Rethink.

Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: poetry (page 1 of 46)

W.H. Auden, “Musée des Beaux Arts”

Musée des Beaux Arts
W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Comment:

Assigned this poem, I produced a paper full of billowy nonsense I hesitate to term “writing.” That was 15 years ago, and thankfully lost forever. A few years later, I had a few insights as to what details might matter. I still didn’t understand what this poem was about.

I

In the museum hang the paintings of the Masters. They are attempts to depict an aspect of their time, with one slight problem: Is it actually possible to convey one’s everyday experience to people of another time? Strictly speaking, it is not possible; one recreates the past by looking to what is presently at hand; it is the fact we are human, that we react certain ways, which art uses to imitate life. At some point, art may even communicate with us.

Before communication, however, one must create a compelling imitation. We viewers have to want to engage imaginatively. Something pointed, something potentially meaningful, stands prior to the composition as a whole. To see the world, ironically enough, is to react to it first:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…

Strolling through a museum, “just walking dully along,” treats the window into suffering as those eating in the painting treat those who suffer. The Masters, in never being wrong about suffering, in understanding its human position, understand the limits of their art.

To be sure, they understand the possibilities also. The poem as a whole provokes our moral indignation, as we are outraged to hear of those who do not feel pity or compassion! How dare they be blind to what is happening right in front of them! To be so blind is to ignore our pain, our promise, evident in scenes of Old Testament prophets fervently praying, or shepherds near holy and wise men, all gathering around a manger:

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood…

We may dismiss the skating children as ignorant, or turn on them as worshippers of a lesser god. It is far less likely we will remember the words of the child miraculously born, “Let the children come to me.”

II

It would be wrong to say that using suffering this way is a trick of some sort, that it is only done to make an ordinary work of art look profound. It is true the world cruelly goes on while cruelty occurs, as the poem and the paintings both attest. But what of it? We, as observers, correspond with those of the paintings who are almost entirely oblivious. If they weep and gnash teeth while a saint dies, does that make the painting more moral? If we feel morally superior because we recognize someone suffering in an image, are we better people?

The first stanza contains a regression. It started with those who were “eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Then, the next group blind to suffering and hope were “children who did not specially want it to happen, skating on a pond at the edge of the wood.” It ends with a horse and dog going on with their lives, while a martyr is tortured to death:

They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

The first stanza moves from adults to children to animals. Silently, it implies that recognition of suffering has some meaning, for rationality falls away as the suffering becomes more pronounced and stays ignored. However, whether suffering, God becoming man, or torture and death can cause life to pause is another issue. The paintings tell the story that it is difficult to even expect art to pause.

III

Surely, a chain of observers must result in some reaction, somewhere. Those witnessing the ghastly scene of Icarus’ death in Brueghel’s The Fall of Icarus “quite leisurely” turn away. The ploughman and the sailors are busy about their work, and if Icarus had been less full of hubris, he too would be sailing or plowing, not trying to fly:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Breughel’s painting is cruel, but cruel to his world, not Icarus. Art itself is hubris in a world where the truth has been completely revealed and everyone knows their place. The indifference of those witnessing pain in the first stanza has been replaced by contempt in the second.

The poet makes this substitution quietly, as the paintings did. Not all the Masters may have understood the human position of suffering. If they did, they may have understood it different ways. Their attempt at meaning, what unites them in the poem’s narrative thread, indicates the centrality of merely shining light on an event: “the sun shone as it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green water.” These painters provoked through the theme of suffering, and in at least one case, asserted something about their own time, simply to get us to see the event. Without the provocation, without the contention, we would not bother seeing the more fundamental truth. Prior to that, we would neither think about the type of people a given age has, nor wonder how a myth endures as it changes.

