Tadeusz Różewicz, “Monuments”

Monuments1
Tadeusz Różewicz (tr. Adam Czerniawski)

Our monuments
are ambiguous
they are shaped like a pit

our monuments
are shaped
like a tear

moles
built our monuments
under the earth

our monuments
are shaped like smoke
they go straight to heaven

Comment:

An untamed field and open expanse of sky constitute Stafford’s “Un-National Monument at the Canadian Border.” The monument, the wilderness itself, makes the significant differences which states and people have look small. It does not bother to commemorate the sacrifices made in wars or for the betterment of society. Peace between nations can exist, it seems, and heroism can be made a relic of a bygone age, along with the bloodletting required. However, a grave irony attends careful readers of Stafford’s poem, as other than the speaker, not one other human being can be found there.

Tadeusz Różewicz’s “Monuments” is all-too-human. “Our monuments are ambiguous:” “our” not only addresses people, but locates them as makers and observers. It places them in a nation. That the monuments are “ambiguous” further cements the centrality of human beings in this poem. Ambiguity stems from our – or their – limited perspective.

Różewicz lists four ways the monuments can be ambiguous. They could be seen to be “shaped like a pit,” “shaped like a tear,” what moles built under the earth, or smoke that goes “straight to heaven.” The general shape he invokes is clear enough, that of a raindrop. All monuments by implication hearken back to the rainbow, the sign God would not flood the Earth again.

If a monument is viewed from above, if we’re on top of it, then the entrance to it is narrow, but it becomes wider, larger, labyrinthine. I think that’s what Różewicz means to invoke by “shaped like a pit:” monuments can be a memory from which we cannot break free.

Separate from this is a recognition of grief. Monuments “shaped like a tear” are monuments from which we stand across.2 We understand that there is a time to mourn, that grief does not go away, that certain people and events must be remembered.

However, these two ways of describing our encounters with monuments are inadequate. They make it seem there’s a wrong way and a right way to remember. If only it were so simple! “Moles built our monuments under the earth:” there are those who live in grief, who live in memories, and life strangely thrives. Moles build chambers narrow at the top, wider at the bottom. We do not see these even as we stand upon them. We too live upon and within a nation, a collective memory and grief, our horizon.

How strange to thrive in the same shadow that paralyzes, that wills to throw it all away! “Our monuments are shaped like smoke / they go straight to heaven.” Do we descend into monuments, do they face us, or are we always just entering them? Our short time on this earth means we’re caught in a sea of convention, tradition. We have to sacrifice, we want to sacrifice, and the ambiguity of monuments is also their power. Różewicz cleverly and powerfully impugns nationalism. Yes, nations and states make life possible and bearable. But in an awful sense, they are almost immune from an individual life’s critique. Many have died defending monuments that are rightfully burned or buried.

Bad Writing 101, Starring Me

I’m a hoarder, I’ll admit. Whenever I see hoarders on cable, they sound delusional while they wax romantic about literal pieces of trash. In like fashion, I’m not using the delete button on this blog nearly enough.

There’s lots to tweak, twist, and completely transform, indicating this blog is a notebook more than a collection of essays. It works best when I make myself rethink and rewrite. I recently cleaned up an entry on Auden’s “The Fall of Rome”. Auden’s imagery is vivid: torrential rains, menacing waves, various Roman personages in roles with which we can relate. Doing justice to his work was a matter of keeping things simple. The rewrite I’m most proud of is on Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are You?” The old comment on that poem was utter gibberish. The more recent one takes a radical line of interpretation, holding until it yields.

In what follows, I’m going to document some of the myriad ways I have failed. I’m guessing it’s important I have a list of the things I’m prone to do wrong. I hope this list is of some help to those of you who are working on your writing. Without further ado:

Jumping into analysis without preparing the reader

This is probably the number one problem making most of this blog useless. It’s really funny: if it gets solved, I probably get a lot more confidence and a larger audience. The range and depth I’ve covered over the years is pretty good, to say the least.

And how have I done justice to that range and depth? By writing complete crap. For example, in a comment on Louise Bogan’s “Knowledge,” I discussed the poem with a person far more capable than me (good), turning that discussion into a disorganized pile of slop (not so good). Let’s start with the poem:

Now that I know
That passion warms little
Of flesh in the mold,
And treasure is brittle,

I’ll lie here and learn
How, over their ground,
Trees make a long shadow
And a light sound.

It’s simple and beautiful and cryptic in just the right way. Bogan describes something that sounds like disappointment over a relationship, as she says “passion warms little of flesh.” But she could also be voicing a more general disappointment, for “treasure is brittle.” There are yet more twists involved: Why use the phrase, to be more exact, “flesh in the mold?” And why does her “knowledge” result in lying down under a tree?

