Mary Ruefle, “Sent to the Monk”

Last night I watched a man who could barely take a step without struggling to breathe buy cigarettes.

I don’t want the image to leave me. Dark, pronounced lines marked his features. They emphasized his verticality, his fight to stand upright and walk. He didn’t talk much—what I mostly heard were wheezes and gasps.

For me, the last few days have been really good. Lots of walks, reading and writing, even winning at video games. I have been thinking about growing older, alone, and in large part I’ve been thinking about people who I feel didn’t age well. What I want most as I grow older is the right attitude, regardless of who is or isn’t in my life.

To see someone suffer so much entails realizing that my own reasoning is so damn privileged. A debate about considering risk factors or making “better” life choices does not do justice to that line of Jane Kenyon’s: But one day, I know, / It will be otherwise. The word “otherwise” does a lot of work—it cuts off trying to think through future adversities, as you can’t know what will hit you or how what afflicts you now will hurt. I’m privileged to be able to make choices now which benefit me in some small way. I’m privileged to be able to believe that I can heal, that I may be able to avoid or mitigate some future trouble.

I’ve been staring at Mary Ruefle’s “Sent to the Monk” here and there the last few days. I use Twitter as a scrapbook, and one of the virtues of having to revisit a timeline of captures is that I have to see things I wasn’t originally looking for. Ruefle’s poem, which features withdrawal-like symptoms from what one supposes a meditative experience, is raw. The past can swallow us whole, if for no other reason than our having no concept of the future:

Sent to the Monk
Mary Ruefle

Night falls
and the empty intimacy of the whole world
fills my heart to frothing.
The past has trudged to this one spot
with a flashlight in its mouth
and falls into the stream.
Ancient tears beneath the surface
rise and scatter like carp,
while an ivory hairpin floats away
like a loose tooth going back in time.

What should be a blank slate, a landscape neutral if not good, instead creates panic—the empty intimacy of the whole world fills my heart to frothing. The emptiness is too much, too close. The thought or memory that one could be loved overwhelms.

More than overwhelms, it drowns. The past has trudged to this one spot with a flashlight in its mouth and falls into the stream. When I panic about being loved, I ransack every image in my head, every part of a memory. Every regret I had or could have floods my mind. Questions of love are taken as questions of worth. Questions of worth entail trying to assess one’s worth immediately.

For Ruefle, griefs long forgotten come to life, creating an ecosystem she will dwell in—Ancient tears beneath the surface rise and scatter like carp. The fish must be found, as she brought them into being, after all. The last lines, where an ivory hairpin floats away like a loose tooth going back in time, describe both the futility and necessity of her project. Going back to solve riddles from one’s childhood can set one back years and may never resolve. Should one try to identify conflicts from long ago? Of course: anything that helps you understand your sensitivity can be good. Still, to identify such a process as a challenge would be an understatement.

Ruefle steps away from the “empty intimacy” of the world because it causes the past to roar back with a vengeance. The gentleman I witnessed struggling to breathe is caught in an exceptionally vicious present, one in which imagining a future is a luxury. And myself—I’m not a middle road between these two. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a moment where I can think about what my sufferings mean. I can understand that being alone feels terrible, and there have been plenty of moments where it felt like I would lose control. I’m not in the midst of that right now, but I would say that is luck more than anything. And it is pure luck that I have my health and can do small things to help better it. I don’t know what to think about aging except, as much as within my power, to bear witness to the whole world, embrace its empty intimacy when I can, and breathe. There is some kind of quiet dignity in simply being, but what a privilege to be healthy enough, or to feel loved enough.

Emily Dickinson, “Apology for Her” (852)

Dickinson’s reflections on sexuality can be harsh. The last two lines of this short poem have a distinct tone, as she seems to feel wronged, holding a certain pride at the isolation of another—Herself, without a Parliament / Apology for Me. I believe that tone can be used to unlock a specific interpretation of this poem, an interpretation which doesn’t hesitate to get personal and philosophical and pained, all at once:

Apology for Her (852)
Emily Dickinson

Apology for Her
Be rendered by the Bee —
Herself, without a Parliament
Apology for Me. 

Apology for Her / Be rendered by the Bee—apology for who? Regarding what? “The Bee” brings the problem of male sexuality into play. If “Her” is a flower—and Dickinson does not hesitate to identify herself with flowers—it is possible to say bees use flowers, only giving anything back through pollination. “Men are trash,” Twitter is fond of saying, and it looks to me like Dickinson would tweet the same. Male bees are unthinking and unreflective. They take for the hive’s good, serving a Queen, but can really be said to “apologize” for their exploitative behavior with one excuse: they simply don’t know any better.

Bees, like men, are truly unapologetic. This calls to mind another significant issue. More than likely, Dickinson was aware of Book 2 of the Iliad, where the mass of Achaean warriors are likened to bees when summoned to an assembly by their rulers:

…the people pressed forward to hear. They swarmed like bees that sally from some hollow cave and flit in countless throng among the spring flowers, bunched in knots and clusters; even so did the mighty multitude pour from ships and tents to the assembly, and range themselves upon the wide-watered shore, while among them ran Wildfire Rumour, messenger of Jove, urging them ever to the fore. Thus they gathered in a pell-mell of mad confusion, and the earth groaned under the tramp of men as the people sought their places.

