More on Sylvia Plath’s “Berck Plage”

(Earlier posts here and here.)

The natural fatness of these lime leaves!—-
Pollarded green balls, the trees march to church.

The voice of the priest, in thin air,
Meets the corpse at the gate,

Addressing it, while the hills roll the notes of the dead bell;
A glitter of wheat and crude earth.

What is the name of that color?—-
Old blood of caked walls the sun heals,

Old blood of limb stumps, burnt hearts.
The widow with her black pocketbook and three daughters,

Necessary among the flowers,
Enfolds her lace like fine linen,

Not to be spread again.
While a sky, wormy with put-by smiles,

Passes cloud after cloud.

******************

Earlier, in her poem Berck Plage, Sylvia Plath described the ocean creep[ing] away, many-snaked, with a long hiss of distress. Now she looks up, and describes the sky, wormy with put-by smiles.

This is a world frozen in the act of becoming posthumous; on the beach we hear and see the recession of things – the sky holds faintly curved imprints of vanished smiles (the smiles of Cheshire Cat nurses who pretend to keep you alive and then vanish with a knowing smirk when you die), while the sea, oceanically insidious, is not worms but snakes, a hideous Medusa whose receding hiss hiss hiss whispers the sickening recurrence of life, suffering, and death.

The idea of futile recurrence is significantly softened in “Dover Beach,” where, standing on the coast across from Berck Plage,

you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery…

Here the sound is still tonal. It even has cadence. It’s about lyric sadness, not cold-blooded anguish. And we still own it – it hasn’t hardened into mythology yet. We share it with the ages, with Sophocles.

Matthew Arnold’s speaker looks behind him, into his hotel room, at his beloved; he turns and looks outside his window at a “fair” and “sweet” scene. Plath’s poem features not lovers but obscene exhibitionists stared at by an

onlooker, trembling,
Drawn like a long material

Through a still virulence…

The observer in Plath’s poem sees no beauty; she doesn’t even see any motion. Or if it’s motion, it’s worms moving on the bodies of the dead. It’s germs doing their slow work of undoing us – a still virulence – and all we can do is gape at the obscene semi-hidden desiccating procedure. That Cheshire cat is the grin of a skull, and the lovers, swallowed up by the sea, are becoming


white sea-crockery,
What cupped sighs, what salt in the throat….

UD is interested in beaches as poetic settings…

… and a few posts ago she began to look at Sylvia Plath’s Berck Plage, which places the poet on that broad strand beside “the sea… this great abeyance.”

Already, in this first line, you see and hear her genius, the way great and abeyance share the long A, and the way the word abeyance has bay in it… And as for its meaning: The poem will mourn and rage at the way we manage our hideous human fate by living always in abeyance, indeed by being drawn in particular to places like beaches because there our effort to put a damper on thoughts of our barely pulled together lives moving toward disintegration is eased. We go to the beach because at the tranquilizing seaside world we find a living objective correlative of our efforts to pacify ourselves, to infantilize ourselves out of fear of debility and death. It’s as if nature itself, beside the ocean, wants us to calm down and easefully lie to ourselves about our harsh fate.

Why is it so quiet, what are they hiding?
I have two legs, and I move smilingly..

A sandy damper kills the vibrations;
It stretches for miles, the shrunk voices

Waving and crutchless, half their old size.
The lines of the eye, scalded by these bald surfaces,

Boomerang like anchored elastics, hurting the owner.
Is it any wonder he puts on dark glasses?

What Philip Larkin, in an uncharacteristically upbeat poem, calls the miniature gaiety of seasides, is in Plath a sinister “hiding,” a mere front. What’s being hidden behind the soft small setting of the shore? The wearing of sunglasses there only underlines the hidden sinister aspect of a location where we’re lulled into lying about the suffering misshapen existence in which we’re actually stuck.

Yet at Berck Plage all we have to do is look up at the vast hospital complex fronting the strand to know our precise status:

On the balconies of the hotel, things are glittering.
Things, things—-

Tubular steel wheelchairs, aluminum crutches.
Such salt-sweetness. Why should I walk

Beyond the breakwater, spotty with barnacles?
I am not a nurse, white and attendant,

I am not a smile.

She’s looking not at hotels but at the hospitals of Berck, many of which specialize in traumatic physical injury. Jean-Dominique Bauby found himself in one of those buildings among “broken-winged birds, voiceless parrots, ravens of doom, who have made our nest in a dead-end corridor of the neurology department.” So at Berck Plath found her perfect coincidence: the ultimate sunlit palliative for our condition, and an immediately adjacent anguish.

