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belief systems

One of the hardest things to do is to get students to notice the world beyond feelings and abstractions. Feelings and abstractions seem significant. A dolphin balancing a ball on its nose is novel, but so what? Dolphins are of the moment, and although our annoying culture drones on that we should live in the moment, we are mostly lying.

Many ardent “poets” don’t like the world of details all that much because a.) they think it’s no big deal (they never know how boring it might be to read the 100th my lover is an asshole, but I’m her slave poem), or b.) for all intents and purposes, their neurotic parents have cheated them of what is really of value in this world beyond grades, careers, and belief systems (dry stuff, all that).

We say God is in the details and then we spend most of our time avoiding both details and God. Tonight, after a reading, I was parked at a Hess station and I noticed this bush at its edge. Brown leaves were shivering at its center, and a sparrow, who had no business being visible this late at night, sat hunkered down, away from the wind, not very different than a vagrant with a bottle of Hurricane. He would have been lost in the camouflage of his brown and grey and dirty buff had there not been the rather lurid light of the station reaching casually into his kingdom. The fretwork of dried out stems was intricate, the way it is in certain sketches of by Hans Holbein. But I wasn’t thinking of Hans. I was thinking this was beautiful, and all the more beautiful for coming at me in the middle of a gas stop. Either because I am urban and nature must ambush me or because I am contrary, I have never liked “officially” beautiful scenery. I was bowled over and pointed the scene out to my wife who grew up in a pretty rural town and is accustomed to nature looking well, appropriately scenic–not awing her in the middle of a Hess parking lot. I didn’t belabor the point, knowing through years of experience, that my weird bouts of transport are not truly exportable.

I wondered what the hell the bird was doing there–so late, so visible, and without his flock. Birds huddle together for warmth. Perhaps they were migrating, and this particular sparrow went off course, but I know Eurasian tree sparrows stick it out in winter. Was he an outcast? Was he having a midlife crisis? Was he sick, and wanting the privacy of dying alone? Or best of all, did fate place him there so that, in the middle of my normal doings, I could be reminded of just how amazing the seen world is?

Perhaps I am old and stupid and am not that far removed from a senile nun with the world’s largest collection of Plaid stamps. Perhaps I am too easily delighted by what I consider awe-inspiring. I know only that I was grateful for this vision and went away from the Hess station the way other, more sensible mortals drive out of national parks. If I was in a national park and saw an Elk, I’d be happy, but no more happy than I was to see this out-of-place sparrow hunkering down in the center of a bush beside the green and white Hess station.

I am echoing Williams, who, among other things, is the great poet of sparrows seen in bushes outside gas stations. We do not take him seriously because, being snobs, we want our nature to be appropriately set (as per Mary Oliver). We really don’t care for nature. We care for what it might give us in all the expected ways–but Williams was the wiser poet. In his poem, “January Suite,” he says it’s the strange hours we keep, the sudden joy of noticing a thing on the fly that makes it beautiful. He claims the dome of The Paulist Fathers outside Paterson was as thrilling to him as St. Peter’s Basilica after years of anticipation. I believe him.

Detail, especially the unexpected and perfect detail at the unexpected moment, is the neglected mother of us all, the mother who does all the drudge work and who is never noticed until, perhaps, in the poverty of our lives, we see her crossing the street at dusk, see the brown bag clutched in her hand, and remember she is our mother. No parent says to a child, “I want you to be ready at all times to be stunned out of your intelligence and brought halt and stupefied before the covenant of your own eyes. I want you to notice how traffic lights are so much more vivid before it snows. I want you to remember, for the rest of your life, the sound of my voice in a yard when I called out your name through the dusk. Please. I want you to be truly human. With all my heart. I want your consciousness to win over everything that attempts to murder you.”

These things will not make the child successful. They are, as the utilitarians say, a waste of time. Yet all that we do, all the machinations of our finest plans are so we might “waste” time instead of being wasted by it.

