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Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

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Eighth Reflection: Sappho, “Although they are / Only breath…”

“Although they are / Only breath…”
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

Although they are

Only breath, words
which I command
are immortal

Comment:

At first, duh. Words are immortal as they certainly outlive us. We “command” them through our short-lived, not terribly articulate breathing. Words not only signify a reality outside ourselves that we struggle to grasp, but they also point to inner struggles and confusions. We need words piled upon words to make sense of words.

So our “command” can be considered suspect. And yet this fragment is defiant. “Only breath” is a seeming concession. It allows command of no less than immortality. How can one be so sure?

There are plenty of poems that promise a beloved immortality. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” might be the most famous. It ends thus:

Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest 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.

I’ve never really known what to do with the promise of “hey, I can give you immortality through a poem.” It sort of makes sense for a literary culture, one where epic poetry and things like “Macbeth” are mass media. But then again, people in that culture know plenty of poets who are terrible or will be ignored – either way, they fall by the wayside. And whether the audience being flattered will be remembered in any specific way apart from being loved is an obvious problem. I usually treat the promises of immortality in verse cynically, as a way for clever authors to seduce a not-so-bright audience. Or I talk about how we humans, through the honors we give and the traditions we hold, in a way have created immortality, one that we ironically need to be very lucky to have.

But is Sappho promising someone else immortality? This is just a fragment, but there is a sense in how words which are only breath are immortal. It has less to do with “command” and more to do with “I.” Inasmuch one can present oneself as a person of interest, one might be considered worthy to remember. The words commanded present a problem, and one has put oneself inside them.

Links, 4/24/14

A few things I won’t be able to offer extended comment on, but are definitely worthwhile:

Fourth Shot

"Fourth Shot," by Joel Peck. Intaglio, 2007. Photo credit: Tom Farris

“Fourth Shot,” by Joel Peck. Intaglio, 2007. Photo credit: Tom Farris

How a speck disgusts.
A watery, grid-like beauty,
housing playful creatures.
They race, and maybe the blur
they make blurs us,
or maybe we didn’t want to look
from the start.

Ranjit Hoskote, “Poste Restante”

Poste Restante (from Vanishing Acts, 2006; via George Szirtes)
Ranjit Hoskote

Instead of addresses the postman finds
a child pumping a thirsty hydrant,
and a barber’s throne twisted by fire,
marooned in a side-street;
to the north, a dented milk churn
sits across the road from an upset pannier,
buns scattered; past the traffic island,
a leather suitcase, handle wrenched off;
to the south, a public library,
stack on stack of carbon ghosts.
The letters fall from his hands
like homeless prayers.

Comment:

A mailman walks around a ruined city, or a ruined part of a city. He is in what remains after (“poste restante”). The walk feels like it takes a circular path; he initially moves north before ending up in the south. George Szirtes has an excellent comment on the setting:

There has been a great fire, and maybe more judging by that dented milk churn. And it is not so long ago either. There are buns spilled from an upset pannier. Perhaps it was a military attack or a riot. The library has been burned out. There is just a child with a useless hydrant.

“Homeless,” the lack of addresses, the postman’s route: these conspire to make me wonder about the motion of the poem, where we are being led. A child desperate for water and a burned barber’s chair show a desperation for necessities. Wasted bread and a dented milk churn indicate that perhaps poverty does not stay still, but makes itself manifest in some sort of violence. A suitcase with a “handle wrenched off” is almost a dark joke. Some matters remain closed, as violence in a way scratches the surface. But that is no comfort whatsoever. The shock of seeing “stack on stack of carbon ghosts” hits the postman hard. A mass grave of books, burned beyond recognition. Why even bother with the mail, with the possibility of written communication?

The higher possibilities for us only exist in a burned library, a wrecked suitcase, and some letters. Poverty truly is violence, complete with a motion that leads where it will. The side-street brings together the hydrant and the barber’s chair, but the road divides the milk churn and the bread. Things are united or divided however, everything is thrown. The traffic island speaks not to where things are but to the enormity of human traffic. That suitcase was attacked and neglected by many. The motion concludes with burned books. The possibility of being known is absent.

