Friday, March 25, 2022

Seer of the Cycles




Read "Seer of the Cycles" at The Eldritch Dark:


This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) provided the title for one Roy Squires' letterpress editions of CAS' poetry published in 1976.  

This work has an hallucinatory quality, seemingly inspired by musings on the shapes and the movements of clouds.  Beyond the vivid imagery, it has a shapeless feel to it, lacking a central motif or idea, which is quite uncommon for CAS' work in verse.  It feels very much like the result of a pleasant day spent lying in the grass and watching the clouds float by overhead!  

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Nada

Read "Nada" at The Eldritch Dark:


The version of this poem at The Eldritch Dark has a significant typo in the fifth line; the correct wording is shown below:


upon this sepulture adust and bare,


The poem's title is the Spanish word for "Nothing".

The theme of "Nada" could be expressed as the persistence of memory, even to the point that it becomes a curse for one who would rather forget.  The closing sestet is practically a complete poem all by itself, with a dark music reminiscent of the verse of Edgar Allan Poe:


Oblivion's river flows in other lands
than this where memory feeds a mordant spring:
the walking dead beseech with parching hands
the cool, far shadow of the raven's wing;
and, leaning from the mouldered bed of lust,
love's skeleton writes Nada in the dust.


There is a deep, grim finality to these lines, an acceptance that something great has been lost.  The love that was will never be again, and leaves little but bitterness and regret in its wake.  Clark Ashton Smith was approaching the age of sixty when he wrote "Nada", and a lifetime of experience speaks boldly through these lines.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

In Time of Absence

Here's another poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that was unpublished in his lifetime, and is not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the complete text:


Why come you not, as formerly you came, 
Bringing the wine-jug and the loaf of bread?
Have you forgot the kisses without stint,
The hair disheveled, and the tumbled bed?

What is it comes between and keeps you far,
While the stars change and chapless moons grow old,
While the green grasses whiten, and their seeds
Fall pale and parching on the rainless wold?

Silence and sunderance, with serpent fangs,
Would put their furtive poison in my blood;
I tear distorted masks of doubt, that fold
Your image with a false similitude.

I know the stifling horror of loneliness --
A horror that you too, my dear, have known:
In the dusty path conducting to my door
There are no other footprints than my own.


Among many poems of love that CAS wrote over his career, this one stands out for its stark recollection of the good days past and the darker days of the present.  A passionate affair is recalled in the first stanza, only for the rest of the poem to give way to regrets over what once was, but is no more.  The closing lines are particularly devastating:


In the dusty path conducting to my door
There are no other footprints than my own.


Although the beauty of "In Time of Absence" has a melancholy nature, it is nonetheless a remarkably effective poem.  I cannot help but be surprised that CAS did not choose to include this one in either of the Arkham House collections of his poetry that were published during his lifetime.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

STYES WITH SPIRES

Here is another poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that was unpublished in his lifetime, and is not available on The Eldritch Dark, so the complete text follows.  Note that both the title and the body of the poem were written in all capital letters in the surviving manuscript.


A PIG PREFERS TO ROOT IN MIRE,
A ROSE THRIVES WITH ITS ROOTS IN MUCK:
AND GOD, THE COINER, THRU THE FIRE,
PUTS MAN TO TEST THE COIN HE'S STRUCK.

DROSS WITH THE GOLD!  BUT WHY REPINE?
HIGH DEEDS MAY BLEND WITH LOW DESIRES.
ROAST PORK IS GOOD, A ROSE DIVINE.
SO LET US BUILD OUR STYES WITH SPIRES.


In the Hippocampus Press edition of The Complete Poetry and Translations of Clark Ashton Smith, editors S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz describe this work as "A parody of modern poetry."  That seems to be a reasonable assertion, especially given CAS' choice to present the poem exclusively in capital letters, thus commenting on the tendency of modernist poetry to experiment with odd line spacings, page formatting, etc.  

"STYES WITH SPIRES" is most certainly a very minor effort from the Bard of Auburn, and it's no surprise he chose not to publish this one.

Monday, March 21, 2022

The Song of Songs

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was unpublished in his lifetime, and is not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the complete text:


Purest aroma, and amber exquisite
Savorous honey that the bees have sucked;
The immaculate whiteness of the fleece of sheep;
The sanguine freshness of pomegranate-flowers,

The curling petals of the perfume iris,
eyes filled with ____ and ardor, vermilion n__ntels
Kisses of fire; amorous complaint
Caresses of the lover and the beloved

fruition of delight; fountain of life;
reflection cast by ____ luminaries;
intensest passion, born interiorly;
the celestial hymn that opens from human hearts...
such images the saddened soul will dream 
at any mention of the Song of Songs.


