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THE SILENCE IN AN EMPTY HOUSE

BY MARIA MAZZIOTTI GILLAN

 NYQ BOOKS, 2013

ISBN 978-1935520-89-4

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All griefs are as unprecedented, as original as the whorls in our fingerprints, and yet certain poets are able to take the specific ceremonies of grief and loss and reenact them in such a way that they are meaningful to all who read their work. This portability is something the poet Pessoa mentioned when he wrote: “The personal is not the human. To become the human it must make a bridge.” This bridge is the contrivance of the right ceremony, the necessary words that will release the energy of true feeling and allow that tentative thread to be touched and felt by the reader. Maria Mazziotti’s new collection, The Silence in An Empty House, does just that.

Of course, Gillan has been sending out such threads for decades in other books, but here the threads are tighter and vibrate both with more passion and precision.  In earlier reviews and essays, I spoke of Maria’s emotional rather than feeling sense, her instincts for singing arias, her direct laments rather than structured elegies. Maria is still a poet of directness and what I called “gush,” but the cumulative effect of these poems is that of someone who has despaired more deeply into a type of newfound wisdom: the returning whisper of the shy girl who no longer has to be overcome by the strong woman, who can now stand with the strong woman and be her inner reserve of strength. The whisper has returned with the grieving for the dead husband to whom this book is dedicated, and it has given this distinguished poet a gravitas that is never forced nor insisted upon, but all pervasive. These are poems that fully match such great books on grieving as C.S Lewis’ A Grief Observed, and Marie Howe’s What the Living Do. The poems have the controlled burn of the most passionate poets, yet are often calm, reflective, and filled with pianissimo effects I have not seen before in Gillan’s work.

In the past, Maria Mazziotti Gillan is strong, perhaps surprised by her strength, but capable of pushing anything or anyone out of her way. The other works contain poems of triumph, of victory over all that has sought to put her in her place either as a woman or as the child of immigrants. But the poems in The Silence in an Empty House go beyond triumph or defeat. They are true wisdom poetry—what might be called without any hyperbole, an Orphic descent into the underworld, and a rising again having made a tentative and sadly beautiful peace with the limitations of even the most triumphal lives: death, disease, futility take their toll, take all we have, and yet a certain grace-filled gratitude hard won and beyond the hubris, the arrogance of triumph comes to inhabit these poems. And their final meaning is nothing less than a luminous joy the poet can affirm even in the midst of loss.

Part of this joy is in recall, in invocation. As with the poetry of her previous books, no novelist could be as detailed and solid in her scene painting than Gillan, as in, for example, the opening of her poem, Kitchen in the House on Kenwood Road:

My first kitchen after we married, the one in the small

Cape Cod on Kenwood Road, had Sanitex wallpaper

with orange vases, bright yellow flowers

and brown pepper mills. I thought it was cheerful,

especially the large windows spilling light over the tile floor.

The plain-spoken and detailed categorizing of things is for Gillan no gimmick or shtick. In this respect, Gillan shows the descriptive gifts of an Elizabeth Bishop.  Her work is not meant to shock or vamp the tropes of everyday life. It is not pretending to be anti-lyrical (whatever that means) or to embrace the per-formative self as exhibitionist. It believes in the intrinsic lyrical merit of saying things directly, of the truly conversational lyric narrative of place.  Gillan’s poems also prove Jack Gilbert’s dictum, “the abnormal is not courage.” There is enough sorrow and depth in normal life that one need not seek to overly determine its distortions. Gillan’s poems do not rely on tricks. They could exemplify Gilbert’s values: the life well-lived as courageous rather than the moment’s flourish. The accomplishment of daily bread rather than the dazzle of things that fail eventually to satisfy.

The poems of The Silence in an Empty House read like good creative non-fiction, only without having to resort to expository writing or the longer developments of scene. The poet never gets in the way of her story and yet every word of it seems directly expressed from a living body, from a person—not a character. It cuts to the chase and proves that poetry is still the most effective and most direct medium to tell the “slow news” of the world Williams insisted was vital to staying alive.