**********************

To be continued.

Am about to go out to dinner with our crowd.

“Intertextuality” is the pretentious Lit Crit word for the dependency of texts upon other texts…

… for the way in which the meaning we’re deriving from reading any one particular text – a poem, a short story – has as much to do with the somehow related texts we’ve already read as it does with the text we’re right now taking in… We bring to the reading of any “new” work a lifetime of encounters with precursor works, and this readerly past is always in play in any readerly present. Literary experience, from this point of view, is personal pastiche, consciousness-patchwork, the piling up of language then onto language now, a remembrance of written things past.

And this is a marvelous thing, if you ask UD, because it’s not merely about the pleasure of feeling one’s reading become enriched over … well, over years of reading. (A similar sort of operation occurs with the act of re-reading.) It’s also – more intimately – about discovering one’s personal truths through intuiting one’s literary recurrences. By this I mean that if you live long enough and read long enough you notice yourself circling certain poems, novels, pieces of music (this doesn’t have to be just literary, obviously); and that if you think about your own recurrences you can sort of intuit important things about yourself.

UD‘s using weasel words (sort of intuit…) for the knowledge literature yields because she believes, along with James Merrill, that art is as much about a sort of saving oblivion, a tactical and beautiful evasion of life’s stark truths, as it is a vehicle of those truths. Iris Murdoch calls art “close dangerous play with unconscious forces.” Play, you see. We all know there’s something childish about the pretend business of stories and, well, plays… They aren’t reality; they’re fable and metaphor and wild and crazy imaginings… And yet of course as cultures and individuals we tend to derive our most serious understandings of reality from these unreal entertainments; and this is arguably because they give us these truths in the only form most of us can accept them. Make them too stark and we look away; aestheticize them and we’ll give them a look. We’ll maybe even (this is Aristotle, on catharsis) allow ourselves – vicariously – to undergo the ultimate emotions relative to human fate while we’re engrossed in a dramatic tragedy on stage…

It’s all push and pull, I mean to say. Art – our experience of art – enacts at once our embrace and our evasion of difficult truths. And indeed our personal intertextual history, our particular eccentric reading life, can tell us a great deal about what we’re personally up against, what we’re resisting by way of existential instruction. Our reading history can tell us about our peculiar internal cost/benefit economy, about the complicated ways in which each of us works to sustain energy and happiness throughout our lives.

So for instance whenever I’m at the beach I think about my peculiar defensive relationship to a particular poem – Berck-Plage, by Sylvia Plath. It’s been important to me over many years not to understand this poem, to find it an impervious verbal surface. Yet I keep circling it – or it keeps circling me… When I was writing, a few years ago, about The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I suddenly realized that its author, Jean-Dominique Bauby, encased in locked-in syndrome at a hospital on the French Atlantic coast, is gazing from its balconies at Berck-Plage. And then – odd coincidence – my friend and colleague Tom Mallon not only reviewed this book for the New York Times, but began by noticing the same Plath/Bauby intertextuality:

“This is the tongue of the dead man,” Sylvia Plath wrote in “Berck-Plage,” her poem set in a French hospital complex by the Channel coast. “How far he is now, his actions / Around him like livingroom furniture, like a decor.” A year and a half ago, following a catastrophic stroke and weeks of deep coma in that same hospital, Jean-Dominique Bauby gradually “surfaced” into a new existence as a victim of “locked-in syndrome,” mentally alert but deprived of movement and speech.

So… the poem insinuates itself, erodes my resistance, especially of course when I’m at the beach. It pressed itself upon me, an obscure intertext, when I read Bauby (I read him here, years ago, at Rehoboth Beach); and now it’s back again on a beautiful day on the Atlantic shore, and I’m listening to the YouTube I linked you to earlier in this post, of Plath, with her flat angry voice, reciting it.

The core problem, I suppose, is that this particular poem (I adore almost all of Plath’s poems) is insufficiently evasive; it is out there in the way of reality itself, and, really, who wants that? In “Berck-Plage” there’s nothing tempering Plath’s disgust and horror at our painful lives and our dreadful deaths; she simply contrasts the happy-making aspect of vacation beaches, the fully sunlit life, the smooth-limbed physical joy of children at the supreme play of beach play (On my morning beach walk today, I paused as a young boy streaked across the boardwalk in front of me on his way to the sand. BEACH! he shouted. BEACH!), with the disfigurement and debility that await us.