As seen in the text above, there are some gaps in the manuscript, indicating that this poem was a left in an incomplete state by the author.

It's unusual to find a poem from CAS that directly references a Biblical text.  And yet given the very earthy nature of the Song of Songs (aka Song of Solomon), it's not necessarily surprising to find that CAS would be inspired by this particular work.  His own metaphorical language echoes that of the King James version, part of which reads:


Behold, thou art fair, my love;
Behold, thou art fair;
Thou hast doves' eyes
Within thy locks:
Thy hair is as a flock of goats,
That appear from mount Gilead.
Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn,
Which came up from the washing;
Whereof every one bear twins,
And none is barren among them.


CAS' own incomplete poem is a rather minor work from his poetic corpus, but interesting nonetheless as a reminder of his great knowledge of classical source texts, including The Bible itself.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Secret Worship

Here's another poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that was unpublished in his lifetime, and is not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the complete text:


Veiled is the altar, and the liturgy
is undivulged, and undivulged the vows.
The fire no vestal builds or keeps
consumes its smoke in burning,
flames not outward;
low-fuming are the censers;
discreet, the sacrifice 
contains itself, nor bleeds for eyes profane;
and the soft-beaten psaltries 
are stilly toned as is the twilight bat.

Goddess, thou goest cowled,
though not as does the chaste and sober nun.
Dark as the Cloven Hill thy hidden shrine,
thy nakedness
revealed alone to inward-shining lamps
and to thy worshipper.


This poem has a highly-charged erotic subtext, so perfectly developed that I'm surprised CAS didn't choose to include this verse in either of the Arkham House collections of his poetry that were issued in his lifetime.  It's a wonderful example of how CAS could use the trappings of the weird and the supernatural to express sentiments that had nothing to do with ghosts and goblins.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Lives of the Saints

This short poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was not published in his lifetime, and is not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the complete text:


(with no apologies to Ogden Nash)

Little find we that is fiery
In the monkish old papyri.
History affords no highlight
On the love-life of the Stylite.


The poem's almost-dedication explicitly references Ogden Nash, the popular writer of humorous verse who was a contemporary of CAS.  Many of Ogden's poems were written in the form of single-stanza quatrains, and CAS adopted that same form for "Lives of the Saints".  

Ogden's poem "The Ostrich" is a good example of his typical approach to light verse:


The ostrich roams the great Sahara.
Its mouth is wide, its neck is narra.
It has such long and lofty legs,
I’m glad it sits to lay its eggs.


I love how CAS mimics Nash's humorous approach to his subject matter, but given that "Lives of the Saints" comes from the pen of the Star-Treader himself, it's hardly surprising that the poem has a somewhat less "crowd pleasing" nature, and even manages to references the Stylites, those religious ascetics who made their homes on the tops of pillars.  The erotic subtext of "Lives of the Saints" makes an interesting comparison to CAS' poem "Two on a Pillar", which I blogged about last month:

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Ye Shall Return

Read "Ye Shall Return" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/662/ye-shall-return

The version of this poem at The Eldritch Dark has a significant typo in the third stanza at line eleven; the correct text reads:


Or climb the sharpened mountain-horns
To see earth's kingdoms gleam afar,
Litten with promise and mirage
Beneath a mistless diamond vault;


This poem seems to refer to ghosts or other entities returning (however briefly) from the afterlife, to once again experience the beauty, the sensuality, and the chaos of human life.  But such visitants can only be tourists; their proper place is not within the earthly realm:


Know surely that ye shall return
Into the shadow-land ye left,
And draw again your languored breath
Where breathe the poppies of the dusk.


CAS packs a great deal of emotion and visual splendor into the twenty short lines of "Ye Shall Return", while maintaining a steady rhythm largely devoid of any sort of rhyme.  It's an impressive work of near-free verse from a writer who often excelled at the use of more traditional poetic forms.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

What Dreamest Thou, Muse?

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was unpublished in his lifetime, and is not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the complete English text:


Tell me thy dream, my indolent Muse:
In some profound, enchanted wilderness
hearest and seest the emblazoned phoenix
of sliver with its crest outshining far
the griffin-guarded gold?

Fleest though, perhaps, from the huge circle of horror
where rolls the basilisk in his spiral
with eyes of bitumen flaming forth their evil?
or listenest, against thy will, to the enchanter
who calls to his demon from the deep cypress-grove?

Beholdest, by some tideless ocean-bay,
arising from her pool enlaid with nacre,
the nymph with sunburnt hair 
like tangled sea-weed trailing from the reef?
Speakest thou with her by a halted sun?

Confrontest thou the terror of thy nightmares--
the leprous hag in her deadly desire 
touching thy nipples with her hellish face?--
the abominable love of the mottled gnome? ...
--My poet, I dream neither of beauty nor of evil.