Kitchen in the House in Kenwood goes on to be about something far more serious than an inventory of Gillan’s starter home. She is teaching at Caldwell college; her husband decides it’s time she be a proper stay-at home wife. She gets pregnant and must quit a job she loves at Caldwell college. She is required to quit by the policy of that time, which the college enforces; but also by the husband’s enforcement of middle class life expectations in the early sixties. What makes this poem and Gillan’s poems about her husband in general so good is that he is a mass of contradictions, a flawed yet handsome and beloved man Gillan loves both with the ferocity of lust and with an eye out for becoming a  more socially accepted and fully middle-class American through her marriage to him. So her relation to him is both that of ardent lover and social climber; and neither, by the miracle of honesty, cancels the other out or makes either less true. What she learns throughout this book is that the trade-offs involved in love either in terms of romance or social climbing are never clear cut, or win- win. She concludes this poem:

 Years later, I look back at that slim young woman standing

at the sink, tears sliding down her face, and want to tell her

that love sometimes asks of us a sacrifice

it has no right to require.

This last bit of rueful wisdom is not common to Gillan’s earlier work. Here she is venturing to give the benefit of lived experience, to sum up, to drive her grief and sense of loss towards both the pragmatic acceptance of limitations, and the gratitude, the type of deep and abiding gratitude that caused the poet Stanley Kunitz to insist on “living on the layers and not the litter.”

Much of this book amazes me because it faces the fact that getting everything you want, being happy and successful is eventually little more than a more honorable way of achieving your corpse, and yet, and yet, and yet… gratitude is the answer to the futility that dances with all our shadows. Just as the character of Gabriel in Joyces’  The Dead finds infinite compassion and forgiveness the answer to inevitable death, Gillan finds gratitude at the heart of almost unbearable losses, both personal and ecological. Dennis, the subject of most of these poems—the beloved, the blond middle-class prize, the beautiful man a shy, first generation Italian girl could never have hoped to have caught yet did indeed catch and hold becomes ill of earl onset Parkinson’s, and begins a slow, painful ride toward death. She raises her children in the abundance of middle-class opportunity only to have her son become the kind of man who may have looked down on her when she was an immigrant’s child. People come to the poet for advice, for strength, for comfort, but in her hour of need, she is mostly alone and I think of the lines of the great German poet, Holderin: “Catastrophe! Cries the soul—in solitude.” Perhaps no poem in the book displays Gillan’s newfound aility to tie her personal life to the larger losses affecting the world than in Watching the Pelican Die. Ecological concerns have never been a preoccupation of Gillan’s before. If anything, she was someone who thought nature best seen through the window of a warm car or office, but she has now evolved beyond the comical selfish woman in the poem who worried that the mudslides in California would affect attendance at her readings, and has seen, through the death of her husband and the iconic image of the Pelican during the BP oil spill, the larger sense of loss. The loss is in—not of a sometimes merciless loss in things. Some might contend that the newfound empathy for the ecology comes through defective means—by a selfish equating of her personal grief with the larger catastrophe of the oil spill, but this is exactly the genius of Maria Mazziotti Gillan: there can be no abstraction that does not flourish first through root and thorn, through some real and solid materiality and concreteness. Reality is the necessary angel in Maria’s poetry, and the reality of the personal is the necessary material out of which the bridges between the personal and the human, the local and the universal are made. No book of Gillan’s builds finer more lasting bridges. This is the culmination of her life’s work, even more so than her collected, and it proves that even reaching beyond the age of 70, and losing almost the whole of her leading list of life players—parents, sister, beloved spouse–Maria Mazziotti Gillan is still not done with her changes. This book is essential reading for anyone who believes poetry has the power to speak for more and plot for more than just the exhibitionist and voyeuristic self. Moving away from the triumphalism of the determined immigrant’s daughter, this book is a greater triumph and gift for all those who understand her final lines said in the full winter of her life:

 How grateful I must

remember to be, to hold

so much in my hands.

so much in my hands.

