DoubleTake 6

E S S A Y

Read these poems to yourself in the middle of the night. Turn on a single lamp and read them while you're alone in an otherwise dark room or while someone else sleeps next to you. Read them when you're wide awake in the early morning, fully alert. Say them over to yourself in a place where silence reigns and the din of the culture--the constant buzzing noise that surrounds us--has momentarily stopped. These poems have come from a great distance to find you. I think of Malebranche's maxim, "Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul." This maxim, beloved by Simone Weil and Paul Celan, quoted by Walter Benjamin in his magisterial essay on Kafka, can stand as a writer's credo. It also serves for readers. Paul Celan wrote:

A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the--not always greatly hopeful--belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense are under way: they are making a poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the--not always greatly hopeful--belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense are under way: they are making toward something.

Imagine you have gone down to the shore and there, amidst the other debris--the seaweed and rotten wood, the crushed cans and dead fish--you find an unlikely looking bottle from the past. You bring it home and discover a message inside. This letter, so strange and disturbing, seems to have been making its way toward someone for a long time, and now that someone turns out to be you. The great Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, destroyed in a Stalinist camp, identified this experience. "Why shouldn't the poet turn to his friends, to those who are naturally close to him?" he asked. But of course those friends aren't necessarily the people around him in daily life. They may be the friends he only hopes exist, or will exist, the ones his words are seeking. Mandelstam wrote: At a critical moment, a seafarer tosses a sealed bottle into the ocean waves, containing his name and a message detailing his fate. Wandering along the dunes many years later, I happen upon it in the sand. I read the message, note the date, the last will and testament of one who has passed on. I have the right to do so. I have not opened someone else's mail. The message in the bottle was addressed to its finder. I found it. That means, I have become its secret addressee.

Thus it is for each of us who read poems, who become the secret addressees of literary texts. I am at home in the middle of the night and suddenly hear myself being called, as if by name. I go over and take down the book--the message in the bottle--because tonight I am its recipient, its posterity, its heartland.

The message in the bottle is a lyric poem and thus a special kind of communiqué. It speaks out of a solitude to a solitude; it begins and ends in silence. Language has become strange in this urgent and oddly self-conscious way of speaking across time. I have carried the messagehome, but now I must decipher it as a linguistic event, as a rhythmic group of words packed in salt, as a last will and testament. What is it saying? Here are three poems--three messages--that have lodged in me as a reader and that I in turn have found instructive and emblematic. They have taught me how to interpret what I have encountered. They combine deep lyric feeling with an equally powerful organizing poetic structure. My idea is that a certain kind of exemplary poem teaches you how to read it. It carries its own encoded instructions, enacting its subject, pointing to its own operation. It is a made thing that indicates the nature of its own making. The message in the bottle seems to be speaking to the poet alone, or to God, or to nobody. But the reader is the one who finds and overhears it. The reader becomes the listener letting the poem voice and rediscover itself as it is read.

Here is Elizabeth Bishop's poem "One Art," from her last book of poems, Geography III:

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.
--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

"One Art" is a kind of instruction manual on loss. It's infused with that wry tonal irony so characteristic of Bishop's late poetry. The blank verse is pitched at the level of speech ("Lose something every day") and the language is natural sounding and deceptively informal, given the formal requirements of the lyric. The poem is a villanelle--that defiant French contraption with its roots in Italian folk song, which came into American poetry late in the nineteenth century. Like all villanelles, it has nineteen lines divided into six stanzas--five tercets and one quatrain--turning on two rhymes and built around two refrains. The first and third lines rhyme throughout, as do the middle lines of each stanza. (The word "stanza" means room in Italian and the center rhymes help connect the rooms of this lyric dwelling.) The first and third lines become the refrain of alternate stanzas and the final two lines of the poem. As itturns and returns, Bishop's verse becomes a model of stability and change, repetition and variation. The first line--"The art of losing isn't hard to master"--repeats exactly throughout the poem, whereas the second refrain never repeats in its initial form and modulates entirely around the word "disaster." So, too, the poem combines feminine or multisyllabic rhymes (such as "master" and "disaster") with masculine or one-syllable rhymes (such as ''spent" and "meant"), deftly varying its full or exact rhymes with Dickinsonian half-rhymes (such as "fluster" and "master"). It also characteristically runs an enjambed line into an end-stopped one (as in the fourth stanza: "And look! my last, or / next-to-last, of three loved houses went"), thus creating a sense of qualification, of hesitating forward movement and momentary rest. The momentum is chastened or balanced by circularity, the circularity ruptured by a progressive movement forward. This model of formal ingenuity deserves to stand with such other exemplary modern villanelles as W. H. Auden's "If I Could," Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," Theodore Roethke's "The Waking," and Weldon Kees's "The Crack Moving down the Wall."

