Robert Creeley, “Love Comes Quietly;” Terese Marie Mailhot, “…any power asks you to dedicate your life to its expansion”

Whatever Creeley feels in his short poem “Love Comes Quietly” sounds amazing. It doesn’t sound anywhere near self-loathing or panic, anywhere near anger toward oneself or others. Instead, it seems to point at how love as acceptance is powerful and transformative, making gold from straw if one wants gold in the first place:

Love Comes Quietly (h/t Sara Judy)
Robert Creeley

Love comes quietly,
finally, drops
about me, on me,
in the old ways.

What did I know
thinking myself
able to go
alone all the way.

What exactly is accepted, though, especially if we who consider ourselves serious are trying for continual self-improvement? Don’t we think of ourselves as changing? Creeley drops the mysterious phrase “in the old ways,” and I’ll return to that later. I believe it is easy enough to see this poem as celebrating his being a certain way, dedicated, at work of a certain sort.

I’m reading Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir Heart Berries, and for me those ideas of being a certain person, dedicating oneself to something, and working toward an end all merge in a thought of hers: “any power asks you to dedicate your life to its expansion.” These words are rooted in a struggle which it is difficult to do justice in a paragraph—you’re going to have to read her account. Still, I can say this. A life lived under oppression but also anchored in rich, soulful traditions is also a life where love can be experienced but not everything can be shared (and certainly not all shared at once). The power that asks for dedication and expansion asks you to transcend, but only a psychopath attempts to “transcend” without trying to see the value of everything around one. The power itself comes from those values and is a source of tension, pain, and regret. You never know if you’re doing the right thing regarding love, not because of the dismissive phrase “trust issues,” but because the very nature of love is trust. Am I really seeing what I’m seeing? Are my feelings going to actually help build something? Can I trust myself to see and feel properly?

It’s that notion of “power” which helps open Creeley’s poem. We do exert it, whether we like it or not, and it leads to a lot of the things from which Creeley feels relief. Love comes quietly, finally—he may not be in the best mood all the time, but there is no hint of rage or sorrow. Instead, it looks like he made a decision to love and be loving. [Love] drops about me, on me—in deciding to love, the world is seen differently, and he commits to living within that realization. Whatever he’s been doing, he will do, and that is love. We love when we know what we’re doing.

This could be seen as validation for anything, but I read his use of “in the old ways” to be ironic. Love comes quietly, finally, drops about me, on me, in the old ways. If he’s getting older, and the old ways are what he recognizes as a product of love, the old ways are making him young again. There is change in his life, but continuity within the change. Some values and efforts have persisted and are worthwhile. Others have disappeared.

“The old ways” do not speak to knowing everything once and for all or strict adherence to any kind of tradition. Witness what sounds initially like a lament: What did I know / thinking myself / able to go / alone all the way. The initial impression is that he admits his ignorance. The old ways departed and are only back because of love. There is an irony in these words, but it speaks to another issue. Alone, he realized the value of love. He did think himself, and because of this expanded himself. That, for a moment, he thought himself “alone all the way” was a mistake speaking to the power of thinking oneself. He almost fell into a harsh and bitter logic from which it is very difficult to escape. But it does seem that life and loneliness are typically embittering for people who don’t know how to share.

Ikkyu, “this boat is and is not”

The water holds a heavy light, but you have finally found a bit more control, a bit more calm, and now you’re rowing in the shade.

That’s when your teacher speaks: “This boat is and is not. When it sinks both disappear.”

You chew on this for a second before you almost snap. Your mind screams. “COOL TELL ME AGAIN HOW THIS BOAT ISN’T BECAUSE MY ROWING SUCKS. TELL ME WE’LL BOTH DIE. I’M ABOUT TO JAM THIS OAR INTO YOUR SKULL.”

But then you remember your training, for better or worse. If it sounds like a koan, treat it like one:

Ikkyu (tr. Stephen Berg)

this boat is and is not
when it sinks both disappear

If the boat sinks, the occupants die. The antecedent of “both,” though, is the question of the boat’s existence. “Both” refers to the disappearance of “this boat is” and the disappearance of “[this boat] is not.”