 

DEATH CENTOS
BY DIANA ARTERIAN
UGLY DUCKLING PRESSE
2014

death centos

Diana Arterian’s chapbook Death Centos is currently available in a limited edition set ($125) that includes two additional works of art. The first of these is a broadside, designed as a version of the Goose Game, with an inward-spiraling design that depicts a life cycle. The second is a game piece, accoutrement for the board: a small sculpture made of white brass, replica of a 2-franc piece (no longer in circulation), evocative of funerary customs in which the deceased are given money to help aid them in their respective journeys to the afterlife. The center of the letter-pressed broadside holds a statement from Arterian regarding her aesthetic intentions for Death Centos, in which she writes, “I have placed [my subjects, whose words comprise [these centos] on even ground . . . I have bastardized history in order to provide a poetic space in which they are marshaled together, allowing them company in the terror of the unknown.”

Indeed, the form of a cento – a quilt of human thought and experience, couched in the language(s) and perspectives of many – seems ideal for Arterian’s task of simultaneously memorializing and combining the last words of historical figures. These centos seamlessly combine the last words of geniuses such as Emily Dickinson, who described the onset of death with immutable innovation and elegance: “I must go in, for the fog is rising”; venerated historical figures, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who reinforced the importance of beauty, art, and faith: “Make sure you play ‘Precious Lord’ tonight – play it real pretty”; religious leaders, such as Jesus of Nazareth, who invoked the value of family, love, and unity among human beings: “Woman, behold your son; behold your mother”; and common criminals, guilty of unspeakable acts of violence, sadism, and evil, e.g., Lavinia Tucker, who revealed a chilling lack of either delusion or remorse to the last: “If any of you got a message for the devil, give it.” These quotes, like all employed in the text, are credited; those who spoke them are listed on the innermost edge of each page, alongside the binding. However, the speakers cited are not listed in an order that corresponds to the placement of their words in each poem. By scrambling the identities of the speakers, these poems successfully render death a truly egalitarian process: not only must we simultaneously confront criminals, admired personalities, and venerated leaders, but we are deliberately deprived of the opportunity distinguish among them. Thus is the reader compelled to acknowledge their common humanity – and, in this way, Arterian’s project seems to become less about providing these souls company among one another in the terror of the unknown, and more about giving them equal real estate in the psychic space of the reader.

For this reason, terror seems neither the most defining nor the most compelling quality with which death is portrayed in this collection that interrogates what it means to die, and how we use those final moments before death – both our own and those of others. In fact, death is associated more immediately with happiness than with fear or suffering: Arterian opens the collection by quoting, via epigraph, the last words of her grandfather: “I’m so happy.” In addition to its direct declaration of joy, the context provided by this epigraph encourages the reader to understand death as a unifier – familial – an occasion that facilitates communication between the individual about to depart and the rest of the living world. Four times in the text, death is referred to as “going home,” and once as “taking refuge,” suggesting that human finitude, rather than merely stimulating fear, may serve as an intensifier for our natural propensities for forging connections, exchanging knowledge, and learning from the experiences of others. This text specifically differentiates, via section titles, between the dying and the condemned; to succumb to our physical finitude, then, is not to be sentenced. We may have to die, but we are not punished by death – a view that suggests a paradoxical sense of agency; readers are encouraged to regard the moments immediately preceding death as an occasion that provides the about-to-die with a reasonable expectation of being not only heard, but remembered – a secular brand of immortality.

And, ultimately, these centos suggest that our participation in the immortalization of others – the post-mortem maintenance of their identities – is a communal project, one that is also egalitarian in that it renders the individual will less important than the collective memory that keeps it alive. “Only you have ever understood me/ and you got it wrong,” Hegel tells his favorite student, and then takes his leave. Even as death erases his identity and sends his ego spiraling through the ether of the unknown, his faithful student transcribes and remembers his final speech. And so our collective attention to another human being’s last conscious moments allows us to help preserve the self that is being effaced, as we choose to integrate their departing wisdom into their own lives via language and memory. However, Hegel’s words – and Arterian’s lovely, haunting centos – also highlight the true terror of death: in being immortalized by the memories of others, how much of your true self, as you’ve defined it, will live on? How much of you is in your own words?

