Friday, November 9, 2012
SZYMBORSKA: REVENGE OF A MORTAL HAND?
That last Polish August that glows
like a last ruddy pear in my mind,
my mother would point and say,
“Take a good look: you may never
see it again” – a river valley
kneeling in the greenest green,
or a birch grove touched by the wind,
so delicate it seemed
about to tremble away –
while in school we learned by heart
My fatherland, you are like health;
only he knows your worth
who has lost you -- but we hadn’t lost
health or fatherland, and the scent
of wild mushrooms was a prayer –
what if a prophet, a seer,
were to rise from the spilled moon,
a black boat on a Baltic bay,
were to point to everything
and say, “Take a good look:
it’s the happiest year of your life.
You will never see it again.”
And I was seventeen
on the stroke of fate.
Later, like a good-luck charm,
I carried these words in my mind:
The worst has already happened.
Then I chanced to read the reverse
of my amber amulet:
The best has already happened.
What, no more great love?
Only the bitter sage who taught,
Life is a cruel joke –
no greater lover and seer?
Where are my palaces of clouds?
Where is my will to believe?
Now I don’t even care to travel –
I say, too many stairs to climb.
I want to sleep in my own bed.
After the summer when I thought
I chose a larger destiny,
no sleep has seemed deep enough –
not the deepest granite cradle,
the High Tatras’ bluest lake,
the Eye of the Sea. Dear
wisdom, what I’ve paid for you –
My fatherland, you are like health.
But I sing that gilded August
before the wasps flew in
to feast on wounded pears.
~ Oriana © 2012
The Happy Posthumous versus the Depressive Posthumous:
I hope this poem can be read “beyond nostalgia,” because I mean it to be mainly about "great expectations" and growing older: the shock of discovering that life has basically already happened. There were actually two years in my life that I see as the happiest: my last year in Poland, and my last year in Los Angeles. The irony of that “lastness” is not lost on me.
More to the point, the perception that much of my life is already behind me has awakened me to being posthumous. My best poems are behind me, my greatest love (wasted of course on the wrong man), my hiking in the mountains (when it was possible just to take Advil afterwards), the various jobs I’ve held, what little traveling I've done -- is it possible that once I was certain I’d get to see both the Himalayas and the Amazon jungle? As I say in one of my late poems, “Horizontal Rain,”
Mountains I haven’t climbed
I would no longer climb.
The arson of passion
lay smoldering behind me.
Can I know this with absolute certainty? No, but 90% probability is as good as certainty. Now if only I had “After Wisdom,” a happy-posthumous companion poem to “Before Wisdom.” The good part, which I managed to perceive only fairly recently, is that now that I've gotten over the shock of seeing that my life has already happened, I'm in the position of being happily posthumous. I don't have to wait for anything, strive for anything, hope for anything, achieve anything.
I remember when I was eighteen, and my mother said, “The difference between you and me is that you are still waiting for your life, and I am no longer waiting.” Now I’m not only “not waiting”; I regard my life as already posthumous. It feels great. Do not wake me from this dream of life after life.
Waiting was difficult enough, but the real torture used to be ambition. Striving -- I've done plenty of that. I didn’t think I could ever shed ambition, but look! a miracle. Now I can finally enjoy whatever happens, and bless my great good luck. I do wish I could write “After Wisdom,” a poem to celebrate the “marvelous posthumous,” but I'm pretty much past poems (and besides, the best poems are about loss, not about gain).
And I agree with Cecilia that we don’t choose IF we write, or WHAT we write about. Why so many poems about a lost love rather than happy love? We don’t get to choose. Hardly anything is as inspiring lost love. In the case of poets who become immigrants, their greatest love is the lost homeland. But as Milosz wisely warns, you run out of nostalgia (he never quite did, but then his real homeland was not Poland, where he spent his last years, but Lithuania; he chose Kraków because it reminded him of Vilnius).
But before I reached the Happy Posthumous, I did my time in the Depressive Posthumous. The dying of expectations is notoriously painful.
I confess: it wasn’t really the loss of Poland. It wasn’t the loss of a great love. It was the loss of the future. Like thousands of other poets, I was once full of hope that I’d become famous. Not for the sake of the ego; for the sake of having an audience. A poet wants to be read and read. My great dream was having a real audience.
