Monday, May 13, 2013

THE INNER INFANT




MOON

The moon is full tonight
an illustration for sheet music,
an image in Matthew Arnold
glimmering on the English Channel,
or a ghost over a smoldering battlefield
in one of the history plays.

It's as full as it was
in that poem by Coleridge
where he carries his year-old son
into the orchard behind the cottage
and turns the baby's face to the sky
to see for the first time
the earth's bright companion,
something amazing to make his crying seem small.

And if you wanted to follow this example,
tonight would be the night
to carry some tiny creature outside
and introduce him to the moon.

And if your house has no child,
you can always gather into your arms
the sleeping infant of yourself,
as I have done tonight,
and carry him outdoors,
all limp in his tattered blanket,
making sure to steady his lolling head
with the palm of your hand.

And while the wind ruffles the pear trees
in the corner of the orchard
and dark roses wave against a stone wall,
you can turn him on your shoulder
and walk in circles on the lawn
drunk with the light.
You can lift him up into the sky,
your eyes nearly as wide as his,
as the moon climbs high into the night.

~ Billy Collins, Picnic, Lightning

The humor of the poem relies on a rhetorical device that Collins uses quite often: he literalizes a metaphor, here going beyond the “inner child” to the inner infant: “the sleeping infant of yourself” that you can carry out in a tattered blanket in order to introduce him to the moon.

Nevertheless, even though Collins repeats this little joke of his again and again in his poems, we must admit that this particular poem is  quite memorable. First I thought this may be due to the fact that “inner infant” has a certain freshness, while the “inner child” has become a cliché to the point that some people don’t seem to realize it’s only a metaphor and not a real child hiding in some closet of the psyche. But just to make sure, I googled “inner infant.” Alas, there are entries for it; a cyber-nursery of inner infant psychobabble has already set up its dysfunctional playpens. (Of course some New Age people believe that memories of life in the womb can be retrieved as well. Oh happy embryo! Oh ecstatic zygote!)

Still, unlike the inner child, “the sleeping infant of yourself” is a lot more unexpected. The catalogue of the first stanza is forgettable and should have been omitted so we can quickly get to Coleridge, the moon, and the infant, without stumbling over sheet music, the English Channel, or a smoldering battlefield. Imagine this:

The moon is full tonight,
as full as it was
in that poem by Coleridge
where he carries his year-old son
into the orchard behind the cottage
and turns the baby's face to the sky
to see for the first time
the earth's bright companion,
something amazing to make his crying seem small.
 

That’s where the poem finds itself and becomes less a list and more a vignette, organized by this central image:
 

you can always gather into your arms
the sleeping infant of yourself,
as I have done tonight,
and carry him outdoors,
all limp in his tattered blanket,
making sure to steady his lolling head
with the palm of your hand.

Details create reality: this is the most important thing that a writer needs to learn. Don’t moralize, don’t philosophize, don’t psychobabble -- we are going to forget all that as soon as we lift our eyes off the page, if not sooner. But good details make the made-up incident real and they don’t let go.

At first I wasn’t sure about the “tattered blanket” -- why would the blanket be tattered? And an inner voice replied, because it’s been so many years since you were an infant. The lolling head on that fragile neck is almost painful to imagine. But that was us, no denying. “Tattered” goes well with “lolling.” Yes, once we were so pathetically dependent on adults. Do we ever get over that initial insecurity? Or, as some New Age fans worry, Do we ever get over the “trauma of birth,” or are we stuck with post-traumatic stress disorder for a lifetime? (A shameless digression: a Jehovah’s Witness told me that humanity is still in post-traumatic shock after the Fall in Eden 6,000 years ago.)

You can tell that I live in Southern California, the capital of “rebirthing.” I think getting born once is enough, and one infancy is fine too. Blessedly the brain was too undeveloped then to be capable of encoding long-term memory of what it was like to be in diapers. True, we missed some wonderful moments too!