CAS wrote alternate versions of this poem in both French ("Que songes-tu, Muse?") and Spanish ("¿Qué sueñas, Musa?").

The poem reads as the lament of an artist, frustrated by his "indolent Muse" and ruminating on what great wonders that muse might yet reveal.  

The kicker comes in the final line: "My poet, I dream neither of beauty nor of evil."  It seems that even as the artist contemplates somewhat ordinary scenes of drama and splendor, his muse has something altogether different in store.  What exactly that may be the poem does not reveal, but given the cosmic breadth of CAS' imagination, "What Dreamest Thou, Muse?" plants seeds in the reader's mind that go far beyond what the poem itself describes.

Saturday, March 5, 2022

Qu'Importe?

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was unpublished in his lifetime, and is not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the complete text:


What matters love, what matters pain
if out of pain and love a little wisdom is drawn?
These things came not to flower in the world
but in the spirit they have flowered,
and the flower stands, and overtops the suns of time.


The French title of this poem can be translated into English as "What does it matter?"

Even in a short poem expressing an insight granted by maturity (CAS was in his fifties when he wrote this), the author still manages to bring his unique cosmic flair to the subject matter, with the wonderful closing line "and the flower stands, and overtops the suns of time."  The brief length of "Qu'Importe?" belies the depth of its feeling, and provides quite a contrast to the more verbose verse of the poet's younger years. 

Thursday, March 3, 2022

The Twilight of the Gods

Read "The Twilight of the Gods" at The Eldritch Dark:    

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/612/the-twilight-of-the-gods

One can only assume that Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was experiencing a dark moment when he wrote this poem, which offers a sad commentary on the fate of classical divinity and heroism in the age of mercantilism.  

The opening line "All the satyrs have been dehorned" seems to really say it all; the rest of the poem is just a sad catalog of the extraordinary reduced to the oh so very ordinary.  Definitely not my favorite poem from CAS, and one reading is enough for me - on to the next poem!

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Soliloquy in an Ebon Tower



Read "Soliloquy in an Ebon Tower" at The Eldritch Dark:


There are quite a few typos in the version of this poem at The Eldritch Dark, but most of them should be fairly obvious when encountered in context.  The exception is the fourth stanza, which is missing an entire line (in addition to some typos), so here is the corrected text:


                                                 Other thoughts
Exhume the withered wing-shards of ideals
Brittle and light as perished moths, or bring
To sight the mummied bats of blear mischance,
By dismal eves and moons disastrous flying,
But fallen now, and dead as are the heavens
Their vans have darkened. On beloved deaths
I muse, and through my twice-wept tears re-gather
The threads that Clotho and Lachesis have spun
And Atropos has cut; and see the bleak
Sinister gleaming of the steely shears
Behind the riven arrasses of time....


This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) directly addresses Charles Baudelaire, the author of Les Fleurs du mal and one of CAS' literary heroes.  The poem leaves no doubt of the profound sympathy that CAS felt for Baudelaire's verse, with its ready acknowledgment and embrace of life's darker aspects:


Black-flickering, cloven tongues! Though we distill
Quintessences of hemlock or nepenthe,
We cannot slay the small, the subtle serpents.
Whose mother is the lamia Melancholy
That feeds upon our breath and sucks our veins,
Stifling us with her velvet volumes.


Despite the hint of resignation in the lines quoted above, and despite the overall somber tone of "Soliloquy in an Ebon Tower", it is clearly a work of affirmation, stating with confidence that the two poets (CAS and Baudelaire) have earned their right to inhabit the metaphorical tower:


                                      We build,
Daedalus-like, a labyrinth of words
Wherein our thoughts are twi-shaped Minotaurs
The ages shall not slay.


This poem is unusually rich with learned diction and the ready invocation of legendary names from myth and fable.  While those elements are found throughout CAS' body of work, this poem particularly is difficult to read without ready access to a dictionary and other reference sources.  But that extra effort is well rewarded, and allows the reader to really experience the glory of what is surely one of CAS' defining statements as an artist and a poet.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Seeker

Read "Seeker" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/492/seeker

The version of this poem at The Eldritch Dark has several minor typos, just enough to warrant including the complete corrected text here:


In valleys where the lotos falls
And rots by lily-stifled streams,
A sleeper, dreaming of the sea,
Shall rise, and leave the halcyon lawns,

And follow fainting trails alone
Into the waste that has no well,
O fare on some fantasmal quest
To climes beyond the boreal snow.

For, sated with the lotos-fruit,
He craves again the vanishing brine,
The sunken ships, the siren isles,
The maelstroms haunted by the mew.