Your teacher calls your attention to how possibility is itself possible. If you didn’t see or experience the boat in any way—if it were completely submerged—then what it does in a number of experiences wouldn’t even be imagined. Nor would experiences where the boat’s presence could make a difference be possible.

I suspect I’ve said something indirectly about being taken for granted. People completely unaware of you in the way they were unaware of that boat have closed off what is even possible. Their loss is different from a felt absence, a world holding a blank space where one might fill it or did fill it. The felt absence acknowledges possibility, but this loss is in a way total. Awareness communicates with being—the boat needed to be apprehended in some way to create the possibility of its being and not being. Without it, their lives are cloistered, dull to being taken anywhere different. If this is true for a boat, how much truer is it for a person?

None of this is to say you should jam yourself into all situations or everyone else’s space. But I know I’ve said something useful for those of us dealing with intentional neglect, where a lack of acknowledgement and abandonment are ways people hold power over others. Somehow, you’ve got to learn to take pride in your specific work, which is very much warranted. You’re rowing a boat, after all, keeping a realm of possibility afloat and at least two people alive.

Sophie Collins, “Untitled;” Paul Celan, “Flower”

“What is the work of desire,” I ask myself, and then I have to tell myself “not that work, didn’t mean it like that.”

What I did mean follows from this thought: I’ll have moments with people which I feel matter. No further friendship or relationship will follow. I have to figure out how those moments should be valued while knowing I won’t be loved.

On the one hand, this is a practical problem with a practical solution. If my friends run into people who don’t appreciate them the way I do, I know those people aren’t deserving of my friends’ company. My friends will hear they are worthy of love, worthy of only the best—they can rest assured that whatever they gave was sincere and beautiful.

On the other hand, the problem of not understanding your own value doesn’t just link to desire. It spills over with desire and creates nothing less than an entire social order. Everyone desires, everyone finds themselves defined within an economy of desire. Sophie Collins’ “Untitled” speaks to that directly—The village is always on fire:

Untitled (from Who Is Mary Sue?; h/t poetryschool.com)
Sophie Collins

The village is always on fire.
Men stay away from the kitchens,
take up in outhouses with concrete floors,
while the women — soot in their hair —
initiate the flames into their small routines.

Amy McCauley, in reviewing Who Is Mary Sue?, uses this poem as an example of “fabular effects.” She holds these effects, over the course of a collection, allow “reality” and “imagination” to blend; the literary and mythical allusions we sense ultimately allow for staging “the ‘I’ of literature… as a series of borrowed selves.” This constitutes one attempt at understanding what it means to be a woman.

It is the case I encountered this poem while rereading Antigone. Gender roles in Ancient Greece impress my thoughts when I want to speak about it. The village is always on fire—everything here could be burned or lost. Always a crisis, and it feels like everyone around you insists on you feeling there is always a crisis. The sense of a community or social order defined by panic brings my mind to Sophocles’ Thebes, a city dealing at different times with a murderous Sphinx, a curse from an unsolved killing, or in the case of Antigone, a crisis of legitimacy brought into relief by a woman.

Of course, one should rightly question why my mind goes back to a mythic city when I can turn on cable news or just assert bluntly that the logic of modern capitalism and modern democracy depends on fear. Fear inspires competition and innovation, we are told; fear is supposed to make checks and balances effectual. Unfortunately, fear also sells, and apparently it’s easy to make lots of money indulging the dark, paranoid fantasies of people who have wealth, power, and privilege. Paranoid fantasies which result in concentration camps.

I turn to Greek thought when wondering about “The village is always on fire,” as there it seems fear and desire hold more or less equal weight as themes. Desire in the poem creates a strange division: Men stay away from the kitchens, take up in outhouses with concrete floors. Honor lovers like Euripides’ Hippolytus, who cannot even conceive why women exist, stay far away from the fire. They desire to avoid desire and in the process avoid food and their own actual houses. They fear change. Food doesn’t become nourishment, households fail to add children. This results in the men having more of each other as well as a cold, hard permanence. The outhouses with concrete floors stand, testifying to their will to build.

