Giuseppe Ungaretti, “The Buried Harbor”

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

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

  Mariano, June 29, 1916

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

János Pilinszky, “Van Gogh’s Prayer”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hadewijch II, “You who want knowledge…”

The briefest description of my life: “in exile.” In some ways, it’s not so bad. I can’t say I lack materially, though I would like better economic security, e.g. a real job. I certainly have some very good friends and support. In other ways, I wouldn’t wish what I am going through on anyone. Today, I sat alone at a place where a number of people know me and was completely gripped by anxiety, feeling like I was not welcome in the least, like I had nothing to offer, like the opportunity to prove myself was doomed to failure. I don’t want to get into details here, but suffice to say I’ve started a private journal, one which I have high hopes for. I think the unusual experience I’ve had with not quite belonging, being taken for granted, being neglected by those obliged to me is worth noting down. I need to remind myself that there are situations where you really are being ignored or looked down upon, because those situations allow people who would be social rejects elsewhere to feel like they’re superior. I needed to know this years ago, when I was torturing myself more, accusing myself of selfishness.

Everything I’m complaining about above, of course, is indirect. I don’t know how I would survive in the Middle Ages, where discrimination was direct, where your role, according to everyone else, was dictated by God. I mean, I have an idea of how this works, unfortunately. But I can’t imagine being Hadewijch II. She’s resolved not only to survive, but to convey her mystical message, her inner truth. Hirshfield tells us that she was a Beguine, “laywomen who, prevented from joining convents, gathered together under their own authority, taking voluntary vows of chastity, poverty, and good works.” Later Beguines, Wikipedia claims, were persecuted if not executed by the Church for their mysticism. They would, in some cases, only beg for a living, like early Franciscans.

Let’s look at this poem, which Hirshfield feels demonstrates a truth about “spiritual maturity,” that “spiritual fulfillment is not to be found outside the door of the self:”

"You who want knowledge..." (from Poetry)
Hadewijch II (tr. Jane Hirshfield)

You who want
see the Oneness

There you
will find
the clear mirror
already waiting.

I will readily confess that You who want knowledge, see the Oneness within is not something I am eager to write myself, despite my New Agey rhetoric, and probably something I wouldn’t take too seriously from a book written nowadays. Again, I imagine the potential price Hadewijch II could pay for this sort of activity is death. Persecution does not depend on what you say, write, or do. It depends on whether someone wants to make you a target or not. When you make yourself more visible, you’re more of a target.

However, the first stanza does contain a bit more than high-sounding common sense. There are plenty of people I know who think knowledge is simply being right about a number of trivial issues. You can see this especially with people who don’t read or read badly. I knew a professor who gave exams which asked about authors and issues from the footnotes of texts he assigned. If you’re with a spiritual community, perhaps one in large part that doesn’t read, I would think a few people still believe they have to prove themselves right all the time. On a slightly higher level, people who are more earnest about knowledge can often forget what unites their endeavors. Not so much a theory about the nature of things, but their “Oneness within.” This could be whatever they think links what they know, whatever desires they’ve been unconsciously acting from. It could also be remembering that you exist independently of what you know.

So what exactly is that Oneness? Without the second stanza, I might be tempted to say “a sense of self.” Hadewijch II radicalizes that notion: There you will find the clear mirror already waiting. All that happens when you look inward is that your surface reflects back at yourself. This seems strange — learning how we physically look in public, what looks of ours work and which don’t, takes time. It takes practice with an actual mirror. Learning how we appear to others in a fuller sense, how we react, how we cultivate certain feelings, how we communicate and reason aloud: that not only takes more time, but an incredible presence and self-awareness. The latter is a form of knowledge, sure, but it does not seem to be the same thing as asking what kind of properties liquids have, what the best regime would look like, or what knowledge of God is.

But Hadewijch II is on to something. The unknowable self is the heart of things. When you look inward, you ask how you know, and are reflected to yourself a certain way. You can use the question of unity of appearance to advance self-knowledge. In her brief account, it draws you inward, gets you to seek yourself as a unity, and then shows you yourself from a certain perspective. You get relevant, almost certain knowledge from that mirror.

Blog in Review: “I’m happy I’m open to inspiration,” 8/28/17

About 2 weeks ago, I wanted to read a book on van Gogh, but got stuck on one painting, “Ward in the Hospital in Arles.” I wrote a post which I hope to expand into something much larger. Please do take a look at it, or at least the painting. I can’t really do justice to the depth of van Gogh’s vision. He understands how our very vision has no neutrality: it sees hope or terror almost immediately.

I also spent a lot of time with Jane Hirshfield’s poem guide, “Spiritual Poetry.” I don’t think I’m done with it yet. She not only picked excellent poems, but she commented on them in ways designed to get the reader thinking. From her short essay, I wrote on Izumi Shikibu’s description of a house battered by frightening sounds, Li Po’s famous “Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain,” and, my most recent entry, Cavafy’s “Che Fece… Il Gran Refiuto.” I don’t know that I’ve written anything particularly good, but I’m happy I’m open to inspiration. Maybe these thoughts will become something good someday.

I covered two topics through Dickinson. First, erotic love — as one enthusiastic Twitter user said, a “thirsty” Dickinson. See: Emily Dickinson, “My River runs to thee” (162) & “Distance — is not the Realm of Fox” (1155). Then I moved to the problem of bad memories, which Dickinson treats through a description of sunlight granting darkness a variety of light and colors as it fades away. See: Emily Dickinson, “Fairer through Fading — as the Day” (938).

Finally, I am trying to work on craft. I’d like every word, sentence, paragraph to be carefully chosen and meaningful. A prompt I encountered asked pretty bluntly “Why do you write?” and I realized I could give that question a lot more thought: Why I Write.

My thanks to all of you for your readership and support. More of you are sharing these posts and reaching out to me, and that feels really good.