Paul Hoover, “To the Choirmaster”

To the Choirmaster (from poetryfoundation.org)
Paul Hoover

Art thou not from everlasting,
O Lord my God, my Holy One?
We shall not die.

The rock lives in the desert, solid, taking its time.
The wave lives for an instant, stable in momentum
at the edge of the sea, before it folds away.
Everything that is, lives and has size.
The mole sleeps in a hole of its making,
and the hole also lives; absence is not nothing.
It didn’t desire to be, but now it breathes
and makes a place, for the comfort of the mole.
I am a space taken, and my absence will be shapely
and of a certain age, in the everlasting.
In the fierce evening, on the mild day,
How long shall I be shaken?

(Habakkuk)

Comment:

Re: the title. There is a myth (is it exclusively Tolkien’s idea, with scriptural and medieval influences?) which holds angels sang, and their singing produced Creation. As they sang, one of the angels, started singing off-key to create disharmony, and what the angels did to counter him was simply switch to whatever key he was in. One can establish the speaker as a choir member (“space taken”); his concern with “breath” and the accompanying “absence” and “shaking” (vibrato) brings up the question of how man constitutes himself.

In any case, the rock “lives,” “solid,” “taking its time.” How it takes time is how it fills up space: “in the desert” implies that wherever something has the solidity of a rock, all that is around it has already gone to waste. The rock takes time.

The wave is a very different story. It lives in time (“an instant”). Motion defines its being (“stable in momentum”) and when it will be out of being (“folds away”). That it is moving toward land ties this image explicitly to the Creation story itself. The rock is almost just an extreme of a metaphysical principle. The wave’s being implies relations between things (at the very least, what happens in separate moments of time).

Our ascent has to continue. Our author, before moving to the mole, the hole, himself, the “everlasting,” and the temporal, articulates a principle:

Everything that is, lives and has size.

It sounds simple enough: time (“lives”) and space (“has size”) are merged. But we already know that rocks and waves, by this principle, “live.” This could be pantheism, or worse: the object that would be most godlike so far does not move; it is the rock. Living is distorted horribly by the rock. We need a principle where God has given human life a place in His time. (The Levitical law is based on the cosmology of Genesis 1. The division of the world into one part sky, one part water, one part earth is why one can’t eat amphibians: their status as to what part they fit into is ambiguous. Again, from Genesis 1: you can eat cows because cows chew grass; man was originally vegetarian. Etc.)

Now “the mole sleeps” – it does not merely live as a rock or wave, but can rest from its own motion. Living is coming closer to what we would recognize as human being. The mole has even made a hole, and we are told the hole lives. The theological import, made a bit clearer: “[the feeling of] absence is not nothing.” One could also say that absence implies presence.

The hole “breathes,” recalling the breath of God from Genesis but also our own breath (“it didn’t desire to be”). We comfort each other, despite the horrible things we do. Perhaps there is less that is theological here, and more existential:

I am a space taken, and my absence will be shapely
and of a certain age, in the everlasting.

The rock lived and took; the wave lived and folded away; the mole slept and made; the hole breathed and made. But now: “I am…taken.” Everything else has been personified and thus given being and purpose. But you can’t just give man a purpose in the same way; hence, he is most like the “hole.” We do not know what exactly takes the “space,” and we cannot conjecture “God.” The absence is in the everlasting, and it “will be.” The speaker does not know what he is to become. The metaphysical principles that brought him this far seem to leave:

In the fierce evening, on the mild day,
How long shall I be shaken?

The time the speaker gives himself is very specific: it is day by day. “Shaken” brings us back to the wave (“folds”) and absolutely the rock (“solid”). We do not take time in the same way as the rock; we are a space taken and thus given time. The shape and certain age mean that our lives could be waves in the everlasting, perpetually recalled in the mind of God. We can only conjecture the nature of the everlasting, but we have seen nothing become something here on earth – the hole became comfort for the mole – and we just hope God will be everlasting in the same way. The one thing the poem establishes is having size as a moral attribute.

5 Comments

  1. I love reading poetry. It reminds me when my husband was just my boyfriend and used to write poems for me in High School. I also enjoyed seeing (Habakkuk) which surprisingly is not written about much. Thanks for the information and I can’t wait to explore this website more and find other great writing!

  2. We need a principle where God has given human life a place in His time. (The Levitical law is based on the cosmology of Genesis 1. The division of the world into one part sky, one part water, one part earth is why one can’t eat amphibians: their status as to what part they fit into is ambiguous. Again, from Genesis 1: you can eat cows because cows chew grass; man was originally vegetarian. Etc.)

    I think Leon Kass (The Beginning of Wisdom)says that amphibians were prohibited from being eaten because, belonging to no one place, they were rebellious creatures. Interesting analysis, Ashok!

  3. “…the feeling of absence is not nothing.”

    This is one of my favourite phrases in your piece.And how sublime those last lines:

    I am a space taken, and my absence will be shapely
    and of a certain age, in the everlasting.
    In the fierce evening, on the mild day,
    How long shall I be shaken?

    This sounds almost like Hoelderlin’s late poetry. I’d have to live with it for longer to get the feeling/idea.

    Your thinking is very clear and beautiful, yet our two brains belong to different spheres. I am less interested in making logical distinctions, even though one can’t think without making them: I prefer words to define themselves anew in every context within which they appear.

    I move with the waves, their undulations, their foam their crests, their impetus, and what would they be without the rocks to wash against, making them gleam evermore distinctly against the amorphous hither and thither of time. Thus am I shaken between the rock and the wave.

    Thnak-you, Ashok, for your gifts and for making one think.

Leave a Comment