The Athens which produced Antigone did not treat women well—contemporary research is unclear when and how they were allowed to legally leave the house. The men here, independent of their love for each other, are blind to an understanding the women obtain by trial. Too quick a lurch to the lasting—the erection of honors, monuments—means being unable to understand how desire works. The women possess something more, but what do they have? The women — soot in their hair — initiate the flames into their small routines: singed, they work with pain and danger constantly. They aim to manage fire here and there, making flames useful for everyday life. A grand ambition, in this case, calls for a piecemeal approach; unlike the men, they haven’t responded to crisis by abandoning a situation. But does each tame fire alone, or do they possess solidarity?

II

I need a personal, useful answer to how desire works. I need to actually feel some small portion of comfort when trying for love or friendship. Bearing witness to a mess of a world, real or imagined, aids understanding but does not make me feel any better.

Paul Celan’s “Flower” helps a little more. He ends with the promise that one can be spoken to beautifully on more than one occasion, that building out of softness can commence—One more word like this, and the hammers will swing over open ground. For those of you who have been regular readers, who have heard me speak about whether work in general entails love, second-guessing myself all the time, or being ghosted, I should say that my being ignored is not just “boohoohoo I can’t find love.” Hang with me for a day or two and you’ll see there is a strong racial element to it. Just watch how I’m treated in some places. I guarantee you’ll pick up on things I myself haven’t seen or felt—structural racism is funny like that, it’s an actual architecture. It isn’t possible to witness all aspects of it at once.

“Flower” holds an incredible promise. Celan imagines two people each undergoing a rich inner drama:

Flower
Paul Celan (tr. Michael Hamburger)

The stone.
The stone in the air, which I followed.
Your eye, as blind as the stone.

We were
hands,
we baled the darkness empty, we found
the word that ascended summer:
flower.

Flower — a blind man's word.
Your eye and mine:
they see
to water.

Growth.
Heart wall upon heart wall
adds petals to it.

One more word like this, and the hammers
will swing over open ground.

One almost receives the impression that the beloved is callous and blind: The stone. The stone in the air, which I followed. Your eye, as blind as the stone. Celan seems to have felt that way himself, at least momentarily. He confesses to chasing a stone as if it were a bird.

But in making that confession, he testifies to his own blindness. Maybe the stone actually was a bird. The beloved’s “eye” is “blind as the stone” to him. Who is to say he wasn’t loved?

He knows he was blind; he wonders if the beloved was also. He switches senses from sight to touch: We were hands, we baled the darkness empty. The imagery recalls Milton’s Eden, where Adam and Eve work at maintaining the garden. It implies a sexual encounter, but “we baled the darkness empty” lacks sensuality for this reader. Celan seems more concerned with work, discovery, and growth: We found the word that ascended summer: flower. I feel I could summarize this stanza by saying that it doesn’t matter if something physical happened or not. Both parties worked with what they didn’t know. Both potential lovers already were in love with something.

Flower—a blind man’s word. Your eye and mine: they see to water. Eyes see to water—we cry for the same reason we work, i.e. bale “the darkness empty.” We have values we want to realize. But what will result from those values? What exactly flowers, what is the result of growth? Celan can now safely say the beloved was blind, not because the beloved was callous, but because they wanted to love.

There is clarity. One must look not to the end of flight, but flight itself. Growth. Heart wall upon heart wall adds petals to it. Celan’s vision now embraces the immediate. Maybe there is only darkness, only stones. That’s fine: stones and darkness are what result from building a shelter, building a home. Their heart walls are separate, lover and beloved, but in being separate they are like petals on a flower.