I will give you a little story about a teaching experience I had that pleased me as much as that Hess station Sparrow.

I had a sweet student, in my early years of teaching, who had a great love of books and poetry and hardly any talent. I taught her what a cliché was. I taught, and I admonished. I tried so hard, and so did she, painfully hard, so hard that she reminded me of the tormented student ripping his paper in Joyce, and it broke my heart because I had always wanted to be a great baseball player and I sucked. She was writing lines like:

I know he doesn’t love me. Dying,
pretending not to care, throbbing with hurt fear.
Yet his ashen cruelty takes my breath away.
and I succumb to his worst intentions.

She was not being flip or dadaist. She was being heartbroken, untalented and sixteen.

At first, I forbade her writing about love, and she obeyed me, but it was for naught. Finally, I sat down with her, and spoke of this “cruel” boy. He was a lanky, athletic, inarticulate kid with a pierced ear, and a gloomy countenance, a sure bet to make such a sweet girl an idiot. I asked her to remember one thing he did she thought was cute. She said, when he first courted her, he would hide shyly under cover of his hoody and run his long slender index finger over the bridge of his nose like playing a violin. I said: that’s it! Connect that image to your feelings of being forgotten and bring it to me on Monday. On Monday she came in all excited. She had written:

You no longer draw your finger like a bow
across the hard and freckled bridge of your nose,
no longer play the shyness of your face,
that awkward tune I loved.
Now you look me straight in the eye,
without bow, without fear, without love
and you lie.

Ladies and gentlemen, I danced. If I could have purchased a golden laurel wreath and placed it on her head, I would have done so gladly. She didn’t understand my excitement. She instinctively knew she had written something beyond her usual powers. To see that sort of moment is better than seeing a sparrow or an elk. For me, it was like the first time Helen Keller spelled out the word “water.” I went home and tried to explain this joy to my then lover who said “so what?” My wife never says so what. She is a good poet. She teaches. When someone has done something beyond their powers she comes home and tells me, and I love her all the more because I understand she has just seen her own sparrow at the Hess station.

To be a teacher is to be a midwife. You bring the child to bear. You stay up all night. If things go wrong, you question yourself. You want to have an open sesame for every soul you encounter. You want something to open in them and for them, and when you are at your best, you don’t care if they ever say thank you. This girl continued to be only fair to middling compared to my other gifted students, but years later, she still reads poetry. She has two children and a dog, and she can’t remember why that lanky boy broke her heart, or, if she remembers, she laughs. The gifted students are the elk in the park and I am grateful to them, but I am, perhaps, partial to the sparrows. I don’t know what they are doing there, without a flock, and huddled alone.

We say “show, don’t tell,” but this is a lie. We should say, “All true showing will tell, and all true telling will contain a sparrow, and, in the middle of doing what you need to do, you will waste time, and you will notice what makes you human beyond all the lies we tell.”

Warning: mUutations are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk. See Uut Poetry for more info.

The conflict between eternity and time is deeply embedded in the consciousness of human persons. I believe it gives rise to most impulses that define us as human: the impulse of language and literature, cults and philosophy. When I look at the Anastasis in the Chora Church or hear the words Handel chose from the book of Job (parts of which probably predate Judaism itself)–”and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God”–these seem to express profound human hopes that exist in one form or another, even in prehistory.

Almost all cultures have some way of venerating the dead. The very notion of tradition is, as Chesterton called it, “the democracy of dead.” (And what is poetry if not, in some way, a tradition of speaking and a means by which poets gain for themselves a kind of immortality?) Of course, many belief systems do not have any notion of resurrection, or even an afterlife. That’s not what I’m talking about: rather, I think it’s the desire to merge or rectify sacred and secular time. I hear something similar in the grief of Gilgamesh over Enkidu (here in Ferry’s translation):

Enkidu, the companion, whom I loved,
who went together with me on the journey

no one has ever undergone before,
now Enkidu has undergone the fate

the high gods have established for mankind.
Seven days and nights I sat beside the body,

weeping for Enkidu beside the body,
and then I saw a worm fall out of his nose.

