… 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.