I don’t think it’s really possible to do Celan’s full vision justice. His hope resides in knowing a beloved has the capacity to love. He’s worried about being loved, sure. He’d like “one more word” to begin building. But he also knows what he’s seen: the possibility is there. The possibility alone speaks to love. There is already love, even if one isn’t loved. It’s a crazy conclusion that I know can’t suffice for all the heartbreak we endure. But right now, it feels a lot better than where I started.

Emily Dickinson, “I have no Life but this” (1398); Robert Bly, “The Moon”

“A job is not a career,” I remind myself. Do this job well, but do more. How much more? As much as possible, as well as possible.

No wonder anxiety spikes when I think I’ve found calm, as if I were hunted. No wonder I believe I can voice with Dickinson I have no Life but this —

I have no Life but this (1398)
Emily Dickinson

I have no Life but this —
To lead it here —
Nor any Death — but lest
Dispelled from there —

Nor tie to Earths to come —
Nor Action new —
Except through this extent —
The Realm of you —

I have no Life but this — To lead it here. Lead what, where? Life is leading “this,” “here”—well, that’s an incredibly vague beginning. Dickinson doubles down on the vagueness, as Life itself stands between an impersonal “here” and “there.” “Life” and “this” are led “here,” “Death” is “dispelled from there.”

The first stanza, then, holds an overblown, melodramatic joke: if you are getting “here,” reaching your life’s objective or end, then death is merely being thrown from “there.” She’s between “here” and “there” and both are the same point.

You don’t want to be “dispelled” from what you’ve declared as your own endeavor. Now I have a better idea of why building a career feels overwhelming. If I’m not doing what I should to advance myself, am I paying proper attention to myself? Any attention? Any care? It’s tough to articulate exactly, but the panic that sets in, say, when realizing you’ve been doing the wrong thing for years is less about that thing—in the poem’s terms, a “this”—and more about whether you have any sense how to live at all.

II

A life defined by a task can be one of perpetual panic. But what if Dickinson seriously means “nor any death?” If death exists relative to expectations, but expectations are pure artifice, then a crazy point has been created where death is effectively meaningless. This may sound like New Age tripe, but to be unafraid of death was considered the epitome of classical virtue.

Maybe, at least in words, there can be immortality, a step away from the routine of panic, life-in-death. Nor any Death is followed by Nor tie to Earths to come and Nor action new. She still has “no Life but this,” still fixates on her chosen task. This places her apart from the future into an exclusive present (this Earth) laden with the past (no action new). These rhetorical turns have a peculiar grandeur. Why reject the future with “[no] tie to Earths to come?” Why justify all one’s actions with “[no] action new?” Immortality is not the right word for engaging these themes—she’s not trying to bring it about as much as locate it. The notion of immortality points to a further question: What is beyond life?

Except through this extent — The Realm of You. Certainly, one can read “I have no Life but this” as a more typical example of a genre, something that more or less cries “I can’t live without you.” But it begins by tethering one’s life, one’s efforts, to something unknown. In that beginning, Dickinson opens the door to the poem being about devotion to anything we love. If we chafe at “career” or “vocation” being placed on the same level as love of a person, we do so because we’re scared of necessities defining who we are or whether we can be appreciated ourselves. True devotion calls into being different and yet complete types of love—those we love receive love analogous to what we love. Everything, including death, the future, and our actions, is understood through love of another. Maybe one could say that to actualize that love entails a suspended animation, as the opportunity to share it does not always exist. An immortality of sorts, as songs and poems about unrequited love have persisted through the centuries.

III

Let’s go a bit further. What if Dickinson is speaking about writing and creating? Doesn’t writing mean having “no Life but this?” This question is of no immediate use to most of us, but it puts Dickinson in dialogue with others who wonder what it means to do anything in life well:

The Moon (from Poetry 180)
Robert Bly

After writing poems all day,
I go off to see the moon in the pines.
Far in the woods I sit down against a pine.
The moon has her porches turned to face the light,
But the deep part of her house is in the darkness.

