Miron Białoszewski, “Autoportrait as felt”

Autoportrait as felt (from unz.org)
Miron Białoszewski (tr. Czesław Miłosz)

They look at me
so probably I have a face.
Of all the faces known
I remember least my own.

Often my hands
live in absolute separation.
Should I then count them as mine?
Where are my limits?
I am overgrown by
movement or half-life.

Yet always is crawling in me
full or not full
existence

I bear by myself
a place of my own.
When I lose it
it will mean I am not.

I am not,
so I do not doubt.

Comment:

Titus and I did another podcast, this time on a poem of Białoszewski’s. It’s a jokey, philosophic poem with a fun narrator, and you’ll love the discussion. We’ve really improved since the first one, but are still working on our banter:

A walk down the street feels a little bit creepy, if someone utters the first lines: “They look at me[,] so I probably have a face.” Talk about awkward!

Still, the skeptical reasoning serves a purpose. The narrative voice wants to construct his experience out of what he knows. This may seem backwards to us, but he gives a compelling reason for the project: “Of all the faces known / I remember least my own.” Proust mentions how what we think about people comes to define our visual image of them. If someone is seen as disloyal and ungrateful, then we will see them that way, no matter how beautiful or handsome they are to others. Weirdly, this process would be a benefit to our narrator in his quest. If he could associate a proposition defining himself with his face, it would be memorable.

Just as he wonders about his face, he wonders about his hands:

Often my hands
live in absolute separation.
Should I then count them as mine?
Where are my limits?
I am overgrown by
movement or half-life.

Because the hands live in “absolute separation,” he does not know whether they are his or not. As hands are to possession, a face is to perception. He cannot know his hands are his because he cannot hold them; the typical criterion for possession is absent. Similarly, perception depends on having a face, but what to say when you can’t perceive yourself adequately?

The questions joke, but also convey a certain seriousness. The narrator is unclear on his humanity: “Where are my limits?” No face, no hands: is he human? An indistinguishable blob? More than himself? “I am overgrown by movement or half-life:” in movement, he has to step beyond something, always. “Half-life” I take to refer to the problem of his face. He cannot see himself, but can only see how others react to what he thinks is himself. In both cases of “movement” and “half-life,” he is too much.

Resolution of this problem involves a movement from human being to simply being:

Yet always is crawling in me
full or not full
existence

“Always is crawling in me,” as no matter what, he is a being-in-time. Whether or not his existence is full, or felt “not full,” like the doubting stanzas above indicate, he is because he is in time. This is not an uncomplicated proposition. It does create a sort of solace, as it accepts vague boundaries for himself. His burden is a place of his own:

I bear by myself
a place of my own.

A statement of resolve, but immediately challenged by the consequence of placing oneself squarely as a temporal being:

When I lose it
it will mean I am not.

In trying to find solace in simply being, one has to accept what at first seems like a strength. No matter how much one changes, one bears a place of his own. You are, no matter how much you change. You are a space for transformation. Unfortunately, this exposes the difference between simply being and talking about simply being. The latter, the words or logos if you will, can never be the same thing as actually existing. The narrator is taking solace in the words, in what he associates with the realization “always is crawling in me / full or not full existence.” If he loses this association, he should die a metaphorical death, no? “When I lose it / it will mean I am not.”

Does this mean the reflection was worthless? It did start from jokey premises and perhaps found courage too quickly. But I don’t think it was at all; as Titus and I discuss on the podcast, there are people with half their faces blown off, people who quite literally aren’t sure their hands are theirs. Anxiety and trauma make you question your place in the world, and you are forced into radical lines of inquiry in order to remember that you are still alive and can find purpose.

In that light, the final Cartesian joke makes perfect sense:

I am not,
so I do not doubt.

“I am not [a particular thing],” I am indeterminate – the emphasis is on the crawling of the always. Hence no doubt in the direction of the logos, no doubt until the burden is lost, simultaneously with the speaker himself.

