Corning in the Morning

From UD‘s hotel room, the sweet town of Corning New York awakens. She was an hour away from here last night, on the dark sky field at Cherry Springs State Park, gazing up at the starriest overhead she had ever seen. Just lying there in a glittering bowl of universe.

No cell phone service, so she couldn’t refer to her screen to identify constellations. She could only bathe in the stippled light. She loved the murmur of other pilgrims assembled around her as they adjusted their cameras and telescopes and shared their excitement with one another at the full unfolding of what’s always there. As for the stars, writes Joseph Brodsky, they are always on, and even though she just witnessed the massive violence of the universe bearing down always on the earth, UD will never be able to square all of that with the little sunlit town in her window, the calm of its yellow leaves and schoolbuses and steepled hills.

The Moody Blues

Joseph Brodsky, honored yesterday with a plaque in London, wondered, like Seamus Heaney, if the careful, vulnerable, reflective, poetic voice could make any difference in a cruel, violent, and possibly meaningless world. His poem “A Part of Speech” broods on past (his own past, in Russia), present (he’s now an émigré, finding himself at the moment in Munich), and future (“when ‘the future’ is uttered, swarms of mice / rush out of the Russian language and gnaw a piece / of ripened memory which is twice / as hole-ridden as real cheese” — which is to say that for the poet the very concept of a future is an absurdity).

This past/present/future suggests a temporally dynamic poem, but “A Part of Speech” is Oblomov in successive sonnets, a chronicle of immobilism:

As regards all that parallel-
line stuff, it’s turned out true and bone-clad, indeed.
Don’t want to get up now. And never did.

That immobilism suggests an answer to the question of poetry’s function: It doesn’t have one.

Or it doesn’t have much of a public function. Consciousness it can do a lot for. The reader’s and the poet’s:

A novel or a poem is not a monologue, but the conversation of a writer with a reader, a conversation, I repeat, that is very private, excluding all others – if you will, mutually misanthropic. And in the moment of this conversation a writer is equal to a reader, as well as the other way around, regardless of whether the writer is a great one or not. This equality is the equality of consciousness. It remains with a person for the rest of his life in the form of memory, foggy or distinct; and, sooner or later, appropriately or not, it conditions a person’s conduct. [A] novel or a poem is the product of mutual loneliness – of a writer or a reader… [V]erse writing [and reading] is an extraordinary accelerator of conscience, of thinking, of comprehending the universe…

From his perch in comfortable Western Europe, the poet recalls silent dead village life in the east, where the poetic voice is a whisper of speech, or not even that, between the sound of the waves, a

wan flat voice
that ripples between them like hair still moist,
if it ripples at all.

He recalls (in a beautiful line) “A nowhere winter evening with wine,” and then evokes all the emptiness of that earlier place (“wind battering the limp grass / that submits to it,” “Silvery hoarfrost has transformed the rattling bell / into crystal,” “rows and rows / of swamp in a pine-wooded territory where no scarecrows / ever stand in orchards,” “a tram rattles far off, as in days of yore, / but no one gets off at the stadium anymore.”). And then we get this marvelous stanza:

As for the stars, they are always on.
That is, one appears, then others adorn the inklike
sphere. That’s the best way from there to look upon
here: well after hours, blinking.
The sky looks better when they are off.
Though, with them, the conquest of space is quicker.
Provided you haven’t got to move
from the bare veranda and squeaking rocker.
As one spacecraft pilot has said, his face
half sunk in the shadow, it seems there is
no life anywhere, and a thoughtful gaze
can be rested on none of these.

So there we have, mid-poem, the possibility that it’s all nothingness, no life anywhere. At best a mere ripple of it here. Or as Brodsky once said to one of his memoirists: “You know in the end, none of it matters, what happens to you in your life. Not suffering. Not happiness or unhappiness. Not illness. Not prison. Nothing.”

But there’s more poem, so let’s see…

Well, there’s love:

A voice
pitches high, keeping words on a string of sense.
… The heart, however grown savage, still beats for two.
Every good boy deserves fingers to indicate
that beyond today there is always a static to-
morrow, like a subject’s shadowy predicate.

