For a warm, musing, quiet time, a time when things slow down or stop, a poem by Stanley Kunitz, full of quiet musing. UD stops the poem when she feels like it, thinking aloud about its form and its meanings.
Some things I do not profess
to understand, perhaps
not wanting to, including
whatever it was they did
with you or you with them
that timeless summer day
when you stumbled out of the wood,
distracted, with your white blouse torn
and a bloodstain on your skirt.
[This is a wispy, thin-lined, first-person account – directed to a man’s lover – of a memory involving her that continues to baffle and unnerve him. The thinness of his poetic line, and his opening admission of his inadequacy, create a mood of lassitude, vagueness, half-thereness. The poem will be a narrative – the story of the lover’s abduction – but it will be told in the sketchy thin-lined manner of a man in fact defended against the story’s meanings.
We are in a fog, in short, of the sort one knows from Kafka stories, or from novels like The Good Soldier. It’s the condition – the pathology – of not knowing that interests writers like these.
That summer day on which the abduction took place was “timeless,” which is to say it has made on the speaker (and presumably his lover) a permanent mark; they both return to it again and again in memory and in desire. Timeless too in the sense that the events the poet is about to recount seem mythic, unreal, out of time altogether, some miraculous break in the fabric of time. Think here of that unnerving Australian film, Picnic at Hanging Rock which also features virginal women in white dresses “taken” by an alien force, taken out of time.
Here the lover returns from her abduction, spilled sexual blood on her whiteness…]
“Do you believe?” you asked.
[Do you believe the transformation that has happened to me? Do you love me enough to believe the bizarre tale I’m about to unfold? To believe my way of knowing/not knowing what has happened to transform me from white to red? To love is to enter into the deepest, most wounded, most obscure mental world of the loved one, as in this poem, by Stephen Spender. Or this one, by Richard Wilbur. Are you willing to do that?]
Between us, through the years,
we pieced enough together
to make the story real:
[This is love: That together you give life and even plausibility to… hell, you honor the particular myths, repetition compulsions, odd ways of making sense of one’s destiny, that the loved one has generated out of her experience, her imagination, her – to anticipate the end of this poem – rapture and dread.]
how you encountered on the path
a pack of sleek, grey hounds,
trailed by a dumbshow retinue
in leather shrouds; and how
you were led, through leafy ways,
into the presence of a royal stag,
flaming in his chestnut coat,
who kneeled on a swale of moss
before you; and how you were borne
aloft in triumph through the green,
stretched on his rack of budding horn,
till suddenly you found yourself alone
in a trampled clearing.
[So here’s the medieval myth itself, the way-weird account of her torn and bloodied self she offers the lover. The hunting dogs first appear, and then what sounds like flagellants, and they all lead her to a major stag who stretches her on his “budding horn.” Here is her dream of her triumphant sex, her initiation into the power (“kneeled… before you”) of her own body.]
That was a long time ago,
almost another age, but even now,
when I hold you in my arms,
I wonder where you are.
[Same thing Spender and Wilbur wonder, gazing at their lovers. If these men are going to get anywhere near where these women are, they will indeed have to “believe,” have to enter lovingly into the far country that is the soul of any other human being. The poet feels his inability/unwillingness to enter the deepest, strangest, sources of this woman’s being; yet, loving her, he wonders.]
Sometimes I wake to hear
the engines of the night thrumming
outside the east bay window
on the lawn spreading to the rose garden.
[There is a world inside the world, as Don DeLillo has Lee Harvey Oswald repeat to himself throughout Libra; there is that realm of power, of being, that thrums through our existence, a constant dark engine pulsing through us, making us and making our lives, generating our stories. You can be upbeat about this, and suggest that eventually we can have access to these deep sources of ourselves and even others:
… then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the Sea where it goes.
Or you can be far less upbeat:
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,
On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.]
You lie beside me in elegant repose,
a hint of transport hovering on your lips,
[A hint of transport hovering — always an allusion, in her repose, to that transformative mythic moment of transport which has nothing to do with her lover.]
indifferent to the harsh green flares
that swivel through the room,
searchlights controlled by unseen hands.
[Always, ecstatically, she returns to her primal triumph, and this in some sense protects her from the harsh temporal material world that seeks her out, seeks to awaken her to the end of power, eros, solace.]
Out there is a childhood country,
bleached faces peering in
with coals for eyes.
Our lives are spinning out
from world to world;
the shapes of things
are shifting in the wind.
What do we know
beyond the rapture and the dread?
[Outside their bedroom rages a world of monsters out of childhood; outside their haven of life intensified lies death (bleached faces… with coals for eyes), and even as she circles endlessly into her glorious scene of transformation, she – and he – are being otherwise transformed, spun out from the world of life into the world of death.
So this is where we are; this is all we know — the rapture of our death-defying embrace of existence, and the dread of our knowing/not wanting to know how this compulsively reiterated erotic fable will end.]