These children are after something, with hooks and cries,
And my heart too small to bandage their terrible faults.

We can do nothing for one another as our weak fallible selves devolve toward the end; we are all too small-hearted and afraid.

The scene shifts, in the poem, from the beach to a man’s deathbed. The poet looks at the dead man:

This is what it is to be complete. It is horrible.
Is he wearing pyjamas or an evening suit

Under the glued sheet from which his powdery beak
Rises so whitely unbuffeted?

They propped his jaw with a book until it stiffened
And folded his hands, that were shaking: goodbye, goodbye.

Now the washed sheets fly in the sun,
The pillow cases are sweetening.

He’ll be unstuck from the bed just as the lovers she’s seen at the beach “unstick themselves” after “obscene,” hidden sex. Once he’s gone he’s gone and it’s just a matter of resweetening his pillow cases for the next case.

They are flying off into nothing: remember us.
The empty benches of memory look over stones,

Marble facades with blue veins, and jelly-glassfuls of daffodils.
It is so beautiful up here: it is a stopping place.

“Berck-Plage” is a beautiful stopping place. Only one doesn’t want to stop.

An atypical, wonderful poem by Maya Angelou…

… who died today.

Awaking in New York

Curtains forcing their will
against the wind,
children sleep,
exchanging dreams with
seraphim. The city
drags itself awake on
subway straps; and
I, an alarm, awake as a
rumor of war,
lie stretching into dawn,
unasked and unheeded.

This small lyric lacks the florid, sentimental feel of a lot of her other work (prose, poetry, music). In its place there’s the held-back powerfully suggestive contents of an interesting consciousness. A consciousness coming to consciousness in the big city, feeling the drag of sleep against the imperative to wake, feeling the temptation not to get up and struggle, not to take up arms in life and try to fight your way to clarity, to fight against the world’s injustice. And feeling too the larger futility of being “unasked and unheeded” by a world of passive indifferent strap-hangers. Yet she will “force her will” on the world, will be the winds of change, a “rumor of war.” The line “lie stretching into dawn” is wonderful, especially the word “stretching,” implying as it does not just physically stretching as one awakes, but increasing in understanding.

The poem puts UD in mind of a famous Henry James statement:

Life is, in fact, a battle. Evil is insolent and strong: beauty enchanting but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally unhappy. But the world as it stands is no illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of a night; we wake up to it again for ever and ever; we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it.

My Faculty Project Poetry Course’s Enrollment…

…has hit 6,000! The course is free – take a look. Enroll.

If you want to look at a sample lecture, I’d recommend Lecture 11, Philip Larkin and W.H. Auden.

Tadeusz Różewicz, Polish Poet, Has Died.

Made numb and nihilistic by his bloody century, Różewicz was as tempted by silence as his great inspiration, Samuel Beckett.

Like Beckett, he relied on a set of vestigial but hardy lungs to cough out his art. He was like the drowning man in Dulce et Decorum Est: He plunged at you, guttering.

This would have to be anti-poetry, since beauty and meaning and compassion were lies, jokes, traps. So a lot of his poems are like this one, which is just an elaborate shield against the onslaught of verse, against the ever-present, degrading temptation toward higher things, toward – as with the philosopher’s stone – the possibility of transforming shit into diamonds.


philosopher’s stone

we need to put
this poem to sleep

before it starts
philosophizing
before it starts

fishing
for compliments

called to life
in a moment of forgetting

sensitive to words
glances
it looks to
a philosopher’s
stone for help
o passerby hasten your step
do not lift up the stone

there a blank verse
naked
turns
to ashes

********************

Puts one in mind of the Yeats lines:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

Yet Yeats spent all his years futzing with metaphysical solutions, while Różewicz was always Beckettian, always disgusted by life-blandishments. Poetry of his sort risks – as Beckett risked – redundancy, since the variety and intensity of simple natural life —

Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights…

— isn’t available. What’s available are the stripped hard edges of unredeemed actuality. As Jaroslaw Anders points out, Różewicz tried for a sort of Camusian humanism:

Rozewicz’s humanism, his attempt to find a counterbalance to pessimism in “commonplace feelings,” is often strained and unconvincing. It is clear that he does not really like his heroes, or his heroines, of gray existence. He seems to realize that “eat and give birth” is hardly a moral program. It is interesting to observe how Rozewicz tries to resolve the metaphysical implications of his pessimistic vision. In some poems, he seems to come close to nihilism. In “Unde malum?” he calls human existence a “work-related/accident/of nature/an error.”

