Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A. R. AMMONS: THE MOUNTAIN AND I



































Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park


Mountain Talk

I was going along a dusty highroad
when the mountain
across the way
turned me to its silence:
oh I said how come
I don’t know your
massive symmetry and rest:
nevertheless, said the mountain,
would you want
to be
lodged here with
a changeless prospect, risen
to an unalterable view:
so I went on
counting my numberless fingers.

**

This is one of those stunners that are best left uncommented on, since anything one may say after the magic of “so I went on / counting my numberless fingers” will be just prosy babble.

But this little masterpiece made me think of the statues of Buddha seated in meditation, and how those images fail to touch my heart – maybe because I like flow rather than stasis. I like the way that, if you take a close look at anything, it blossoms into infinity.

And I love it when poets talk with mountains, wind, dogs, river, and so on (“Lead, why did you let yourself / be made into a bullet?” ~ Simic; unforgettable). We can get away with it in poetry; we are allowed to be like little children and holy fools.


Matterhorn and Riffelsee

WHO CAN MOURN THOSE THE DEAD MOURNED

In another conversation with the mountain, Ammons takes up the eternal theme of transience and time. If your eyes have just glazed over, have some coffee and continue with “Continuing” – it’s the wonderful way humus is compared to human life that matters.

Continuing

Considering the show, some prize-winning
leaves broad and a firm, a good year,
I checked the ground
for the accumulation of
fifty seasons: last year was
prominent to notice, whole leaves
curled, some still with color:
and, underneath, the year
before, though paler, had structure,
partial, airier than linen:
but under that,
sand or rocksoil already mixed
with the meal or grist:
is this, I said to the mountain,
what becomes of things:
well, the mountain said, one
mourns the dead but who
can mourn those the dead mourned;
back a way
they sift in a tearless
place: but, I said,
it’s so quick, don’t you think,
quick: most time, the mountain said, lies
in the thinnest layer: who
could bear to think of it:
I scooped up the sand which flowed
away, all but a cone in the palm:
the mountain said, it
will do for another year.

**

My favorite passage:

is this, I said to the mountain,
what becomes of things:
well, the mountain said, one
mourns the dead but who
can mourn those the dead mourned;
back a way
they sift in a tearless
place: but, I said,
it’s so quick, don’t you think,
quick: most time, the mountain said, lies
in the thinnest layer: who
could bear to think of it:

**

The mountain here has surprising understanding of human concerns and emotions:

well, the mountain said, one
mourns the dead but who
can mourn those the dead mourned;
back a way
they sift in a tearless
place:

Then “who / could bear to think of it” continues the mountain’s breaking away from aloofness. From the advantage of its tall and quite durable majesty – one could also posit the “wisdom of great age” – the mountain suddenly speaks with human understanding of how our psyche cannot bear all this passing and vanishing.

There is also an element in humor in the very fact that the mountain speaks to the tiny human, and that alone creates a certain emotional uplift.


Zugspitze, Germany. Photo: Christian Nawroth

THE PURITY OF EMPTINESS VERSUS SURVIVAL

Let me quote another “the mountain and I” poem that I find quite charming:

Classic

I sat by a stream in a
perfect – except for willows –
emptiness
and the mountain that
was around

scraggly with brush &
rock
said
I see you’re scribbling again:

accustomed to mountains,
their cumbersome intrusions,
I said

well, yes, in a fashion very
like the water here
uncapturable and vanishing:

but that
said the mountain does not
excuse the stance
or diction

and next if you’re not careful
you’ll be
arriving at ways
water survives its motions.

**

Here, instead of transience, we end of survival – water survives its motions.

Also, here both the mountain and the human are dismissive of each other. The mountain says, “I see you’re scribbling again.” He assures the reader that he is “accustomed to mountains / their cumbersome intrusions.”

These conversations between a man and a mountain are so marvelous that I want to swat at the thought that buzzes by: how lonely the poet must have been to have these talks. I love the mountain’s “cumbersome intrusion”; I know about a necessary, creative solitude, the kind that gave us Dickinson’s genius; I know about long solitary walks and writing love letters to the wind; but still . . .  


THE SUPREMACY OF THE MIND

But before we start feeling sorry for the poet, one more poem to remind us that, for all his supposed envy of the mountain, he is the one who feels superior:

Apologetics

I don’t amount to a thing, I said to the mountain:
I’m not worth a tuft of rubble:  I come from
nothing, that’s where I’ll go:  you take, like, from

my elevation, everything rises, slopes with huge
shoulders barreling and breaking up as if out of
melt-deep ground:  when I look out I don’t see

a scope falling away under prevailing views
into ridges, windings, plots, stream-fields:    sir,
the mountain noticing me below and fixing

me in view said, what you don’t have you nearly
acquire in the telling, there is a weaving
winding round in you lifting you buzzardlike up into

high-windings:    just a minute, I said to the
mountain:  exaggeration is not your prerogative:
you have to settle for size:    eminence is mine.

**

The cleverness of this poem lies in how it starts with the assertion of human worthlessness: “from dust to dust” here becomes even more radical: from nothing to nothing. The speaker continues with self-effacement by praising the mountain’s superior view from above, while the speaker’s view is from below, where “everything rises, slopes with huge / shoulders barreling and breaking up.” The mountain, impressed with the poet’s eloquence, replies

           what you don’t have you nearly
acquire in the telling, there is a weaving
winding round in you lifting you buzzardlike up into

high-windings

This competing eloquence on the part of the mountain makes the speaker reveal his true feelings about which of them is superior:

          just a minute, I said to the
mountain:  exaggeration is not your prerogative:
you have to settle for size:    eminence is mine.

This ending might be hubristic, but humor saves it from that. Thus we arrive at the opposite pole from humility. Both extremes are true: compared to a mountain, we are momentary, dust to dust, nothing to nothing. At the same time, there is an undeniable greatness in humanity, even in just one human being. Simply having a language (thanks to which we are capable of exaggeration) is magnificent.

Thus, Ammons doesn’t let nature have the last word. The mountain has greatness, but that greatness is confined to size; human greatness has to do with the infinitude of the human mind.

This is not to say that Ammons is a great singer of the human. No, he is primarily a singer of nature:

. . . paradise was when
Dante
regathered from height and depth
   came out onto the soft, green level earth
into the natural light

**


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