Philip Larkin, “The Mower”

Twitter can be a good thing, if you’re not committed to speaking trash nonstop like I am. My thanks to Alex Alvarez for introducing her audience to this lovely poem by Larkin. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how people become monsters or how they end up doing monstrous things to others. Typically, this involves an unnatural degree of doubling-down. For example, not just being wrong about something, but insisting that those in the right are wrong, then engaging in constant character assassination to further one’s cause. There are times we have to do cold things to keep our dignity, sure. But a loss of any sense of moderation, any sense that there are other priorities and feelings out there, seems to be prelude to dehumanization.

However, it’s possible to be a monster actively and passively. You can treat people badly through neglect or through setting up artificial boundaries. Sometimes, they can sidestep your stupidity. Other times, though, you might be running over them with blades without realizing what you’re doing.

The Mower (from Poetry)
Philip Larkin

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found   
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,   
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.   
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world   
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence   
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind   
While there is still time.

He doesn’t even realize that anything is wrong, at first — [t]he mower stalled, twice. Machines break and recover on their own, and isn’t life a machine with routines and reasons of its own? An idleness faintly echoes through the opening stanza; things are run over all the time, causing interruptions, and it’s no big deal. Except now. [K]neeling, I found / A hedgehog jammed up against the blades, / Killed. He kneels, and he sees an entire body, an entire life lived, up against the blades. It had been in the long grass — he discovers life itself through his unintentional, fatal violence.

It’s that we discover through violence that’s so unsettling; it only feels just that pathei mathos, the tragedy of knowing by experience, drives some of us insane. There is this puzzle about knowledge that can feel abstract. Do we know when we grasp the proposition, able to talk about its grammar, some attendant events, its consequences? Or do we know when we experience the truth of a proposition we’ve described and worked to explain? I had seen it before, and even fed it, once — he knew of the hedgehog before. That puzzle about knowledge, whether we can truly inform ourselves, concerns how experience defines existence. When he saw and fed the animal prior, that was just part of his day, a set of actions conducted separately from whatever else he did. A set of actions stemming from a routine moral logic. It is not unreasonable to suspect this as foreshadowing that animal being torn to pieces, the wholeness of its body and world meaning nothing to mower blades or our approach to the world. Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world / Unmendably.

Relief is not had through absence. Some of the worst I’ve known make it a continual game to cut others away. If the question of being implies being in the world and caring for it, the question of nothingness does not imply the opposite. Burial was no help: Next morning I got up and it did not. In a way, people who push others away are more committed to the idea of those they push away than anything else. Reminding ourselves that we’re cruel, clumsy creatures who are terrible at love stands as the cruel, clumsy remedy. It’s what we’re stuck with, because we’re not good at knowing and remembering — [t]he first day after a death, the new absence / Is always the same. What we’ve got are moral propositions which tell us to be hesitant about our power and not much else. Trying to harness morality in the service of love is the great hope, the only hope. [W]e should be careful / Of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time.

Yosa Buson, “Yearning for the Past”

Lengthening days accumulate: this surprised me a bit. I haven’t given much attention to the days getting longer except for the obligatory “hey, we’ve got an extra hour or two of sunlight.” Then again, I don’t live in a pre-industrial world of constant walking. Where paths lie from village to city to farm to temple to forest, not miles of concrete road, skyscrapers dominating the horizon, and a few scattered trees to remind of what was. I think, upon further reflection, that this haiku might contain a greater surprise yet. Buson’s “Yearning for the Past” asks us not just to imagine a lost world, but an entirely different sentiment than one we normally indulge:

Yearning for the Past
Yosa Buson

Yearning for the Past

Lengthening days
accumulate -- farther off
the days of long ago!

I suspect most of you share my feeling that we are soaked to the bone in nostalgia. Part of Buson’s depiction feels to me completely alien. Farther off the days of long ago! — I wish. On a trivial level, Nintendo is more than willing to cash in on our desire to play games 20-30 years old. On a more somber level, the “mystic chords of memory” to which Lincoln once appealed to stop war are fraying because of the not so mystic replacement of people’s brains with 20-30 years of bad television. It’s memory, alright, just like a flash drive full of pornography is technically memory.