What especially intrigues me about "One Art," however, is how Bishop has built a second structure into the villanelle. She has reconstructed or reconfigured it so that the form itself becomes causal to the meaning. She starts small and continually enlarges the losses, beginning with inconsequential things--the door keys, the wasted hour--and moving up from there. The third stanza, I think, provides the essential clue as to how we are meant to read and consequently to interpret this poem. "Then practice losing farther, losing faster," she writes, signifying that the losses are going to progress, going farther, coming more quickly. It is worse to give up "places, and names, and where it was you meant / to travel" than to misplace keys or misspend an hour, though, as she hastens to add, it's still not a catastrophe. She then enlarges the terms by moving to the first poignant loss in the poem, the first thing that truly matters. "I lost my mother's watch." Now we are getting closer to home. "And look!" she exclaims, focusing the reader into an intimate listener, a confidante: "my last, or / next-to-last, of three loved houses went." It's characteristic of Bishop to diffuse the more melodramatic statement--"my last of three loved houses went"--by qualifying it for accuracy. The ethic of this poet is never to overstate the nature of the feeling, to be as precise as possible about the impact of loss. In the next stanza she enlarges that loss yet again, moving from the penultimate house to two beautiful cities and, even larger than that, some Shakespearian "realms," including a couple of splendid rivers and an entire continent where she once lived. We have completed an arc that moves from losing door keys to relinquishing a continent. And now for the first time in the poem, in the fifteenth line and the penultimate stanza, she acknowledges losing something she actually misses. "I miss them," she admits, immediately adding, "but it wasn't a disaster." Randall Jarrell once said about John Crowe Ransom:

Most writers become over-rhetorical when they are insisting on more emotion than they actually feel or need to feel; Ransom is just the opposite. He is perpetually insisting, by his detached, mock-pedantic, wittily complicated tone, that he is not feeling much at all, not half so much as he really should be feeling.

And so it is with Miss Bishop. And here, I think, we can see that the two refrain lines are working in tandem and counterpoint. Even as the speaker must acknowledge that the losses are cutting deeper and deeper, she also keeps insisting that they aren't disastrous. In this way the poet of understatement wittily resists the feeling of encroaching catastrophe. To modify something that Ezra Pound once said about a villanelle by Ernest Dowson: it seems to me that the losses are the emotional truth in this poem, which the intellect, through its various gyrations, struggles in vain to escape.

This brings us to the final stanza where, in an extraordinary turn, the lyric becomes a love poem. By the structural logic of the poem, the movement from the miniature to the gigantic, the loss of the beloved must necessarily be the greatest loss of all. "Even losing you," she says, momentarily turning and addressing her lover directly, then just as quickly pulling back, adding parenthetically "the joking voice, a gesture / I love," thereby summoning and representing the beloved by two metonymic terms, "I shan't have lied.

It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

The conclusion of the poem is the first acknowledgment, after everything that has come before, that this final loss actually feels disastrous. As the losses have accumulated throughout the poem, the defense mechanisms--the intellectual resistances--have stayed in place until in the end this poet of terrific understatement finally breaks down and admits that this signal loss feels catastrophic to her. William Maxwell once said that a writer gets two exclamation points--in a lifetime, and Bishop has brilliantly used her quota here. At the point that she commands herself to "Write it'" capitalizing and italicizing the verb write, one becomes aware that the activity of writing mirrors the psychological process of recognition. The repetition of the word like compounds the effect. By forcing herself to write it down she is forcing herself to admit and face it. Far from the villanelle being a form in which everything is already figured out and established, a container into which one pours previously worked out thoughts and feelings, the form itself becomes a way for the writer to test and unearth those feelings in language. The process of recognition becomes the emotional discovery of this poem, the greater part of writing as well as reading it. The reader overhears what the poet is forcing herself to acknowledge. Thus the lyric psychologically enacts the experience of coming to terms with a universe of loss.

