Napoleon in New Orleans

So the sun of Austerlitz has set.
I had many triumphs, but it’s the few
defeats – Leipzig, Waterloo
especially – I struggle to forget.

I struggled to rearrange all
of Europe as I alone saw fit.
Quite reasonably, it didn’t submit.
Was I Jacob or the angel?

Fleets of thoughts patrol my mind.
I sniff at the hypothetical,
yet what ifs made me look a fool.
By strength of will I’ve been defined.

I haven’t seen France for thirty years.
But at least British Sea Power
didn’t once again carry the hour.
The Indéfatigable caught it unawares.

I sailed to the United States
and reconstituted myself
sans privilege, power, or wealth.
Talleyrand and his ilk weigh our fates.

But I’m relieved all that pomp
and ceremony is done. God, not I, willed this.
Creoles keen in the evening’s stillness.
Alligators patrol the swamp.

I am strangely unmoved. I am frozen,
like those endless Russian steppes
where, spiking my beloved guns, I wept.
Such was the life for which I was chosen.

What has become of you, old friend?
You lie here alone, awake.
The sun has set, but dawn shall break.
Everything breaks in the end.

 

Two Ships

Two ships ply opposing courses:
one zigzags slowly upwind; its sails
engorged by wind, the other slices
determinedly the ocean’s miles.
Though natural and unnatural forces
dictate the elements, from gales
to doldrums, these determined captains
keep sailing on whatever happens.

This is the zenith of vicissitudes,
which were exhaustively rehearsed
and documented elsewhere. Crewed
by veterans of a campaign cursed
from get-go, fluxing shades of blue
belittle the crafts, eliciting thirst
while mocking it. The vessels tack,
each set to cross the other’s wake.

It seems unlikely. When smoke curled
from promethean portions, duress
was granted to petition underworld
denizens for shortcuts and largesse,
words of advice from jilted girls
and two-faced seers. None mentioned this
was on the cards. True gods don’t speak
in nascent Latin or old Greek.

Both have, of course, seen stranger things.
Antagonists, one young, one old,
united in loss, their wanderings
in time and tide cross here, untold,
unseen, unknown. Slayers of kings,
flesh cured by sea-salt but iron-souled,
who sent the other’s kinsmen to their graves –
each sponsored pilot smiles and waves.

So pious Aeneas and wily Ulysses
hail and farewell and go on their ways
(apart from that disputed missus,
none of it was personal). For days,
weeks, months, likely more, both revisit
old ports-of-call, their faraway gaze
belying these men have trained their eyes on
perpetual departure, self-same-horizons.

 

Robert McLean (b. 1974) lives in Featherston, New Zealand and works for the New Zealand Defence Force. His poetry has appeared in four limited editions: For the Coalition Dead (Kilmog Press, 2009), For Renato Curcio (Gumtree Press, 2010), Goat Songs (Kilmog Press, 2011) and Graveyard by the Sea (Cold Hub Press, 2012). Also, an editor and reviewer, a chapbook is forthcoming from Cold Hub Press in 2018.

 

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8 Responses

  1. J. Simon Harris

    Both of these are intriguing. In the first one, I like the line, “Was I Jacob or the angel?”. I also found the last two lines of the same poem to be nicely juxtaposed; they kind of contradict each other, don’t they? And yet they go well together. Anyway, interesting poems!

    Reply
  2. C.B. Anderson

    Robert,

    The governing ideas in both poems were fairly riveting. Also, the many slant rhymes were better done than what one usually reads.

    Reply
  3. Eric Awl De Beus

    Mr. McLean does seem to have an interest in form, as does Mr. Watt, if not the “relentless iambs in Pound’s Canto LXXXI”. The poem “Napoleon in New Orleans” skirts the edge of history in its meandering abba rhymes. At times, I feel like I’m reading the young T.S. and Ezra, “I sniff at the hypothetical, yet what-ifs made me look a fool,” though without their brashness, and with more New Zealand underzealousness: “Alligators patrol the swamp”, “those endless Russian steppes”, “Everything breaks in the end.” The mention of those endless Russian steppes reminded me first of the American Neoclassical epicist Joel Barlow’s Advice to a Raven in Russia (1812), and then of Scottish Postmodernist Al Stewart’s Roads to Russia, for me perhaps the most brilliant of all Postmodernist songs.