His poetry is a principled archive of the phobic distrustful forms of being generated by atrocity.

Mother’s Day Poem #2, “Hypostasis & New Year,” by Peter Gizzi…

… is a stranger and more difficult poem than Moritz’s (see the post below this one), but it says similar things about mothers. Both poets go restlessly in search of reality, essence, the thing in itself, imperishable being — hypostasis. Moritz sees its traces in his inexplicable deathless adolescent journals; with the advent of a new year, Gizzi finds himself set on a similar search – for true foundations that might free him into a new bold authentic life.

But his first stanza notes his cowardice:

For why am I afraid to sing
the fundamental shape of awe
should I now begin to sing the silvered back of
the winter willow spear
the sparkling agate blue
would this blade and this sky free me to speak
intransitive lack –

Why is he afraid to be full-throated in his expression of the basic bliss of being? Could he use the blade, the spear, of the willow leaf to cut himself free from repression? Is it just a matter of launching his poem, his song, in praise of nature? If he trusts the poetry, will it lead him to the light?

Of what am I afraid
of what lies in back of me of day
these stars scattered as far as the I
what world and wherefore
will it shake free
why now in the mind of an afternoon is a daisy
for a while
flagrant and alive

Yeah well and if I do happen to gain access to the world of light, to essential being, what if it scares the shit out of me? “What world?” the poet quite reasonably asks. The mind has mountains, says Gerard Manley Hopkins, and it also has light years in it (“stars scattered as far as the I”), and maybe we don’t want to know our own capacities, our deepest and most distant possibilities. What will access to essences “shake free”?

For every icon of flagrant aliveness, there’s this:

Then what of night
of hours’ unpredicated bad luck and the rot
it clings to
fathomless on the far side in winter dark

Hey shadow world when a thing comes back
comes back unseen but felt and no longer itself
what then
what silver world mirrors tarnished lenses
what fortune what fate
and the forms not themselves but only itself the sky
by water and wind shaken
I am born in silvered dark

Maybe all I really evoke when I boldly gain access to awe is the felt disappearance of me from the world, my transformation from a living human form to a thing, an object. The forms not themselves but only itself. I am earthy material; for the moment life is breathed into me; but I am ultimately earthy material only. What I live in this life is not really light but dark occasionally “silvered” by shafts of light.

between the hypostatic scenes of breathing
and becoming the thing I see
are they not the same

You got your basic death anxiety here, babe; courage to poke into the truth is courage to reckon with your ultimate permanent thinginess.

So like Moritz Gizzi will spend the rest of the poem remarking upon the shabby unreadable enigma of the material world, a world whose (again post-industrial) rusting speaks of some once-vibrant, once-lofty world-infancy from which the poet has fallen away.

Things don’t look good on the street today
beside a tower in a rusting lot
one is a condition the other mystery
even this afternoon light so kind and nourishing
a towering absence vibrating air

The tower is an object, part of our conditioned, transitive (see his first stanza; he’s after the intransitive) world; our “rusting lot” (our fortune, our fate, is to rust) is an unconditional mystery, one particularly hard to fathom and tolerate given the flagrant and alive afternoon daisy, not to mention whatever invisible force is making the afternoon light so glorious. How can we handle this impossible duality?

Shake and I see pots from old shake
and I see cities anew
I see robes shake I see desert
I see the farthing in us all the ghost of day
the day inside night as tones decay
and border air
it is the old songs and the present wind I sing
and say I love the unknown sound in a word

Shake yourself into the truth and you see the truth: One’s own transient, insubstantial being, everyone’s brief afternoon (the farthing in us all the ghost of day). So okay, the poet will try to sing both: the old songs and the present wind; and meanwhile why not rest, as the Buddhists say, in the mystery? Why not – instead of restless hypostasis-seeking – find a way to love the unknown sound?

Okay, and finally la mama:

Mother where from did you leave me on the sleeve
of a dying word
of impish laughter in the midst my joy
I compel and confess open form
my cracked hinged picture doubled

I can’t remember now if I made a pact with the devil
when I was young
when I was high
on a sidewalk I hear “buy a sweatshirt?” and think
buy a shirt from the sweat of children
hell
I’m just taking a walk in the sun in a poem
and this sound
caught in the most recent coup

Somewhat querulous question, that. But anyway the target here would be the speaker’s mother, because she gave him life into this weird world of joy and dying, this place where the poet does indeed find the courage to confess, openly, his hopeless entanglement in blissful being and hideous anticipatory thinginess.