Amid chimera and mirage
He plucks the acrid outland pome
And mordant herbs that make him whole,
And trails the meteor and the star,

To leave his vulture-burnished bones
In lands of knightlier sleep than they
Shall haply share whose bones are laid
Where now the lotos-blossoms blow.


This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) has the character of an artistic manifesto, as a "sleeper" arises from a life of idleness "where the lotos falls / And rots by lily-stifled streams" and sets off in pursuit of legends: 


He craves again the vanishing brine,
The sunken ships, the siren isles,
The maelstroms haunted by the mew.


The protagonist of the poem certainly shares some of the history associated with the Odysseus of Homer's Odyssey, but it seems quite clear the CAS intends for this poem to be something more than a portrait of that particular figure.

In the end, the sleeper's fate is not so different than that of those "whose bones are laid / Where now the lotos-blossoms blow", and yet his journey enabled him to encounter exotic wonders unknown to his fellow lotos-eaters.  For in following a path beneath "the meteor and the star" The Seeker has risen above the ordinary and the obvious, and created a life genuinely worth living.

Friday, February 25, 2022

"Not Altogether Sleep"




Read "Not Altogether Sleep" at The Eldritch Dark:


This sonnet from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) first appeared in the January 1952 issue of Weird Tales magazine, alongside another poem from CAS, "Sonnet for the Psychoanalysts".

The version of this poem at The Eldritch Dark has a significant typo in the twelfth line; the corrected text is shown below:


From suns expired and cycles yet to come-


The title of this poem is derived from a line in George Sterling's sonnet "Afterward". The complete stanza from Sterling's poem is shown below:


And ah! may then thy face, a changeless light,
Companion me thro' aeons of the night! —
            Filling that realm with marvel and desire
        And making death not altogether sleep,
        But rather as a gloom whose altars keep
    A timeless vision and a ghostly fire.


It's fascinating to examine the two poems together, since they share the same technical form (the sonnet) as well as the same subject matter: memories of a departed paramour that are much too treasured to surrender to death's dominion.

Of course, George Sterling was a significant mentor to the younger CAS, but what strikes me immediately is the vigorous quality of the student's language, rich with powerful visual and olfactory accents:


Wholly must I the rose-drawn essence lose
Upon unbalmed oblivion, and diffuse
Its odor on the dust? 


In contrast, Sterling's work features a sweeping use of language that is articulated in a grand and somewhat stiff manner:


One mercy would I beg from Time and Space—
    The final contemplation of thy face
Till Lethe sunder and the darkness fall.


Both poets draw from the lineage of Romantic poetry in English, but Sterling seems so determined to adhere to the tradition that his verse lacks animation and passion.  On the other hand, CAS manages to honor all that came before while injecting his own particular cosmic sensibility ("From suns expired and cycles yet to come") that invigorates "Not Altogether Sleep", something that Sterling's "Afterward" simply does not achieve.  

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Hesperian Fall

Read "Hesperian Fall" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/232/hesperian-fall

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) seems more obviously personal than much of his other verse, with its reference to Point Lobos and other indicators of a California setting.  The speaker has a melancholy tone, tinged with an acceptance of the richness of life's ups and downs:


But for awhile I spurn
The peace that comes to all or rathe or late,
And clasp the cherished pain
As one with face amid thorned blossoms pressed
Who finds them fragranter
Than those that bear no thorn.


The reflective quality of the speaker's thoughts reach an apotheosis at the end of third stanza:


Now must I muse on passions that unfold
Slow as the lichen grows,
Or swiftly as the fungus of the night;
And think on how
The many have withered but the one abides. . . .


I read these lines as coming directly from the poet himself, as he contemplates the sources of his inspiration, and of his passion for the possibilities inherent within human creativity, as expressed in the excellent outro:


Meanwhile the southward-drooping sun shines warm
On grasses pale and foliages that fade
And on the fadeless lichen of the stone;
And still, O season of Circean dreams
Preferred from long ago,
I find a music far and sorcerous
Like one who hears the dryad singing from her tree;
And still, beneath this latter sun,
Love is the freshness of your shadows, love
The flame that in your distant azure sleeps.


The second and third lines from the section quoted above perfectly capture the duality of this poem, as the "foliages that fade" are contrasted with "the fadeless lichen of the stone", acknowledging that throughout our lives the ephemeral coexists with the perpetual.

