The poet Mark Strand…

… has died.

Here’s Part One, and here’s Part Two, of a close reading UD did of his poem My Mother on an Evening in Late Summer.

Aloft, incumbent on the dusky air…

A Miltonist travels aboard El Al.
Cabin’d about with ultra-Orthodox,
With trembling men made mad by fear of God,
Men rampaging th’aisles in search of seats
Uninfected by the smells of women,
Th’English professor protects the seat
Beside him, which the flight crew had promised
Would remain unoccupied. A frenzied
Searcher after unpolluted places
Is now, alas, upon him, and he must
Assert his right to what has been promised.

“Fleeing the woman seated next to me,”
The searcher says, and gestures to sit down.

“Though short of my making a full-fledged scene,”
The Miltonist later recalls, battle
Did ensue, a most unseemly hubbub
Resolved when the crew found another seat
Equally purified of the She-Stain.


Justify the ways of God? Milton can.
But who can justify the ways of man?


My poetry MOOC just broke 8,000.

UD will offer a class on poetry, open to the public, at the Georgetown Branch…

… of the DC public library (3260 R Street NW) next March and April. It will meet on Sunday afternoons. Each week will be devoted to a close reading of a particular sort of poem. Here’s a rough outline:

week one: introductory remarks
week two: Romantic poem
week three: Victorian poem
week four: modernist poem
week five: postmodern poem
week six: comparisons, Romantic, Victorian, modernist, postmodern poems
week seven: concluding remarks

Details in a bit.

Aimez-Vous Brahms?

This post is an addendum to my recent post about the poet Galway Kinnell.

If you’re going to write a music-of-the-sphere and music-of-the-spheres poem, here’s a better way to do it than Kinnell’s. It’s by an old UD favorite, James Schuyler. I’ve gone to the trouble to make it a seasonally appropriate choice.

As always, I’ll interrupt the poem constantly with my commentary. Go here for the poem unmussed.



Under the French horns of a November afternoon [Just start in on the idea that sometimes, some seasons, earthly days introduce themselves so beautifully they seem positively symphonic. Say French horns to convey the high-style baroque rarity of these particular earth-tones. Don’t talk about how moved you are by the music of the globe, the way Kinnell does…. Nice assonance, too – all those ers.]
a man in blue is raking leaves [So this poem will be an extended bit of the poet’s consciousness as he gazes, in autumn, at an ordinary sight – a man in blue (overalls? jeans? in blue as in set beneath a brilliant blue sky?) raking. Like many imagistic poems, this one will follow the thoughts of a speaker as a particular image dominates and complicates his thought. Call it stream of consciousness or interior monologue if you’d like.]
with a wide wooden rake (whose teeth are pegs
or rather, dowels). Next door
boys play soccer: “You got to start
over!” sort of. [Sort of. Or rather. This is hip relaxed New York School verse – see also Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery – which will capture the vague immediacies of world-apprehension, the mind-ramble of a poet.] A round attic window
in a radiant gray house waits like a kettledrum. [The sun is obviously shining brightly – the gray of the house has been made radiant – so we can gather that the man in blue is certainly a man in a blue sky. The poet works his music of the sphere metaphor with the round window as a kettledrum awaiting its entry after the horns.]
“You got to start . . .” [Repeating this phrase, the poet conveys his continued musing over it. It has obviously attracted his attention and thought. Is he thinking of the earthly as well as human imperative to keep going? The seasonal renewing recurrences of the globe, and our own felt commitment, despite all setback and time-passage, to persisting and thriving?] The Brahmsian day
lapses from waltz to march. [So now he is gathering up his unattributed instrumental references into a particular composer. His mind has wandered – lapsed – from stray instrumental sounds to a specific instance of instrumental music: something by Brahms. And we’re picking up steam here as we go – from the slower waltz to the snappier march, early afternoon to full midday, as the poet sits and muses.] The grass,
rough-cropped as Bruno Walter’s hair, [The sweet, silly, random, way-charming feel of the New York School poem. Start with an absurdity but a truth – hanging around a residential street on a beautiful autumn day can make you so symphonically blissful that you’ll start hearing French horns – and then just keep going, push it deeper and deeper as your free mind and spirit play with those instruments and their associations.]
is stretched, strewn and humped beneath a sycamore
wide and high as an idea of heaven [I don’t think we’re in modernism anymore. Here’s TS Eliot that same day, a few hours later:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…]

