"Tell Me If It Is Too Far For You": On Sympathy.
We are moving in opposite directions, I and the child, though on the same path. He has not yet captured his individual soul out of the universe about him. His self is outside him, his energy distributed among the beasts and the birds whose life he shares, among leaves, grass, clouds, thunder, whose existence he can be at home in because they hold, each of them, some particle of his spirit. He has no notion of the otherness of things.
--David Malouf, An Imaginary Life
IT'S ALL DOWNHILL FROM SANTA FE TO the White Sands Missile Range, a three and a half hour drive where you slowly descend from five thousand feet above sea level to inhospitable desert broken here and there by creosote, yucca, and little else. "My" desert, the otherworldly and majestic saguaro forests of southern Arizona, where I lived for a time, looks nothing like this lunar landscape, its sand the glossy blazing white of cheap printer paper. We are driving to a hole in the ground, but this is a pilgrimage of sorts. My friend the poet Matt Donovan is taking me to the Trinity Site, which on two mornings a year, once in April and once in October, is opened to the public. I've been teaching for a week at Matt's school, the College of Santa Fe, and our trip to White Sands marks the end of my visit, a bittersweet stay, since the college has gone bankrupt and will close at the end of the spring term. (1) Matt and his colleagues will be out of jobs; the students will transfer to other colleges. On this particular morning Matt is understandably tired of talking about the school's fate, and so we first talk po-biz, the sort of shop-talk that so often happens when poets get together, and which outsiders have every right to think of as trivial and dull; then the talk goes literary and becomes more interesting to us both. For some reason, we devote a lot of time to the relative virtues of recent translations of Dante, and since this is a sort of pilgrimage, and an unsettling one, I'm wondering to myself who of the two of us is Dante, and who is Virgil. I'm the older one and I'm in the passenger seat with the map, but I'm hardly the most capable of guides, having taken us off on the wrong exit for a thirty-mile detour. But we're on our way, we "undertake that deep and savage road," as Robert Pinsky puts it in the closing of his translation of Canto II. Past a military checkpoint at the gates of the missile range, past a fork in the road where a jeep, a Hummer and several MPs point you in the right direction, the deep and savage road ends in an asphalt parking lot in the middle of the middle of nowhere; there's room for a thousand or so cars and a score or so of tour buses. Another MP points us to our parking space, and we've moved from The Circle of This, to the Circle of That, the transition signaled by vendors of Fat Boy Burgers, and Little Man Dogs With The Works; there's a souvenir and book stand sponsored by the Missile Range, and some additional stands that hawk things that the Official Government Vendors seem to find too tacky--t-shirts emblazoned with mushroom clouds, metal paperweight facsimiles of Fat Man and Little Boy, and so forth.
You pass several signs warning you that pocketing of Trinitite--the substance formed when the heat of the Trinity blast fused sand into pebbles--is strictly forbidden. But even if I tried, I'm not sure I could distinguish the still mildly radioactive Trinitite from regular stones. From here you walk a quarter mile alley--girded in a cyclone fence--to Ground Zero, which is circled by a still larger cyclone fence. The Main Attraction, the Center of Circle Nine, the "melancholy hole" formed on the banks of this American Cocytus, is a small depression in the sand, marked by a stone obelisk.
Members of a motorcycle club and some Japanese tourists are having their pictures taken around the structure. A sort of photo gallery has been hung on the insides of the surrounding fence--they probably tack the pictures up the day before each public viewing, taking them down and placing them in storage again when it's over. You could draw some metaphors from this, I suppose. Here's the semi that pulled the device from Los Alamos; here's the wooden tower they erected for exploding it; here are two shirtless GIs posing beside the bomb as it creaks from chains, cigarettes are dangling from their lips; here's Oppenheimer with his famous porkpie and pipe. People are taking photos of the photos; someone's Scotty lifts his leg to pee beneath an image of a mushroom cloud; his owner wears an ipod, and I'm trying to imagine what his soundtrack for all of this might be like--another metaphor that fails me, and would probably have failed Dante as well.
Back at the parking lot, we can board buses that take us a couple of miles further down the road to the McDonald Ranch. In 1944 the government sent the McDonalds and their thousand head of sheep to points unknown, and it became a kind of base camp, first for the ten thousand tons of TNT that were exploded at Ground Zero to see what sort of damage that amount of explosive might inflict; then a few months later it became the staging point for the more significant explosion. Although the government "restored" the ranch back in the '70s, the cruelty of the desert elements has brought it back to a state of dilapidation once again. The wooden sheep pens are half-fallen; the windmill tower looks ready to topple; the cistern where GIs cooled off during the scorching summer days is empty and caving in. The ranch house itself is five small rooms, and as Matt and I approach it another bus unloads several dozen boy scouts and scoutmasters--soon they're surrounding us. On each of their caps is a symbol of an atom and beneath it embroidered in cursive is Nuclear Energy. We stand in the ranch house living room; this is where plastic sheets were placed upon the doorways and windows so that the final assembly of the bomb could be done dust free. Above the door someone's written in chalk the words that were also etched there in the summer of '45--not "NO THINGS WERE / BEFORE ME NOT ETERNAL; ETERNAL I REMAIN"; NOT "ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE." No, this gateway, portal, or hell-mouth bears script that's more prosaic--PLEASE USE OTHER DOORS! KEEP THIS ROOM CLEAN!
