Sunday, May 2, 2010

Jack Gilbert's End of Paradise; Lenny Lianne's Last Word; Oriana's April Snow

"The End of Paradise" is perhaps the most memorable poem in Jack Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven. Note the masterful touch of having two angels of death here rather than one. This adds imaginative richness and dramatic tension to the poem, since the two angels can be given different personalities, and they can interact. Be warned that these angels do not exemplify the conventional, Victorian sweetness and light. This is part of the poem's genius: the unexpected image of the angels.

The poem is a wonderful example of the interweave of story (a limiting factor, to follow Gregory Orr’s categories) and imagination/mental plane (a limitless factor).


When the angels found him sitting in the half light
of his kerosene lamp eating lentils, his eyes widened.
But all he said was could he leave a note. The one
wearing black looked at the other one in red who shrugged,
so he began writing, desperately. Wadded the message
into an envelope and wrote Anna on the front. Quickly
began another, shoulders hunched, afraid of them.
Finished and wrote Pimpaporn on it. Began a third
one and the heavy angel growled. “I have Schubert,”
the man offered, turning on the tape. The one in black
said quietly that at least he didn’t say “So soon!”
When the ink ran out, the man whimpered and struggled
to the table piled with books and drafts. He finished
again and scrawled Suzanne across it. The one in red
growled again and the man said he’d put on his shoes.
When they took him out into the smell of dry vetch
and the ocean, he began to hold back, pleading:
“I didn’t put on the addresses! I don’t want them to think
I forgot.” “It doesn’t matter,” the better angel said,
“they’ve been dead for years.” 
~ Jack Gilbert

My favorite passage in Gilbert’s poem is:
. . . The one in black
said quietly that at least he didn’t say “So soon!”
It reminded me of Bergman’s “Seventh Seal” – how the protagonist tries to delay by playing chess, and an actor hopes that there is an exception for actors.
I also enjoy the part where "the man" (Jack Gilbert often writes about himself in the third person -- a ploy known as "third person confessional") offers to play Schubert for the angels. I'm crazy about Schubert -- exactly the music for angels. 
But let’s face it, it’s the unexpected title that startles the reader and makes the poem irresistible. In the context of the poem, it's the title that is the deepest message.
A friend of mine wrote a poem modeled on Jack Gilbert’s scenario. Note that her angels are more pleasant. It's a delightful, humorous (or semi-humorous) poem. We can all identify with this situation. And no, doing crosswords puzzles does not protect against Alzheimer's, that death of memory, of self. 
after Jack Gilbert

When the angels came, he was working
on the Sunday crossword puzzle.
He’d filled in apple for forbidden fruit
and, down from the first letter,

penciled in agape in the squares,
then stopped, caught more off guard
by the incongruous intersection
of greed and ungrudging goodwill

than by the two sinewy, winged figures
who looked like extras in a Zeffirelli film.
All he said was could he continue
the puzzle. Both the angels shrugged

so he took up his pencil again.
The two drew near, leaned over him,
close enough for him to discern
the faint scent of his favorite flowers,

lilies of the valley, those delicate bells
that never ring. Hemingway, one said,
pointing toward a five-letter space.
Donne, the other countered dryly.

“But I have so much more to finish,”
the man mewled, showing them
a baffling expanse of vacant spaces.
By the time he put down the final

letter, the sky had given its last
rosy show of the day and the man
said he would slip on his sweater.
When the angels led him toward

a brightness, he tried to let go,
arguing, “I don’t know if I gave
the right answers.” “No one does”
was the angels’ reply.

~ Lenny Lianne


I tried the same writing exercise, but abandoned it when my chief angel emerged as a figure with tattoos and the lingo of a bar bouncer. What a shift away from beautiful, feminine angels! I’d rather stay with the conventional soothing angels. Joseph Campbell says somewhere, “The Angel of Death looks horrific from afar, but she is beautiful when she comes near.”

A very different figure of Thanatos as a handsome young man visited me in a dream that gave rise to this poem:


I climb to Condor Lookout,
into snowdrifts of clouds.
To what altar do we wade,
white procession with snow-lit pine?

That night a beautiful young man
dawns at my door –
with a rifle, a soldier’s uniform.
He smiles a shy, boyish smile.

I don’t seduce, I don’t plead.
I chat: where is he from,
is he happy. I want my last
moments to have tenderness.

He is the age my son would be,
if I had a son – this handsome
Thanatos, life's farewell gift,
like the trees shining in crystal.

Over his shoulder I see
the slopes sparkle with moist breath.
His smile covers everything.
Don’t worry, I say, I know.

I show him my daily list,
little whips of chores;
my walk before sunset,
when the light is the best.

But with petals of April snow
the wind has erased my tracks.
Pines and firs go with me.
I only want tenderness.

~ Oriana


Tenderness -- that's what we ultimately want from any angel, isn't it? Even Jack Gilbert's angels (who make me think of the fallen variety) show kindness by letting him write his final messages, though they will not lie out of kindness. And that last truth-telling line in both Gilbert's and Lenny Lianne's poem is perhaps the most interesting one, in terms of human values. We are truth-seekers.


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