The coldness of our narrator is itself a provocation. He has been “quite leisurely” turning away from painting after painting, taking in bare facts. A splash, a cry, sunlight, green water, an expensive, delicate, ship. He also has somewhere to go and will move calmly on. We’re not more moral for looking at suffering in paintings. Maybe a bit more clever for seeing how it functions in bringing us to respond to art. This much is true: if we can take in the details, reconstruct the story, we too can narrate. What that means, though, is up to us, alone.

William Butler Yeats, “The Choice”

The Choice
W.B. Yeats

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.

Comment:

Recently, I attempted a more comprehensive comment on Yeats. The first few paragraphs went pretty well. I observed that loving something or someone, even worshipfully, does not mean you become it or them. Yet Yeats’ poems are infused with a peculiar yearning. He’s in love with something (and, at times, someone). What transformation do his poems intend to create in the reader that could satisfy his specific needs? This may be obvious in love poetry like Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven (maybe the best love poem ever written), but what’s happening when he deploys occult imagery or speaks about the end of an age?

At the moment, I’m content to see how Yeats develops a thesis of his own without running into too large a question. Not that my train of thought is wrong: it’s just that following it out might be a lifetime’s worth of work put the way it is above. I need to narrow my focus.

Yeats, to say the least, does not seem to think the same way as me. He begins The Choice with a thesis that only has a surface specificity: “The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work.” If we care at all about our intellect, if we attempt to be knowers, then we can either perfect “the life” or “the work.” It sounds like he means that we can either perfect our lives, or create some work that has a chance of lasting, either being perfect itself or informing perfection.

If we pick the latter and attempt to be creators ourselves, we “must refuse / A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.” This probably alludes to Matthew 22:2-14. A king held a wedding feast for his son, telling his servants to gather guests. Some of the servants were killed out of spite, leading the king to declare war against the murderers and significantly change the guest list. People then came from all the highways, but one man came dressed in a most unbecoming manner. He was bound by the king and cast into the outer darkness, where there was “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Does perfection of the work mean directly challenging God? Independent of considering theism or organized religion or theology, there’s a simpler proposition: it’s really hard to make something worthwhile that might last. A lot of creative people put significant resources into making something, getting virtually nothing during the process or at the end. In some cases, it does feel like life, or something larger, is toying with one. There is raging in the dark, there is refusal of set answers or accepted ways, independent of any specific blasphemy.

But we do have to take the blasphemy seriously, if only for the reason that Yeats devotes the rest of the poem to perfection of the work. When I first put notes together on this poem, 9 years ago, I held that perfection of the life and the work were the same thing, that any choice between them was ultimately illusory. People try to create in order to make life better. Even one who tries to perfect her life in accordance with a strict moral standard thinks herself part of a divine plan. Life is better for everyone because of the work her faith generates.

One might think that last example anything but intellectual. Yeats brings us back to it, though, by casting despair on our attempted accomplishment:

When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.

He first makes work sound worthless, like as if it were possible to choose “perfection of the life” alone: “When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?” All we do is rage against the dark. Why didn’t we initially choose to make our lives better? Yeats answers that query with dead silence, and I take that silence to be evidence for my above remark. He only elaborates on intellectual labors as opposed to results, as “in luck or out the toil has left its mark.” If we think such labors actually make our lives better immediately, we probably have not truly used our intellect, instead unknowingly benefiting from conventionality.

The mark of serious toil is an “old perplexity,” an “empty purse.” By day we might have something resembling perfection of life, some “vanity,” some noble or intellectual standing. At night, nothing of the sort, as raging in the dark is perpetual. The intellect wants answers that it cannot have; revelation does offer comfort of a sort, as opposed to continually questioning. Still, one cannot really choose “perfection of the life” with the intellect, unless we consider one an intellectual who is satisfied with the explanations others give. Even someone who thought they were acting in accordance with a divine plan may not be satisfied with such explanations. They work, after all, to see grace demonstrated in some way in this life.

Emily Dickinson, “I never saw a Moor” (1052)

I never saw a Moor (1052) (from the Emily Dickinson Archive)
Emily Dickinson

I never saw a Moor —
I never saw the Sea —
Yet know I how the Heather looks
And what a Billow be.

