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.

Seamus Heaney, “Field of Vision”

Field of Vision
Seamus Heaney

I remember this woman who sat for years
In a wheelchair, looking straight ahead
Out the window at sycamore trees unleafing
And leafing at the far end of the lane.

Straight out past the TV in the corner,
The stunted, agitated hawthorn bush,
The same small calves with their backs to wind and rain,
The same acre of ragwort, the same mountain.

She was steadfast as the big window itself.
Her brow was clear as the chrome bits of the chair.
She never lamented once and she never
Carried a spare ounce of emotional weight.

Face to face with her was an education
Of the sort you got across a well-braced gate —
One of those lean, clean, iron, roadside ones
Between two whitewashed pillars, where you could see

Deeper into the country than you expected
And discovered that the field behind the hedge
Grew more distinctly strange as you kept standing
Focused and drawn in by what barred the way.

Comment:

Mark spoke earnestly about his recently deceased aunt. Fighting poverty and abandonment, she raised six children, endured the suicide of one child, overcame her own physical frailty to be present for others. Her grandchildren, her own children, other family, friends, and neighbors packed the funeral, telling story after story, reconstructing her life through now-hallowed memories. Mark attended the funeral, and I heard about it all while driving to a German restaurant in Arlington. In his words, “she made everyone feel special.”

Lots of people are fighters, but it’s still remarkable to hear about those who fight for others. The attraction, I feel, is not as simple as seeing the replacement of selfishness and cynicism with selflessness and hopefulness. Rather, the self is built from suffering, seeing further, uniquely truly. “Field of Vision,” the poem under consideration, confronts us with the wheelchair-bound, with the “steadfast” who never lamented once. We are left to wonder how she educates, what precise character her depth. They also serve who only stand and wait.

I

The narrator remembers “this woman who sat for years in a wheelchair.” In his way, he declares her remarkable (why else would he remember?), allowing the rest of the poem to speak of her as an object of wonder. She herself contemplates the dreadfully mundane and the cosmic, both at once. The sycamore trees at which she stares sit fixed for years. Their leafing and unleafing casts the whole world as a cynical clock, even as it demonstrates the cycle of birth and rebirth.

In her stillness, she witnesses this natural cycle. But what exactly does she know that we must learn? She sees straight out the window, past the TV, at a sameness persisting through the years:

Straight out past the TV in the corner,
The stunted, agitated hawthorn bush,
The same small calves with their backs to wind and rain,
The same acre of ragwort, the same mountain.

“The stunted, agitated hawthorn bush,” “the same small calves,” “the same acre of ragwort, the same mountain:” the list of what she sees testifies to her struggle and strength. The list shows that Nature itself endures a variety of ways. Even if stunted or agitated or weedlike, something in Nature never fails to assert its relevance. Treating this as a lesson can make one mountain-like, in a way immovable. Still, human beings are not mountains. Our growth, our perseverance, is mirrored more by the small calves weathering the wind and rain.

II

One of the many problems with writing on short lyric poems is showing careful appreciation for the text. I don’t want to inflate the conclusions I draw, but at the same time, there has to be genuine excitement as we learn to see like the poet. The “how” is so important that it can artificially enlarge the significance of the “why.”

This poem presents no such problem: it is a thoughtful, tremendous tribute. Heaney renders this woman with allusions to Olympian judgment, as if she were Zeus or Athena:

She was steadfast as the big window itself.
Her brow was clear as the chrome bits of the chair.
She never lamented once and she never
Carried a spare ounce of emotional weight.

Her steadfastness, clear brow, spare emotions, and gleaming chair mark her rule. Her lack of lamentation makes her more than human.

Like a god, only mysteries attend her. She leads those with the willingness to read her face to a specific resolve, one grounded in seeing frailty as part of the natural. She can testify that endurance alone is a virtue. That, at least, is what I get out of the surface of the fourth stanza’s imagery. Facing her is facing a “well-braced gate,” “lean, clean, iron,” barring movement. The gate stands strong, pure. It is both her and the education she provides.

Her resolve is a paradox, as her strength ultimately comes from frailty. The purity to which Heaney alludes stems from principles cementing that resolve, ones which speak to us universally. Yet the bearer of those principles is very much an individual. The principles didn’t inform her, then make her better. She discovered them within herself, using them to build her life. The final stanza, in complicating and deepening the gate image of the fourth, speaks to this:

…you could see

Deeper into the country than you expected
And discovered that the field behind the hedge
Grew more distinctly strange as you kept standing
Focused and drawn in by what barred the way.

The gate itself, a restriction, leads one to wonder what lies beyond. The wonderment, the will to knowledge, grows. I don’t feel this the same as the cliche “obstacles make us stronger,” or the far less cliche and tragically true “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” The last stanza has a double quality. The speaker, face to face with the woman, tries to learn from what he perceives, finding her stranger, ever more interesting. But what he perceives is not a matter of solipsism, or being lost in his own subjectivity. He is trying to learn from the woman, who is also trying to see, and the image of her as a gate shows that she, as observer and knower, has changed access to everything else for him. To learn her strength means to see more, to see as she does, to find her oracular.

ACTC Conference Paper on Seamus Heaney

In Atlanta, thinking a lot about presentation, being clear, letting the depth of the things I read speak for itself. Not being in the way of the text is the most difficult thing, as it ironically requires one to step forth and be clear about what one understands and doesn’t understand.

Here’s the link to the paper I’m presenting: http://www.ashokkarra.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Karra-Paper-on-Seamus-Heaney.pdf

Your feedback is welcome. I hope I haven’t been too convoluted, and I certainly hope my remarks are not too much of a stretch. My hope is to add more poems to the framework, while sourcing more, letting this become a richer and richer tapestry. Right now I think of it less a tapestry and more like a shower mat.