In my reading, the poem presents this scenario: as one notices the lengthening days accumulate, one becomes enamored of the present. The days of long ago — one’s own days, the days of one’s ancestors — feel that much more remote. The title, “Yearning for the Past,” is crucial to the action. The reverie of an endless present becomes haunted by the prospect of the past slipping away. The poet begins yearning for the past even though the present has additional weight. I read “lengthening days” as days with more daylight, more to see and do. Yes, one is getting older — one could even be old — but it’s like that much more can be done with the time given. I realize this is not everyone’s experience, and it is possible to try to read “lengthening days accumulate” as simply “days accumulate,” as if there’s just getting older while life plods on.

Will the past slip away if it is not made an object of intense yearning? Funny enough, this is not the concern of the citizen or the philosopher as much as the artist or politician. Artists see themselves in dialogue with those who have done like work and engaged the same themes, and serious lawmakers depend on a sense of history, precedent, and value to make laws last. It is a profound individual concern, but not because there was some magic time in life when everything was better. That’s the naive sentiment which finds itself manipulated more often than not. It’s profound when it wonders how the past reconciles with a growing present. It’s profound when it sees the past not as an answer, but a question remaining to be answered.

References

Sawa, Yuki and Edith Shiffert. Haiku Master Buson. Union City, California: Heian, 1978.

Jane Hirshfield, “All the Difficult Hours and Minutes”

Really, there is no better beginning. All the difficult hours and minutes are like salted plums in a jar. You taste the sweet, the sour, the salt all too much. Too much, purposefully. You collected every single hour and minute and worked to preserve each of them. Their singular intensity is your doing:

All the Difficult Hours and Minutes (from Poetry)
Jane Hirshfield

All the difficult hours and minutes
are like salted plums in a jar.
Wrinkled, turn steeply into themselves,
they mutter something the color of sharkfins to the glass.
Just so, calamity turns toward calmness.
First the jar holds the umeboshi, then the rice does.

The poem demonstrates wisdom in not turning to blame. It only documents how one’s collection of difficult hours and minutes turns. Wrinkled, turn steeply into themselves, they mutter something the color of sharkfins to the glass. The difficult hours and minutes are personified — we can see ourselves in the wrinkles, the steep turn inward, the muttering of something indistinct and partially violent — but they are emphatically not us. They’re in a jar, being preserved, and it is up to us to use them.

I wonder how our preservation of a moment, our sometimes purposeful anxiety, can completely overwhelm our sense of control. It’s so strange that we should completely identify with an object, even an object within us. To be clear, Hirshfield displays a distinctive wisdom. She didn’t avoid my question by focusing on plums in a jar. Her poem preserves it in making our preservation of a personified object its conceit.

How did I invest so much in a difficult time? How did I let regret become an unstable mountain of bricks? Just so, calamity turns toward calmness. It isn’t clear whether one recognizes that one has more self-control, or whether circumstance forces one to use more self-control — calamity, to say the least, is a very strong word. Those salted plums were preserved by my willpower for a variety of reasons, some of them secretly good. They were meant to be a delicacy, brought out at the right time, making the dish not just worthwhile, but spectacular. First the jar holds the umeboshi, then the rice does.

Amy King, “I’ve Opted for a Heart This Mid-November Morn”

I know and you know that the world is cold. Not only unfeeling, but lacking clear motive. Not only lacking motive, but subconsciously cruel, looking for opportunities to inflict pain. However, we have been told to embrace difficulties, to take the worst and grow — somehow. This proposition can resonate, convincing, natural, ennobling. How to find ivory’s antecedent among these drifts of snow, restore the clover to its buried frozen form?

I’ve Opted for a Heart This Mid-November Morn (from Big Bridge)
Amy King

How to find ivory’s antecedent among these drifts of snow,
restore the clover to its buried frozen form?
And what about
the girl with loneliness, her lush medium dressed in birds?
Inside the dress embraces a range of mercurial gazes,
an advanced degree in gleaning eyes
from the wrist that turns the curves into contagious angles.
It is hard not to die, and yet here, the singer and sewer, one,
stitch a voice into the actual road. We ambulate each alone,
pressing stuffed figures to our chests, wailing silence
for a warmer bosom feathered, opposite our own.

