Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Vita Contemplativa

Here's a nice one, from the current New Republic (and already available online):

It may already be September. I drank tasteless coffee
in the cafe garden of the Museum-Insel
and thought about Berlin, its dark waters.
Black buildings that have seen so much.
But peace reigns in Europe, diplomats doze,
a pale sun, the summer dies serenely,
spiders weave its shining shroud, the plane trees'
dry leaves write memoirs of their youth.

So this is the vita contemplativa.
The black walls enclosing white sculptures.
The bust of a Greek beauty. So this is it.
An altar before which no one prays.
So this is the vita contemplativa.
Narkissos--A Roman copy of a Greek boy
on prosthetic limbs of bronze (a veteran of which war?).
Then a kuros with his pouch of testes (a vanished phallus).

We seem to occupy a desert island.
Time moves deliberately, without haste.
Helpless rapture, so this is the vita contemplativa.
Bliss. An instant with no hour, as the poet said,
the poet killed in Lublin by a bomb.
But what if, in this or a different city,
the vita activa surged again, what would Artemis,
fourth century B. C. E. do then? Hermes, Narcissus?

Parchment faces stare at me with envy--
I still make mistakes, they can't.
Comparing day and night, so this is it.
Sleep and waking, mind and world, this is it. Joy.
Tranquility, taut attention, the levitating heart.
Lucent thoughts smoulder in black walls.
So this is it. What it is, we do not know.
We dwell in the abyss. In dark waters. In brightness.

Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh

No commentary from me, it just brings to mind that countless times in life, if one is lucky, one experiences "the world in a grain of sand" and "eternity in an hour." But then one looks up, time resumes, and one must do, not merely be.


Retriever said...

Musee Des Beaux Arts by Auden is in a similar vein.

Anonymous said...

To experience 'flow' is a wonderful thing. Pure absorption in the moment that kills time in its dirty tracks. The world goes to hell/heaven/nothing and you have absolutely no conception of caring. Surely 'flow' is the true afterlife - a religion for all seasons with no reasons.