Rethink.

Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: poetry (page 1 of 45)

Robert Hass, “To a Reader”

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To a Reader
Robert Hass

I’ve watched memory wound you.
I felt nothing but envy.
Having slept in wet meadows,
I was not through desiring.
Imagine January and the beach,
a bleached sky, gulls. And
look seaward: what is not there
is there, isn’t it, the huge
bird of the first light
arched above first waters
beyond our touching or intention
or the reasonable shore.

Comment:

Don’t know how long I’ve thought of my scribbles as messages in bottles. It’s hard to come to terms with what truly underlies a certain disappointment, a certain longing, but Hass has done an admirable job in this poem.

The first four lines situate our speaker in what looks like a broken relationship. “I’ve watched memory wound you. / I felt nothing but envy” reads like the all-too-personal drama which can’t be understood from outside the relationship, much less within it. There’s nothing but envy, the thought that someone is doing well without you while you can’t do without them. To a degree, watching them hurt is all that’s left of love. Hass adds a curious wrinkle to this portrait: “Having slept in wet meadows / I was not through desiring.” The speaker is homeless, rootless, lost in nature. But that indicates something is natural about his being soaked in desire, in what might seem initially his artificial and awful expectations.

Imperatives lead the way to the speaker’s realization. First, “imagine January and the beach, a bleached sky, gulls.” The scene is stark; winter does not necessarily herald the beginning of spring. Instead of growth or joy, the feeling is that of a drained sky populated by scavengers. Yet we also recognize a beauty in this scene. That brings about the second imperative: “And look seaward: what is not there is there, isn’t it, the huge bird of the first light arched above first waters…”

The two imperatives are really one. Going elsewhere and looking, trying to see beyond one’s own pain, is a matter of survival. It’s easy to romanticize the power of stepping forth in this small way. “The huge bird of the first light arched above first waters” vaguely recalls Creation, a world born from divine love. We might be tempted to say the speaker has realized his place in the cosmos and is humbled. It’s not quite that simple, though. He knows himself to be resentful, but the outstanding question is why he was petty and angry in the first place.

Love means something can be lost. It means there are things at stake, that things may not work out. It means there are expectations and longings, and there always have been expectations and longings. “What is not there is there, isn’t it” is the speaker talking to his particular audience, trying to show her what he sees. I don’t think he’s doing this for the sake of attempting to repair a broken relationship. It didn’t work out not because “it wasn’t meant to be,” but precisely because it could have been. Our seemingly petty pains come from a very real sense of loss, from our attempting to create a better world for ourselves and others.

Thus a gull in the early morning, when the water is calm, appears momentous. We hurt and try and create for difficult reasons. We let go because difficulties can become insurmountable. To let go doesn’t always have to be angry, obsessed with the justice of one’s cause. When you realize we’re each trying to create something for ourselves, the world is a blank slate with something bittersweet and hopeful about it. A desire flies away, beyond touch, beyond any specific intent, beyond our reason but glimpsed by our reason, to be possibly understood later.

Robert Creeley, “Water Music”

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Water Music (from poets.org)
Robert Creeley

The words are a beautiful music.
The words bounce like in water.

Water music,
loud in the clearing

off the boats,
birds, leaves.

They look for a place
to sit and eat—

no meaning,
no point.

Comment:

The words are a beautiful music. This is not a matter of debate or speculation. It is a statement of being.

But that which is – those which are – also move. Words bounce, and their motion cannot be described so directly. They bounce “like in water.”

Creeley combines the form of words with the image of their movement. “Water music.” Words are music, they are a medium. That means they do not just move, but contain motion itself. In their movement, they are “loud in the clearing,” ricocheting off boats, birds, leaves. But “loud in the clearing?” Loud in nothing? That’s the clue words are substantial, allowing boats to float, witnessing the flight of birds, weighting the falling of leaves.

It is a curious substantiality, to be sure. All of life is comprehended, and none of it. The motion of words does not quite square with words holding motion within themselves. As words have form, they materialize, not unlike the noises of the insects near the lake. “They look for a place to sit and eat” – words, with a life of their own, want to be a part of our world just as we are. This means, quite literally, they have no meaning, no point. Nothing is eternally set for them. “Water music” points to dance, if it is not dance itself.

Emily Dickinson, “Count not that far that can be had” (1074)

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“Count not that far that can be had” (1074)
Emily Dickinson

Count not that far that can be had,
Though sunset lie between —
Nor that adjacent, that beside,
Is further than the sun.

