Alfred Corn’s new play Lowell’s Bedlam will be opening at Pentameters Theater in London, April 7th. The play runs until the Saturday before Easter.
Set in the Autumn of 1949, during a period when Robert Lowell was being treated for bipolar illness, the play also features Elizabeth Bishop and Elizabeth Hardwick. It’s worth noting that Corn met all of these writers several times.
Oranges and Snow is a selection of Milan Djordjevic’s poems, translated from the Serbian by Charles Simic and published by Princeton University Press as part of the Facing Pages series. I was grateful to Simic’s pithy yet thorough introduction to Djordjevic as a writer and, just as importantly, as a person. Simic explains that Djordjevic grew up under a restrictive Communist government, saw his homeland ravaged by ethnic warfare, wrote for publications that opposed Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, and in 2007 sustained a personal tragedy that has confined him to his house—he was hit by a car while walking in a designated crosswalk in Belgrade. If Simic assesses that “The poet’s mission is not to save the world, but to save some human experience from oblivion,” I see Simic’s translation of Djordjevic’s work as an accomplishment of a similar gesture. Djordjevic’s house-bound eye and voice accentuate how much of a gift Simic’s translation and selection is for us who, otherwise, might never have met the voice of this fellow human survivor.
The history of war and personal tragedy that coalesce into a backdrop for Djodjevic’s poetry is relevant to any reading of his work. However, his poems rarely relate a distinct narrative of the past. I had to hold myself back from trying to read an autobiography into the poems because they did not offer themselves to me as such, and I decided after spending time in Djodjevic’s world that it was not fair to his imaginative dexterity nor to the strangeness of his vision to be disappointed that the poems did not meet my expectations. Djordjevic’s history of survival through political unrest and cruel accident made an impression on me before I read his work. But I had to learn to stand in each poem as if I were on an island.
Simic’s selection of Djordjevic’s poems spans a strikingly vast range from surreal pieces that alienate the reader (perhaps intentionally) to intimate, moving, and prophetic meditations on pain, mortality, and questions of fate.
A division among the poems became apparent to me as I spent time with Oranges and Snow—the surreal poems obscured an encounter with the speaker and the present moment by employing a kind of fan (embellished with garish, sexual, and at times even sadistic designs). But on the other side of the division I was moved and grateful to find intimate, personal poems that speak of what is at our fingertips and what is inevitable.
This is the range of his work—perhaps it would misrepresent Djordjevic’s work if Simic had filtered the poems that compare a potato to “a dark-hued pharaoh resting in peace” (“Spud”) from the poems that face the inevitability of our own death with an eerie simplicity (though not to the point of resignation), as in “The Dream”: “I know that all my dreams will die the day / death takes me to a place where streets / have no names. . .” However, I cannot hold back that at times I wished I was reading the filtered version. Give me the poet staring into the face of death, of utter human vulnerability.
I won’t deny that much comes down to taste. I admit my preferences usually dwell on the side of writing that vigilantly attends to capturing things as they are. Something Eliot Weinberger writes in his preface to George Oppen’s New Collected Poems seemed to sum up the kind of resistance I felt to some of Djordjevic’s poems. Weinberger writes that Oppen nurses “an obstinate blindness to all forms of surrealism, which he saw as an escape from, and not a way into, current realities.” But that intolerance for surrealism, Weinberger understands, came from “Oppen’s standard, his obsession, [which] was ‘honesty’ in the poem. . .”
Though I do not discriminate against surreal poetry to the extent that Oppen apparently did, I stand in awe of surreal work that, in its departure from the commonplace, never forgets that something is still at stake and actually brings me back (perhaps through contrast) into intimate contact with the real and current world around me.
Thus, to any vein of poetry—and to my life—like Oppen, I bring a standard of “honesty.” When I held Djordjevic’s poems to it, some were so honest that they struck me on a physical level (in Dickinson’s measure of poetry), while others seemed to hover in a non-place where honesty was beside the point (out of sight, out of mind). The poems that stand out to me as the strongest in the collection are those in which Djordjevic applies his penchant for surreal images to quotidian, personal, and, ultimately, honest meditations.
Fate is one of the paramount themes running amok like a banshee throughout Djordjevic’s poems. When, in “Two Pigeons,” Djordjevic remarks, “I see the wire is empty, / as if they both suddenly took off flapping their wings, / god knows where or why” (65), he touches on this theme of questionable causality, of inexplicability. Djordjevic seems to waver, like any thoughtful and sensitive person does, between acceptance of the idea that there is no reason for any of this, and, on the other hand, a wary sense that this is all happening for a reason (however inaccessible that reason may be to us). His poems span a range of understanding. He says at one point, “Long ago the gods left us leaving everything at the mercy / of history and our mortality” (“Clouds,” 47) and suggests a painful change of perspective later in the book when he says in the excellent poem “Regarding Fate,” “There was a time I didn’t believe in fate. / Today I’m drowning in it” (79). Djordjevic is able to address questions of metaphysics and causality, questions of god and of fate, through various focal points. A scene as common as two pigeons flying away, or an event as personally catastrophic as a maiming car accident—both occurrences are joined, Djordjevic seems to suggest, by their inexplicable accidence . . . “god knows where or why.”
Paradoxically, as soon as these poems attribute occurrence to accidence, they beg me to question, are there accidents? They stroke the idea of a predetermined fate. However, as a writer who lived through the ethnic violence in the Balkans and as an outspoken opponent of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, the danger of entertaining the idea that “everything happens for a reason” or “there are no accidents” is not lost on Djordjevic. His poems force us to consider how any god or fate could exist in a world where a large part of the human experience is war and suffering. In “The Game,” Djordjevic depicts a man who used to laugh but is now silenced by what has happened:
Now he plays without words, without laughter or anger,
shocked by human stupidity and cruelty.
He yearns for the ripeness of October afternoons
…at the conclusion of this tired century—our loathsome lair. (53)
I am grateful to any writer whose poems have the guts to bring to the surface the disquieting, unanswerable questions: Why were some people born into a time and place of war while others were born into peace? What tragedy might yet befall us, by accidence or fate? Does anything that happens to us and do our actions make a difference in something beyond our own life?
Djordjevic does not come to any solid answers for his endless questions about existence and fate (nor would I expect him to). Instead, he settles on an articulation of the way things are now; a portrait of what we have done to ourselves, to each other and to the world, and what we will do in the future. Listen to the haunting, dreadfully mournful premonition in his poem “Answers”:
You seek answers to your questions, since you don’t know who you are
where you come from and where you are going?…
…Blind man, the answers are to be found in things you will do!
…Or they are inside you, since in the next war you’ll kill a friend.
And it may be that one night after a lengthy storm
in a solitary house next to the wild Atlantic, you’ll discover
that the world is a story told by someone forgetful.
Someone who never repeats the story, someone who will never,
never come, though they call him, though they wait for him,
the way the parched Gobi desert waits for hot rain. (49)
Another prominent theme in Oranges and Snow is the personal narrative of feeling lost, searching for something that feels right and whole. Djordjevic reminds his readers that being lost is not an experience that only refugees of war feel—instead, we may not know when we started feeling this way, or precisely why we feel this way; it is a condition that we are born with, that some of us carry with us wherever we go.
Djordjevic is forthright in his expressions of loneliness. In the poem “Sea Voyage,” his self-portrayal to the sea wolves (wonderfully strange addressees) is uncomfortably acute and unbuffered. He reveals himself as a wandering orphan who is desperately seeking a new realm in which to exist,
Here I am, wise and experienced sea wolves,
I’m an orphan, no one needs me on land.
Let the choppy ocean adopt me as its own.
Take me, captain, you of the longest voyage,
I’m exchanging the dry boredom of land’s certainties
for the thrill and infinite uncertainty of the sea. . . (19)
The goal of his voyage is not to lose himself, but to find himself. It is a voyage fueled by alienation, hope, and courage. The speaker in these poems displays startling courage and the conviction of someone who is wholly ready for profound change. Here, he is ready to hurl himself toward “infinite uncertainty.” In my experience, the unknown, the uncertain, is something—no matter how drab, confined and monotonous our daily lives may be—that few people are willing to give themselves over to.
It is with this spirit of readiness for something new that Djordjevic actively sets out on a path, built by his imagination, toward transformation, toward a reality that makes him feel at home—with himself as much as with a place. In the dynamic poem, “A Path,” he mixes lyric and declarative tones when he describes his purpose,
I seek a path or a road between the fields
salted with black frost and fine snow, imprisoned
by barbed wire, I seek a reliable path
or a frozen road that will take me from here. (21)
As the poem develops, we see that what takes the reader away, the path, is the imagination. A delightful departure takes place. The speaker’s imagination leaps into the past, into visceral memories. Sensual, colorful details appear, “I’m thinking about a red orange from Greece. . . . / I’m thinking about a round breast in the dark / which saying goodbye years ago I didn’t kiss.” As soon as the poem lilts with a melancholy timbre, “I’m sad as a rusty cooking pot thrown in a ditch. . . ,” it picks up in tone, in hopefulness:
After much roaming around, I found a dependable path,
I found a road that leads into the center of a small town.
There I will have a beer, and will send you, distant friend
with the speed of a snowball rolling down a hill,
this elegiac message free of covert meanings.
This is a poetry and a poet that seeks to belong and connect. Djordjevic is at his best when he allows the reader to witness him stumbling on that path—because it is a path we all must wrangle with at one point or another in our lives—and the recognition of that common experience enables connection.
Part of Djordjevic’s experience of being lost involves feeling trapped. In the poem “Aquarium,” Djordjevic gives voice to the fish who plea with the boy watching them from the other side of the glass, “‘Save us, boy! Free us all, free us! / Break the walls of our narrow, transparent cage!'” (29). But we know that the plea of the fish could very well be our own human plea against the walls that hold us in. In this poem, however, the boy breaks the aquarium’s wall and the fish “spill on the black asphalt /. . . .Bleed, / . . . . gasp for air in the mild night and die.” Here, reality is not so inescapable by a flair of imagination. The walls are glass, the fish do not survive. Instead, what persists is the reality of “darkness and pale colors of the city.”