Wislawa Szymborska, “Love at First Sight”

Love at First Sight (from mission.net)
Wislawa Szymborska (tr. Walter Whipple)

Both are convinced
that a sudden surge of emotion bound them together.
Beautiful is such a certainty,
but uncertainty is more beautiful.

Because they didn’t know each other earlier, they suppose that
nothing was happening between them.
What of the streets, stairways and corridors
where they could have passed each other long ago?

I’d like to ask them
whether they remember– perhaps in a revolving door
ever being face to face?
an “excuse me” in a crowd
or a voice “wrong number” in the receiver.
But I know their answer:
no, they don’t remember.

They’d be greatly astonished
to learn that for a long time
chance had been playing with them.

Not yet wholly ready
to transform into fate for them
it approached them, then backed off,
stood in their way
and, suppressing a giggle,
jumped to the side.

There were signs, signals:
but what of it if they were illegible.
Perhaps three years ago,
or last Tuesday
did a certain leaflet fly
from shoulder to shoulder?
There was something lost and picked up.
Who knows but what it was a ball
in the bushes of childhood.

There were doorknobs and bells
on which earlier
touch piled on touch.
Bags beside each other in the luggage room.
Perhaps they had the same dream on a certain night,
suddenly erased after waking.

Every beginning
is but a continuation,
and the book of events
is never more than half open.

Comment:

Titus and I made another podcast. I think you’ll notice substantial improvement over the last one, even though the poem is longer and more unwieldy. Definitely encourage you to listen and give feedback – more will be coming:

A very complicated poem, which introduces itself like a romantic comedy. “Both are convinced that a sudden surge of emotion bound them together.” A sudden surge of emotion! Blood rushes into the head and heart and there’s love love love everywhere and everyone is convinced of it and it amazes all the time.

Well, not everyone stands convinced. The poem employs a peculiar narrator, one who sounds an awful lot like the couple’s worst delusions while trying to analyze the situation. To wit: who exactly says the following?

Beautiful is such a certainty,
but uncertainty is more beautiful.

This could be the musing of the narrator or the couple. Maybe uncertainty is always more beautiful. Or maybe we’re talking about how we didn’t know each other before, we were so uncertain, but that leads to being certain about each other in an uncertain world.

The narrator wants to know what constitutes “love at first sight.” To this end, she tries to get a grip on what the couple knew or experienced beforehand and what that means for love:

Because they didn’t know each other earlier, they suppose that
nothing was happening between them.
What of the streets, stairways and corridors
where they could have passed each other long ago?

An obstacle appears: how the couple regards their experience of love now turns out to be central (“they suppose that nothing was happening between them [before]”). This initially provokes all the more the question of whether they were led anywhere (Titus rightly emphasizes the word “corridors”) when they were walking around. “What of the streets, stairways and corridors where they could have passed each other long ago?”

“Love at first sight” must be answerable! “I’d like to ask them whether they remember– perhaps in a revolving door ever being face to face? [A]n “excuse me” in a crowd or a voice “wrong number” in the receiver.” And just like that, our speaker has to back off: “But I know their answer: no, they don’t remember.” Perhaps they will construct epic stories about near-miss encounters for the wedding album. Still, there are two reasons why they don’t remember now. First, “love at first sight,” strictly speaking, doesn’t allow it. Second, we have to treat them as if they’re acting in good faith for the purposes of the inquiry. They legitimately don’t remember; they will not admit their muddled memories as evidence.

Our speaker has to change course. “Love at first sight” refuses to give us a causal chain of events. It refuses even to acknowledge a more charitable explanation of itself: perhaps we build our lives a certain way, we learn to love a certain way, and then we actually see what we love. In the face of this obstinance, she proposes a story both she and the starry-eyed lovers can agree on. Maybe “chance” played with the lovers instead, the whole time. And maybe “chance” was a child, waiting to turn into fate:

They’d be greatly astonished
to learn that for a long time
chance had been playing with them.

Not yet wholly ready
to transform into fate for them
it approached them, then backed off,
stood in their way
and, suppressing a giggle,
jumped to the side.