Comment:

Given an imperative, “count not,” we wonder: Is this advice? A warning?

“Count not that far that can be had” – there is a “far” that can be had? Dickinson clarifies in her peculiar way. Between the “far” and “us,” sunset lies between. Whatever “far” we can possess has something to do with night. I suspect she’s talking about love. The stars are beautiful, distant, uncountable. But in a way, we can have them. We possess them by beholding them.

The first two lines, on my reading, bring together hopes, loves, and heartbreak. “Count not” is a warning. Something about love has to stay mysterious; in the most ardent longing, there is an element of moderation. The poem hints that this might have to do with our beholding the stars. We possess them at the same time we do not possess them. Just as we love, we make them what they are because we see, not touch.

So what if we want to touch? What about the “adjacent,” the “beside?” Dickinson contrasts these with “far” through her use of “that:” “that far,” “that adjacent,” “that beside.” That far can be had, can be possessed. Why is what is “adjacent,” “beside,” further than the sun?  (I am reading the last two lines as “Nor that adjacent, that beside, [which] is further than the sun.”)

I guess that could be read as a simple warning against sensuality as fulfillment, but that’s not true. The first two lines introduced a very sensual love. The issue, again, is counting. Try to count what is earthly, what is right next to you, and you’ll find yourself going crazy. It’s not the amount of distance that’s the problem, it’s the fact of any distance. The funny thing is that we try to count that which we don’t really want to count. Our end is something else, to be sure.

Kay Ryan, “In Case of Complete Reversal”

In Case of Complete Reversal (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

Born into each seed
is a small anti-seed
useful in case of some
complete reversal:
a tiny but powerful
kit for adapting it
to the unimaginable.
If we could crack the
fineness of the shell
we’d see the
bundled minuses
stacked as in a safe,
ready for use
if things don’t
go well.

Comment:

Each seed has an anti-seed within it, ready for a reversal. The anti-seed is “useful,” it enables a seed to adapt to the “unimaginable.” If we could break the beautiful, smooth, protective exterior, we’d see a stack that could be in a safe, one apparently not in use at the moment.

Often, I think about pride as a defense mechanism. So many times over the years I’ve had to get arrogant, had to pick fights, had to keep away from people because to let certain statements, behaviors, or structures stand was to invite becoming the one doormat to rule them all. Nowadays, I try hard to keep my judgments about people in rough circumstances clear. They can’t be expected to be perfectly humble. They have to have cynicism and breaking points, as well as be respected for their limits, because they’re in positions where they can be taken advantage of easily. While it’s true behaving the way most of us think is right can make life easier for them, they are in situations where trust is hard to come by. To insist, as many of us do, that it is simple for them to change or that it would be completely beneficial if they took all our advice and live exactly the way we do, is to miss how the world is structured for them. Oftentimes, we’ll insist they give up their rights – their claims to justice – so they can get something we see as clearly good for them. I don’t think I need to spell out how fundamentally evil this is. I will add that I think it’s where the “tyranny of the majority” is worst nowadays.

When Ryan brought forth in her last sentence the idea of “minuses stacked as in a safe,” I don’t know I saw pride. I might have, as all of us keep a highlight reel of those times we’ve failed and been failed. It’s a combination of guilt and righteous anger that sometimes whips our spirit up. We’re ready to be better and do better for ourselves.

So what is there exactly, in that safe? We’re talking about an “anti-seed” born into a “seed.” It’s a relentlessly natural image that almost lets one forget that there is nothing natural about an anti-seed. A “complete reversal” threatens the natural with the unnatural, if one thinks of nature as having a certain direction.

That small anti-seed is “useful,” “a tiny but powerful kit for adapting it to the unimaginable.” Not natural, but mechanical. What couldn’t be conceived is countered by a set of tools, a potential change of direction.

How strange to talk about a thing that isn’t, a direction that could be! The fact of the seed, not even its proper growth, leads to both. We can conclude from this something even more preposterous: the anti-seed is the seed. The seed does not actually grow because of any positives. There are no necessary positives, no substance or direction that a seed must go. Everything is ruined from its inception.

I don’t know that I’m looking at pride, in the end. I’m looking at something prior, a sheer willfulness, something that makes matter out of all the slights and obstacles thrown at it. “In Case of Complete Reversal:” even Jesus talks about the plants that choke other plants.