Unlike Dickinson, Bly seems to be clear about what he’s doing: After writing poems all day, I go off to see the moon in the pines. This is not the vagueness of “this,” “here,” and “there” which constitutes her first stanza. But what is the exact relation between writing poems during the day and going to see the moon? Dickinson may be short on concrete details, but “I have no Life but this” is direct. Pairing “writing poems” with “see[ing] the moon,” by contrast, feels random.

As poems are an interplay of light and dark, it does make rough sense to go see the moon. The journey Bly presents has some oddly specific features. He says he goes far in the woods to sit down against a pine at day’s end. He trusts us to conceive a series of images: as the light of the sun fades away, he walks, increasingly trusting what he knows as opposed to his sight to guide him. It’s fair to say “I have no Life but this” is about absolute devotion, a narrowing of one’s focus, to achieve “this.” To have “no Life but this” involves knowing a path well enough to navigate it in the dark.

There’s trust in darkness—the unknown, the uncertain—when continuing down a path. Bly, for his part, speaks less of love and instead recalls a specific vision. Against a pine, resting upon nature, he sees the moon as a house, maybe the house he just left. It has porches turned to face the light, and I interpret that to mean he can only see the part of the moon that sees him. Someone on the moon sees the earth as a light. The confirmation of this is his saying the deep part of her house is in the darkness. There are greater truths, celestial one might say, only accessible by means of how they face us. That’s the beginning of poetry, but really of any task, any relationship.

I’ve been wondering the last few weeks about communication, wondering about my own standards for friendship or relationships (right now: it’d be nice not to be ghosted). A not insignificant amount of talking I’ve participated in has felt deeply unsatisfying, despite some moments I felt were worth treasuring. It’s been hard to understand what’s happening. There have been moments which created curiosity about another, where we’re not just real about our goings-on, but authentically ourselves. I can’t attempt to realize the value of those moments and not feel awkward—is trying to love just a delusion if there isn’t a beloved? Do I know anything or am I just a sappy romantic? It’s hard to see moments of beauty and grace as fulfilling when there is a greater camaraderie and love to be shared, but in themselves alone, they mark a complete life.

Marie Ponsot, “Bliss and Grief”

No one, I mutter, No one is.

I tried to prove myself a few minutes ago, as if I hadn’t accomplished anything today or recently or ever. I rambled and forced jokes and tried too hard to be accepted. Was I taken over by a ghost?

Are ghosts made of insecurities? If so, they’re really lame–I mean, they should cause a scare, make someone go AAAAA. They should be able to do cool stuff like make a room cry blood or fracture glass with their own reflection. My dumb ghost is a bunch of stupid memories that make me act badly. It lacks power probably because I lack power. No one is, No one is here:

Bliss and Grief (from poets.org)
Marie Ponsot

No one
is here
right now.

Ponsot titles her poem “Bliss and Grief,” both of which seem far beyond my petty concerns. I guess you could say bliss and grief each create a sensation where the self for a time is lost and hard to find. Immense sadness has made me feel disembodied on more than one occasion. If I’ve come close to an all-consuming happiness, I believe I was absorbed in a role, like a character from a movie. No one is here right now comes from trying to talk to oneself—it isn’t just said to others asking how we are.

Still, there are no right answers regarding interpretation. Maybe, at best, better ones. And what really matters is how a poem speaks to you. The original “speak between” of interpretation is a higher priority than some mystical truth which makes for beautiful prose but proves to be little use in life.

So I find myself staring at the form of this thing. It’s like two mounds of words jammed next to each other for the sake of a larger mound. “No is right” is one half, “one here now” the other. There’s some sort of self, a “one here now,” but it’s absorbed in negation. Strictly speaking, it isn’t exactly absorbed, as it lets “no is right” have equal height and breadth.

I imagine “bliss” would be an end to second-guessing myself, but now I’m looking at the literal shape words take. There is no end to second-guessing, as matters great and small make can cause one to feel lost. It’s weird to think it natural to not be yourself, but it seems to be perfectly natural, the only response to overwhelming events or a world which insists the consistent practice of a public face.