Remarkably, no photos seem to have been taken to record the bomb's final assembly, so there's nothing on the walls to commemorate the event save a small explanatory sign. The scouts crowd in and immediately crowd out, but Matt and I stand here a good long while, both sensing that here is the true Ground Zero, the place where the Manhattan Project's bewildering concoction of science, bureaucracy, money and hubris came to its irrevocable end. And it seems to have been a prosaic end. Here the University of California's Dr. Robert Bacher, before beginning the final assembly, asked an army official to sign a receipt for the plutonium inside the core. Officially, it belonged to the University, not to the government, and Bacher wanted to be sure his school would be properly reimbursed for its materials. (2) A shitty little room, smaller than my study at home. Rooms have auras, Matt will later say. And this one surely does, a hue of pulsing and compounded darkness. Yet also the place where the curtain began to part, and a light famously brighter than a thousand suns would be unleashed. This very room, with its peeling paint and floorboards that must have groaned beneath the weight of the infinitely calibrated metals, and the plutonium core spewing its toxicity against its lead casing like some cosmic rattlesnake shut tight and writhing in a box.
We walk back to the bus. Some of the scouts have wandered off past the no trespassing signs to the remains of the sheep pens. The scoutmasters call after them, wanting to know why they're too damn dense to read the signs. Back to the bus now, back to the parking lot. We pass the bunker, S 10,000, where the scientists and soldiers gathered to witness the blast, where in Oppenheimer's words, "A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent." The place where Oppie waxed poetic, "There floated through my mind a line from The Bhagavad-Gita in which Krishna is trying to persuade the Prince that he must do his duty: 'I am become death, the Shatterer of worlds.'" The place where Oppenheimer's colleague Max Bainbridge put things in a more practical perspective. "Oppie," he said, "now we're all sons of bitches." (3) It's all been too much, we decide to bypass the bunker, and until we hit a burger joint and hour or so down the road--a place that was much favored by the Los Alamos scientists-we're mostly silent. Of course, after a beer or two and we revive, we talk about whether we each will write about this day.
It's an oddly complicated discussion--is it an act of hubris to exploit the story of history's greatest act of hubris? And what about the manifold ironies and sheer surreal lunacy of this day--the Little Boy Burgers, the Fat Man paperweights, the tourists from Kyoto asking a tattooed biker with a storm trooper helmet to affix their memory forever at Ground Zero--is it a similar act of hubris to exploit them? And what's the rule on tarting everything up with metaphors--to comparing a plutonium core to a rattler shoved into a box, to conjuring some demonic Ground Zero Playlist on somebody's iPod? And what of Dante, literature's greatest master of metaphor, who Mandelstam spoke of in awe as he described "the innumerable conductorial flights of his baton"? (4) If you throw the august Florentine into the mix, you can gain some authority, right? But doesn't that gesture seem hollow and disingenuous, like Iggy Pop making the claim that his favorite music is by Anton Webern, not "Louie Louie" or "96 Tears"? And one further cold and terrible fact--and it is a fact--also pertains. As Robert Hass puts it at end of his great poem "Heroic Simile," "There are limits to the imagination." Some events beggar that intricate matrix of guile, observation, awe, invention and judgment that we call an imaginative act. Some events are beyond the blandishments of metaphor. Some events should refuse our attempts to shape them into satire--or to attempt the opposite of satire and imbue them with empathy.
I can sense your unease, dear Reader. About the satire part you will probably not disagree with me. But what about empathy? Isn't empathy the most noble and lordly goal of the poet? As Keats so memorably put it, "If a sparrow come before my window I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel." But wait--the brain of a sparrow has the weight of a couple packets of artificial sweetener. Taking part in its existence seems within the realm of possibility. But how do you project yourself into the consciousness of Dr. Bachman and his compatriots as they ease the plutonium core into the bomb, making the assembly complete? And when the mushroom cloud looms up, whose head is easier to enter--Oppenheimer's as he thinks of Hindu scripture, or Bainbridge's as he curses us all? But the fact is that both abilities are beyond us. Yes, we can pick about the gravel with the sparrow, but can we really claim to enter the consciousness of even a twelve-year-old Second Class Scout, running around a sheep pen and getting yelled at by his leader?
To say some distances can't be bridged or even narrowed flies against several different conventional wisdoms. Othering is a term that crops up repeatedly in post-colonial culture theory. And we in the West are supposedly masters of it. Through our magnificently honed skills at Othering, we can dismiss, demean and dehumanize those who Aren't Like Us. Being Not Like Us means, too, that you pose a danger that must be stopped and punished. What Dante does to Muhammad is especially telling in this respect: he's way way down in the Circle Eight--the "Pouch of the Schismatics"--and for all eternity a demon keeps cutting him in two with a gigantic scimitar. All of Dante's genius with metaphor and his creepy delight in the scatological are brought to bear upon his description. Let's Go to the Video Tape, courtesy of Pinsky.
