Rae Armantrout, “The Way”

What does it mean to return after a long absence? All of us are the “flakes” we bemoan, the ones leaving friendships, relationships, obligations, groups, society. We’ve got different reasons for running away, but I suspect not a few of us can cite the feeling of being overwhelmed, maybe feeling like a child… abandoned in a story made of trees. Too much, too soon, no guidance, no sense of what one wants to do. The trouble with abandoning something because you are lost, however, is that you’re still lost afterward:

The Way (from Poetry)
Rae Armantrout

Card in pew pocket
announces,
“I am here.”

I made only one statement
because of a bad winter.

Grease is the word; grease
is the way

I am feeling.
Real life emergencies or

flubbing behind the scenes.

As a child,   
I was abandoned

in a story
made of trees.

Here’s the small
gasp

of this clearing
come “upon” “again”

Armantrout begins her soliloquy, announcing herself at church to us—Card in pew pocket announces, “I am here”—not to the congregants. I made only one statement because of a bad winter. Hers is the sort of mumbled, introverted, non-communication lost in one’s own thoughts and pain. Not necessarily a bad thing; remember, we’re all flakes. And maybe, in this case, “one statement because of a bad winter” holds the seeds of miraculous goodness. She has returned after a long absence and is among others.

But to what has she returned? How is any of this supposed to work? She feels dirty, slippery, like she can’t be held—Grease is the word; grease is the way I am feeling. She can’t hold herself, after all. There’s no sense of control in real life emergencies or flubbing behind the scenes.

The locus of control has to be the attempt to understand herself. Nowadays the trend in therapy or counseling involves focusing on the problems the client wants addressed without digging up the past if it isn’t necessary. That’s all well and good, as you don’t need to be able to account for every single moment of your life. But there’s something powerful about the Freudian approach, something that affects even all the other types of therapy which attempt to reject Freud. The past may not be who we truly are, but you’d have a difficult time convincing yourself of that unless you could properly deal with it. Her return to religion is not a return to religion per se, but a want to see what she missed, what she might have said, thought, or done differently though she was left to fend for herself in a dark wood: as a child, I was abandoned in a story made of trees.

Grease, then, is only a step away from grace. Grace here is knowing yourself not in spite of your past, but because of it. Knowing yourself not in spite of the crowd, but because of your small space within it. Here’s the small gasp of this clearing come “upon” “again”—I imagine the congregation sings, she sings with them, and for a moment no statement is needed. She’s returned, seeing things ever so slightly from above.

Emily Dickinson, “Presentiment — is that long Shadow — on the Lawn” (764)

If you’re reading this, and you’re in high school or college, one of two things is about to happen. On the one hand, perhaps you’re about to hit “Select All,” “Copy,” paste this into a Word document, submit it as your own work, get caught and punished or expelled. There are actually a number of teachers and professors who read this blog because their worst point them my direction. We’re happy to talk to each other about ideas. You might want to join that conversation instead of alienating people who can handle themselves in the world and are willing to help you if you talk to us like the adult you think you are.

Of course, you might not be punished immediately. I know a few who got through school cheating nonstop. I can safely say that unless they can inherit billions, they’re in bad shape. School is about learning how to learn. Fail to do this and things might go well-enough for a bit: you’re hanging with your boys, some of them are in and out of jail, you’ve got drugs and booze and bad music, you’re working here and there. Trust me, you’ve got no idea how hard problems can hit all at once, and when you don’t know, they hit that much harder. Learning how to learn is the only way to stop life from breaking you.

On the other hand, you might be one of those students who is actually trying to learn something. You want to read the big books, write the thoughtful paper, get the praise, grab a mentor, hoard the opportunities, cite professors and articles with authority, establish credibility, become independent. You’re going to master this short poem, unlock its inner truth, and wield it like Thor’s hammer against the ignorant and their 30 pack of Natural Light (or better yet, that 30 pack of Busch that comes in hunting orange). Funny, that. I can safely tell you that some of the best academics I know are completely blind to how the world works. The problem with school at a so-called higher level is that it repeatedly, in hidden, complicated ways, substitutes the pursuit of honor, praise, or respect for wisdom. This need not be as obvious or fatal as Heidegger, who knew his way around the classics and Nietzsche like no one else, and who also embraced Nazism. But I’ll warn you now: once you see the pettiness, you can’t unsee it. All reading, all writing, and almost all learning feels tainted. My hope is that you get a mirror before you hurt someone or spread dysfunction. In a way, that some academics teach pointless classes for the sake of students painting by number renders them harmless; God forbid they were actually inspiring.