"Surely there is an element of mortal panic and fear underlying all works of art?" Elizabeth Bishop asked--rhetorically--in her essay on Marianne Moore. "One Art" is a poem that summons such feelings even as it resists, contains, and tries not to succumb to them. That makes it all the more moving when the resistance finally caves in at the end. Here is another poem of mortal panic and fear, Pablo Neruda's "Solo la muerte" ("Nothing but Death") a lyric of radical overstatement from Residencia en la tierra (Residence on Earth) that desperately flings itself at human loss. Instead of trying to fend off the feeling, as Bishop does, Neruda invokes and summons it at every point.

There are cemeteries that are lonely,
graves full of bones that do not make a sound,
the heart moving through a tunnel, in it darkness, darkness, darkness,
like a shipwreck we die going into ourselves,
as though we were drowning inside our hearts,
as though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul.

And there are corpses,
feet made of cold and sticky clay,
death is inside the bones,
like a barking where there are no dogs,
coming out from bells somewhere, from graves somewhere,
growing in the damp air like tears or rain.

Sometimes I see alone
coffins under sail,
embarking with the pale dead, with women that have dead hair,
with bakers who are as white as angels,
and pensive young girls married to notary publics,
caskets sailing up the vertical river of the dead,
the river of dark purple, moving upstream with sails filled out by the sound of death,
filled by the sound of death which is silence.

Death arrives among all that sound
like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it,
comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, with no finger in it,
comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, with no throat.
Nevertheless its steps can be heard
and its clothing makes a hushed sound, like a tree.

I'm not sure, I understand only a little, I can hardly see,
but it seems to me that its singing has the color of damp violets,
of violets that are at home in the earth,
because the face of death is green,
and the look death gives is green,
with the penetrating dampness of a violet leaf
and the somber color of embittered winter.

But death also goes through the world dressed as a broom,
lapping the floor, looking for dead bodies,
death is inside the broom,
the broom is the tongue of death looking for corpses,
it is the needle of death looking for thread.

Death is inside the folding cots:
it spends its life sleeping on the slow mattresses,
in the black blankets, and suddenly breathes out:
it blows out a mournful sound that swells the sheets,
and the beds go sailing toward a port
where death is waiting, dressed like an admiral.
(Translated by Robert Bly)

It seems to me that Neruda's poem has what García Lorca called "duende." The duende was traditionally an Andalusian trickster figure, much like the Yiddish dybbuk, but Lorca used it as a name for creative possession, for inspiration in the presence of death, for that scorched spirit that sometimes takes over in moments of artistic creation. It is an irrational power, something like a demonic religious enthusiasm. "All that has black sounds has duende," Lorca wrote, and Neruda's poem is filled with such black sounds. It is a magnet for them. This lucid dream has a wild surreal associativeness, but it also has a relentless logic of its own. The spiritual problem is death--only death, a death that is everywhere. The technical problem--an index to the spiritual one--is how to write about it; that is, how to dramatize a ubiquitous presence, an omnivorous Something, which manifests itself as an absence, as Nothingness. The poet of Whitmanesque ambitions must find a way to present something that has as its sole purpose--its fundamental obligation, its exclusive business--taking things away. Consequently, in "Nothing but Death" Neruda was forced--or forced himself--to invent an imaginative structure and develop an imagistic strategy for dramatizing and incarnating what he sees as the quintessence of death itself.

"There are cemeteries that are lonely, / graves full of bones that do not make a sound," Neruda asserts, thus beginning almost gothically by establishing the backdrop of the poem, but also projecting a human feeling--loneliness--into the graveyards. The cemeteries are lonely because they make us feel lonely, because the poet is overwhelmed by loneliness when he thinks of human beings reduced to silent piles of bones. The journey toward death, dying itself, is a necessarily inward experience--"like a shipwreck we die going into ourselves"--but once death takes over the subjects--and we are all subjects--turn into objects. There is an enormous abyss between subject and object. "And there are corpses, / feet made of cold and sticky clay." These in turn become part of what the poet envisions as the great procession of the dead--"Sometimes I see alone / coffins under sail"--that will include everyone, from the most romantically inclined (pensive young girls) to their pragmatic, commonsensical husbands (notary publics).

