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.

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