[Oh – and Schuyler has in fact now gone directly to heaven – the immense and lovely sycamore puts him in mind of the vastness and loftiness of heaven – but he will cut off at the knees any impulse to get late Romantic about that (the music it prompts in the brain can be late Romantic, but the language the modern poet brings to the phenom will be modern).]

in which Brahms turns his face like a bearded thumb
and says, “There is something I must tell you!”
to Bruno Walter. “In the first movement
of my Second, think of it as a family
planning where to go next summer
in terms of other summers. A material ecstasy,
subdued, recollective.” [And this is how he will cut it off: He will conclude his poem with a fantasied exchanged between composer and conductor about Symphony 2, Movement 1. This is total adorable imaginative freedom on the part of the poet; the appeal and insight of this poem will not be poignantly, longingly, metaphysical – as in Kinnell – but rather it will reside in the hilariously alive play of a creative mind. Notice indeed how subversive of Romanticism Schuyler’s piece is: Brahms himself is eager to downplay the heavy-breathing significance of the movement, insisting to the conductor that he interpret it rather as expressing simple happy domesticity: a family planning a summer vacation: a material ecstasy. Bound, delightedly, to the earth.] Bruno Walter
in a funny jacket with a turned-up collar
says, “Let me sing it for you.”
He waves his hands and through the vocalese-shaped spaces
of naked elms he draws a copper beech
ignited with a few late leaves. [So, Brahms, you mean in this passage where you go lalala duhduhduh bahbahbah… Walter takes up his baton and waves his hands and sings it for us and creates a picture, the sort of picture the late romantic setting has conjured in the head of the poet… Sound, word, song, image, merge in this materially ecstatic synesthesia.] He bluely glazes
a rhododendron “a sea of leaves” against gold grass. [A magician, the conductor lifts his wand and sets the world late romantically alight, makes a poetic phrase of a rhododendron.]
There is a snapping from the brightwork
of parked and rolling cars.
There almost has to be a heaven! [The poet always brings us back to the immediate local reality: The polished metalwork of the cars on the street and at the curbs gives a gloss to the music/scene – the ordinary machinery of modern life also has its radiance to contribute to the earth-symphony.] so there could be
a place for Bruno Walter
who never needed the cry of a baton.
in a small, dusty, rather gritty, somewhat scratchy
Magnavox from which a forte
drops like a used Brillo Pad?
Frayed. But it’s hard to think of the sky as a thick glass floor
with thick-soled Viennese boots tromping about on it.
It’s a whole lot harder thinking of Brahms
in something soft, white, and flowing. [You can record Bruno/Brahms for the ages on your scratchy old Magnavox which by now creates a painfully rough sound. It might be authentic, but it doesn’t transport you. Material, yes, but too material, too thick-souled. On the other hand, it’s just as non-transporting to try to turn the composer and conductor into angels. We don’t do angels around here.]
“Life,” he cries (here, in the last movement),
“is something more than beer and skittles!” [Well, this is pure Schuyler. Of all modern poets, he seems to UD the one most committed to trying to express the sheer weird pulsating bliss of being alive. The crazy running around French horny finale in the Brahms is completely full of beans, after all.]
“And the something more
is a whole lot better than beer and skittles,”
says Bruno Walter,
darkly, under the sod. I don’t suppose it seems so dark
to a root. Who are these men in evening coats?
What are these thumps?
Where is Brahms?
And Bruno Walter?
Ensconced in resonant plump easy chairs
covered with scuffed brown leather
in a pungent autumn that blends leaf smoke
(sycamore, tobacco, other),
their nobility wound in a finale
like this calico cat
asleep, curled up in a breadbasket,
on a sideboard where the sun falls.