Hannah Stephenson, “Weeding” & Emily Dickinson, “What I can do – I will” (361)

Weeding (from The Storialist)
Hannah Stephenson

The gardener shows the seeds
that they are embers

There is a flowerflame sleeping inside them

All things being equal
which they are not

All things which come from the same thing
and are also distinct

A large part of the gardener’s work
is also to discourage growing
without remorse

Comment:

The gardener, in weeding, discourages growing without remorse. But before we are presented with that conclusion, we are shown growth a curious way. The flower that grows toward the sun is also a flame rising. That flame, which reaches upward and can be thought spiritual power, will by implication also consume the flower.

This description, which concerns how striving, beauty, and decay link, is then put aside to reconsider the problem from what seems to be the gardener’s vantage. Things are not equal. Unequal things are distinct, regardless of origin. We end on a note which strongly suggests that the fact of difference means some things must perish. “Difference,” then, is not an abstract logical category: it comes from directly from our changeable world.

Even before the gardener’s mind speaks about “all things,” the seeds are “embers” holding a sleeping “flowerflame.” The seeds are personified, as they are shown something by the gardener. Perhaps what is most important: seeds and flowers are completely independent of the gardener, free to live and die, be defective or perfect, on their own. Their spirit in asserting themselves mirrors his in cutting them down. This leads us to wonder how the spirit of both gardener and garden can be “the same thing” which is “also distinct.” Is our willfulness just another part of an overarching differentiation and decay?

One might think this line of questioning a bit overblown. It could be said to be kind of “reasoning” that is more a trap than anything else. I’ve certainly been moody recently and finding it difficult to weed out negative, despairing thoughts from ones that are genuine insights. I do ultimately think the problem which Stephenson presents serious. It has a precedent in Xenophon. Isn’t a horse’s spirit comparable to that of a man? (cf. “Art of Horsemanship”) To elaborate a bit more, Anthony Masterson and I revisited Dickinson’s poem 361 yesterday:

What I can do — I will —
Though it be little as a Daffodil —
That I cannot — must be
Unknown to possibility —

Dickinson, on our reading, was playing a game of the following sort. She does so little, so little as a daffodil, that she cannot be possibly said to fail. Growth looks like the only way of truly accounting for her doing, but growth contains a dark irony of its own. The more one commits to saying “I’m growing” as opposed to “I’m doing something of note,” the more “cannot” must be “unknown to possibility.” In other words, when we think we’re growing, we as a matter of course discount failure.

So there is some kind of link between a natural growth, a natural spirit, and our pretensions. And that link causes us to act in ironic ways and see less even as we’re doing more or less. The weird thing about wanting self-knowledge is that there has to be a self that is knowable. How exactly one gets that self may not be the most pleasant, insightful, or meaningful process.

Emily Dickinson, “Whoever disenchants a single human soul” (1451)

Whoever disenchants a single human soul (1451)
Emily Dickinson

Whoever disenchants
A single Human soul
By failure of irreverence
Is guilty of the whole.

As guileless as a Bird
As graphic as a star
Till the suggestion sinister
Things are not what they are —

Comment:

I’ve been dealing with a lot of people who might as well be gurus recently. I know, pot-kettle, but still – this gets annoying fast. There was the crazy lady who thought that corporations can screw us however they want (true, but…), and therefore people are moving from the U.S. to Russia all the time, as there’s more equality and opportunity there (um). I used up my “getting into a really stupid argument” card on her because I was moody. Then there’s a number of people giving me practical advice, 99% of whom are absolute gems. I am doing whatever they say pretty much without question, because I’m grateful for the support and the concern. However, a few are thinking that success must result, and the proof I did things wrong is a lack of success. Again, I’m not sure how in a world where great civilizations rise and fall, where saints are martyred, where the best people can die before they’re even born – I’m not sure how success is the metric for things done right. And I’m not sure how an obsession over certain details creates success. I guess America is the land where everyone is a self-help guru, whether they know it or not.