The final stanza returns us to the adult:

And while the wind ruffles the pear trees
in the corner of the orchard
and dark roses wave against a stone wall,
you can turn him on your shoulder
and walk in circles on the lawn
drunk with the light.
You can lift him up into the sky,
your eyes nearly as wide as his,
as the moon climbs high into the night.

Again, details create reality, and you see the scene so distinctly that you forget you never had an orchard with pear trees (though I had a fig tree once), nor a stone wall, and perhaps not even a lawn. There you are, the manipulated reader, walking in circles on an imaginary lawn under a full moon, lifting your inner infant to introduce the babe to the moon. The poem works: it’s the magic of a well-developed central image, even if that image is stolen from another poet.

*

I wondered in which famous poem Coleridge speaks of his infant son and the moon. “Midnight Frost” wasn’t it -- the babe stays asleep in the cradle the full length of the poem (“My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.”) And then -- eureka! -- “The Nightingale.” Astonishingly, it’s not in the Norton anthology, though it’s of about the same quality as the other conversation poems. Perchance a hidden hostility toward nightingales?

(A shameless digression: Let’s admit it once and for all: nightingales are shrill, annoying midnight screamers using their cheap trills to establish territory against other competing males. To know nightingales -- as opposed to poems about nightingales -- is to hate them. By the way, there are no true nightingales in North America; however, we have the mockingbird, and at his mating-mania worst the mockingbird can sing all night. The last time I heard a mockingbird, he was imitating a car alarm. Fortunately that was not late at night. In fact I adore mockingbirds during reasonable hours.)

Here is Coleridge on the babe and the moon -- “he” is the poet’s infant son, Hartley:

He knows well
The evening-star! and once, when he awoke
In most distressful mood (some inward pain
Had made up that strange thing, an infant’s dream—)
I hurried with him to our orchard-plot,
And he beheld the moon, and, hushed at once,
Suspends his sobs, and laughs most silently,
While his fair eyes, that swam with undropped tears,
Did glitter in the yellow moon-beam! Well!—
It is a father’s tale
: But if that Heaven
Should give me life, his childhood shall grow up
Familiar with these songs, that with the night
He may associate joy.—Once more, farewell,
Sweet Nightingale! Once more, my friends! farewell.

**

He “hushed at once.” I wonder at what point a young child first truly notices the moon, and whether the word for moon, meaning the concept of the moon, needs to be heard, grasped, and remembered for such noticing to develop. But lack of precise knowledge need not prevent us from enjoying this “father’s tale.” We nod our non-lolling heads.

Hartley Coleridge (1796-1849) became a minor poet and an alcoholic. We know that these conditions are genetic and are not to be blamed on early exposure to the moon and/or nightingales.



the screamer

*

Amazingly enough, a wonderful poet I know happens to have written a poem in response to the poem by Billy Collins:

HOLDING MY DADDY UP TO THE MOON

Yesterday I fell apart when I read
Billy Collins’ poem about Coleridge
holding his infant son up
for a first look at the moon.

Billy says if there is not a child
in the house, “take the sleeping infant
of yourself . . . ” and I took my father,
the forgotten little boy. No one
would have done this for him.

In the only picture I have (two inches
square, glued to a piece of wood)
he is sturdy as a Percheron pony,
dressed in knickers and tweed coat,
fingers barely close on the book
he holds like a teacup.
He never learned to read.

When the lawn is creamy with moonlight,
air drenched in jasmine
and mockingbird song,
it it this child I hold up.

~ Una Huynum, The Magee Anthology, 2001

*

Now this is a poem in a different league from the clever joke by Billy Collins . . . This is the “human” poetry that touches the heart and yes, it can make us cry, so people who are afraid of feelings (yes, feelings can hurt) don't want to come near it. Better to chuckle with Billy.

Some humor is fine in poetry, but with humor you can go only so far. We don’t read poetry for comedy. From poetry we want poetry.

A poem like Una’s is of great value precisely because it has emotional power; it expands our empathy. We see the little boy who didn’t get either the love or the education that every child  should get. And if we truly understand, we stop judging and blaming: to blame is to ascribe total “free will” to a person, as if we could choose our genes, the income and education of our parents, and all kinds of other circumstances entirely beyond personal control.