The voice of his lover trills with meaning, and however nihilistic the heart, it seems hardwired to exist in a world of mutuality – a mutuality that promises a future, however “static” that future in fact turns out to be.

And there’s poetry itself (“the pen that puts up these limping / awkward lines”), which can at least hear and record humanity’s voice:

On occasion the head combines
its existence with that of a hand, not to fetch more lines
but to cup an ear under the pouring slur
of their common voice

For after all

What gets left of a man amounts
to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.

The poet concludes that he is “tired of summer,” tired of the warmth of Munich, and drawn to memories of frozen villages. Echoing the famous first lines of The Waste Land, the poet finds that he prefers the nihilistically appropriate eastern winter to the annoyingly lifelike western summer:

If only winter were here for snow to smother
all these streets, these humans; but first, the blasted
green. I would sleep in my clothes or just pluck a borrowed
book, while what’s left of the year’s slack rhythm,
like a dog abandoning its blind owner,
crosses the road at the usual zebra.

And then he concludes the poem with a bracingly realistic definition of freedom:

Freedom
is when you forget the spelling of the tyrant’s name
and your mouth’s saliva is sweeter than Persian pie,
and though your brain is wrung tight as the horn of a ram
nothing drops from your pale-blue eye.

Freedom is nothing glorious and fine and uplifting and large; it is simply the gradual Oblomovlike forgetting of enslavement. It is the capacity to experience despair – as this poet is experiencing despair – without weeping. The capacity to bear the metaphysical weight of the world – east and west – without collapsing.

Galway Kinnell, a perfectly solid nature poet whose stuff…

… never highly turned UD on, has died. Let’s see what he could do at his best – here’s a lovely poem about death and ruination. As always, UD will mess the thing up with constant interruptions. To see the poem in pristine condition, go here.

RUINS UNDER THE STARS

1

All day under acrobat
Swallows [He’s noticing the gyrations the birds make as they fly.] I have sat, beside ruins
Of a plank house sunk to its windows
In burdock [PlanK, sunK, burdocK… with burdock picking up on “bird,” a word maybe floating in our heads with the swallows.] and raspberry canes, [This isn’t going to be “Tintern Abbey.” The setting is ordinary, an ordinary collapsed house in the country.]
The roof dropped, the foundation broken in,
Nothing left perfect but the axe-marks on the beams.

A paper in a cupboard talks about “Mugwumps”,
In a V-letter a farmboy in the Marines has “tasted battle…” [He’s going through old papers lying about – marks of the particular domestic history of the house.]
The apples are pure acid on the tangle of boughs [Great line. Everything in the setting is rotted, old, convoluted – even nature. Nice assonance (apples, acid, tangle), and wonderful meld of purity and rottenness and – I don’t know – Snow White? – in the phrase pure acid as he describes the years of untended growth around the house.]
The pasture has gone to popple and bush. [Great word: popple. It’s a way of saying aspen, but in this ruinous setting there are hints of topple, bobble (the aspen trembles).]
Here on this perch of ruins [Perch feels very close to porch – and on the porch of ruins sounds rather classical, giving a certain dignity and grandeur to the tone.]
I listen for the crunch of the porcupines. [Perch/crunch: these words are very close to one another; and porcupines keeps going the alliteration throughout on the letter P.]

2

Overhead the skull-hill rises [Skull Hill in Israel is said to be the place where Jesus was crucified, and with the next word in the poem (crossed) we have perhaps a deepening of a religious theme.]
Crossed on top by the stunted apple. [And of course the apple has us thinking about Eden.]
Infinitely beyond it, older than love or guilt,
Lie the stars ready to jump and sprinkle out of space. [This is where I find Kinnell to be a less than stellar, if you will, poet. Older than love or guilt comes out of nowhere and means too much and too little, in my humble opinion. Why broaden your poem out to these big concepts when you haven’t yet done much beyond beautifully describe a scene? I get the idea – we sublunary humans have our major life issues – love, guilt – but the stars are indifferent. As stated, it’s a trite observation.]

