Invisible Green IX. (A Column).
"Methinks my own soul must be a bright invisible green."
--Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 193
THIS IS THE NINTH AND LAST OF THESE LITTLE essays. Time to rest now, and just enough time to show an ecstasy consistent with repose. I have a ready mind to turn to the Pastoral.
It is March 4th, Mardi Gras, 2003 and, Reader, you have a strange advantage of me. I am writing in the month whose name means war, whose name is taken from the god of the most ungodly practice humans use. You know the outcome or dear avoidance of events I merely dread and decry. Heaven help us either end of the Lent begins tomorrow. Today, I am writing in a cottage in Alabama, far from home. Outside my window across a cold yard of mud and brittle leaves, clumps of blackbirds come and go, contending with loose ranks of chubby robins. A godly strife. A good cacophony. And beneath them the ground that seems inert is, we know, already in throes of springtime ecstasy, soon to break out as Alabama grass and flowers. Cold pastoral, but never cold for long. My expectations rest at the window. The strife of the birds and its sharp sounds are an instance of repose to me, a moment whose inclination is towards an ecstasy, sure as sure can be. I think of John Cage: "I have nothing to say, and I am saying it." Too, I think of a wonderful sentence from The Dragons of Eden in which Carl Sagan avowed:
But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
The earth beneath the birds is cold and still, no evidence of the springtime surely rising. And rise it does, right now, resting only at the surface a few days more. It is rest enough. There is still time, a still time, while time is never still. I have a ready mind for the Pastoral.
The poems of Andrew Marvell have always resounded to me as miracles of calm expressed ecstatically. They profuse the pastoral moment through quiet frenzies, which, even at their most methodical, remain wild. Models of rest in action, they show the one repose I am most eager to believe. Remember "The Garden."
What wondrous life is this I lead! Ripe apples drop about my head; The luscious clusters of the vine Upon my mouth do crush their wine; The nectarene, and curious peach, Into my hands themselves do reach; Stumbling on melons, as I pass, Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass.
The exclamation breaks forth from effortlessness. And the ravishing surround, far beyond mere providence and freedom, is a wilding. Here is the Fall, as they say, repairs the Fall, a further Adam enthroned on grass. This garden grows bacchantes and, in its ecstasy, makes a god of the downed man resting. And what is the name of the god? What is the particular virtue of his lavish repose? William Empson, in Some Versions of Pastoral, says it plain:
Happiness, again, names a conscious state, and yet involves the idea of things falling right, happen- ing so, no being ordered by an anxiety of the con- scious reason. (125)
In the pastoral moment, rest is sovereign, and happiness is both the source and substance of its reign. In "The Garden," Marvell finds a wonder-working power, something which, in our own time, Denise Levertov called "the deep intelligence" of peace. From the depths of an effulgent rest, original wisdom shines.
Meanwhile the mind, from pleasures less, Withdraws into its happiness: The mind, that ocean where each kind Does straight its own resemblance find, Yet it creates, transcending these, Far other worlds, and other seas, Annihilating all that's made To a green thought in a green shade.
"Original" is the meaning of green, and in the annihilation of labor ("all that's made"), original green gives shade and shelter to the godly man. As Empson puts it, "the calm of Nature gives the poet an immediate self-knowledge" (126), i.e. a wisdom unmediated even by poetry itself. Earth's ecstasy is God's effortless knowledge of God. And it is also our selves and our peace resting in that knowledge. Transcendence does not quit the garden. It arrives and arrives, green after green, at further repose.
Rest is the place where innocence does its best work. From earliest utterance, Pastoral has espoused (and, in itself, sometimes embodied) idyllic productions of real repose. To paraphrase Blake, effort is in love with the productions of rest. Pastoral simply unstops the music of that love. Like Marvell's mower in "The Mower against Gardens," it turns away from the harsh enforcements of effort (one of which is human society, I know, and another of which is war, as in "war effort"--Pastoral also suggests the perhaps disturbing possibility that true peace is ultimately sociopathic--as Jean-Jacques Rousseau opined, one can be a citizen or a man, but never both-shepherds sing one at a time, never together), and in turning, Pastoral discovers the will of Nature freely expressed and innocence running wild.
Where willing nature does to all dispense A wild and fragrant innocence: And fauns and fairies do the meadows till, More by their presence than their skill.
Here is the equal distribution of wildness, dispensed like a fragrance, freely and without work. This is peace: the displacement of skill by presence. Peace is the sovereignty of presence. Allen asked us "When can I go to the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?" ("America"). Only the Pastoral can answer, and only the Pastoral's further Adams, enthroned on grass, can take such answering to heart. Damn near deified in the moments of rest, these marvelous Adams may see with divine eyes what divinity sees: the peace that passeth all the efforts of understanding. Thoreau (surprise!), my best-beloved sociopathic swain, showed such a moment to the best advantage I know in Walden, early on, at the very end of "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For."