"Hesperian Fall" is an absolutely beautiful meditation on the creative journey, and the rewards thereof ("I find a music far and sorcerous") enriched by the setting within CAS' native California.  It feels like one of the most direct expressions of his own voice to be found in his poetic corpus, and richly rewards multiple readings.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Alpine Climber

Here's another poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that was unpublished in his lifetime.  Since it's not available on The Eldritch Dark, here's the complete text:


Above the zone of scented pines, above
The stance of granite-mortised junipers, 
He climbs by cliff-won inches.  The bleak sun
Flames like a titan pharos based with snows
Upon the untaken tower he covets. Earth
Broadens afar its bowl of vertigo

With peak-fanged chasms deepening underneath...
As one who mounts a throne of vanished gods,
Wind-clean and vacant, gazing on stark visnes
Of white-horizoned Thule he takes hold
Of the ultimate ice-sharp edge, and rears upon
That glacial source from which no trickle flows

To torrents nursed by lesser alps. He stands
Till, tranced amid the hawkless heavens lone,
He feels the world turn under him, he hangs
Nadirward-pointing from an inverse peak,
And hears the cataracting eons roar
And crash adown the planet-bouldered deeps.


As with several poems that CAS wrote about the group of Christian ascetics known as the stylites, "Alpine Climber" concerns a seeker.  This alpinist initially has material concerns ("the untaken tower he covets"), but in the last stanza, his experience transfers significantly upon achieving his goal.

At the very tip of the peak he has sought to conquer, the climber "feels the world turn under him", and his perspective is shifted, almost literally turned upside down, and he "hears the cataracting eons roar / And crash adown the planet-bouldered deeps."

Similar to poems such as "The Stylite" and "Paphnutius", CAS presents "Alpine Climber" as a metaphor for the act of seeking the ineffable, reaching beyond the ordinary and the everyday in search of what lies at the very extremity of our sensual perceptions.  It's a powerful statement from a poet who lived a humble life on the material plane, but whose imagination and creativity allowed him to soar to heights his neighbors probably never imagined!

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Not Theirs the Cypress-Arch




Read "Not Theirs the Cypress-Arch" at The Eldritch Dark:


There is a significant typo in the fourth line of this poem as rendered at The Eldritch Dark; the correct line reads:


And searing splendors of the doomsday sun:


This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) is a powerful metaphor for the burdens of history (both personal and societal) that we can never leave behind: "They rise, they gather about us now, / Crowding the quiet day."

The author really gets to the crux of the matter with the opening lines of the second stanza: "To us, entombed in time, / Asleep within a vaster vault".  That's both a striking image and a grim distillation of the human condition, a potent demonstration of the power of poetry to say much with not so many words.

This poem was written in 1951, when CAS was in his late fifties, and the maturity of the artist's vision is certainly on display in this work.  Thematically, it's not so different from verse that he wrote as a much younger man, but his ability to use words with a scalpel-like precision had clearly advanced to the point where there is no wasted verbiage at all in "Not Theirs the Cypress-Arch".


Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Two on a Pillar

This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was unpublished in his lifetime, and is not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the complete text:


Two on the Stylite's lofty pillar--
Which was above and which below?
Or still upright, did the Stylite thrill her
With many a happy thrust and throe?

The saint and his leman on the pillar
Jiggled dizzily to and fro,
And lustily he tried to fill her
While the Devil laughed in hell below.

His dick that was hard as the high hard pillar,
It melted away, to his shame and woe,
Too soon, and she left him there on the pillar
By the rope that hung to the ground below.


Erotic themes are not unusual throughout CAS' poetic works, but "Two on a Pillar" is substantially more ribald than is the author's norm.  Given that CAS did not seek to publish this poem, one can assume it was created as a bit of fun, taking aim at religious ascetics and their lives of deprivation.  

If nothing else, this poem can be enjoyed for lines like "Jiggled dizzily to and fro / And lustily he tried to fill her".  Not only is that unusually explicit for CAS, but there's also a hint of Edward Lear's nonsense poetry in there, with a touch of shock value to keep the sophomoric quality of the work from being a complete disappointment.  For comparison, see Lear's "There was an Old Man of the Nile":

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Book_of_Nonsense/There_was_an_Old_Man_of_the_Nile

Monday, February 14, 2022

The Stylite



Read "The Stylite" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/551/the-stylite

Stylites make occasional appearances in the poems of Clark Ashton Smith (CAS): see for example my comments on his haiku "Paphnutius" in an earlier blog post:

http://www.desertdweller.net/2021/01/paphnutius.html

As Anonymous commented on that blog post, CAS' short story "The Door to Saturn" also mentions the phenomenon, although in a decidedly science-fantasy context:


And during the following day they journeyed among more than one of those unusual races who diversify so widely the population of Saturn. They saw the Djhibbis, that apterous and Stylitean bird-people who roost on their individual dolomites for years at a time and meditate upon the cosmos, uttering to each other at long intervals the mystic syllables yop, yeep, and yoop, which are said to express an unfathomed range of esoteric thought.


The Stylite lifestyle is certainly a curiosity among the legends of Christian asceticism, and in "The Stylite", CAS focuses on the strange hallucinations and worldly temptations that can plague one engaged in such a lonely pursuit:


Behind dissolving peristyles
Lithe sphinxes crouch and rear in rut;
And mincing from Gomorrah's night,
Vague-membered gods androgynous
Invert an ithyphallic sign.