The specific, daily place where the poet’s truest consciousness resides is in a kind of lifelong auditory sensitivity to the way in which the tragic night-ghost-decay truth sidles – it’s a humane tolerable pun-like way – into the poet’s high-noon walk. (The hell of the sweat of children.)

Two Poems for Mother’s Day

I’ll start with the easier one. Home Again Home Again by A. F. Moritz describes a person at a comfortable remove from his mother (and father); they’ve become “unchanging,” part of a “long slow time.”

So father, mother, the small shabby town,
its patch of earth going on as though forever: you
forgot them there, where they’d been since you started out
and where you could find them again — as anyone
forgets what he has to lean on
so deeply and heavily that it wounds his side
and the pain seems only himself.

His life isn’t about them anymore; it’s about him. They exist only as the past he “lean[s] on / so deeply and heavily” that he feels it simply as his own present reality – “only himself.” He has accomplished a sort of full absorption of his parents into himself, so that they themselves, as flesh and blood people existing in a specific history, are forgotten.

He lives with this attitude toward them happily enough, until one day he wakes up feeling guilty, ungrateful, as though he’s crushed them in their human particularity for the sake of his own selfish being in the world. So he travels back to their old shabby town in an effort to remember them, to as it were reanimate them, give them their due.

The buildings had leaned still farther
toward the dusty weeds and crumbs of old machines
littered everywhere inexplicably. And now
who will explain them?

The scene is one of enigma and abandon, a ruined post-industrial landscape that can’t explain itself because no one who lived it is alive. People – his parents – had worked here, worked hard, for themselves and for their children. But the meaning of it all – the human motive of it – remains inexplicable.

And check the records:
what is written down says nothing.
The volumes all avoid the one question you have.
They’re like the notebooks you kept in adolescence:
you turn the endless pages and you wonder,
what did I know or feel, how did I live then,
what was this violence and love, this utter newness,
invention that could sing water and light, raging
at the first touch of dying, never mentioning death?
You went back and the bones of your native town
were like that, records from which something had escaped:
a skeletal mill that roofed ghostly technologies
where men once worked, coughed, burnt, bled.

History books don’t help, because they don’t tell you what you’ve come to find out, which is what our deepest, most alive, impulses mean. Returning to the town is like rereading your adolescent journals. In both cases, you just don’t get it. You see ruins of youth, so this means there must have been youth. You see skeletons, smudged marks, faded papers of youth and industry and intensity, now-dead locations where once a certain hyperactivity prevailed:

violence and love
invention that could sing water and light, raging
at the first touch of dying, never mentioning death

But what was this frenzy? What was its cause? Where did it go?

And that way they had permitted the long pageants
of the children. And their mothers — whose images,
vague, identical, stalk by in the nights,
each one sorrowing and serene, her starved, enamelled,
hard flesh torn, her dress the blue of late dusk,
the heaven behind her a work of flat blinding gold.

Well, they worked like dogs for their children, to permit their long pageants, their happy lives. Children who now, like the speaker of the poem (notice that his “you” gradually slides into “I”), find their dreams stalked by iconic sacrificing mother images – mothers who starved themselves into early deaths (blue of late dusk) in order to “work” a golden heaven for their children.

And that was the personally “inexplicable” vibrancy of the adolescent poet himself; it was a pageant purchased for him by the ghostly industry of his father and mother.

Poem #2 coming up.

So take two poems by Vijay Seshadri…

… who has won the poetry Pulitzer. Take “Bright Copper Kettles” and “Three Persons.” They’re both halting little dances to the music of time, or, if you like, rivulets of consciousness from a poet afloat in the present and at the same time darkly encroached upon, occasionally even flooded by, that old catastrophe.

His life will start to break apart eventually. Then he will die. He wouldn’t mind knowing something about that. He wouldn’t mind knowing more about his strange relationship to his condition of knowing something about that. So in the first poem, its title taken from the treacly Sound of Music song, his favorite thing is consort with the dead, since they know all and can enlighten him as to what awaits. They come to him in dreams, and

I like it so much I sleep all the time.
Moon by day and sun by night find me dispersed
deep in the dreams where they appear.
In fields of goldenrod, in the city of five pyramids,
before the empress with the melting face, under
the towering plane tree, they just show up.
“It’s all right,” they seem to say. “It always was.”

