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Monday, or “Moon Day”

In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, the late, great Italo Calvino discusses five of the “values, qualities, or peculiarities of literature that are very close to [his] heart.” (Why only five? you ask. After preparing lectures on lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died. Plans for a sixth lecture, on consistency, died with him.) Here’s a sample passage, from early in the collection:

When he was fifteen years old, Giacomo Leopardi wrote an amazingly erudite History of Astronomy, in which among other things he sums up Newton’s theories. The gazing at the night skies that inspires Leopardi’s most beautiful lines was not simply a lyrical theme: when he spoke about the moon, Leopardi knew exactly what he was talking about. In his ceaseless discourses on the unbearable weight of living, Leopardi bestows many images of lightness on the happiness he thinks we can never attain: birds, the voice of a girl singing at a window, the clarity of the air — and, above all, the moon.

As soon as the moon appears in poetry, it brings with it a sensation of lightness, suspension, a silent calm enchantment. When I began thinking about these lectures, I wanted to devote one whole talk to the moon, to trace its apparitions in the literatures of many times and places. Then I decided that the moon should be left entirely to Leopardi. For the miraculous thing about his poetry is that he simply takes the weight out of language, to the point that it resembles moonlight.

I’ve been thinking about the moon today, for obvious reasons. And, unlike Calvino, I’ve decided that the subject shouldn’t be left entirely to Leopardi. Here, then, are a few moon shots — or lunar phases, perhaps:

In the English folk ballad “Sir Patrick Spence,” the moon is menacingly predictive. “Late late yestreen I saw the new moone / Wi the auld moone in her arm; / And I feir, I feir, my deir master, / That we will cum to harme.” (Fast-forward a few stanzas: everyone dies.)

In Romeo and Juliet, the wise-beyond-her-years heroine scoffs at her lover’s vows. “O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, / That monthly changes in her circled orb, / Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.”

In Byron’s “So We’ll Go No More a Roving,” the moon suggests a past that can’t be recaptured (though it shines “still as bright”).

Emily Dickinson and Calvino himself each write about the moon’s distance from the sea. Calvino’s story begins with a fanciful epigraph: “At one time, according to George H. Darwin, the moon was very close to the Earth. Then the tides gradually pushed her far away: the tides that the Moon herself causes in the Earth’s waters, where the Earth slowly loses energy.” The story continues:

How well I know! — old Qfwfq cried, — the rest of you can’t remember, but I can. We had her on top of us all the time, that enormous Moon: when she was full — nights as bright as day, but with a butter-colored light — it looked as if she were going to crush us; when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind; and when she was waxing, she came forward with her horns so low she seemed about to stick into the peak of a promontory and get caught there.

Speaking of being crushed by the moon, here’s the final stanza of Scottish-Canadian poet James McIntyre’s “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese”:

We’rt thou suspended from balloon,
You’d cast a shade even at noon,
Folks would think it was the moon
About to fall and crush them soon.

(McIntyre’s verse is one of the highlights — or perhaps memorable lowlights — in Kathryn and Ross Petras’ Very Bad Poetry.)

To our collection of Very Good & Moon-Related Poetry, let’s add Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” W. B. Yeats’ “The Cat and the Moon,” and Catherine Wing’s “Johnny Love Song”:

The moon and May took fancy;
fancy seasoned into love.
Johnny Ford and Johnny Donne
abandoned the moon above.

Johnny Ford come lately
and Johnny Donne come soon.
The two Johnnys gone round the world
dragging the weight of the moon.

Back to Calvino’s Six Memos, briefly:

In my discussion of lightness, Cyrano [de Bergerac] is bound to figure chiefly because of the way in which (before Newton) he felt the problem of universal gravitation. Or, rather, it is the problem of escaping the force of gravity that so stimulates his imagination as to lead him to think up a whole series of ways of reaching the moon, each one more ingenious than the last — for example, by using a phial filled with dew that evaporates in the sun; by smearing himself with ox marrow, which is usually sucked up by the moon; or by repeatedly tossing up a magnetized ball from a little boat.

Chekhov offers this bit of advice: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

A police escort, finally, to carry you home . . .