I want to approach Dickinson’s short poem defining “Presentiment” with the above in mind. You’ve got a premonition that cheating might result in your worst possible outcome, or that your pursuit of knowledge might be a denial of a more pressing issue. Dickinson brings us right into that feeling of dread, letting us see as she sees:

Presentiment — is that long Shadow — on the Lawn (764)
Emily Dickinson

Presentiment — is that long Shadow — on the Lawn —
Indicative that Suns go down —

The Notice to the startled Grass
That Darkness — is about to pass —

Presentiment — is that long Shadow — on the Lawn — / Indicative that Suns go down: we watch late the long lawn with longer, creeping shadows. Neither focused on the light, nor on dealing with what’s inside the house, we’re looking down and across, wondering why there’s a touch of fear. Where did our hope go?

It’s like not enough got done this day, like nothing truly fulfilling happened. I think, for those of you who are students, your teachers are apt to forget how pointless everything seems. If you felt convinced of your goals, the adult world and all its associated drinking, sex, money and respect would not be pushing you to cheat or overachieve. I believe you and the Dickinson of this poem share a certain fear, that of getting something—anything—done before time is up.

Dickinson’s poem, though, takes a swift turn. Our eyes start focusing on the grass, and we both identify and do not identify with it. The Notice to the startled Grass / That Darkness — is about to pass. On the one hand, both we and the grass are startled. We knew the day had to come to a close, but like grass, we were perfectly happy soaking up sunlight and not really preparing for the future. Hope was defeated by the mere fact that change came a bit too soon. It was perfectly predictable, but now one can only watch. On the other hand, we’re not grass, as grass does not get “startled.” Grass will be perfectly fine during the night and enjoy the next day. We too can endure, but we have to realize we have a choice and make it the best we can. The “presentiment” has to be used, as there are things we can say, do, and think which make the close of day hopeful.

Giuseppe Ungaretti, “The Buried Harbor”

The necessity of speaking hides. When sought, it proves elusive, not only avoiding bright spots but creating false trails. Honesty begs for brevity — truth must be simple, or it cannot be found. And that’s how, I suspect, one conjures a small set of challenging words:

The Buried Harbor (from Selected Poems)
Giuseppe Ungaretti (tr. Andrew Frisardi)

  Mariano, June 29, 1916

The poet arrives there
and then resurfaces with his songs
and scatters them

All that's left me
of this — this poetry:
the merest nothing
of an inexhaustible secret

Bearing witness to an underwater ruin in wartime fills him with terror and ambition. Ungaretti pronounces himself the poet, a recoverer of songs: The poet arrives there / and then resurfaces with his songs / and scatters them. As a result, the first stanza possesses an incredible tension. Even if one reads “e poi torna alla luce” more literally, “then comes back to light” as opposed to “resurfaces,” Ungaretti grants himself access to a divine, creative realm by virtue of a destroyed world. It seems no less than hubris to assert that one recreates the action of those who actually recover artifacts and bodies. Maybe truth should not be spoken.

I remember last year reading a feature by Jen Percy about Japan, entitled “I Have No Choice but to Keep Looking,” an actual quote from one of the people interviewed. Years after a tsunami which washed their loved ones away, a few were diving as often as they could, looking for any remains of those they lost. One man, Takamatsu, made 110 dives looking for anything of his wife. It feels as if only his actions, imagined through these words, speak his devotion:

In December 2013, Takamatsu spent an hour each day reading a 350-page textbook to earn the national diving certification that would allow him to move debris and search for bodies. He passed the exam in February 2014. For months, he dove with Takahashi’s volunteer groups to remove debris off the northern coastline. He retrieved small items like fishing ropes, and once he found a tire and made a knot on a rope so volunteers on the surface could pull it onto a boat. After six months, Takahashi started to give Takamatsu lessons he wouldn’t normally give: how to find and retrieve bodies from the ocean, living or dead. Takamatsu learned the way colors shifted at different depths, because it would help him locate a body that had sunk. On sunny days, he descended through shades of blue, and in storms, shades of brown. He learned that the bodies of drowned people are usually found poised with buttocks high, hands and feet dangling. The corpses of scuba divers are like dead bugs, on their backs, hands and feet floating.

I remember when I initially read this passage thinking how his grief had become something quietly useful and absolutely necessary. How he removed debris that injured the environment, could hurt others. That alone was a small revelation, that great pain might make one seem broken even as one made good. It didn’t take me much longer to register something closer to the full weight of this passage, that while he wasn’t finding his wife’s body, he was routinely finding many others, giving the closure he himself sought. I remember a professor of mine dismissing Heidegger, saying his work was nothing but high-sounding language, but in speaking of her encounter with Takamatsu, Percy reminded me why I ever started reading philosophy in the first place:

We often think of searching as a kind of movement, a forward motion through time, but maybe it can also be the opposite, a suspension of time and memory. Heidegger wrote of a metaphoric pain, calling it the “joining of the rift.” It’s this rift, he said, that holds together things that have been torn apart, to perhaps create a new space where joy and sadness can find communion. This is the space I believed Takamatsu found beneath the sea, where he could feel close to his wife, in the rift between “missing” and “deceased.”

