Poetry: Leçons des ténèbres | clivejames.com
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Leçons des ténèbres

But are they lessons, all these things I learn
Through being so far gone in my decline?
The wages of experience I earn
Would service well a younger life than mine.
I should have been more kind. It is my fate
To find this out, but find it out too late.

The mirror holds the ruins of my face
Roughly together, thus reminding me
I should have played it straight in every case,
Not just when forced to. Far too casually
I broke faith when it suited me, and here
I am alone, and now the end is near.

All of my life I put my labour first.
I made my mark, but left no time between
The things achieved, so, at my heedless worst,
With no life, there was nothing I could mean.
But now I have slowed down. I breathe the air
As if there were not much more of it there

And write these poems, which are funeral songs
That have been taught to me by vanished time:
Not only to enumerate my wrongs
But to pay homage to the late sublime
That comes with seeing how the years have brought
A fitting end, if not the one I sought.

New Yorker, May 28, 2013

Note (from Collected Poems)

Though the title phrase is well known to all musicians and music lovers who have ever come across the name of Couperin, I myself encountered it in One Art, the treasure house of Elizabeth Bishop’s collected correspondence. She used the phrase untranslated in a letter to Marianne Moore. After I fell ill and the light sometimes seemed on the point of fading, I turned to Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry more and more often, and even now I still wonder how she got the effect of the sandpiper thinking bird thoughts as it walks along the beach.