No barrel staved-in And missing its end piece ever gaped as wide As the man I saw split open from his chin Down to the farting-place, and from the splayed Trunk the spilled entrails dangled between his thighs. I saw his organs, and the sack that makes the bread We swallow turn to shit ... (5)
We do no Othering like that anymore, you might argue. We study the Koran in comparative religion classes, correct? But that defense may be as dubious as a certain chief executive pounding the podium with its Presidential Seal while insisting that We Do Not Torture. If you're of a literary bent, the photographs from Abu Ghraib could easily have summoned up Dante, and I for one must confess to be reminded of Muhammad's punishment on the day that Saddam Hussein was hung. There's at least a scatological connection: a rumor on the Internet had it that the dangling Saddam shit himself.
Pound upon your laptop, dear reader, and say aloud that We Do Not Other. But it's not as easy as that. The cave painters of Neolithic Europe rendered mastodons and aurochs and hairy rhinos with uncanny realistic precision. Human forms are almost absent in their artistry, and on those rare occasions when they do occur, they seem crude and childlike. One of the earliest such representations is the famous Killed Man on the walls of Cougnac, c. 15,000 b.p. He's a stick figure, bristling with spears--captured from another clan, perhaps, then tortured before he was killed. (6) The mastodons and aurochs and rhinos are likely the evidence of some sort of ritual magic, of long-lost religious ceremony. But the killed man seems outside of ceremony. He's the Neolithic equivalent of newsreel footage, not even worth an effort at verisimilitude. I became a Unitarian in no small measure because it is a religion that insists upon a paradoxical but imperative belief in the spiritual unity of all people on the one hand, and a respect for their vast diversity on the other. I became a poet and a teacher for similar reasons. But how do we become the sparrow when something in us--something, perhaps, in our very genetic make-up, in survival instincts that inhabit and fan out from the primitive areas of thought, from the thalamus and medulla, from the so-called reptile brain--wants first to kill the sparrow, second to eat it raw, spitting out the feathers and the bones, and then to flee when we hear the footsteps of a predator upon the leaves of the jungle floor?
Let me step back here, and do what one is supposed to do in an essay with a title such as this. Let me try to provisionally define those two related words, empathy and sympathy. It's not as easy as you might think. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics states that empathy is "the projection of ourselves into, or the identification of ourselves with objects either animate or inanimate." (7) The term derives from the German word "enfuhlang," coined by a 19th-century German critic, Hermann Lotz. Sympathy, by contrast, "is a fellow feeling with the ideas and emotions of other human beings, or with animals to whom we attribute human ideas and emotions." Interestingly enough, neither the Princeton Encyclopedia nor its cousin The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms offers actual entries for sympathy. Look up sympathy in the Princeton and you're referred back to empathy; the Longman doesn't even bother to do that. Empathy is the Top Banana; sympathy seems always to play second fiddle. I employ these dead metaphors for a reason, since both dictionaries imply that empathy is not merely a stance of significant importance to imaginative writing, but is in fact, as the Longman maintains, "the basis for devices such as METAPHOR, PERSONIFICATION, and other stratagems of identity and substitution." (8) Empathy makes the world go round; the implication is that it is more desirable to fuse with another person, animal or object than it is to project "fellow feeling." Yes, I'm being reductive here, but only to a small degree. At least since the romantics, we seem to take for granted that it is empathy which creates the most memorable metaphors, and that ideas are as often as not the metaphors' by-product, the plutonium produced by the yellowcake uranium. One of the first poems I ever loved, James Wright's "A Blessing," does just that with the "two Indian ponies" who have come to "greet" the speaker and his friend after they have stopped their car on a roadside. "They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness /That we have come./They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other. / There is no loneliness like theirs." (9) Thanks to his comparison of the ponies to the wet swans, Wright assumes that he also understands that (a) the ponies feel love for each other and (b) that their solitariness is absolutely unique. Even the Princeton Encyclopedia acknowledges that this sort of syllogistic thinking--find the right metaphor and you achieve both empathy with the thing you describe and some new insight about life in general--can be carried to absurdity. The editors cite an effort by Coleridge that you will not find in many anthologies:
In his To a Young Ass , Coleridge laid himself open to ridicule by sympathetically regarding the likenesses and defying the differences between himself and an underprivileged donkey: "Innocent foal! Thou poor despis'd forlorn!/I hail thee Brother --spite of the fool's scorn!/ And fain would take thee with me, in the Dell / Where high-soul'd Pantisocracy shall dwell!" (10)
Brother ass: perhaps in poor Coleridge's case it's just the laudanum talking. And perhaps there's something in our nature that wants us to identify with equine species. Poets seem to want to be like horses (or in Coleridge's case, donkeys) almost as much as they want to be like birds. I myself have attempted the bird metamorphosis once or twice, and would have probably tried to do so again in a poem or two had I not a few years ago taught a poetry workshop with my colleague Mary Ruefle. At one point in the class Mary wondered aloud why so many poets want to be birds in their poems--yet you never hear of a bird wanting to be a poet. There are limits to the imagination, limits to empathy as a poetic strategy, and limits to the usefulness of metaphor. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson state in their problematic but important study of the uses of metaphor, "when we say that a concept is structured by a metaphor, we mean that it is partially structured and that it can be extended in some ways but not in others." (11)