All this is to say that Ungaretti’s first stanza stakes a great claim, and he knows it. Should he retreat and not try to match words to ruin? He considers again the wreck — All that’s left me of this — and sees the desire to speak reflected in it. All that’s left me / of this — this poetry: / the merest nothing / of an inexhaustible secret. He pronounces his song nothing precisely because of the magnitude of his task. The necessity of speaking disaster, tragedy, decay is one and the same as trying to speak oneself. Takamatsu would know. Asked if he remembers his wife because of a particular song, he says he does not recall because he has not forgotten.

Blog in Review: Thanks for reading! Highlights from June-August 2017

I started this summer with a resolution to write for the blog daily. I thought if I wrote a lot the audience would explode and I could do what every blogger wishes to do. — You know, become a complete corporate sellout. —

That failed miserably. You’d think I should be able to crank out an entry or two a day. But I’ve got to identify the puzzles a given text presents, and that alone takes quite a few rereads and some distance from the text. Honestly, the more time put into this, the better.

Bonus: I also failed at writing “blog in review” entries, trying too much to tie my thinking together thematically, not realizing that “hey, it takes years to connect the dots correctly.”

All the same, I wrote consistently, and my goal to write daily morphed into a larger concern for craft. I don’t know if it’s showing up in the writing, but I’m stopping myself after nearly paragraph I read from other authors, asking how it works or doesn’t work. I’ve started a personal journal again, this time for the express purpose of observing and documenting. I imagine I need a lot more refinement, though, and progress in writing will be uneven for the next few months.

Thank you all for reading and commenting and liking and sharing. It’s fun to have an audience, and it’s even better to have such a patient, appreciative audience. A few highlights from things I wrote:

János Pilinszky, “Van Gogh’s Prayer”

It aggravates me that I still don’t know what to do when confronted with van Gogh. I still want to say too much too soon, but I’ve learned to look until I’m lost in a painting, then look and get lost again. That feels like progress, but what to do with progress which merely speculates about methods and thoughts, which cannot resolve into articulate impressions?

I should be so talented to write poems about art — skip straight to the spiritual, stumble into longing, try to paint the paintings. János Pilinszky’s “Van Gogh’s Prayer” does all these things, refusing to fail:

Van Gogh's Prayer (from Poetry)
János Pilinszky (tr. George Gömöri & Clive Wilmer)

A battle lost in the cornfields
and in the sky a victory.
Birds, the sun and birds again.
By night, what will be left of me?

By night, only a row of lamps,
a wall of yellow clay that shines,
and down the garden, through the trees,
like candles in a row, the panes;

there I dwelt once and dwell no longer—
I can't live where I once lived, though
the roof there used to cover me.
Lord, you covered me long ago.

A battle lost in the cornfields — Pilinszky’s van Gogh begins depicting loss in this world, but the scope of his vision can’t help but see larger forces at work. At the least, losses stand relative to wins, for in the sky a victory. “Battle” and “victory” indicate historical, human cycles. The sky continually bears witness to our murder of each other, from war to peace to war again. But this, in turn, points to cycles which are entirely natural: Birds, the sun and birds again. Can any of this mean anything for van Gogh? He seems hopelessly out of place no matter what. Earthly loss is not just death, for most of us have legacies which will evaporate after we stop breathing. For now, daylight, oil, and canvas only enable a cry. By night, what will be left of me?

He turns to another picture, trying to make sense of night. By night, only a row of lamps, / a wall of yellow clay that shines. A row of lamps enlightens a wall, makes its make and texture known and beautiful. But this temporarily cuts off his vision entirely. At least before, he could stare into the infinite blue of the sky. Still. Painting the night, he sees down the garden, through the trees, like candles in a row, the panes. Finally, some depth with the possibility of meaning. Down the garden, through the trees, in the midst of nature he glimpses windows, set like a row of candles. By means of a natural path, beyond surmountable obstacles, he sees what is peculiarly human. It feels only a glimpse, a tease, but there is something.

The trouble with trying to attain wisdom through one’s own sight is that it depends on a degree of covering. Van Gogh understands what he painted at night intimately. It was his home, as there I dwelt once and dwell no longer. He knows what happened behind the panes once, but now even home is closed to him. In this case, that he paints the home from the outside might indicate that the conflict of the painter is not so much between the image of a thing and its actual existence, but whether he even has a place within the world he imagines. His self-knowledge is the problem, for experience is different from what we think, say, and do. It’s not just what happens to us at a given time, either. To truly learn anything is to invite homelessness. I can’t live where I once lived, though the roof there used to cover me. The windows of home, though, stand like candles. What little he knows acts as a light, but it only reveals an ever greater mystery. Lord, you covered me long ago — the fear and trembling of the first stanza have become wonder. Yes, there are morbid overtones, but they serve this mystery: Why do I exist at all?