On the older blog post I linked above, Anonymous left this thoughtful observation:


I wouldn't be surprised if he (CAS) was inspired by the idea of a person who could spend much of their life in the boundless heavens, where no one else would go, and at the same time allowed his pagan and cosmic interests to fill that heavenly space.


That comment applies equally to "The Stylite" as it does to the haiku "Paphnutius".  I don't doubt that CAS found the extremity of the Stylite practice to have a strong connection to his own cosmic viewpoint, as well as to the rather reduced lifestyle to which CAS was often subjected, given his aesthetic pursuits and their limited financial rewards.

This is not the last poem from CAS that deals with Stylites: in my next blog post, I'll  look at a ribald take on the same subject that was not published in the author's lifetime.

Friday, February 11, 2022

The Dead will Cuckold You

Read "The Dead Will Cuckold You" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/prose-poetry-plays/9/the-dead-will-cuckold-you

This verse drama from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) might not normally be considered in a review of his poetry, but since editors S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz have included it in their edition of The Complete Poetry and Translations of Clark Ashton Smith, I'll follow along and include it in this blog.

Although it was unpublished in his lifetime, "The Dead Will Cuckold You" is a key work in CAS' corpus, both because of its multi-act dramatic form (unique among his extant works) and because it provides a unique perspective on his fictional realm of Zothique.  

CAS wrote a number of stories set in that far-future continent, and a few of his poems reference it as well.  But "The Dead Will Cuckold You" takes the gloves off and introduces necrophilia, something that was probably too much even for the pulp markets that published CAS' short fiction.

Of course, there's quite a bit more to "The Dead Will Cuckold You" than the simple transgression referenced in the title.  It seems as though this unpublished work allowed CAS to fully flesh out the Zothique setting, where torture, murder, necromancy and much else are morbidly routine.  There's something decidedly modern in a plot that is animated by a homosexual necromancer (Natanasna) animating a corpse, and compelling it to pursue an amorous liaison with a king's attractive young wife (a tryst she is more than happy to participate in).  The malicious tyrant Smaragad cannot use his considerable power to prevent himself from being cuckolded.  Power to the people!

And because this work flowed from the pen of CAS, his language makes even a catalog of iniquities into something beautiful:


Natanasna:
I mean but this, that you the king have filled
More tombs than I the outlawed necromancer
Have ever emptied, and detest not idly
The raising of dead men. Would you have me summon
For witness here against you the grey shade
Of Famostan your father, in his bath
Slain by the toothed envenomed fish from Taur
Brought privily and installed by you? Or rather
Would you behold your brother Aladad,
Whose huntsmen left him with a splintered spear
At your instruction, to confront the fen-cat
That he had merely pricked? Yet these would be
Only the heralds of that long dark file
Which you have hurried into death.


"The Dead Will Cuckold You" allows CAS to apply his literary skills to a form that he did not often work in, and to depict Zothique in all the extremities of its decadent glory.  But it is much more than a mere shocker.  As with the story "The Dark Eidolon" (also set in Zothique), this short play is a revenge tale, an upsetting of the established order driven by unbridled passion and the dark arts.  The themes at work in "The Dead Will Cuckold You" are found throughout CAS' body of work, but rarely in such a concentrated and uninhibited form.

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Eros of Ebony



Read "Eros of Ebony" at The Eldritch Dark:


The version of this sonnet at The Eldritch Dark includes a couple of typos in the last line of the third stanza; the corrected text is:


Selling all my ancient idols,
I worship the new god: before his altar
I bring the mythic fruits of distant lands
and cast the loot of ocean-sepulchres....


Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) created both English and Spanish versions of this poem; the latter was entitled "El Eros de ébano".

"Eros of Ebony" would seem to be inspired by the tale of Pygmalion from book X of Ovid's Metamorphoses.  In that famous tale, the sculptor Pygmalion falls in love with an ivory statute wrought from his own hands, and his supplications to the goddess Aphrodite reward him when that very sculpture comes to life, eventually becoming his bride and mother to his daughter Paphos.

In this poem, CAS instead presents a sculpture of ebony, but as in the story of Pygmalion, CAS' sculptor becomes enthralled with his creation, leading him to "worship the new god".  But there is no beneficent intervention from Aphrodite in "Eros of Ebony": the worshipful artist can only face the grim reality that "The god is blind . . . and my oblations / have vainly hued his ebon heels with blood."

CAS was no great fan of organized religion, and one cannot help reading a commentary on the very act of worship into "Eros of Ebony".  The carefully wrought idol is a thing to be admired, and yet "His mouth and brows, capricious, / mingle their honey with a great bitterness."  Buyer beware!

