Sunday, October 31, 2010

THE SEEN VERSUS THE REAL: JORIE GRAHAM’S “ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE”



Felice Casorati, Ritratto di Silvana Cenni, 1922


ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE

Up ahead, I know, he felt it stirring in himself already, the glance,   
the darting thing in the pile of rocks,

already in him, there, shiny in the rubble, hissing Did you want to remain   
completely unharmed?—

the point-of-view darting in him, shiny head in the ash-heap,

hissing Once upon a time, and then Turn now darling give me that look,   

that perfect shot, give me that place where I’m erased....

The thing, he must have wondered, could it be put to rest, there, in the glance,   
could it lie back down into the dustiness, giving its outline up?

When we turn to them—limbs, fields, expanses of dust called meadow and avenue—
will they be freed then to slip back in?

Because you see he could not be married to it anymore, this field with minutes in it   
called woman, its presence in him the thing called

future—could not be married to it anymore, expanse tugging his mind out into it, tugging the wanting-to-finish out.

What he dreamed of was this road (as he walked on it), this dustiness,   
but without their steps on it, their prints, without   
song—

What she dreamed, as she watched him turning with the bend in the road (can you
understand this?)—what she dreamed   

was of disappearing into the seen

not of disappearing, lord, into the real—

And yes she could feel it in him already, up ahead, that wanting-to-turn-and-
cast-the-outline-over-her

by his glance,

sealing the edges down,

saying I know you from somewhere darling, don’t I,   
saying You’re the kind of woman who etcetera—

(Now the cypress are swaying) (Now the lake in the distance)   
(Now the view-from-above, the aerial attack of do you
remember?)—

now the glance reaching her shoreline wanting only to be recalled,   
now the glance reaching her shoreline wanting only to be taken in,

(somewhere the castle above the river)

(somewhere you holding this piece of paper)   

(what will you do next?) (—feel it beginning?)   

now she’s raising her eyes, as if pulled from above,

now she’s looking back into it, into the poison the beginning,

giving herself to it, looking back into the eyes,

feeling the dry soft grass beneath her feet for the first time now the mind

looking into that which sets the ___________ in motion and seeing in there

a doorway open nothing on either side
(a slight wind now around them, three notes from up the hill)

through which morning creeps and the first true notes—

For they were deep in the earth and what is possible swiftly took hold.

~ Jorie Graham

 **

Lenny Lianne:

It's hard to look at just one poem in Graham's book [The End of Beauty] as all seem connected.

As always in Graham, time is one of the themes. Here, she implies that every moment is already inside him (and us?) and waiting or impatient to be realized. And/or there is one eternal moment waiting to be realized and that one moment negates, or undermines, the concept of future.

As for Eurydice, she realizes he has this moment within him and goes forward to meet it. For her, the glance embodies being seen and her image taken within him. It embodies recognition and she reaches for that recognition by looking at him looking at her.

**

Oriana:

I think Lenny's analysis is very perceptive. Eurydice fully anticipates that annihilating glance.

What she dreamed, as she watched him turning with the bend in the road (can you
understand this?)—what she dreamed   

was of disappearing into the seen

not of disappearing, lord, into the real—

And yes she could feel it in him already, up ahead, that wanting-to-turn-and-
cast-the-outline-over-her

by his glance,

sealing the edges down,

saying I know you from somewhere darling, don’t I,   
saying You’re the kind of woman who etcetera—

and yes, Eurydice looks back into his eyes, since she wants to disappear into the seen (the perception, the literary story) rather than the real. I agree with Lenny that this could be understood as Eurydice's wanting Orpheus to carry her image within him, to seal herself within him forever, her face and body now indelible in his memory, the way she looks in the moment of his losing her. Rather than real life, she prefers this transformation into an eternal image.

Note that doorway that opens "nothing on either side" -- this could imply the void before birth and the void after dying. But myth and great art are immortal -- though constantly re-visioned.

A marvelous touch here is that the real is full of Hollywood-type clichés. This makes it easier for us to understand why Eurydice would reject it.

Note as well that the beginning of Graham's poem has in it the Rilkean impatience that seems to characterize Orpheus, his trying to anticipate the future (as well as reaching back into the past):

And his senses were as if divided:
while his sight ran ahead like a dog,
turned back, came and went again and again,
and waited at the next turn, positioned there –
his hearing was left behind like a scent.
. . .

This poem was written during a period when Graham was interested in the human desire for closure. We want something to end – we may even want the world to end – so we can see what the meaning was.

Another interesting aspect of the poem is the shifting point of view. We start with the glance being animated as a kind of tempting serpent, but eventually the main focus is Eurydice. It’s her active response, her decision to look back at Orpheus, even though it means her annihilation (though not in the realm of the story, “the seen”) that is the revision of the myth.

In Graham's third volume, The End of Beauty, the poem that precedes “Orpheus and Eurydice” is “Self-Portrait As Both Parties.” It’s yet another, indirect approach to the myth.

