Petrarch, Canzoniere 19

Animals exist on earth of such courageous

sight that they dare to face even the sun;

others, because they’re harmed by such great light,

do not come out until the sun is setting;

and others in their mad desire hoping

for joy in fire, perhaps because it glows,

learn of its other power, that of burning.

Alas, my place is with this latter race!

I am not strong enough to face the light

of this lady; I cannot shield myself

in shadowed places or in evening hours;

and so with eyes of tears and weariness

my destiny directs me to behold her,

and well I know I follow what will burn me.

(translated by Mark Musa)

I wish I could read this in the original Italian (SLI 2.0?). For my Renaissance Poetry class, we’ve been assigned to read the first 263 poems of Petrarch’s Canzoniere this week and the sonnets pretty quickly start to feel monotonous and run into one another. Laura’s eyes, her gaze, Petrarch’s suffering, his unconsummated desire. We get it. Move on. But every now and then, Petrarch jolts you with an image that just sticks and makes you want to hear the language, to imagine the way it would sound to recite this to a lover, to feel the pleasant rhythm of the Italian as it rolls off the tongue.

Notes from the Seventh Grade

Yesterday, I was in a hurry to go to a meeting/movie night for the English Honor Society so I grabbed a mandarin orange and ran out the door. The sun had already dipped just below the horizon and streetlights were lit up prematurely in the blue-grey of dusk. As I peeled and savored the bright fruit, I remembered an old poem that I had first read in the seventh grade – Gary Soto’s “Oranges.”

It’s a simple poem about young love, “the first time I walked/ with a girl.” On a cold December evening, the narrator takes this girl, whose face was “bright/ with rouge,” to a store and buys her a chocolate by trading in an orange because he didn’t have quite enough money. Like I said, simple. Seventh grade note-passing Pokemon-loving simple. But somehow, the words have always stuck with me.

I remember my literature teacher going on and on about the imagery. “Fog hanging like old/ coats between the trees,” she would quote. “Imagine that. Isn’t that beautiful?” At the time, I didn’t think that much about it. I liked the story and thought it was cute, but I didn’t see what the big deal was about the fog.

But now, when I see the misty fog as it hovers over Wilson Plaza, I imagine them to be coats, waiting to be worn by some fairy queen. And that evening, while I ate my orange, I remembered the words:

I peeled my orange

That was so bright against

The gray of December

That, from some distance,

Someone might have thought

I was making a fire in my hands.

I remember reading once that you meet your most important, most memorable books before the age of 12. To think that one’s reading career ended before high school seemed too sad and impossible to me, but to a certain extent, that statement seems to be true. The books that you like and the person that you will become are inevitably shaped by what you were exposed to as a child. When I walk to class, old lines of poetry come to me and a tiny orange becomes a bright orb of fire between my fingers.

Poetry makes the world more beautiful.