But after we have knocked empathy off its pedestal; after we have offered further evidence of the limitation of metaphor by offering up yet another dead one, what then are we left with? It ]s more realistic to Other Coleridge's Young Ass than to recognize him as our long lost brother--but can there be any potential in a poem which proceeds from that premise? And what about the limitations of figurative language, the fact that metaphors can "be extended in some ways but not others"--isn't that in some perverse way an invitation to employ metaphor in new and surprising ways? Shortly after my return home from New Mexico, I started looking over poems about the Bomb, the Nuclear Era, and the Cold War. There are certainly a great many such efforts; there's even an anthology, Atomic Ghost, devoted to them. I don't know what I was looking for in this project, but it returned me to a poem by Thom Gunn that's always been a favorite of mine:
A DRIVE TO LOS ALAMOS Past mesas in yellow ruin, breaking up like everything, upward to the wide plateau where the novelist went to school, at the Ranch School for Boys in 1929. And that was all there had been up there. (His face 'borrowed flesh', his imagination disguised in an implacable suit) Somebody asked: were you considered a sissy.) No, he said in his quiet voice, I was neither popular nor unpopular. (The twenty-five boys of that expensive spartan school laconic on horses hunted among the burnt-out furnaces of the wilderness. Where a rock fell it stayed.) One building remained, massive and made of good brown wood, surrounded now by shoddy prefab suburb--a street named after Oppenheimer, another Trinity Drive. In the science museum we looked through a brochure for the extinct school. That was Mr. So-and-so, he said. That was the infirmary, that was where the lucky boys went. (Aware, quietly, of what the past becomes, golden in ruin.) Those were the sleeping porches Yes, they were cold. Another picture showed a healthy boy after a hunt, with a dead deer. That was Jack Matthews. (I make up the name, since I do not remember it, but he did.) (12)
This poem, which appeared in Gunn's most sustained individual collection, 1982's The Passages of Joy, epitomizes the later Gunn at his best. It's telling that Gunn uses the word laconic to describe the appearance of the schoolboys on horseback in stanza two, peering out from what we presume to be a group photograph--the eloquence of old photographs is always predicated on their laconic qualities; they fascinate us in no small measure because they are at once transparent and utterly mysterious for what they withhold. As Roland Barthes puts it in Camera Lucida, his magisterial meditation on photography, "a specific photograph reaches me; it animates me, and I animate it.... I must name the attraction which makes it exist, an animation.... The photograph itself is in no way animated, but it animates me: this is what creates every adventure." (13) The speaker of "A Drive to Los Alamos" treats his day with the elderly novelist much in the way Barthes describes the curiously transactional nature of how we view photographs. He must animate the novelist's story, but he also must be careful not to betray the mute authenticity of that story by presuming too much, or by excessively embellishing it. In adopting this stance, Gunn must operate from the assumption that the distance between the novelist's memories and the speaker's own impressions of his subject can be lessened but never bridged. For Gunn's speaker, the novelist must remain, in Barthes' word, inanimate.
But in that fact lies much of the poem's power. Although the tone of the poem initially seems detached and objective, by stanza three--when Gunn first encloses a passage in parentheses--we no longer can assume that the speaker's stance is merely reportorial. The parentheticals create a deliberate ambiguity, partly because they suggest a hushed, sotto voce commentary on the action that seems sometimes to be the thoughts of the speaker, sometimes those of the novelist, and sometimes neither or both. By withholding the pronoun reference in one of the poem's most eloquent passages ("Aware, quietly, of what the past / becomes, golden in ruin."), Gunn prevents us from determining whether this revelation is arrived at by the speaker, is projected upon the consciousness of the novelist, or whether it is a generalization which both arrive at simultaneously. As readers we may not know whom to attribute this epiphany to, but the lines have an immediate and strongly visceral effect. We're drawn both to the hesitant stutter of the caesuras and enjambment at the start of the passage and to the exquisite sonics of "golden in ruin." The point of view of the poem seems to continually morph and hover, and these shifts are often signaled by Gunn's asides and indirect dialogue. Of the poem's 43 lines, fourteen are encased in parentheticals, and an additional nine may be read as indirect dialogue we can attribute to the novelist.
My main point, however, is that the poem resists what we might call the empathic fallacy. Gunn cannot and will not give himself over completely to the consciousness of the novelist. It is a poem of sympathy, not empathy; it strives for "fellow feeling" but acknowledges the immense difficulty of such endeavor, and all the quietly pyrotechnical devices which the poem employs are offered as evidence of that difficulty. The final sentence of the poem--("I make up the name,/ Since I do not remember it, / But he did.")--is diffident but powerfully resonant. The distance between the speaker and the novelist is narrowed. For both (and by extension, for all of us) the past lies "golden in ruin." But those ruins are as different as the pyramids of Yucatan are from the ziggurats of Sumer, as a Neolithic menhir in Cornwall is from the kitschy little obelisk at Trinity.