 

This anxiety Walt Whitman has about poetry emerges in the poem “Song of Myself,” as Whitman seeks to establish a taxonomy of poetry, a system classifying what is good poetry, what bad, but the structure he establishes keeps collapsing.

The poem is one Whitman’s fullest explanation of his theory of language and poetry, perhaps even more clear than the few prose pieces on the subject that bear his name, and it serves to show and highlight his theoretical conceptions, but also to show how his work pervaded by a fear, a deep anxiety about poetry that inflicts his poems.

He works out, in the poem, a three-tiered idea of poetry. The lowest tier, the first level, is the poetry of refinement, and death. It is the poetry that actually goes by the name “poetry” in the poem, and reflects Whitman’s ideas about language, and how language can stagnate, separate from life and reality, and be dead. The second tier is the poetry of people using everyday language — “speaking.” In the poem, Whitman praises speaking, which is in accordance with his theory about the American people and the vitality of their everyday talk, reflected, for example, in his love of slang, place names, nicknames and technical terms, but speaking is still not entirely free and safe from the death that inflicts “poetry.” “Speaking” has the life that Whitman wants, but it’s not entirely stable, and it can be buried, it can be silenced, and it can die. This leads him to a third tier of poetic language, the one he calls “singing.” “Singing” is vivified and revitalized language, language that’s not convention and not a system of signifiers, but which truly is alive, is life, is reality. “Singing” is also the elevated from of common speech, the form that raises the life that exists in language as it is actually spoken by Americans to a new level, in a sense beautifying it. It liberates language. It is, then, the opposite of “poetry,” for poetry takes common speech and refines it, strangles it, and kills the life it had. This means, of course, that “speech,” though praised by Whitman, celebrated by him, is also the site of a certain anxiety, as it is fragile and in danger of dying. There’s always the possibility it will be smothered.

Up to this point, of course, the account of poetry presented in “Song of Myself” doesn’t create any problems. It fits quite nicely with the image of Whitman as great emancipator who begins and ends barbarically yawping. No sooner is the system constructed, though, then it begins to fall apart. It collapses, and deconstructs.

The death that marks “poetry” as bad is also, Whitman finds as the poem progresses, as he sets out the ideal of “singing,” a part of “singing.” The best poetry always has a little of what makes the worst poetry the worst. It’s haunted, and always already involved with the death, the dying, the stagnated, merely signifying language that is not vivified. No sooner is the three-part structure of poetry set up in “Song of Myself,” then it disintegrates, and a panic sets in, a desperate worry about the worth of poetry. As he talks about “singing,” the poet becomes paranoid, and fears the whole project has, before his eyes, flatly failed.

Very early in the poem, Whitman moves to attack poetry and also to separate his poem from that which is commonly called poetry. There’s a bit of a sarcastic edge to the lines 30-37 and a kind of dismissal that could even be considered reminiscent of the disses of rap battles: “Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?” Whitman asks. “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems … You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres of books” (32, 33, 35).

Whitman, here, is degrading poetry as such, and also setting his poem, his project, up against poetry. Even if one takes this as mere bravado, though, the braggadocio or the posturing of a young man who wants to challenge the establishment to a battle, the terms of his dismissals are important. The problem of “poetry,” as Whitman sees it, is death. Poetry – the poetry he’s rejecting and is opposing himself to – is a thing of ghosts, and sees with the eyes of dead. It is dead because of it’s distance from the reader, from the reader’s own body, life, breath and experience, is that way because it is a thing of reckoning and practice, which is exactly the kind of refinement Whitman thinks has marked the whole tradition of poetry, and which doesn’t befit America. “The whole tendency of poetry,” Whitman said in a newspaper interview in 1876, “has been toward refinement. I have felt that was not worthy of America. Something more vigorous, al fresco, was needed.”

