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Secret Base Media Club: Sax & Sonnets

This is where we talk about what we’re enjoying this week

Music: Moon Hooch

I am currently obsessed with Moon Hooch, which I heard on Spotify one day a couple weeks ago and have not been able to stop playing since. I am likewise incapable of not sharing my love for Moon Hooch, which led to my friend Nate describing this song as “the thinking man’s Yakity Sax,” which was apparently meant as a compliment and in any case I liked enough to steal.

I’m not sure how to describe Moon Hooch’s ouvre as anything but ‘a sax dance party’, and as someone who has no particular affinity for either the saxophone or dance parties I’m a little surprised by how much I’m enjoying them. But the ears want what the ears want, or so I’m told.

Songs: Nonphysical, Old Frenchmen, Number 9, Ewi, Red Sky.

Book: Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways...

Perhaps I’m demonstrating my complete lack of fitness to be talking about poetry here but when I read Sonnet 43 my reaction was something like “Oh look, a Shakespeare reference.” How do I love thee? is such a well-known line that it seems to have escaped authordom entirely and entered the world of cliche, which generally means it came from either Shakespeare or the King James Bible. But nope, it’s from Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s collection of love poetry, published in 1850, and you’ve been able to quote from it the whole time. Wild!

Here are some other passages — none of the rest of her work is nearly as famous as the start of 43 — that grabbed me.

Sonnet 29

I think of thee!—my thoughts do twine and bud
About thee, as wild vines, about a tree,
Put out broad leaves, and soon there’s nought to see
Except the straggling green which hides the wood.
Yet, O my palm-tree, be it understood
I will not have my thoughts instead of thee
Who art dearer, better! Rather, instantly
Renew thy presence; as a strong tree should,
Rustle thy boughs and set thy trunk all bare,
And let these bands of greenery which insphere thee,
Drop heavily down,—burst, shattered everywhere!
Because, in this deep joy to see and hear thee
And breathe within thy shadow a new air,
I do not think of thee—I am too near thee.

Sonnet 44

Belovëd, thou hast brought me many flowers
Plucked in the garden, all the summer through,
And winter, and it seemed as if they grew
In this close room, nor missed the sun and showers.
So, in the like name of that love of ours,
Take back these thoughts which here unfolded too,
And which on warm and cold days I withdrew
From my heart’s ground. Indeed, those beds and bowers
Be overgrown with bitter weeds and rue,
And wait thy weeding; yet here’s eglantine,
Here’s ivy!—take them, as I used to do
Thy flowers, and keep them where they shall not pine.
Instruct thine eyes to keep their colours true,
And tell thy soul, their roots are left in mine.

The language of love here is entwined with nature and creeping growth, an entanglement of roots and vines. It’s interesting to compare Barrett Browning’s sensibility to that of, say, Sappho, for whom love is molten. Here’s the last chunk of lyric 31, translated from Greek by the brilliant Anne Carson:

oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead—or almost
I seem to me

Poetry translations, no matter the merits of the translator, are always a thorny proposition. Ionic Greek is hardly going to produce the rhythms natural to a modern English speaker, and although they can be represented in higher or lower fidelity there’s always something of the translator in the poem, superseding the original. But what doesn’t (or shouldn’t) change is the imagery the poet uses to transcribe reality. Even when Sappho uses plants and growth — “greener than grass” — her mode is bright against Barrett Browning’s to an almost startling degree.

It’s tempting to try to parse the two styles as being linked in some way to the poets’ lives, but this is futile both on account of knowing depressingly little of Sappho and more generally because I have less than zero in the way of psychoanalytical talent. And you could with some justice accuse me of a) cherry-picking and b) not knowing anything about poetry besides. So we’ll skip all that and just talk more vaguely about the lyrics themselves.

Personally, I prefer the vivid slashes of Sappho’s vision to the clinging entanglements invoked by Barrett Browning, but I think that the latter’s sensibilities are perhaps truer to life, which is marked less by Sappho’s lighting and searing fire than by a slow, almost insensible, together-ing. Sonnets from the Portuguese, even discounting its most famous line, is instantly recognisable even 170 years later.

This is Secret Base Media Club. Every Wednesday, a member of Secret Base staff will talk about what they’re reading and anything else they happen to be enjoying. Feel free to join in the conversation or start your own — books, movies, music, tv shows, sports (hah!) are all fair game.