Kay Ryan, “Atlas”

“Extreme exertion / isolates,” says the poem.

My mind remembers being isolated from help. However, I did not think myself exerting much of anything, unless Olympic events existed in sleeping and moping.

But Ryan’s words hold truth. There was extreme exertion. Bad habits are hard to remove because of the considerable effort spent in building them.

Here’s Atlas. A Titan. A power the most modern of gods must respect. He holds the world up. He up-lifts.

Atlas (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

Extreme exertion
isolates a person
from help,
discovered Atlas.
Once a certain
shoulder-to-burden
ratio collapses,
there is so little
others can do:
they can’t
lend a hand
with Brazil
and not stand
on Peru.

*

“Extreme exertion / isolates a person / from help, / discovered Atlas.” Ryan retells the myth, and her emphasis is different. I’m not sure, but I think one can say of the more traditional telling that the Titans represent a limited idea of power. The deities in Zeus’ court rule over things such as commerce, love, craftsmanship, drama. Even the ocean and underworld can be considered less primordial forces and more like societies. What the Olympians govern are human complexes, phenomena with social and political elements. That they see power in what we sometimes dismiss as hopelessly human—well, that’s divine insight.

But Atlas in this poem doesn’t sound like he needed anyone else to expose his flaw. He went to lift the world, found he could do it, and was overcome by his own power. The “extreme exertion” isolated him; “a… shoulder-to-burden ratio” collapsed. This is told as a joke, a modern metric placed upon an ancient problem. It speaks his loneliness precisely, though. All he has is the metric. No one could help him if they tried.

*

What does it mean to be trapped by overexertion? One’s own power demonstrating an effect to one’s own detriment?

Some don’t want to watch another superhero movie in their lives, but “with great power comes great responsibility” isn’t unwise. It’s remarkable in its directness and thoughtfulness. Brian Michael Bendis in a New Avengers comic has Spider-Man spell out for someone younger with cosmic powers what exactly it meant for him. She confronts him with her anger, her confusion over all the half-truths told to her. He tells her “with great power comes great responsibility.” He confesses that he spent a lot of time wondering about his power, feeling cursed by it. It caused him to fail to act in a timely way, and he lost people he loved.

The burden can’t be solved by simply acting. Yet it may be a burden we must accept. Atlas, perhaps, shows both these things.

*

What’s at stake is the character of the burden. Ryan gives us a picture where others only exacerbate the problem of lifting the earth. “There is so little / others can do: / they can’t / lend a hand / with Brazil / and not stand / on Peru.”

No matter what, there’s isolation. Olympians and comic books point away from this. Maybe thought must be given to how we must act. That if I act, as someone with a unique power, I realize I’m not only lifting a globe but a place where others live. My responsibility is bound with the responsibility of others.

It sounds beautiful, and for someone who studies what I study, it’s captivating. I wonder why social phenomena are so complicated. Meditating on the problem posed here helps me remember that trying to define “power” as anything other than, say, the ability to lift a physical object is very difficult.

But I think Ryan’s “Atlas” has hit upon a truth which I really don’t want to admit. We can create obstacles which are far too large for us to handle. And those obstacles aren’t always created by our worst intentions, or undone without cost. In the face of this, I think I can understand why I shut down before, though I never lifted the world or had the problem of someone standing on Peru.

Emily Dickinson, “Publication — is the Auction” (709)

Dickinson declares “Publication… is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man,” and straightaway I feel like an idiot and a sellout.

I feel stupid. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a thought so precious I’d refuse to share it. An idea, maybe, about how something works that is brilliant. Explains everything. But shouldn’t be shared not because I’ll be mocked, but because it won’t receive rightful treatment. An idea which will only, at best, serve a worse idea, some generic rhetoric thoughtless people use to try to evade thoughtfulness.

I feel like a sellout. I have a lot of thoughts about poetry and am publishing them regularly. Maybe I should keep them in a notebook away from others. If I were sufficiently dedicated to my own mind, I’d revisit them regularly, looking to learn and revise. I’d be interested to see their impact on my life, not their impact on my production of content.

Dickinson continues her declamations. Her vituperations. “Poverty… be justifying / For so foul a thing.” I shouldn’t just feel stupid or a sellout. I should feel completely ashamed, willing and wanting to embrace poverty now. Eager to avoid the foulness of publication.

