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.

Blog in Review: “how we can do cruel, barely human things out of perceived necessity,” 7/15/17

Kay Ryan’s “Crocodile Tears” has direct political significance. I discussed that significance a little, but I spent more time talking about the everyday behavior of everyday people. However, at this moment, politicians and other powerful bullies are flooding this country with fake tears. And it’s working. Do people actually value remorse and forgiveness in any way, or do they love the gross abuse of morality? They might see the ability to manipulate moral rules to one’s advantage as a power to be admired. By extension, people unwilling to manipulate those rules, people who are sincere or innocent, are looked at as deserving victims.

When I wrote about Yosa Buson’s “Early Summer Rain,” I thought about my inconsistency of tone. I decided to leave the silly jokes right next to the contemplation of loneliness. There’s something absurd about musing on two houses in the rain, but it is an absurdity worth confronting.

Ha Jin’s “Missed Time” is a gorgeous love poem. When commenting on it, I wanted to understand how we speak of being fulfilled. On the one hand, there’s the feeling of joy, but on the other, there’s our actual legacy. These two themes meet in a problem, the problem of speaking of that which is, so to speak, “beyond words.” “Missed Time” does a nice job — unintentionally, I suspect — of illustrating that.

Amy King’s “Perspective” speaks for itself. I never thought I would be convinced by Marxist critiques of media, but I find them to be more or less correct nowadays. Usually, those critiques go off the rails when they try to tie conspiracy theories about rich businessmen to how journalists on the ground actually cover things. A more subtle critique involves seeing what media coverage silently confirms, how horribly troubling attitudes and beliefs are given credibility. A historical perspective helps: if you can picture people 20-30 years from now retching at the thought of the Daily Mail and Drudge, you can start to see the awful ideas you’re indulging. I am not exempt from thinking stupid things about other people, myself, and I need to better temper my media diet.

Emily Dickinson’s “They Say That Time Assuages” strikes me as a poem that dives into the bitter end to find something truly redemptive, no matter how small. Not all of you may feel that way, and that’s fine. I do think this is a common refrain among serious poems, though. In a similar vein, William Carlos Williams’ “Complete Destruction” wonders how we can do cruel, barely human things out of perceived necessity. My comment on the latter asks you to think about how that poem, in truth, is as loving and pained a remembrance for his cat as can be had.

I took Buson’s haiku “New Year’s Day,” about New Year’s Day and the day after, as an admonition to write more. We’ll see how long that lasts.

Yosa Buson, “New Year’s Day”

New Year’s Day I resolved to do more, to change bad habits, to live better. That went pffft pretty fast. A few weeks ago I resolved to write more, and hahahahaha you can see how I fed that promise toxic waste. A bit of a chuckle, then, accompanied my spotting Buson’s haiku:

New Year's Day
Yosa Buson (tr. Yuki Sawa & Edith Shiffet)

New Year's Day
and on the day after,
fog from place to place in Kyoto.

New Year’s Day and on the day after — yup, nothing’s changed. Spring should blossom; green should crack through the frost; sunlight should sparkle on the water. Nope, all we’ve got is fog from place to place in Kyoto. In 18th century Japan, everyone walks everywhere. I imagine cold, humid, damp fog, a perpetually gray city. Nothing has changed, everything looks the same. Going from place to place feels futile.

Yet you can detect the optimism in the wordplay. The fog will lift, and the very thing producing misery now is a shroud. You don’t know when good things will happen. What makes the New Year awesome is that it reintroduces us to the fact they can happen.

Does any of this mean I’ll make good on my resolutions? I don’t know. I’ve been documenting how I feel when I don’t do things. I guess that’s a start. I confess it does not feel ideal. If I called myself lazy and that worked, if I provoked a sense of shame, that would feel a lot less mysterious.


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

William Carlos Williams, “Complete Destruction”

Of this, I can never be quite sure. A gorgeous Persian cat, straight from Blofeld’s lap, initially gave me an attitude when I was a guest at a friend’s residence. At that time, the friend also had an old dog in enormous pain. That dog was completely deaf, walked funny, smelled funny, always seemed like it was straining. It couldn’t accept affection, though it was far from aggressive. I was as nice as I could be to that dog, finding where the treats were hidden, and giving those treats, pets, attention, and water to the dog when I could. The dog couldn’t reciprocate at all; it took what I gave and limped away. The cat noticed. It became a lot friendlier, looking for my affection all the time. I really started to like that cat; I played with the idea that it was deeply sympathetic to the dog and its condition.

All this is to say what we already know. The loss of a beloved animal has a specific gravity. The stories spun around it have the most powerful certainty, unchallenged in our own minds. We love every iota of its physical being, almost unconditionally. It was an icy day: there are not many days more chilling than those which involve laying an animal to rest. With no formal ritual for this, one has to deal with one’s own memories as they present themselves, the bluntness of dominion:

Complete Destruction (from
William Carlos Williams

It was an icy day.
We buried the cat,
then took her box
and set fire to it

in the back yard.
Those fleas that escaped
earth and fire
died by the cold.

The bluntness of dominion — We buried the cat, then took her box and set fire to it in the back yard. I read “dominion” as a suggestion from the curious splitting of backyard. If indeed we have been appointed stewards over nature, then our earth is designated by us (“yard”) relative to our purposes (“back”).

However, a split compound is not necessary to understand that those who loved the cat are completely in charge of her body and possessions. They bury her, returning like to like. They set fire to her box in order to kill the fleas. This is not ritual. They are caretakers, playing God, and two themes leap out at me. First, I wonder how caretaking reconciles with the violence, the gruesome nature, of burying the cat and setting fire to everything hers. I know the practical explanation: to have a household entails protecting that home, not simply growing and maintaining it. Simply knowing, though, does not entail understanding how things relate. The poem testifies to our ignorance in knowledge. We knew the cat as part of our family; her burdens were our burdens. But what did we truly know and love? All that’s left of her are fleas which must be killed.

The fleas, what’s left of the cat, remind me that our detritus and pains are in large part how we are conceived by others. What’s left of us harms, unless rid. Those fleas that escaped earth and fire died by the cold — this leads to another consideration. The cold takes over, does what human agency cannot do. In a way, impersonal, awful forces use us for their purposes. Our end of protecting ourselves fits into a ruthless universal logic, where the elements which constitute life return to themselves. When I first wrote on this poem, I spoke of Plato’s Protagoras and residency. Residency: we have our household, the cat has her box, and each has laws and possessions particular to it. The funny thing is that the laws of one domain can call for the complete destruction of the other, without regard for its value. There is at least one higher domain than human life, the cosmos itself. This leads to the problem mirrored in the Protagoras. The human beings of this poem carry out a fatal, terrible mission. What they do has to be done. In the dialogue, there’s a famous discussion about courage between Socrates and Protagoras. The question comes up whether people who dive into wells to retrieve pots dropped deep inside are really courageous or merely crazy. In order to answer the question, it is provisionally resolved that one needs to talk about courage as being governed by reason. While the nature of courage is certainly not in play here, it does look like Williams might have another suggestion for such a discussion. Maybe certain actions must be taken in a less than conscious manner. Sometimes, what matters most is that we are effective, that we get things done, but there is a price to be paid.