This is no night of living dead absurdity; they don’t menace him. Why would they?

They’re dead, you understand, they don’t exist. And, besides,
why would they care? They’re subatomic, horizontal. Think about it.
One of them shyly offers me a pencil.
The eyes under the eyelids dart faster and faster.
Through the intercom of the house where for so long there was no music,
the right Reverend Al Green is singing,
“I could never see tomorrow.
I was never told about the sorrow.”

The right Reverend has no fore-knowledge of life’s breaking apart and then the end of life; no dead people ever told him about it. The poet however has puzzled out a path to the dead, and they have broken the silence of his mind with the knowledge the Reverend lacks. The poet’s rapid eye movement as he dreams registers his excitement about what he is about to understand.

Yet the poem ends not with sage words from the dead, but with one of the dead shyly (earlier the poet has called the dead in his dreams “diffident” and “polite”) offering the poet a pencil. How to interpret the gesture? Perhaps something like this. Wake up! You’re horizontal all the time, just like us, because you’re so desperate to know what awaits. Death is … eh… I dunno… It’s another condition; like life. Both are all right – in the sense that both are, and there’s little point in acts of resistance. You, however, at the moment, write. You’re a poet. Allow me to be bold enough to suggest that you should just keep doing what you’ve been doing: Recording what it feels like to be a human being in the middle of your journey.

The second poem also ends with a pencil. Here the speaker fixates not on the dead dead, but the alive dead. He contrasts himself, a vital successful sort of person, with losers, slow people, people you leave behind when you make it. While you stride about organizing with an electric clipboard / your big push to tomorrow, you can’t avoid thinking about those you’ve left in your dust, people “coaxing” their “battered grocery cart[s] down the freeway meridian.” You see yourself, others see you, as a mythic, storied figure striding life like a colossus; but the loser has a special insight into the truth of you (and here the poem begins to merge with the one we just looked at; this is a poet drawn to has-beens because he knows that having-been is the ineluctable human truth, however we delude ourselves about that):

He doesn’t see you as a story, though.
He feels you as his atmosphere. When your sun shines,
he chortles. When your barometric pressure drops
and the thunderheads gather,
he huddles under the overpass and writes me long letters with
the stubby little pencils he steals from the public library.
He asks me to look out for you.

The prince and the pauper; the poet and… the poet. The loser turns out to be wielding the same pencil the winner’s got in his hand. Here’s his special knowledge; here’s why he’s worried about the poet’s welfare: They are equally vulnerable to the gathering thunderheads.

*************

UD would say that these poems are variations on Lear’s


Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel…

Encounters with the wretches, though, disclose something rather odd, and moving: He asks me to look out for you.

April: Hymn to Life

James Schuyler’s great, endless poem, “Hymn to Life,” is all about April, the way the world’s sudden sharp-edged surging back to life stirs us – but stirs us, says Schuyler, to this:

Life, I do not understand.

Stirred, shaken, clueless in the surge. But the poet in “Hymn to Life” endlessly registers – sings – the way the world looks, the surge of bliss inside him, the suffering that shadows it. Here is an excerpt.

 

Press your face into the
Wet April chill: a life mask. Attune yourself to what is happening
Now, the little wet things, like washing up the lunch dishes. Bubbles
Rise, rinse and it is done. Let the dishes air dry, the way
You let your hair after a shampoo. All evaporates, water, time, the
Happy moment and — harder to believe — the unhappy. Time on a bus,
That passes, and the night with its burthen and gift of dreams. That
Other life we live and need, filled with joys and terrors, threaded
By dailiness: where the wished for sometimes happens, or, just
Before waking tremulous hands undo buttons. Another day, the sun
Comes out from behind unbuttoned cloud underclothes — gray with use —
And bud scales litter the sidewalks.