The whole poem speaks in large, loud pronouncements, like an oracle speaking the wisdom of God to the unworthy. “We… would rather… go / White… Unto the White Creator;” “Thought belong to Him who gave it;” “Be the Merchant / Of the Heavenly Grace;” “reduce no Human Spirit / To Disgrace of Price.”

Publication — is the Auction (709)
Emily Dickinson

Publication — is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man —
Poverty — be justifying
For so foul a thing

Possibly — but We — would rather
From Our Garret go
White — Unto the White Creator —
Than invest — Our Snow —

Thought belong to Him who gave it —
Then — to Him Who bear
Its Corporeal illustration — Sell
The Royal Air —

In the Parcel — Be the Merchant
Of the Heavenly Grace —
But reduce no Human Spirit
To Disgrace of Price —

*

If we are receiving divine wisdom, what is the problem? Well, for one, maybe poverty isn’t desirable. Dickinson opens her second stanza with “Possibly,” casting doubt on the sentence before: “Poverty… be justifying / For so foul a thing” (Vendler 334).

The problem is worse than that. Speaking from experience: there are so many times I’ve explained a thing. Explained why it is relevant and should matter. Described other people’s ideas about the thing, why they have good points, why my take on the thing should be considered. I wasn’t looking for immediate acceptance (“You’re so right! I shall change my views right now”). I was looking for some acknowledgment that I spoke and made some sense.

I, of course, forgot that I was brown. If I had a right to speak, it was only to humiliate myself or reiterate the views of those who knew better.

Reputation matters. But how can one plausibly account for it in a world which seeks to deny your voice?

I believe this underlies Dickinson’s “we” in the second stanza. “We… would rather / From Our Garret go / White… Unto the White Creator… / Than invest… Our Snow.” Some of us have to embrace purity to an obnoxious degree. We don’t have a choice. We have “snow.”

“Snow:” when we write, we’re trying to preserve a moment that will fade away. A moment where our knowledge and feeling met. We mark the co-incidence by means of an art. Many have spoken about poetry giving its authors and audience immortality, but Dickinson’s “snow” rejects that logic. Her emphasis is on how temporary our work is for authors ourselves. The knowledge and the feeling coinciding are marked, but can the exact same proposition and emotion come about later? Can they even be recognized in the future?

Here we are, mysterious worlds unto ourselves. We need wealth and respect to survive. But the more we want to survive, the more we give up on our more delicate propositions. Cliches aren’t snow. They last long amounts of time. They’re what people prefer to hear. What they will pay for.

*

The other problem with saying “Publication… is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man” goes well beyond its impracticality. The assumption is that there is something divine about not publishing. “Thought belong to Him who gave it” serves as the thematic center of the poem. If you believe there is something far greater than publishing, far greater than selling out, then you believe your words have an aspect that is beyond you.

Against this, there can only be decline, and sure enough, the poem starts chronicling one. “Thought belong to Him who gave it” falls away, and we hear of “Him Who bear / Its Corporeal illustration… Sell / The Royal Air.” Someone, perhaps an author or a publisher, bears the physical manifestation of thought. “The Royal Air” is sold—the magic that compelled you to write, what might have been divine inspiration, is now worth a dollar amount.

Even that does not do justice to the fall. “Sell / The Royal Air… / In the Parcel… Be the Merchant / Of the Heavenly Grace.” The air from a world beyond ours is put in a package. That cannot possibly be the same as being there. Vendler notes “Merchant of the Heavenly Grace” is no compliment (335). Dickinson speaks of preachers who use their congregation for money, much like our televangelists nowadays. They sell grace.

Dickinson seems to be saying two contradictory things. First, this is reality, we really can’t go “White… Unto the White Creator,” being of pure production and lineage. In the end, we’re all merchants of the heavenly grace. Second, this isn’t reality, this is the consequence of thinking one’s work having a merit beyond a paycheck or a reputation. If you indulge that thought, you create a realm where creation and purity are unified. It’s a realm which describes exactly no authors. Has she said anything true, then, about authorship?

*

She leaves the puzzle unsolved. Her last two lines, “But reduce no Human Spirit / To Disgrace of Price,” hint at a solution. It feels like she tried a lot of ideas to explain what it means to create but not care for money and fame. The only one in the end that works has to do with avoiding harm, avoiding indignity.

Publication has to happen. Somehow, it has to be reconciled with doing justice to the human spirit. “Snow,” I think, expands on the logic involved. If our work is where knowledge, feeling, and art meet—if we’re trying to build from the temporary, as pathetic as that seems—then the question is why that matters. We’ve assumed it matters because we intuit that authenticity is better than telling a mob what it wants to hear. 

