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Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: poetry (page 1 of 45)

Ted Kooser, “The Blind Always Come as Such a Surprise”

The Blind Always Come as Such a Surprise (from danagioia.net)
Ted Kooser

The blind always come as such a surprise,
suddenly filling an elevator
with a great white porcupine of canes,
or coming down upon us in a noisy crowd
like the eye of a hurricane.
The dashboards of cars stopped at crosswalks
and the shoes of commuters on trains
are covered with sentences
struck down in mid-flight by the canes of the blind.
Each of them changes our lives,
tapping across the bright circles of our ambitions
like cracks traversing the favorite china.

Comment:

Many and relentless are the blind. They fill elevators “with a great white porcupine of canes,” perhaps provoking defensiveness from us. One could think them a “noisy crowd,” storming everywhere, giving only temporary respite to those who see.

Kooser conflates the singularity of a blind person with a wondrous, nearly terrible-sounding plurality. One blind person surprises, stopping cars, making mass transit awkward. The first sentence of this poem concerns a blind person pushing into our space. In the second sentence, she uses public things, much like we do, striking down our speech.

We don’t really see. Our conventional notions work for us and they work for the disabled. But they work so differently for the disabled that anyone with half a brain should wonder how they succeed. Our everyday, our normalcy, assumes moral purpose in surviving, being independent, making society work for us. The blind achieve that and much, much more – it’s the difference between a saint and an agnostic. The difference between us and them is qualitative, not quantitative.

One is many, one is the flood. Everything we think must change. Our higher goals, again, tend to assume a specific notion of well-being. They are a luxury for those who have had something so indispensable to most of us taken away. Somehow, our ambitions need to account for how incredible it can be to simply survive. Not to say that higher goals are a waste – they’re certainly not – but that a proper appreciation of the human spirit should pervade everything we do. Kooser says the blind “always” surprise us, and I think he means that we can choose to do something with our reaction or not. We are truly blind, but perhaps able to receive sight from those only blind in their eyes.

Billy Collins, “Winter”

Winter (from Poetry)
Billy Collins

A little heat in the iron radiator,
the dog breathing at the foot of the bed,

and the windows shut tight,
encrusted with hexagons of frost.

I can barely hear the geese
complaining in the vast sky,

flying over the living and the dead,
schools and prisons, and the whitened fields.

Comment:

The world is breath and structure. Breath within (“heat in the iron radiator”), next to (“at the foot of the bed”), against (“windows… encrusted with hexagons”). On that last point, breath forms structure upon structure. The cold weights breath, making it felt, visible.

We are presented this speculation by one tightly pulling covers over himself. Only remotely does he hear geese, who attempt to fly beyond the cold, perhaps beyond what he now feels. It might be thought a futile attempt, not least because of the evident ironies. But the geese represent more than an escape to warmth. Together, they are free, as they fly over “schools and prisons.” On the one hand, they move through an unreal realm, “over the living and the dead.” On the other, they bear witness to a blanketed world, to the cocoon in which our speaker resides.

D. Nurkse, “Psalm to Be Read with Closed Eyes”

With thanks to Benjamin Roman; read his commentary on the same poem

Psalm to Be Read with Closed Eyes (from Poetry)
D. Nurkse

Ignorance will carry me through the last days,
the blistering cities, over briny rivers
swarming with jellyfish, as once my father
carried me from the car up the tacked carpet
to the white bed, and if I woke, I never knew it.

Comment:

The line between our being good or bad is razor thin. The same conventionality which molds and preserves also traps and manipulates, pushing us to fatal ends. It’s hard for anyone who gives a damn not to be consumed by rage. The people who have transformed our world for the better have almost always been told they’re wrong every step of the way, denied just treatment, precisely because they were right.

If one must deal with what feels like a relentless lack of respect, one needs a sort of ignorance. It’s an ignorance that might be the heart of faith, a childlike innocence seeking refuge in simply being. But it has overtones of knowledge of ignorance. To try and reason about the whole – why is the world ending? What did/can I do? – is to attempt creating a cosmology and understanding its significance precisely. To avoid that trap is not childlike faith. It’s a maturity about what human intelligence can and cannot achieve.

That, I think,  addresses why we’re reading this poem. One might wonder about its setting. Blistering cities, briny rivers: there’s a Biblical flood with overtones of global warming, i.e. it is entirely man-made. Death and justice are firmly linked in this rendering. That, I have learned, is questionable. Linking death and justice is an event in Greek thought about religion. It occurs at least in Homer, Hesiod, and Plato. Homer might be the best example: the gods in the Iliad reside in a world without law, as only their machinations and their taking bribes rule it. Those same gods worry about being honored and the achievements of man surpassing their own. Regarding man, there is fear of death, but no strict connection between death, justice, and an afterlife. The gods do not govern a moral order. Any sort of glory will do for enjoying this life and being remembered later. Odysseus’ achievement in the Odyssey is to bring knowledge and fear of Hades to people who do not know him. He creates a connection between death and justice, bringing about morality as we understand it.

Yes, there is something horribly conventional about automatically connecting death with how one will be remembered, or what life might be like in an unknown realm. Yet there’s something natural about it, too. What’s natural is understanding that, to some degree, whatever judges our life does stand outside of us. We’ll watch the world end, knowing it is and isn’t the product of a million different injustices. Our judgment can only go so far when cities boil and rivers rise. We can remember being treated with love, carried in what seems now too structured, too pure (“tacked,” “white”). We were happy once, though, and in placing hope beyond, we hope at this moment to be graceful.

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.

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