You are closer to glory
leaping an abyss
than upholstering a rut
~ James Broughton
August, in Vermont,
I saw mist swiftly rise,
white horses from a black
forest pond —
Rearing in a rush of breath,
they rose straight up,
toward an unseen shore.
From stillness to stillness
they sped, spirit horses
free from all weight,
a star-braided mare
calling to them
from the other side.
In the mirror of the night I saw
I too was a ghost, although
still flesh, leaf-deep in the now.
But the horses, as they
in silence called.
And I knew that soon
I’d lay my head along
my spirit horse’s fluent neck,
hold on to the imagined mane —
Still I wavered: drop my
rags, my chores? I said,
I’m growing old. Then her
voice, star-deep in the night:
But without wanting
the highest, is it really life?
~ Oriana © 2015
I'm collecting poems for another possible chapbook or manuscript. Only one of the poems will be new. Yes, last year I wrote one memorable poem — and maybe one or two that I don’t even remember. I also wrote tons of prose, but prose doesn’t keep; a poem, if it has enough magic (or call it “poetry”), lives on. I wrote one real poem. It was a surprise. An astonishment. “You are an astonishment,” I said to my unconscious from where it welled up the best way: on automatic, without effort.
But I also know that as a rule it doesn’t happen anymore. As a poet, I am posthumous. I seem to have lost the kind of brain function that it takes to write poetry — more demanding by far than prose, even vivid, artistic prose shimmering with images and metaphors. Prose is a playpen. Poetry is being hit with a lightning.
Because I'm posthumous myself, I immediately understood why Donald Hall announced that he was done with poetry: “Not enough testosterone.” This translates into not enough dopamine and other neurotransmitters, except for serotonin.
The levels of dopamine drop steeply with aging, while serotonin holds out a lot better. Hence the well-known “mellowing” with age. Serotonin keeps us contented. I am certainly not leaping over any abyss in the hope of glory. In fact the word “glory” seems utterly pretentious and ridiculous. In truth, last year I spent a lot of time upholstering my rut, and loving it. The house and the yard are my blissful burdens.
Friends keep telling me that I'm not done with poetry — that I only need to try harder. But poetry doesn’t come from trying harder. A poem is a gift. It’s found and polished, but the finding is primary. This happens, prolifically at first, and then, for most of us, less and less often until it stops happening. Oh, there are poets who keep on writing, and succeed mainly in repeating themselves, in a less imaginative way than at their peak, with none of the freshness and boldness.
When I saw that I was repeating myself, grinding through the old nostalgias, I mourned. Then I realized that at least I have had the privilege of writing strong poems that some found beautiful and magical.
Once I lived as the gods,
more is not needed.
~ Hölderlin, “To the Fates”
To the objection that all poets repeat themselves, circling around their main themes, I reply that one runs out even of repetition.
Kasimir Malevich, The Knife Grinder, or the Principle of Glittering
Besides, prose called. I wanted to do what is forbidden in poetry: to communicate. To speak clearly and directly on any subject. Poetry is a very restricted, minimalist medium. Prose is infinite.
True, one can express the infinite in a poem, but of the “infinity in a grain of sand” variety. Prose is an endless walk on the beach.
For the sake of emotional stability, I needed something that would be there for me every day, independent of the whims of inspiration. Even with prose, there are still surprises, and I still feel that I don’t really choose what to write about — the adventure remains. But it’s more mellow: a gentle drizzle, not a storm.
A SPECTER IS HAUNTING US
That dreaded word, decline. Now that we have the privilege of living longer than ever, a specter is haunting us, the specter of decline. There is certainly physiological decline as measured by markers such as arterial stiffness, lower metabolic rate which translates into less energy, diminished dopamine which means less drive to do anything, much less create, reduced muscle mass, and on and on — no need to produce the whole long and depressing list.
But is it all strictly decline, or the kind of change that we don’t necessarily equate with things getting worse? Can older mean better, or at least more content? For instance, I have found it 100% true that men don’t want to regain youthful intensity of libido. The fear of “that nightmare” (as more than one man described to me) is what keeps many from testosterone replacement (don’t worry: the dose will maintain a middle-aged sort of libido while doing wonders for muscles and mood).
Nor do women want to feel obsessed with romance the way they used to be. They don’t even want to those embarrassing memories: how they’d risk messing up their life in pursuit of someone who now seems so mediocre and uninspiring they can’t understand what was so exciting about him. I remember thinking in disgust, even when I was still at the mercy of hormones, “If X happened to be a woman, we wouldn’t even be friends.” Now, blissed out on peace of mind, a woman can turn to more interesting pursuits.
