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

“Make more of each moment” is an imperative with a gooey, sickeningly sweet casing. 

It’s advice from Hallmark cards and TV specials in which, say, grandparents give homespun wisdom to people fighting with careers and busyness.

It doesn’t even sound grammatical. Make more? One might note a redundancy—shouldn’t making always produce more?

The uncomfortable truth, though, is that appreciating life does depend on learning. That if this isn’t accepted, one can’t grow. Without trying to learn, it becomes much harder to give to others or locate anything worthwhile. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” despite its harshness to those who don’t bother to think twice, is a more positive restatement of the idea.

A more complicated restatement, from Fanny Howe’s “Bewilderment:” “the point of art is to show people that life is worth living by showing that it isn’t.” I want to comment on the part that hits hardest, “that it [life] isn’t.” Life is horrible for so many, an agony that will not be denied. It’s incredibly cruel, shortsighted, and irreligious to straightforwardly proclaim “life is worth living” to people who’ve had half their bodies burned off or are overwhelmed with guilt, regret, or panic. So it would seem appreciating life in any way depends on the willingness to bear witness to tragedy. This doesn’t make one a better person. Nor does this always make one knowledgable. It’s just necessary, and art loses any romantic gloss it might be given from this vantage.

There’s a terrible transformation at work here. I do have to try to make the most of each moment and learn more. And I have to be more sensitive to what others are going through, what pains are possible. But that last imperative radicalizes “making more of each moment” and “learning”—they’re not about homespun wisdom or making art anymore. They’re about something more fundamental that if we age a certain way, we may be lucky to encounter. But what a privilege to age at all.

*

With all this in mind, I want to talk about the gentle comedy of Białoszewski’s “A ballad of going down to the store.” When I think of ballads, I think of long stories celebrating the deeds of legendary figures, mourning their tragic loss. I don’t think, as Białoszewski does, of “stairs.” “First I went down to the store / by the stairs / ah, imagine only, / by the stairs.”

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.

These lines are felt by us in a specific way, as we know of those who struggle to breathe because of COVID-19. When my health was much worse years ago, I was genuinely grateful for short walks, decent coffee, even doing my taxes. Białoszewski mocks the stature of ballads—“ah, imagine only, / by the stairs”—but calls our attention to the minor miracle of having a store on the lower level of your building. I’ve always wanted to live in the city for just that, as opposed to driving 10 miles to Walmart to fight for parking.

How to reconcile a quiet gratefulness for everything with the fact that our lives could fall apart? Part of our own response is to take stock of small blessings when we’re threatened. We build a conception of happiness from tinier wants. But we can recognize this as a response more than a solution. I remember one of the first classes I taught. I wanted the students to write notes, so I bought everyone notebooks for a dollar each and gave out some pens. This was not a particularly rich class. Some of my students nearly cried. Claims of happiness and justice are different, to say the least.

*

Białoszewski’s comedy indulges mock rage at passing by “people unknown.” “Regret / That you did not see / how people walk, / regret!!” Where a story of a hero’s travels might involve actual motion—trying to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis, or being swallowed whole by a whale—he gives us people-watching as he walks down a few floors. I spent today talking to quite a few people and still felt lonely. What’s mock rage in his poem seems an apt description of my situation. I’ll think too much about details from the time I had with someone I miss, and each of those details might as well be regret over not seeing how people walked. I’ll blame myself for being inattentive when I was happy.

To that end, “make more of each moment” can lead to unproductive rumination. It isn’t always involuntary. It’s possible to lose perspective by imposing a moral imperative upon one’s own perceptions. For practical purposes, it’s best not to think all the time about how life can fall apart in an instant. 

His little ballad ends, I think, on a sweet note. “I entered a complete store: / lamps of glass were burning.” I’ve worked enough retail to know some people only go to the store to take out their anger on employees. But he sees the store as “complete,” with “lamps of glass… burning.” I can’t help but think of Yeats’ vision of Byzantium here, elaborate golden artifacts and lamps for the Emperor in the city of God. The fire that never ceases. That’s too much I’m playing with, of course. What’s more relevant is that there’s no “regret” or imagining the wonder of “stairs.” This is light, this is warmth, and finally, there are other people talking and moving, at once. “I saw somebody — he sat down — / and what I heard? what I heard? / rustling of bags and human talk.”

A lot of people keep the television on because they don’t want to feel alone. They need that noise, they need that sense of presence. I think something similar is happening here. He went to the store to see other people. And this inspired not just a “return,” but this poem. Now he wants to talk and makes the effort to do so. For those of us who’ve witnessed countless others in our lives worship the television, this is a remarkable shift.