    Both poems seem Tennysonian in tone and outlook, but particularly Two Ships, where occasional elements from Ulysses appear despite the loose tetrametres. Although for me the poem was a failure in its structure and its content (for example, I disagreed with Mr. McLean’s “True gods don’t speak/ in nascent Latin or old Greek”), I found I like his poems better than those of, say, Manhire or Curnow. What I really like about these two poems is that they skirt important poetic issues that most in the Postmodern-myopic mania don’t even think about, as, for example, the difference between Odysseus and Aeneas.

    Mr. McLean’s first poem inspired the following poem.

    That Spell
    by Beaudiwel Cres
    “God, not I, willed this.”
    —Robert Mclean

    Bassano, Acre, Aspern-Essling, Krasnoi, Leipzig too,
    the Battle of La Rothière, Laon, and Waterloo.
    Beethoven changed the dedication of Eroica,
    and it’s all over, even that stint in Saint Helena.
    Like Hannibal, he crossed the Alps, there on a rampant steed,
    at least that’s the deciphering of Jacques-Louis David;
    there was the coronation, certainly, and then the fall.
    But that was not the all. That is not what I mean at all.
    For there was Austerlitz against the greater forces of
    Tsar Alexander, Francis II, and dreams of governance.

    Reply
  4. Leo Yankevich

    Eric Awl De Beus (Bruce Wise), I’d say the tone and voice hearken back to Wallace Stevens, and not to Elliot and Pound, “perpetual departure, self-same-horizons” especially. There’s a little a of Yeats in there as well.

    Reply
  5. James Sale

    Really think these are good poems, and especially love the first: Napoleon in New Orleans is fascinating and intriguing. As others have commented, too, here is somebody who can use form and yet write in that fluent style that seems quite effortless. Very, very good indeed.

    Reply
  6. Eric Awl De Beus

    1. Stevens (1879-1955) eschews rhyme, Mr. McLean does not, at least here.

    2. I suppose it’s a bit like arguing over quibbles, as Yeats (1865-1939) and Pound (1885-1972) spent several winters at Stone Cottage together, at Yeats’ suggestion; but I am not interested in mulling over Pound and the modernization of Yeats, as I did not suggest the mature Pound, or the mature Eliot (1888-1965), for that matter.

    3. It is the clarity of McLean’s vision that I admire. His energy, if not his polish, reminds me of MacKenzie in “On a Bodegón of Zurbarán”.

    4. As for the Tennyson “Ulysses” observation, obviously Mr. McLean, like Tennyson (1809-1892) before him, shows interest in Odysseus, if from differing vantage points, as, for example, McLean includes Aeneas; and “Perpetual departure, self-same horizons” sits exactly there.

    5. As an aside, Postmodernist critic Georges Van Den Abbeele, in Travel as a Metaphor, suggests of Rousseau’s Emile that “…if the departure is paradoxically an arrival, then arrival calls for “perpetual departure” emblematized in Emile’s subsequent vagabond existence.”

    6. Mr. McLean’s “Napoleon in New Orleans” approaches dramatic monologue, as practiced by such writers, as Tennyson, Pound, and Eliot; and with some wit, as, for example, where Mr. Harris notes a “kind of” contradiction, in the pun on breaking.

    7. Ironically, the pompous sale of New Orleans and the American heartland helped fund Napoleon’s failed attack on Russia.

    8. For those readers, who may be interested, here is a quote from T. S. Eliot on wit, that is, tough reasonableness beneath slight lyric grace:

    “You cannot find it in Shelley or Keats or Wordsworth; you cannot find more of an echo of it in Landor; still less in Tennyson or Browning; and among contemporaries Mr. Yeats is an Irishman and Mr. Hardy is a modern Englishman—that is to say, Mr. Hardy is without it and Mr. Yeats is outside of the tradition altogether.”

    9. Mr. McLean’s “Napoleon in New Orleans,” despite its fanciful imagining and alternate historical outlook (or maybe because of that), did inspire me to write a tennos on Napoleon. Forgive me for doing so to those it bothered; but inspiration comes where and when it does.

    10. And finally, forgive the Wittgenstein-esque comments.

    Reply

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