… the real,” wrote Harold Brodkey, days before he died, in his memoir This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death. In Saul Bellow’s novel, Herzog, his main character desperately wants to

live in an inspired condition, to know truth, to be free, to love another, to consummate existence, to abide with death in clarity of consciousness – without which, racing and conniving to evade death, the spirit holds its breath and hopes to be immortal because it does not live …

And in his poem, Note to Reality, Tony Hoagland, who has died, says much the same thing as Bellow and Brodkey, though in the wandering pastiche of poetry:


Without even knowing it, I have
believed in you for a long time.

When I looked at my blood under a microscope
I could see truth multiplying over and over.

—Not police sirens, nor history books, not stage-three lymphoma
persuaded me

but your honeycombs and beetles; the dry blond fascicles of grass
thrust up above the January snow.
Your postcards of Picasso and Matisse,
from the museum series on European masters.

When my friend died on the way to the hospital
it was not his death that so amazed me

but that the driver of the cab
did not insist upon the fare.

Quotation marks: what should we put inside them?

Shall I say “I” “have been hurt” “by” “you,” you neglectful monster?

I speak now because experience has shown me
that my mind will never be clear for long.

I am more thick-skinned and male, more selfish, jealous, and afraid
than ever in my life.

“For my heart is tangled in thy nets;
my soul enmeshed in cataracts of time…”

The breeze so cool today, the sky smeared with bluish grays and whites.

The parade for the slain police officer
goes past the bakery

and the smell of fresh bread
makes the mourners salivate against their will.

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

Nothing concentrates the mind like life-threatening illness; or so you’d think, but like most of us the poet’s “mind will never be clear for long,” so he must “speak now,” when his mind clears enough for him to write a poem. He addresses a love/hate note directly to what UD has always, in her own private lingo, called Mama Reality, that thing Bellow and Brodkey yearn toward, dream of, want to wake themselves from their dream of, so they can enter “clarity of consciousness” and leave the half-life their fear of death has settled them into.

Having overcome, for the moment, his customary half-awareness, the poet now sees that he has long “believed in you” – or he has at least believed in those manifestations of Mama Reality that involve the sheer pulsating amorally-triumphant proliferation of nature: cancerous blood cells overcoming the immune system; high grass overcoming January snow. Not abstractions, or even loud alarms, but the particularity of beetles (dung beetles, featured in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, represent another natural force that feeds on death) and honeycombs “persuade” the poet that reality exists, that life is not sheer dream, evasion, longing. Life is mad, often sweet and beautiful, but uncertainly meaningful, proliferation, as in the honeycombs, or in the piles of postcards of their work that the prolific artist-bees Picasso and Matisse generate.

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

And now we shift to a little narrative, a little memory, still in the key of morbidity and uncertain meaning:

When my friend died on the way to the hospital
it was not his death that so amazed me

but that the driver of the cab
did not insist upon the fare.

I note for the record, Reality, that to be grounded in you is to be hopelessly grounded in life – so much so, that once he died my friend was instantly less real to me than an anonymous, gratuitous, cabbie. That gratuitous gesture – not insisting on the fare – is all of us blindly driving forward to the next event, veering right away from the face of death. So here the poet is back to thinking about our customary half-sleep, our mainly unclarified consciousness:

Quotation marks: what should we put inside them?

Shall I say “I” “have been hurt” “by” “you,” you neglectful monster?

Why have you abandoned me to unreality, to the distancing abstractions of quotation marks rather than the direct expression that, as Herzog says, would allow me “to know truth”? You’re monstrously guilty of neglecting my yearning to be close to you; and at this late date I’m terribly ill – terribly hurt by your amoral proliferating processes – and I’m therefore very angry with you.

“For my heart is tangled in thy nets;
my soul enmeshed in cataracts of time…”

Here is another quotation. The poet draws upon biblical? Romantic? poetic traditions in another form of complaint: I can make this pretty if you like, but the obdurate outraging fact is my powerless implication in your unaccountable story of killing proliferation.

And now we end with brief present-time (real-time?) orientation:

The breeze so cool today, the sky smeared with bluish grays and whites.

The parade for the slain police officer
goes past the bakery

and the smell of fresh bread
makes the mourners salivate against their will.

Well, smeared. ‘Fraid we’re not making much progress out of unclarity, though, as with our response to all those Picassos, we retain aesthetic – painterly – responsiveness to the world. The earlier police siren, alarming us to danger, is now the accomplished death of the police officer; and, as in the narrative of the cab, reality seems to be that thing that hastens us on to the next fresh event, even in the immediate face of death. Rather than mourning, the paraders salivate at the smell of fresh bread.

**********

It is an interesting question, you know – the extent to which our superior human consciousness can really lift us into a realm significantly higher than that of worker bees, enmeshed in cataracts and compelled – against our will – always to freshen and sweeten and proliferate our world until those compulsions turn morbid.

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7 Responses to ““[R]eality itself remains very dear. One wants glimpses of …”

  1. dmf Says:

    I took it that life doesn’t cohere, doesn’t stop (or even pause for long) until it does, one damned thing after another and all

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    dmf: Yes. Though we keep trying to make it cohere… And art is one of our best efforts.

  3. dmf Says:

    I can see that in some tho I’m fond of collage where the seams show and the perspectives are warped, paintings with clear brush marks, shows the handwork required if you will.
    http://www.dcmooregallery.com/artists/romare-bearden

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    dmf: These are great canvases: thanks for letting me know about this artist. And I share your taste – one of my favorite painters is R B Kitaj.

    https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/great-works/great-works-if-not-not-1975-6-1524cm-x-1524cm-r-b-kitaj-6291802.html

  5. dmf Says:

    great thanks didn’t know Kitaj but will definitely check out more of his work

  6. Bill R Says:

    If more English professors could or would write like that, maybe English wouldn’t be a dying major.

    It’s an idea, you know. Take a good piece of literature, explain the devices used, identify the salient parts and compare the treatment of the themes to the treatment in other works so the reader can understand and enjoy the original piece even more.

    It’s crazy but it just might work.

  7. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Bill R: Many thanks for that kind comment.

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