I never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven —
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given —

Comment:

On the surface, a simple statement of faith. There are many things I mean; I take for granted I can mean them. God is one of things.

As always, the devil is in the details. The first stanza presents two analogies. Neither a moor (a marshland) nor the sea has been seen. Despite a lack of direct experience, in both cases it is known how aspects of them look. The moor has heather, which are purple flowers. The sea is composed of billows.

The first stanza actually raises the question of “common sense” in a specific way. We use words to signify wholes that define our experience. We are not of the moor, nor of the sea. It sounds strange to talk like this, as it feels like one has no idea what was just said. Wholes depend on parts of which we do have more specific knowledge. However, there are at least two problems with the way the poem depicts those parts. First, it isn’t clear the speaker has experience with either heather or billows. Second, the knowledge transmitted is that of nature. The second stanza advances supernatural claims:

I never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven —
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given –

Initially, it looks like there will be two analogies paralleling the previous stanza. But stating that one has neither spoken with God nor visited in heaven does not produce any further reasoning. Instead, it yields to certainty of a place to which one has a ticket (“checks” was a word popularly used for railroad tickets). Before, what seemed to be proclaimed knowledge of a whole demanded some sort of accounting of its parts.

However, Dickinson’s speaker never claimed to know a moor or the sea! This poem doesn’t reduce to a simple statement of theism or atheism. What it does instead is force the question of what the parts of the kingdom of God are on Earth. One could say it answers that question cynically: death is a pretty certain “spot” for which we have tickets. Still, the first two lines of the second stanza are specific about something. Speaking to God or visiting in Heaven might reinforce her certainty about that “spot,” whatever it is.

The funny thing is how our preoccupation with death makes the mythic central and in an ironic way certain. To recapitulate the poem’s theme: we mean at least two things by belief. First, there’s belief in terms of the knowledge which humans gather and preserve and give to each other. Our shared experience comes to us through conventionality; we possess an image of nature. Then, there’s belief in terms of the risk we take for the sake of the divine. Knowing we will die, we hope and pray to be saved by what is supernatural. Benardete once said that belief and knowledge are of different orders, and I think this is an illustration of what he means. This little poem keeps reasoning by analogy limited to the natural world while advancing a mock ontological proof (the certainty of God is dependent on the most certain thing that will happen to me). Belief and knowledge talk past each other, but as venturers, we engage, use, and want to know both.

Kay Ryan, “Thin”

Thin (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

How anything
is known
is so thin —
a skin of ice
over a pond
only birds might
confidently walk
upon. A bird’s
worth of weight
or one bird-weight
of Wordsworth.

Comment:

Control breath, focus. Only time to get more oxygen, avoid a blow, respond with training when possible. A professional fighter knows he knows when he can act properly. Indeed, for one educated so, it might be said that he can act at all is entirely a matter of knowledge. The method taught, the body molded, the assumed scenarios: maybe sports are so unintellectual at times because the thinking has already been done.

“How anything is known is so thin” – when discussing this with S., she talked about the unfathomable. Her initial read of the poem: birds which walk upon the ice also reach into a sky we can never truly know. Ice covers a watery depth also not home for us. Knowing, in a way, always stands beyond us. If you know how you know, you are incredibly wise. If you know how you know how you know, you’re insane or nearly god.

S.’s is a brilliant and correct thought. I do think the poem leans another direction. To know is to engage a thinness like “a skin of ice over a pond only birds might confidently walk upon.” The image isn’t exactly clear. Maybe those birds look fearless, or at least nonchalant. I tend to think of birds upon the ground as having abbreviated, mechanical motions. That if people moved like they did, they would look nervous. In any case, there is no confidence shown by us humans upon the ice. The problem is that our knowledge does not directly inform our experience. We doubt our knowing, we doubt ourselves; we’re in the way of our confidently, prudently acting.