********************

The poem speaks in the whispered self-prompting of the lyric; this is a consciousness urging itself toward clarity, regretting but forgiving its lack of clarity. Hyper-clarified April days bring on a sense of inner/outer paradox: the mind doesn’t understand the world that seems to press an obvious immediacy of understanding of the real right into the poet’s face. Any idiot could see the world and life for what they are! And so he urges himself on to take it, to press his face into not the death mask but the life mask that forms around his face as he braves the April chill. How can you be so dense and shadowed when it’s all over you, smack in your face, the life-blast? April is the ultimate come-on, and God forbid you’re like Eliot’s wasted man, calling it cruel because it fucks with some weird little ontological ice age you’ve got going. Be in tune with the living world and let things be without troubling them with your efforts to understand what life is. And don’t even try to understand your crazy dreams from “that other life” where you’ll wake up, dammit, just as “tremulous hands undo buttons.” So maybe your dreams won’t recompense you; but the clouds unbutton, leaving a world so lit up you can see “bud scales” all over the sidewalk. Not buds; the particular tiny scaly leaves that cling to the buds, protecting them as they slowly flower. That’s how precise the light lets your vision be; and that’s how intricate and intense the world’s effort is to nurture and replicate itself into full bloom.

 

***************************

The trees leaf out and bloom. You
Suddenly sense: you don’t know what. An exhilaration that revives
Old views and surges of energy or the pure pleasure of
Simply looking…

But these burgeoning days are
Not like any others. Promise is a part of it, promise of warmth
And vegetative growth. “Wheel me out into the sun, Sonny,
These old bones that creak need it.” And the gardener does not
Come back: over the winter he had a heart attack, has to take it
Easy. You see death shadowed out in another’s life. The threat
Is always there, even in balmy April sunshine. So what
If it is hard to believe in? Stopping in the city while the light
Is red, to think that all who stop with you too must stop, and
Yet it is not less individual a fate for all that. “When I
was born, death kissed me. I kissed it back.” Meantime, there
Is bridge, and solitaire, and phone calls and a door slams, someone
Goes out into the April sun to take a spin as far as the
Grocer’s, to shop, and then come back. In the fullness of time,
Let me hand you an empty cup, coffee stained. Or a small glass
Of spirits: “Here’s your ounce of whisky for today.”

… Life, I do not understand.

Longtime readers know that UD likes tracking down uses of ‘April is the cruelest month’ in the popular press.

Here are a few that have appeared in the last couple of weeks.

“April is the cruelest month,” the poet T.S. Eliot famously wrote. Could it be he suffered from allergies?

April is the cruelest month, as they say, and you can expect problems to ensue when Microsoft is expected to cease supporting the nearly 20-year-old operating system.

It was T.S. Eliot who said “April is the cruelest month.” But then, he probably never got a tax refund.

TS Eliot thought April the cruelest month, though it is possible the American-born poet had never heard of squeaky-bum time, which this season seems set to take place in March. At least that is true at the top of the Premier League, where Chelsea and Tottenham reach 30 games at the weekend.

“All poems are elegies at their core, she often said.”

That’s from the New York Times obituary for Maxine Kumin, who died last month. And here you’ve got – at least from where I’m sitting – your basic glorious early spring evening, the sun casting a green glance back at the deer paths in the garden, and the look couldn’t be less elegaic. But give it to a poet – give an evening like this to a great poet – and there’s likely to be elegy at the core.

Babette Deutsch said Delmore Schwartz was “haunted by the noise time makes,” and time makes quite a rumpus in transitional seasons.

Perhaps no poet of his period so skillfully depicted the threat of change in humankind and what he termed “the wound of consciousness.”

So here, in “Calmly We Walk Through this April’s Day,” he strides through the present – a spring present – tormented by the future. Outwardly calm with his lover along the streets of New York City —

Metropolitan poetry here and there,
In the park sit pauper and rentier,
The screaming children, the motor-car
Fugitive about us, running away…

— he could almost be Frank O’Hara, except for that “fugitive,” a word, early in the poem, suggesting a world of time “running away” from him even as he tries to capture it. The year, he reminds himself, is 1937, and this is a poem of numbers – how long people lived before they died; how long it’s been since people died. So there’s a fine bumping springlike world out there and he’s walking in it, but his mind, his wounded consciousness, is altogether elsewhere, in being-toward-death. His parentheses alone at first carry the morbidity, the thoughts that torment him. Gradually, though, these thoughts escape the brackets and spill out onto the April street:

(This is the school in which we learn …)
What is the self amid this blaze?
What am I now that I was then
Which I shall suffer and act again,
The theodicy I wrote in my high school days
Restored all life from infancy,
The children shouting are bright as they run
(This is the school in which they learn …)
Ravished entirely in their passing play!
(… that time is the fire in which they burn.)

My early naive schooling had me a theodicist, finding a transcendence that eluded the blaze in which time burns the self. Now when I look at children I see them as heedlessly brief, entirely engrossed in play even as time’s flame heightens around them.