But there’s a deeper reason. As I get older, I regret that I didn’t take the time to document my experiences and emotions before. It was like life was offering me so many rich opportunities to reflect and put things together, and I didn’t bother. I could have been wiser so much sooner. If this sounds stupid or pathetic, I’d advise one to take a hard look at people who have been getting older and blaring the same thing they said at 20 but at 50, just louder, more obnoxiously, and with no more credibility. The “publication” that ultimately matters is having a record for an audience of one: yourself. The self can only be accountable to the self if it is known in some small way.

References

Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Harvard, 2010. 333-335.

Linda Gregg, “Highway 90”

Highly recommended: Allison Seay’s beautiful consideration of this poem, where she talks about the journey and the destination.

*

The ancient sense of what makes an omen puzzles. A falcon shrieking overhead as you’re being humiliated—how could this possibly mark you a future Emperor? Why would the arrangement of an animal’s organs tell the future?

“Highway 90” opens with this detail: “An owl lands on the side / of the road. Turns its head / to look at me going fast.” She’s driving, immersed in the freedom of motion. Yet she notices this one animal, which for a moment attended to her and her behavior.

She notices, perhaps, that nature is watching. Not just an owl, but all of it, including her sense of self. The sense which knows how it wants to feel, which knows there’s something missing in this moment. That is ominous, whether it ends well or badly. Her deepest intuitions find themselves mirrored in the glance of an owl. The very occurrence is divine. In noticing that she was noticed, she glimpsed another order, another world, viewing us. 

Highway 90
Linda Gregg 

An owl lands on the side
of the road. Turns its head
to look at me going fast,
window open to the night 
on the desert. Clean air,
and the great stars.
I’m trying to decide 
if this is what I want.

*

“Me going fast.” I go out for walks, I go out for drives. They’re not the same thing, even if I’m frustrated in the same way.

If I’m walking, I want to feel blood circulate. It won’t take long for it to reach parts of my hands that typing and screen-watching neglect. It usually takes a little longer to reach my scalp. I’m more physically attentive to myself. My walks always feature a few minutes where I try to focus on the sounds and sights around me, no thinking about thoughts permitted.

Driving is different. Even if I’m not going fast, it’s impossible not to indulge a car’s power. Every car feels weighty. A sheer amount of metal, an engine that hauls tonnage, are directed wherever you point the nose of the car.

Driving is about the power of possibility. This isn’t unambiguously good. Inattention to what’s involved leads to shortened, maimed lives. Gregg draws us to the full power of possibility, though. An entirely new landscape, with one explorer: “Me going fast, / window open to the night / on the desert.”

There may be other inhabitants, but it might take a lifetime to find them.

*

It’s still a beautiful night, though. Worth driving through and writing out.

There’s “Clean air, / and the great stars.” Clean air I get on a level I shouldn’t. My skin is sensitive to the pollutants of the DFW area. Humid, moist air has in general been good for my breathing, but that same air often holds a lot with which I struggle.

I’d love the air to be scrubbed clean of loneliness, whether I chose it or not.

“Great stars.” In using the word “great,” she spotlights how it’s entirely her construct. Everything. Driving fast, seeing the owl, keeping the window open, documenting it all. The stars are great because she sees them as great, not because they cover a great expanse. Or because they’re literal cosmic history.

*

Gregg has a number of lines with the spirit of Rilke’s “you must change your life,” but one stands out for me as I look at “I’m trying to decide / if this is what I want.” It’s from her essay “The Art of Finding:” “I would not have sacrificed so much for love if love were mostly about pleasure.”

It hits hard, but in a good way. What I’ve shared with others hasn’t always been easy. A lot of things in more extravagant guises have revolved around deeper issues. Good wine, while talking about one’s parents as an influence. Standing before a self-portrait of Picasso, wondering aloud about our need for self-expression.

Those moments had pleasure, but it was secondary. What mattered more was whether a conversation could be started, one that might last longer than a few days. And if that conversation couldn’t be started, well.

A lot of people say “settle.” You don’t need the perfect person, you don’t need to self-actualize with a partner. But any serious partner wants to be fully there for another. They may not unravel the secrets of quantum theory with them, but they’re preparing themselves to bring new life into being, even if kids don’t happen.

Love entails willing to go it alone, if need be. The internal dialogue matters. “I’m trying to decide / if this is what I want.”