There are attempts to deny the problem. If you really knew, you would do it and do it well. Sorry, but you can know how to dismantle a nuclear bomb and someone can shoot you in the face while you’re trying to do it. A failure of result does not indicate a failure to know. Self-actualization involves a denial of the self; the self is the obstacle to true knowledge. This misunderstands priority. How we come to know is a subject worthy of discussion. Genuine communication is not a pseudoscience.

The last sentence of the poem indicates acceptance of the problem. “A bird’s worth of weight or one bird-weight of Wordsworth.” You could say the birds do fine on the ice because they tread so lightly. If we use knowledge in the most refined, elegant ways, maybe we will avoid undermining ourselves. Ryan’s speaker refuses to go this direction, as she does not posit a know-how in order to properly use each thing known. “A bird’s worth of weight” is an impossibility for us. We carry more, much more. What we need is “one bird-weight of Wordsworth.” The best words are light and carried with us. They enable us to grasp images better, but perhaps not reality. Not know-how, but why exactly we wanted to know in the first place.

Kay Ryan, “Backward Miracle”

Backward Miracle (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

Every once in a while
we need a
backward miracle
that will strip language,
make it hold for
a minute: just the
vessel with the
wine in it –
a sacramental
refusal to multiply,
reclaiming the
single loaf
and the single
fish thereby.

Comment:

Once, after a particularly bad day, this poem made perfect sense. Put down on account of few or no wrongs, saw no escape from present miseries, thought how things could get worse, as is always possible. No reason to complain, every right to do so.

What I needed was a “backward miracle.” This sort of miracle strips language, taking something away so language itself can “hold for a minute.” That means “just the vessel with the wine in it,” which on a lighter note might be thought a glass of Sauvignon Blanc after work.

Ryan does not quite justify our going that direction, though. The vessel with the wine in it occurs because of “a sacramental refusal to multiply.” I am not going to multiply my pains, but I am also not going to ask for the world to be remade. The vessel and the wine refuse transformation, and I stand apart from both with my sacramental refusal.

Not transformed, there is instead the choice to ingest the wine. Moreover, the reality of what is in front asserts itself: a “single loaf” and a “single fish” have been reclaimed. What prevented us from seeing what actually is, well, is our hope for miracles. We load reality with our expectations. Our ambitions and our sense of justice, our very dignity, depend on our expectations. Many times, we could use events that are in effect miracles to meet them. Some of us are more fortunate than others and can take these events for granted. Others are thankful for a parking space near their job’s entrance so they don’t have to dash out of the car.

To strip language of our expectations is to rediscover the power of the everyday. We don’t have much, but what we do have can sustain, and we might even do something more. In terms of really bad days, note well: everyone is loading us with their ridiculous expectations. Why do we have to play along, when we simply know better?

Emily Rosko, “Aubade”

Aubade (from Poetry)
Emily Rosko

There’s loneliness and there’s this—
an unfrequented song, a startling voice
across years. A shifting position, hymn
from the hard bench, sharp something in
there, glass-glinted. If the movement
of trees in the weather front were enough.
If the notes were off-pitch but piercing
(which they are) as birdcall across
the stirring hour. In the woods,
a rustling of creatures we have no
idea of. Outcrops of limestone, wet leaves
lush and deadly. There’s a time for killing,
some tell us, in the corner
of the who-knows-whereabouts. Everywhere,
the roadside lilies in thick morning
dew open orange and in numbers, one
after the other. Sun so strange it’s as
though our looking, for a time, is first.

Comment:

There’s loneliness, and then there’s being together, whatever that is. An aubade is a love song, sung in the morning. This one seems to concern the essence of being together. It is “unfrequented,” as everyday life is an occupation all its own. It possesses a “startling voice,” one which hearkens to an initial romance and the reality expectations meet.