See how simple that was? Instead of writing anything like that, I wrote this mess to start:

Temperance made a bunch of neat observations. “Know” in the first stanza potentially conflicting with “[will] learn” opening the second stanza is the one I remember most. What we spent the most time discussing was the nature of the “passion” invoked. “Passion warms little” cannot possibly mean the speaker is herself dispassionate. But how exactly do we account for that numbness, say, when relationships fall apart? When we don’t want something anymore, but still want it?

This is far from the worst thing written on the blog. It ends with serious questions that concern the feeling the poem conveys. It also contains a very sharp, easy-to-miss observation in the second sentence. But it comes out of nowhere after the poem and just throws stuff at the reader. Every opening line is an opportunity, and this one wastes the opening especially. Every opening paragraph is an opportunity… yeah, you get the idea.

Rambling

Doing analysis but not preparing the reader for it is a matter of priorities gone astray. I’m assuming my readers reread and think through things, and they do. Still, that’s a dangerous assumption in terms of craft: it can make me hopelessly unclear and lacking impact exactly where I could most be authoritative.

It’s not a bad thing to think out loud on the page. It is a bad thing, though, when you generate paragraphs like this (I do not expect you to read the whole paragraph below):

Animal souls in places moving across or downward are contrasted with the all-too-human speaker. Is “in the dark” a place? The animal souls seem defined by motion, even as the landscape becomes still. Is human being that which can choose rest? That correspondence between one’s wants and a natural order (no-thing) might make us both “sleepy” and “benign.” Still, perhaps I said too much in mentioning “correspondence.” The speaker is waiting for some sort of message. The mail coming late and the singing that will come in another season strongly imply that we don’t simply let nature speak to us, for good reason. Our whole sense of “hearing” may be a process of listening and responding conditioned by interaction with other humans. Moreover, despite the wonderful placidness of this poem, there are strong overtones of death (no, I don’t want to get into when this poem was written in Kenyon’s life. You can look that up for yourself). The vole don’t have a terribly long lifespan; the nuthatch dives downward. “Nothing I want” recalls the 23rd Psalm, snow covers the landscape, and that pond literally reflects what is above it.

What the hell does any of this mean? It concerns Jane Kenyon’s elegant “Dark Morning: Snow,” reproduced below:

It falls on the vole, nosing somewhere
through weeds, and on the open
eye of the pond. It makes the mail
come late.

The nuthatch spirals head first
down the tree.

I’m sleepy and benign in the dark.
There’s nothing I want…

The vole, on the ground, nosing through weeds. Then, higher, a mailbox, and maybe even higher a nuthatch, spiraling in descent alongside a tree. Kenyon’s imagery, dusted with snow, asks a question: Where, in all this, does the speaker fit? “Sleepy and benign” seems a non-answer. Her position lies the very opposite of the ascent she’s detailed. It’s a mystery into which we’ve been initiated, as snow dictates to every other creature and process, but our human speaker imagines, observes, wonders.

Not writing enough

I could rail at myself right now for carelessness, lack of organization, not doing enough research, going for higher thoughts when more mundane ones are warranted, failing to respond to my own work well-enough. I should rail at myself for those things.

However, saying “I do too much analysis” and “I ramble” presents a problem of its own. That problem is not merely hypothetical, as I’ve published so much that I’ve run into it numerous times. In a number of instances, I simply do not write enough, leaving the reader on an island.

I have entries on Plato’s “Cleitophon” and “Lovers” which have been edited heavily and are still not of the quality they should be. The posts are clumsy and not tightly organized. But the big problem is that I don’t explain anything at the moment things most need to be gone over in detail and clarified. Let’s look at two passages from my commentary on Plato’s “Lovers:”

In both attempts to define philosophy, the problem lies not with philosophy’s supposed nobility, but rather with how it can be useful. This is a strange critique of philosophy. Socrates in Aristophanes’ Clouds taught the unjust speech, which was most useful and highly ignoble. Here, the boys already are immersed in and eager to do philosophy; this does not constitute the majority of Athens, who are addicted to drama and spectacle. In fact, the setting is specifically the schoolhouse of Dionysus. A Dionysus was said to have been the teacher of Plato (Leake 80, fn. 1).

The way most people understand the virtuous or noble focuses on whether it is good for them or not. Moralistic fables where the virtuous are rewarded abound. It is possible to believe that self-sacrifice constitutes such an honor that one thinks it the only good worth having. The wrestler’s complaint about the debate, though, shows that a demonstration of utility with an implied reverence for the city and its gods will suffice for him.

Truth be told, while there’s some disorganization at play here, these paragraphs are not that bad. However, because I haven’t fleshed out every important concept – only a few – these passages feel more disorganized than they are. The first major problem emerges in the first paragraph above. Aristophanes critiqued philosophy as mercenary, ignoble but most useful. What exactly that has to do with the present setting is ambiguous. A clearer statement about the audience of the boys, who are in love with trying to be wise, would help enormously. I should have been emphatic that the boys are not going to see philosophy as ignoble no matter what Socrates argues.