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. (92-93)
Confluent with eternity, time shows a sky teeming with fish, and stars strewn across streambeds. No writing can capture them. No 'rithmetic can count them. Only effortlessness, momentarily consistent with divinity, can begin to share their, peace.
Yet there is nothing more important to believe and to propound (if only to ourselves alone) than the forward, active increase peace projects from one eternal moment to the next. Marvell's idylls are not dioramas. The cabin at Walden Pond was no retreat, but rather a staging ground for peaceful excursions. The greening of thought and shade is an open system. A stream, however strewn with stars, still flows. In one of his earliest poems, "The K," Charles Olson, proposing his own mortality, finds an opening through which Pastoral works a way.
I shall not see the year 2000 unless I stem straight from my father's mother, break the fatal male small span. If that is what the tarot pack proposed I shall hang out some second story window and sing, as she, one unheard liturgy Assume I shall not. Is it of such concern when what shall be already is within the moonward sea? Full circle: an end to romans, hippocrats, and christians. There! Is a tide in the affairs of men to discern Shallows and miseries shadows from the cross, ecco men and dull copernican sun. Our attention is simpler The salts and minerals of the earth return The night has a love for throwing its shadows around a man a bridge, a horse, the gun, a grave.
Here, speculation wakes from its odic dream. (Note the near rhyme of "unheard liturgy" with Keats' unheard melodies whose cold pastoral could not find a way.) Full circle is not a closed circle. Time is concerned with eternity, and resting from the idle fear of death ("Is it of such concern...?") Olson wakes to a new repose borne forward by "the moon-ward sea." Empson describes such waking as
knowing that you know that you know, reconcil- ing the remaining unconscious with the increas- ing consciousness, uniting in various degrees per- ception and creation, the one and the many. (145)
Rest is increase, trust, and new creation. Olson wakes to exclaim--"There!"--and what the exclamation adds is Pastoral discernment. Waking from labor to a full repose, he sees the work of fulfillment always and already under way. Olson's eye ("Our attention is simpler") confirms the truth of what his master, Whitehead, once avowed: "actual fact includes in its own constitution real potentiality which is referent beyond itself" (Process and Reality, 112-113). Every opened eye is the resurrection and the life. Pastoral rests upon this and sets to work. I think of another poet, at the very end of his writing life this time. In Ronald Johnson's posthumous sequence, The Shrubberies, I find a one-line poem which offers inexhaustible repose.
The particular Heaven is already, by virtue of being, beyond itself: i.e. a garden. One Pastoral is already many. Rest easy. Eden's ahead. "There!" Peace works. It's a Pastoral discernment.
Outside my window this morning, first Sunday in Lent 2003, a cat as sleek and blacker than the blackbirds hunts across the mud and brittle leaves. He stops suddenly, remaining motionless a long time looking up into a tree. It's easy to follow his eyes and easy also then to share his particular rapture. There in the branches, also motionless, also fixed in attention, is a gray-brown squirrel with a tail so long and so absolutely pure pure white it's wonderful. No sleep could rest my eyes so well as does the blackness of the cat or the whiteness of that squirrel's tail. Each is a particular heaven, and in myself I feel a resurrection weeks ahead of time.
Pastoral discernment entrusts repose to the eye where vision rests in peace, in power. I come now to the end of these little essays, at the beginning of Lent and on the brink, it seems, of a new war. Reader, you may already contend with unimaginable outcomes. Good or ill, of course you do. For myself, I'll keep a ready mind for the Pastoral. Its power rests in a black cat's rapture and in a squirrel's unaccountable purest white. I think of the final stanzas of Ezra's "Canto XLIX."
Sun up; work sundown; to rest dig well and drink of the water dig field; eat of the grain Imperial power is? and to us what is it? The fourth; the dimension of stillness. And the power over wild beasts.
The sun's full circle is never closed. The day is an open system. The work of peace is self-sustaining. "Imperial power is? and to us what is it?" A laborious hallucination. I have a mind for the Pastoral because I have seen with my own eyes the power of stillness when stillness is given time.
Empson, William. Some Versions of Pastoral. New York New Directions, 1974.
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1956.
Johnson, Ronald. To Do as Adam Did. Jersey City: Talisman House, 2000.
Marvell, Andrew. The Complete Poems. New York: Penguin Books, 1972.
Olson, Charles. Selected Writings. New York New Directions, 1966.
Pound, Ezra. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1970.
Sagan, Carl. The Dragons of Eden. New York Random House, 1977.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1997.
-----. Henry David Thoreau. Edited by Robert Sayre. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1985.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929.
DONALD REVELL is the author of eight collections of poetry, most recently My Mojave (Alice James Books, 2003) and Arcady (Wesleyan, 2002).
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|Title Annotation:||nature poetry|
|Publication:||The American Poetry Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2003|
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