And then there’s something else I’m dealing with. Almost ready to go is an essay on lack of acknowledgement, because I’m wondering why it hits like a truck. People who don’t want to deal with you are the ultimate gurus: they teach you your place.

This poem got me to crack a smile. I don’t know why it’s felt rough the last week or so, but it has felt rough. Still, I can acknowledge being guilty of the sin of the first stanza. I’ve got my vision of the “whole” and I take it too seriously (“failure of irreverence”). I don’t think I’ve pushed so far as to disenchant someone, i.e. turn them away from wonder, or just a lighter approach to life. Some of the best people I know are receptive to intellectual things because they’re trying to lead graceful lives. They’re too good to take me seriously.

On that note, it’s really amazing how far a little cheerfulness, a little reaching out to someone, a little of pretending life makes sense goes in that direction. I don’t want to say a good thinker can’t be serious or moody or cheerless. Sometimes truth is hard, sometimes we have to deal with awful situations. But I can’t say there’s absolutely no link between how one approaches knowledge and one’s character or attitude.

It’s that link which provokes some people, including myself, to “failure of irreverence.” The link is sketchy, but that doesn’t stop some people from thinking that there are intellectual failures which are the worst sins, or that there is a thought or series of thoughts which produce a virtuous life. I remarked to Nathaniel how right he was about Xenophon’s insistence that knowing something is not the same as doing it. We like to say that if you really know, you’ll do it, but that’s crazy for the most part (though: it implies a heroism where one can be as good as one’s word). I think we agree that Xenophon insists knowing isn’t the same as doing with regard to virtue precisely to guard against the notion that there is some perfect thought alone which makes us perfectly whole, or variants of that.

Instead of placing all the weight on the unity of our understanding, we must turn to experience, the practice of living. Dickinson’s poem, after condemning one who may be “guilty of the whole,” starts describing someone. Is that someone “disenchanted,” a victim of a dogmatic accounting? Or is that someone the disenchanter? Either way, here’s the description:

As guileless as a Bird
As graphic as a star
Till the suggestion sinister
Things are not what they are —

This can easily describe the “disenchanted soul.” Presumably they were naive, “guileless.” They stood out like a star, determined by position. And for them, yes, “things are not what they are” is not life, like it is for most of us, but a “sinister” suggestion, that they have to rollback a lot of dogma they bought into.

But this could grammatically link with “whoever,” the disenchanter. He too is guileless, but agile and soaring above. “As graphic as a star” is a spectacular comparison. Not merely standing out, not just determined by position, but a power which demonstrates the laws of the cosmos. Removed from humanity, but with purpose writ large. What could possibly be the suggestion sinister for such a one?

It can’t be that he starts waking up and seeing the world as is. That’s not how powerful cognitive biases work, and truth be told, we’re all dogmatic to a degree. Seeing the world as it actually is would require us to be God. Perhaps Dickinson plays with a sly and wishful humanism here. “Things are not what they are” is a dramatic climax. Birds don’t consistently recognize human beings, and stars of course never do. To realize you’ve been treating other people as things, if not objects, would indeed be quite an awakening. And yes, from my vantage, wishful thinking.

William Carlos Williams, “This Is Just To Say”

With thanks to Michael Tinawi. For Emory Rowland.

This Is Just To Say (from poets.org)
William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Comment:

At least twice people I’ve known have sat around making fun of this poem at length. This poem was their excuse for avoiding poetry entirely. Quite honestly, given some of the attitudes displayed, I think poetry won by not having their readership. I wasn’t a sharp enough reader myself to defend this poem, but knowing how capable Williams is – “Complete Destruction” stands out for me – I knew I’d be returning to this someday.