The first key to the weirdly logical nature of the imagery, I think, comes in those astonishing lines:

death is inside the bones,
like a barking where there are no dogs,
coming out from bells somewhere, from graves somewhere,
growing in the damp air like tears or rain.

Neruda presents the sound the animals make, the barking, but takes away the origin of that sound, the dogs themselves. The sound seems all the more haunting since it comes from absent dogs in an indistinguishable place--a churchyard perhaps--and seeps, as if naturally, into the air like tears--product of human grief--or rain--a mere atmospheric condition. So, too, he paradoxically asserts that death has a sound, which is silence. The imagery goes into full operation in the fourth stanza:

Death arrives among all that sound
like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it,
comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, with no finger in it,
comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, with no throat.

In this sequence of images, Neruda repeatedly presents a human object but withdraws the human presence from it. He posits a shoe, but takes away the foot that wears it, he presents a suit, but withdraws the man who would inhabit it. Death comes and knocks, but it uses a ring without a stone or a finger, it shouts but without a voice. The progression--it shouts "with no mouth, with no tongue, with no throat"--mimics a process of taking a voice away in stages. These images all incarnate the paradox of a presence that is absence. "Nevertheless," he writes, using a logical proposition as in a poem by Donne or Marvell, "its steps can be heard / and its clothing makes a hushed sound, like a tree." Neruda has created an imagery for something which is present but cannot be seen--something mysterious, indistinct, real.

The great modernist writers, like Joyce or Eliot, often present us with an idea of the artist presiding over his creation like a god--objective and all-powerful--but Neruda presents himself as writing from inside the experience of his own creation, trying to figure out what he is writing about, taking us through the logic of his thinking: I'm not sure, I understand only a little, I can hardly see, but it seems to me that its singing has the color of damp violets, of violets that are at home in the earth . . . He unpacks his own synesthetic image, trying to prove it, as it were, by placing death back into the green world, into the wintry natural realm.

And now it is as if he can say anything about death because death is everywhere. He associates wildly, almost comically, but always extending the imagery far enough for us to decipher and interpret it. Why does he say that death also goes through the world dressed as a broom? Because he pictures it lapping the floor, cleaning the interior world of dead bodies, because it is inside a broom even as it is inside our bones, because the bristles of a broom are like a tongue, they are similar to a needle, because he is trying to incarnate images of an absence devouring everything in its path.

In the final stanza he literalizes the romantic connection between sleep and death. He sees death literally inside the beds where we sleep. All along it has been waiting for us to lie down for the last time so that our beds can become coffins and go sailing in a swelling procession into the other world, which is overseen by nothing else but death itself, an admiral. "Solo la muerte": only death, death alone, nothing but death. In this visionary poem Neruda has found a way to write about a mysterious presence that evades our understanding. The reader who uncorks the message in this particular bottle feels its surging waves of emotion, its strange playfulness, its dark undertow and sweeping oceanic power.

Here is the Czech poet Jirí Orten's poem "A Small Elegy." It is from his book Elegies, translated by Lynn Coffin:

My friends have left. Far away, my darling is asleep.
Outside, it's as dark as pitch.
I'm saying words to myself, words that are white
in the lamplight and when I'm half-asleep I begin
to think about my mother. Autumnal recollection.
Really, under the cover of winter, it's as if I know
everything--even what my mother is doing now.
She's at home, in the kitchen. She has a small child's stove
toward which the wooden rocking horse can trot,
she has a small child's stove, the sort nobody uses today, but
she basks in its heat. Mother. My diminutive mom.
She sits quietly, hands folded, and thinks about my father,
who died years ago.
And then she is skinning fruit for me. I am in
the room. Sitting right next to her. You've got to see us,
God, you bully, who took so much. How
dark it is outside! What was I going to say?
Oh, yes, now I remember. Because
of all those hours I slept soundly, through calm
nights, because of all those loved ones who are deep
in dreams--Now, when everything's running short,
I can't stand being here by myself. The lamplight's too strong.
I am sowing grain on the headland.
I will not live long.