Regarding the larger themes I’ve brought up: no, this doesn’t automatically justify any of the horror life offers. And as a small gesture toward making every moment count, it’s just that: small. It feels like something was learned, though, and maybe, for this moment, that’s good enough.

Kevin Young, “Colostrum”

It has a rhythm, you know. Traditional, conservative talk about “manliness.” Sure, it starts with what seems a debatable contention: perhaps masculinity offers virtues that if lost, we don’t get back. But ultimately, there’s no real debate. There’s just a lot of whining about how things used to be. How men fought battles and scaled mountains, but now play video games. How poems used to always rhyme.

A more sophisticated argument might lie at the opening of “On the Genealogy of Morality.” Nietzsche there writes of an argument with Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer is accused of making compassion far too “gilded, deified, and… otherworldly,” so much so that life itself is denied:

“In particular the issue was the value of the unegoistic, of the instincts of compassion, self-denial, self-sacrifice, precisely the instincts that Schopenhauer had gilded, deified, and made otherworldly until finally they alone were left for him as the “values in themselves,” on the basis of which he said “no” to life, also to himself” (Nietzsche 4).

Manliness can be associated with self-assertion, making hard decisions, fighting for one’s rightful share, and pride. Knowing one has to fight for oneself and how to conduct that fight is not necessarily immoral. In fact, it might be thought prior to any compassion given—don’t we have to be able to fend for ourselves before we can give?

However, the trouble with openly doubting the value of compassion is pretty obvious. “We need hard people who make tough decisions” creates a tendency I’ve witnessed in many who thought themselves fit to lead: the tendency to demean everyone else. They look for weaknesses and then exploit those weaknesses because it makes them feel secure about holding power. They think themselves strong, after all. So what if they’ve caused everyone around them to writhe in pain?

In general, the notion of gendered virtue is spurious. It’s a construct which lends itself to caricatures (and an occasionally decent Dungeons and Dragons character). But it’s a notion that has an incredible grip on how we see ourselves, and I think it’s worth looking at the poem “Colostrum” as a comment on manliness.

*

“We are not born / with tears,” “Colostrum” pronounces.

Crying without moisture sounds incredibly painful. It may be thought normal for babies, but even then, there’s the shock of seeing a child try to cry.

With regards to both physical and emotional pain, I remember at times lacking control. How the body became only a manifestation of warring feelings. How difficult it was to find any amelioration. Tears were on the way back to control, the body signaling to itself what was at that moment most confusing or shocking.

I can’t imagine living without tears, but apparently it did happen.

Colostrum (from The Atlantic)
Kevin Young

We are not born 
with tears. Your 

first dozen cries 
are dry. 

It takes some time 
for the world to arrive 

and salt the eyes. 

“Your first dozen cries are dry.” For the first dozen cries, then, I may have been more Spartan than the heroes of Thermopylae. Perhaps I was Nelson at Trafalgar, master of the sea, or breaking the sound barrier through sheer force of will. All the manliness that could ever be had, in a baby.

I should say the reality of the matter is that the “first dozen cries are dry.” Not manliness, not virtue, but a whole person experiencing a profound absence. Something is missing despite parents, doctors, nurses, a delivery ward, food, warmth. Something is missing even when held.

“It takes some time / for the world to arrive / and salt the eyes.” The world is needed to salt the eyes. Not just mother, but mother’s milk. Not just a hospital, food, or warmth, but the linkage of the three.

What is needed is the world as the realization of loss. A baby learns one can give. That one can be needed. That the one needed can disappear. The crying evolves. Dry at first, it expresses being somewhere completely alien. The tears come with a promise both incredibly true and fearfully false: I will never abandon you. An infant with its wet tears comprehends the difficulty of this statement better than I can at my age. It understands how much it needs love and wants to give love. And it understands how cruel a minute’s absence can be.

References

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morality (Hackett Classics). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition. 4-5.

Emily Dickinson, “Banish Air from Air” (854)

“Banish Air from Air” and “Divide Light if you dare” superficially sound like scientific experiments. A moment’s pause and you realize how ridiculous at least one of the goals might be—wait, banish air from air? We can’t definitively say that Dickinson is not speaking about the methods and purposes of science. White light can be broken into its constituent colors, after all. Dickinson would have known this as it was no less than Newton who demonstrated it 200 years prior.

But I have another suggestion for reading this poem. There are those who, in the name of religion, develop purity tests. They must “banish air from air” and “divide light” for the sake of their standards. If I’m right, Dickinson is being very sneaky. She’s using language that would normally associate the practice of science with hubris to advance a critique of religious behavior.