I roam the wilderness because of the fear.
Enkidu, the companion, whom I loved,

is dirt, the companion Enkidu is clay.
Must I die too? Must Gilgamesh be like that?

This might be a leap, but when eastern writers talk about emptiness, I see a similar impulse, an attempt to rectify time and eternity, though with a slightly different bent. Buddha:

He in whom a desire for the Ineffable (Nirvana) has sprung up, who in his mind is satisfied, and whose thoughts are not bewildered by love, he is called urdhvamsrotas (carried upwards by the stream).

And Lao Tzu:

Always without desire we must be found
If its deep mystery we would sound;

By emptying oneself of desire, one can hope to escape the vicissitudes of time (Nobody gets mad at an empty boat, Chuang Tzu says). Think of mystics who desire a peace beyond circumstance through ascetic practices. Think of the God’s rest on the seventh day of creation.

That scene set, think of Auden’s ballad-esque poem “As I Walked Out One Evening.” As I read it, the poem is a direct engagement of this conflict. It’s a debate between a lover enraptured with the beloved and a clock enraptured with time. Notably, the lover is singing “Love has no ending”:

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
__Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
__And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
__Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
__Like geese about the sky.

‘The years shall run like rabbits,
__For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
__And the first love of the world.’

I see the lover here as a stand in for the poet, as one who thinks love is both immortal and can be immortalized. The lover speaks in the tradition of the Song of Songs: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm: for love is strong as death.” Note the images of a kind of return to pre-history, perhaps because the ancients had a much keener sense of living in an almost eternal realm upon the earth. “I’ll love you / Till China and Africa meet” could be an image of impossibility, but I’m reminded of Pangea, the literal meeting of the continents.

I am still dubious, though, about whether the poet here is enraptured by the appetitive passions (the hunger for an other) or has tapped into something deeper, something almost pre-existent: is “the first love of the world” a profound statement about the nature of the universe or the result of engorged hormones?

“But all the clocks in the city / Began to whirr and chime:” now enters the machinery of modernity, dispelling the lover’s “magical” notions of reality. When I first read this poem, I assumed the clocks were metonymous for Time itself. But as I was doing the dishes the other night (hands plunged in the basin, as it were), I saw it makes more sense to see the clocks as beings enraptured with the notion of time, in the same way the lover is enraptured with the particular beloved.

The clock takes a certain delight in dismantling the ambitions of the lover, and in the process gets some of the best lines in the poem:

Time watches from the shadow
__And coughs when you would kiss.

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
__The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
__A lane to the land of the dead.

‘O stand, stand at the window
__As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
__With your crooked heart.’

Notably, the clock’s speech about the “truer nature” of the world, about the crush of time, serves only to increase a desire to escape the transience of time.

It’s easy to think the clock has won this debate. Cynics always seem to win because their cynicism places them beyond reaching. It’s a crass, but often effective, perch to argue from. The clock is also given the last word, the chiding riposte.

It’s easy to forget the third voice, the translator of the event: Auden’s speaker. The imagistic choices of Auden’s speaker also seem to affirm the clock: first, “The crowds upon the pavement / Were fields of harvest wheat” could be a perfect image of the transience of life. And could there be a more perfect image for the crush of time than a river? Doesn’t water, like time, eventually wear even rocks to nothing?

But there’s this passage from Siddhartha that I think is relevant:

Have you learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?

…That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadows of the past, nor the shadow of the future?

Does the river upend the notion of time? If so, then one could at least consider the clock in Auden’s poem to be rebuffed. The fields of wheat could also be an image of history as cyclical, which also disrupts the notion of the arrow of time.

The true mystery in the end is that of the speaker, I suppose, a removed observer whose own latent perspective is too slippery to pin down: river? clocks? lover? Who wins the debate?