However, since I wasn’t entirely clear about that, the details pile on as the material gets more complicated. The boys of the “Lovers” are only one part of Socrates’ immediate audience. He also engages a musician who fancies himself philosophic and a wrestler who is an obnoxious brute. “The way most people understand the virtuous or noble focuses on whether it is good for them or not:” this line speaks to those two men. It seems to contradict the Aristophanean critique directly. A few sentences before, the noble was not the useful, end of conversation. Now I’m saying that most people understand the noble as useful.

Obviously, these are difficulties a little thought can resolve: the solution to the immediate difficulty is in plain sight. While I’m committed to working on as many blog entries as I can, revising until things are perfect, I’m not too worried about the one on Plato’s “Lovers.” The conclusion there is strong enough to carry the rest of my messy musings.

Still, I should have written more. Maybe not to be clearer, in this case, but to introduce a puzzle and flesh out its parameters better. Wondering about Socrates’ audience, about what each participant wants, is the heart of Plato.

Conclusion

I can’t panic about writing badly. I just need to write more and keep moving forward, editing when I can. In that spirit, will the above list help me? Can it help you?

To be fair, let’s list what I’ve written that’s decent. Not perfect, but can be of use, and maybe even demonstrate thoughtfulness:

I’ve got more than that, I know. At the very least, I owe myself this much. It’s weird being a writer who’s failed in so many ways, who features a singular clumsiness with words, yet might have some small, strange legacy. Only “might,” as self-delusion is so much more likely. Still, no one ever said bad writing was unimportant or unnecessary writing.

David Starzynski, “Why should I forget”

Why should I forget that I
Realized I can’t drop things
And bring others
To where I haven’t gone?

David Starzynski

David Starzynski wrote this little gem on Twitter and I thought it worth sharing and explicating. Quite a few friends are dealing with stress at work, and that’s putting it mildly. The stress they’re undergoing has more or less this character: “What am I doing with my life that I’m vulnerable all the time?” It cuts right through a person, planting doubt and anxiety about both the present and the future. Instead of seeing oneself as building while working, there’s worry about getting random things wrong and being disproportionately punished. If one is let go or quits, one ends up in even worse shape, as nothing has been accomplished and the judgement of others will be dismissive and harsh.

This little poem doesn’t directly address such thinking. It challenges, pushing a reconsideration of attitude. “Why should I forget that I / Realized I can’t drop things” – the number of potential and actual negations in these two lines jars. A realization could be forgotten, but it shouldn’t be. That realization is itself another negative, that things can’t be dropped. The overall point is perfectly clear: we can’t really drop things; what we start we must finish. The only difference is whether we keep this in the forefront of our minds or not.

You can see why I prefaced discussion of this poem with talk about work stress. We’re building at work, but we have to recognize what we’re doing. Whatever we’re doing is intimately tied up with who we are. In a fundamental sense, the things that really matter can’t be dropped. Whatever failure is, it is contingent on recognition.

Maybe that conclusion is a little too Zen, a little too positive. I dunno. I think it’s helpful for establishing that life goes on no matter how stressed we’re feeling. To continue with the poem: “And bring others / To where I haven’t gone?” Preceding this, of course, is “Why should I forget that I realized I can’t…” I should not forget that I realized that I can’t bring others to where I haven’t gone.

Just as tend to forget we can’t drop things, we tend to forget that we can’t bring others to a place beyond our experience. We might be able to journey to new places alone, but if we want to convey something meaningful, it has to be something we’ve felt first. The poem does a nice job of reminding us that our struggles matter, and that we can easily punish ourselves too much for living.

Osip Mandelstam, “Cathedral, Empty”

Cathedral, Empty (from A Burning Boat)
Osip Mandelstam (tr. Christian Wiman)

When light, failing,
Falling

Through stained glass,
Liquefies

The long grass
At the feet of christ,

I crawl diabolical
To the foot of the cross

To sip the infinite
Tenderness

Distilled
From destroyed

Hearts:
An air of thriving

Hopelessness
Like a lone cypress

Holding on
To some airless

Annihilating height.

(1910)

Comment:

He crawls “diabolical” to the cross, wanting to “sip the infinite tenderness distilled from destroyed hearts.” What could this possibly mean? Let’s start with the ridiculous, the obviously wrong. Let’s say he’s an angry teenage nihilist, giving himself vampiric attributes. He comes to the cathedral at the empty close of day; he seems to thrive on the hopelessness of others; he crawls (snakelike?), seeing the cross as an empty, “annihilating height.” If we permit the poem to give us this portrait, then the speaker can be said to be an inverted Christ.