“I wrote this poem when I was beginning to remember positive things about my father,” Una commented. If we had a difficult relationship with a parent, it can be decades before we begin to feel compassion for him. Yet as soon as there is even a grain of compassion, everything changes: instead of a dangerous big man with big fists we see a helpless little boy who didn’t get enough caring. He was “forgotten” in the chaos of a large family, and had to survive somehow, keeping his fear and pain to himself. Sensing that no one would have lifted this child up toward the moon, his adult daughter, the poet, now symbolically performs the missing act of affection.

This lifting up of the child toward the sky is something many parents do. It’s beyond affection; something only half-understood compels them to do it. They hold up the child like an offering to the universe. At the same time it could be said that it’s the other way: they are offering the universe to the child. The universe belongs to the child, and the child belongs to the universe. It’s the start of a beautiful friendship, if I may be permitted to steal a line. It’s part of a non-fear-based relationship with reality.

Cesare Pavese observed, “We don’t remember days; we remember moments.” I remember the moment when I first saw a broadsheet with Desiderata in the window of a bookstore in Washington, D.C. I was seventeen and a half, and this was the second or third week after my arrival in the United States. One of the statements felt like an antidote to all the instances when I felt I wasn’t valued and welcome, the world already too crowded, with room only for important people. I kept reading it over and over: “You are a child of the Universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.” That was the moment when a total stranger, the writer of Desiderata, picked me up and lifted me to the moon and the stars.

(That writer was Max Ehrmann, who penned the text in 1927. The work remained little-known until the sixties and seventies.)




The statue of Max Ehrmann in Terre Haute, Indiana

(A shameless digression: when we look at those marvelous sepia photographs showing the huge families of the past, when having ten or more children was not uncommon, let us remember that the more children, the less parental attention and affection each child received. The younger children were basically raised by their older siblings, and sometimes felt as if they had no parents.)
 

 Queen Victoria with children and grandchildren. At least there were nannies.

*
 

Pavese is right: in the end we remember not years, not days, but moments. Watching my mother slowly decline and die was very painful to me, but I preserved some moments I cherish. My favorite one lives on in this poem:

MOTHER MOON

I tuck a baby blanket
around her shrunken body,
wheel her past the patients parked
in wheelchairs against the wall –

the fractured elders sent to this
“Rehab Center” to be trained
to walk again, though they don’t
see what there is to walk to.

In the patio, sharp breath of February wind,
the dry rasp of banana leaves.
“Cold,” she complains. I tuck her tight
in her cocoon of hearts and balloons

when she looks up at the sky
and smiles. “Moon,” she says,
her face in that moment
again her own,

not a stiffening mask.
In the pale heaven over Los Angeles,
a frail daytime moon
hangs like an unfinished watercolor.

Earlier that week a baby girl I know
pointed her finger and said
“moon” for the first time.
Her eyes gathering the light,

my mother smiles, pulls one
finger from under the blanket
and points up. “Moon,”
she says for the last time.


~Oriana © 2013

**

There is an unavoidable sadness here, a lump in the throat when we realize that eventually we will notice the moon for the last time. Yet I see it as a celebration of my mother’s ability to blossom into total joy.

And though now this seems very long ago, I can’t forget the news report that Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber, on his way to the site of the execution, saw the moon again after several months on death row, “and his face lit up with obvious pleasure.”

Let’s step away for a few seconds to see a little boy consciously enjoying looking at the moon for the first time. And then for the last time.

This was a human being, and humans enjoy looking at the moon. It’s part of being a child of the universe.

And maybe what underlies the “funny” poem by Billy Collins is not a joke after all, but a great truth of the heart: that we are not tragic strangers in this world, our lives “nasty, brutish and short.” Even if we didn’t get enough tender care in childhood, we can give tenderness to ourselves. When this tenderness toward the self is joined to a connection with nature, the rich feast of life is its own reward. As Rilke says, "just to be here is magnificent.”