This passage, where the “mighty multitude” of armed men indulges rumors while gathering “in a pell-mell of mad confusion,” is Homer depicting men when they’re governable. They are assembling; they will listen; like bees, they put in the work. When studying ancient political philosophy, this bee simile is fundamental—if one doesn’t take it seriously, a number of other comments about human nature and governance are inaccessible.

Dickinson seems to wonder about manliness as a construct. At worst, men use and exploit. But what if being obedient and dutiful is the best? That doesn’t seem good enough for love, no matter how much one may want to be wanted by another. It doesn’t seem to be good enough for proper democratic participation. The key problem: a lack of reflection means an inability to admit wrongdoing.

There is no apology for the flower. She feels used, and I believe at this juncture we’re warranted in making a further assumption. “Her” stands for female sexuality in general. “Her” includes Dickinson herself. The transition from “Her” to “Herself” entails the emergence of Dickinson’s individuality. Herself, without a Parliament / Apology for Me—I read this now taking “Parliament” literally: an assembly of representative men. Without such men—without letting a crude manliness assert itself in her life—Dickinson asserts her dignity, finds her self.

Emily Dickinson, “Spring is the Period” (844)

I wouldn’t have had a clue what to do with this poem if it weren’t for an incredibly embittering experience. I just watched a young man blithely dismiss the lives of others in order to boast of his commitment to his values. He listed their sufferings, noted their struggle to survive, then waved it all away. They didn’t matter; what mattered was where he stood. I should note that what prompted this display of callousness was virtually nothing—he was definitely looking to grandstand.

It’s hard to convey that adulthood isn’t really about having a job or paying your bills or keeping your apartment clean or having a stable relationship. None of that shit is being a grown-ass man, to be frank. The central issue is whether you’re someone who can be trusted to take care of others, especially those younger than you. If you’re loudly declaring “these are the circumstances in which the children of others must suffer,” it’s useful not only to stop talking, but rethink everything you think and believe until you reach some sufficient degree of decency.

With all this in mind, I get it now. I get why Spring is the Period / Express from God. If you’re wondering whether anything can change—if you’re desperately hoping for renewal, for new life to eclipse the horrors witnessed—then you’re hoping for God to be directly present. The key concept is “Express from God;” “Spring” serves as an attempted illustration:

Spring is the Period (844)
Emily Dickinson

Spring is the Period
Express from God.
Among the other seasons
Himself abide.

But during March and April
None stir abroad
Without a cordial interview
With God.

Spring is the Period—the way around, the ongoing revolution—in which God is most present. Dickinson speaks of all the other seasons almost dismissively: Among the other seasons / Himself abide. Her silence about the rest of the year has me stunned. This year, a friend nearly died: he was hospitalized for weeks and looked a shell of himself in the middle of treatments. It’s been months and he reacts to certain triggers with panic attacks mirroring the symptoms he had before. That’s one way in which I remember the summer. Regarding another season, some failed dates from the previous winter still loom large in my mind. Maybe if I had been the person I want to be, those dates would have been different. I’m still trying to figure out the fall that just passed, as there were some amazing moments of success speaking and teaching, moments that felt like they could be transformative, but transforming what? Who? —If I’ve read these moments correctly, of course.—

Dickinson hints that she’s purposely gliding over a very tough year. God was merely the watchmaker God, the prime mover of a mechanical universe, when he simply abided. Now it is March and April, where thick sheets of ice are melting and a formerly buried world is just beginning to make itself known again. She shows enthusiasm, but she centers it on the smallest phenomenon: None stir abroad / Without a cordial interview / With God. It’s the very fact of stirring—just one bird, some grass among the receding ice, a clearer sky—that commands her attention. God is there; He gives a “cordial interview” to all things that stir; where is Dickinson? She bears witness. There’s reason to hope, but to declare Spring the time one must hope? If you are cordially interviewed by the divine, one hopes you will be in motion, doing what’s right, declaring yourself through gentle actions and lovely thoughts. Not so much the bombast of public declaration, a public display of a defense mechanism.

Rae Armantrout, “Equals”

At times I wish I were a physicist. I would like to properly marvel at the forces at play in driving a race car or understand the energies indicating the presence of cosmic objects otherwise unseen.

However, learning to appreciate is incredible work. It took me so long to get a decent grasp of what happens in American football. Madden, the video game, taught me about formations and pre-snap reads. Football Outsiders, the analytics website, didn’t just get me to think about measuring efficient play—their writers back up their opinions by breaking down tape. And then there’s all the reading I’ve done about professional football over the years, mainly about the lives of players and coaches and their approach to the game. This Grantland profile of Bill Parcells I keep coming back to. I’m amazed how Parcells’ techniques work; I’m convinced he is a monster; I will never treat a human being the way he did.