And I had some reasons for hope. Instructors praised my work. Friends praised my work. Strangers would approach me after a reading and ask where they could buy my books. Told I didn’t have any, they’d try to reassure me that it was just a matter of time: “the cream rises to the top.” And of course I wanted to believe Szymborska’s famous lines:
The joy of writing.
The power to preserve.
Revenge of a mortal hand.
Those lines proved true enough for Szymborska, who has gained world fame. Will her work still be read a hundred years from now? We can’t be sure, since trends are bound to change. We live in an age of irony, but maybe a new romanticism is around the corner. Stranger things have happened. Regardless, Szymborska’s best poems deserve to be read for many generations to come.
But many other excellent poems by less known poets are quickly forgotten, before they even truly find their audience. Poetry is a marginal art, and that’s simply how things are. The joy of writing? Yes, but only in the moment of writing. Later, moments of joy when someone who’s heard the poem during the reading still remembers it ten or more years later (twenty years has been the record so far -- perhaps the limit of my “immortality”).
Yet there is an even greater joy when someone tells me, after a reading, “Your poem really helped me.” I know the poem may not be remembered for long, but at least it reached someone, and had a positive impact. So, the joy of sharing in the moment. The joy of writing (forgetting the agonies; anyway, the best poems come quickly; they write themselves) and the joy of sharing. And the joy, when the poem is good, of knowing that it’s good, even if never gets published. Once I got introduced as “the best least-known poet in America” -- and that still was a true compliment.
THE QUICK AND THE DEAD
This past summer I read and re-read Christian Wiman’s Ambition and Survival, a book for which I was ripe, having come to an end of belief in poetry as a way of life for myself. One chapter in particular affected me profoundly: “In the Flux that Abolishes Me.”
Wiman, the current editor of Poetry magazine, becomes a veritable Ecclesiastes when he writes about the vanity of the hope for a literary afterlife:
Sometimes at Poetry we get manuscripts from dead people. I don’t mean the living dead, though we get those too. I mean the dead dead, who are by this point either singing with choirs of angels or sitting in the eternal workshop that is Hell, but in any event have no access to stamps. The manuscripts come to us by way of the poet’s friends or family, who are occasionally following some last directive of their loved one but more often acting on their own. They want to honor or understand all those hours that John or Mary or Sam or Jane insisted on solitude and silence. They want it to mean something.
. . . We haven’t yet found anything to publish in these submissions . . . It is very difficult to predict what the readers of the future will choose to preserve, but one thing is certain: they won’t choose much, and they will think we chose badly.
That’s the downside of a life spent trying to write poems. The upside is that no one believes in the downside, not really, not wholly, and not at all in the moments that matter most, when one discovers a poem that seems to speak right through the centuries, or when a new poem of one’s own lights a fire in the mind. What is one believing in then?
Wiman goes on to quote Ruth Pitter (“an English poet who lay down in the dust in 1992, and whose work, it seems, survives in the minds of fewer and fewer people every year”). Pitter wrote:
The mind has suddenly become a great soundboard, echoing far beyond its accustomed range into its own vast borderlands, where lost paradise and hoped for heaven have betaken themselves;l and we are shaken by a cosmic wind, and know ourselves for creatures of a far greater range than we are commonly aware of.
The creative process, especially when the poem rolls out as if we were taking dictation from the unconscious (some poets actually believe they are channeling god), is indeed an exhilarating experience. Doubt as to the wisdom and beauty of the words freshly on the page sets in only later. But even if the new poem survives that stage of doubt, Wiman reminds us that it will not be for long: “If it’s eternity you’re after, verse isn’t going to get you there.”
Wiman cites the magazine’s standard reply to the “manuscripts from the dead”: “We have been very glad to read these poems. These poems have moved us. But we’re not going to be able to use these poems at this time.” I can almost see someone sweeping away autumn leaves, tossing them into trash no matter how beautiful they are. And there is no arguing with Wiman that writing poetry [or any kind of writing] has to be its own reward.
And there is still something else: some of what we said or wrote will live on in an anonymous fashion, since we are really a collective mind, and even something as seemingly personal as a poem is to a significant extent a collective creation.