Galway Kinnell, a perfectly solid nature poet whose stuff…

… never highly turned UD on, has died. Let’s see what he could do at his best – here’s a lovely poem about death and ruination. As always, UD will mess the thing up with constant interruptions. To see the poem in pristine condition, go here.



All day under acrobat
Swallows [He’s noticing the gyrations the birds make as they fly.] I have sat, beside ruins
Of a plank house sunk to its windows
In burdock [PlanK, sunK, burdocK… with burdock picking up on “bird,” a word maybe floating in our heads with the swallows.] and raspberry canes, [This isn’t going to be “Tintern Abbey.” The setting is ordinary, an ordinary collapsed house in the country.]
The roof dropped, the foundation broken in,
Nothing left perfect but the axe-marks on the beams.

A paper in a cupboard talks about “Mugwumps”,
In a V-letter a farmboy in the Marines has “tasted battle…” [He’s going through old papers lying about – marks of the particular domestic history of the house.]
The apples are pure acid on the tangle of boughs [Great line. Everything in the setting is rotted, old, convoluted – even nature. Nice assonance (apples, acid, tangle), and wonderful meld of purity and rottenness and – I don’t know – Snow White? – in the phrase pure acid as he describes the years of untended growth around the house.]
The pasture has gone to popple and bush. [Great word: popple. It’s a way of saying aspen, but in this ruinous setting there are hints of topple, bobble (the aspen trembles).]
Here on this perch of ruins [Perch feels very close to porch – and on the porch of ruins sounds rather classical, giving a certain dignity and grandeur to the tone.]
I listen for the crunch of the porcupines. [Perch/crunch: these words are very close to one another; and porcupines keeps going the alliteration throughout on the letter P.]


Overhead the skull-hill rises [Skull Hill in Israel is said to be the place where Jesus was crucified, and with the next word in the poem (crossed) we have perhaps a deepening of a religious theme.]
Crossed on top by the stunted apple. [And of course the apple has us thinking about Eden.]
Infinitely beyond it, older than love or guilt,
Lie the stars ready to jump and sprinkle out of space. [This is where I find Kinnell to be a less than stellar, if you will, poet. Older than love or guilt comes out of nowhere and means too much and too little, in my humble opinion. Why broaden your poem out to these big concepts when you haven’t yet done much beyond beautifully describe a scene? I get the idea – we sublunary humans have our major life issues – love, guilt – but the stars are indifferent. As stated, it’s a trite observation.]

Every night under the millions of stars
An owl dies or a snake sloughs its skin, [Basically an extension of the we’re here and minute and transient and the stars are there and vast and permanent – but he’s also reminding us that his theme is ruin. Ruined houses, the ruination/transformation of animal lives.]
But what if a man feels the dark
Homesickness for the inconceivable realm? [But in contentment I still feel the need of some imperishable bliss, as the woman in Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” puts it. Snakes and owls don’t have this problem.]


Sometimes I see them,
The south-going Canada geese,
At evening, coming down
In pink light, over the pond, in great,
Loose, always dissolving V’s-
I go out into the field,
Amazed and moved, and listen
To the cold, lonely yelping
Of those tranced bodies in the sky,
Until I feel on the point
Of breaking to a sacred, bloodier speech. [See now if you ask UD there are far too many adjectives packed in here: south-going, pink, great, loose, dissolving, cold, lonely, tranced, sacred, bloodier. It’s just top-heavy and self-consciously pretty. Much too top-heavy for a description of birds in flight. With sacred the Biblical feel is sustained; but rather than saying he’s breaking into sacred speech, he should probably speak sacred speech.

Recall what Joseph Brodsky wrote:

What interests me is [Auden’s] symptomatic technique of description. He never gives you the real . . . ulcer . . . he talks about its symptoms, ya? He keeps his eye all the time on civilization, on the human condition. But he doesn’t give you the direct description of it, he gives you the oblique way. …[I]f you really want your poem to work, the usage of adjectives should be minimal; but you should stuff it as much as you can with nouns — even the verbs should suffer. If you cast over a poem a certain magic veil that removes adjectives and verbs, when you remove the veil the paper still should be dark with nouns.]


