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.

Sappho, “That afternoon / Girls ripe to marry…”

A failed date here, a denied opportunity there—rejection has compounded lately, becoming more than incidental. The art of losing isn’t hard to master. Misery, especially lonely misery, demands company, and I believe I found fellowship with Sappho, who perhaps scratched the following after a walk meant to give her thoughts space to breathe:

 “That afternoon / Girls ripe to marry…”
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

That afternoon

Girls ripe to marry
wove the flower-
heads into necklaces

That afternoon, as if the morning itself strolled by. There were other meanderings, other anxieties. But then she witnessed girls ripe to marry, who wove… flower-heads into necklaces. Girls who blossomed took blossoms and created still further beauty. The Greek kosmos, from which we get “cosmic” and “cosmetic,” seems to say ornaments work best when they show how everything fits into a natural order. An order which those of us who don’t fit—who are single and bitter—are forced to see, whether through Arcady or Instagram.

Eros is self-reinforcing in the extreme. Sappho’s hopes are the trap, the expectations written into the world. It feels while we read like a wedding should happen, as she feels a wedding should happen.

I

It is natural for us to ask, seek, and perhaps find. Rejection is natural for a social creature, a human being.

But how to process rejection? Wordsworth wandered lonely as a cloud, that floats on high o’er vales and hills. He found happiness, but was what he saw very different from Sappho? Not girls making necklaces out of flowers, but flowers themselves dancing in the breeze beside a lake:

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud (from Poetry)
William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

What I find off-putting about this poem may actually contain the poem’s strengths. I believe the imagery too simple—e.g. I saw a crowd, a host, of golden daffodils. There’s the matter of the singsong rhythm and the couplets—beside the lake, beneath the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze. A glorification of naiveté results, as if experience could be had without reflection or perspective. If we didn’t think too much, maybe we would see a wholeness in nature, a providential order linking the stars that shine and twinkle on the milky way with ten thousand [flowers]… tossing their heads in sprightly dance. Maybe that wholeness would be healing, as the last couplet attests: And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils.

I am tempted not to give this poem a second glance, but then I realize the very tropes making it a childlike song mean that it can speak to children. In other words, if children feel lonely, alienated, or depressed, Wordsworth can recognize those feelings and speak to them directly. He helps give voice to those who don’t have the vocabulary or sophistication to say, for example, that they are trapped in a state of mind where they can only see the world but not control it or themselves in it. Instead, they can say they feel distant or floating—you know, like a cloud.

Moreover, I’m not entirely sure that the sight of flowers simply overwhelmed Wordsworth and he achieved happiness as well as a basis for future happiness. The poem seems to depict his memory of an incident, but it is an incident which he recalls on a regular basis—For oft, when on my couch I lie / In vacant or in pensive mood, / They [the flowers] flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude. That “inward eye” is not just recollection. It is also the imagination, the image-making faculty. Wordsworth draws our attention to this by explicitly calling himself a “poet” in the third stanza.

It stands to reason that this little scene of daffodils dancing by a lake in the breeze has been built over time. The moment of transformation itself he shows a peculiar reserve toward: A poet could not but be gay, / In such a jocund company. He was drawn to happiness, we could say, more than overwhelmed with it. I gazed—and gazed—but little thought / What wealth the show to me had brought—the moment itself was glorious, but it was his gazing—a gazing he repeats often, with his “inward eye”—that generates “wealth” for him. He is explicit he did not know this when he first encountered the flowers. There was no miracle of the natural world which changed his attitude. He makes the effort to build to happiness from the material of his own life and dreams, returning to one seemingly simple joy as a touchstone.

II

One might say, not unrightly, that Wordsworth embraces a providence which Sappho’s fragment shows potentially painful. Wordsworth is emphatic about “solitude” above, as if his inward eye, left to itself, can access a power beyond this world. But last I checked, I don’t want to be lonely. I’d really like it if the “ghosting” would stop and I didn’t walk around thinking everyone else had love and bliss.

Do I have any choice in the matter? Recently, I finished Donald Hall’s Essays after Eighty, where Hall depicts unsparingly what it’s like to be disabled and aged. In an essay entitled “Out the Window,” he talks at length about what he sees outside his window from his armchair before switching to remembrances of his family, long gone. I’ll let him introduce himself:

Each season, my balance gets worse, and sometimes I fall. I no longer cook for myself but microwave widower food, mostly Stouffer’s. My fingers are clumsy and slow with buttons. This winter I wear warm pullover shirts; my mother spent her last decade in caftans. For years I drove slowly and cautiously, but when I was eighty I had two accidents. I stopped driving before I killed somebody….

I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two. When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do.

Hall demonstrates an incredible optimism in this passage, but if you were wondering, he has lost many close to him, his physical frailty means he is incredibly dependent on other people, and yes, he can be stuck for extraordinarily long periods with nothing to do but look out the window.