Perhaps an antidote to being lost, a salve for feeling wounded and imprisoned has something to do with uniting disparate parts—a thematic wish shining through the most of these poems, the wish to unify, to make whole again or for the first time. In the interesting poem, “Aachen,” the speaker declares with a mix of defiance and hope, “With [the help of German Telekom] I’ll reestablish ties between creatures / of the past and future, all distant and near things, / autumn’s colors of cinnabar, embers from a fire and winter ice” (39).
Despite the dour aspect of many of these poems, hope runs through them like a brook in spring after the snows melt. Hear Djordjevic’s uncomplicated and contagious confidence in “Little Joy,”
Yes, you, too will finally come.
A small, ordinary, daily joy.
You’ll be the slice of rye bread,
or a glass filled with cold milk. (27)
The poem moves toward the marvelously strange, even mythical, image when the speaker surrenders himself to the pleasure of imaginging he will carry that joy to bed, “and sleep the way the earth sleeps next to a spring.”
Thus, Djordjevic’s reality is wide and inclusive. It has room for the “ordinary, daily joy” and the wounded fish sprawled in front of a shattered aquarium; for the pallor of an empty German city on a Sunday and the precious excitement of finding “words the way one finds blackberries in the woods” (“Waking,” 43). In his poem “Reality,” he provides a litany of what might constitute it. The poem has an easy, pleasant tone and flow, like the mind floating from one idea to another, touching briefly on “The reality of a fruit, meat and earth’s dampness. / The reality of metal, concrete, dry and naked meadows, / white phosphorous. . . / the reality of stone, water and sand dunes” (57). This poem delivers to the reader the quiet peacefulness of considering things from afar—but it exhibits an intellectual relationship to reality that leaves me wanting something more raw, something that is real, instead of talking about the real.
Only in Part III of the book are we granted admission to the speaker’s reality as it is (not a distanced discussion of it). In the poem “Solitude,” Djordjevic admits us to his tenuous lair of recovery where desperation and hope replace each other like images coming in and out of focus. We are allowed to experience what it might feel like to live in a “thick midnight that won’t blow over.” We are allowed to see how much it hurts to live even one day in this speaker’s reality:
. . .I’m stripped of my abilities,
normal movement, speech, ability to swallow.
I’m reduced to watching things and other forms of life
around me while what is within me
is as blurred as a cloud of morning mist.
. . . everywhere midnight reigns. . . . (77)
The poem, “Regarding Fate,” also revealed only in Part III, occupies a higher level of consciousness, of honesty, and of writing, than most of the poems in this selection. The poems “Days” also exhibits these qualities. In “Regarding Fate,” Djordjevic accomplishes a spare, beautiful and painfully honest portrayal of where the speaker finds himself in the present moment. We are allowed to inhabit the space beside this fragile, frustrated, broken but surviving and searingly sensitive mind as he gathers twigs in the garden and is
curious about stones, grasses, rains,
snows, woods, fires and sea waves,
and hundreds of other small and large things,
while being chained securely to this wall
by a short iron chain. (79)
We feel the weight of the “hundreds of other small and large things” press on our chests with the limits they imply, all that is out of reach, beyond the speaker’s garden, inaccessible and seemingly infinite. It is an honor to feel that weight—when he lets us—to share, however briefly, the wonderful and terrible burden of being alive.
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Galen Strawson, in his essay, “Against Narrativity,” challenges the validity of the popularly held hypothesis that human beings experience and make sense of their lives as narratives. The effects of narrative self-articulation, he says, are “potentially pernicious.” The predisposition “to look for story or narrative coherence in one’s life is, in general, a gross hindrance to self-understanding.” He distinguishes between Diachronics and Episodics, individuals who view the narrative arc of their lives as continuous, versus those who see their lives as discontinuous. The Episodic view, he shows, is less dangerous because it tends to mitigate the temptation to fabricate and revise our stories in order to reflect what we want to see ourselves as rather than who we really are. “Diachronicity” “is not a necessary part of the ‘examined life.’”
Bidart’s “Golden State” might be seen as an examination of the diachronic urge in the form of a dramatic monologue. On the surface it’s a poem about the poet coming to terms with his father through therapeutic autobiography. But it also questions the role of narrative to decipher experience and achieve self-understanding.
The poem is divided into ten numbered sections that relate to each other in complicated and multifaceted ways. There is linear progression, but the more important structure is a psychological one. The speaker encounters each scene like he is flipping through a photo album or shuffling a pack of cards in which each card contains a riddle or puzzle that must be solved. The poem emphasizes the processof reaching insight—a personal “dawn”—rather than a finished product or presentation of the son’s discovered meaning. Finally, the recurrence of subjects creates a partially cyclical structure. Each section returns to the same problem from a different angle, and the son’s slowly-evolving ability to respond is realized only through repeated encounters.
The first several sections of the poem recount frustrating altercations with his father, who is a constant source of disruption. The father is a wild and confusing force that the speaker fails to understand: “And yet your voice, raw, / demanding, dissatisfied [. . .] remains [. . .].” By the middle sections of the poem, the speaker is determined to analyze the father’s failure in life because he recognizes his own need to understand and appropriate that failure as part of his own identity. The process starts with resisting the easy explanation, which he relied on previously. This means revisiting the facts of his father’s history and puzzling over the baffling patterns of behavior.
By the eighth section, the speaker starts to see his father’s failures as part of the wider scope of human struggle. This requires reconfiguring the father’s role in the son’s narrative: “I must unlearn; I must believe // you were merely a man— / with a character, and a past.” The son must transform his father, who he has always experienced as the villain, into an antihero. Section “IX” allows this to happen, wherein the son recognizes that his own attitude and actions, motivated by bitterness, has implicated him in his father’s downfall; he then sees himself as part of the same inevitable cycle of contradictory forces that defined his father’s life.
The final section claims that narrative approach has failed: “no such knowledge is possible.” The speaker is left with disparate images of his father—looking at old photographs, he “cannot connect” the “handsome, dashing, elegant” man in early adulthood with “the defensive / gnarled would-be cowboy” of later life. The son concludes that his father is “happy / to be surprising; unknowable; unpossessable . . . // You say it’s what you always understood by freedom.” The father remains allusive—narrative, in the end, fails to (de)mythologize him.
The speaker’s ultimate discovery is that he must let his father remain unknown, untellable, beyond narrative. By letting go of the needto explain his father’s life, the son allows the father remains “free,” and the son, while not finding what he originally sought, discovers himself as part of the same set of forces that governed his father’s life, although he has avoided their destructive forces.
As Bidart explains in his interview with Halliday, the son’s “way of ‘solving problems’” is the converse of the persona of “Herbert White,” who “give[s] himself to a violent pattern growing out of the dramas of his past.” The speaker of “Golden State” steers clear of the pitfall of a revisionist or reductive account of his father. The episodic, discursive structure of “Golden State” reflects the skepticism of the final section. Rather than a linear, “ordered” narrative, the poem assumes a fragmentary nature, with partial, juxtaposed glimpses of the father’s life. This method of writing seems to go to the heart of Bidart’s poetics: “I needed a way to embody the mind moving through the elements of its word, actively contending with and organizing them, while they somehow retain the illusion of their independence and nature, are felt as ‘out there’ or ‘other.’”
Poetry & Episodic Narration
Is poetry, especially lyric poetry, intrinsically predisposed toward episodic, rather than diachronic, narration? We know that the traditional dichotomy of narrative v. lyric is false, but on the other hand, modern poetry has substantially shifted toward story telling through implication by means of images. The “image narrative” offers mere snapshots that are often temporally isolated clusters of events and images. Consider Pound’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.” The middle stanzas are simply a series of snapshots: “At fourteen I married My Lord you. / … At fifteen I stopped scowling, . . . / At sixteen you departed . . . .” The image narrative, one might argue, is the natural way for a lyric poem to tell a story. It allows the poet to stay concrete, to “show not tell,” to compress and to juxtapose. As a series of shots or tableaux with little or no connecting “syntax,” the image narrative foregrounds discontinuity, fragmentation, isolated scenes and episodes. It resists closure and false cause-and-effect logic.
Is it possible, then, that generic customs tend to align poetry to episodic thinking, whereas novels, for example, pressures individuals to frame experience diachronically? If so, might poetry offer an important corrective to society’s apparent preference for diachronic thinking? One might facetiously cite an example like Twilight and other teen fiction (or any fiction for that matter) with formulaic plot structures that create a false sense of coherence to life and suggest the inevitability of one’s (eventual) fulfillment and self-actualization (or cosmic justice or closure).
If a diachronic framework for interpreting our lives is at least partially misguided, as Swanson and Bidart suggest, a good many of us might be living in self-deceiving fictions. Ironically, this implies a critique opposite to the one we often here leveled against the 21st century—the libel bemoaning our diminished ability to think in terms of the “big picture,” to act out of a sense of the whole of life and history. While, of course, an inability to think outside of the present is pathological, so is forcing all experience into a “big picture.” The problem for all of us is that narrative seems to hold a privileged position in the hierarchy of meaning-making and we have subconsciously absorbed it as an the overarching structure for comprehending reality. So: what to do with the diachronic urge? Do episodic “image narratives” offer a viable alternative?
This is one of my favorite Stevens poems, and I was very cheered when I found out years later that Stevens felt the same. When I first read “Large Red Man Reading,” I thought he had Matisse in the back round of his mind. Years later, I found out he was, indeed, a great admirer of Matisse. The elemental colors, and the longing of the dead to get back into the world—to feel thorns, cold, anything elemental—the pots above the stove—this was a much greater version of what Thornton Wilder attempted to get at in his play, Our Town. It is the implied mystical oxymoron of desiring and longing for what we already have. In this sense, Stevens is the great poet of the obvious.
