George Szirtes, “Travel Notes”

Travel Notes (originally posted on facebook)
George Szirtes

Outside, the mountains blunted
by the soft darkness.


We are all alone
in the spaces between words,
in breaths, in commas.


Before early dawn.
The vast terrain of China
as dark as the sea.


One bad sentence ruins
the book, he says, our young aesthete,
breathing the night air.


Everything passes,
says the clock but nothing does,
nothing quite passes.


Age changes how one travels. Originally, I wanted to see everything: climb every staircase, take every picture, hit every city. When I became a little bit older, I sat more places, mainly cafes, bookstores, and bars, and talked to people. I lingered more in cities, seeing how people actually lived. I had a lot of fun trying this, but its ultimate object failed. I never made friends abroad. What I got from it was the same thing I got when I was younger. There were moments: sitting in a conversation about starting an art gallery with EU assistance, Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene, strolling around for hours and taking in the color of it all. With few exceptions, those moments were lonely. Appreciation and understanding seem to be ends one sets for oneself.

“Travel Notes” starts with an observation. “Air-conditioning:” inside, one has noticed one’s artificial comfort. That comfort, a limit of sorts on experience, mirrors looking out at the landscape. The mountains are made less jagged, less an immovable obstacle, by the soft darkness.

Is it possible to ever see well enough to make travel worthwhile? The fundamental problem is that of communication: “We are all alone in the spaces between words, in breaths, in commas.” Just as our seeing is conditioned by limits, our speaking depends on how we are received. Those spaces are where we are heard, where others are heard. But is anyone ever understood?

Practically speaking, this seems a small problem for most of us. Our lives go on one way or another. But in another country, it can be everything, as being elsewhere highlights necessity, the crisis where one would otherwise see solipsism. To be the outsider in many places, to take a contemporary example, is to be blamed for everything, to be considered not worthy of understanding. A tourist confronts this in a small, indirect way when she cannot see: “Before early dawn. The vast terrain of China as dark as the sea.” Something immense is happening, something immense is right before you. It’s all around you, and it feels utterly inaccessible.

The poem stays with the milder version of the problem, but it is not hard to think about the times all could have gone wrong in a foreign country. The times one could be helplessly stranded, feeling utterly without dignity. In the face of lacking communication, of lacking knowledge, it’s tempting to go back to the familiar. Sure, one’s family does not understand who you are, but that’s not necessary for being loved. In crucial ways, you don’t need to explain yourself to your country. Not to the standards which just feel right, because we’ve been conditioned a certain way. Countries and climes have some startlingly different notions about beauty, notions reflected in intellectual life. Hence, it feels possible to say that one foreign element could ruin everything: “one bad sentence ruins the book, he says, our young aesthete, breathing the night air.”

That one bad sentence is the moment of illumination, the one time a conflict is sensed, that conditioning might be put aside. That sentence may not be so bad. It may be a part which demands another whole, another way of reading the book. That sentence may be terrible, and perhaps one would be better served breathing the night air, trying to focus on where one is. Communication isn’t possible without those who want to communicate and those who wish to listen. It’s rare those conditions will ever hold.

But it’s a rarity worth searching for. Travel is an accumulating of parts: softened mountains, awkward exchanges, dark landscapes, bad books. And it might be all done before anything has been comprehended. Those parts demand to be put together; they point to a wholeness we want to recover. “Everything passes, says the clock but nothing does, nothing quite passes.”

Emily Dickinson, “As if the Sea should part” (695)

As if the Sea should part (695)
Emily Dickinson

As if the Sea should part
And show a further Sea —
And that — a further — and the Three
But a presumption be —

Of Periods of Seas —
Unvisited of Shores —
Themselves the Verge of Seas to be —
Eternity — is Those —


Great pains do cause distance from the world. They put us in positions where we feel we need visions, revelations. This need not be a bad thing, and some may find a clarity so helpful it cannot be but divine. Still, this lyric seems more secular, and it should recall the recent post on “Erratic Facts.” There, I discussed in detail the egglike rocks Ryan thought the product of glaciers (textual) and considered briefly the notion that Ryan’s speaker was at the shore (not at all textual). I mused about the latter because I wanted to emphasize where the speaker’s vision was before it fell on a specific object. Sometimes, we do try to look beyond, as if something inside us has been shattered, releasing a force which drives us where it will.

Here, Dickinson’s speaker stands at the shore and challenges her sight. She wants to see beyond, and a revelatory thought hits her. “As if the Sea should part and show a further sea:” it’s like the horizon, the limit of her vision, is the beginning of a new sea. It sounds a ridiculous thought, but it is exactly the kind of thing one might feel if one needs clarity. “Should part” stands out. If the sea were parting, pointing to a further sea, then her own seeing is a sort of miracle. Quietly, she has introduced to herself what could be a comforting logic. What I typically see is only my world; there is so much elsewhere. Maybe there is more to explore, maybe my pains are not the end.