This morning I watched
Milton Norway’s sky blue Ford
Dragging its ass down the dirt road
On the other side of the valley. [Same deal as in other parts of the poem: Sharp moves from sacred to profane and back again. Reminder that we can be brought, by nature’s amazing and moving “speech,” to the verge of something higher, but that we’re basically pretty low.]

Later, off in the woods, I heard
A chainsaw agonizing across the top of some stump
A while ago the tracks of a little, snowy,
SAC bomber went crawling across heaven. [The gross violent noises and marks of the fallen earth – axe-marks on the beams, chainsaw agonizing, and bloodily enough a bomber – bring the poet out of his “tranced” perching on the ruins and back into reality.]

What of that little hairstreak
That was flopping and batting about
Deep in the goldenrod,
Did she not know, either, where she was going? [The poet flits about in confusion from scene to scene, like a fragile butterfly.]


Just now I had a funny sensation
As if some angel, or winged star,
Had been perched nearby watching, maybe speaking,
I whirled, and in the chokecherry bush
There was a twig just ceasing to tremble. [Again, for UD, too precious. Metaphysically vague but emotionally sentimental. A brief supernatural visitation? Not my thing. Too happyface.]

Now the bats come spelling the swallows, [Nice – after the early evening swallows the bats… Spelling is wonderful, as if the bats and the swallows had some sort of understanding about who would stand guard when. Spelling also puts us in mind of the poet himself, spelling out his words.]
In the smoking heap of old antiques
The porcupine-crackle starts up again,
The bone-saw, the pure music of our sphere,
And up there the old stars rustling and whispering. [He concludes by bringing physical and metaphysical together, having solved, thanks I guess to that trembling twig, the problem of his “homesickness.” In our ruined smoking heap of a world (bombed out by the SAC bomber), there is anyway always life again, always the crackle of the porcupine, the whine of the bone-saw (bone reminding us of our specifically human vulnerability.) Heard correctly, those homely crackles and whines and drag-ass Fords are the music of the spheres – or the sphere… our sphere, our sacred earth. All we can hear from the distant stars are rustles and whispers; here, we have the clear articulation of our home — our ruined, bombed out, “tasted battle,” ever renewed home.]

Carolyn Kizer, whose poetry UD has always found a little too “stated” —

… no, not too understated, and not too overstated… Just too stated, too much (like Robert Frost’s) assertively out there… Carolyn Kizer has died, and UD has as a result been reading through her poems with more attention than she’s ever before given them.

Here’s a good one, with a way sly rhyme scheme and a solid, not too stated, point of view. As always, UD will mess up the poem with her comments, so if you want to see it unmessed with, go here:


What the Bones Know 

[There are fundamental truths you know in your bones, not in your mind. There are truths of the body, not the soul; you learn these truths by having a body and enjoying it, as we’ll see as we read the poem.]

Remembering the past
And gloating at it now,

[In particular, remembering the great sex she had. See in this connection – since Yeats is prominently mentioned in this poem – a poem like his A Last Confession, number nine of the poems listed here.]

I know the frozen brow
And shaking sides of lust
Will dog me at my death
To catch my ghostly breath.

[She knows her body; she knows that even as she’s dying – especially as she’s dying? – she will feel sexual desire, because her commitment to life is so intense that she will fight its cessation by drawing upon whatever she has left in her of lust. The vital passions within her will try, in a last desperate effort, to “catch” her becoming-a-ghost breath before death stills it.]

I think that Yeats was right,
That lust and love are one.
The body of this night
May beggar me to death,
But we are not undone
Who love with all our breath.

[Note how cleverly Kizer will deploy her death/breath rhyme throughout the poem. This pair’s first appearance will be in tandem – one line after another. Their next appearance has them divided by one line – the line ending in undone.