Poeisis is not a form of intelligence, but, rather, stupidity in its old sense: as that which arrests the intelligence, which stuns us from “being” into being. Stevens leaves us standing before the one who reads, and what he reads is the new law of what Wallace called the poem of earth. To state the obvious—to truly state it—is the most difficult task of poetry. Stevens is saying what Rilke said: rock, tree…name them. This poem invokes. It is about invocation, the most ancient of poetical powers. It conjures. The large red man might be the sun fading in the west. He invokes what is living before night returns the dead to their rest. It is Stevens’ poem of the living and the dead. I am in awe of it.
Large Red Man Reading
There were ghosts that returned to earth to hear his phrases,
As he sat there reading, aloud, the great blue tabulae.
They were those from the wilderness of stars that had expected more.
There were those that returned to hear him read from the poem of life,
Of the pans above the stove, the pots on the table, the tulips among them.
They were those that would have wept to step barefoot into reality,
That would have wept and been happy, have shivered in the frost
And cried out to feel it again, have run fingers over leaves
And against the most coiled thorn, have seized on what was ugly
And laughed, as he sat there reading, from out of the purple tabulae,
The outlines of being and its expressings, the syllables of its law: Poesis, poesis, the literal characters, the vatic lines,
Which in those ears and in those thin, those spended hearts,
Took on color, took on shape and the size of things as they are
And spoke the feeling for them, which was what they had lacked.
By this point in his career Kevin Young is an old hand at the psychic restoration of outside source material. His books, including Jelly Roll, To Repel Ghosts, and Black Maria, have each found something lyrical in the dry air of various historical and cultural archives while maintaining a crucial link to his own personal experience and sense of family. This is key to the work in Ardency because it’s his least personal book so far, but in many ways that allows him to approach those same emotions within the book’s historical characters from a more objective stance. Kevin Young rehydrates history with the often impenetrable abstract motivations of humanity, those emotions both feral and civil that run through us all.
Those human characters, and their voices, are the cornerstone of Ardency. This epic embodies in verse their experience as men, boys, and girls kidnapped from the paths winding through their home country of Sierra Leone, illegally (as opposed to amorally) sold into slavery in Cuba, who then rebelled on their ship and attempted to sail east to Africa only to find that they were being misdirected towards New York at night, where they were tried, and with the intervention of abolitionists and a president, set free. But that’s all the testable material.
For everything past the introduction, Kevin is filling in the cracks and doing so with warmth, music, and brevity (only a handful poems last longer than a page). Headlines, locations, and names are bandied about to serve the poem and its multi-dimensional enterprise:
__________________The whole country flocks
to watch you at play, a flea circus somersetting
the prison Green. Warden claims the proceeds
for your bail & newspaper reviews of jail
go well:—They crouch like tailors, teeth like stars in inky faces, black headlines blare. No one dares
how you still may be sold, stolen like a scene.
The language is somersetting around itself, becoming the textual embodiment of the circus while we read aghast as twenty-first century ignoramuses of this experience. We read “black headlines blare” and trip over the subtext but it’s all part of the spectacle that the poem reenacts so concisely. Reenactment is a fair approximation of what this poetry accomplishes, as something beyond reportage but free of the budgetary and chronological constraints of cinema but fully immersed in the drama of experience. From “Testimony”:
You call us rebels____we were spoons
in that ship for so long____the wood
dark, drowned as the men who
made it from song____sold on land
like ships____like us____christened
out of water
This is the type of historical document that should be read, taught, and discussed from classrooms K through Ph.D. Kevin is so clearly integrated with the tools of poetry that even first time readers can sense the distance it keeps from fiction, what is conveyed through an image of men spooned together at the bottom of the ship as literal cargo surpasses statistical analysis. This book comes closest to the actual experience on the Amistad, and more importantly, afterwards.
The strength of the first two sections is such that the third, “Witness”, initially left me gasping in their wake. “Witness” is the majority of the book and is definitively elegant. But where “Buzzard” and “Correspondance” teem with character, setting, and energy, “Witness” gives a slight advantage to quantity over quality.
I frequently found myself wondering if I’d read this poem or that poem earlier in the manuscript, wondering where the fervor went. No single poem is bad, each carries the same weight, but by the end that weight begins to feel repetitive. “Witness” pulls down on the eyes and the mind. Which might not be a terrible thing: it’s easy to breeze through some poems about the hardships undergone by these rebels, get a sense of their misfortune, then throw a movie on or step out for some falafel. Elements of song are interspersed with the single eyewitness account of Cinque, leader of the rebellion. But it’s hard to determine Cinque’s character, especially after the captivating montage of the first two sections.
did I know
then, learned it
and silent and covered
even the trees.
Inside my cell
There neither do lions
speak, nor preach
till the sand beneath
the sea shifts
till the waves
erase the names.
By the time we hear this poem Cinque feels less like a man and more like an amalgamation of suffering, endurance, and trial. Job is the easy comparison, which may be why these poems initially felt so thin to me. But upon second consideration, “Witness” is more than just viewing. It makes the reader the witness, emotionally enduring the same tolls heaped upon Cinque and his fellow rebels. Names are erased, everything is left cold and silent, the mere adoption of the language and religion of the West is enough to obliterate these rebels. Which is sort of how I felt after reading this section, a sense of obliteration, exhaustion, but a need to carry on.
The themes of cold and snow, this new world Merica, and home bounce around “Witness” in constant rotation. This mimics the thought of a captive, someone kidnapped from their home and forced through horrific ideals, someone who has to find something to hold onto mentally in order to maintain some level of sanity. A 240-page historical epic poem already carries the potential for exhaustion, but perhaps this last section is meant to be more meditative. Like overwhelming the trees with silence, or the tides that erase the names of the dead, the trauma of witness can overwhelm the human psyche, and perhaps this is the feeling I approach when reading through the section.
Despite my first impression, the impact of “Witness” has caused me to more deeply ponder the effects of this history on Kevin Young and the readers of Ardency. I may not have felt as much throughout reading it, but I can hardly flip to a page without finding the nuance and pace of the first two sections working in a similar way, albeit one that must simmer. While I still feel that those poems of “Witness” don’t quite shine as individually as the ones of the first two sections (and the final “Afterword”), the bulk of its reading is subliminally affective, which may be closer to the truth of these rebel’s experiences than any proclamation.
Ultimately, Ardency is a poised, fantastic collection that I can’t wait to share with my students. In terms of documentary poetics and its potential, this book is quite fitting as another feather in Kevin Young’s cap.
Since I moved into my current house off of Kennedy street in Northwest last summer, Busboys and Poets, located just down 14th Street in the vibrant U Street corridor, has become an increasingly frequented spot. The bookstore/bar/restaurant is a cultural bastion for the bookishly inclined across the usually stark cultural divide in Washington, and the prevalent African American themes create a unique flavor not found at Kramers or Politics and Prose. The background music (which remains happily in the background) spins current and classic jams and R&B. The bookstore, considerably smaller than Kramers and P&P, identifies itself by content that you can’t find at the other two. The fiction and poetry sections focus primarily on the African American experience in a much more involved way, sporting the best black writers from across generations, many of whom you’ve never heard of. Their politics and culture section is beefed up, with shelves devoted to (mostly leftist, in a good way) accounts of the economic, political, social, and religious issues of the major regions of the world. What they lack in size, then, they compensate for with books that are hard to come by most elsewhere.
When you enter at the front (two doors up 14th from Marvin, one of the best restaurants in the city), the restaurant opens to the right. Two-person tables are interspersed among couches occupied by various types with laptops. If you turn to face this open area, the bar is on the left wall, adorned with a mural depicting manifestations of African-American femininity. The bookstore is located directly ahead of the entrance, before you have a chance to turn into the restaurant proper. After browsing the fiction section and turning a couple pages of D.C. Noir, I find a seat at the bar and order from their comprehensive beer selection and sneakily exquisite dinner menu (which sports many vegan and gluten-free meals). With Magic Hat in hand and shrimp and chorizo pasta on the way, I dig into Edward P. Jones’ All Aunt Hagar’s Children. As the late afternoon turned into early evening, more people arrived from work, and the conversational din began to rise. One can make an outing from eavesdropping, and the setup is conducive to it.
After dinner, I make my way to the back of the restaurant, past an area of high tables and booths and into the Langston Room (named after the poet), an enclosed space that hosts readings and discussions on a regular basis. The theme of the room is peace, and the walls are decorated with images and phrases from the likes of Ghandi, King, and the Dalai Llama, as well as local artists. Tonight I am here to see Jones himself, who was to discuss his participation in Marita Golden’s new book, a collection of interviews with major black writers about their literary upbringings. This was thrilling for me. Jones famously rarely appears in public. He was as I expected him to be: painfully shy, shielding his face from the spotlight throughout, barely making eye contact with questioners. Never smiling. He’s not prickly per se, but not as generous as other writers I’ve seen. His discomfort made me wonder why he agreed to show up at all, though I chalked it up to his character and loyalty to friend Golden. My mild disappointment was assuaged at the book signing, where I told him that I was a fifth generation Washingtonian, and my father had grown up in Southeast. He seemed to like that, and smiled when I told him he was DC’s Homer. My signed copy of The Known World is now one of my treasures.
Experiences like these are not uncommon at Busboys. Keep your eyes peeled on their website, busboysandpoets.com, for weekly open mic nights, and even more frequent readings and discussions with important writers from the African American, academic, and local spheres. The place hops for most of the day, from lunch, to afternoon coffee, to happy hour, to early evening events, to dessert and late-night conversation. Stop in before a night out on U St., or afterwards.
I received a very important lesson from my father. We were driving around in the part of New Jersey he grew up in–a once rural area called Chester that was now suburban. He was sad because the street he had lived on so many years before was much smaller in reality than in memory and he mistook it for a driveway. We stopped by a field of sunflowers. He was staring at the nodding heads of these enormous flowers, and I was throwing pebbles at a stop sign. Two people joined us. One had a camera. Out of the head of the sunflower, exploding from the head, came a bird that had the same color scheme as the sun flower: bright yellow, with black markings. It made an undulating flight over the road into a thicket of trees. “Sun sparrow.” My dad said. “You mean Eastern gold finch” the lady with the camera interjected. “No lady, I mean sun sparrow. That’s what we called them.” My dad then provided the scientific name for the bird, and said: “Come on kid let’s get out of here. The smell of experts makes me sick.”