Imagine the silt and all that it was.
The grains that filter down to it through the open hand of the sunlight.
How its rays weaken down there. How when it comes to touch
that smoothest of girls the slow bottom of the river,
is it Orpheus as it glides on unharmed but really
turned back with its one long note that cannot
break down?

How would he bring her back again? She drifts up
in small hourglass-shaped cloud of silt where the sunlight touches,
up to where the current could take her,
up by the waist into the downstream motion again into the
hard sell, and for a moment even I can see
the garment of particles which would become her body,
swaying, almost within reason, this devil-of-the-bottom,
almost yoked again, almost quelling her weightlessness,
flirting here now with this handful of
mudfish his fingers touch silver . . .  But they gun

through the weeds, the weeds cannot hold her
who is all rancor, all valves now, all destination,
dizzy with wanting to sink back in,
thinning terribly in the holy separateness.
And though he would hold her up, this light all open hands,
seeking her edges, seeking to make her palpable again,
curling around her to find crevices by which to carry her up,
flaws by which to be himself arrested and made,
made whole, made sharp and limbed, a shape,
she cannot, the drowning is too kind,
the becoming of everything which each pore opens to again,
the possible which each momentary outline blurs into again,
too kind, too endlessly kind,
the silks of the bottom rubbing their vague hands
over her forehead, braiding her to

the sepulchral leisure, the body, the other place that is not minutes

~ from “Self-Portrait As Both Parties”

**

This is a Rilkean Eurydice, who wants to remain dead:

dizzy with wanting to sink back in,
thinning terribly in the holy separateness.

and

she cannot, the drowning is too kind,
the becoming of everything which each pore opens to again,
the possible which each momentary outline blurs into again,
too kind, too endlessly kind,
the silks of the bottom rubbing their vague hands
over her forehead, braiding her to

the sepulchral leisure, the body, the other place that is not minutes

-- I assume that "the body" is here the dead body, for which time doesn't exist. Or else it's the body as opposed to the mind; time exists for the mind.

Also, Eurydice can no longer be grasped. This is in line with the Ancient Greek conception of the shadows in the Underworld. Thus, Odysseus tries three times to embrace his dead mother, and cannot.

I shamelessly brought this poem in because I am enchanted by the beauty of it --

Imagine the silt and all that it was.
The grains that filter down to it through the open hand of the sunlight.
How its rays weaken down there. How when it comes to touch
that smoothest of girls the slow bottom of the river,
is it Orpheus as it glides on unharmed

-- and more gorgeous lines. The idea of sunlight being Orpheus is immensely original and poetic.

**

You may say, but what about women poets identifying with Eurydice, speaking in the persona of Eurydice? There is h.d.'s Eurydice ("At least I have the flowers of myself") and Linda Gregg's Eurydice. Those of you who participated in our discussion of Jack Gilbert will readily recognize that this is Eurydice-Linda speaking to Orpheus-Jack Gilbert. I find the line "You were always curious what love is like" especially revealing.

EURYDICE

I linger, knowing you are eager (having seen
the strange world where I live)
to return to your friends
wearing the bells and singing the songs
which are my mourning.
With the water in them, with their strange rhythms.
I know you will not take me back.
Will take me almost to the world,
but not out to house, color, leaves. 
Not to the sacred world that is so easy
for you my love.

Inside my mind and in my body is a darkness
which I am equal to, but my heart is not.
Yesterday you read the Troubadour poets
in the bathroom doorway
while I painted my eyes for the journey.
While I took tiredness away from my face,
you read of that singer in a garden
with the woman he swore to love forever.

You were always curious what love is like. 
Wanted to meet me, not bring me home.
Now you whistle, putting together
the new words, learning the songs
to tell the others how far you traveled for me.
Singing of my desire to live.

Oh, if you knew what you do not know
I could be in the world remembering this.
I did not cry as much in the darkness
as I will when we part in the dimness
near the opening which is the way in for you
and was the way out for me, my love.
                       
                                    ~ Linda Gregg, Too Bright to See
**

Here the biographical temptation is very strong, and we may start thinking, “Oh sure, Jack Gilbert messed up his first marriage with non-stop infidelities, his betrayals of her trust that he was committed to their life together, which led to divorce; his second wife, who in his poems seems devoid of her own personality [actually she was a sculptor], died, becoming Eurydice material for the troubadour's poems.”

We need to return to the poem itself, and surrender to its lyricism and its insight. Eurydice already knows how this will end: she will cry even more when they part because he does not really want to share his life and his world with her. At the same time, Eurydice’s last words are my love -- this is not h.d.’s angry Eurydice, but rather a sadder and wiser Eurydice who remains loving, but is perfectly resigned to what will happen.

And thus, by a commodious vicus we come back to Lenny’s comment that the end of the story is already contained in it long before it actually takes place. In fact one could argue that already the beginning contains the end; that's why Greek poets thought the first word was so important (e.g. the first word of the Iliad is rage). 

It is amazing to see the power of the myth to stay alive for thousands of years. Of course each writer (poet, composer, movie maker) sees it through a different lens. This means an eternal freshness and new attempts to grasp the mystery of life, love, and death. 





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