Glance down to the two final stanzas. Death and breath are divided by two, and then three, lines. Breath gets the final word, and has therefore it seems gradually shooed death away, kept it at a greater and greater distance.

And note the argument here: Even if I die tonight, I’ll have lived a life in which I fully loved, and so I’ll enjoy a sort of immortality.]

I know that Proust was wrong,
His wheeze: love, to survive,
Needs jealousy, and death
And lust, to make it strong
Or goose it back alive.
Proust took away my breath.

[Boo Proust and all sex-in-the-head mentalists. Not only are they wrong that we’re twisted enervated creatures who need all sorts of perverse inducements to get it up and keep it up; they mess with our simple natural ins and outs. The poet breathes; Proust can only wheeze.]

The later Yeats was right
To think of sex and death
And nothing else. Why wait
Till we are turning old?
My thoughts are hot and cold.
I do not waste my breath.

[The heart of the argument lies here: My thoughts are hot and cold. Hot and cold. Sex and death. Frozen brow and shaking sides. Yeats didn’t want us to think of sex and death like the Proustian mentalists; he wanted us to be mindful of both always, unafraid of the realm of both always, running our passions full blast hot and cold. Here’s Yeats:

[T]hough it loved in misery
Close and cling so tight,
There’s not a bird of day that dare
Extinguish that delight.

The Georgetown Library has asked UD…

…to offer a poetry course next March through April, and she has happily accepted. Each session will be a close reading of an important poem. I’ll start with Romantic odes, then move on to Victorian, modern, and postmodern poetry. So there will be a dual focus: Changes in poetry from era to era, and intensive analysis of style and content.

As the date approaches, UD will announce details to any of her local readers that might be interested.

So, if you scroll about halfway down this Washington Post page…

… you get to the announcement of UD‘s talk on Charles Wright at the Georgetown branch of the DC Public Library this afternoon (1 PM, 3260 R St. NW).

Here’s how I suggest you do it on this beautiful Saturday:

The library is just down the street from the famous Dumbarton Oaks gardens, which open today at 2:00. So take in my talk, and then stroll over to the gardens.

Then I’ll let you have a late lunch of your choosing among the many cafes of Georgetown.

A Dearth of Replications

Th’ expense of paper in a wasteful game
Is just inaction; and, till repeated, work
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, full of murk;
Printed no sooner but distrusted straight,
Past reason shunted; and, no sooner read
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to keep researchers fed;
Vast in results; but replication? No,
Fed, feeding, and in quest to feed, extreme;
A bliss in proof; unproved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a scheme.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun submissions that lead men to this hell.

Philip Larkin, whose birthday is today, was in his own dry curious way a transcendentalist…

… He was a man always breaking disappointedly away from a realm whose human and material compensations were not merely inadequate but somehow personally humiliating to him. Many of his great poems follow the same emotional trajectory – creeping intimacy with another human being, or with a particular geographical location, and then a quick appalled exit. His eyes lifted, in poem after poem, from the blandishments of the social world, the seductions of other people and of the simple stuff of bounded, grounded, earthly life (marriage, children, travel, money…), to “sun-comprehending… high windows,” “long french windows,” “a strong / Unhindered moon,” “arrogant eternity.”

There was always a pane of glass that compelled him, a higher clearer region from whose vantage point sublunary life was

[F]athers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres …

That arrogant eternity was in part about Larkin’s version of artistic transcendence: His poetic vocation made him literally and figuratively immaterial – both indifferent to (contemptuous of) money (money lies about the purchasability of meaning and happiness), and happy to be anonymous, “unhindered” by a world that wanted to make him poet laureate (he turned down the offer). Religious transcendence, like money, was a lie, but unlike money it was a rather pretty one, in a shabby/chic way:

That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die.

And even a past-it church can impress:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.

Religion’s robe is tattered, but it’s still a robe.