And then she undoes it. She undoes it by thinking it through: “And that — a further — and the Three / But a presumption be.” So maybe there are other seas, other worlds to explore. So what? It’s all “presumption;” for her, this is no way to believe. The second to last poem of Heaney’s “Squarings” sequence, Squarings xlvii, provides an instructive comparison.

She’s awake now, ready to undo her presumption and find a knowledge that might actually help. The seas are not merely other places, as they are periods. Periods of grief, periods of time. If one is to take comfort in their infinitude, one acknowledges that the other seas imply other, unvisited shores: “Of Periods of Seas — / Unvisited of Shores.” Periods of seas beget more seas, “themselves the verge of seas to be.” She’s not really seeing other worlds, she realizes. She’s looking at time itself, “Eternity,” and seeing innumerable, lonely possibilities.

It’s no good for her. “Eternity – is Those” is the turn back to the land, away from staring into the distance. In “Erratic Facts,” Ryan plausibly introduced us to the possibility of wholeness after great loss. Even though Dickinson here is starker and harder, I don’t know that their conclusion is essentially different. Dickinson turns to the world, dissatisfied with where her wonder is taking her. It’s leading her to a vision of the infinite which generates uninhabited realm upon realm. The loss Ryan feels in “Erratic Facts” is palpable. She needs to know there is rebirth, even in the hardest things. Her wonder, I realize now, is not so impersonally directed.

Michael Cavanagh, “Seamus Heaney Returning”

I’m collecting notes for a longer piece on Seamus Heaney, but I’m unsure where to start. Cavanagh, in this 1998 paper, tracks the theme of return in Heaney’s poetry. (Obviously, he does not get to all of it, because some of it does not exist in 1998.) He makes a solid case for simply thinking about what return could mean. It could speak to a tension in Heaney’s very concept of poetry. Does a poet, like Heaney’s meditations on Yeats suggest, wall himself off from the world in some kind of artifice? Is that his true home? Or does he find a rhythm in nature itself and try match his meter to that, as Wordsworth seems to have done? (117, 121-123)

Return could also speak to Heaney’s own physical location, whether in Ireland or outside of Ireland (128-129). This makes all the difference for a poet who spends so much time writing about his childhood and his home. I’m not sure what to do with these sorts of biographical details, whether they concern statements on poets he’s reading or his life outside of poetry. While I subscribe to New Criticism (heck, I describe my Straussian leanings as “New Criticism on steroids”), I do find these sorts of details useful. They need to be employed for the appropriate theme and audience, however.

For those of you reading Heaney with me, what is most powerful concerning the theme of return is what exactly return gives us. Cavanagh’s Heaney seems to see the task of the poet as nothing but returning. Cavanagh opens his paper with a recollection by Heaney, one in which the imagination of child’s play opens a new world:

I spent time in the throat of an old willow tree at the end of the farmyard. It was a hollow tree, with gnarled, spreading roots, a soft perishing bark and a pithy inside. Its mouth was like the fat and solid opening in a horse’s collar and once you squeezed in through it, you were at the heart of a different life, looking out on the familiar yard as if it were suddenly behind a pane of strangeness. (117)

I remember a tree in my front yard that I used to climb. I’d sit on a branch overlooking the yard and pretend I was piloting a helicopter. I can remember the bark being soft and the interplay of light and shadow being almost mysterious. It was like you were seeing from within the tree, seeing as the tree itself. I can’t imagine that Heaney means much differently here, except that he paid a lot more attention to things than I ever did. Thanks to my rotten lack of imagination, I called my tree the “helicopter tree.” Heaney, on the other hand, noted his tree’s hollowness, “gnarled, spreading roots,” “soft perishing bark,” and the pithy inside.

The childlike imagination takes careful note not through words or concepts, but a sensational memory. One where every part of one is engaged, where it is impossible not to be overwhelmed. That’s the world looking through the mouth of the tree opens up: nature, through its mouth, allows one to speak truly (117).

The poet’s task is necessarily complicated because it is not easy to return to this world. Heaney’s Nobel address, Crediting Poetry, gives two stories that should always be spoken when speaking of Heaney. First, the story of St. Kevin, a monk who in his cell stretched out his arms in the form of a cross. Poor Kevin kept his arms out so long that a blackbird built a nest on them. “Overcome with pity and constrained by his faith to love the life in all creatures great and small,” Heaney declares, Kevin kept the same position until the eggs had hatched. Nature, in bringing us back to childlike, imaginative play, brings us back to natural, innocent sentiments, ones before we become afraid of each other, before we realize our capacity for violence (123-124).

That’s one story. The other speaks to the Balkanized world we are increasingly becoming. Ulster, 1976: a group of Protestant workers with one Catholic are stopped by armed gunmen. The gunmen ask for anyone Catholic to step forward. The one Catholic feels the Protestants squeeze his hand, as if to say, “don’t go. We won’t give you up.” He steps forward and everyone else is gunned down (124).

Cavanagh sees in Heaney a natural law, or as Heaney himself puts it, “the actuality of sympathy between living creatures” (124). I need not say more about the price one may pay for the promulgation, the realization, of that law. I can only say as I feel nowadays, that I hope all of us have a place to which we can return, somewhere we can call home.