William Bortz, “joy—”

Not often, but sometimes, we’ll be asked to list joys. To count blessings, show ourselves we should be grateful. To inspire a feeling, remind ourselves of how we could feel.

Can we define joy? Find the essence of the list?

"joy—"
William Bortz

joy—
 
a pinpoint of light across a violent gorge.

*

Some might stop early in the definition. Why can’t joy simply be “a pinpoint of light?” Kay Ryan in “Pinhole” might be said to argue as much:

Pinhole
Kay Ryan

We say
pinhole.
A pin hole
of light. We
can’t imagine
how bright
more of it
could be,
the way
this much
defeats night.
It almost
isn’t fair,
whoever
poked this,
with such
a small act
to vanquish
blackness.

A little bit of light—a pinpoint, a pin prick—stops darkness from being complete. The smallness, I think, leads a few to say that if you don’t find hope or joy in every situation, that’s your fault. That somehow, if you’re subject to waves of abuse and neglect, you still need to be grateful for the grains of sand on the ground because they’re there.

Small miracles are real. They’re also a trap. When I list my joys nowadays, they prove to be diverse and complicated. Some joys are nothing but joy. The relief, the sense of accomplishment, the respect that came with graduation. Celebrating a friend’s wedding. But then there are joys that prove to be illusory in some respects. Dates that did go well but didn’t lead to anything greater.

And then there are joys that are real, but bound up in complexities which would take a lifetime to disentangle. Think about something accomplished at work that is a genuine contribution, and you know it. How no one else might care. How they might use it against you in especially toxic places.

There may be an element of joy which can never be denied. An element which is absolute or natural. It’s nowhere near as important as the aspects of joy which are relative.

*

“A pinpoint of light across a violent gorge.” 

It’s hard for me to come to terms with how people thrive on hurting each other. I’ve seen a lot of abandonment in my life, a lot of people sending the signal to others that they’re worthless or disposable. That hits people I know hard, wrecking minds and hearts and lives.

It’s hard for me to imagine there’s worse, but there is. Right now the big debate online is whether a conservative conference intentionally shaped their stage like a Nazi symbol. I read about the specific symbol. If there’s a message being sent, the message is unmistakable. It’s an insignia used by an SS unit which recruited hardliners of other ethnicities and religions in order to indulge warcrime after warcrime. It’s a call to a unity of hatred, an attempt to turn life on earth into nothing but a violent game of domination.

If depths of violence know no bounds, a pinpoint of light—one pointing to a way across, or to the flooding of the gorge with sunlight—is a most hopeful and joyous event.

Robert Creeley, “Oh”

Yesterday I wrote about quiet graces.

Today has been… more difficult, let’s just say that. 

Some days the good can’t be visible. If you saw it, you’d be trivializing your own experience.

Creeley, with quiet shock and horror: “Oh like a bird / falls down / out of air.”

“Oh.” You’re stunned, so you don’t scream. You don’t even think you’re seeing what you’re seeing. Something beautiful—something that indulged the miracle of flying—didn’t just disappear or pass out of life. 

Its body failed. It stopped doing what it had been doing. It died, a result of processes not quite instantaneous. First one critical set of functions fails, then all of them. A moment’s reflection and the mind is drawn to a number of horrors. How frail life is—how little time we have to secure what matters.

Oh
Robert Creeley
 
Oh like a bird
falls down
 
out of air,
oh like a disparate
 
small snowflake
melts momentarily.

There’s a lot of people I know who think anything different is “arrogant” or “ambitious.” They’re usually people who are scared to read. They must hear what to think. The voice needs to be immediate, imaginable.

The way Creeley depicts “oh,” I can almost sympathize with them. How could one possibly understand what’s being said unless it is said? How dare I ever try to take dry words from a page and give them life? I’m just telling myself what I want to hear, no? I’ve certainly met lots of people who read but are incapable of changing their horrible views.

The work of imagining a voice itself drowned in horror is strange. This hasn’t been a fun day. I must weigh my limitations and complaints, not to compare, but to understand. This is perhaps the most alien part of the process for those scared to read. That judgments aren’t “yes” or “no,” “black” or “white.” It’s all gray and some things are decidedly better because we make commitments.

Creeley’s commitment, I gather: “oh like a disparate / small snowflake / melts momentarily.” “Disparate:” don’t let what’s unique slip away. If it does, you have to mourn. You have to have regrets and doubts, because you want to embrace what’s lovely when it appears again.