Whitman further pushes this idea of the wrong-headed tendency of refinement in line 49, where he opposes elaboration, which is “no avail,” and opposes it to himself and his life, his soul, and other people’s lives and life in general and their souls too. “While they discuss I am silent,” Whitman writes, “and go and bathe and admire myself” (56).

Of course the contrasts here between death and life, books and experience, debates and one’s own glorious nakedness, fit neatly into the frame of Whitman as a Romantic writer, the frame that’s taught to American high school students and which works to give Whitman the reputation he has with Beat poets and ad agencies alike, but it also fits with his theory of language. The language he opposes is the language which Swinton’s book called “dead mechanism.” The language he wants is the language that is vitalizes, “something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground” (“Slang in America”). The contrasts and oppositions of Romanticism also have this poetic shape to them, and when Whitman lays out, early in one of his most famous and most recognized poems, his poetic project, he’s using that specific theory of language to set the terms.

Having more or less started with a sign declaring the death of so-called “poetry,” Whitman’s “Song of Myself” then turns to the second level in the tier of language, that of common, everyday speech. Poetry is contrasted with “voice,” with “talking,” which is better and more natural than “poetry,” but is tainting (from the start) with an anxiety:

“Speech” is presented as something that cannot be quite trusted, since it can be silenced, as in line 164, where it is “buried” – as though dead, like poetry – and “restrain’d by decorum” – also like poetry – even though it is, by nature, something that “is always vibrating” and howls. Speech, or voice, is pictured by Whitman to be something that has vitality, this life he wants his poem to have, and yet it is also something that isn’t free from the danger of death. Common people, the one he wants to celebrate, can be oppressed and suppressed, and made to act like they’re dead, even if they’re actually not (145), and the same is true with their language. “Voices” can be made “long dumb” (508), becoming like poetry. Whitman doesn’t want to attack talking, because it is, actually, a force for life that just happens to be dead or to look like it’s dead, unlike poetry with is an agent of death. He does want to distinguish and distance himself from it, though. The poet-author knows that “the talkers were talking” (38) and what they were talking about, but finds it important to point out that he, himself, is not talking.

Whitman will want to celebrate and appreciate speech, both in the ways it’s normally conceived of and as this second tier of his taxonomical account of poetry, but it’s still problematic for him. It isn’t free from the problem of “poetry.”

This can be seen when the poet engages in speech, and then wrestles with it, almost epically battling with “speech” that, personified, tries to trap him, trick him, lock him into this limitation of articulation. “Speech is the twin of my vision” (566), Whitman declares, which might be taken as a commitment to “speech,” but then that line’s immediately followed by an explanation of an adversarial relationship: Whitman isn’t attacking speech, but speech is attacking him. “It provokes me forever, it says sarcastically, / Walt you contain enough, why don’t you let it out then?” (567-568). The poet then resists “speech,” counters it, argues against it, rejects it, and ultimately rises above it. “Come now,” he says, “I will not be tantalized, you conceive too much of articulation/ Do you know O speech how the buds beneath you are folded?” (569).

Mark Baulerlein, in his work, has identified this section as the center of the struggle in Leaves of Grass, as Whitman fights to find “a language adequate to a certain emotional-spiritual import” (55), as he struggles against what Ezra Greenspan calls the “representational limitations of language.” Whitman is fighting against language here, fighting for it to be more than mere system of signs, and as it threatens to trap him in he attempts to resist, He addresses speech, here, almost as God addresses Job from the whirlwind, attempting to take the position of having confounded “speech,” which is too small for him. Speech, like a mere mortal inappropriately attempting to surmount the divine, has tried to reduce Whitman to something containable (just as “poetry” is a reduction of the life force of “speech”), but that reduction would, if Whitman, be a reduction unto death, and he rejects it:

My final merit I refuse you, I refuse putting from me what I really am.
Encompass worlds, but never try to encompass me,
I crowd your sleekest and best by simply looking toward you

Writing and talking do not prove me,
I carry the plenum of proof and everything else in my face,
With the hush of my lips I wholly confound the skeptic (576 – 581).