His sense of his sordid life as transcended by his art served Larkin only for a few years; middle age, for him, meant the poetic grappling with the end of his poetic energy, so that the “brightness and the plain/ Far-reaching singleness” of the unhindered moon’s “wide stare” gradually became

a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young

His inability to maintain his “arrogant” social “singleness” gradually informs him that

Only the young can be alone freely.
The time is shorter now for company,
And sitting by a lamp more often brings
Not peace, but other things.
Beyond the light stand failure and remorse…

In place of his awareness of himself as an unassailable self-sufficient aesthetic self flying by the nets of marriage and children —

Why did [Dockery] think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution.


Something is pushing them
To the side
of their own lives.

— he now has a mind that “blanks at the glare” given off not by the high windows of eternity but by the frank and simple fear of crashing up against death:

[I]t stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.

The world more and more is a sort of menacing, automated, sepulcher:

[T]elephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.

It’s the same mood evoked in Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel:

A porter reads
An unsold evening paper. Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.

In shoeless corridors, the lights burn.

The phones ring, the lights burn, the world churns on. It has no need of us, and is for all its intricate workings uncaring. We after all are passing through – for us, it’s a rented world, a hotel world (the hotel offers “headed paper, made for writing home / (If home existed) letters of exile”) – and the world has its permanent work of worlding to do. That’s the true self-sufficiency – the world as such. The spinning top. Larkin was more than ordinarily aware of his own peripherality, his Kafkan alienation, his coming invisibility, his faint impress on a world about to white him out. He was remarkably generous with his curiosity, anxiety, and despair about his existential condition, and was even able to make this condition sing.

UD is proud to announce that her poetry MOOC…

… has broken 7,000.

A reminder: An updated and expanded version of one of her MOOC lectures will form the basis of her remarks at the DC Public Library, Georgetown branch, on Charles Wright, who’s the current poet laureate. Date, time: Saturday, September 13, at 1:00. Open to the public.

And here’s a description of the upcoming talk:

America’s newest poet laureate, Charles Wright, has said this about his new job: “”I will not be an activist laureate… I’ll probably stay here at home and think about things.” Unlike most of his predecessors, Wright has no particular social or political agenda. His poetry is contemplative; he seems to write most of it while gazing, at night, toward the hills around Charlottesville, Virginia (he’s a professor at the University of Virginia). And what he writes – in long broad American lines, like Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg – expresses the strange metaphysical place in which a lot of contemporary people find themselves, drawn toward belief in God and the meaning and consolation such belief offers a life; yet profoundly skeptical, profoundly bound by earthly life.

I’ll offer, along with general thoughts about Charles Wright and his place in American poetry and culture, a close reading of one of his most famous poems, Black Zodiac, among whose lines I find this one most illuminating, suggestive, and beautiful:

We go to our graves with secondary affections,
Second-hand satisfaction, half-souled,
star charts demagnetized.

“Everything’s fine here! How are you?”

“Well,” replied La Kid, “everything’s fine but I’m running around getting ready to go to the Galway Races. Can you call back tomorrow?”

La Kid‘s outing gives UD an excuse to feature this poem about the event, by Yeats.


Here where the course is,
Delight makes all of the one mind,
The riders upon the galloping horses,
The crowd that closes in behind:
We, too, had good attendance once,
Hearers and hearteners of the work;
Aye, horsemen for companions,
Before the merchant and the clerk
Breathed on the world with timid breath.
Sing on: somewhere at some new moon,
We’ll learn that sleeping is not death,
Hearing the whole earth change its tune,
Its flesh being wild, and it again
Crying aloud as the racecourse is,
And we find hearteners among men
That ride upon horses.

So of course it’s really a complaint; and not too far off from what ol’ UD‘s always on about – it’s easier to excite people with sports events than with poetry (or, to go to the subject of universities, with the thrill of thought about poetry, or thought about anything else worth thinking about). Commercialism and bureaucracy rule now, and you can’t expect timid clerks and merchants to get a charge out of being confronted with challenging aesthetics and metaphysics… But take heart! Although we live in an unpoetic world now, sleeping isn’t death – it’s a kind of preparation, a hibernation… Because the basic truths about human beings never change – our earthy flesh is wild, and ultimately in search of the unfettered “delight” of art as much as the delight of the races.


