nothing after this

Try not to die disappointed in the world.


Sam Francis' Aphorisms

This is a selection from a small book by the artist Sam Francis called APHORISMS. The entries tilt more toward short poetry (with line breaks) or perhaps being composed as back-of-an-envelope jottings on art/aesthetics, rather than ‘aphorisms’ as we tend to think of them:

The eye is
the light
of the body


Death has
no surface
only depth


I paint time
I am ruin rolled
I am rolled


Color is born
of the interpenetration
of light and dark


Color is a series
of harmonies
everywhere in
the universe
being divine
whole numbers
lasting forever
adrift in time


Red contains every color
even red

all colors in this
painting consist of

all other colors


The space at
the center
of these paintings
is reserved
for you


There are as many images
as eyes to see


As you know
energy can have
never begun
and yet is
taken up
again and
again and
lasts forever
and forever
until it is
taken up


We are always at the center of space
we are always at the center of time
we are always as far
as possible from both
east and west
we are always as far as possible from earlier
and later

—Sam Francis, APHORISMS (The Lapis Press, 1984)


room at the top of the control tower

Since we know of no other vessel for the soul, it must be housed in that room of the body called the braincase.


escape thoughts

The great thoughts you have lost for not being in a condition to record them.


utopian dope

I distrust utopian thinkers. Especially prescriptive utopian thinkers like Marx.


environmental damage

Why do car companies like to show SUVs and trucks tearing through wild landscapes while the voiceover intones about connecting with nature?


two kinds of us

There are two kinds of people in the modern world, those who are still soul-making, and those who are lulled by capitalist delights and entertainments.


don't ask

Unconditional love is not without risk, but only a mafioso would ask for unconditional loyalty.


importance of the polis

When someone lives in London, we don’t say he lives in England. A person is from Paris, not France. Certain cities earn their status as city-states.


pirate by another name

Am I the only one who hears the word ‘pirate’ in privatization? Of course ‘privateers’ were only government-sanctioned pirates.


garden guardians

They want to live in nature but they'd kill anything that would attack their gardens.


no blinders

Let me never be the kind of horse that doesn’t rear up against the blinders of faith.


slowly along

Meander me slowly, along the river of my mindscape.


beat about the head

The binaries were boxing my ears again.


sturdy enough

Find a few facts you can stack and then stand upon without fear of collapse.


city planning

For so many cities, was it urban renewal or was it the urban ruined?


vain and vital

Vanity is a vital force. You know you’re getting old when you feel your vanity begin to fade.


ancient ache

All the pain of history hurts us still.


all in

All in on the here and now, he’d spit out the spiritual long ago.


a fire too far

Always chasing after what was hot, and ending up with ashes in her eyelashes.


where the reward

The reward is in life itself: to live by kindness and with goodwill among other human beings inhabiting the planet.


no wall to write on

The handwriting of the galaxy was trying to find the wall of the cosmos.


charitable caricature

One sees oneself in the most charitable of caricatures possible


never unpacked

His suitcase was his bureau.


Monochords by Yannis Ritsos

Monochords by Yannis Ritsos
Translated by Paul Merchant, Tavern Books, 2017.

Monochords by Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990) is not a traditional collection of aphorisms. There are many statements conveying wisdom and insight, but this book is primarily a diverse collection of quick observations and fragmentary vignettes.

The short entries, some not even complete sentences, make more austere the thinking which tilts toward the stoic. Statues appear in several of the numbered entries—and they make me think of the ‘archaic smile’. Ritsos hardened by life and Greek politics, but not dulled or unfeeling. In these brief entries he remains rather amused and still hopeful. I can almost see the smile rising at the corners of the lips of a closed mouth, as he prepares to speak. He’s ready to be fanciful and light in face of a world that both worries and wearies us:
   With a bird for a pillow, I lie awake night after night.

A number of the fragments operate as though collapsed poems, leaving only a few nouns for imagery:
   The lamppost, the statue, the flagpole.

   Mountain, bell tower, cypresses, travelers.

Recalling “The Ninth Elegy” by Rilke,
‘Perhaps we are only here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window—
at most: column, tower…But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing.’*

Then there are some glimpses of Greek daily life:
   When I have forgotten you, the garden will remind me.

   Mounted on hazardous scaffolding, we are cleaning our temples’ pediments.

Here the image stands as an arrested moment in time:
   Just when the swimmer jumped in. I missed it.

Or as Ritsos says in a later entry:
   How gently time collapses into poetry.

Twice in his life, Ritsos was a political prisoner of his country. He refers at times to his resistance:
   Later comes the strip search of the corpses.

   Now they’ve taken off his muzzle how can he speak?

There are some traditionally rendered aphorisms, that are both wry and knowing:
   He shouted loudly so we’d forget how for years he’d said nothing.

   From a long way down he assesses the height.

Being foremost a poet, Ritsos shares some elemental aspects of his ars poetica:
   Hard for the word to travel from blood to poem.

   The old woman came from Myli with a basket of tomatoes so she could enter my poem.

And in this one that recalls Mallarm√©’s admonishment to Degas, that ‘poems are made not of ideas but of words’:
   You capture a nightingale not idea by idea, but word by word.

The Greek is printed en face and those who know Greek may contradict me, but I feel that Paul Merchant’s translations wonderfully capture the mind and spirit of the man, and the poet, from what I know of Ritsos’ biography.

*Ahead of All Parting, Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell, Modern Library, 1995.


too late

Latecomers cast no shadows, they are the shadows.


is is

Existing is the only ‘is’.


degree of disk

You’ve seen old stooped workers; they prove one’s back can be broken by degrees, disk by disk.


one must be tested

You can’t be taught by a teacher who doesn’t test you.


huffing and puffing along

Her sighs acted as the propulsive force in her life.


no tongue left

He had bitten his tongue so many times, it was as if they’d cut out his tongue.


what don't you know

It’s truly grand what I don’t know, and equally grand is what I’m capable of understanding.


made beerable

I’ve found that drinking beer makes accordion music bearable.


bad rhyme

It scares me that soul rhymes with hole.


stats or standing

Loser players talk about their stats and not their team’s standing.


signal / noise

With history the story is signal while time amounts to noise.


like babies

Some liars can sleep well too.


less sense

We have so many laws because common sense is always in short supply.


long dash

Don’t you hate it when a name gets listed as “John Smith, 1955–”, like the terminal year can drop in right behind the dash any minute now. I want my dash to stretch out like a road that will end but not before a long ride ahead.


medal or metal

The officers wear the medals, the soldiers feel the shrapnel.