Rosko’s imagery unpacks what startles, the darkness and beauty of a life together. What drew me to write on this poem was its ability to speak of what is nearly unspeakable so gently. To illustrate: we start with the wedding at the church, the porch in front of the house (“hymn from the hard bench”). In both cases, there’s a slight discomfort, a tune throughout, a beautiful but sharp spark. We glance trees moving to that tune, too, but what do they communicate? There are notes, but they feel alien. If they were piercing enough, they might stir us instinctually.

None of these ideas suggest we are dealing with a broken relationship where no one understands the other and anger resides in every look or syllable. What’s discomforting and wondrous is that the tune isn’t known. You don’t know everything about your partner, you don’t know how things will turn out. No less than Dickinson sees that as amazing. Lest I wax romantic about this, I should note some couples have seen their love turn to hate. Some people are toxic and can whittle away at anyone’s sanity. Being together can be an awful, cruel trap.

Again, Rosko’s musing hints at this, how ugliness does not constitute an insignificant part of love. Those closest to us do drive us crazy. Just dig a bit more into that fragmented, haunting, sharp melody the woods whistle. What’s in there?

In the woods,
a rustling of creatures we have no
idea of. Outcrops of limestone, wet leaves
lush and deadly. There’s a time for killing,
some tell us, in the corner
of the who-knows-whereabouts.

In the woods, we find home again – the homes of creatures to whom we’ve been blind. It is easy to slip out there, in here. Everything we’ve built a life around is deadly. And maybe we’ve even killed and don’t want to remember it.

Again, I don’t think the poem is talking about a couple inspiring Memento 2. But it is true some people are in years of therapy because of people they love who love them. Our lives together center around elaborate rituals whose importance we’re not even aware of. Sometimes, the fight over the dishes is just silly. Sometimes, it harbors the anger of one who feels they’re doing everything and are being exploited. It is easy to slip. It is easy to do things one should regret.

Yet, in large part, we don’t do those things, even though we are in a position to hurt worst those we love most. Some of our most egregious and unforgivable wrongs do find forgiveness, if only for utility’s sake. This is a love poem, and it manages to end appropriately, if ambiguously. We moved from the porch to the woods, now I imagine we’re circling back to the path. All along it, these lovely orange lilies, bunched together. A strange sun above, looking at us, that together we look back and marvel at.

Jane Kenyon, “Who”

Who (from Otherwise)
Jane Kenyon

These lines are written
by an animal, an angel,
a stranger sitting in my chair;
by someone who already knows
how to live without trouble
among books, and pots and pans….

Who is it who asks me to find
language for the sound
a sheep’s hoof makes when it strikes
a stone? And who speaks
the words which are my food?

Comment:

Admittedly, locating the Muse is difficult. Authors like Homer and Virgil seem divinely inspired. If we knew what moved them so, we might have access to divine status ourselves.

Kenyon’s speaker starts with what looks a more humble proposition. In attempting to write, in coming to language, she has to wonder who she is and what is within her. “These lines are written by an animal, an angel, a stranger sitting in my chair:” she’s at once all three and none at all. She is lowly, supernatural, and alienated from her own self. Despite the overtones of religious rhetoric, she has depicted the central puzzle of trying to be rational. One works to apprehend the truth, understand it fully, and apply it to one’s own life. Needless to say, these are three separate tasks with massive ironies lying in wait for those who think knowledge of one thing alone allows mastery over one’s own life. (1)

To be sure, the puzzle of trying to be rational leads back to the issue of divine status. If one could live “without trouble among books, and pots and pans,” one would be self-sufficient, ready to receive and use enlightenment. It almost seems only a god can truly know and use knowledge in the way we wish. It feels like the rest of us are confined to miserable ironies every time we make a pretension to knowledge. (2)

Kenyon, in the face of this, just wants to make her question clearer. “Who is it who asks me to find language for the sound a sheep’s hoof makes when it strikes a stone?” The desire to convey experience to another comes from wanting to be a part of the human species. All the same, the religious image is unmistakable. It sounds like a lost sheep is spoken about here, a sheep trying to climb something it probably shouldn’t attempt. I posit she still wonders, specifically, what drives her. Who needs to feel part of humanity, who wants to describe our motions, both those sustainable and those imperfect? What does it mean to follow blindly and be satisfied, to be lost and perhaps saved?