I’m not entirely sure why the couple would be “greatly astonished” that chance played with them. In a way, it is “love at first sight:” isn’t it a chance encounter that brought them together? I guess that in another way, it cuts against “love at first sight.” If one actually sees and loves now, then what does the past matter, whether it is explainable or not?

What stands out most from these stanzas is the childishness of chance: “approached them, then backed off, stood in their way and, suppressing a giggle, jumped to the side.” An inquiry into “love at first sight” cannot yield a rational explanation. But it does not find pure chance at work, either. It finds something primal, first, developing, playful. It finds something that’s us, but is difficult, if not impossible, to explain. The poem begins to illustrate this more:

There were signs, signals:
but what of it if they were illegible.
Perhaps three years ago,
or last Tuesday
did a certain leaflet fly
from shoulder to shoulder?
There was something lost and picked up.
Who knows but what it was a ball
in the bushes of childhood.

Illegible signs and signals; a floating leaflet; something lost and picked up. The world is intelligible for an observer. The couple is in the midst of the world, though, experiencing love now and before that, simply experiencing. Even if everything about them is written down, it’s all around them, but only all around them. Only the speaker sees something lost and picked up. They can’t – they can only see “love” and “not in love.” Their love will rewrite history, but for now, it is obvious that “love at first sight,” in a strange way, is not questionable. This doesn’t mean it actually exists or is the most amazing thing and couples that proclaim they loved each other instantly aren’t immature and awful. It means that an air of nostalgia, the “ball in the bushes of childhood,” is more indicative of what can be known about the situation than any attempt at a “reasonable” account.

What “love at first sight” ultimately concerns is growth and belief. Our speaker has discovered, in her probing, this to be more a declaration than an explanation. And maybe declarations are all the more necessary, given how parallel our lives can be in this world, never intersecting for the sake of friendship or community, much less love:

There were doorknobs and bells
on which earlier
touch piled on touch.
Bags beside each other in the luggage room.
Perhaps they had the same dream on a certain night,
suddenly erased after waking.

The corridors from before, as Titus noted, lead to doorknobs and bells. Houses stand separate, individual, all the “touch piled on touch” going nowhere. “Bags beside each other in the luggage room” stands out to me as the heart of the poem. We’re constantly with other people, “with” them while being completely absent from their lives. Everyone could be dreaming about everyone else, and it’s utterly meaningless. “Love at first sight,” as awful and stupid and cliched as it is, might be a start:

Every beginning
is but a continuation,
and the book of events
is never more than half open.

The only thing I want to add to this discussion is that Szymborska relentlessly asks “What is X?” questions. This particular poem is driven by “What is love at first sight?” On the audio recording, you can hear criticism of the conduct of philosophy nowadays. Many seem to dismiss things that actually matter to people as pseudoscience, rendering it nonsense. I think there’s a value, though, to knowing that the way we perceive the world, ourselves, and others is pretty much pseudoscience no matter what we do. That to appreciate the hard and wonderful truths of the natural sciences all the more, maybe we should learn how to ask questions, and understand the limits of the questions we raise. I still do think couples proclaiming “love at first sight” is pretty much narcissistic gibberish. But I see its value in a whole new light, thanks to a poem.

Wislawa Szymborska, “Metaphysics”

Metaphysics
Wislawa Szymborska (tr. Clare Cavanagh & Stanislaw Barańczak)

It’s been and gone.
It’s been, so it’s gone.
In the same irreversible order,
for such is the rule of this foregone game.
A trite conclusion, not worth writing
if it weren’t an unquestionable fact,
a fact for ever and ever,
for the whole cosmos, as it is and will be,
that something really was
until it was gone,
even the fact
that today you had a side of fries.

Comment:

Titus Techera and I discuss this poem at length. Sometimes we get off track, but we decided that we get into enough themes and ideas that it’s worth having this on in the background at least. I do apologize for talking way too much during this, speculating wildly and stupidly many a time:

For those who prefer a written comment: Titus began discussion with an eye to the repetition which opens the poem. “It’s been and gone. / It’s been, so it’s gone.” “It’s been and gone” joins the past to our experience of the past, still holding each separately. “It’s been, so it’s gone” treats the past more like a cause of our experience.