Kay Ryan, “New Rooms”

New Rooms (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

The mind must
set itself up
wherever it goes
and it would be
most convenient
to impose its
old rooms — just
tack them up
like an interior
tent. Oh but
the new holes
aren’t where
the windows
went.

Comment:

I’d like to think myself open-minded. Not a mind that “must set itself up wherever it goes,” but one that receives the world, works for the truth, matches the universal and particular accordingly. To say “the mind must set itself up” already feels like one imposes on situations, one declares oneself because one can.

Contrary to my egoistic idealism, this poem goes a different direction. Again, the mind sets itself up “wherever it goes,” implying that it gets bounced around a bit more than it would like. Responding in the spirit of convenience at times, it imposes “its old rooms.” Going right up to the limits of wherever, the mind tacks those old rooms up “like an interior tent.” Ryan ends the poem with one simple detail, one lament, after the old rooms are imposed upon the new location: “Oh but the new holes aren’t where the windows went.”

I’ve got a million questions at this point. I want to learn more about what sort of inquiry we’re talking about, where we tack up an old interior inside a new one, where mind feels bounded no matter what. I want to understand the idea of nature hinted at in this poem. “Windows” prioritizes a link to the outside, even though there is so much interior talk.

But mainly, I need to know who is speaking. The poem does not shy away from conceptual metaphors, ones which seem far too abstract, potentially denying coherence. Still, each metaphor taken by itself sheds light on the central problem. “The mind must set itself up wherever it goes” gives us the image of a wandering nomad. In the name of freedom, of not being bound to a specific piece of land, she has to embrace necessity. This is at times more a burden than a willed way of life.

The next metaphor, “it would be most convenient to impose its old rooms — just tack them up like an interior tent,” contains some consistency with the previous one. I can’t help but think of yurts, those portable tents used by Mongols. Still, these verses taken on their own constitute a decisive break with what has come before. The mind must impose “old rooms” like an “interior tent” because in some sense, mind cannot possibly be completely open. It has a structure, it has limits, it is an interior itself. Those limits can be relative to the situation, of course, and that’s what we’re talking about in this poem. Whatever situation our speaker/wanderer/nomad faces, it’s forcing her mind to be different, to see differently, confusing her completely. So why not put up the old rooms, use the conceptual framework previous? The limits of the new situation, the rules that must be mastered, can simply be covered up. Just tack up those walls already.

“Oh but the new holes aren’t where the windows went,” cries the speaker in an all too personal way. It’s really funny how the mind is an interior, yet one can’t just shape it however one likes. You can’t just graft old rooms onto the new, because then you block the outside. You block the possibility of enlightenment, of seeing nature. It’s strange how that possibility is entirely contingent on an internal arrangement, as if rationality were a moral endeavor or a miracle. As if you had to believe you can know.

Who is our speaker? Probably not someone as overtly concerned with rationality or enlightenment. I know the times I use the old rooms to cover the new. I didn’t want to face being wrong then, I certainly don’t want to face it now. Those friendships and relationships broke apart for every reason other than me; I changed where I live to simply be me elsewhere. It only takes a few moments to realize how deep the delusion goes. I can’t see out the window, indeed.

Annabel Banks, “Literature to Kill Wasps”

Literature to Kill Wasps (from Yes, Poetry)
Annabel Banks

is all I shall carry from now on
chapters to crush unthorned
antlers searching for a sting
I use my fist, pounding pages
as characters look up to say
“come in” at wrong moments
wasp jam to stain the page
where finally we learn the voice
unreliable as pound-shop repellent
and consider all that’s gone before
in new colours, black words
across hi-vis yellow vests
with danger and authority

Comment:

Reading is dangerous, especially if you’re a wasp. According to the poem, we wasps have to worry about frustrated literati using books to crush us. A record of kills is even maintained through splattered yellow upon the pages.

Maybe reading is dangerous for more than wasps, though. What is reading, anyway? The poem begins by declaring “Literature to kill wasps is all I shall carry from now on.” Our speaker doesn’t say she plans to do any reading. Her resolution makes me wonder if there is such a thing as reading in some pure sense, whether it is possible to do anything with literature other than kill wasps. To be clear, I think many of us have an idealized image of a reader, one who sits for hours in dialogue with the author of a work, carefully teasing out her logic, appreciating her art, bringing as much knowledge as we can to her work. We have that image, and then we have real life: a million and one distractions attend us, distractions like wasps.

If we follow this line of thought, what exactly is dangerous about reading? The image of the ideal reader? Wasps and wasp-like distractions? Something else entirely? The wasps have their “unthorned antlers searching for a sting,” but chapters in conjunction with fists crush them. Killing wasps, who are not presented to us as terribly dangerous, distorts the text of the book at the very moment the book comes alive. Characters say “come in,” inviting the reader, inviting the wasp, only to have wasp jam smeared all over their speeches and doings. You can see why I’m playing with the idea that wasps are distractions. They literally are, and they are invaluable to reading. It’s like there is no such thing as focus. There’s only being distracted in a way that you’re aware you’re distracted, or being completely unaware that you’re not even remotely on task.

So it seems what’s dangerous about reading is that it kills us wasps. We’re only as good as our distractions, our efforts to read. We started with our fists, crushing wasps between pages, then noticed that we were throwing splattered bugs upon defined, innocent characters. Reading should be dangerous. This, for lack of a better word, “process” brings us to a voice we learn, “unreliable as pound-shop repellent,” yet necessary for life. That voice is part of our considering “all that’s gone before in new colors.” Reading is distracted, fragmented, perspectival. The black words of literature still show through the yellow – there’s a basis for a more common understanding – but the “danger and authority” of those words lies in our bug smashing escapade. We overcome our distractions and upon reflection find them weirdly defining.