Finally, what of an intellectual necessity? “The words which are my food” are spoken by the speaker who does not understand what she says. She’s articulated her ignorance, her attempt to have knowledge where she might collapse into belief. Ultimately, the poem’s progression turns life on its head. In order to understand the alienation one feels as a writer, one had to assume oneself a writer. This means that daily life, even with troubles regarding books and pots and pans, takes care of itself to a degree. To find the words that accurately find one a mere sheep is to find a truth that does not mean what we think it means. We are not, in a sense, mere sheep. Yet we are, because we needed those words, our own.

Notes

1) Xenophon, Memorabilia III.9.10 – “[Socrates said] kings and rulers are not those who hold the scepters, nor those elected by just anybody, nor those who obtain office by lot, nor those who have used violence, nor those who have used deceit, but those who understand how to rule.” Leaving aside the problem that Xenophon’s Socrates has completely dismissed political legitimacy in any recognizable sense, and in fact makes himself guilty of the charges by saying such a thing, we have an endorsement of a view opposite to mine by no less than Socrates. Can’t we say that true knowledge is mastery? Doesn’t knowledge enable perfect practice? The quick answer: Socrates’ rhetoric is excellent. Better than dynastic claims, currying the favor of voters, getting randomly elected, or any tyrannical attempts at rule is actually knowing what you’re doing. Knowledge is superior to the typical practice of politics, and even to a degree to law itself, when things have to get done. I don’t know that the scope of this rhetoric should be extended to individual lives without qualification.

2) There are people who have made it their mission to take poetic musings and use them as hard limits on what one is allowed to question and know. In this sense, and perhaps only this sense, are philosophy and poetry distinct.

Sappho, “Sleep, darling…”

“Sleep, darling…” (tr. Mary Barnard)
Sappho

Sleep, darling

I have a small
daughter called
Cleis, who is

like a golden 
flower

      I wouldn't
take all Croesus'
kingdom with love
thrown in, for her

Comment:

Turning to us while putting her daughter to sleep, she’s so excited about her she’s bashful, self-conscious, about it.

This is itself no small wonder. Excitement overflows, demanding rational explanation. You want to convey your joy to others. You want to convey it to yourself, because you don’t want to forget a single moment.

Maybe that’s why the image ultimately presented is hopelessly inadequate. No one would consider trading their children if they could help it. Trying to think through a hierarchy of goods, with “having a child” at the top, leads to having nothing to compare. All Sappho can do is introduce another set of circumstances involving giddy excitement, like winning the lottery (“Croesus’ kingdom with love thrown in”).

Sappho compares Cleis to a “golden flower,” mixing the height of convention with the heights of nature. Wealth, beauty, and growth can only hint at how Cleis stands to her mother. Her uniqueness is her most precious aspect; an assumed unreality of the “golden flower” hints at it. Croesus famously asked if he was the happiest of men, on account of his wealth and empire. His happiness stands as generic as Sappho’s purposefully throwaway phrase, “with love thrown in.” There’s no love like nursing this small daughter. To be perfectly clear, there’s no love, no happiness, otherwise.

Robert Creeley, “The Language”

The Language (from Poetry)
Robert Creeley

Locate I
love you
some-
where in

teeth and
eyes, bite
it but

take care not
to hurt, you
want so

much so
little. Words
say everything.

I
love you

again,

then what
is emptiness
for. To

fill, fill.
I heard words
and words full

of holes
aching. Speech
is a mouth.

Comment:

I love you, from nowhere. We’re trying to locate it, bite it, watch out for ourselves (“take care”). Maybe it is coming from a beloved who loves us back. We’ll eventually find the nose, between “teeth and eyes,” what’s central to a face. And maybe something more sensual will ensue (“bite”), and the paradox of our desire, “so much so little,” will remain an abstract problem for a short while.