And if your house has no child,
you can always gather into your arms
the sleeping infant of yourself . . .
You can lift him up into the sky,
your eyes nearly as wide as his,
as the moon climbs high into the night.




Hyacinth:

WS Merwin wrote an unforgettable poem entitled Still Morning

" I am a child before there are words
arms are holding me up in a shadow
voices murmuring in a shadow
and I watch one patch of sunlight moving
across the green carpet..."

He goes on to  say all the voices are long gone now and he keeps seeing sunlight on the green carpet.

As for the tattered blanket, take it from the mother of a child whose blanket was so necessary to him that he would stand under the clothesline and cry while it dried. He dragged it everywhere.

Those of us who have never heard or seen a nightingale see it as romantic.

So much of what you write about your mother I have experienced. Thank you for writing about it.

Love this blog. Wish there was more  of Arnold's Dover Beach: the image of the moonlight on the cliffs of Dover and the Channel.


Oriana:

You’ve just inspired me to include at least some of Arnold’s Dover Beach in the upcoming blog, Chocolate Jesus. Interesting that Arnold saw the “sea of faith” receding in the nineteenth century. To be sure, there was a good deal of receding, with geologists and paleontologists making inroads perhaps more so than the theory of evolution at that point. Still, the scientific basis of modern atheism wasn’t then what it is now, along with scholarship in mythology and history of the bible making more people aware that all religions are human invention.

But I know you mean the beauty of the imagery. Without it, I would completely lose my interest in poetry and read nothing but non-fiction. It’s the imagery that still holds me. Imagery is eternal.

I have one preverbal memory, and I don’t think it’s “false memory.” It’s a flash of my grandfather’s face and his laughter as he’s trying to tempt me with a ladle of milk (I was allergic to cow’s milk). It’s an indistinct memory, but it’s his laughing face, and that’s not in any photograph. He died -- in front of my eyes, of stroke -- when I was two and a half.

I don’t remember when I first saw the moon -- REALLY saw it, and watched it with delight. I suspect I already had the word for it at the time. I remember the first time I saw the moon through a telescope: I was eight. It was startling to see the roughness of the surface. But I still loved it. I particularly loved seeing the moon from a plane once: so beautiful and serene.

And I love these lines from Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence:

Late, late yestreen I saw the new Moon,
With the old Moon in her arms;
And I fear, I fear, my master dear!
We shall have a deadly storm.

Did you see that just yesterday we had the new moon, a wonderful crescent with the faint outline of the full moon? I watched it close to moonset, when it’s huge near the horizon.

I always walk out at night just to look at the night sky.

You don’t get to see the nightingales: you hear them. It’s a mystery how such a small bird can produce such very loud sound. It’s the poets who romanticized the nightingale, the readers being embarrassed to admit that they prefer good sleep to that racket (or so I suspect, but I’ve already confessed to my hatred of noisy birds -- including those that make a terrific din at dawn).

Scott:

Love the idea of poetry and astronomy. I am currently reading a novel based on the life of Maria Mitchell, the famed astronomer of Nantucket (Melville met her and wrote a poem of her late in life). If it's clear, rarely does a night go by where I don't go out and look at the constellations (I have to take the dog out anyway!)

Ah Pavese; I wish I knew Italian, he and Levi are favorites of mine....and I love the Godfather movies!


Oriana:

Moon and poetry are practically inseparable. Hyacinth told me a story about a workshop she once took. The instructor made a big point about not wanting to see any moon poems, since everything that could be written about the moon has already been written. The participants quickly conspired together, and all brought moon poems to the session that followed. As you can imagine, these were fairly seasoned poets who realized that you can always write something that hasn’t been said before if you simply write honest, interesting details about what you really see, without trying to be poetic. The moon between the clouds is not the same as the moon tangled in tree branches.

As you probably already know, Pavese did a “masterly” translation of Moby Dick into Italian. For some reason it’s easy to imagine Moby Dick in Italian, all those vowels rising and falling like waves.

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