It would take years upon years to learn physics and love its ways. I don’t even know if I’m putting in the time to properly understand my own field. But I do know this: the knowledge is worth it. The reflection on that knowledge is worth it. One immediately senses there’s something special, something hair-standing-on-end, with E = mc2. Something concerning the very heart of all there is. Which makes the joke Armantrout indulges in “Equals” that much more stark:

Equals
Rae Armantrout

1

As if, after all,

the thing that comes to mind
squared
times inertia

equaled the "real."


2

One lizard
jammed headfirst

down the throat
of a second.

As if, after all, the thing that comes to mind squared times inertia equaled the “real.” Armantrout changes “mass” to “inertia,” implying masses in motion which stay in motion unless otherwise acted upon. She changes “the speed of light” to “the thing that comes to mind.” Thought can be our light, but it is factored with “inertia,” our desires, our failures, our motions which feel predetermined when not simply sinking.

Honestly, this bleak equation seems real enough to me! But she prefaced her statement with “as if.” All the cynicism in the world is a mere coping mechanism, not equivalent to the “real,” unless.

*

So. The thoughts giving me anxiety and the general feeling that I’m not in control of my life are not “real.” I guess I can accept that? Armantrout’s first stanza, though, doesn’t sound terribly hopeful. The tone is dismissive, as if I’m not even entitled to my cynicism about myself.

The second stanza explodes with brutality. One lizard jammed headfirst down the throat of a second. Before, I could not equate the “real” with an idea in my own head or a movement pulling me along. But the lizards can be equated, even if one is being destroyed by the other. Hobbes speaks of the strength of an individual as useless in the state of nature, as armed mobs will quickly gather to put you in your place. We’re all equal, strength or no strength.

How does the second stanza relate to the first stanza? It’s not only shocking in terms of content, but seems to come out of nowhere. A tenuous link: maybe the lizard is the thing that comes to mind. Maybe the lizard eating the other lizard is the thing that comes to mind “squared.” Not simply double, but a creature enlarging itself by means of eating itself. If I am allowed to make that speculation, then I have a further question: Is the second stanza “real?” Or is it also subject to “as if?”

Armantrout, I believe, has captured more than a mood. She’s captured how our individual imaginations, in searching for an equal, a thing that defines us exactly, find only morbidity. She’s glimpsed why this might be the case. If you were to search for what makes you “real” with more impressions than self-knowledge, you’d quickly cannibalize yourself. You’d be ransacking you for you. It would be a gruesome process, one caused by a faulty imagination, with real consequences.

Solmaz Sharif, “America”

It’s the pacing. The pacing crushes. Listen to how these short, bullet-like sentences fire and linger: I had to. I learned it. It was if. With “I had to,” necessity breaks comfort. A hint of bitterness remains. “I learned it” follows, bringing a sense of resolve, a resolution, a regret. “It was if” concludes the trio ambiguously. A word signifying possibility—”if”—hangs. “It,” “if,” could be possibility. But possibility itself includes what is unknown to the point of dangerous. It was if:

America (from Harper's Magazine)
Solmaz Sharif

I had
to. I
learned it.
It was
if. If
was nice.
I said
sure. One
more thing.
One more
thing. Eat
it said.
It felt
good. I
was dead.
I learned
it. I
had to. 

It was if. If was nice. Sharif paints America as a temptation narrative. I said sure. One more thing. Something “nice” was had after necessary, hard work. Something “nice” was had after fighting with old ways of thinking and doing, ways indicating another sense of value. We did what America asked us to do—we remade ourselves in pursuit of opportunity—and we got “nice.” “Nice,” in that we achieved an end and it was more pleasant than much of the process. Ask any minority in America: name the process and you’ve named a special sort of hell. It’s very hard for me to imagine myself saying to another person “do this, it’s the most important thing,” treating them like they’re utterly invisible while they do it, and then, after they’ve achieved, acknowledging that yes, something has been done. But that’s the reality of race and class in America. Your achievements are only yours, as “nice” is mainly your self-satisfaction.

It’s a self-satisfaction that allows some of us to do great things while breaking ourselves. One more thing. Eat it said. It felt good. I was dead. One could say Sharif is critiquing American consumerism, the continual indulgence of appetite. I don’t think anyone will dispute consumerism is poisonous. The deeper question is whether America’s promises are poisonous. If that’s the case, that means even our best efforts are doomed. And I believe that’s where the poem wants us to go—it wants us to bring some hard questions to our best efforts.

Should we not achieve in America because we’re being manipulated? It’s clearer to me than ever before that the humanities are power. That the whole point of encouraging people into professional life is to prevent them from even thinking of taking actual leadership positions. If people believe they are “productive,” they are—they’re producing for the system, and they’re not asking pesky questions about whether the law is actually just or children are being separated from their families or whether we’re waging wars on behalf of tyrants in order to literally steal oil. Eliot’s line “This, then, is the greatest treason / To do the right thing for the wrong reason” doesn’t just haunt, it paralyzes. You wonder whether you should do anything in a world indifferent to your existence but eager to receive your labor. I was dead. I learned it. I had to—the final lesson is the necessity of motion. The hard questions can’t actually be asked from beyond a corruption, a poison, so comprehensive. We have to work within, pacing ourselves.