Trilussa, “Happiness”

Maybe I’m not a good writer because I’ll fixate on an image, letting it use me instead of learning how to navigate it. I’ll start thinking about someone, and then we’ll be in the park together, sun shining brightly. Then in Paris visiting museums on a gray, damp day, finally New Year’s Eve toasting with family at a small party. All this will blink in my head between the cereal and snacks aisle, where I have to make a decision alone. Do I want to buy a value-size bag of knockoff Honeycomb for snacking and/or dinner, or do I want to be classy and buy the kettle-cooked sea salt & black pepper potato chips?

Ah, happiness. It feels like a bliss had in the briefest of visions, an end that human life barely touches on, only promising fulfillment. Bees drunk on pollen don’t have to think as far as that. Maybe I can relate to them while acknowledging their superior happiness:

Happiness (from The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry)
Trilussa (translated by John Dowd)

I saw a bee settle
on a rose petal.
It sipped, and off it flew.
All in all, happiness, too,
is something little.

I saw a bee settle on a rose petal. It sipped, and off it flew—what’s curious to me is “off it flew.” It did not sip, savor, reflect, experience the entirety of la dolce vita, then move on with nothing left. It sipped, knowing what gave it happiness and goodness, then moved to the next flower post haste. It did not need to reflect because the product of reflection was built into it.

But all the same, it wanted to move on. The rose was just one moment. Maybe it wanted to put together the goodness of those moments—each individually good, the sum total happiness. No, that’s the wrong thought, for the bee doesn’t concern itself with that theme the way my pathetic imagination does, with happiness as ephemeral being central. It builds from concrete goods in each moment, each experience happy in its own way. Should we then assume its whole life to be happy and good? All in all, happiness, too, is something little—I bought the kettle chips; knockoff Honeycomb is too sweet.

Li-Young Lee, “One Heart”

In this house divided—yeah, I’ll indulge the overdramatic—what’s left of what one might call a heart is pretty much divided too. The desire to do better ought to put failure to use, continually refining the human. Instead, “being better” collapses into “fear of failure.” It’s not hard to see why. When I was wading last week through TV clips for my students, looking for examples of admirable people making everyday mistakes, I mostly searched in vain (Lt. Worf was a very happy exception–on being an outsider, dating).

Heroes can be rude or angry or gossipy, not just making errors of judgment about difficult matters, but lacking basic self-awareness, self-control, or even respect for others. I wasn’t looking to excuse these things, but rather to show anything worth doing is worth failing at—you’re not going to be the person you want to be immediately. “Fear of failure” doesn’t only create despondency, but complacency and—worst of all worlds—unrelenting, myopic self-justification. Near perfect images of worthy people make them and what they stand for seem inaccessible.

I’d like to make Li-Young Lee’s “One Heart” my mantra. Memorize it, sing its imperative continually:

One Heart (from poetrysociety.org; h/t @ArianeBeeston)
Li-Young Lee

Look at the birds. Even flying
is born

out of nothing. The first sky
is inside you, open

at either end of day.
The work of wings

was always freedom, fastening
one heart to every falling thing.

Look at the birds: look away from the self for a moment, put self-pity aside. Realize that even flying is born out of nothing. Even flying doesn’t emerge from having something, a recognized set of skills or talents, a sense of accomplishment. It comes from an absence, a lack. Augustine held that evil was a privation, something absent from the good.

Here, realize that possibility is not wrapped in brightness and beauty. It not only implies but depends on failures. Yet the first sky is inside you, open at either end of day. Possibility is when you choose to fly, and it can work with attitudes far from perfect. Only one thing matters, in truth: the attempt to create one heart, to be dedicated, to choose freedom. The work of wings was always freedom, fastening one heart to every falling thing.

Denise Levertov, “Variation on a Theme by Rilke”

I resolved a month ago to become more patient, act more gently, respond to situations rather than react. Now I’ve read this poem of Levertov’s and I feel like I made the most passive, almost useless set of statements to myself. She takes resolution and makes it incarnate–A certain day became a presence to me; there it was, confronting me — a sky, air, light: a being:

Variation on a Theme by Rilke (h/t Ariane Beeston)
Denise Levertov

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me -- a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day's blow
rang out, metallic -- or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.

I think all of us would like to be more present, more focused. We might get the dishes done faster or complete a project on schedule. Levertov speaks miraculous presence, as the day is an unfolding manifestation. It begins with “presence,” then confronts her, and in the midst of “sky, air, light” no less than a being is sensed.

This must be, then, “a certain day,” one which will stay with her forever. But her experience consists of nothing other than the day itself, as the day is a being–And before it started to descend from the height of noon, it leaned over and struck my shoulder as if with the flat of a sword, granting me honor and a task. The day makes itself felt as a majestic being, not only glowing radiantly, but knighting her, imbuing her with its power. Its power is her power, her “honor” and “task.”

And then, a sound marking the actual hour. A church bell rings, and what may have been thought a reverie turns into a realization. The day’s blow rang out, metallic — or it was I, a bell awakened, and what I heard was my whole self saying and singing what it knew: I can. Often I’ll wonder how I can make good on my resolutions if I am not continually engaged with others. How can I be more patient and gentle when I spend plenty of time alone? An answer lies in acknowledging the day not simply as present, but presence. The “honor” and “task” it gives is possibility, and before one worries about specific efforts or accomplishments, one can understand oneself as a “bell awakened,” ready to communicate that optimism, ready to be present to others, but above all, radiating gratefulness for being.