However, I love you, strictly speaking, came from nowhere. While Creeley captures the tense giddiness of loving and being loved, he’s not doing it to celebrate that which can celebrate itself well enough. What about those of us who, alone, are trying to love? We unfortunate souls start by finding our nose. (1) The smell of another means they exist for us in some concrete way, not possessed but not entirely distant from us. Our longing is our nutrition, and yet too much longing is no love at all. Real love respects, as “you want so much so little.” There’s no insistence, no power game, no craziness. Just hope and a lot of self-doubt.

“Words say everything” – that’s just it, that’s the problem. We consider love beyond mere syllables. Two who love each other don’t need words. They have everything. Speech and action couldn’t be further apart. One is merely imaginary, the other seems to be the reality of the situation. One can almost feel this question underlying the first half of the poem: does love only exist when two people share it?

In beginning the second half, I love you again comes from nowhere. This second time confronts the doubt, the emptiness. Somehow, I know I’m in love. I know I can enjoy it, be hurt, be patient, let go. Greater virtue may be exercised in the service of loneliness than for another person. Love, in truth, is potential: “then what is emptiness for. To fill, fill.” It is an emptiness, the same thing causing doubt and fear in those who do love and are loved back. It is a language, shared by those who are loved and those longing alike. Through it, I can hear things – sometimes, things coming only from myself – and I understand the needs conveyed. Only with those needs in mind do I have a mouth. Love gives the capacity to voice love, and strange as it sounds to say, to actually love.

Notes

1. “Somewhere in teeth and eyes” – one can say there is no nose being sought. Rather, “I love you” emerged directly from somewhere in the teeth, somewhere in the eyes. But what more does one hope to find within teeth and eyes? “Somewhere in teeth and eyes” can speak to the combination that is a face.

Emily Dickinson, “A Bird came down the Walk” (328)

A Bird came down the Walk (328)
Emily Dickinson

A Bird came down the Walk —
He did not know I saw —
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass —
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass —

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around —
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought —
He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home —

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam —
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.

Comment:

Human and animal souls correspond, perhaps too closely. The bird is encountered much like another person would be, coming down the walk. In what he regards as his privacy, he does something grotesque and horrible. He finishes his meal with the nearest drink, then shows either fear or politeness to a passing bug. So far, this bird sounds like a better dining companion than most people. We can relate to him, at least.

Of course, now that he’s done his meal, he glances rapidly around, his eyes acting like “frightened Beads.” Is he aware he’s being watched? Or is he really bored with this date?

Our speaker steps forth at this point. She feels like she’s in danger; she does not want to lose or aggravate this bird. Cautiously, she offers a crumb to him, and he flies away. Dickinson devotes a stanza and a half to the departure:

And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home —

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam —
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.

Not an abrupt, scared motion, but an unrolling of feathers, a rowing softly home. It is as if the bird was made for this moment; it journeys with an elegance we aspire to have when we travel. The anthropomorphizing brings out the felt, primal unity. As we row to an unknown land that is our ultimate home, the bird also rows. Only, there is this difference. However the bird travels is peculiar to it. It does not disturb nature in the slightest, whether nature is related to the chaos prior to Creation (“Ocean / Too silver for a seam”) or seamless, perfectly adapted change (“Butterflies… leap, plashless”).

Recognition of the correspondence almost yields a primal unity. However, it may not be the most important thing to say we’re alienated from the bird or the Nature of which it is part. What struck me on a first reading was how we can so easily anthropomorphize the bird’s actions to make too much sense, as if the bird were going through a morning routine much like ours. Just as easily, we could deny that the bird’s actions make any real sense, that even if it is going through a morning routine, it is nothing but appetite and whim. In the latter case, how different is the bird from any of us? One does not really want to compare human and animal souls. At best, “rational” only describes “animal.” The bird knows that much better than we do, and accordingly leaves.

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