Every night under the millions of stars
An owl dies or a snake sloughs its skin, [Basically an extension of the we’re here and minute and transient and the stars are there and vast and permanent – but he’s also reminding us that his theme is ruin. Ruined houses, the ruination/transformation of animal lives.]
But what if a man feels the dark
Homesickness for the inconceivable realm? [But in contentment I still feel the need of some imperishable bliss, as the woman in Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” puts it. Snakes and owls don’t have this problem.]

3

Sometimes I see them,
The south-going Canada geese,
At evening, coming down
In pink light, over the pond, in great,
Loose, always dissolving V’s-
I go out into the field,
Amazed and moved, and listen
To the cold, lonely yelping
Of those tranced bodies in the sky,
Until I feel on the point
Of breaking to a sacred, bloodier speech. [See now if you ask UD there are far too many adjectives packed in here: south-going, pink, great, loose, dissolving, cold, lonely, tranced, sacred, bloodier. It’s just top-heavy and self-consciously pretty. Much too top-heavy for a description of birds in flight. With sacred the Biblical feel is sustained; but rather than saying he’s breaking into sacred speech, he should probably speak sacred speech.

Recall what Joseph Brodsky wrote:

What interests me is [Auden’s] symptomatic technique of description. He never gives you the real . . . ulcer . . . he talks about its symptoms, ya? He keeps his eye all the time on civilization, on the human condition. But he doesn’t give you the direct description of it, he gives you the oblique way. …[I]f you really want your poem to work, the usage of adjectives should be minimal; but you should stuff it as much as you can with nouns — even the verbs should suffer. If you cast over a poem a certain magic veil that removes adjectives and verbs, when you remove the veil the paper still should be dark with nouns.]

4

This morning I watched
Milton Norway’s sky blue Ford
Dragging its ass down the dirt road
On the other side of the valley. [Same deal as in other parts of the poem: Sharp moves from sacred to profane and back again. Reminder that we can be brought, by nature’s amazing and moving “speech,” to the verge of something higher, but that we’re basically pretty low.]

Later, off in the woods, I heard
A chainsaw agonizing across the top of some stump
A while ago the tracks of a little, snowy,
SAC bomber went crawling across heaven. [The gross violent noises and marks of the fallen earth – axe-marks on the beams, chainsaw agonizing, and bloodily enough a bomber – bring the poet out of his “tranced” perching on the ruins and back into reality.]

What of that little hairstreak
That was flopping and batting about
Deep in the goldenrod,
Did she not know, either, where she was going? [The poet flits about in confusion from scene to scene, like a fragile butterfly.]

5

Just now I had a funny sensation
As if some angel, or winged star,
Had been perched nearby watching, maybe speaking,
I whirled, and in the chokecherry bush
There was a twig just ceasing to tremble. [Again, for UD, too precious. Metaphysically vague but emotionally sentimental. A brief supernatural visitation? Not my thing. Too happyface.]

Now the bats come spelling the swallows, [Nice – after the early evening swallows the bats… Spelling is wonderful, as if the bats and the swallows had some sort of understanding about who would stand guard when. Spelling also puts us in mind of the poet himself, spelling out his words.]
In the smoking heap of old antiques
The porcupine-crackle starts up again,
The bone-saw, the pure music of our sphere,
And up there the old stars rustling and whispering. [He concludes by bringing physical and metaphysical together, having solved, thanks I guess to that trembling twig, the problem of his “homesickness.” In our ruined smoking heap of a world (bombed out by the SAC bomber), there is anyway always life again, always the crackle of the porcupine, the whine of the bone-saw (bone reminding us of our specifically human vulnerability.) Heard correctly, those homely crackles and whines and drag-ass Fords are the music of the spheres – or the sphere… our sphere, our sacred earth. All we can hear from the distant stars are rustles and whispers; here, we have the clear articulation of our home — our ruined, bombed out, “tasted battle,” ever renewed home.]

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