An essay on this poem I found very useful, which goes a different direction than this commentary: Mary Hurst’s “Pellets of Shape: Emily Dickinson’s Laboratory of Words.” Hurst sees Dickinson as justifying her use of language over against the structures of the age in which she lived. That age would have her speak a certain way. Her independence demands, in effect, she “Banish Air from Air”—redefine words, redefine the world. I don’t necessarily disagree with Hurst and I think it’s worth looking at her commentary. Below is the poem and my “take,” if you will.

Banish Air from Air… (854)
Emily Dickinson

Banish Air from Air –
Divide Light if you dare –
They’ll meet
While Cubes in a Drop
Or Pellets of Shape
Fit
Films cannot annul
Odors return whole
Force Flame
And with a Blonde push
Over your impotence
Flits Steam.

If you try to “banish air from air” or “divide light,” “they’ll meet.” It almost sounds like Dickinson believes that nature cannot be significantly altered by mankind’s tinkering. Air will find its way to air, as light to light.

I cannot help but hear in this echoes of some of the crazier arguments I’ve encountered over the years. Things like “we can’t change the climate, only God can” when, of course, we’ve had enough nuclear weapons to wipe out nearly all life on earth for some time. Some feel that the power of God is manifest on this plane of existence. They try to find examples of hubris, of people reaching too far, in order to witness an ironic collapse. In the first three lines, Dickinson sounds like she shares this instinct.

But then this is reversed. It turns out that banishing air from air and dividing light has nothing to do with science, in this case, and everything to do with purity. Our first indication lies in how air and light will “meet / While Cubes in a Drop / Or Pellets of Shape / Fit.” I understand this as an embrace of contradiction, of the impure. Cubes shouldn’t fit in a drop; pellets can be bullets, which destroy shape, or bits of things with no definite shape. If banishing air from air is about creating purer air, it finds a challenge when cubes “fit” into a drop.

One might ask what eagerly awaiting punishment for disrespecting God has to do with purity. These two things are linked in contemporary American evangelical culture, but if that linkage does not suffice, Dickinson offers an insight. There is a real hatred of anything that could potentially be different being together. Cubes should not be anywhere near drops; pellets should only be bullets (for more on pellets and bullets, please consult Hurst).

If anything is different, the house of cards one has set up as their own faith will collapse. A lot of people believe in Creationism and all sorts of other things far more than they believe in God. “God” in that case is the reduction of the world to their assumptions, which can never be challenged.

The second indication we have that Dickinson advances a religious critique is “Force Flame,” as if a flame could make the world pure, one understandable thing. “Films cannot annul / Odors return whole,” Dickinson tells us, as if banishing air from air was about trying to rid the world of strange textures (films) or strong smells (odors). In the face of this, one might try to “Force Flame.”

If one tries that, if one tries to be an avenging Holy Ghost, there’s a funny consequence. “Force Flame / And with a Blonde push / Over your impotence / Flits Steam.” Try to destroy water and its Protean nature, and it will simply become steam.

We live 160 years apart from Dickinson and if there’s an understanding of religious overreach here, it feels apt. The opening of the poem, playing with ideas of hubristic, heretical science. The ironic twist, that some who are religious are conducting a perpetual experiment on the body politic, only to find that the world is more real than most ideas of it.

Ono no Komachi, “Untitled;” Seamus Heaney, “Sloe Gin”

Komachi tells of a tree burdened by its memories. “The pine tree,” she says, has “branches [which] lean towards the ground:”

Untitled
Ono no Komachi (translated by Jane Hirshfield & Mariko Aratani)

The pine tree by the rock
must have its memories too:
after a thousand years,
see how its branches
lean towards the ground.

I find it difficult to imagine the thought of loss overwhelming a plant. But the more I try to think about it, the more grief in its enormity becomes present.

Komachi begins by situating the pine tree relative to us. It is “the pine tree by the rock,” one we’ve both passed. The familiarity she invokes feels casual, but then she calls it “a thousand years old.” Literally, the millenium; perhaps the tree is older than history. It certainly has a sacred aspect.

This tree, by the rock, by us, “must have its memories too.” It may be divine, but we must relate. “See how its branches lean towards the ground,” she instructs. Some speak of the dead walking among us, of their making themselves known through strange coincidence. Komachi partially inverts that notion. Here, the tree, the living, hovers over the dead, attending to them perpetually. It doesn’t intrude on their world, but leans toward, as if life itself was defined by death only.

Life is attention to loss. I think of all the people who believed in me that I lost. How needed they are as I get older. How others depend on me in ways I can’t yet fulfill, how desired the presence and advice of ancestors.

A want of presence calls to mind Seamus Heaney’s “Sloe Gin,” where a drink brings forth a wave of memories:

Sloe Gin
Seamus Heaney

The clear weather of juniper
darkened into winter.
She fed gin to sloes
and sealed the glass container.

