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With thanks to Triin P.
To a Reader
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.
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.