Monday, February 7, 2022

Sinbad, It Was Not Well to Brag



Read "Sinbad, It Was Not Well to Brag" at The Eldritch Dark:


This poem ranks as something of a curiosity from the pen of Clark Ashton Smith (CAS), for while he had a lifelong interest in orientalism, the short lines and strong, punchy rhymes are not at all in line with his usual poetic practice.

The poem picks up on the sometime characterization of Sinbad the Sailor as a braggart given to great invention in recalling his legendary voyages to Sinbad the Porter.  In this poem, CAS follows the device of other translators in naming the porter "Hinbad" in order to distinguish the two characters.  The irony of their respective roles forms the central crux of the poem, as Sinbad "Carried upon his back the Old Man of the Sea" while:


Bemoaning his fate
Like the sad estate
Of a Baghdad porter, a Caliph's flunky—


Thus is Sinbad the Sailor portrayed as a whiner, especially in reference to his audience, the lowly Sinbad (or Hinbad) the Porter:


Sinbad, it was not well to brag
At the sunset end of your ocean-road:
For others have carried a heavier load
On aching shoulders a-sag—
A load that they could not lose.


It's certainly a minor poem from CAS, perhaps little more than a bit of fun created after a re-reading of the One Thousand and One Nights.  

As an aside, it's worth noticing the unusual word "Yclept" in the final line.  Even for a writer with such an extensive vocabulary as CAS, that's an uncommon, archaic word, meaning (according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary) called, named, or styled.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Shapes in the Sunset


Read "Shapes in the Sunset" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/502/shapes-in-the-sunset

This poem presents musings on cloud shapes as only Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) could conceive them.  Not surprisingly, many of the images are drawn from classical Greek mythology, and some of the more obscure characters are drawn from the lineage of ancient Greek and Roman literature, such as the Astomians, Blemmyes, and a Sciapod.

As is not uncommon in CAS' verse, the poet's own voice rings clearly in the closing stanza:


I, the watcher, cried: "O clouds of wonder,
Fables, carry me where an age-long sunset
Arches your lost Thule, by no sullen
Earth-born shadows blotted!"


The many fantastic shapes seen in the sunset clouds are more than imaginative visualizations, as they come to embody the speaker's longing for the glories of the great age of myth and fable.  And yet the rich visions of the preceding stanzas suggest that the speaker has in fact achieved his goal, albeit within the non-corporeal realm of the mind's eye.


Saturday, February 5, 2022

Malediction



Read "Malediction" at The Eldritch Dark:


This poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) seems to be the very definition of "weird poetry", powered by the grim, rich imagery that only CAS could articulate:


While the kraken, blind and white,

Guards the greening books abhorred
Where the evil oghams rust—
In accurst Atlantis stored;


A line like "Guards the greening books abhorred" is my kind of poetry: vivid, musical, and capable of inspiring the reader's imagination to travel to all sorts of exotic realms.

But what catches my attention in "Malediction" is the broken rhythm, an unusual technique for CAS which works very well here.  The poem roughly follows a villanelle form, but only in its general outline.  Where a traditional villanelle uses repeated lines in a predictable sequence, CAS abandons that approach in favor of introducing several lines with the word "While" ("Where" is substituted in one instance), but the sequence is not regular: of the nineteen lines in "Malediction", six of them begin with one of those key words: the first, fourth, sixth, eighth, tenth, and thirteenth lines.

The pattern noted above speeds the cadence of reading in the middle stanzas (two through five), and then suggests a natural pause at the beginning of the final stanza:


Never shall the spell be done
And the curse be lifted never
That shall find and leave you one

With forgotten things for ever.


(I'm considering the final four lines of "Malediction" as a quatrain, even though the last line has been offset, since these lines read as a single sentence).

The repetition of the word "never" with an unusual rhythm (fist appearing at the beginning of a line, and later at the end of a line) injects a sense of inescapable fate, the malison that will haunt you forever.  

I imagine (although I can't really know) that CAS began writing "Malediction" as a traditional villanelle, and then altered the form to fit the intended meaning in revision.  It's a great example of CAS' formalist tendencies giving way as needed to best serve the language and the subject matter.  And by any measure, it's a great poem!



Friday, February 4, 2022

Amithaine



Read "Amithaine" at The Eldritch Dark:

http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/19/amithaine

Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) described this poem in a letter* to August Derleth from October 1950, discussing a selection of verses included with his letter:


Of these verses, Amithaine seems to me particularly significant since it seems to crystallize an ideal of romantic and imaginative beauty...what would the typical science fiction fan make of a symbolism such as "Whose princes wage immortal wars / For beauty with the bale-red stars?"  He'd probably think the "princes" were making war on Aldebaran, or Antares, or repelling invaders from Mars or Saturn! instead of battling against destiny as symbolized by the "stars" of astrology.