When I unscrewed it
I smelled the disturbed
tart stillness of a bush
rising through the pantry.

When I poured it
it had a cutting edge
and flamed
like Betelgeuse.

I drink to you
in smoke-mirled, blue-
black sloes, bitter
and dependable.

With gorgeous brevity, we are told “The clear weather of juniper / darkened into winter.” Juniper, the evergreen, increasingly cannot be seen on account of winter’s darkness. But Heaney makes it sound like the cause of true weather. As winter begins, “She fed gin to sloes / and sealed the glass container.”

A time capsule is created. It contains notes of preservation and nourishment. As the gin and sloes merge, they forge something altogether new. But that newness distinctly recalls an absence, someone evergreen covered up by shadows.

“When I unscrewed it / I smelled the disturbed / tart stillness of a bush / rising through the pantry.” Heaney does not simply smell the gin. The scent rises through the pantry and transforms the room. He’s now in another world, another time, with “the disturbed tart stillness of a bush.” Nature, one could say, did not take its course. It is mankind that distilled gin and put it together with sloes. It is the disturbance–a net positive, to be sure–that allows for memory. On a related note, Nietzsche has an essay which begins by telling us that on a little planet orbiting a little star, some arrogant creatures invented “knowledge.” But this just lasted a few seconds as that small world came to an end and the rest of cosmic history barely recognizes anything happened.

It is the disturbance, the notes that miss, which count most, especially if we are nothing but a blip in cosmic time.

Heaney sees the gin as having “a cutting edge.” It “flamed like Betelgeuse.” He imagines her, the maker of the gin, as no less than Hephaestus. Maybe even more: to create that which cuts across time and space might be beyond the power of the Olympian gods. This gin brings back memories that empower. It is possible to create an awesome object from which your descendants will derive inspiration. It is possible to convey love and concern over decades, if not centuries.

“I drink to you / in smoke-mirled, blue- / black sloes, bitter / and dependable.” It is also impossible to discount the pain powerful memories bring. “Blue-black sloes,” “bitter.” Often I think that if all were to be well, what I have will be useful and I will be happy. Heaney, I believe, is working to disabuse me of that notion. If something is useful and ultimately generates happiness, that probably means others have sacrificed. Loss is at hand at the very moment of triumph. The comedy is in completeness, in the idea life has a course not unlike a perfect circle. Komachi’s tree knows better. It attends to loss, what once was known, what cannot be forgotten.

Lorine Niedecker, “Transition”

Why do we create?

This is America. Many believe that if you don’t produce, you don’t deserve to exist. This absurdity drives people to publish on the weightiest matters without thinking twice.

A thought is earned. Creativity is irreducibly complex. Observe how Niedecker traces it in the natural world, in the first half of her simile.

Transition
Lorine Niedecker

Colours of October
wait with easy dignity
for the big change—
like gorgeous quill-pens
in old inkwells
almost dry.

The first half: “Colours of October / wait with easy dignity / for the big change.” With “easy dignity,” trees in autumn wear their majesty, even as they must transform. They prepare for a change they must endure. Niedecker’s invocation of “the big change” speaks to how little we can understand of their lives. We see them as part of a cycle of death and rebirth, but that’s our imposition, our grafting of hopes and fears upon everything. They store what they need. They let go. They observe a process we can only witness.

It’s “easy dignity” to our eyes, but what is it really? Perhaps this readying for “transition” is creativity. A trunk collects, leaves are let go. Something is built to prepare for dark and cold. It’s not creativity in the sense of originality, but the trees didn’t just offer a dazzling display of colors before winter. They put forth a palette which has inspired countless numbers of artists, as their beauty is the paradigm.

Why do trees create? To survive. This is not the same as whether they deserve to survive. They undertake the action themselves. “Easy dignity:” they guard against the dark and cold, but don’t personify it. And they certainly don’t care what we think.

The “easy dignity” of the waiting “colors of October” serves as prelude to how she imagines writing. She conjures a specific image of the past. Writing is “like gorgeous quill-pens / in old inkwells / almost dry.” “Old inkwells almost dry” indicates the past has not quite left yet. The feather pens and ink bring to mind black and white more than fall colors, but they can write any color needed into existence.

I think it’s safe to conclude that she wants to see her own writing as powerful, continuous with the past, and harnessing the strength of an inimitable nature. It’s an incredible wish, and one might be tempted to think it beyond the scope of this little poem. But the poem’s title is “Transition.” The trees in fall face a challenge we consider death. What challenge do the quill-pens face? What challenge do we face? It’s the same, really: to use the ink before it ceases being wet.