W. B. Yeats once said, "Rhetoric is a quarrel with others; poetry is a quarrel with oneself," and Orten's poem seems to inscribe that self-challenging notion of the lyric. From the beginning, "A Small Elegy" dramatically establishes that the speaker--a stand-in for the poet--is by himself talking to himself. He was with other people, but now he is completely alone--his friends gone, his beloved sleeping elsewhere, unconscious, far away. The speaker is the sole operating consciousness mourning in a world where everyone else is asleep. Against the pitch-black darkness he starts saying things to himself, using white words, which I take to mean words that have a kind of unselfconscious purity about them. He daydreams about his mother--an "autumnal recollection"-- and that in turn moves him back toward his childhood home where his mother seems still to preside--diminished now--over an outmoded world. She is smaller, more vulnerable, someone to be protected. "Matku," he says tenderly in Czech, "Mon maminku," my little mommy, which the translator has rendered as "my diminutive mom." He imagines that after all these years she's still sitting back there, quietly uncomplaining, thinking about his father who died so long ago.

It is the next moment in the poem, when the tense radically changes, that I find especially compelling. "And then she is skinning fruit for me," he says, "I am in / the room. Sitting right next to her." He doesn't say "And then she was skinning fruit for me," but instead finds himself catapulted into the past as a living present. This is an instance of what Proust called "involuntary memory," when the entire world of the past comes flooding back. It is not something willfully recalled, but something that comes unbidden--suddenly, radically, overwhelmingly present. He has been wrenched out of one time into another. The amplitude of his feeling is nearly unbearable and he starts shaking his fist at God, using a child's language, calling him a ''bully" because now he is aware that God has taken away so much, because so much is lost. "How / dark it is outside!" he exclaims. And then he asks: "What was I going to say?" The sudden colliding of worlds, of the past and the present, create a gap in his mind--and thus in the text. He can't recall what he was going to say next because the experience is dislocating, the outer darkness bewildering. He has lost himself in time. And then he recovers: "Oh, yes, now I remember." And he then proceeds with the ruthlessness of a logical proposition to face what can no longer be evaded. "Because / of all those hours I slept soundly, through calm / nights," he declares--that is, because of all those nights when he was safe and unconscious--"because of all the loved ones who are deep / in dreams"--that is, because of all those who are unconscious now, unaware of the peril that surrounds them--he realizes that time is running out and announces: "I can't stand being here by myself. The lamplight's too strong." Here the lamplight becomes the emblem of a consciousness that is too much to bear, an isolation that is killing:

I am sowing grain on the headland.
I will not live long.

The recognition here is that what he is planting is endangered, imperiled, vulnerable. What he plants he will not be able to protect. The sowing of grain on the headland is his last gesture, his way of putting a message in a bottle when he knows he won't last much longer. The poem concludes with a terrible recognition. When I read it, my impulse is to wake up everyone around me--everyone l love--before it is too late.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that poetry is "what will and must be spoken." It is a secret that can no longer be kept secret, a way of knowing. But as Paul Valéry also said about Pascal: "A distress that writes well is not so complete that it hasn't salvaged from the shipwreck. . . ." The poet is a maker who salvages from the shipwreck in a particular way. The poems I have chosen by Bishop, Neruda, and Orten--and I could easily have chosen other favorite poems by other poets--Come to us mediated through different languages and different traditions; one is written in traditional form, two in free verse; one in English, one in Spanish, one in Czech. It goes without saying that each poem lies most naturally--most fully--in its native language. What these poems share as lyrics, however, is a mode of verbal behavior. Each of these writers has found a way to interrogate and transfigure a profound disquietude, to bring forth what otherwise might have evaded consciousness. And each has made that coming into consciousness accessible to others by building it into the organic structure of the poem itself. Whenever a poem enacts what it is about, it creates a way for itself to live dramatically inside the reader. It becomes an experience unto itself. The great individual poem is a last will and testament salvaged from the shipwreck, sealed in a bottle, and cast out on the waters. So take the time to go down to the dunes to see if you can find it. It is there. And when you do, bring it home because it is now yours. You are its secret addressee. This haunted and haunting message was meant for you. Listen to it. Turn on the lamp. Read this poem to yourself in the middle of the night.

About Edward Hirsch


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