Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Lawrence Durrell: "A Bowl of Roses"

A Bowl of Roses

'Spring' says your Alexandrian poet
'Means time of the remission of the rose.'

Now here at this tattered old cafe',
By the sea-wall, where so many like us
Have felt the revengeful power of life,
Are roses trapped in blue tin bowls.
I think of you somewhere among them -
Other roses - outworn by our literature,
Made tenants of calf-love or else
The poet's portion, a black black rose
Coughed into the helpless lap of love,
Or fallen from a lapel -  a night-club rose.

It would take more than this loving imagination
To claim them for you out of time,
To make them dense and fecund so that
Snow would never pocket them, nor would
They travel under glass to great sanatoria
And like a sibling of the sickness thrust
Flushed faces up beside a dead man's plate.

No, you should have picked one from a poem
Being written softly with a brush -
The deathless ideogram for love we writers hunt.
Now alas the writing and the roses, Melissa,
Are nearly over:  who will next remember
Their spring remission in kept promises,

Or even the true ground of their invention
In some dry heart or earthen inkwell.

-- Lawrence Durrell --

"Alexandrian poet"   Cavafy

"a night-club rose"    Melissa

"sanatoria"                Melissa ends up in a TB sanatorium

"Melissa"                  a night-club singer  and prostitute in Justine who loves


"A Bowl of  Roses" takes its inspiration from Durrell's Alexandria Quartet.   The "Alexandrian poet" is C. P. Cavafy, the 20th century Greek poet.  Durrell refers frequently to him throughout the Quartet and has written at least one poem celebrating Cavafy.  The title is "Cavafy" (of course) and the first stanza of the three stanza poem is as follows:


I like to see so much the old man's loves
Egregious if you like and often shabby
Protruding from the ass's skin of verse,
For better or for worse,
The bones of poems cultured by a thirst--
Dilapidated taverns, dark eyes washed
Now in the wry and loving brilliance
Of such barbaric memories
As held them when the dyes of passion ran.
No cant about the sottishness of man! 

-- Lawrence Durrell --

In one of his sonnets, Shakespeare claimed that his poem about her would make her immortal, long after everyone else would be forgotten.  Do you think the Poet/Narrator thinks the same way about Melissa?

It's been some time since I've last looked into any of Durrell's fiction.  Perhaps it's time to take another look.  


  1. I would need some time (and a clearer, fog-free mind) to come to grips with the poems you've offered here, Fred. They are both fascinating! I suspect multiple readings are in order. At first glance, I am very impressed with the richness of the simple diction. So, I will ponder. Thanks for offering such interesting food for thought.

    1. R.T.,

      Yes, Durrell does require several readings to get some idea of what is going on. I knew a prof once who was a great admirer of Durrell's fiction and travelogues, but threw up his hands when I talked to him about Durrell's poetry.

      I suspect that one should be familiar with The Alexandria Quartet to get a grasp on the first poem.

    2. i sent a comment; maybe i forgot to push the button. sigh....

    3. Mudpuddle,

      It didn't make it. Sometimes things just get lost cyberspace.

    4. anyway, the gist of it was the ambiance of hot
      greek islands that pervades both poems, and how it is that metaphorical language follows stylistic trends, in this case using words that seem to bend around the meaning so as to decorate, or emphasize it... i've always been drawn to the Durrells, maybe more to Gerald than Larry...

    5. Mudpuddle,

      I've been drawn to the Durrells also, but much more to Larry than Gerald. I think I've read most of Larry Durrell's fiction and much of his travelogues. I also have one or two poetry collections by him, one of which I'm struggling over right now.

    6. i greatly admire your persistence; ms. mudpuddle studied Larry in grad school and was also fond of his writing; i don't think i'm enough of an intellectual to follow him; i've tried a little bit, but it didn't hold my interest... my loss, i guess....

    7. Mudpuddle,

      Too many books, too little time; we have to choose, and if it doesn't hold your interest, you actually gain by moving on to something that does.