“Ivory’s antecedent,” what makes purity pure, lies lost in winter. Painful to try and find, it is an emotional and intellectual cruelty. The assumption, the hope: what underlies winter is spring, that pains exist relative to a good, that there is a natural love. A clover’s buried frozen form stands ideal, lovely, even as it threatens that the clover itself is only imagined.

On the one hand, then, there’s a heartfelt search for spring. On the other hand, a searcher has many other feelings, insecurities, thoughts — what about the girl with loneliness, her lush medium dressed in birds? A heartfelt search can be distracted, tangential, imaginative, fragmented. She has the desire to fly, perfectly natural when watching everything else fly away.

She also has the desire to fly away. Finding “ivory’s antecedent” is more than a theoretical challenge, as you could say she’s hoping for hope. Loneliness crushes, especially when she’s working to be sensitive to how beautiful and perishable the world is. That same world objectifies her, keeps her at its chosen distance, uses her for its purposes. Her own imagination, keenly aware of this, relentlessly identifies the “gazes” and “gleaning eyes” in which she’s wrapped: Inside the dress embraces a range of mercurial gazes, an advanced degree in gleaning eyes from the wrist that turns the curves into contagious angles.

Yet the tone of the poem stands hopeful. “I’ve Opted for a Heart” reaches out to us, the readers, the immediate audience. We don’t simply relate to her, we bear witness. It is hard not to die, and yet here, the singer and sewer, one, stitch a voice into the actual road. The singer and sewer of the poem herself stitches our gazes into her voice, crafting a path, an “actual road.” Humans are talking animals, and a fuller understanding lies in the unity of that voice. Her search for “ivory’s antecedent” is the same as her “lush medium dressed in birds.” Not that she feels one thing, but she has worked to better understand how she feels. She can see more easily how appropriative gazes and glances hide all around us, and through her identification, we have become aware. If she didn’t speak, we would not potentially fulfill our nature.

Still, while opting for a heart — wanting to love — entails love, it doesn’t complete us. We ambulate each alone. We’re all children, all birds, pressing stuffed figures to our chests, wailing silence for a warmer bosom feathered, opposite our own. There’s a lot of pain, and awareness of people’s cruelty is certainly not progress. Ivory’s antecedent has been found, though. There is some sort of innocence in the snow this mid-November morning.

Emily Dickinson, “No Prisoner be” (720)

You relax, it works, the thought strikes. Wait a second, I couldn’t have done this before? I could have hit “Start” and switched the game to “Easy?” You’ve made life a lot easier in one respect. Why can’t you take control of everything? Why should you ever feel oppressed? Heck, let’s go further and say that no one has truly been a prisoner:

No Prisoner be (720)
Emily Dickinson

No Prisoner be —
Where Liberty —
Himself — abide with Thee —

This feels a bit dated after saturation with the Existentialist claim that you can always choose how you feel. No Prisoner be — Where Liberty — Himself — abide with Thee. Still, I hope to memorize and use it. It is not a theorem, but a proposition or declaration. It’s a mantra, said because you’re feeling like you could be a prisoner, could imprison yourself.

It’s a subtle mantra, spelling out thinking about one’s oppression. Of course people are prisoners, of course people are oppressed. You would be worse than foolish — you would be cruel — if you denied that. “No Prisoner be — Where Liberty — Himself — abide with Thee.” Liberty ultimately resides within oneself. The religious language, “abide with Thee,” is next to “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” Be godly and God resides within you. Again, I need not list the numerous examples of people being murdered and tortured precisely because they were free or could be free.

So what exactly is Liberty? Is it an attitude of remaining unbroken when pressed? Is it self-control, finding what one can deal with and working from there? Is it a species of reason, something like understanding the terms of one’s confinement or problems? Could it be a belief in the transcendent, that regardless of the mistakes one makes now, those who abused their power will face consequences, and the prisoner shall be set free?

Dickinson has stayed purposefully vague. “Where” and “abide” are the only guides she gives for thinking through this. The path to knowing better is through place. In bad situations, you have to shift the place, as external conditions have to matter far less than how one conditions oneself and responds. That might sound like the same trite self-help talk all over again, but I think you can see the mantra has blossomed. It started with the ludicrous — you might never be a prisoner — and then showed us that our freedom means nothing without us. We have the right to think about what it means to be free in terrible situations, not worrying so much about our answers being wrong. We are right, and the freest of all, when we can model Liberty himself.