Monday, October 26, 2009
Of Winds and Poets and Me
I have a confession. I wasn't always in love with Lord Byron. There was a time, brief though it was, when another poet ruled my heart and still comes a close second to Byron. Initially, there was something repulsive about Byron, what with his debauchery, his lusty affairs...the incest. All the things that would later make him fascinating were a bit much for a child. Okay, maybe I was still fascinating but in an icky way. I needed to be a little older (13? 14?) to swoon for Byron's dark moodiness.
But my first dead poetic crush was someone close to Byron, their lives intertwined. Yes, Shelley. I know, I know. He was a bit icky (open marriage anyone?) too but he did have that delicious renegade quality, the romance of the exile, the tangled life...and all by the time he was 26 when he drowned. Most tragic!
A few weeks ago the Bise was whipping around Geneva, pushing me from the back as I walked, tangling my hair into a bird's nest around me. And it started me thinking of all things wind-related.
How the wind becomes part of our literary selves? How we ascribe certain attributes to the winds we experience.
In my childhood in India, there was the loo (no...not a toilet). The loo is a hot, dry wind that blows during the height of summer in the Indo-Gangetic Plains. Rather than doubling my efforts, here is how I describe the loo in my novel The Burden of Foreknowledge (2007).
"When the loo blows, it brings with it the heat of the desert and its gritty sand, driving people indoors for refuge. I go out to feed our cows and it slithers up my nostrils until I choke. I gasp for breath trying to suck in the thin, super-heated air. It is as if a fiery serpent is trying to make its home inside me.
Just as I think I cannot bear it any more, I stumble back inside. The wind haunts us for days, whistling and whining like an angry, vengeful ghost. If I venture outside I wind a wet cloth around my head...."
But it was also the loo that made watermelons and melons ripen to perfect sweetness, as the dryness sucked out the excess water and concentrated the sugars. It makes Indian mangoes into the almost mythical fruit that they are.
In Switzerland, I encoutered the Bise, French for "a light kiss." Let me tell you, there is nothing light about it. It should be French for a "kick in the ass." It is fierce, is generally dry and attacks us from northern climes. The only upside is that it is accompanies blue, clear skies. It creates beautiful days but, as the loo can kill a human being through almost instant dehydration (within hours, even minutes), the Bise acts on the nervous system. How I don't know. It sounds pleasant but I need to research it some more.
Victor Hugo wrote a poem, Le Bise about it.
"Le bise le bruit d'un geant qui soupire;
La fenetre palpite et la port respire;
Le vent d'hiver glapit sous les tuile des toits;
Le feu fait a mon atre une pale dorure;
Le trou de ma serrure
Me souffle sur les doigts."
(Bad translation but here goes:
The Bise is a brutish giant who sighs
The window flutters and the harbor breathes
The winter wind yelps under the roof tiles
The fire has been guilding my atre (??) blade.
Through the hole of the lock
I feel the wind's breath on my fingers)
That's me 'enjoying' a windy evening by the lake. Freezing! Note the hair whipping around, the scrunched eyes, and the frantic waves on our usually calm lake.
We are also lucky(?) in Switzerland to sometimes be treated to the Mistral, arguably the wind with the most beautiful name. Isn't it a lovely name for a girl? The Mistral too is strong, cold and usually dry and passes through the Rhone valleys. It can cause Mediterranean storms. In the Provencal Christmas crib there is usually always a shepherd who holds his hat, his cloak billowing around him because of the Mistral. Sadly, but appropriately, a French missile has been named Mistral.
Interesting isn't it, that we are rarely moved by gentle breezes. Winds are elemental. They create weather systems and born because of them. They have well-worn paths and we can trace the seasons through the winds that are part of our lives.
And, why was it, when I lived in the land of the hot loo, when we looked forward to winter for relief from summer, that the one poem I loved was about a wind. Yes, for it was his lovely Ode to the West Wing that made me fall in love with Shelley. It's a little bit dark, even macabre, it's fanciful, it talks about the power of the wind, its twin roles as destroyer and preserver, and touches on the circle of seasons and that of life. It leaves the reader with hope. Here it is:
Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1803-1882)
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: 0 thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave,until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!
Thou on whose stream, 'mid the steep sky's commotion,
Loose clouds like Earth's decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,
Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine airy surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge
Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre
Vaulted with all thy congregated might
Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: O hear!
Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Baiae's bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave's intenser day,
All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic's level powers
Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
Thy voice, and suddenly grow grey with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: O hear!
If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O Uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be
The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne'er have striven
As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened Earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?