In any case, both iterations of it’s been/it’s gone can be uttered truly, as the speaker sounds shaken by loss. If there are principles which underlie the universe, ones discoverable by human reason, they only point to the absurdity of it all: “[been and gone are] in the same irreversible order, for such is the rule of this foregone game.” What has passed, or more importantly who has passed, has become separate from her. The intelligibility of the whole only makes the tragedy that much greater; a rational animal has dissolved, as if it only existed to be subject to a law.

The mourning continues. “A trite conclusion” was reached, and it wasn’t worth writing about, except that it was an “unquestionable fact.” This sounds less an argument, and more an expression of grief. The poem exists, after all. “A fact for ever and ever, for the whole cosmos, as it is and will be.” A marked emphasis on the past in the first half of the poem has now given way to the present and the future. There is a glimmer of hope, even though the dead have dissolved into a number of propositions, never to be united again. That hope may be stated such. The permanence of the whole cosmos, of which the beloved was a part, has received them in such a way that they will be found, in some form or other. At some point, some important aspect of them will be recognized, will be present.

It’s small comfort. The title “Metaphysics” is a dark joke about metaphysical thinking itself. A focus on questions of being, rational principles underlying experience and the cosmos, what must exist and what must be true, gives way to something far more essential, far more blunt. “Metaphysics” is “after nature,” after this natural course has been run through. And so:

…something really was
until it was gone,
even the fact
that today you had a side of fries.

Titus and I spoke about how shocking and jokey the end seems to be. “Something really was” is the emotional climax of the poem, the reality of the past and the reality of experience impressing on one’s mind even more urgently than before. Then, all of a sudden, Szymborska ends with “even the fact that today you had a side of fries.” It’s not a hard truth, too harshly stated. It’s the first time the poem visibly gets personal, moving away from abstract concepts to an item someone liked to eat, maybe every day.

Miron Białoszewski, “Garwolin – a town for ever”

Happy Independence Day


Garwolin — a town for ever
(from unz.org)
Miron Białoszewski (tr. Czesław Miłosz)

garlic like a pearl… why? garlic is but garlic

tiny umptytown
its winter is peeling

over the town
the sky of garlic
thence for the town
days are like garlic braids
dont you feel by chance
in those peels
the pressure of Roman legions?
and on the garlic flesh
a Spain skidding?
and in the bitterness of juice
a sophist?

Comment:

Not only do heroes and empires make history, but so do tiny towns, even ones permeated thoroughly by garlic. The “tiny umptytown,” “a town for ever,” has a “sky of garlic” which peels as winter progresses. It is eternal, possessing “days like garlic braids.” Everydayness and endurance, manifest in those braids, don’t immediately alert us to a deeper meaning.

We therefore wonder about the garlic itself. Is it a pearl? “Dont you [Garwolin] feel by chance in those peels the pressure of Roman legions?” As time goes on, things repeat, and the past is found again. Do note that Garwolin lost 70% of the city in WWII, with at least 1000 occupants murdered by the Nazis and several thousand deported to camps.

Things repeat, but experience ends: “[dont you feel] on the garlic flesh a Spain skidding?” Winter will go, and it will feel like warmer times have fallen. Like a good has been achieved. “In the bitterness of juice[,] a sophist:” not the absurdity of experience, certainly not clever rhetoric or pseudoscience for power’s sake. I think Białoszewski is very precise here. The heart of the town’s experience is bitter. Strictly speaking, sophists deny justice as natural; it is something we make up. They leave the door open for those who might be more manipulative. A too honest Garwolin has a powerful rationale for embracing such a thesis.

Still, the town contains multitudes, but its garlicky everydayness, its persistence, stands all the more remarkable. Its dreary conventionality points to its belief.

Miron Białoszewski, “A ballad of going down to the store”

With thanks to K.