The break with Sappho and Wordsworth is the break with beauty. The absence of beauty is the absence of providence, and for our purposes, this is a good thing. It is “preferable” to survive in the best shape one can possibly hold than to die young, although this is itself contingent. Hall obviously has the full use of his mental faculties, and his collection of essays does not forget to mention how many people are in his life at the time of his writing, helping him survive. It is “better” to sit at the window all day, as opposed to think about what has been lost. That doesn’t mean the losses are insignificant.

Hall’s happiness stands relative to his circumstances. He is at the mercy of any number of forces, but he’ll take what he can get. His happiness builds from necessity. I find it superior to Wordsworth’s, despite a similar process attending both their reflections. Meeting the daffodils is the same as looking out the window, no? Not quite—what if you have no choice but to look out the window, a prisoner of your own body?

I don’t know how I feel about a comparison to what I get from Sappho. Beauty piled upon beauty, as in the fragment, screams absurdity. The opposite of loneliness, though, isn’t a perfect world where lovers hold hands all the time and one feels accepted and valued at all moments. I’ve been alone enough to know that being loved has a value entirely its own. It’s so hard to communicate that we exaggerate it, as if it were a reflection of the cosmic order or something we could will for ourselves. To be sure, this doesn’t mean being unloved means one is somehow inferior. It does mean the hope of being loved, the ability to appreciate it, stands all the greater, and one’s embrace of solitude or necessity is not an absence of love but a demonstration of its potential.

References

Hall, Donald. “Out the Window.” In Essays after Eighty. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. 4.

Emily Dickinson, “When I have seen the Sun emerge” (888)

Only a few times have I been able to appreciate the enormity of the rising sun, I confess. Usually I’m out the door to work in the dark of early morning. The one time I can recall a sunrise most clearly I was reeling after a breakup. I hadn’t slept all night and I started to take a walk when the dark was receding. I was caught by surprise not much later, as yellow light broke open the sky by giving it an increasing number of hues and textures. It was a new day, and the emergence of the Sun was a full field of possibilities:

When I have seen the Sun emerge (888)
Emily Dickinson

When I have seen the Sun emerge
From His amazing House –
And leave a Day at every Door
A Deed, in every place –

Without the incident of Fame
Or accident of Noise –
The Earth has seemed to me a Drum,
Pursued of little Boys

Dickinson also confesses awe before the power of a sunrise—When I have seen the Sun emerge / From His amazing House. Her excitement differs from mine, though. The Sun, as part of the cosmos, was somewhere amazing before morning occurred. The Sun shining upon the Earth is still an incredible happening, of course. The Sun leaves a Day at every Door / A Deed, in every place. It provides opportunity, allows for action, enables life as we know it. Yet where it was before it appeared to us—”His amazing House”—may be far greater than we ordinarily imagine.

The Sun came from an amazing place, gave each and all a day and more, and did this Without the incident of Fame / Or accident of Noise. Dickinson invokes the themes of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In Sonnet 73, Shakespeare initially seems to conceive his life and legacy as akin to a mighty tree. That tree meets ruination, to be sure: yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, / Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. But one can see in the dark comedy of those lines what was intended—a blossoming, healthy tree that was a noisy world unto itself. Likewise, Sonnet 18 is not shy about promising immortality caused by poetic fame:

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

No “incident of Fame” or “accident of Noise” was involved in giving the world everything. What is the “amazing House” where the Sun rests? We don’t really know, as it is beyond us—strangely enough, like knowledge itself. The Earth has seemed to me a Drum, / Pursued of little Boys—so many, not just poets, are seeking nothing but validation. They’re crafting what they believe perfection for the most self-serving purposes. They’re employing all their technical skills, all their knowledge, to do this. Contrast this with the Sun, which simply lights and warms the Earth. It is universal in the sense that it is there for everyone, but its giving conceals a greater mystery. What are cosmic purposes? Where does knowledge lead? Perhaps more importantly, where does it rest?

Lorine Niedecker, “Linnaeus in Lapland”

Linnaeus, not yet known as one who could categorize all life, is out there. He’s in Lapland, enduring the bitter cold in order to study lichens (which sustain the native reindeer), mosses, rocks, and the few plants Lapland has. One flower in particular commands his attention—he calls it Andromeda. It finds a place in his journal:

Carolus Linnaeus’ comparison of Andromeda and the plant he named after her. 1732.

Nothing worth noting, sighs the poem, except. In his drawing, her feet bound to a mound more rock than earth; her arms flail, begging for help while a monster looks quizzically on. Before his eyes, the myth unfolds—the arms, the quadrangular shoots. The shackles, the boots. Historically, his words:

This plant is always fixed on some turfy little hillock in the midst of swamps, as Andromeda herself was chained to a rock in the sea…. Dragons and venomous serpents surrounded her, as toads and other reptiles frequent the abode of her vegetable prototype…. As the distressed virgin cast down her blushing face through excessive affliction, so does the rosy-coloured flower hang its head.