Kay Ryan, “All Your Horses”

All Your Horses (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

Say when rain
cannot make
you more wet
or a certain
thought can’t
deepen and yet
you think it again:
you have lost
count. A larger
amount is
no longer a
larger amount.
There has been
a collapse; perhaps
in the night.
Like a rupture
in water (which
can’t rupture
of course). All
your horses
broken out with
all your horses.

Comment:

Always a certain thought can’t deepen, yet we think it. Most thoughts we have nag at us, pushing us to do the same unto others. Our lives are soaked with this idiocy, which is a major reason why you are here at this site, reading this commentary. You’re hoping something different might emerge. Anything different.

In creation, though, the same problem resides. A major reason you haven’t gotten blog entries for months is that I’ve felt miserable. When I’m miserable, the same thing hammers away in my brain, and yeah, I’d like to get rid of it. The issue is that to write something meaningful for you involves writing something meaningful for myself. You may not see that as a problem, and certainly lots of writers, including some minds we respect greatly, could care less about what things mean for them. They have talent and craft; all that’s left is attention.

The poem starts with being pointlessly oversoaked, then tells us we’ve lost count. What we’ve been attempting is depth of a sort. Depth is not just a risk, but a series of risks. For myself, I don’t mind being soaked. But losing count? Counting is everything – to lose this is not to be able to function practically. It is the highest theoretical failure, not because human reason applied to human problems has mathematical certainty, but because overlooking the obvious will destroy any attempted union of cleverness and profundity.

As reasonable creatures, we count and organize. That’s it.  So to fail to see “A larger amount is no longer a larger amount” might indicate we have to start over, hit the reset button on the construction of our minds. Obviously, that’s not an option, but again, we got into this situation hoping for depth. We visited this on ourselves, hoping that more attempts to probe for depth would yield more, not narrow us.

Ryan gives us three images with which to grapple in understanding this strange chaos of water and numbers. First, it is like a house falling apart, or the startle we get at night when we think the roof is caving: “There has been a collapse; perhaps in the night.” Not only do we not know magnitude, we don’t know proximity. Heck, the biggest problem we face is that we don’t know if our problem affects us.

That sounds too clever to say. Of course a thought hammering in our head is our own problem! But wait: how many times have you seen someone else act better or worse, and change yourself accordingly? How many times has that happened even with regard to your deeper woes? The funny thing about the artists who look to talent, craft, and attention is that they have something right about the need for dispassion. There’s a weirdness in insisting everything be heartfelt and generating nothing at all. Communication is not just me to you. It is my constructing an image, convincing to me and hopefully to you, that speaks to you. In turn, you construct images and continue a cycle.

Images have limits. This brings us to Ryan’s second one. The collapse in the night is like “Like a rupture in water (which can’t rupture of course).” We see ourselves as soaked or ready to be shattered, but is this correct? Wanting depth, we lost count, but we were plumbing ourselves. If we are water, we are more malleable and perhaps stronger than we thought ourselves.

Finally, a return to spirit. “All your horses broken out with all your horses.” You could say the water floods, the horses are loose, everything is ruined. And maybe that’s true. But it’s also true that my mind hasn’t stopped repeating itself and yet I’m finding something genuinely different to say.  Creation comes from the same point of origin as failure. It’s a scary thought, but it seems to be Ryan’s comment on Yeats’ “The Fascination of What’s Difficult.” To be free is to embrace the risk, the possibility of overcoming it, the possibility of simply seeing what happens.

Emily Dickinson, “Unto the Whole — how add?” (1341)

Unto the Whole — how add? (1341)
Emily Dickinson

Unto the Whole — how add?
Has “All” a further realm —
Or Utmost an Ulterior?
Oh, Subsidy of Balm!

Comment:

This strange little poem seems to make sense in its first two lines, then starts to lose me. The first line – “Unto the Whole — how add?” – proposes adding something to the whole of everything. This sounds rather odd, if not impossible (“Has “All” a further realm [?]“), and it probably is impossible. I can only fathom the first two lines make any sense at all because they express a cryptic wish. We want something that, in essence, is like trying to add to the Whole. Perhaps this is like loving someone whom we think perfect. What need do they have of us, by our own accounting?

A quick Google search of “unto the whole” shows that it is in the KJV. Exodus 16, to be precise, where Aaron is trying to address the whole of Israel. They end up looking into the wild and seeing God in a nearby cloud.  That appearance of the glory of the Lord is prior to the appearance and gathering of manna. Is Dickinson making a snide comment about faith? Saying something to the effect of “if faith is so complete, why do the faithful require bread?”