A ballad of going down to the store (from unz.org)
Miron Białoszewski (tr. Czesław Miłosz)

First I went down to the store
by the stairs,
ah, imagine only,
by the stairs.

Then people known to people unknown
passed me by and I passed them by.
Regret
That you did not see
how people walk,
regret!!

I entered a complete store:
lamps of glass were burning.
I saw somebody — he sat down —
and what I heard? what I heard?
rustling of bags and human talk.

And indeed,
indeed,
I returned.

Comment:

Initially, this reads like the rantings of a crazy person (I should know. I’ve read my own writing plenty). An intense, lonely, mystical relationship with objects and motion develops over three stanzas. First, a celebration of going to the store by the stairs: “ah, imagine only, by the stairs.” Then, he rebukes himself, exclaiming “you [yourself] did not see how people walk, regret!!” The speaker, talking to himself the whole time throughout the poem, reaches a strange height when he enters “a complete store: lamps of glass[…] burning.”

The speaker’s ecstasy is far from inhuman. He defines the store as “by the stairs,” whether or not the store is actually close to his residence being irrelevant. The journey starts as a descent, and an imagined proximity to the store indicates a feeling of self-sufficiency. This carries over into his want to preserve every bit of the familiar and not-as-familiar. Memory is a privilege. I know it’s the little details – the brightness of a smile, a funny, peculiar walk, a certain turn of the head – that I need most to remember those who matter most. Our speaker needs these details to build upon his self-sufficiency, to make it worth that much more.

Yet, it is worth quite a bit already. His narration sees the everyday as miraculous; he effuses gratefulness. The store is no less than “complete,” and “lamps of glass” burn, giving light and warmth, bright orbs on earth. The descent has become an ascent, ironically enough, with touches of a divine vision.

What seems to break the spell: “rustling of bags and human talk.” Possessiveness and neediness may be suggested in the image of shopping bags, but they are not half the problem of other people talking. To see the world as miraculous requires an intense focus. People are appreciated as they simply are, no other words necessary. The amazing things people have made – stairs, stores, lamps – these too require no additional speech. Our speaker returns to his home, having given no indication of speaking to anyone, only listening. The repetitions in this poem, the descent, the other humans seeming so alien all make me feel like the speaker has depicted himself as a bird. In which case, a puzzle, connected to an almost distant image. Birds were once thought to be souls. Why is the purity of the soul both most humane and anti-social at the same time?

Plans, 6/22/15

Oh, so many.

Need to rewrite everything on the blog. This probably will take the rest of my life, so I’m more than happy to make gradual improvements when I can. I’ll start with a few tags and categories and let you know as they’ve been cleaned up. Only tag/category I’m feeling comfortable with right now concerns Charles Simic. Those commentaries aren’t perfect, but they’re clear enough. They follow the narrative of the poems closely and the poems, it goes without saying, are terrific.

Need to blog three times a week, and not like this. Real blogging, where I bring a poem, work of visual art, piece of music, essay, graphic novel – you know, something different – for consideration. The more I waste time online the more I’m convinced that what goes on here is unique. There’s lots of fancy prose everywhere. Lots of thoughts that are too clean and too sharp: they describe our more conventional ideas or our ideological positions. They don’t really grapple with others’ opinions, much less with reality. It goes without saying that I don’t, either. But there seems to be a virtue in not being polished enough to fool oneself with the beauty of one’s own sentences.

Things that I have lying around that I would like to write about:

  • a book on Picasso and Degas. Apparently Picasso saw a bunch of paintings by Degas depicting the same area of Paris in which he lived. Picasso responded to those paintings with paintings of his own.
  • Nietzsche, “Daybreak” – every time I go to it, it’s too dense, but I end up thinking about it all day.
  • Herodotus – up to book 6 now, have even read a few secondary sources (very few, to be sure).
  • Wislawa Szymborska, Charles Simic, Seamus Heaney, Dickinson, Buson, Czeslaw Milosz – this is the poetry lying around the apartment.
  • A video game called “Endless Legend” which is a lot like Civilization IV. I’m messing up each time I play it, though.