Whitman is still placing “speech,” in his taxonomy of poetry, on a level above poetry – he, after all, is enthusiastically committed to everything that even seems democratic, and he will declare that talking is “the sound I love, the sound of the human voice” (585) – but he himself is doing something different. He is not one of the “talkers talking,” and has separated himself from “speech,” risen above to do something more.

What Whitman really wants to do with this second tier is save it. He wants to liberate it and elevate it, empowering the talkers with a new kind of language in the same way he has been liberated and has transcended. He knows a different type of speech, a different poetry than “poetry,” a life-ful language with which Whitman can come and set the talkers free. He knows “the password primeval” (506), the “sign of democracy”; he can “Unscrew the locks from the doors!/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” (501, 502); through him, dead voices are resurrected, as he says, “Through me forbidden voices,/Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d and I remove the veil,/Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d” (516-518).

He can do all this, as presented in Leaves of Grass, because he knows this different kind of poetry, “singing.” This is the third tier, the top tier, of his taxonomy, which is presented, in the poem, as a discovery, a revelation. If the poem is taken as a narrative, Whitman engaged in “speech” and then with “speech,” and then, in rejecting it, in finding it not quite free, not quite liberated from the stagnation and stink of “poetry,” he finds this new thing, this higher plane of language with which he can transfigure and clarify the “voices veil’d” (517), the voices “long dumb” (508), “buried” and “restrain’d by decorum” (164). Right after Whitman rejects “speech” as insufficient, he discovers music. He sits silent and listens and he discovers music, starting with, hearing first, the birds. Returning the reader, perhaps, to the revelation (and the submerged anxiety) of the bird’s he heard as a child on fish-shaped Paumanok, Whitman hears “the bravuras of birds” (584) and that acts to open him up to a long list of sounds, which are, notably, not “voice,” not “talking,” even when and where they might have been taken that way by another, but music, singing and song.

The revelation of hearing the bird – this one and the first one too – is pronounced by Whitman with the sigh, “I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,/Ah this indeed is music – this suits me” (599-600). In the context of the actual poem this is, of course, also literal music, with singing soprano and violoncello and keyed cornet, but as it “shakes mad-sweet pangs through [his] belly and breast” (598), “whirls [him] wider than Uranus files” (604) and “wrenches such ardor from [him] [he] did not know [he] possess’d” (605), he is opened to “feel the puzzle of puzzles,/ And that we call Being” (609 – 610). The bird reveals music to Whitman, and music reveals Being.

Following the revelation of music in Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s lists become longer, more exuberant. For example, poem 33 starts with the exclamation of “Space and Time!” and lasts, in that ecstatic mode, for 160 lines, with the narrator declaring himself liberated, “a free companion” (817) able to sleep with any bride (818) and speak in any voice he wants (819), since he is unencumbered by any law, unrestrained by any guard (801-803). It is as if, the poetry worked out, the justification of the poem itself established, Whitman is free.

He intends to use this freedom, this revelation that leads to liberation, to breathe life into speech. This Whitman, singing Whitman, is Whitman the liberator.

There is, in Leaves of Grass, a whole list of people who do not sing, but use “voice,” for example preachers and scientists, slaves and a sea captain, people whom he does not want to reject, but whom he, with his singing, can elevate to singing by singing them. His poem, his song, which is of himself but also of them, is intended here to be and is expressed here as being a manifestation or a realization of their spirit. “I act as the tongue of you,” he says, “Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen’d” (1248 – 1249). This music is understood to have a kind of salvific function. “Music rolls,” Whitman says, “but not from an organ” (1061), coming to the aid of the speakers whose struggle for the breath of freedom he has. The prime example of this function of his singing and how he places “voice” in this middle tier of the taxonomy is the dying general who speaks to the narrator at the end of poem 33.

In line 869 and 870, Whitman writes, “Again gurgles the mouth of my dying general, he furiously waves with his hand,/He gasps through the clot Mind not me – mind – the entrenchments.” Here speech is presented as a) difficult, b) involved with death, c) as something the reader and the poet should ignore or transcend, precisely for the sake of the speaker. The general cannot go on, and can barely utter the words he needs to utter, but Whitman can do it for him, with his singing.