That’s why I don’t revoke this “pre-posthumous” poem of mine:
THIS IS HOW I WANT TO SURVIVE
On the Baltic, where my life began,
white beaches banked
by dunes and pine,
at the margin of foam I found
a crumb of amber –
a reliquary of an unknown life.
Wet shadows ripple the sand.
Seagulls spiral like greedy angels.
Tamed by the grass, the hills
have forgotten granite.
Between the blond grass
and late sun,
at the margin of a dream
I am suspended in amber.
This is how I want to survive:
lace of a leaf,
shadow of wing –
begun on a Baltic beach,
a dark alphabet
pressed into syllables of light.
~ Oriana © 2012
Anonymous, yes. The ripple effect, the immortality of influence. Even if I won’t have any consciousness of it, there is some solace in thinking about continuing to touch the lives of others in a helpful way, however slight – “lace of a leaf, shadow of wing.”
This larger vision of being anonymous and collective extends far beyond writing. If you don’t like the word “collective,” substitute “connected.” What we do and say does matter because it's not just our own small story, but part of the great story of humanity -- how we manage to sing even under the most difficult circumstances. How we don’t give up.
Wait, you may say, but haven’t you given up poetry? Yes (or rather: poetry gave me up). But I haven’t given up writing. I shifted to what for me is a larger music.
Issa's most famous haiku is regarded as a great metaphor for human life:
On a branch
a cricket, singing.
~ Issa (1763-1827)
I wish to acknowledge Danusha Goska for having said, “It’s not just our own small story, but part of the story of humanity.”
I like the"greenest green" gives me permission to describe a color as what it is rather than dredge up an image every time. Especially love the ruddy pear image so perfectly fitting to the subject. And the"crumb of amber" -- that is so visual, and the word amber has so many associations.
I think poetry or any writing has to be its own reward. Anne Sexton said that she wrote poetry instead of committing suicide. I'm working on a poem about where and why I write, and I picture the finger of god (Michelangelo) and think I would like to touch someone (just one) with my poetry (much more humbly of course).
When I was in my late twenties and early thirties, I also wrote poetry instead of committing suicide. And even now I can’t imagine life without writing. I considered becoming a hospice volunteer or maybe a wildlife center, taking care of animals. That might be emotionally satisfying. Like every woman, I have a nurturing side. Nature made us to be mothers. But I also know that I need an intellectual outlet, a life of the mind, of ideas. Poetry did not quite satisfy my intellectual side. Now that I mingle the two, and feel I am incredibly lucky.
When I first started reading seriously, I felt that the kind of concentration I was doing was like nothing else. I would read a poem or a paragraph in a novel with so much intensity, trying to get to the heart of it and all its wisdom and complexity, that it felt like time was slowing down, that somehow I was creating with my mind a machine that would let me stretch time so that I could pack more and more feeling/thinking into it. There was reading time and there was real time and real time (with it's everyday, "passing" concentration) was never where I wanted to be. It's like your experience with Chomsky, I guess. Your mind working over and through and into a puzzle until every word is linked with every other word and all of it is simultaneously present to you.
The best explanation I ever read of what I felt when I was reading came from Henri Bergson, his sense of Duration, all time interpenetrating all time, time as a rich soup rather than a straight line.
Yes, the sense of time spent in deep concentration is totally different from the time that's scattered on now answering the phone, now sending a quick email, browsing Facebook -- whatever it is that simply doesn't have depth. It feels like having an attention deficit disorder. Whenever my attention span becomes short, it's like the clutter of life being dumped on my head. Concentration is healing; distraction is destructive.
I suppose meditators and mystics achieve that depth in their way, while intellectuals just reach for a "difficult" book. Up to a point, the more difficult it is, the more satisfying it is. For me: Nietzsche yes, Heidegger no. The meaning must be graspable.
But some of it is simply slowing down, reading very slowly and with total absorption. I'm sure brain imaging would show a different average frequency, and different brain regions involved. Deep concentration is healing. It's very difficult for me to get there by the usual methods described on meditation websites, but sitting down (sometimes lying down -- lotus posture is out of the question, bad for the knees and circulation in general) to demanding reading and being totally with the text, in tremendous quiet, without distraction or interruption -- that's my paradise.
When Joseph Campbell was asked about his spiritual practice, his reply was that he underlines sentences in a book.