Writing this little update feels so pretentious. I spent most of the day looking stuff up on Wikipedia and browsing news feeds looking for something to write. I also drank a lot of coffee for some odd reason. I wish I could say I lived in this realm of ideas where Dickinson talked to Yeats and witnessing that I learned something about the nature of the universe if it is conceived in 358 dimensions.

It’s more like this: I’m just looking for anything that is relatable. That’s a feeling, and putting it into words and describing it fully is chancy. I don’t envy anyone with the task of explaining why something has relevance.

P.S. I’m using twitter more – you can feel free to add me there – and if you want to help, I could use subscribers to this blog’s feed. I’m trying to update twice a week, at least.

State of Denial, 6/20/15

Jeb Bush made headlines earlier today for saying he didn’t know what was in the heart and mind of the Charleston shooter. To future generations of this and other civilizations: the shooter went into a black church and killed 9 people at Bible study because, in his words, he wanted to start a race war.

It gets better, and by better, I mean a lot worse. Rand Paul, who in many ways has been powerful, progressive, and substantial on matters of race and policing, seems to have avoided race when discussing the same topic later. Paul: “There’s a sickness in our country… it’s people not understanding where salvation comes from.” The price of being too tactful, of not trying to alienate voters who think racism is just an excuse for people to get free stuff from the government (by “voters,” I mean racist assholes), is that idiots will speak more volubly on the matter. Rick Perry, of course, said the shooting was an accident. He meant “incident,” but the context doesn’t do him any favors, as the context was sniping at the President for even suggesting that maybe guns shouldn’t end up in the hands of insane people who want to commit mass murder. And Rudy Giuliani, race-baiter extraordinaire, hit a new moral low for the sake of pandering to racists who watch too much TV.

Amanda Terkel asked: “Why are people so unwilling just to admit that the shooter was racist, with racist motives? Not sure why it’s so hard.” I’ve outlined my answer above: an indirect pandering to paranoiacs and racists, who, whether or not they are a majority of GOP primary voters, are perceived by GOP politicians themselves to be too important to offend, means doing everything possible to foster doubt with the proposition that race is still a problem. If you can deny race is a problem in this country, or at least, say to anyone bringing up the topic that they don’t have solid evidence for bringing it up (or better yet, call them “the real racist”), you can allow people to focus on your other messages. For example, your fantasy flat tax proposal that virtually no one except ideologues can support. Or name-calling.  Unfortunately, what happens when you try to steer clear of race is, again, that the worst voices win out. We haven’t just borne witness to dehumanization, we’ve borne witness to people defending it (i.e. choking an unarmed nonviolent individual is fine if he’s technically resisting arrest). You can meet the most conservative youth in our country, as I have for years. If I begin to outline the racism and hatred I’ve witnessed from some (most certainly not all) firsthand, you’ll move to Canada. The stunning thing is how ingrained it is: there’s no need for any overt discrimination. You can make other people feel like second-class citizens a million different ways.

You might say I’m cheating in my argument, as I’m going to the anecdotal and personal precisely where I need the most concrete evidence. But I’d say just look around you: at some point, I can’t win this argument, I don’t want to win an argument. What I want to say is that I’ve had certain experiences that you’ve had, if you think about it. And the dots connect all too easily with leaders who can’t even say we have a problem with race, because to say that would be to admit that maybe electing the current President, for all his faults, for all the disagreements I have and you should have with him, was a significant moment in our nation’s history. That maybe the United States of America is better than partisanship. That maybe it stands for something greater, which we all work toward.

The more serious counterargument to me is this: maybe we don’t need to talk about race all the time. That is certainly true. We may need to talk about class. Unfortunately, to merely mention that term, one which the Founders and everyone who was serious about Constitutionalism throughout the ages could discuss at length, is to invite charges of being called a Marxist.