And here’s La Kid herself,


with her man Ed Fitzgerald,
at the races. It looks sunny!

UD will talk about America’s current poet laureate …

Charles Wright, at the DC Public Library, Georgetown branch, on Saturday September 13, at 1:00.

Father’s Day Fugue State

For Father’s Day, a UD favorite. D. Nurkse, much of whose poetry captures the life is but a dream problem… We so often sense that even (especially?) in the most important things we cannot (will not?) lift ourselves out of a perceptual, intellectual, emotional fog…

A lot of modern poetry seems located right there, in fact, in the thick of the fog, with the poetic voice sort of questioning itself about why it remains fogbound. Poetry, as they say, is the tunnel at the end of the light… But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— / It gives a lovely haze! If the haze is looked at with care. Paradox? Yes. We both protect ourselves from the truth, from the worst, by aestheticizing it (art heals, softens, shades), and at the same time, with the same aestheticizing gesture, expose ourselves to the truth, the worst.

Almost all art,’ [Ted] Hughes writes to American artist Leonard Baskin , ‘is an attempt by someone unusually badly hit (but almost everybody is badly hit), who is also unusually ill-equipped to defend themselves internally against the wound, to improvise some sort of modus vivendi… in other words, all art is trying to become an anaesthetic and at the same time a healing session.’ The artist is the person who because he is so much in need of anaesthetics – and is therefore tempted to trade in them – must also, ‘at the same time’ be able to resist them.

In “Introit & Fugue,” Nurkse enters (introit means entrance) into the ‘fugue state’ which is the defensive semi-awareness of the wound, and then lingers, looks, describes, the inside of the tunnel…

Introit & Fugue

After death, my father
practices meticulously
until the Bach is seamless,
spun glass in a dream,
you can no longer tell
where the modulations are,
or the pedal shifts
or the split fingerings . . .

if he rests
it’s to wind the metronome
or sip his cup of ice . . .

but who is the other old man
in the identical flannel gown,
head cocked, listening
ever more critically,
deeper in the empty room?

That interrogative that ends the thing, that question as to the identity of another old man in a room that’s actually empty, is quite typical of Nurkse, who among many foggy poets is for UD the most interestingly foggy. (I suppose for some readers Prufrock is the Frogmore of Fog, and UD certainly admires Prufrock, but there’s a lot to say about fog.) I wonder whether the other old man is the poet himself, the poet reckoning with himself both as his father’s son (indeed he has grown “identical” to him) and as an old man, as the thing his father became. The poet realizes, in this tableau, just how close he himself is to death (deeper in the empty room) even as he clings to life – life understood as the retention of our restless critical capacity, our lack of peaceful “seamlessness.” On this side, we still struggle; we are not at one with ourselves (split fingerings); in death, the poet’s father attains the delicate perfection of “spun glass,” the capacity to spin about with, and to draw coherence and continuity from, the madly note-studded Bach. On this side, we’re still in the light; on his side, the poet’s father is in the tunnel; and in a fugue state the poet follows him there, enters the empty room of the grave, where his father’s lifetime struggle with Bach (UD probably likes this poem because her own father struggled all his life with Bach) infinitely plays itself out.

So, this shows you what a really good poem can do. It can enter that weird glancing realm of knowing without realizing, seeing while refusing to see, cobbling dreams in order to prompt a scene you won’t script when you’re conscious.

We’re not allowed to forget that the poet’s father is dead. That spun glass becomes a creepy cup of ice in the second stanza… His father is on ice, no softening the matter here… But he’s after all engaged in a kind of counterpoint with his son – the fugue form featuring, usually, two musical voices in harmonic relationship with one another. And so this poem is the wound and the bow, the wound of age, loss, and mortality as well as the soothing lyric itself – the lyric not as vulgar “anaesthetic,” which the great poet resists, but as the honest evocation, the laying out for what it’s worth, of the agonizing, clarifying, transcending, dream tableau.

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