At the very least, Dickinson is too cunning for that sort of maneuver. For myself, I think there is a comment on the limits of faith, but it has to do with belief and self-confidence generally. We link faith and self-sufficiency because of our sentiments prior to religion. We do believe if we can conceive ourselves and what we want rightly – if we understand how we are a whole being – we can get what we want. Continence and moderation are means to ends for us.

In that spirit, the speaker is seeing the ridiculousness of her project. “All” should not have a further realm, but “Utmost” certainly involves ulterior motives, aspirations, and hidden consequences. We’re looking to our limit to try and transcend that limit, all the while proclaiming ourselves moderate. (We knowers are unknown to ourselves, someone once said.)

Only at the end of the poem do we get a hint of what started this musing. The speaker cries “Oh, Subsidy of Balm!” – you know, something no one would ever say, because they would confuse themselves saying it aloud. I’m almost tempted to say this is a bad line of Dickinson’s, but it may advance the drama of the poem. A subsidy is a form of assistance, a balm heals. The speaker almost repeats herself in the last line, realizing that this musing started from another want, another immoderate but necessary wish.

She was pained, and like all pained, sensible people, wanted healing and the strength to preserve herself. That means she wanted a “subsidy,” wanted to be the recipient of assistance. And that means she actually needed specific assistance, a “balm.” The redundancy of how aid works points to the flaw in trying to be Whole. The self-sufficient being cannot admit they ever needed help, for that would mean the faculties to be self-sufficient can fail. To be self-sufficient, you need to be minded so (you never take a subsidy), and you need the means (balms are useless, as you do not want to be hurt in the first place). If self-sufficiency is conditional, then it may not really exist. The “Whole,” then, points to a further realm, from where “All” can be seen, where the “Utmost” is the limit of one thing but not of another. Something does add to the Whole, but it is not something that stems from our completeness.

D. Nurkse, “Venus”

With thanks to Benjamin Roman

Venus (from Poetry)
D. Nurkse

Death is coming
and you must build a starship
to take you to Venus.

Make it from a catsup bottle,
a flashlight coil,
a penny, the cat’s bell,
Mom’s charm bracelet.

They say that planet is torment,
whipped by circular wind,
choked in vitriol clouds.

But no. When you get there
it is a light in the sky
and I am with you.

If you find nothing else,
borrow the pleated wing
of a winter moth,
lighter than dust.

Comment:

About the afterlife, much has been said. Jesus describes the justice of it as a graceful equality. The laborers who come later are given the same as those who worked before. Socrates says in the Apology he will either be completely unconscious or asking lots of questions of people he hasn’t met. In the Phaedo, he speaks of a realm where red is really red – a realm of predicates, not objects.  A realm where everything is separated, where nothing strictly speaking is, where analysis – a breaking-down – reigns. The Weakerthans in “Night Windows” sing how our fragmented memories of the dead weave in and out of our existence, appearing and disappearing like ghosts.

In this poem, we build a starship from nostalgia of our childhood, a carefree imagination enabled by being unconditionally loved. We’re going to Venus to satisfy that deepest desire, that eros not separable from familial love but not only that. We do love and have been loved.

Having felt called, the potential for disaster – “torment” – exists. The goal could very easily be an illusion. Even if we’re right about the voice calling us, it’s just an image, part of a past that cannot be recovered. Venus is uninhabitable.

The image has more to say. We will get there, as we are there (“it is a light in the sky”). Our memories of those we love may be garbled, but we cannot sit with them trying to imagine them perfectly. There are those we actually loved, and they lived, leaving behind memories and much more. They did call to us when they were here, often.

This is the world they made. To find them, we unfold it. Venus is uninhabitable; there is no perfect reconciliation with the dead. There is only the dust, which flies, understood by us as almost animate.

Fifteenth Reflection: Sappho, “You are the herdsman of evening”

You are the herdsman of evening
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

You are the herdsman of evening

Hesperus, you herd
homeward whatever
Dawn’s light dispersed

You herd sheep – herd
goats – herd children
home to their mothers

Comment:

We’re so used to thinking of Night as separate from familial love that it is hard to see how Day scatters us. Night for us isn’t a herding homeward, but excitement, searching, anxiety. Even for those who do have families they cherish, night means time apart from them. We read alone in rooms, sneak in conversations with others. Night is where our true selves emerge; Day is where we merely present a public face.