His final stanza:

Each minute bursts in the burning room,
The great globe reels in the solar fire,
Spinning the trivial and unique away.
(How all things flash! How all things flare!)
What am I now that I was then?
May memory restore again and again
The smallest color of the smallest day:
Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.

He can’t believe it; he can’t understand it… It’s so bizarre that he has to perish, and that every voluptuous New York City April moment is really a tutorial in believing it. The more intensely life flashes, the more intensely that flash shows itself to be the fire in which we burn. So he ends with a faint prayer that as long as he subsists he may do so with a restorative memory at least able to retain the reality of his having been, his having had a past.

So much the same sort of language appears in poems that describe, like Schwartz’s, moments of intense beauty, of emotional intensity, shared between two people. In Louis MacNeice’s The Sunlight on the Garden, things don’t flame; they freeze. The sunlight fails.

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Same elegy at the heart of intensest being; same intrusion of despair into joy. MacNeice is more stoical, more tight-lipped, than Schwartz, but it’s the same being-toward-death he’s sharing with his companion. We cannot stop the mortal process.

The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

Ted Hughes’s September teases us at the beginning with a passionate love that maybe does suspend time and the awful reckoning with fire or ice.

We sit late, watching the dark slowly unfold:
No clock counts this.
When kisses are repeated and the arms hold
There is no telling where time is.

It is midsummer: the leaves hang big and still:
Behind the eye a star,
Under the silk of the wrist a sea, tell
Time is nowhere.

In our own heedless bliss, the dark comes on “slowly,” and indeed “there is no telling where time is.” Infinity lies within us: behind the eye a star / under the silk of the wrist a sea. Time is nowhere. Great!

But now the long embrace is over; they stand up.

We stand; leaves have not timed the summer.
No clock now needs
Tell we have only what we remember:
Minutes uproaring with our heads

Like an unfortunate King’s and his Queen’s
When the senseless mob rules;
And quietly the trees casting their crowns
Into the pools.

Pretty ugly, that. Not just some abstract flame or frost, but a double beheading, a vicious wiping out of what’s going on in their excited skulls right now. They are making memories, and they know it; each minute kissing and embracing and watching the slow dark is a minute retained in memory… This/that marvelous evening… Remember that marvelous evening? It’s the same memory for which Schwartz prays at the end of his poem. It’s all we have.

Nature of course couldn’t care less – the trees will quietly, efficiently, as they have forever, cast off these two.

4,999 Students in UD’s Poetry MOOC…

… which, if I’m not mistaken, is one short of 5,000. The number continues to grow at a healthy pace, and UD is thrilled.

If you’ve found any of UD‘s posts on poetry – of poetry – of interest, you’ll find at the link a systematic presentation of her take on the form.

Carting it Away at Bainbridge State

Higgledy piggledy
Natalie Higley’s
Wanted for theft
Of unusual things.

Hand saws and tractors and
Lumber extraneous…
And they’ve charged her with RICO
‘Cause she worked in a ring.

(UD thanks polisciprof.)

A Valentine’s Day Poem About Iris Murdoch’s Love for Raymond Queneau.

(UD wrote and posted this poem a few years ago. She thought she’d re-post it.)

*********************************

THE ABSOLUTE

“Listen – I love you in the most absolute sense possible.”
Iris Murdoch, letter to Raymond Queneau, 1952.

Listen! Of all the senses of love, the most absolute
Is this one, where I’m young and you’re older, married,
And we drift through cities foreign to us both,
Cities still ruined, and speak French,
And stand on bridges trembling over foul water.

The most absolute sense possible of love – listen –
Is this one. A charming ex-surrealist.
Une fille épatante.
They climb the hills near
Innsbruck and talk about his psychoanalysis.
Irishwoman. A little bun. She loves Kierkegaard.

In the most absolute sense, listen, I love you.
Others can listen in after we’re dead and
Figure out what that means. Read all about it.
Letters journals novels memoirs.
Somewhere I say you have a very beautiful head.

I love you in the most absolute sense possible.
Are you listening? My heart, beating on a bridge
In Austria, and among all the questions in my head
This one is absolutely answered. I would do anything
For you… Come to you at any time or place…

After you die, I affect a calm farewell:
He was a natural, absolute philosopher -
Some statement of the sort was expected of me.
But listen. In the most absolute sense possible,
Love pulses and pulses and pulses.

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