I had three names now for a bird I didn’t know. I don’t remember the scientific name, but I remembered sun sparrow, and Eastern Gold finch. I found out it was the state bird of New Jersey. You would think the state bird would be all over the place, but we lived in the urban area of Jersey–what some have called the armpit of the universe: Elizabeth. In Elizabeth, starlings and Eurasian tree sparrows comprise the niche Eastern Gold finches or sun sparrows might otherwise fill.
It was ten years before I saw another–the day after my father died. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to be away from my family, so I took a walk along deserted railroad tracks, where there were thickets and weeds. I looked up from my shoes, and there was my dad’s “Sun sparrow” perched on a slender stalk of Queen Anne’s lace. It made me cry. I got down on me knees, and held my stomach. It was as if I had been shot–the arrow of love, of memory, of how this accident could shake me to my core. I said “sun sparrow” out loud, and the bird undulated away from me into a dense tangle of brush. I thought about the smell of experts making him sick. As a teenager I had often thought my father an idiot. I now understood how much of an idiot I was.
Names have power, especially when they are linked to memory and emotion, when they act as a part for some vital whole. They stand in for existence. All names are misnomers. Exactitude is the myth we concoct all too often to exclude, to prove we are experts, to prove we own something that can never truly be owned. Used well, names allow us to enter, to understand, to raise our sense of wonder and awe ever higher. Used badly, they become the stink of experts, the rank odor of snobbery and exclusion.
I tell my students that education can do the work of evil: it can make a bunch of aleatory systems with PHDs think they have a right to be superior to the Rocky Weils of this world. They can make a son misunderstand the wisdom of his own father. They stink of torture and snobbery, they are rank with the odor of exclusion and bias, and we call this “truth” or “Dogma” or “terminology.” If we are not careful, the knowing of names can be substituted for wisdom. They become a false wisdom. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me….” sure. Names kill. Names distance us from the stupidity of our actions. When we can call people collateral damage, we no longer have to confront them as a child with a soccer ball, who like your child, wanted to play, who, unlike your child, stepped on a mine and was blown into a thousand pieces.
As a teacher, I worry about power more than anything else. If I arm a student with names and terms, and so called knowledge, and forget that wisdom is not a slave to any of these tricks, I may be doing great harm. I may be perpetuating the very snobbery that allows professors at cocktail parties to call my father, who I loved, “White trash.” I may be allowing the student to think he or she is better than someone else when the truth is, at ground zero, we are all the bitter comedy of aleatory systems: we eat, we shit, we die. Some of us, because of our names, our use of names, our semiotics can eat and shit and die in the better places. My dad had a saying that summed up our human lust for status very nicely: “If life were nothing but a bowl of shit, there would be a whole group of people feeling superior because they lived in the corn section, and a whole other group doing whatever they could to get to the corn section, and then there’d be a group of people feeling lousy because they lived near the peppers.” It’s disgusting, but true.
The beginning of wisdom is the knowledge of ground zero: What is the ground of my being? If I think it is all aleatory, then it is hard for me to feel better or worse than others. If I think it is God and that I am saved, then I can circumvent the equality of the aleatory, and make distinctions. If I don’t believe in God, this does not save me from distinction because I will believe in things: having certain things, a certain reputation, a certain status will become my God. I will serve it–often bitterly. I will obey my lust to mean, even when, at my core, I feel meaningless. If I feel meaningless, I will find a group who feels the same way, and look with scorn at those who believe they are meaningful.
Equality does not flourish except in theory. In the day to day and the minute to minute, we are reading signs, and being read by signs and making distinctions between signs, unaware that, we, ourselves, are a sign. We are signs reading signs, and almost all of it is inexact–a measure, not a truth. Read a sign wrongly, and you are liable to be killed. Be read wrongly, and you are liable to be killed. Call an Eastern Gold finch a sun sparrow, and you are likely to get corrected by some lady with a camera. The lady was correct, but she showed little wisdom correcting a father who was sharing a moment and memory with his son. Some forms of incorrectness have greater depth than the correct. Science can use the exact, but poetry, especially great poetry can make of imperfections the kingdom and mercy of heaven. It can also get people killed. To die for an idea, or because you are an idea, or because you get caught in a certain cluster of ideas is the meaning of both war and of a university education. Ideas and names kill. We should never forget this. They also help us to live. We should not forget this, either.
So with this in mind, arm yourself with literary terms. Used well, used in order to enter or understand a text, these terms may provide you with some deeper sense of joy or wonder, or knowledge. Used badly, they might allow you to look smart and superior at some boring party. It’s up to you.
At the insistent behest of Joe Weil I have picked up a few Kenneth Burke books. In Joe’s opinion, Burke is one of the great American minds who has been unjustly put out of fashion. The more I read Burke, the more I agree with Joe. I’ve found that Burke’s explanations of art resonate with me as an artist. For example, Burke’s essay “The Poetic Process” (from Counter-Statement) delineates the relationship between the “emotion” that inspires writing, symbol, and technical form in an incredibly believable way.
Burke begins with dreams:
…at times we look back on the dream and are mystified at the seemingly unwarranted emotional responses which the details “aroused” in us. Trying to convey to others the emotional overtones of this dream, we laboriously recite the details, and are compelled at every turn to put in such confessions of defeat as “There was something strange about the room,” or “for some reason or other I was afraid of this boat, although there doesn’t seem any good reason now.”
This is because, as Burke says, “the details were not the cause of the emotion; the emotion, rather, dictated the selection of details…Similarly, a dreamer may awaken himself with his own hilarious laughter, and be forthwith humbled as he recalls the witty saying of his dream. For the delight in the witty saying came first (was causally prior) and the witty saying itself was merely the externalization, or individuation, of his delight.”
In what seems to be the inverse of Eliot’s “objective correlative,” the emotion directions the choice of imagery. The imagery becomes “symbol” at this point. Burke compares this to a grandparent who tries to share all the details of his or her childhood as a way to communicate the “overtones” of the experience. The grandparent wants to express themselves, their feelings.
Yet an artist does not want to express their feelings. Rather, they want to evoke emotion in the audience: “The maniac attains self-expression when he tells us that he is Napoleon; but Napoleon attained self-expression by commanding an army….transferring the analogy, the self-expression of an artist, qua artist, is not distinguished by the uttering of emotion, but by the evocation of emotion.” One of the most dreaded things I hear is somebody describing their own personal poetry as self-expression. I don’t dread it because I begrudge that person’s personal art, but usually because a request to read their work and give feedback follows. And almost always the work is terrible. Why? Because it’s solely concerned with self-expression and the would-be poet feels no obligation to anyone but his or herself. A person like that will not hear any advice; they seek affirmation. Our writing goals are not the same. As Burke puts it “If, as humans, we cry out that we are Napoleon, as artists we seek to command an army.”
In short, we begin with emotion, which dictates choice of symbol, for which the systematic concern thereof creates technique. Tom Sleigh once memorably asked my MFA class “do you, as a poet, logos into eros or eros into logos?” I forget what my answer was at the moment since I was stubborn and probably more concerned with subverting the question. Burke’s essay, however, has interesting parallels. (For the record, today I’d probably say, with Burke, that I eros into logos, which might account for a recent turn toward formalism in my poetry.)
Before ending, I want to note the parallel between Burke’s point and my point (via Rexroth–or, more accurately, Rexroth via me) about Tu Fu, who I described as writing in a way that suggests “that the category break [between feeling and image/symbol] is weaker than we think. The image (object) is already interpreted: ‘values are the way we see things.'” If Burke’s description of the poetic process is accurate, Tu Fu’s poem is actually winding backward toward the origin of his poetry, backwards through the linked images interpreting one another, back toward the initial thought/emotion/impulse which led to the first decision to communicate, to attempt evocation.
I hate when poets are called brave. Gets on my nerves. Fearless is another term I find dubious. Poets win grants. They are professionals. Most poetry festivals are lamer and more sedate than Star Trek conventions. If I pick up a poetry book and see the words “brave” or “fearless” in any of the blurbs, I think twice about buying it. No one is brave or fearless if they live in the suburbs, have tenure, or inhabit parts of Manhattan that have been made safe by the police force. This is not brave. Being fearless in a poem is along the same lines as being an aggressive grandmother expressing road rage in an old Buick sedan. Spare me. Being “brave” in a poem is like those snide one liners people zing you with from the safety of a Facebook comment.
But, sometimes, poets write poems that aren’t being considered for an award. Sometimes they are writing out of some necessity beyond the latest AWP bullshit. (anyone for the “long poem” or the “poem of place?”) Sometimes poets are good in ways no one gave them permission to be. No one kissed their bums at the work shop, or published them in some glossy university magazine that is full of “brave” poets. They just wrote something that was fully cooked (Hate the term raw) and happened to contain your children. They served it up to you, and you ate it, and asked for second helpings, and, only realized later when you went back to your part of the world where police make it unnecessary for you to be brave, that you ate your own future. They make you complicit in a crime. They made you destroy the evidence. They feed you something you hadn’t counted on, and it goes beyond your usual dietary restrictions. These poets are sneaky, and lethal, and kill you with stealth, and have the skill for abomination. Abomination—true abomination—takes great skill. All true burns are controlled burns. All the knives are sharpened to such perfection that the victims can voice no cry. Such poets don’t need to be brave or fearless because they scare the shit out of you. After reading them, you know your pantoum sequence is a lie, and your ears are made of tin, and it does not matter if you won six grants, and had a blurb from Jesus: you know you’re a liar, and a hack, and you better step up your game. The poet I picked for this week is like that: a skilled assassin, a pro in the way pros ought to be, taking what she thought was useful from American poetry, and leaving the rest with its throat slashed on the floor.