Gunn was always a poet on the outside looking in. The reasons for this are in part biographical. His decision in the 1950s to leave his native Britain for San Francisco, where he lived until his death in 2004, made him seem too American for many of his British readers--and yet to American readers he was always a Brit. He never abandoned the received forms with which he first made his mark on the literary world, and yet he could also, as "A Drive to Los Alamos" so well illustrates, write in a uniquely nuanced free verse. And, as a gay man who came out long before it was socially acceptable, and who wrote of what some straight readers would regard as the seamier side of gay life--portraits of street hustlers, skateboard punks and meth heads, of trysts in leather bars, and so on--he had no patience with p.c. pieties. His reckonings with the intricacies and perils of desire could never be constrained by well-intentioned moral codes. A few years before Gunn's death, I watched a good percentage of a Chicago audience walk out during his reading of a series of uncollected poems about the serial killer/cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer. Gunn seemed saddened, even a little hurt, by his listeners' departure. I suspect that this was because, for Gunn, sympathy always trumped sensationalism, even in the case of someone as monstrous as Dahmer. And sympathy always carried a measure of self-doubt. The elegies which comprise his 1992 collection, The Man with Night Sweats, may well be the most enduring testament of the AIDS pandemic. But you can't be sympathetic, Gunn suggests, without questioning your own motives. In a poem entitled "In a Time of Plague," Gunn finds himself conversing with two "fiercely attractive" junkies on a park bench. They're shooting up, and invite the speaker to share their needle:
I seek to enter their minds. Am I a fool, and they direct and right, properly testing themselves against risk, as a human must, and does, or are they the fools, the alert faces, mere death's heads lighted glamorously? I weigh possibilities till I am afraid of the strength of my own health and of their evident health. (14)
I seek to enter their minds. The pull of empathy at this moment seems as powerful to the speaker as the allure of drugs or sex; and yet, albeit with some reluctance, he resists all three. This is certainly not a "just say no" decision, yet it allows the poem to end on a note of sad fellow feeling. Gunn watches the pair amble off, "restless at last with my indecision." They look for other companions on "the moving concourse of people/who are boisterous and bright,/carrying in faces and throughout their bodies/the news of life and death."
Let me offer two provisional premises regarding sympathy, then. Sympathy cannot exist without some form of resistance and self-interrogation ("Am I a fool / and they direct and right ...") and fellow feeling cannot be maintained for long. When the speaker of "A Drive to Los Alamos" makes up the name of Jack Matthews, he is motivated above all by fellow feeling and sympathy, but as soon as he does so he is also acknowledging a distance between himself and the novelist that can never be overcome. It is the obverse of Bishop's famous revelation near the close of "In the Waiting Room," where the speaker simultaneously understands her connection with humanity and her isolation from others. "You are an I,/you are an Elizabeth./You are one of them. / Why should you be one too?/I scarcely dared to look/to see what it was I was." (15) You awaken on a cave floor as the fire your mother kept all night dies down. You know you are alone as well as that you are a member of your clan. Later that day, as you hunt deer with your brothers, you come upon a group of strangers. You and your brothers have daubed your bodies with red ochre; they've daubed theirs with something blue. You are wary as they approach and their words are strange to you. Therefore you speak with them in sign language. The vestiges of that sign language exist to this day, and the term we use for it is poetry.
Here's a little poem by James Schuyler which also struggles with these issues. They're implicit even in its title, "Self-Pity is a Kind of Lying Too":
It's snowing defective vision days and X- mas is coming, like a plow. And in the meat the snow. Strange, it reminds me of an old lady I once saw shivering naked beside a black polluted stream. You felt terrible--but the train didn't stop--so. And the white which is some other color or its absence--it spins on itself and so do the Who at Leeds I'm playing to drown the carols blatting from the Presbyterian church steeple which is the same as fighting fire with oil. Naked people--old, cold--one day we'll just have snow to wear too. (16)
The limpidity of Schuyler's poems, their ability to make difficult reckonings and revelatory description seem almost improvisational--much in the way that Bishop does in her best work--makes his writing defy conventional analysis. The poem is just there. But indulge me for a moment. The poem's first two sentences, engaging as they may be, seem a species of throat-clearing. They surely suggest the tone of lamentation Schuyler calls forth in his title, and thanks to devices such as the line break after the first letter of "X- / mas," they possess a certain quirky prosodic authority. But--let's face it--they're gibberish. But then Schuyler conjures the "old lady/ ... shivering / naked beside a black / polluted stream." Just as soon as we share in the speaker's shock at this vision, the scene is over. "You / felt terrible-but--/the train didn't / stop--so." Can you imagine a more piercing statement about the world's cruelty? Yet Schuyler pointedly leaves it undeveloped. We shift to a few lines devoted to the nature of whiteness--not whiteness as some Melvillean symbol of the inscrutability of the universe, but whiteness as further evidence of the speaker's uneasy emotional state and solipsism. Then we shift once again to the comic scene of the Who vs. the carols "blatting" from the Presbyterian church. This is writing as erasure, but not in the toxically cant-ridden sense in which that term is employed by literary theorists. Schuyler seems to want to write the vision of the old woman by the stream out of memory, through deflection, through denial, through wisecracks. Yet the closing of the poem is quietly triumphant because Schuyler finally allows her to return: one day we'll just have snow to wear too. We are one with the woman; we will all share her fate. The gesture is all the more moving because it is made with such reluctance, almost involuntarily. (This once again recalls Bishop: think of that zinger--write it!--in the final line of "One Art.") And need I add that the poem's closing is a gesture of sympathy? Schuyler very empathically does not want to become this woman. But he makes her hover hauntingly before us--she is one of the shades; shivering, certainly, but also beckoning from the other shore of the Styx.