But we do feel that public face we present daily is ours, and Night where our desires and incompleteness make themselves most manifest. I’m interested in the implied Day of this fragment. Dawn’s light disperses, allowing for movement, growth, productivity. That much the mention of sheep and goats evidences. The sheep and goats need to return home in order for the cycle to continue, for them to keep being good. Does children scattering during day, returning to mothers at night, work the same way? In one sense, yes, as there is a cycle that must take place for them to grow. They must be nurtured and loved even as they venture out. In another sense, Hesperus governs nothing less than death.

William Stafford, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”

With thanks to T.D. For the dedicated.

A Ritual to Read to Each Other (from williamstafford.org)
William Stafford

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes, no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

Comment:

We – you and I – don’t know each other. While this looms ominously over our gestures and conversation at the cafe, I don’t know that it makes us accidental conformists (“a pattern that others made may prevail in the world”). We need to know each other to find our uniqueness? That’s a pick-up line I haven’t tried yet.

Stafford’s second stanza cryptically explains the reasoning behind his cryptic claim. There “is many a small betrayal in the mind.” It first makes itself manifest in a shrug rather than weeping or gnashing of teeth. That failure to will brings back the worst sort of nostalgia; indifference leads to paralysis. Stafford, to be sure, is in command of powerful, interesting imagery. The shrug lets a “fragile sequence break,” where the “shouts [of] the horrible errors of childhood” storm “out to play through the broken dyke.” One might think this stanza overblown, but I thought it was just right. Our childhood fears do not typically reside in psychosis, marking us off from everyone else. Instead, they’re manifest in our everyday lives. We’ve shaped ourselves entirely based on what we fear.

Stafford lets this image play out. Individuals form society, conforming through their fears just as elephants parade. For a while, our fears link us, allowing us to be led. But who is leading the way? Becoming lost is inevitable. The really funny thing is how some self-knowledge is in play throughout this awful process. We do know ourselves to a degree. We can recognize how we’ve shaped our experience. Yet this only serves to underline how little control we actually have: “I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty / to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.”

There has to be a solution to the problem posed. Maybe Stafford isn’t entirely in control of everything in the poem, but this does feel like an accurate summation of modern society, of our being individuals in a world continually united by fear of others.

He appeals to a a “voice, to something shadowy, / a remote important region in all who talk.” Not words simply, but something shadowy in a remote place. Not the clarity of reason, but the darkness of reason. The sense that there is something more when we speak, the sometimes artificial weighting of another’s words. This does not constitute an unambiguous good: “we could fool each other” might be better rendered something like “we may fool ourselves overthinking the other.” Still, since we are elephants on parade, we must consider. We may have to lead even though we have no idea how to lead.

In the last stanza, the sense beyond the literal sense has another imperative and complication. We must keep ourselves awake, we whose task is wakefulness itself. Fine, but this means, weirdly enough, that there is less to be wondered at. We have to try for clear signals, not forcing those we address to wander. But what we fashion clear signals from is peculiar. Stafford tells us clear signals are “yes, no, or maybe,” making one wonder if there was any wisdom at all in this poem.

He ends saying “the darkness around us is deep,” and we know now just how far that extends. To try to see clearly into the other is to work with more darkness. The only thing we can really signal, in the end, is how difficult it is to appreciate another for who they are. That alone breaks the conformity, creates the possibility of a star.

Fourteenth Reflection: Sappho, “When I saw Eros”

When I saw Eros
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

When I saw Eros

On his way down
from heaven, he

wore a soldier’s
cloak dyed purple

Comment:

Not a cherub with a bow and arrow, nor a bored teen cynical about his own ability to love. Here, Eros is a man in uniform, straight out of 300 or Gladiator. He’s ready to sacrifice in battle but do some push-ups and glisten with sweat first. Whatever he says will be terse and direct, with the profundity and power of being honorable. Then he’ll start doing pull-ups and make sure his cloak is ready for inspection.

There’s no doubt the gentleman in question is an amazing sight. Either people want to bed him or be him. Obviously, I’m tempted to dwell on how ridiculous this all is, how the things worth fighting for are appreciated by a diversity of people, how heroes and heroines act daily to preempt evils from happening in the first place.

But it cannot be doubted that this is still impressive. A number of cultures worry about an end to “manliness,” the embrace of a softness that makes us weaker, unconcerned with virtue and tradition, unwilling to make sacrifices and hard choices. ISIS probably does not think of itself as a bunch of resentful nihilist tyrannical assholes. It probably sees itself as the only way to preserve and fulfill a number of moral dictates. It’s funny how much this fragment of Sappho’s alludes to death. The soldier has already descended once, and he wears the colors he bleeds.

 

 

 

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