I do think there’s hope. That’s why I’m writing and being as blunt as I can about this. These aren’t just media “gaffes” you’ve witnessed the past couple of days. They’re stemming from something far darker and awful, and many in positions of leadership think it is prudent to avoid the topic altogether. What they forget is that prudence is ultimately the preservation of value. Anyone or anything can be useful; the question is whether you can stand for something when all is said and done. Because of their denial, the heroism of the victims stands so much greater. (I dare you to click that link and not cry.) Maybe they deserve better than to have a Confederate flag fly over their heads and walk streets named by Confederate generals. Maybe they deserve justice and equality, the very things we say we profess.

Emily Dickinson, “Wild Nights — Wild Nights!” (249)

Wild Nights — Wild Nights! (249)
Emily Dickinson

Wild Nights — Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile — the Winds —
To a Heart in port —
Done with the Compass —
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden —
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor — Tonight —
In Thee!

Comment:

The previous reflection, on Wislawa Szymborska’s “Vermeer,” might be read as a jeremiad against lust. To produce one was certainly not my intent. I am far more interested in how a pattern of behavior an entire society is built to combat comes to rule that very society. “The Milkmaid,” I am guessing, slyly demonstrates that proposition while pointing to a solution. Without preaching an end to lust, positing some perfect superhuman realm, it quietly shows beauty in work, in everyday living.

In any case, let us move on to another everyday concern, that of physical attraction. We bear witness to Emily Dickinson shouting about “Wild Nights:”

Wild Nights — Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Well, that wasn’t terribly subtle. The lowercase “thee” signifies an earthly beloved; three successive rhymes (thee / be / luxury) help create a song for him. So this poem’s done, right? Not quite, for he has not deigned to show himself (“were I with thee”):

Futile — the Winds —
To a Heart in port —
Done with the Compass —
Done with the Chart!

“Futile,” beginning the second stanza, stuns. All the passion, music, desire before may have gone nowhere. So she conflates her beloved’s absence with her certainty of feeling. Because he is not with her, her Heart is in port, the Winds are futile. No need for a compass, no need for a chart. She will not go anywhere. Her declaration of strength in terms of sailing imagery implies, though, that the beloved is going wherever he wishes.

One might think our speaker deludes herself. I’m not sure that is the case. She’s carefully working through what her siren song means. The promise of pleasure for both, “our luxury,” depends on her remaining superhumanly steadfast. She has to embrace futility in order to make a plea. This does mean she has resolved her heart, to a degree (“futile the winds”). However, there is a trade-off: a lack of direction and planning (“compass,” “chart”).

Her attempt at ecstatic music could turn to anguish. Instead, aware of the trade-off, she wants to make the plea as best she can, yet still remains conscious of more:

Rowing in Eden —
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor — Tonight —
In Thee!

Is she or the beloved “rowing in Eden?” Either way, her gaze is now toward the Sea. Because she’s detailed her love and its limits, she understands that being in one place may not be the best thing for her. “Wild Nights,” accordingly, turns to “Tonight:” not necessarily the sexual independence of the one-night stand, but definitely a demand that she be given her proper regard now. She can be steadfast, or she can move away. Under no circumstances will she be untrue to herself. Rowing in Eden is the same as traveling the Sea, for someone willing to risk love. The capitalized “Thee” I take in the sense of searching for Love, Love encompassing both sexuality and her own dignity.

Wislawa Szymborska, “Vermeer”

Vermeer
Wislawa Szymborska (tr. Clare Cavanagh & Stanislaw Barańczak)

So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
the World hasn’t earned
the world’s end.

Comment:

Johannes Vermeer, "The Milkmaid," composed 1657-1658.

Johannes Vermeer, “The Milkmaid,” composed 1657-1658.

Not even our age, with a supposed concern for rights, a profession to end objectification, has grasped how dehumanizing lust can be. Certainly, it starts with putting people into crude categories, defining them by sexual desirability or availability. Then, it gets worse, sometimes a lot worse in more moralistic circles, which preach against the sins of the flesh. No matter what, anyone with the smallest fragment of conscience would have to question themselves and attempt justification. But when you already live rightly – say, in a severely religious society where women must cover up completely with no regard given for their work – there are no such questions. There is only the way you see things, and lust, which can collapse into the worst neediness for power and control, may be easily confused for love, if it does not replace love altogether. (The Duggars, if you’re keeping score, are only the tip of the iceberg. Ask yourself why that show was so popular, and you’ll find a very uncomfortable truth about the conception of family in America).