I think that’s a useful impression to begin a closer analysis of this poem. After all, who comes to an empty cathedral to dwell on others’ dashed hopes? Still, the details are the truth of the matter, not merely its presentation. The light of the end of the day, failing, falls on iconic grass at the foot of a crucifixion scene. I wonder about icons people pray at. Many times, there are lit candles beneath them, which fading light will merge with. Those lit candles are literally prayers, for the tradition is that as long as the candle is lit, a prayer of sorts is ongoing.

So I’m tempted to think of sunlight, long painted grass, and candlelight all being one, liquefying in the most beautiful way. Only someone thinking about when a cathedral is most beautiful, when it best opens itself up to spiritual realization, would be concerned about the light hanging in the air. Still, our narrator does not cast himself as pure of heart. In crawling diabolical to the foot of the cross, he wants something, just like all the rest of us. He’s attentive to how much wanting to get anything from God costs: “[I] sip the infinite tenderness distilled from destroyed hearts.” We all have immediate needs, a thirst for justice, a want of happiness – to ask for any of these is in a way unjust. Asking for anything can be considered a slight to anyone else’s request. People still ask, not because they’re unjust, but because our earthly needs do run deep. One can only be tender in thinking about how much pain visits that cathedral every day.

Our speaker fails to ask for anything. He’s realized something, a thought which could easily be thought as nihilist as it is religious:

An air of thriving

Hopelessness
Like a lone cypress

Holding on
To some airless

Annihilating height.

Surrounding him, “an air of thriving hopelessness.” The hopelessness thrives, of course, because hope itself thrives. He takes his cynical thought, pocketing it, quietly separating his final image from the light that he sipped from before. The “air of thriving hopelessness” is like the material component of Christ’s sacrifice, “a lone cypress holding on to some airless annihilating height.” The starkness of Christ’s death strikes one immediately, as it doesn’t feel redemptive. The cross reaches an “airless annihilating height.” Belief can be a terrible, frightening risk, much like living. We pray that God answers prayers, honoring the faith shown Him.

Annabel Banks, “Recognition”

Recognition (from Eunoia Review)
Annabel Banks

I’d told you that my brain can’t capture faces,
leaves me blank and reaching without context

clues, some shade of hair or hat, so you waved.
Thank you. It gives me a lift. Some cog connects

to give pleasure from looking at one who said I looked
a pleasure, and saw a glimmer of something else

underneath—but that’s for future walks and waves.
For now, I’m happy to be happy at the memory

of my brain’s happiness to see you, always-new man,
whatever you look like. However you’re made.

Comment:

What a wonderful love poem! “My brain can’t capture faces,” says the speaker. On the one hand, I remember times I liked someone and thought I saw them everywhere. I knew their face so well that I confused it with every other face. On the other hand, our speaker has depicted herself as having a very curious sensory problem. She seems a counterfactual in a philosophical experiment, one run by an extreme skeptic. “What if there were a person who couldn’t recognize faces?” feels very close to “What if we’re all just brains in vats, fed information by a supercomputer?” The latter counterfactual typically concerns how we can or cannot prove the existence of external reality; it ultimately focuses on how certain propositions may or may not establish facts. The former starts with the impossibility of establishing a set of facts, a set of facts that has a larger, philosophical relevance. Is not capturing faces the same as not being able to truly see beyond oneself?

I have to say, this poem puts analytic philosophy to good use. I almost want to go back to writing on Wittgenstein. How is it that completely absurd questions end up clarifying language? In this case, if not being able to truly see beyond oneself is a problem, it isn’t a moral problem. Selfishness is not blindness; one can be blind, earnest, generous. Our speaker is grateful for anything that allows her a moment of recognition. “Some shade of hair or hat” might or might not help her acknowledge someone, but what definitely helps is activity, a sign directed at her: “so you waved.”

In this counterfactual, love emerges from putting the self somewhat together. She articulates the wholeness she’s experiencing by making some connection through her perception:

Some cog connects

to give pleasure from looking at one who said I looked
a pleasure, and saw a glimmer of something else

underneath—but that’s for future walks and waves.

It helps that there’s a lover involved, that the speaker is a beloved (“I looked a pleasure”), but it isn’t hard for us readers to detect the immense joy in just having a “cog” connect. Those of us going through severe health problems know how exhilarating the mere prospect of normalcy can be. Here, having a crush, being crushed on – it’s simply fun to know the brain is processing the moment. There’s a chance at a much greater depth, of getting that much more out of life.

The poem ends on an even more generous note:

For now, I’m happy to be happy at the memory

of my brain’s happiness to see you, always-new man,
whatever you look like. However you’re made.

The speaker takes the problem she has recognizing faces and turns it into a virtue for herself and her own love. She will always see the beloved as someone new. This means she could care less at the same time she cares the utmost about how he’s “made.” Maybe he can’t recognize faces, either. His faults don’t matter when there’s joy in simply thinking about him.