In “I dwell in Possibility,” Dickinson declares hers “A fairer House than Prose.” At the end of the poem, she tells what she does in that “House:”
For Occupation – This – The spreading wide my narrow Hands To gather Paradise –
On one reading, it is grand. The spreading wide my narrow hands to gather Paradise. Her whole life is just this, the embrace of possibility. Nothing determined can be had—there can be no set object—as beauty resides in the love, the effort, the elegance of the gesture itself. Perhaps this is what it truly means to write poetry, to hymn existence.
On another reading, it is empty. I can’t say that these lines contain a hint of pessimism or darkness, but the problem is obvious. Poems about break-ups pine for time together lost. Poems about lasting love describe strange, symbolic gestures which a beloved can receive and understand. See, for example, Raymond Carver’s “Hummingbird.”
One might say Dickinson’s independence, self-fulfillment, and happiness are plausible enough. Her poem refers to the very activity of creating it—she crafts poetry, she dwells in possibility, and she earns her moments of gathering Paradise as she writes them into being.
If we accept this reasoning, a further problem emerges. Can poetry ever be true to experiences other than those of crafting poetry? Ungaretti’s “Weightless Now” brought to mind Dickinson’s above lines because of a gesture that sounded similar: The hands like leaves / Float breathless in the air. I am struggling to understand the poem, though. When Ungaretti declares A soul grows weightless now, what does he mean? Does he mean that one feels lighter than air because of joy? Does he envision someone living their last moments? Is a soul weightless because of rejection or injury? My inability to locate an experience specific enough to help the poem make sense has me wondering about the larger problem of how poetry and experience relate:
Weightless Now Ungaretti (tr. Richard Wilbur) For a god who is laughing like a child So many cries of sparrows, So many hoppings high in the branches, A soul grows weightless now, Such tenderness is on the fields, Such chastity refills the eyes, The hands like leaves Float breathless in the air... Who fears, who judges now? Original Italian: Per un Iddio che rida come un bimbo, Tanti gridi di passeri, Tante danze nei rami, Un'anima si fa senza più peso, I prati hanno una tale tenerezza, Tale pudore negli occhi rivive, Le mani come foglie S'incantano nell'aria... Chi teme più, chi giudica?
“A god… laughing like a child,” “cries of sparrows,” and “hoppings high in the branches” create a setting lending itself to tragedy or comedy. The world seems so beautiful and so natural that one feels excluded from it. It is properly the province of “a god… laughing like a child,” one who possesses a glee which does not make sense to those who are mortal. That god has no use for our moral notions or our attempts to achieve something with our lives. They do not appreciate nature the way we do. We must see our mortality reflected in it, but they see it as their perpetual playground.
The stanza about setting gives way to the central drama: A soul grows weightless now. I realize I have made the case for why this can be taken tragically. Can such weightlessness be an expression of pure joy? Of course: the soul may not comprehend the laughter of the god, but it shows sensitivity to the mass of sparrows, the life overhead. It sees “tenderness… on the fields.” As it sees, it regains purity and innocence itself: chastity refills the eyes.
The confusion I have, to be clear, has less to do with whether Ungaretti depicts a tragic or comic experience. He’s pointing to a number of experiences. One may be overwhelmed with joy, one may be overwhelmed with grief, one may be suffering greatly, one may feel terrified. Regarding terror, I am thinking of the last passages of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls—the forest as cathedral, full of dust, with fighters looking for death. This leads to another issue. While Ungaretti’s poetic language paints a convincing, vivid picture—the sparrows’ noise is heard, the hoppings high above are sensed, light upon the fields seems more tender than bright—it ultimately points to an experience Ungaretti cannot possibly have had unless he died and resurrected. The poem stands on this: the sensations had near death are fundamental to our experiences of great joy, grief, terror, or suffering. No doubt we and Ungaretti have had moments where we thought it was all over and the world slowed down and we tried to be pentinent. But Ungaretti goes a bit further than this: A soul grows weightless now. The one who knows he is dying is all of us who assumed we were dying.
You can argue I’m being far too strict here, as we’ll accept that Ungaretti brings us to profound or grave moments where it felt like everything was gained or lost. He’s not really making a claim about knowledge; it’s good enough that we can bring to mind experiences relevant to the language. But now that I’ve said that, you can see how Pandora’s Box has opened. What exactly has to be felt to understand the poem?
I suspect one way around the issue is to speak of poems that create realms of emotion more aspirational than experienced. Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility” may be one, and “Weightless Now” may be another. The emotion to which the poem aspires is not that of feeling near death. That is only a beginning. The emotion is reached in the empty gesture Ungaretti ends with:
The hands like leaves
Float breathless in the air…
Who fears, who judges now?
It looks like he has located a moment where one feels no less than a god. Beyond fear, beyond judging—a kind of trembling, empty freedom. He attempts to embrace it all (or, perhaps, spurn it all) as if he is about to die.
It’s a difficult gesture to work with. Dickinson’s “narrow Hands” do not need to actually spread. If she’s writing, if she considers herself working within Possibility, we can accept that as her joy at work. Ungaretti emotionally convinces but breaks from all sense of reality to do so. The scene is powerful. Plenty of us have had our nihilist “rage at god” moments. But this resembles something from a film, and I have my doubts about the tendencies on display.
This is the Internet, after all, where so-called grown men lust after avatar pictures, demonstrating little or no self-control or respect for others. They take rejection as an excuse to burn it all down, as they realize the very threat of that is power. —Who fears, who judges now? — I don’t think Ungaretti has written a fascist poem; he has written a poem which might be best seen as corresponding with the films of Fellini or Bergman. What do we make of God’s silence? The trouble is that someone can see their rage, their hurt, their emptiness as completely justified. Like as if the world has ended for them. And as I can’t challenge them directly and say “grow up,” I’ll state a reservation about a work of art. A magnificent, rightly troubling one, but maybe one I understand too well.
Giuseppe Ungaretti. “Weightless Now.” Translated by Richard Wilbur in The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry: An Anthology, ed. Geoffrey Brock. New York: FSG, 2012. 169.