This brings us back to the title of the poem, “Song of Myself,” and the most the famous couplet, “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,/I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” (1332 – 1333). This is Whitman’s idea and ideal of poetry. This account, in Leaves of Grass, fits into Whitman’s Transcendentalism and his Romanticism and is how Whitman is typically viewed. Whitman is seen yawping, singing this barbaric, al fresco song, a sort of noble savage of verse. He is free from anxiety and invites his readers to come and romp, howl, dance naked and liberate themselves. Yet, just as “speech” was infected with the illness of “poetry,” so also “singing.” At the moment poetry – the new poetry Whitman has conceived as his project, his life’s work – is supposed to take off and soar, to expand ever out like the universe “wider and wider” “expanding, always expanding” (1185) in unstopped and unstoppable growth, the anxiety of form and theory is there again. It vexes; it depresses; it comes crushing down. The bird, at the moment of the yawp, accuses him of being tame and translatable (1331). He claims this organ-like music rolls forth from his breast, but inside that is this cavity of anxiety that won’t stop worrying him, “Ever the verxer’s hoot! hoot! hoot! (1067).

Scattered throughout the poem are these little lines speaking of doubt. There is this fear, bubbling up, that his song is no more liberated than “speech,” that is, after all, a poem. Not quite congruent with the image of Whitman, the singing savior, the one who’s come to set us free with a song, to make us as free as his uncut beard, there are these moments of despair that speak of a man bothered, a man who would have to rewrite and revise almost until the end of his life: “I know the sea of torment,” the narrator says, “doubt, despair and unbelief.”

He is, despite protestations (1289), alarmed by death. It’s not the death of his body that worries Whitman, though, but the death that seems to seize the words as they grow cold and lifeless on the page. The poem, Whitman’s masterwork, ends with this note of anxiety and fear of failure entirely entangled with declarations of hope. He concludes with the despondent note that “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean” (1341), and counters “But I shall be good health to you nevertheless” (1342), and then counters and counters again, perhaps in a debate with himself, perhaps in an oscillation between hope and despair, “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you” (1344 – 1346).

It’s a failure Whitman feels, too. The anxiety that underlies many of the poems, that seems to bubble up in them, sometimes erupts in his work in full-fledged declarations of failure. The problem of poetry sometimes seems too much to bear, and Whitman, in a poem, disavows poetry, gives up the project of vivifying words and putting life – his life – into a poem. “Conveying a sentiment and invitation, I utter and utter, / I speak not” (25-26), he says in “A Song of the Rolling Earth.” The poem sets out the transcendentalist doctrine of nature, but the poem also denounces itself for its inability to be what the transcendentalist theory would have it be. Whitman wants “A song of the rolling earth, and of words according” (1), but cannot achieve it with the tool of the poem. “Were you thinking that those were the words,” he asks, “those upright lines? those curves, angles, dots? / No, those are not the words” (2 – 3). Whitman uses the poem to commit himself or recommit himself to exactly the romantic, Transcendentalist, the vibrant, plenum of life he spoke of in “A Song of Myself,” but where once Whitman was going to yawp over the rooftops of the world, now he says utterances all have to be abandoned:

I swear I begin to see little or nothing in audible words,
All merges toward the presentation of the unspoken meanings of the earth,
Toward him who sings the songs of the body and the truths of the earth,
Toward him who makes the dictionaries of words that print cannot touch.

I swear I see what is better than to tell the best,
It is always to leave the best untold.

When I undertake to tell the best I find I cannot,
My tongue is ineffectual on its pivot,
My breath will not be obedient to its organs,
I become a dumb man (98 – 107).

