and Fierro about the nature of time.

For those lovers of poetry who might feel that Occitan poems are too distant in time and gaucho payadas too distant in space, let me say to them that all to the contrary, the great theme of the troubadours, amor de lohn or love far away, is still very close to our own poetic sensibilities.  It is well known, and Sarah White makes skillful use of the fact in her book (she studied Dante at Harvard with a famous Dante scholar, Charles S. Singleton), that Occitan poetry had an essential influence on il dolce stil nuovo, on Dante, on Petrarch, and on that long and illustrious tradition.  Towards the end of Canto 26 of Purgatorio, Dante encounters Arnaut Daniel, the troubadour and reputed inventor of the sestina, and has him say eight verses in Occitan, in one of which he identifies himself, “Ieu sui Arnaut, que plor e vau cantan” (I am Arnaut, who weeping and singing goes about).  And it is plain that Dante’s love for Beatrice is an instance of amor de lohn, similar to that of the troubadors and their non-Occitan contemporary poets, the Northern-French Gautier de Coincy and the Castilian Gonzalo de Berceo, adorers of the Virgin.  To make a long story short, where would Don Quijote be without his ridiculous amor de lohn for Dulcinea?  And how could Romanticism have been born?  Think of Beethoven’s op. 98, “An die ferne Geliebte” or Eichendorff’s and Schumann’s “In der Fremde”, and so many Romantic songs.  Think of Sehnsucht.  Still too far back?  Well, a host of 20th-century poems crowd in my mind to get down on this page.  César Vallejo’s “Idilio muerto”: “Qué estará haciendo esta hora mi andina y dulce Rita de junco y capulí.” (What might be doing at this time my sweet and Andean Rita of wild cherry and reed).  The first line of Rilke’s last Orphic sonnet, an amor de lohn spreading in all directions, expanding to all times: “Stiller Freund der vielen Fernen, fühle...” (Silent friend at many distances, feel...).  Or, even closer to us in time and space, Robert Hass’ “Meditation at Lagunitas”:

“Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.”

     Or, finally, Sarah’s own:

“The poem that going away you made
keeps reappearing on the page”

Sarah White has moved from New York City to a kindly retirement village in Western MA where she continues to write and paint, Come visit her there.
Ricardo Nirenberg is editor of Offcourse

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