I'm reminded of Lorca's brilliant but famously impenetrable essay on the Duende, in which he insists that the most enduring art is created through our collaboration with one of a trio of emblematic figures, the Angel, the Muse, and the Duende. The Angel and the Muse are different from the Duende for two important reasons--they are external forces; they visit themselves upon the artist, who is the subject of their mysterious largesse. "The Angel dazzles, but hovers in mid-air, shedding his grace and the man, without any effort whatever, realizes his work, his fellow feeling, or his dance.... The Muse dictates, and in certain instances, prompts." The Duende, however, is far more fickle, far less benign, and arises from within: "it must come to life from the innermost recesses of the blood.... The true struggle is with the Duende." (17) And, perhaps because it derives from our physical essence, from troubled contentions with our own corporeality, encounters with the Duende always involve a profound sense of our mortality in ways which encounters with the muse and the angel do not. "When the Muse sees death on the way," says Lorca," she closes the door." "When the Angel sees death on the way, he flies in slow circles and weaves in tears of narcissus and ice the elegy we see trembling in the hands of Keats...." (18) Admittedly, Lorca's entessellated bombast, his almost rhapsodic necrophilia--characteristic features of Iberian art in general that link him to Goya, Gongora, and El Greco, among others--are sometimes a little hard to take. Still, the conclusion of Schuyler's poem strikes me as a powerful argument for existence of the Duende, especially when we are told that he
will not approach at all if he does not see the possibility of death, if he is not convinced he will circle death's house, if there is not every assurance he can rustle the branches, borne aloft by us all, that neither have, nor may ever have, the power to console. (19)
This leads me to wonder if the poem of sympathy may require a third essential, one even more challenging to contend with than an acknowledgment of the distances it must lessen and the self-reckonings it must make. I hesitate to insist that it must struggle with the Duende, but I suspect that true fellow feeling cannot be arrived at without some sort of deep and visceral understanding that what most unites us with another is a sense of our mutual mortality. For each of us, even those memories which lie golden in ruin will someday be completely swept from the earth. And once we are stripped down to nothing but the snow we have to wear, we will have no recourse but to lie down together and sleep. Sadly, perhaps Lorca is right: when confronted with such realities, not even poetry has "the power to console."
The following poem by Milosz, "Elegy for N.N.," arrives at sympathy through a vast and near-cosmic struggle. But sympathy cannot change the past, nor mitigate our essential hopelessness. Written during the poet's years of California exile, and long before the international acclaim that followed his receipt of the Nobel Prize, it employs all of the characteristic motifs of what might be called Milosz's Golden State Period: regret and survivor guilt predominate. Here, as in other poems of the California years, he employs the grand and majestic catalogues which he learned from Whitman and Jeffers, but in a manner that is singularly un-Whitmanic. The vatic gestures and incantations invariably pull at their leash and are violently reined in. As often as not, they are followed by statements of self-deprecating irony that are not so much tropes as a kind of involuntary tic. (In one poem he characterizes himself as "Wrong Honorable Professor Milosz/who wrote poems in some unheard-of tongue.") (20) The Golden State verse arises from a condition of spiritual house arrest. The setting is comfortable, but the monitoring device has been clamped snugly to your leg and it continually beams your location to Exile Central. You can't even start up the Volvo and make a trip to Trader Joe's without first getting the OK from the History Police, or the Federal Bureau of Memory Investigation. Here are the poem's opening stanzas.