I first read Ai when I was a teenager and didn’t know any better. She didn’t whine, even when she was dumped, or ignored, or had to suffer fools gladly. She got them back. Her poems had sex in them, but not as a recreational activity. They were driven by some inner magic I couldn’t forget, and which stayed with me for days, and it made me rip up two notebooks of poetry. She was intense in a way that made the comedians and the clever keep their mouths shut. They’d never say to her: Ai, where’s your sense of humor? Compared to her, Christopher Walken was a fucking nun playing Lady of Spain on a mandolin. She tossed all the buildings out of the way, sent cars flying, and made me stand alone to face her, and, being street smart, I got the hell out of there.
I would have never wanted to meet Ai. Her poems have a fierce precision that precludes any literary lunches. Ai’s work reminds me that poets don’t need to be brave, or fearless. They need to be good, and, if possible, ferocious. I know she’s dead, but if I was near her grave, I’d walk carefully and I’d take off my hat. You can never be too careful. A friend of mine went to Monk’s memorial service and had the bad taste to ask Miles Davis for an autograph. “Man,” Miles said, “we’re at a funeral.” My friend said: “I’m sorry, Miles.” Miles Davis said: “Don’t be sorry; be careful.” This seems like an Ai poem. She was not brave and fearless. Great birds of prey don’t have to be brave and fearless. They just know what they’re doing, and they eat you.
I scissor the stem of the red carnation
and set it in a bowl of water.
It floats the way your head would,
if I cut it off.
But what if I tore you apart
for those afternoons
when I was fifteen
and so like a bird of paradise
slaughtered for its feathers.
Even my name suggested wings,
wicker cages, flight.
Come, sit on my lap, you said.
I felt as if I had flown there;
I was weightless.
You were forty and married.
That she was my mother never mattered.
She was a door that opened onto me.
The three of us blended into a kind of somnolence
and musk, the musk of Sundays. Sweat and sweetness.
That dried plum and licorice taste
always back of my tongue
and your tongue against my teeth,
then touching mine. How many times?—
I counted, but could never remember.
And when I thought we’d go on forever,
that nothing could stop us
as we fell endlessly from consciousness,
orders came: War in the north.
Your sword, the gold epaulets,
the uniform so brightly colored,
so unlike war, I thought.
And your horse; how you rode out the gate.
No, how that horse danced beneath you
toward the sound of cannon fire.
I could hear it, so many leagues away.
I could see you fall, your face scarlet,
the horse dancing on without you.
And at the same moment,
Mother sighed and turned clumsily in the hammock,
the Madeira in the thin-stemmed glass
spilled into the grass,
and I felt myself hardening to a brandy-colored wood,
my skin, a thousand strings drawn so taut
that when I walked to the house
I could hear music
tumbling like a waterfall of China silk
I took your letter from my bodice.
Salome, I heard your voice,
little bird, fly. But I did not.
I untied the lilac ribbon at my breasts
and lay down on your bed.
After a while, I heard Mother’s footsteps,
watched her walk to the window.
I closed my eyes
and when I opened them
the shadow of a sword passed through my throat
and Mother, dressed like a grenadier,
bent and kissed me on the lips.
The shotgun shines ___radiant history across the mantle.
The wind rips through a rolodex of the names of the dead. ___It could be a litany, almost ______like the registers of Audubon societies ___and the Who’s Who of West Virginia 1974 ______begging for a trumpet in morning,
a waltz and then a nap ___in the hush of a million miraculously lit libraries.
And in waking, ___a waking more this time than a polite not yet to the idea of death,
the atom of speech. ___Not like an old man mumbling to himself in baseball metaphor, ______but like a drop of rain in the palm, ___reminding that above there are stars in the continual ricochet of triangulation, ______bodies positioning themselves _________in relation to a reference for which ______we have no analog.
But one can take comfort in the miscalculation of the heights of see-saw fulcrums, ___a child running around with a gold wrestling belt, ______brave men on Massachusetts quarters, ___Silver State on silver, ______———-, American.
The wiper does not draw barren Nebraska across the windshield, ___and the merry-go-round children are not about to be
pulled from their fiberglass horses in rapture.
I am acknowledging this.
And yet the story doesn’t end.
An act is a draft for the acts that follow. ___We say forward and pinewood cars fly down their tracks.
After/at and a mother makes the wedding. ___Like a bow.
I haven’t earned this but I’m hitching myself to your kindness.
There is a photo in my living room ___on the back of which scribbled are the words ______memory is an anachronism.
In the picture a child is ___dragging a stick though the sand
in the vacuum of summer. ___And I am sure that each grain had to pick a side.
John Wayne in Municipal Projection
A movie playing on the courthouse lawn, ________________________specked light flooding __________________the summer air.
John Wayne in a panorama of desert ______against the stone wall. Beyond this city
the actual desert stretches
for more miles ______than we have ever known what to do with.
Like the air an empty category, unthinkable
alone. __________________Enough cannot be said of his horse
in its unfathomable redness, ______surveying the prop buffalo in the basin, ____________the rigor of the battle dead.
You said there is nothing true of love ______that is not also true of the Waffle House.
______In the real heat some kids are dancing to an unheard music
in the grass, ______in the light before image,
as though to say these, my feet, ______are the circumference
of my world, ______as if to say I. ____________Stars drown
like pills ______in a soft pink mouth.
The gold dust in the projector light ______has yet to stop falling.
In the Cordage of the Municipality
The aperture of dawn breaks
over the government lake
embalming our long apprenticeship
to dust stalled in the tertiary gloss.
The scrutiny of a man between needs.
The wanting less to be oneself
than to hold one’s place—
to insist sincerity is only
the desire to have said
what one has said.
The rooms replenish themselves
with a stable of objects:
an apple core browning in the drain,
button shirts hung in the limpid forms of bodies elsewhere,
in a stable of rooms which relay their tedium
like figurations in a language made of a single word.
The city remains and the city is grammar.
I still have my 4th grade book bag. Alone, at five in the morning, I picked the rusted lock with a paper clip, and discovered the 10-year-old Joe Weil’s first literary efforts, all crumpled up, in my terrible hand writing, but the meters of the poems were perfect. I remembered using that bag as a make shift sleigh, sliding across the parking lot at the acme super market. The entire route to school, and the voices of my friends turned to smoke in the winter’s air, returned to me. The weirdest things survive. I lost my parents and some of those friends also died: Eric, who introduced me to vampire comics and Henry Miller novels, his brother Greg who netted the biggest trout I ever caught, Huey who threw a good fast ball, and liked jamming with me on the piano. I found a poem in which I’d written about a guy who shoots into the wrong basket and scores two points for the opposing team. Back then, basketball was a minor god in my life. I wasn’t good, but I played it like football–I played street ball, tripped, shoved, bulled my way through. In 1968, there were basketball courts in the convent parking lot. If you were good, you played on the courts where the hoops had nets. If you were really good, the nuns left the lights on, and, except for bingo nights, you played full court on the netted baskets under the lights. I would play after school, in my uniform, before the bigger kids showed up and chased us off. A little later, after my mom ragged on me for tearing holes in all my uniforms, I’d run home, change, and come back to hang and play with friends. When the Magic fountain re-opened in Spring, you’d get a frosted drink if you had the money. If not, you’d go to the acme and carry some shopping bags for old ladies to make the change.
I’d play until nearly six, then race Eric on our bikes to get home in time for supper. The angelus bells would be ringing from all the churches. Old men kept homing pigeons, and they’d fly over the steeples of St. Mary’s, and St. Vladmir’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in perfect formation.
Sometimes, we’d cut across the tracks, and pop wheelies in front of oncoming trains. Sometimes, we’d go and steal a couple orange crates or wood from the back of acme to use for forts.
I thought about Eric, how his father would take us to the pro wrestling matches at the old armory, and how the Amazing Mulah, the woman’s world champ, threw a leg kick at us once when we crowded her outside her dressing room. I thought about how he died of a heroin overdose, and the friends he was with rolled him for his cash, and dumped his body off at the emergency room entrance. I thought about my mother’s face being eaten away with cancer, how she taught me to cook for the family before she died. I thought of standing in that kitchen, 18, her bald head hooded, her dimming voice instructing me to put the chicken in the bag with the bread crumbs and shake. I shook the bag so hard that it broke, and the chicken, bread crumbs, and seasoning all spilled to the floor. She laughed, and felt my bicep and said: “I can’t believe how strong you are Joseph.” It was the last time I heard my mother laugh.
Memory is painful because so much I loved was lost or damaged beyond repair, yet to only move forward like some idiot juggernaut is worse; it might spare me pain, but at the cost of a sky full of pigeons, and my mother’s laughter. I write to raise the dead, and when I stop writing, they go back to their graves, but this book bag that I kept for no good reason all these years is like the mouth of hades. I can descend into its dark, pull out its scribbled text, and, for a few moments, recover the 10 year old with delusions of literary grandeur. No one had died yet, except for a couple of gold fish. My terrible “epic” called “Big Time Game” contains the lines:
Oh world tossed forth through endless space
I pray no rim, two points, pure lace.
It was a good prayer, even if it wasn’t answered. My wife is still asleep. Eric, and Huey, and my mother and father are asleep. It is snowing as usual here in Binghamton–and maybe it is snowing in St. Gertrude’s cemetery back in Jersey where my parents, and my uncles, and aunts, and the whole of my childhood is buried. Now I understand why Gabriel forgave his wife in that story, and everyone else, and why the snow fell on both the living and the dead. Now I feel what it is to be born into loss. Now I know what it is to have my love and my futility raise me above the glory of angels.
His very first song on his very first album is “Grapefruit Moon.” In the song, the title image, along with “one star,” is “shining, shining down on me.” It’s a lovesick ballad played slow on the piano. A pining song that’s that close to cliché. It teeters on the edge, almost sappy, almost silly, a song built around that lunar fruit that almost drips with saccharine.