So: in Vermeer’s time, depictions of milkmaids or kitchen maids as “willing” abounded. Milk was sexually suggestive, as were jugs and onions and pretty much everything. The elements of such symbolism are in this painting: a wide-mouthed jug, milk, a foot warmer and Cupid on a tile (the last two are in the lower right). But if one declared this painting nothing but sexual innuendo, one would be crazy. Rather, it’s Vermeer’s time that’s oversexed.

The painting does not appeal to a pristine morality, uncorrupted by lewdness, to give its subject dignity. The foot warmer and tile with Cupid are off to the lower right, completely ignored by her. Her focus rests on pouring the milk, which she does very carefully. She matches the table with the blue she wears, and her stance, gaze, and the table itself form a powerful triangle. An intense light from the window brightens the kitchen.

Why does she pour the milk so carefully? One scholar argues that she’s making bread pudding, where broken, stale bread becomes more than useful if the proportions are right. Szymborska’s comment, on that note, makes perfect sense to me. The worst aspects of our desire, where we will put others down for nothing, can be transcended by a willingness to see what is, who we actually are. The everydayness of the scene, the utility of her ongoing work, are given a little extra adornment by the painting, sure. But that the painting itself could be read as turning an entire “tradition” of debauchery on its head – well, that’s the possibility which keeps the world going.

References and Notes

Credit to Wikipedia for most, if not all, of the history and insights in the above discussion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Milkmaid_%28Vermeer%29

The scholar who argues she makes bread pudding is one Harry Rand. Again, thanks to Wikipedia for this.

Charles Simic, “In the Street”

In the Street
Charles Simic

Beauty, dark goddess,

We met and parted
As though we parted not.

Like two stopped watches
In a dusty store window,

One golden morning of time.

Comment:

Weird, this maturity thing. Adolescent desire and all the desperate, stupid thought accompanying should fall away, no? Yet it doesn’t seem to work like that. I don’t know that there’s any consistent, recognizable marker of a mature love, despite the fact such love obviously exists.

Instead, a peculiar sort of reflection attends some. A few of us especially cling to our inexperienced, pathetic, idealistic selves. Maybe we don’t, or can’t, know any better: the want to feel completely justified is all-too-powerful. Or maybe we want to know the spell we’re under, and how exactly it works. I already regret the last two sentences, which make it sound like there’s a good and bad way to feel. It’s more like there’s pain, and thus an inescapable self-questioning and curiosity.

With “Beauty, dark goddess,” an impersonal power is acknowledged as supreme and addressed. Our passerby may be too cynical for love; he may see the possessor of beauty as also too cynical. Either way, I take this to be a symptom of the sort of reflection introduced above. Our cool-customer narrator has probably learned to deal with pain to a degree. But what exactly has he learned? How significant is it?

“We met and parted / As though we parted not:” because beauty has been abstracted from an actual person, this is easy to observe and declare. Beauty must stay in the eye of the beholder, as it would cease to exist otherwise. The lover, the beholder, is the source of beauty. Which leads to a strange consequence: the inspiration stands distinct from the source. In fact, it moves away. Beauty removes itself, and in so doing, gives birth to beauty.

Where does this leave one? Just smitten in the street? There is not much more to do but smile. Maybe the big difference between a younger and older self is a sense of self-worth, one which doesn’t depend on a “dark goddess,” but recognizes moments for what they are:

Like two stopped watches
In a dusty store window,

One golden morning of time.

We came into being as dust and will return. We are in moments. Our narrator creates her beauty; his utility makes him distinct, parallel, separate. Still, it’s a game to be an admirer, to glance and move on. To be admired rises from some sense of standards or expectations. The only true reconciliation between the two is in the sunlight, bathing a most artificial scene with warmth.