ELEGY FOR N.N. Tell me if it is too far for you. You could have run over the small waves of the Baltic and past the fields of Denmark, past a beech wood could have turned toward the ocean, and there, very soon Labrador, white at this season. And if you, who dreamed about a lonely island, were frightened of cities and of lights flashing along the highway you had a path straight through the wilderness over blue-black melting waters, with tracks of deer and caribou as far as the Sierras and abandoned gold mines. The Sacramento River could have led you between hills overgrown with prickly oaks. Then, just a eucalyptus grove, and you had found me. True, when the manzanita is in bloom and the bay is clear on spring mornings I think reluctantly of the house between the lakes and of nets drawn in beneath the Lithuanian sky. The bath cabin where you used to leave your dress has turned into an abstract crystal. Honey-like darkness is there, near the verandah, and comic young owls, and the scent of leather. How could one live at that time, I really can't say. Styles and dresses flicker, indistinct, not self-sufficient, tending toward a finale. Does it matter that we long for things as they are in themselves? The knowledge of fiery years has scorched the horses standing at the forge, the little columns in the marketplace, the wooden stairs, and the wig of Mama Fliegeltaub. We learned so much, this you know well: how, gradually, what could be taken away is taken. People, countrysides. And the heart does not die when one thinks it should, we smile, there is tea and bread on the table. And only remorse that we did not love the poor ashes of Sachsenhausen with absolute love, beyond human power. (21)
Milosz cannot visit the dead beloved--her spirit must instead undertake a protracted journey to him. It is an hejira from the deepest recesses of memory, from the Lithuania of the couple's childhood. She must soar fearfully across the Atlantic and traverse North America, arriving finally before the expatriated Milosz in Berkeley. This summoning triggers a flood of memories for the speaker. But they are vexed recollections, vivid with specifics but shorn of their intended significance--"the bath cabin where you used to leave your dress / has turned into an abstract crystal." Milosz labors mightily to harness the emotional agents of memory, to exploit its olfactory and gustatory triggers and to lend to his visual representations a photographic precision--"the scent of leather," "the tea and bread on the table," the "comic owls" and the similarly comic "wig of Mama Fliegeltaub." He seeks to please the shade of N.N. through vividly rendering their shared memories. Successful as these efforts may be, Milosz comes to see them merely as an exercise in nostalgia. "Does it matter that we long for things as they are in themselves?" Milosz asks. His answer is yes, but this knowledge provides only a very partial consolation. Shades are hard to please, and our personal losses pale beside the immensity of historical tragedy. Milosz comes to accept that what he and N.N. most truly share is a kind of psychic lassitude--call it the stunned aftermath of PTSD. It is the torpor that comes to those who have endured too great a percentage of a horrid century's upheavals:
You got used to new, wet winters, to a villa where the blood of the German owner was washed from the wall, and he never returned. I too accepted but what was possible, cities and countries. One cannot step twice into the same lake on rotting alder leaves, breaking a narrow sunstreak. Guilt, yours and mine? Not a great guilt. Secrets, yours and mine? Not great secrets. Not when they bind the jaw with a kerchief, put a little cross between the fingers, and somewhere a dog barks, and the first star flares up. No, it was not because it was too far you failed to visit me that day or night. From year to year it grows in us until it takes hold. I understood as you did: indifference.
"And how dieth the wise man?" asks Ecclesiastes. "As the fool." Yet Milosz's summoning of N.N. attests that if value does not come from wisdom in the abstract, then at least it arises from the pair's mutual understanding, their collective wisdom. Only together may they "summon what was possible." To make this point, he borrows a metaphor from Ecclesiastes' great contemporary, Heraclitus: "One cannot step twice into the same lake / On rotting alder leaves/Breaking a narrow sunstreak." Milosz takes this hoariest figure of speech--the Ur-metaphor of Western Culture, you could say--and reanimates it, reshapes it, particularizes it. In doing so, he offers N.N. a fretful solace--insisting both to his beloved and to himself that the beauty of the past is as unbearable as its traumas. Sympathy can never be easy, Milosz asserts. He would abhor a jargon term such as this, but sympathy is fundamentally a species of tough love.
Tell me if this is too far for you, gentle reader. We're all sons of bitches now. Our pasts lie golden in ruin, and that ain't much. Someday we'll all have snow to wear, too. I do not want to leave you like this, but I will leave you in the snow. I speak of a snowstorm that has been raging for days, and it is Christmas Eve, 1989. The figures under house arrest number four--among us are the great Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun, and the similarly estimable Australian novelist and poet David Malouf. Also here is Lynda Hull, whose death is still several years away. And I'm here too, dear reader. We're the only guests at Yaddo, the writer's colony in upstate New York, alone in a vast mansion that was once the home of the incomprehensibly wealthy Trask family. None of us had planned to be here. A blizzard has closed the airports. Tomaz cannot return to Ljubliana, nor can David make his connecting flight to Sydney. Lynda and I have tickets on Northwest for Minneapolis, where my mother is dying. But the Albany airport will be closed for days. I do not want to be here, but I'm in the best of company. In the coming years I will never be far from the extravagantly surreal and yet somehow delicate and tragic poems of Tomaz. I'll teach them often to my students. And I will read--several times, for it's a work of incomparable invention and beauty--David's novel of Ovid's Black Sea exile, An Imaginary Life. The book has an ingenious premise: Ovid, the humbled cosmopolitan, doomed to end his life among the barbarians of Tomis--who wear animal furs, who consider squirrel meat the finest of delicacies--undertakes one final project, one grander and even more challenging than the The Fasti or The Metamorphoses. His barbarian captors have encountered a feral child; they have netted him and caged him, and brought him to their village as a kind of curiosity or untrainable pet. Yet Ovid, for reasons he at first does not quite understand, endeavors to teach the boy. The task at first seems impossible, for the child "has no notion of the otherness of things." The boy's education is slow and fitful, but in the process both Ovid and the boy are irrevocably changed:
I have come to a decision. The language I shall teach the Child is the language of these people I have Come among, and not after all my own. And in making that decision, I know I have made another. I shall never go back to Rome.... When I try to articulate what I know, I stumble suddenly on what, till this moment, I did not know. There are times when it comes strongly upon me that he is the teacher, and that whatever comes new to the occasion is being led, slowly, painfully, out of me . (22)
And Lynda? Earlier this week she showed me her most recent poem, finally finished here at Yaddo after months of tinkering. It is called "Utsuroi," a Japanese word meaning transience, but of a subtle and particular sort, in which we recognize beauty only as we become aware of its passing. As Lynda puts it,
I have always loved these moments of delicate transition: waking alone in a borrowed house to a slim meridian of dawn barring the pillow before the cool breeze, a curtain of rain on the iron steps, rain laving lawn chairs arranged for a conversation finished days ago. The Japanese call this utsuroi , a way of finding beauty at the point it is altered, so it is not the beauty of the rose, but its evanescence which tenders the greater joy. (23)
But have I mentioned the snow? It's fallen for days, nearly a foot of it since yesterday alone. The staff has all gone home, having first thawed a turkey for our foursome to cook. We're in the "little" kitchen, where the servants prepared their own meals. And together, although none of us has much expertise when it comes to cooking, we've made a decent Christmas Eve repast, ending with instant pudding, topped with green cherries. And now, in the library--the little library, not the big one where the Trasks kept their signed editions of Dickens and their elephant folio of Birds of America--we play Scrabble, three games, with an almost hypnagogic concentration. Tomaz remarks that he would love to be able to write poems with this same degree of attentiveness and conviction. Three games: Lynda wins them all, beating David in the final one by a mere three points. And now the clock strikes midnight. We have saved a bottle of champagne to open; we've lit some candles. We each make a toast; and as he sips from his plastic glass, David surveys the bookshelves and makes an odd request, an absolutely baffling request, given the evening's circumstances. "Would you mind hearing," he asks, "a poem by Thomas Hardy?" I'm thinking to myself that nothing in the world would make this bittersweet evening more bittersweet than a reading from this most mirthless of poets, but David already has the behemoth Complete Poems in his hands. He opens it to an effort that in the coming years will grow to be not simply a poem that illustrates sympathy better than almost any other I can think of, but a poem that will become one of those you can't imagine living without, a poem whose grave and unadorned pathos grows with its every reading. "You've probably never read this one," David tells us. "It's not very well known." He takes a sip from his glass; the candles flicker.
AT THE RAILWAY STATION, UPWAY "There is not much that I can do, For I've no money that's quite my own!" Spoke up the pitying child-- A little boy with a violin At the station before the train came in,-- "But I can play my fiddle to you, And a nice one 'tis, and good in tone!" The man in the handcuffs smiled; The constable looked, and he smiled, too, As the fiddle began to twang; And the man in the handcuffs suddenly sang With grimful glee: "This life so free Is the thing for me!" And the constable smiled, and said no word, As if unconscious of what he heard; And so they went on till the train came in. The convict, and boy with the violin. (24)
(1.) I'm happy to report that this past fall the College of Santa Fe was able to reopen.
(2.) Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986), p. 659.
(3.) Peter Goodchild, J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1980), p. 162.
(4.) "Osip Mandelstam, "Conversation About Dante," The Poets' Dante, Peter S. Hawkins and Rachel Jacoff, eds. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), p. 51.
(5.) Robert Pinsky, trans., The Inferno of Dante (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994), p. 395.
(6.) Gregory Curtis, The Cave Painters (New York: Knopf, 2006), p. 233.
(7.) "Empathy," The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: Enlarged Edition, Alex Preminger, ed. (Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 9.21.
(8.) "Empathy," The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms, Jack Myers and Michael Simms, eds. (White Plains, NY: Longman, 1989), p. 96.
(9.) James Wright, Above the River: The Complete Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), p. 144.
(10.) Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, p. 222.
(11.) George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 13.
(12.) Thorn Gunn, Collected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994), p. 372. (In an end note to the collection, Gunn identifies the novelist as William S. Burroughs.)
(13.) Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Richard Howard, trans. (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1981), p. 20.
(14.) Gunn, Collected Poems, pp. 463-464.
(15.) Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983), p. 140.
(16.) James Schuyler, Collected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993), p. 48.
(17.) Federico Garcia Lorca, "The Duende: Theory and Divertissement," The Poet's Work: 29 Masters of 20th Century Poetry on the Origins and Practice of Their Art, Reginald Gibbons, ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979), p. 32.
(18.) Loren, "The Duende," p. 36.
(19.) Lorca, "The Duende," p. 36.
(20.) Czestaw Milosz, New and Collected Poems (1931-2001) (New York: Ecco/HarperCollins, 1981), p. 336.
(21.) Milosz, New and Collected Poems, p. 266.
(22.) David Malouf, An Imaginary Life (New York: George Braziller, 1978), pp. 94-95.
(23.) Lynda Hull, Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press,). 2006), p. 114.
(24.) Thomas Hardy, The Complete Poems (London: Macmillan, 1976), p. 607.
DAVID WOJAHN'S newest collection, World Tree, will be published by the Pitt Poetry Series in 2011.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||The American Poetry Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2010|
|Previous Article:||The Beautiful People Make Art.|
|Next Article:||Cleveland state university poetry center new releases.|