Cavanagh, Michael. “Seamus Heaney Returning.” Journal of Modern Literature 22.1 (1998): 117-129.

Kay Ryan, “Erratic Facts”

Erratic Facts (via the San Francisco Chronicle)
Kay Ryan

[It] was a very bizarre, erratic fact.

W.G. Sebald

Like rocks
that just stop,
melted out
of glaciers.
Often rounded
from erasure.
As though
eggs could
really be
made backwards,
smoothed from
and angular.
And let’s think
it’s still early
in the work,
and later
the eggs
will quicken
to the center.


Sometimes a few words can be put together that speak everything. Those words don’t have to allude to creation myths or embrace intricate symbolism. They can just be.

It’s not hard to imagine where this is spoken, but it takes a little effort. “Like rocks that just stop, melted out of glaciers.” At first, my mind goes to the Grand Canyon, the slow, immense power of geological time. A universe that is ultimately beautiful.

But that’s me, not reading words carefully enough. “Like rocks that just stop:” someone has stopped. Someone is feeling cold and hard and paralyzed. Not only a canyon, with its crevices and jagged edges, but also a rocky shore, with slick, egglike rocks, ones “often rounded off — egglike sometimes from erasure.” The kind of place one goes to stare for hours, to see if anything is beyond.

Her attention turns to the rocks themselves, and in describing what she sees, renders the fact of loss with only one word: erasure. It’s crazy to say any good can come of loss. There’s never enough time; possessions left behind almost seem junk; they’re gone and we’re left behind. At the shore, we just want to know if there was anything else.

It takes a little while to realize there’s a message. Those egglike rocks, forged from erasure, endure. And just maybe they’re not rocks. Maybe they’re rocklike eggs. “As though eggs could really be made backwards, smoothed from something stranded and angular.” Massive glaciers, hardened, angular water, are slow moving worlds unto themselves. Harsh, undirected inertia. It’s almost tempting to think them the whole of time, spitting out rocks. It’s almost tempting to forget what comes after.

Maybe only grief can find the message, that we feel lost because we were given so much. That we are still entrusted to grow. It’s not small consolation. It’s the harshness of a true teleology, where we find purpose in the midst of chaos. Where we know a whole was – we really did lose – and that wholeness is possible again. “And let’s think it’s still early in the work, and later the eggs will quicken to the center.”

Seamus Heaney, “Antaeus”

Antaeus (poem via the blog of Anita Mathias)
Seamus Heaney

   When I lie on the ground 
I rise flushed as a rose in the morning.
In fights I arrange a fall on the ring 
   To rub myself with sand.

   That is operative
As an elixir. I cannot be weaned
Off the earth's long contour, her river-veins.
   Down here in my cave

   Girdered with root and rock
I am cradled in the dark that wombed me
And nurtured in every artery
   Like a small hillock.

   Let each new hero come
Seeking the golden apples and Atlas:
He must wrestle with me before he pass
   Into that realm of fame

   Among sky-born and royal.
He may well throw me and renew my birth
But let him not plan, lifting me off the earth,
   My elevation, my fall.

Born of Earth and Ocean, Antaeus wielded a power more raw than divine. As long as he maintained contact with the Earth, he could win any wrestling match, granted his mother’s power. He could not and did not dream of ascent of any sort. Self-sufficient through his natural heritage, he harbored a strange resentment, a prideful nemesis to any ambition.

Antaeus was beaten by Hercules when Hercules realized the source of his strength. Hercules lifted him off the ground, crushing him in a bear-hug as he elevated him. Did Hercules understand what he had done? Heaney voices Antaeus, allowing him to speak the marriage of Earth and Ocean. If thrown to the ground, Antaeus rose as roses do in the morning; sand acted as an elixir for him. “The earth’s long contour, her river-veins” continually nurtured him. One might think Antaeus spoiled, a “mama’s boy,” as he did not need tools nor the company of others. In his cave, “girdered with root and rock” he remained “cradled in the dark that wombed [him],” fed just as the earth tends to its hills, its features.

The very concept of heroism entails an attack on Antaeus, the notion that this Earth is all one needs. Antaeus is mortal; he lives through this principle. One might attack his self-sufficiency, arguing it is more of a gift than the product of rationality. That much is true, but it is not clear Hercules understands what he does. Certainly, Hercules does not understand that the same spirit which seeks obstacles to overcome also wants to create devices, make plans, seeks to know. Sometimes, that same spirit chastens itself, learning acceptance.

Antaeus, for his part, does not understand the virtues of restraint. He too is a trained killer, only understanding human ambition as fruitless. Those he kills earn a fame like those “sky-born and royal;” they are remembered for their magnificent failure, but do not become gods or rulers. Antaeus serves as a most natural check on hubris. What he does understand is that the world around him changes entirely with his defeat. On the one hand, you could say “My elevation, my fall” is the normalization of hubris. Man must do more than strive, as he must remake the entire world. On the other hand, knowing that, whether or not Antaeus has actually been defeated remains an open question.