A Westward Journey with Chopin and Keeley
By Stuart Mitchner
Longtime local resident, poet, novelist, Princeton professor emeritus, and renowned translator Edmund Keeley died at 94 on February 23, 2022, the day before the invasion of Ukraine, an event he’d surely have been moved to write about. In his last three poems, there are actually passages that speak to and underscore the images of uprooted lives that have dominated the news media ever since.
In “Pelion,” when Keeley imagines “the mystery ahead” and “the feeling that you’ll never know / What it is when its time has come,” the words about his own mortality can also be read into the plight of the Ukrainians, refugees of all ages peering into the unknown, especially the faces of children gazing out from train windows streaked with dirty rain, eyes lost in fear and wonder, like the brother and sister staring on either side of a Teddy bear with a plaid scarf around its neck.
One old man inside a westbound train, exhausted, deep in thought, brings to mind the passage in which Keeley recalls his own “greener days / When the sun slanted across the cobblestones,” to “clear the way” for a remembered “climb on Pelion,” and for thoughts echoed in the closing lines, “To feel that knowing how it ends / Would be nothing to remembering what it was.”
“So Much Dying”
“Daylight” addresses the immensity of the pandemic, another historic catastrophe: “Our plague has various names / None as blunt as the Black Death / …Unless you can somehow believe that light / From a flash of final recognition / Or anticipated otherworldly dawn / Will always arrive before the end / To mute the horror of so much dying / And your own waiting for what might come.”
The couples dealing with the strict quarantine enforced on loved ones in Intensive Care have a counterpart in the emotional dilemma of wives separated from their husbands, lovers from their beloved, an emotional truth movingly echoed in “Daylight”: “After the beautiful dark passages / Of nightlong loving and the dividends / Of having held another beyond / Any belief that it could possibly end.”
The third and final poem, “The Day Coming,” meditates on the “mystery of our coming and our going / That has hovered over these late years” and of how “man on his own trying to fathom / What man or woman can never / Be wise enough to understand / With more than human certainty.” So “the surest route for those of us / With little more than our dying hope / That mystery has its limitations / Is to gather the best from what remains / Unsentimental but felt, manifest, / To weave through the life we’ve known” and “find those images worth reliving,” universal images like that of “a difficult father finally holding / One of his infant sons sky-high.”
Other clumsy, tragicomic, last-minute railway platform embraces evoke Keeley’s “images that go beyond wit / Or need for some saving irony,” such as “honest first love in its failure / Almost lost to another more haunting / And yes, another, so surely there’s no / Consolation when the day finally comes, / Just the pain and gratitude.”
“Graced with Courage”
One of the great poems of leave-taking among Keeley’s best-known and most read translations (with Philip Sherrard) is C.F. Cavafy’s “The God Abandons Antony.” Just substitute “Ukraine” or “home” for Alexandria, and make a few adjustments in lines like “don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now, / work gone wrong, your plans / all proving deceptive — don’t mourn them uselessly. … and graced with courage / say goodbye to her, … the Alexandria you are losing.”
For the past week I’ve been immersed in Chopin’s Nocturne No. 13 in C minor, as played by the Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires. Like my reimagining of Keeley’s verse as a commentary on the invasion, this music offers a simultaneously poignant and tumultuous accompaniment to recent events. Exactly a year ago I was writing about Chopin’s music in a column on Carnival of Souls, a unique, imaginatively crafted horror film about a haunted organist. My focus was the Nocturne in C sharp minor, which critic James Hunecker called “the gloomiest and grandest of Chopin’s moody canvases.” Here I have to confess that at one point I inadvertently referred to the piece as the Nocturne in C minor, leaving out the all-important word sharp. In fact the nocturne closest to my heart is not the C sharp minor that Adrien Brody plays in the opening scene of The Pianist (2002) and that The New Yorker’s Alex Ross recently celebrated at length (“Chopin’s Nocturnes Are Arias for the Piano”), with his customary musicological flair, referring to the “prowling arpeggio in the left hand, consisting only of C-sharps and G-sharps.”
While I don’t know a C-sharp from a G-sharp, I do know that Chopin was born March 1, 1810, and that this month belongs to him, not Vladimir Putin. There are no “prowling arpeggios” in the 13th Nocturne, nothing so sinister or paranoid. Nor do I hear the “funeral march opening” or an ending that “evaporates like a last breath,” as described by pianist Leif Ove Andsnes in a 2018 New York Times interview.
I’m not sure why this particular piece of music took hold of me at this time. I’ve had the Deutsche Grammophon boxed set, recorded by Pires in 1996, for at least 10 years. All I know is it’s been haunting me, and moving me, as if reaching out to me, ever since the first week of the invasion. In the context of a song, or aria, the strong steady movement of the left hand sets off the opening note, a sound as sad, gentle, and intimate as a sigh, followed by a still sadder, more poignant note, before everything intensifies, the music merging in my mind with images from Ukraine, here again the faces in the train window, the children, the lovers torn apart, only it’s Chopin’s train now, gathering force, moving through a storm, crescendo and decrescendo, before the grace and simple beauty of the opening returns.
She’s Still Playing
The nocturnes by Maria João Pires represent “the best version available,” according to Gramophone magazine. As for the woman smiling out at you on the cover of Chopin The Nocturnes, her face is lined now, she’s 77, having survived major heart surgery and a serious fall only last year in Latvia, and she’s still playing. Quoted on classicfm.com, she says of the nocturnes: “It’s very inner music and very deep. Chopin is the deep poet of music. But he also invented this terrible thing called piano recitals. That made me suffer all my life.” Pires never wears traditional evening gowns for concerts, preferring easy-to-wear fabrics, such as hemp or cotton. “I don’t wear makeup and my hair is always cut short. I only wear flat shoes. That way my mind is at ease.” Her grandfather was a Buddhist and she’s studied Buddhism, which she says has influenced her playing, “the breathing, the space and the quietness of the space.” At the end of the interview, she tells classicfm.com, “We have so many emergencies to deal with in our society now, things like the breakdown of the family, environmental disasters. We have to ask, ‘How can the way we make music be changed, to help people to face these things?’”
The Marvelous Journey
Probably the best-known translation bearing Edmund Keeley’s name is of C.F. Cavafy’s “Ithaka,” which “gave you the marvelous journey. / Without her you wouldn’t have set out.” A stanza from the poem serves as an epigraph for Keeley’s book, Inventing Paradise: The Greek Journey, 1937-1947:
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Chopin and Chekhov
Thinking about Putin’s invasion which began in the last week of February, Black History Month, and is now nine days into March, which, as I said, belongs to Chopin in the same way that Russia belongs and will always belong to Chekhov.
Edmund Keeley’s last three poems originally appeared in The Hudson Review.