It’s the first moon in a career of moons, and like a first crush, it’s clumsy and, in retrospect, maybe a little bit embarrassing. He wasn’t done, though. Waits has a thing for moons, and has been working on lyrical variations of this one metaphor for gong on 40 years.
Waits tops most lists of great living songwriters today. On March 14, he’s being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When critics talk about him, they talk about his voice and his use of odd instruments, his wide range and experimentation, his cult following and how he’s a musicians’ musician. They talk about his junkyard, Salvation Army aesthetic and his originality and theatrically and how his wife is the not-so-secret force behind his artistic originality.
And they talk about his 38-year career of lyrical genius.
In his long career, Waits has returned regularly to this image of the moon. It is, in many ways, central in Waits’ work. There are other common images and tropes across his corpus — Waits likes rain, and names of towns, people’s names and food to eat — but to me it’s the moons that stand out. Everything there is to say about Tom Waits’ work can be said about his metaphors for the moon.
There are 93 moons in Waits’ songs, according to the Tom Waits Library. 93 moons — it’s a lot of commitment to one image. A lot of work on one turn of phrase. Surveying them reveals a lot about his work, and also shows how one man has grown, artistically, writting this one metaphor and hanging in the skies of his songs again and again, but doing it better, as he gets older, and making it more interesting as he improves as an artist.
In his first album, 1973s’ “Closing Time,” the moon is pretty much the hackneyed, romantic rock in the sky it has been for bad poets for forever. Except that Waits really wants to describe the moon with a fruit metaphor. It’s almost like he went shopping with the moon on his mind. There’s the grapefruit moon and a bananna moon, both of which are shining in the sky. Then there’s the third moon, towards the end of the album, which the narrator sees the morning after a long night of pining for a lost love. It hangs there, in “Rosie,” “all up, full and big” along with “Apricot tips in an indigo sky.”
It’s not a bad line, but it does feel more than a little bit belabored.
Waits was in his James Taylor phase. Overly romantic, a sap singing ballads and mooning over girls named Martha or Melanie Jane. He croons lines such as:
And it’s you, and it’s you
And it’s you
And it’s you
And it’s you
Lonely, lonely, lonely,
Lonely eyes, lonely face
Lonely, lonely in your place.
His moons, at first, are really not that sophisticated, not that complicated, not that lyrically interesting. Moons equal mooning, is about the whole of it.
Waits was interested, in those early years, in the work and the lifestyle of Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski — down and out and bumming among the tramps, romanticizing winos, saying the city was jazz and the night, music. As is common with over-earnest young men trying to imitate the Beats, though, sometimes he sounded a little too much like John Denver. The Beat idea in these early works is both the limitation, and the inspiration Waits needed to imitate to push himself, artistically.
As he went on, in the next couple of albums, he tried to get away from that balladeer style, and went more into a full-out jazz-bum routine. When Rolling Stone wrote about Waits for the first time in ’75, they described him as he did his Kerouac act: “Looking like an emaciated Skid Row refugee in a rumpled black suit and undone greasy tie, he would do a wino shuffle to the microphone and open each set with the jazzy talker.” He created a musical world, Rolling Stone noted, of “muscatel moons and naugahyde bars, cruising Oldsmobiles and used car salesmen with Purina checkerboard slacks.”
His lyrics could be interesting, in this period. Could be creative. But there was also a lot of it that was too much an act. Too much trying too hard. And that shows in his moons. They’re all just not-quite clichés. Overstrained. Overwrought. Worked at too hard. They’re too close to the expected, and sound a bit like parodies of what a Beat on the street in night of Jazz might say.
“I thought I heard a saxophone / I’m drunk on the moon,” he sang in his second album, “The Heart of Saturday Night.”
The next year, in his next album, he comes to that image again in his song, “Better Off Without a Wife.” It’s an ode to “bachelorhoodism,” Waits said. He preformed the piece in ’75 with cigarette lit and a cloth cap cocked to the side, a growl in a voice that wasn’t there a few years before. He sang:
I like to sleep until the crack of noon
Midnight howlin’ at the moon
Goin’ out when I want to,
And comin’ home when I please.
His moon metaphors, in the early years, are just about atmosphere. There’s not a lot of craft to them, but Waits isn’t done yet, and the idea of this turn of phrase is lodged in his aesthetic craw, and he keeps working at it. Even before he grows out of this phase of romanticized drunks and Beat imitations, Waits starts to show some of the lyrical creativity he’s known for now.
Still working with the edible metaphors for moon, he gets past the fruit connection and creates something interesting in “Nighthawk Postcards,” a jazzy, spoken-word piece. He offers up “a yellow biscuit of a buttery cue ball moon / Rollin’ maverick across an obsidian sky.” It’s overworked, this metaphor, but it’s also more interesting.
He goes on in the song (an “inebriated stroll”) to expand the metaphor in a deliciously weird ways. He sings: “I know I’m gonna change that tune / When I’m standing underneath a buttery moon / that’s all melted off to one side.”
He’s not done, either. In that one, extended riff, Waits works in two more moons. One is “a moon holdin’ water,” and the other is, “a Dracula moon in a black disguise.” In some preformances, too, Waits switched out his one edible metaphor for another lunar allusion, saying he’s “underneath kind of a stray dog moon in a tenderloin sky.”
He kept on that Beat imitation shtick for a while after that, perfecting it, but never breaking new ground. He was afraid, he later said, to push himself to do something more. Afraid to experiment and grow and change. It had worked in the past, so why not do it some more?
There’s a “bloodshot moon” and “now the moon’s risin’, ain’t no time to lose / Time to get down to drinkin’, tell the band to play the blues.” And that’s about as good as it gets, with those early Waits moons.
Waits is artistically aware enough, though, to know he can’t really just repeat his maudlin songs. He can’t recycle sappy moons that stand in for the emotional state of the narrator-bum. He doesn’t seem to know where else to go, with his moons, but he knows he can’t keep them coming like they have been. So he starts messing with them.
In “Small Change,” in ’76, which is really the pinnacle of this period of Waits’ career, where his work feels like it’s more than an imitation and he’s made the style his own, there are two more moons. Both of these though, show some awareness of what his moons have been doing in his songs. There’s a consciousness that he’s going to need to develop, and to do something more.
In “Tom Truabert’s Blues,” one of his best-known songs, Waits starts out by noting, “it ain’t what the moon did,” dismissing it’s influence, it’s romantic power.
That, he later told a journalist, was the first song he wrote where he felt he was “completely confident in the craft” of songwriting.
The other moon on the album is Waits first attempt to take this image that he keeps coming back to, and turn it upside down. Certainly a lot of artists, a lot of poets, have found themselves repeating lines and reusing images, and, wanting to grow, they make themselves a rule, like “no more moons.”
Waits does something different.
He doesn’t abandon the image, but starts to try to use it in another way. To not just use it and reuse it but, instead, subvert it. He keeps the image, but refutes and refuses the sap, the romantic cliche, committing himself to try something else.
“No, the moon ain’t romantic,” he sings, “it’s intimidating as hell.”
Waits frustration with the moon metaphors is maybe starting to show, at this point. There’s a frustration and an unhappiness with these hackneyed moons. Simple sappiness that’s “so maudlin it seems.” In ’77, Waits has a song where a woman drops her drawers and gives “the finger to the moon,” an act of aggression that doesn’t seem far from the artist’s own feelings of frustration at the limitations of his artistic power.
Waits is moonless, after that. The lunar metaphors wane out of his work.
For two albums, three, then four, there’s no moon. For three years, four, then five, the man doesn’t sing a single shining moon in the sky. He just avoids the metaphor altogether.
Then he meets his wife, Kathleen Brennan. They fell in love. She said yes. She had wanted to be a nun but he “saved her from the Lord.” She saved him from himself. And from his artistic stagnation.
She got him sober and got him to listen to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Captain Beefheart, Bertol Brecht and Georg Büchner. It was a revolution for his music. Radicalizing to his art. By ’83, Waits was experimenting, and pushing himself. He had the confidence to bust up his routines and his easy tropes. He had a newfound willingness to make music that was really original, take the risk to do something interesting, which is also the risk of failing horribly.
Waits said of his wife, she “pulverises me so that I don’t just write the same song over and over again.” He said, “A good woman will push you beyond your normal restricted safe area. My wife kind of pushed me out into traffic in a stroller … She’s much more adventurous than I am. She’s always trying to disrupt the whole thing and take it apart and put it back together with its tail in the wrong place.”
This is evident in what happens to Tom Waits’ moons: they’re not just subverted, after he marries Brennan, they’re perverted. They’re twisted, reshaped, made weird, reworked and hung hodge-podge in the sky.
In the first album after his marriage, “Swordfishtrombones,” Waits opens with a moon that isn’t even a moon, but just an empty spot in a scary sky.
“I plugged sixteen shells from a thirty-ought six,” Waits sings, the music a rattle and chug and scream, now, his voice now a distinctive gargling bark. “And a black crow snuck through a hole in the sky.”
By his next album, “Rain Dogs,” Waits was able to come back around to his moon metaphors with a deftness and originality only hinted at in his early work. He returns, in ’85 album, to his edible metaphors, but now he does it backwards. Instead of there being a bit of good-looking fruit hanging ripe in the sky, now it’s the moon that does the eating. In “9th and Hennepin,” “the moon’s teeth marks are on the sky.” It’s a startling image and a very different world.
Now, in the sky of Waits’ songs, even normal-appearing moons that might, in the past, have been purely romantic, are quickly shown to be different and downright abnormal.
“Outside another yellow moon,” starts one song on that album, with a line that seems like it connects directly back to the grapefruit allusion of 12 years before. Another one. A yellow one. Kind of like a bit of fruit. Except that now, newly experimental, he takes it apart, and does the moon differently.
“Another yellow moon,” Waits sings. “Has punched a hole in the nighttime.”