The week before last, Salman Rushdie visited the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue to read from and talk about his new novel Luka and the Fire of Life.  It is a sequel to the popular Haroun and the Sea of Stories, written, as its predecessor was for his first son, at the request of his second son.  Its hero is Haroun’s younger brother Luka, the second son of the famous storyteller Rashid Khalifa, who must endeavor a similar journey into the Magic World to once again help his father. These books walk and talk like children’s stories, but we should believe Rushdie when he asserts that “we are all children,” and that the appeal of these books, he hopes, is broad.

He carried himself with his usual joviality: he congratulated one overzealous fan for her question, telling her that she should publish it; on another occasion, when asked about his process, he replied, already laughing as if he couldn’t help himself, “I write left-to-right, all the way across the page, and then all the way down the page until I’m finished”; when I asked him at the signing if he could convince Thomas Pynchon to visit the Synagogue, he replied, and this was after 200-odd signatures, “You know, if I only had his phone number.” But his explanations of this book were insightful.  “It looks like it was easy,” but he assures us that “re-writing one of the oldest stories ever told–the story of man gaining fire from the gods” is arduous.

This intention is a good place to begin, analysis-wise.  Haroun appealed to young audiences because of its protagonist’s fanciful and action-packed adventure to save the Sea of Stories from pollution, in turn restoring his father’s lost yarning mojo.  It appealed to me because it was essentially a metafictionalist’s manifesto.  Nearly all the tricks were on display (to recount them would taint them; they are best encountered in their surprising and entertaining form).  Storytelling itself thus becomes the central theme of Haroun, a defense of its imaginative and restorative power.  Young audiences will similarly delight in Luka’s adventure into the Magic World to steal the Fire of Life and help the ailing Rashid.  But while the theme of Haroun was storytelling, here we deal with philosophy.  Life and death (or, as it is overtly put here, Being and un-Being) as well as issues of time (characters who literally represent the past, present and future play prominent roles in Luka’s journey) are central throughout the narrative. Again, to say more would spoil its richness.

Each book’s themes figure at times heavily and delicately, but narratively they are each driven by a paradigmatic plot structure. In each case, the young hero finds that the Magic World somehow resembles his own imagination, and the solutions to many of the problems he faces arise from his memory of these imaginings.  So, for example, Haroun becomes a character in a princess-rescue, employing tools from the stories his father had told him.   But it is the narrative paradigm that drives Luka I find extremely interesting.

We learn early on that Luka

lived in an age in which an almost infinite number of parallel realities had begun to be sold as toys. Like everyone he knew, he had grown up destroying fleets of invading rocket ships and been a little plumber on a journey through many bouncing, burning, twisted bubbling levels to rescue a prissy princess from a monster’s castle, and metamorphosed into a zooming hedgehog, and a streetfighter and a rockstar, and stood his ground undaunted in a hooded cloak while a demonic figure with stubby horns and a red-and-black face leapt around him slashing a double-ended lightsaber at his head.

Just as Haroun’s adventure is driven by his memories of Rashid’s stories, Luka’s journey resembles his beloved video games, replete with save points, bosses, accumulated lives, and increasingly vexing levels (not to mention the fantastic nature of the Magic World to begin with).  This fits the philosophical themes of time and death very nicely.  Many times Luka debates whether he actually controls the outcome of his adventure, or if it’s all been pre-programmed. Toward the end he accuses his nemesis of treating this ordeal like a game, only to be refuted with “No. It is a matter of life and death.”

Kudos to Rushdie for not shying away from video game imagery; I agree with the L.A. Times’ Jon Fasman when asserts, “Rushdie, almost alone among modern fiction writers, gives these games their narrative due.”  It’s extremely risky, but if you’re going to talk about such things as parallel universes, multiple lives, determinism and free will–in stories, let alone in life–is not the video game a reputable analog?  So, in many ways, Luka and the Fire of Life is in fact about storytelling after all.  Is it a case for the value of video games as a storytelling device for children and adolescents?  Probably not, but the video game motif–something I have not come across, at least to this extent, in fiction–nonetheless works here both as a model for plot and as a meta-commentary on the tension between determined structures and the always present freedom of an author to create the incredible.  Rushdie manages both quite nicely here.