This poem is certainly full of "romantic and imaginative beauty" derived from the strong musicality of the language, which almost compels reading aloud.  A reader can enjoy this poem simply at the surface level (ignoring the symbolism) because the strains of chivalric glory sound so clearly throughout.  Viewed in those terms, the fourth stanza is particularly effective:


Dreamer, beware! in her wild eyes
Full many a sunken sunset lies,
And gazing, you shall find perchance
The fallen kingdoms of romance,
And past the bourns of north and south
Follow the roses of her mouth.


I feel like I could read an entire novel about a woman in whose "wild eyes...many a sunken sunset lies"!

A second reading focused on the symbolism reveals the true beauty of "Amithaine", where the poem becomes a manifesto for the creative life.  I can't help hearing CAS' own voice, particularly in the wonderful closing lines: "Dreamer, awake!... but I remain / To ride with them in Amithaine."  It's a powerful statement of the poet's own quest, a coda at the tail end of the spell whose magic persists throughout the artist's body of work. 



*See letter #440 in Eccentric, Impractical Devils: The Letters of August Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith published by Hippocampus Press.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Didus ineptus




Read "Didus ineptus" at The Eldritch Dark:


As with "Farmyard Fugue" (which I blogged about yesterday), this poem is a curiosity from the corpus of Clark Ashton Smith (CAS).  It reads almost like an encyclopedia entry in verse, with little evidence of CAS' vivid imagination being put to work.  

The actual Latin taxonomic name for the extinct dodo is Raphus cucullatus, so the poem's title "Didus ineptus" must be CAS' own invention, which can be translated into English as "Silly dodo" or perhaps "Unfit dodo".  Either way, it's an odd, minor poem from The Bard of Auburn, and it's rather surprising that he published this one (in 1958's Spells and Philtres).

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Farmyard Fugue


This uncharacteristic poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was unpublished in his lifetime, and is not available on The Eldritch Dark, so here's the complete text:


Cockadoodle dooo!
Baa baa baa baa mooo!
Oink oink quack quack gobble gobble 
Christ bime it yer a lot of trouble
Baa baa baa baa mooo 
Move yer goddam leg back so I can milk yuh.
Cluck cluck baa baa baa baa
cluck cluck quack quack
puppies (From the cornfield) caw caw caw
The better squirt squirt squirt
Oink oink hee haw hee haw
Cluck cluck baa baa haw haw
Caw caw quack quack gobble gobble
Spit mraar mraar <ms. burned>
Hee haw hee haw
Mriau spit mraw mriaw 
Cocka doodledoo
Hey but I heave a block a wood at these goddam cats
gome gome caw caw
Oink oink baa baa
     mriaw spit spit mriaw 
Here she goes paw
Hee har
Mriar cluckity cluck brup brup mrioow
     Cluck cluck quack quack pegs pegs mooo
Spit mriair spit mriow
     mooo
Cockadoodledoooo.


"Farmyard Fugue" would appear to be another parody of modernist poetry, with its tendency to write about everyday subjects and to use words phonetically.  It's no wonder CAS chose not to publish this one, since it's a decidedly minor effort when evaluated from any angle.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

El Vendaval

Here's another poem from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) that he wrote in both English and Spanish.  Both versions have the same title, which can be rendered into English as "The Gale".

Neither version was published in his lifetime, and since they're not available on The Eldritch Dark, here's the complete English text:


Wind, thou blowest from the strand
where float the phantoms
of the past, the future hours
weep in the mists.

(From that land of my delight,
to seek other prey
like the swiftly flying falcon
whither hast thou flown, O love?)

Wind, thou blowest from the pines
filled with my sighs,
from the vaulted cypress
where my soul vainly lingers.

Wind hesperian, speak alone
before it the bitter waters? ...
Shall the cypress-fruit fall always
in solitude? ...

Wander still through heaven
and over the billows with the winds
our olden tears 
in the light and in the rain?

Does there abide beneath the noon
any laughter of the nymph
like an echo that still lingers
within the convoluted shell?

Wind, thou blowest from the strand
where float the phantoms
of the past and future
lamenting in the mists.


This poem exudes romantic yearning ("whither hast thou flown, O love?") expressed in the potent force of the west wind.  It's not a particularly original metaphor, but one that CAS enriches with his love of the great classical myths, as in the penultimate stanza:


Does there abide beneath the noon
any laughter of the nymph
like an echo that still lingers
within the convoluted shell?


The sound image of an echo lingering in the recesses of a "convoluted shell" is wonderful, and highlights the aural cues found throughout the poem that are a core part of what makes it work.