In his recent works, Waits has built whole weird worlds in his song. His imagination is gothic and grotesque, cousin to Flannery O’Conner and Cormac McCarthy, nephew to Irving Washington and Charles Brockdon Brown and the original, twisted versions of Brothers Grimm. He stages worlds of weirdness and evil, where
a man with missing fingers
plays a strange guitar
And the German dwarf
dances with the butcher’s son
as he sings in the first song on “Bone Machine” in ’92, giving the critics the character they always talk about when they talk about Tom Waits’ song.
In this world, where men are alienated by the ground on which they stand, he repeatedly comes back to images of abnormal moons, repeating the idea often enough that this image, by itself, seems to express the world Waits wants to express. He taps into the American gothic idea, where it’s not the strange things that frighten us, but the things that seemed normal.
“The moon is a cold chiseled dagger,” in “Black Wings,” in ’92, “And it’s sharp enough to draw blood from a stone.” In “Earth Died Screaming,” the same year,
There was thunder, there was lightning, then the stars went out
And the moon fell from the sky, it rained mackerel, it rained trout
And the great day of wrath has come, and here’s mud in your big red eye
And the poker’s in the fire and the locusts take the sky
In ’93, in the song “November,” there’s “a moon that’s the color of bone.” In ’99, on Mule Variations, “the moon is broken and the sky is cracked.” In ’02, on Blood Money, there’s a “Bloody moon rising with a plague and a flood,” and in ’04, “The moon climbed up an empty sky,” in the song, “How’s it Going to End.”
Instead of overworking the orevewrought romantic moon, Waits plays with phrases that evoke terribleness and apocalypse. He’s working, to be sure, on one idea, but each of these is rendered simply. There’s a deftness and originality that’s really remarkable. These are moons one will remember.
This continues in his most recent album, Orphans. Waits puts freakish moons in freakish skies to preside over the world that it us. The moons have twisted faces — there’s something wrong with them — and he crafts moons which, by themselves, contain the contortedness of these songs.
He sings, for example, in “Jayne’s Blue Wish,” which is set to a lullaby tune:
The sky holds all our wishes
The dish ran away with the spoon
Chimney smoke ties the roofs to the sky
There’s a hole over head
but it’s only the moon.
He returns again, too, to the food allusions, but here, now, after years of working at this metaphor, Waits can turn this phrase without appearing to try at all, slipping the moon into the song, into the sky, and in a way that feels fresh and creative, and evocative without being overworked. In “Bottom of the World,” he sings:
Blackjack Ruby and Nimrod Cain
The moon’s the color of a coffee stain
Jesse Frank and Birdy Joe Hoaks
But who is the king of all these folks?
And I’m lost, and I’m lost
I’m lost at the bottom of the world
I’m handcuffed to the bishop and the barbershop liar
I’m lost at the bottom of the world
That might be my favorite of all his moons, since it’s such a simple way to put it, and seems so effortless, yet captures, too, the lunar shape and slightly sickly color, while, at the same time, rendering a mood. The moon is the color of a coffee stain, but one wouldn’t have seen it that way without Waits’ song.
I really like Waits’ horrible moons. Each one is different, twisted a new way, and interesting. What’s more impressive, though, is that, while Waits has worked with this one type of lunar metaphor from ’83s’ Swordfishtrombones to ’06s’ Orphans, he hasn’t he hasn’t simply been satisfied with it. It could have been the case that Waits just inverted the romantic use of the moon, made it horrible, and then did that to death, and nothing more.
But, with all this experimentation and twisting of the moon, Waits finds a freedom to sometimes just let the moon be the moon. That might actually be harder, artistically. To let well enough alone. To be subtle. To know when enough is enough.
Waits’ later work has plenty of moons that aren’t anything but moons. Starting with Mule Variations, he has these moons that are liberated from metaphors. On “The Low Side of the Road,” “The moon is red and you’re dancin’ real slow.” In Real Gone, which came out in ’04, the narrator “stood by the window until the moon came up.” And it just comes up. That’s all it does. In “The World Keeps Turning,” Waits has a totally literal moon that is “gold and silvery” “in the meadow” as “the world keeps turning,” and he has, in Blood Money, in ’02, a song where the “moon is yellow silver / On the things that summer brings,” implying, maybe, that it’s the moon that’s drunk, where, the first time he had the moon this color, it was the singer who, in a belabored metaphor, was “Drunk on the Moon” of this color.
Were this all that Waits did with his moons, he would well deserve his place atop the list of contemporary lyricists. Waits goes further though. He retakes the romantic moons of his youth, and works them back into the music. In “Night on Earth,” in ’92, Waits sings,
“When I was a boy, the moon was pearl
The sun a yellow gold.
When I was a man, the wind blew cold
The hills were upside down.
He reuses the sappy moons but, now, puts them in the context of the experience of characters in the song. Now, instead of just buying wholeheartedly into the idea of the romantic, the moons are used to show an entire experience, and he does it in a way that re-inscribes his developmental arc, from crooner’s moon to apocalyptic ones, back into the image of the moon. In “Big in Japan,” a song of crazed braggadocio, the singer shouts “I got the moon, I got the cheese / I got the whole damn nation on their knees.” The moon acts as this representation of “it all,” the “it all” that everyone wants, and risks everything for, but can’t ever quite get. In “I’ll Shoot the Moon,” from Black Rider, the phrase is used as a promise of everything. A promise against odds. A promise to fulfill every promise. It’s undercut, though, the other promises in the song:
I’ll shoot the moon right out of the sky
For you baby
I’ll be the flowers after you’re dead
For you baby
In “Green Grass,” on ’04s’ Real Gone, the narrator describes the moon as “on the rise,” but, since it’s sung from the point of view of the dead and buried, he goes on to beg, “Don’t say goodbye to me / Describe the sky to me,” making the moon at once just simple, just the moon, and, at the same time, something romantic, something to reach for and long for and pine over, and, wrapped up in that, and the distance between the one thing and the other, horrible too.
Maybe my favorite example of this last twist of the moon, where Waits works the metaphor both ways, romantic and horrible, is in the song “Dead and Lovely”:
She was a middle class girl
She was in over her head
She thought she would
stand up in the deep end
He had a bullet proof smile
He had money to burn
She thought she had the moon
in her pocket
But now she’s dead
She’s so dead
Forever dead and lovely now
I don’t know of a better way to put that: “she thought she had the moon in her pocket.” It’s heartbreaking, and sweet and sad. It’s also immediately memorable, and recognizable, so familiar and yet so new, too. It is a master touch, a perfect use of a metaphor moon, and shows how Waits has, for almost 40 years now, been working on these phrases. He puts so much into the idea of the moon. He says so much, with the moons he hangs in the skies of his songs.
There are 93 moons in his body of songs. Shining and falling and cracking. Aching and breaking and just there. Out of reach. In pockets. Tantalizing and drawing out obsessions, insanities, and expressions of the emotions that make up frail, frail humanity. Tom Waits has many, many moons.
The last one, the 93rd moon in his 38 years of work so far, is borrowed. It’s not his, originally, but one he found and repurposed and made his own. He takes it from Georg Büchner, the 19th century German writer. It comes on the third part of Waits’ latest album, Orphans, a spoken word piece about a small child, called, “Children’s Story.”
Once upon a time there was a poor child,
with no father and no mother
And everything was dead
And no one was left in the whole world
Everything was dead
And the child went on search, day and night
And since nobody was left on the earth,
he wanted to go up into the heavens
And the moon was looking at him so friendly
And when he finally got to the moon,
the moon was a piece of rotten wood
Isn’t this, though – this horrible little story that’s pretty much the worst bedtime story imaginable – also the story of growing up? The question isn’t what the moon is made of, but, as Waits found, I think, what one does with the material of the moon. Of course it’s rotten wood. Or green cheese. Or sappy and overly romantic metaphors. But can you make art with it? Can you make art with the rotten moon?
I’ve been enjoying Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited lately (You can find a few of his essays reprinted here). Rexroth’s literary polymathism—his ability to speak (and translate) almost anything—seems touched only by Ezra Pound (who was a great translator, but not a good one).
Rexroth’s admiration for Tu Fu as a poet (along with Joe Weil’s recommended book list) inspired me to purchase One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. And I’ve spent the last several weeks reading, and rereading Tu Fu, in hopes that I would be able to understand and come to some of the insights that Rexroth touts. For example, Rexroth says
You feel that Tu Fu brings to each poetic situation, each experienced complex of sensations and values, a completely open nervous system. Out of this comes the choice of imagery — so poignant, so startling, and yet seemingly so ordinary. . . . For Tu Fu, the realm of being and value is not bifurcated. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful are not an Absolute, set over against an inchoate reality that always struggles, unsuccessfully, to approximate the pure value of the absolute. Reality is dense, all one being. Values are the way we see things. This is the essence of the Chinese world view, and it overrides even the most ethereal Buddhist philosophizing and distinguishes it from its Indian sources. There is nothing that is absolutely omnipotent, but there is nothing that is purely contingent either.
Rexroth concludes his essay saying
If Isaiah is the greatest of all religious poets, then Tu Fu is irreligious. But to me his is the only religion likely to survive the Time of Troubles that is closing out the twentieth century. It can be understood and appreciated only by the application of what Albert Schweitzer called “reverence for life.” What is, is what is holy. I have translated a considerable amount of his poetry, and I have saturated myself with him for forty years. He has made me a better man, a more sensitive perceiving organism, as well as, I hope, a better poet. His poetry answers out of hand the question that worries aestheticians and critics, “What is poetry for?” What his poetry does superlatively is what is the purpose of all art.
I have not come to the profound insights of Rexroth, and I suppose I won’t for many years. I did figure out, I think, how at least one of Tu Fu’s poems functions. Or rather, how Rexroth’s translation functions. Here’s the poem:
Sunset glitters on the beads
Of the curtains. Spring flowers
Bloom in the valley. The gardens
Along the river are filled
With perfume. Smoke of cooking
Fires drifts over the slow barges.