An excess of imagination, we are prone to diagnose the naturalist with. But let the fullness of his and Niedecker’s imagination speak. Combined, they voice an understanding of an epoch:

Linnaeus in Lapland (from Poetry)
Lorine Niedecker

Nothing worth noting
except an Andromeda
with quadrangular shoots—
the boots
of the people

wet inside: they must swim
to church thru the floods
or be taxed—the blossoms
from the bosoms
of the leaves

*

Fog-thick morning—
I see only
where I now walk. I carry
my clarity
with me.

*

Hear
where her snow-grave is
the You
ah you

of mourning doves

This same Andromeda, reaching up with quadrangular shoots, contains the aspirations of many. On the one hand, she and they are both prisoners—they must swim to church thru the floods or be taxed. Niedecker’s scenario is so ridiculous one can’t help but picture it. A congregation in wet boots that swam to church through a flood in order to avoid taxes. The superhuman services the painfully petty ordinary. The life of a plant stands an unwitting alternative to what nominally rules men.

On the other hand, this little plant, filled with misguided aspirations, is life itself. The blossoms from the bosoms of the leaves. In Andromeda, not just the myth, but the constellation.

Linnaeus recognizes how life can be radically unfree, but then assumes a power. Fog-thick morning—I see only where I now walk. I carry my clarity with me. One might think this the statement of a scientist, which it certainly could be. He lets limits craft his vision into truth. But I could also see it as one of a jilted lover, one trying not to let his expectations best him. If the latter, is Linnaeus reproaching himself for indulging the juxtaposition of the plant and the woman? Again, his own words, not the poem: As the distressed virgin cast down her blushing face through excessive affliction, so does the rosy-coloured flower hang its head.

There is another possibility—embracing one’s desires and imagination while understanding one’s limits. Hear, he says to apparently no one. Hear / where her snow grave is / the You / ah You / of mourning doves. His vision becomes sound, as he understands that he has been speaking to himself. Love is lost, but that doesn’t mean seeing it in the world is any less real.

To understand the limits of one’s desire while embracing the whole world is a fantastic task. Linnaeus found at least 100 more species in Lapland than had previously been recorded. His acquisition of knowledge is literal enlightenment; his belief in his efforts heralded another age, another way of living life. Eros, by implication, is not strictly hierarchical, commanding allegiance to a greater beauty or merely standing above the worst sort of punishment. Wet boots are not the only way to furnish blossoming.

When I first read this poem, I thought of Linnaeus as having the power of Adam and naming everything. It looks like he names an absent Eve, but this poem only touches that to bring Linnaeus into focus. The power to name comes from God, and if one could name everything correctly, it would not be blasphemous or the mark of hubris to take note of a Supreme Being. What stands out is Linnaeus’ overripe imagination, his gentleness, his regret and communion. This is his universe, his Eden, and we are lucky to be witnesses.

Notes and References

The excerpt from Linnaeus’ journal is from Jonathan Skinner’s “Particular Attention: Lorine Niedecker’s Natural Histories.” In Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place, ed. Elizabeth Willis. University of Iowa Press, 2008. 47.

My thanks to the Wikipedia page on Linnaeus, accessed March 4-5, 2019: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Linnaeus

Maureen N. McLane, “notational / sufficiency”

I’ll make a note of it, I tell myself, and I do that much. So I have built a journal filled with phrases meant to remind me of experiences I had, but those jottings have now become lifeless scratches of ink. Life cannot be contained by memory, and memory in turn is too much for words.

This dilemma could be restated as that of notational sufficiency. Notes weren’t enough, as I neither did justice to my verbal abilities nor my own life. A wager was made some days—was the attention given wholly enough? How should one regard one’s own life, give oneself appropriate attention? I know my typical answer is to become an anxious mess for hours on end, reliving everything I think I’ve done wrong and then some:

notational / sufficiency
Maureen N. McLane

notational
sufficiency: a wager

made some days
attention

seems wholly
enough

despite the danger
of a simplified

syntax, a mere
gleaning

from the surround—

so thought
hovered,

unstreaming,
punctual, rough

McLane is far braver than I am. Have her notes ever worked for her? Despite the danger of a simplified syntax, she indicates that they did work. Some days the attention was wholly enough; the simplified syntax did justice to the truth. She didn’t believe that she should have immediately written her autobiography, justifying and finding the greater truth behind everything she did and experienced.

Rather, she’s satisfied with the impossibility of capturing the fullness of experience with words. If you try to write everything out as it happens, you create another reality entirely. It’s not a reality which does justice to anything, it’s simply an attempt to say you have control over your own life.

What can you do with words, using a simplified syntax? Accept a mere gleaning from the surround. You don’t need to capture all of an experience or really any of it. Your life is not meant to have the staying power and profundity of Greek drama through sheer force of will. What you need to know is how you saw, how you reacted—so thought hovered, unstreaming, punctual, rough. Thoughts of yours which don’t quite flow, which sometimes explode like gunshots, need to be allowed to coalesce into thought, a reconstruction of a moment faithful to one’s own veracity. To put it more bluntly: your commitment to honesty is a search for your own honesty.