Matt Sumpter, “Against Home”

I suspect home is complicated for all of us. — Yeah, I’ll leave it at that. — Returning home can feel like being blown not simply toward it, but against it. Wind shuttles leaves across a parking lot: walking to the house, watching those leaves traverse empty spaces right beside one, I can’t help but think the very sense of belonging family cultivates goes hand-in-hand with abandonment.

Against Home (from The New Yorker)
Matt Sumpter

Wind shuttles leaves across a parking lot,
each one a different weight, each weight
absorbed into the rustling like surfers
overwhelmed by waves. Father, my maple.
Mother, honey locust. I am nothing
but what your lives have made me.

It’s deeper than parents being a bit unwilling to let go. It has to do with how much is invested in home—we spend our lives making it a “safe space,” a place for nourishment dependent on our personalities down to the last quirk. I don’t think I need to spell out exactly how this can turn into dysfunction writ large. That dysfunction can’t grasp the world, not in the least. It teaches regard of the world as a dangerous, lonely, useless place. All other parents are mere trees, abandoning leaf-like children who scandalously want to be carried anywhere else.

Trees and leaves themselves, however, may speak the actual nature of things. Leaves are distinct with their own weight—each one a different weight, each weight absorbed into the rustling like surfers overwhelmed by waves. Home makes large assumptions, hearing only the rustling; there is some truth to the teenage cry “you don’t know me.” Home does not hear leaves as individuals, but one could hear the rustling as the interplay of different weights. The leaves gather. Home or no home, the world is all there is, and parents can only be trees—Father, my maple. Mother, honey locust. I am nothing but what your lives have made me: we can only be leaves, hoping for growth and stature among the wildness of things.

Rae Armantrout, “Attention”

For a few weeks now, I’ve been thinking about someone. I have only fond memories of her. I know she too enjoyed our time together, which makes her disappearance from my life rather strange. I understand that for many, friendships and relationships depend on being in a particular phase of life, and when one phase is over so another can begin, then friends and lovers are abandoned for new ones. My sentiments have evolved in accordance with this: first, I began to accept rejection as normal; now, I have learned rejection for little or no reason is most normal.

Still, I found myself drawn to this cryptic poem of Armantrout’s, which seems to cope with rejection? That we want attention from a beloved? I confess myself confused about what it says, but the mystery of the poem calls me to unlock it. At first, it does seem like the rejected speaker took a different approach from the rejected me. Ventriloquy is the mother tongue, she declares, announcing that all of us aspire to displace our voices, hear our own words spoken elsewhere, by another speaker. Emotions ask to be extended so much that they fail to belong to us. They are universal, primal drives which implicate everyone in guilt, make all of us the same. Can you colonize rejection
by phrasing your request, “Me want?”
If you could, you’d reduce everyone, including yourself, to infancy. The one doing the rejecting would be just as infantile as you. This logic could console someone, I guess. For some strange reason, though, rejection continues to hurt, and I still want attention:

Attention (from Poetry)
Rae Armantrout

Ventriloquy
is the mother tongue.

Can you colonize rejection   
by phrasing your request,
                         “Me want?”

Song: “I’m not a baby.   
      Wa, Wa, Wa.

      I’m not a baby.   
      Wa, Wa, Wa.

      I’m crazy   
      like you.”

The “you”
in the heart of   
molecule and ridicule.

Marks resembling   
the holes

in dead leaves
define the thing (moth wing).

That flutter
of indifference,
                feigned?

But if lapses   
are the dens

strategy aims   
to conceal,

then you don’t know   
what you’re asking.

Reduce everyone to infancy, trying to make rejection and a lack of attention stingless. You can’t take it personally, as you’re dealing with a child. The trade-off is that you must become a child yourself—Song: “I’m not a baby. Wa, Wa, Wa. I’m not a baby. Wa, Wa, Wa. I’m crazy like you.”

This isn’t sustainable. The adult voice immediately interjects, remembering what is stake—The “you” in the heart of molecule and ridicule. Rejection hurts because you wanted to be with someone, rejection hurts because you feel as if all of you is being rejected. On this reading, pride is a defense mechanism.

The adult voice tries to salvage the previous logic, though. Marks resembling the holes in dead leaves define the thing (moth wing)—we had to turn childish because the absence of the beloved is the absence of completeness. Having that someone fills a fundamental emotional need, not just base desire. The holes in us define us; we are moths attracted to the light; without some fulfillment, we feel dead. This salvaging might actually work, if it were not immediately turned to lower purpose: That flutter of indifference, feigned? We fake our indifference, hoping for more; we hope the beloved has gone too far with rejecting us and might reverse course.

Armantrout’s speaker has tripped over the problem in her various attempts to deny pain. The problem with pain is that the beloved was worth loving, and inasmuch as he was worth loving, he is involved with a judgement which, for better or worse, has to be taken seriously. Arguing that we’re undeveloped or incomplete doesn’t adequately address our need, but merely uses it as justification. But if lapses are the dens strategy aims to conceal, then you don’t know what you’re asking—on the surface, we’re asking to displace our pain, put on a brave face. What we’re really asking for is permission to be in denial.

I think my story is an important addition to the chain of emotions and reasoning this poem presents. Sometimes it really isn’t you that’s the issue. In fact, I’d bet a lot of times it isn’t you. In which case, one can see Armantrout’s speaker grappling with insecurity more than anything else.