A good way of approaching any given poem is through reconstruction of the drama. “This Is Just To Say,” the title, implies that something more important hasn’t been said. The poem itself seems trivial, as the speaker apologizes for eating some plums in an icebox. A few details stand out, though. “I” in the first stanza is strictly separated from “you” in the second. The plums were eaten before breakfast, as if the speaker left before joining a breakfast he and the addressee should have had. The speaker pathetically begs forgiveness; “saving” and “Forgive me” give what is probably a goodbye note solemn, nearly religious overtones.

One can say all of this is a stretch. But like Jim Gordon says in TDKR, “You’re a detective – you’re not allowed to believe in coincidences.” Good poems make every syllable count. Knowing that, we should not be afraid to explore themes and symbols. The plums are described sensually, and “delicious,” “sweet,” and “cold” might describe the progress and demise of an intense but superficial relationship. I wonder if Williams meant for us to see this poem as laughable. Tragedy doesn’t occur in obvious, easy to digest ways. Watching your life fall apart isn’t something anyone else sees but you.

Emily Dickinson, “Your thoughts don’t have words every day” (1452)

Thanks to Adam Cooper – would not have seen this otherwise

Your thoughts don’t have words every day (1452)
Emily Dickinson

Your thoughts don’t have words every day
They come a single time
Like signal esoteric sips
Of the communion Wine
Which while you taste so native seems
So easy so to be
You cannot comprehend its price
Nor its infrequency

Comment:

“Your thoughts don’t have words every day” lends itself to two readings because of the very next sentence, “They come a single time.” What comes a single time? Thoughts which have words accompanying them? A plausible reading, as it initially seems rare thoughts so easily find appropriate words.

Thoughts with precise wording are “like signal esoteric sips of the communion wine.” They are singular but holding something secretive. Divine, they do not stay external to us. Brought inside, they make another manifest. It is like truly hearing the Word. One’s life can be transformed in an instant.

All is well and good, no? Thoughts with words are rare but beautiful occurrences, if not only one occurrence. They feel “native,” making life “so easy so to be.” The “price” and “infrequency” of such an experience should be self-evident.

Yet Dickinson’s speaker insists that it is not self-evident. It is, in fact, beyond our comprehension. Thoughts which have the right words may contain a mystery, but are a still larger mystery themselves. They may point to the price of revelation. To be blessed with an immediately useable thought is a divine burden; one’s life finds itself subject to it.

However, the question on my mind: are immediately articulated thoughts actually a product of thinking?

Let’s start over again. This time, “your thoughts don’t have words every day” refers to that which is not yet or can’t be properly spoken. Maybe there are inchoate thoughts, more intuition and emotion than proposition. Maybe there are thoughts, on the other end of the spectrum, which are fully formed, transcending us, leaving us with only partial comprehension. Either way, such thoughts fuel something eventually more articulate, and the interesting thing is their singularity prior to our verbiage. Most days we have too many words in our head. To really think, to struggle with thinking, is unique. Given the emphasis on this happening once, I wonder if Dickinson is speaking of thinking itself as rebirth.

On my second reading, the poem stays radical. “Like signal esoteric sips / Of the communion Wine” – before, thoughts had words and the only problem was within the words. Now the problem is that of the self. We are talking about thoughts which stand on their own, prior or beyond words. To “sip” of them, to be in communion with them, is to try to ingest the self to understand it. It’s a grotesque image, but not coincidentally the problem of self-knowledge. You try to know yourself and all you get are images of yourself, images that might be best realized in other people. It looks like, on this reading, the overtones of divinity are emblematic of a power beyond us, within us, and not at all purposive. If anything, we’re pulling ourselves apart in different directions.

How does this feel “native,” though? How could it be “so easy so to be?” I don’t think we have to throw this reading out because there isn’t enough of a struggle on the speaker’s part. Nor do we have to say, in the tritest of fashions, that some struggles are perfectly natural.  Rather, the emphasis falls to “while you taste” – our deepest struggle is, for a time, like a drug. Contemplating images of yourself could lend itself to thinking you relate to everybody when you really relate to nobody. The feeling of having a serious thought apart from speaking is not characteristic of true thinking. One does have to assert oneself and face the consequences of that self-assertion.