Sparrows hop and tumble in
The branches. Whirling insects
Swarm in the air. Who discovered
That one cup of thick wine
Will dispel a thousand cares?
On display here, of course, is poetic montage, which became especially popular in modernist poetry (in part because of the influence of eastern poetry, which was being imported to English via French, if I understand history correctly). I had always been familiar with Ezra Pound’s idea of metaphor as a sort of montage, but what is happening here seems to me to be a sort of directional, linear montage. One image leads to the next in a linking chain of montage. The sunset glittering on the beads is (possibly) refracted, turned into multiple colors. The beads, perhaps, are slowly moving from side to side, like a pendulum. This is similar to the way that the flowers, coming up in Spring, begin to display various colors and perhaps wave in the Zephyr.
The flowers quite readily lead to the garden image—this isn’t really montage. The garden is full of perfume, which leads to the smoke from the barges. The barges lead to the sparrows—perhaps a bit of a stretch, but I can see one saying that barges drift and tumble down a river the way that sparrows hop and tumble through branches. The montage here, I think, is the implied aimlessness. Finally, the sparrows montage into the insects.
We want to ask next, how do all these images culminate in the question “Who discovered / That one cup of thick wine / Will dispel a thousand cares?” It’s a good question, and on the surface it seems that Tu Fu/Rexroth has pulled this last line rabbit-like out of a hat. It’s not a complete non-sequitor. But let’s return to what Rexroth says:
Out of this comes the choice of imagery — so poignant, so startling, and yet seemingly so ordinary. . . . For Tu Fu, the realm of being and value is not bifurcated. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful are not an Absolute, set over against an inchoate reality that always struggles, unsuccessfully, to approximate the pure value of the absolute. Reality is dense, all one being. Values are the way we see things.
Rexroth seems to be saying, in Tu Fu’s poetry, the question I just posed should not even be a question. We perceive a break between images and feeling. But perhaps this break is artificial. We acknowledge that images can evoke feelings, perhaps that there is an “objective correlative” that can reliably evoke feelings. But perhaps what is being suggested here is that the category break is weaker than we think. The image (object) is already interpreted: “values are the way we see things.”
Thus, we can move seamlessly from the barge to sparrows to the question about wine; it’s all part of Tu Fu’s hermeneutic circle: one thing constantly interpreting the next. Perhaps I should reconsider my use of the word “linear,” given that I just described Tu Fu as using a sort of “circle.” But I don’t want to sit firmly with one or the other. Maybe coil? Spring?
These philosophical musings are not what is poetic here, though. Perhaps they are the fodder of the poetic (though “fodder” downgrades philosophy in an unfair way). Having interpreted the poem philosophically, though, it begs the question: what is poetic about this piece? Rexroth again: [Tu Fu’s] poetry answers out of hand the question that worries aestheticians and critics, “What is poetry for?” What his poetry does superlatively is what is the purpose of all art.
Rexroth’s answer may be a trapdoor: What is poetry? Read Tu Fu and you will understand. Undoubtedly there is a wholeness about Tu Fu’s poem. We enter the poem at the beginning and leave it at the end. Have we gone anywhere? We’ve moved from image to image, and yet I’ve argued we remain in the same place, we have stayed within an interpretive circle.
Yet our minds have been expanded. We are in a different place than before. We can try to define that place, interpret and understand it, but in doing so we are actually moving to a new place. We grasp at it and it slips away.
Etheridge Knight wrote some of the only haiku I can stand in the American idiom. In addition to that, his ear was impeccable, and he was liable to go just about anywhere in a poem so that he invigorates the tradition of the conversational lyric and does so by using mixed registers of speech while avoiding both the political correctness and formulaic “Non-academic” traditions of spoken word. The list in second part of this poem shows how a poet can still use cursing and invective to maximum rhythmical advantage. This is a list, worthy of Whitman. Knight is not an “unschooled poet.” His training is in the whole array of American speech from the reflective, almost introverted poet, to the raucous street preacher. “All Fucked Up” represents true spoken word–not a slam formula.
Feeling Fucked Up by Etheridge Knight
Lord she’s gone done left me done packed / up and split
and I with no way to make her
come back and everywhere the world is bare
bright bone white crystal sand glistens
dope death dead dying and jiving drove
her away made her take her laughter and her smiles
and her softness and her midnight sighs–
Fuck Coltrane and music and clouds drifting in the sky
fuck the sea and trees and the sky and birds
and alligators and all the animals that roam the earth
fuck marx and mao fuck fidel and nkrumah and
democracy and communism fuck smack and pot
and red ripe tomatoes fuck joseph fuck mary fuck
god jesus and all the disciples fuck fanon nixon
and malcom fuck the revolution fuck freedom fuck
the whole muthafucking thing
all i want now is my woman back
so my soul can sing
Oh, love. Why is it always the hardest topic for writers to talk about, yet one we want to talk about the most? We still write about it, of course, in our many oblique ways—but, like religion or politics, part of us wants to just avoid it altogether. Something with the power to make us feel both so vulnerable and so high inevitably keeps us wary of expressing our emotions. But at the same time, it’s impossible to avoid: You can’t talk about being human for very long without talking about love.
These past few months in India, I’ve found the same is true of awe. No one wants to appear childlike and vulnerable to others, but everyone (everyone who seeks out new experiences, anyway) wants to feel that way—along with love, awe is the one of the emotions people seek most deeply. And for writers, whose job is to express the inexpressible, the hidden, these two aims can feel at odds.
Or maybe they’re not, and we’ve just become too cynical and guarded to bring them together. In Mathilde Walter Clark’s latest novel, Priapus, the hero’s father reveals to his family his feet—perfect specimens in the realm of feet—and exclaims simply, bluntly, “Look! Look what God can do!” This is ironic and funny—but why can’t perfect feet (or even just interesting feet!) expand our spiritual worlds? The beauty of awe is, they can! We usually describe it the other way around, but awe is provoked by us and our state of mind, not by an external source.
One afternoon at Sangam House I went to see the Odissi dancers rehearse. These people could control their every movement—even their facial expressions—with astounding precision and strength, inhabit the roles of classical mythological characters, and, holy shit, do it in time to live music. And the musicians—every tremble in their voices, every motion of their hands on the tabla exact. And later, they’d do it all in costumes and makeup and a cloud of jasmine, in front of an auditorium of people who actually knew whether they were doing it right.
To my surprise, in the middle of the rehearsal I suddenly felt compelled to get up and leave, totally overwhelmed and needing to escape. Not the way you get overstimulated after walking through Times Square and should leave before you harm others or yourself—but a strange sense of both being in the place too fully and not being there at all. It was as if while watching the performance and absorbing it I had actually gone inside it and forgotten who I was. For a few moments, the membrane to the soul was completely permeable and unfiltered… or that’s what it felt like, anyway. Which all sounds really beautiful (sun shining, unicorns singing, etc.), but was actually kind of unnerving. We all want to have experiences that make us forget ourselves, but at the same time we shy away, afraid of that forgetting. If we can forget ourselves so easily, what are we really made of?
One reason (and, I think, the reason) we seek out awe (and love) so fervently—and why these emotions make us feel so small and inarticulate and intoxicated—is that they fundamentally alter our sense of self. Discovering what God can do—or what humans can do, or just what is possible in the world—enables us to discover our own potential (and limits). We simultaneously see the world expanding and ourselves growing ever smaller in proportion. Logically you’d think this would create an ego crisis, since we all need the illusion of significance to feel purposeful—but somehow, it ultimately doesn’t. In fact, just the opposite—even though we fear forgetting ourselves, or dislike feeling small, we feel greater in the end for being humbled. The possibilities in the world, however remote or vicarious, are what keep a lot of us going on this little march toward death.
Being at Sangam House wasn’t the same kind of awe as standing in front of the Taj Mahal or inside the Sistine Chapel or seeing a person herd thousands of baby ducks from a canoe. But the foreignness of being in India, and the experience of creating community with a bunch of international writers, provided a sort of mental tabula rasa where awe could grow wild. Not knowing the basic details of life, like how to get hot water out of the shower or the proper way to eat your food, is disorienting. This disorientation makes you feel stupid (childlike?) at first, but in that space between forgetting about oatmeal and feeling comfortable with idli and poha, something transforms in the brain. The slate of the old is briefly wiped clean, yet there’s no way to absorb the new quite yet. Even before the mind processes the idea of Indian breakfast and starts measuring the self against it—before questions like “Do I like this?” and “Can I eat it?” slowly turn into “Who am I?” and “Am I a person who eats Indian breakfast?”—there is a clearing. And for me, that clearing made a path for the new images and ideas—the ones I was too jet-lagged to know I was processing—to flood into poems without my knowledge or will. Suddenly, my work was like a bunch of little kids spouting phrases their parents didn’t know they understood.
What I appreciated most about being awed at Sangam House—besides its effect on my writing—was how small the “source” of that awe could be. That it didn’t require the Taj Mahal for me to say, “Look what God can do!” The environment and disorientation allowed me to fully appreciate the intrigue of other people’s feet (sorry, co-residents)—not just what was interesting about their work, but what was interesting about their lives. One writer had taught herself 10 languages. Another could samba like a madman (a Brazilian, of course). People could play instruments, start political campaigns, act or draw, or even just think me in circles. And it was easy for this awe to continue once I started traveling around India—really, that woman can carry 20 pounds of fruit on her head? That man can make a statue of Ganesh by hand, with only a chisel? The funny part is, I see amazements of this caliber every day in New York—I just don’t register them as such. Here, I did.
In the end, of course, you never really forget oatmeal. The disorientation passes, you grow accustomed to the new surroundings, and all the wonders that seemed so strange or amazing get downgraded to “impressive” or maybe even “day-to-day.” Still, I like to think that the same way love sticks with us over time (in one form or another), some awe-inspired humility and impressions sink deep enough into our consciousness to make themselves a little nest, grow, and emerge again.
*Dancer image courtesy Bala from Seattle, USA, via Wikimedia Commons