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Risking nostalgia.

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Brahms' Clarinet Quintet is a haunting piece of music that, once you've heard it, stays with you. The melodies are exquisite and they evoke a late romantic languor, a ghostly longing, a melancholy in the old sense of the word. It is music, obviously, that comes at the end of an era of expansive 19th-Century sentiment, a music soon to be supplanted by modernism's endless ironies and aggressions--in Vienna the music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Brahms' music in particular was swept aside, to be preserved only in the museum of the symphony concert hall for the sentimental delectation of the upper middle classes.

There is no denying the audacity and intelligence of modernist music, and its even more intensely and self-consciously ironic counterpart in the postmodern, but Zwicky's poem asks what appears to be a simple question: was anything of importance lost in the effacement of Brahms? The answer presented in the poem is astonishing: it suggests that we may have lost everything. It is a commonplace notion that the modernist ironic world view allowed western culture to adapt to the harsh rigours of a violent and mechanized century, but perhaps, Zwicky proposes, in abolishing a capacity for a certain kind of romantic feeling, we have given up the ability to register loss in the world as a whole.

The poem's argument presents a simple proposition: "the earth is dying." It seems like a simplistic declaration because it forecloses on a whole range of complex interdisciplinary debate on the earth's precise ecological status. In Zwicky's poetic language, however, the proposition assumes rhetorical force, because the debate is beside the point. Only the most recalcitrant will not accept that the growing list of extinguished species represents the etiology of an ecological disease. This poem is not interested in the finer points of ecological enumeration. It is interested in why we generally remain oblivious to this crisis, and its answer is that the survival strategy that relies on the relentlessly ironic inures us to our own diminishment.

The turn in the argument, then, reclaims nostalgia, regret, and the graceful. All of these emotions have in recent times been denigrated to the status of worse-than useless. Deconstruction and New Historicism viewed nostalgia as the mistaken desire for a metaphysical presence or a universal human nature that remains the ideological vestige of liberal humanism. Zwicky argues that nostalgia has a truth, that it has a crucial resource, which is to open emotional life to the experience of loss, in this case the loss of the natural world. I don't believe that grace is a type of salvation in this poem; it is, rather, the word Zwicky employs for a form of commensurate living in the world, "living in the world as if it were home," as Tim Lilbum puts it. And shouldn't we feel regret over the destruction of natural habitat? "If we steel ourselves against regret / we will not grow more graceful, / but less."

Zwicky is aware, of course, of the risks of nostalgia. It is closely related to the saccharin and sentimental, and an entire industry of greeting cards has been built on this mush. For Zwicky, however, the risk has become necessary, for it is in a poetic articulation of the elegiac that we can register a sense of loss, and in that discovery of loss is a realization that western culture and its economic tools of capitalism must be completely reevaluated. Zwicky's poem is profoundly political, not because it proposes in verse a set political program, but because it explores the very ground by which political change may be possible. The poem is not condemning irony--indeed it is at all times a sly poem, even a teasing poem, as much as it is earnest. There is a marvelous irony in the way Zwicky develops her critique in an invocation of Brahms, of all people. At a time when postmodern experiments are conventional, or at the very least expected, when they have lost their shock value, perhaps there is nothing more audacious than invoking Brahms as the ground for a politics of the emotions.

The complex form of the poem is a marker of how the poem provides aesthetic shape to nostalgia and regret. The syntax is extraordinarily restrained and simple, almost defiantly so. Each stanza is a sentence fragment, a relative clause, or, in one case, a coordinating clause. The rhythm is prosaic free verse. The music is quiet and plain. The effect is a tone of dignified elegy that anchors the poem to a ground that permits the intricate range of the poem's verbal play and metaphorical expression. The first stanza, for example, can be read impressionistically as an appeal to honour the simple things of life, such as brown, that are so clear in comparison to our daily anxieties, but this would be to miss the epistemological complexities suggested by the poem's associative fields. The verbal associations include "brown" with the wood of the instrument; "reedy" with its reed; and "clarities" with the name of the clarinet itself. The subtlety of the poem is found right here in the word "clarities": one might expect that clarity would need to be singular in order to be clear, but Zwicky is already multiplying it into its layering moments. The adjective "reedy" places us in marshland, and so we can associate brown forward with earth, both as the common ground of soil that provides sustenance and as the planet in its entirety. The image also recalls the clarinet as a form of pipe or flute emblematic of the poet as Marsyas, whose music consoles the earth goddess Cybele for the loss of Attis. Marsyas is a figure that represents the episteme or knowing as fundamentally both elegiac and lyric. This is re-figured in the carpe-diem theme of the English pastoral tradition and "the oaten flute" of the shepherds' piping contests. Zwicky's "reedy clarities" further recall Pascal's definition of a human as a "thinking reed," a phrase Pascal uses to emphasize the human awareness of frailty in relation to nature's indifference, which for Pascal ought to lead to a reedy philosophy or an elegiac humility. The poem opens, then, by comprehending the human as lyric, expressed in a poetiy that resonates with both body and mind, and seeks clarities in the earth.

The second stanza develops questions of naming and taxonomy. The earth's diseases are presumably those effluents and particulates of all sorts consisting of the long names given to chemicals that clog and strangle natural habitats, "spread from the fence lines" by the spraying of modern agribusiness. But Zwicky always thinks to the epistemology that enables certain practices such as agribusiness to become normalized--in this instance a taxonomy that delineates each living organism and places it in a system of Latin naming. Naming can be an act of love, of giving a face to the Other. Or it can be an accounting, a numbering of the planet's resources and their uses, the way biotechnology companies seek to patent the rare genetic material of the rain forest. In this sense the diseases are the names themselves that leave "a bright field / ribboned with swath."

One of the remarkable accomplishments of this poem is its balance between abstract and metaphorical thinking. The third stanza suggests that the mind's light could be filtered, and I think filtering suggests a weighing in memory of a certain idea of home: the porch, late afternoon, the trellised rose. It is in these kinds of memories that we create ideas of belonging, even as we sense their distance and loss, and so nostalgia, regret and grace emerge. I could write pages about this configuration of experience, but here I would rather indicate the poise with which Zwicky posits first her sequence of metaphors and then her truth-claims. The phrase "which is to say" is a verbal lever that holds in provocative juxtaposition "a trellised rose" and "a truth in nostalgia."

The final stanza is truly extraordinary. Having established a position for nostalgia, she concludes with the extreme case. Can we use the word "honestly" in a poem? Can we address someone in that old-fashioned way, even with the accent on the "ed," as "Dear beloved"? Indeed, can we write a letter? These possibilities raised at the end of the poem are powerfully evocative. The word "honestly" here is not in opposition to "dishonestly," but in opposition to "satirically" or "ironically." Can we say it, Zwicky asks, with a straight face? I think she honestly hopes we can. In the context of this poem, "dear beloved" is textually rich. It is tinged with sadness as it recalls Brahms' love for Clara Schumann, the wife of Robert. It hints at cadences of the marriage ceremony: "Dearly beloved ..." And finally, I think it summarizes the poem as an erotics as first philosophy. For Zwicky, all of our imaginative and literal constructions and appropriations of the world begin in an unnamed lyric desire. The poem in the end is unaddressed and expresses an open stance, the "dear beloved" suggesting that the lyric embrace always comes before everything else that we think and experience.
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Title Annotation:Jan Zwicky's poem 'Brahms' Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115'
Author:Leckie, Ross
Publication:ARC Poetry Magazine
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
Words:1524
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