Whether we speak of thoughts that find articulation immediately or thoughts which stand apart from speech, there is a price and rarity attached to both. That price and rarity is beyond our comprehension either because of revelation, or because our truest thinking exists in a vacuum where it cannot properly be called thinking. I should go further at this point and say this: Dickinson is not really talking about God with “communion wine.” She simply means the instances where we think we’ve had our “Eureka!” moment, where we can explain ourselves perfectly. With that in mind, the problem of “revelation” should actually merge with that of pre-verbal thinking.

Something I’m playing with: you can’t merge the problem of speaking properly (i.e. “I know how we can always be articulate and truthful”) with the problem of thinking prior to speech (i.e. “I have a theory about how we form our thoughts and how they come to be spoken”). United, we’re talking about human reason. It looks like there should be merger: reason can articulate things! Thinking happens, and it makes itself manifest in speech! – That’s about all the unity one can get. The obstacle to any greater unity is that thoughts don’t have words every day. What they are in essence is unclear, and thus they have a radical character in our everyday lives. They’re almost not of this world. -

Paul Celan, “I hear the axe has flowered”

I hear the axe has flowered (from Guernica)
Paul Celan (tr. Ian Fairley)

I hear the axe has flowered,
I hear the place can’t be named,
I hear the bread that looks on him
heals the hanged man,
the bread his wife baked him,
I hear they call life
the only refuge.

Comment:

Why am I bringing this bleak little poem forth? It gives two images which almost sound surreal, a flowering axe and bread that looks upon a hanged man. The more one thinks about them, though, the more they make a grim sense.

“Axe has flowered” is the easier image to decipher. Along with “the place can’t be named,” it refers to how the injustices we commit against the Earth and each other, including the killing of millions, wash away with time. Actually, it’s worse than that. If the axe is an executioner’s tool, then it can refer to even our justice washing away with time, too. This is Providence of a kind, weirdly enough. Perhaps we’ve messed up human history such that we don’t have anything substantial to bequeath. Maybe we should be put gently aside, as opposed to flooded away.

Four times in the poem we are told “I hear.” How the speaker hears anything is an open question. This must be hearing in the sense of rumor, as flowering makes no sound and “the place” cannot be named. Ultimately, that means the lack of hearing is hearing. “I hear the bread that looks on him heals the hanged man, the bread his wife baked him.” There are overtones of Holy Communion in the love constituting the bread. But the bread merely “looks” on the hanged man; it does not feed him and stays separate. How it heals is most strange, as we do not hear that the man resurrects.

The bread is remembrance; the past is heard. The hanged man is whole and healed in the past. But the past is just as much forgetting as it is remembrance. The problem of the flowering axe and places that can’t be named remains. Just or unjust, remembered or not, it doesn’t seem to matter. What stands out from the bread looking at the hanged man is a third dualism, distance and lack of distance. On the one hand, that bread does not even touch the corpse points to how our memories are separate from the person or object remembered. On the other, the bread was given by a mourning lover.

Not remembrance, but the will to remembrance. That they call life the only refuge is both a truth and a half-truth. It’s a half-truth in the sense we go to the past, we try to make love define time. We struggle against the idea of life as the only refuge. And yet we’re here, doing what we can.

Seventh Reflection: Sappho, “I took my lyre and said”

For Torrey Livenick

I took my lyre and said
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

I took my lyre and said:

Come now, my heavenly
tortoise shell: become
a speaking instrument

Comment:

The Muse speaks, revealing herself a heavenly beauty that dazzles and blinds us physically. She takes away seeing this world for the truth of this world. One’s mind’s eye receives a strength unknown to others.

Maybe that’s how poetry works, giving us great deeds and hearts. But maybe we also sing to ourselves without grand purpose. We could just want a soothing tune, the leisure to practice speaking ourselves. If that’s the case, such a desire is grounded, of the earth. We pray our thoughts and feelings into song, then collected speech.

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