Those don’t usually involve glory. The dream of fame (if it ever existed) is no more — how exhausting that would be, constantly traveling to give readings, attending those boring award banquets! The dream of riches — is there really any need to take that "luxury cruise"? But a flowerbed does not seem trivial anymore. If we must have a rut, let’s make it a joy to look at, and luxuriously comfortable.
But these are easy consolations. It’s the mental decline that hits us hardest, much as we try to turn memory lapses into unfunny jokes. There is plenty to be said for dying before the worst of aging hits. Consider this well-argued article: http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/09/why-i-hope-to-die-at-75/379329/
Dr. Ezekiel Emmanuel (not a pen name!) explains why living too long is a loss — some might say a catastrophe:
“It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.”
“But I know X who is 86 and is perfectly sharp and still goes running every day,” begins the standard objection. There are indeed exceptional individuals who are still productive into their nineties. The trouble is we all assume we will be just like that outlier — the exception and not the rule.
Meanwhile personal experience of decline can’t be denied — even if can still do push-ups or write a coherent essay, maybe even a competent poem with traces of former wild leaps. If we could no longer remember how to write a check, then we may agree it’s wise to no longer take up room, we think. And we think that’s a long time off, if ever.
Let’s set our standard low and and define “good” as absence of dementia, and let’s assume that mental function holds out until about 85, when the risk of Alzheimer’s (by no means the only cause of dementia) rises to 50%. Usually aging accelerates in the late seventies, but let’s be generous and assume 85. Even so, the limit looms.
Those who have been reading this blog for a while know what will follow: my personal discovery of that limit has been one of the best things that ever happened to me. I realized it was too late for depression, so it had to stop immediately — and it did. There was simply no time to waste on brooding, bitterness, and crying fits. If I still wanted to make even a slight contribution and to enjoy the (probable) good years, I’d have to set about it immediately. And I did.
MY POSTHUMOUS CONSOLATION
As I compile poems for what will be another try for a chapbook, I ponder how blessed I am. There is no anxiety to it now. I’ve won three chapbook contests, and that is enough — even though many lovely potential manuscripts could be created.
I am considering this poem:
LAST NIGHT OF THE LEONIDS
No moon. The pines like black wind
brushed the tips of stars.
Horses stood in their corral,
carved as if outside of time.
You said, “They are sleeping.”
But suddenly one horse
at full gallop
ran toward us, a rift in the dark.
The other horses never stirred.
They slept, eternal statues. Only he
shot through heavens
like a marble flame.
stopped breathing, struck
with pure rhythm,
muscle and mind —
that shining horse waking up —
then standing still,
the frost of stars
braiding his tall outline —
And we too stood still,
in the shivering starlight.
~ Oriana, © 2015
I will never again write another poem like that one. The horse happened only once, and I happened to be in top form. The following year, C and I walked by the same corral, and — nothing. The horse had lost his spirit. You could say he was in decline.
When Galway Kinnell told me, in private, “A poet knows when his best poems are behind him,” I didn’t want to believe him. But he was right. He still wrote some fairly good, competent poems, but never again anything as powerful as his Book of Nightmares.
And yet after Galway uttered those dreaded words to me, he smiled a happy smile. Only now I understand that smile: he knew he’d been given a rare privilege of having written wonderful poems — and that was enough.
Of course he also won fame. I don’t mean to put myself anywhere near his rank. I have to content myself remember the times when, at a poetry reading, someone would lean to me and say, “Your poems are so beautiful.” And that is glory enough for me.
The official label for this contentment in later years is “diminished expectations.” It may not sound good, but it is. It implies less ambition, if any. And, in this case, that’s good. It’s an end to torment.
Is it an end to achievement? To a certain kind of achievement, probably so. But there may be another kind. I remain an agnostic on that question. We know that the completely unexpected may happen.
The completely unexpected has happened: thanks to decline, I have gained happiness.
I am painfully aware when a communicator is working at their craft. I feel the effort, the force, the heavy hand, the intensity, the word that's just a bit off, the halting rhythm, or failed cadence. But when there is flow, like a river, where the overflow spills down into vessel after vessel, I am happy. I forget I am listening or reading. I hear music.
Rilke expressed it like this:
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.
Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
the deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing as no one ever has,
streaming through widening channels
into the open sea."
And that, I believe, is the mark of a good communicator — when no effort is apparent. It's what I felt in your prose (Upholstered Rut: The Glory of Decline) and two poems. Gentle and flowing.
Nothing-more-to-prove seems to open the way to unfolding. One of the fruits of decline, I think. Last Night of the Leonids and Spirit Horses have moved to the top of my favorites of Oriana poetry. Nice notes to end on (But who's to say they will be your last?).
During harvest I notice the fruit growers in the valley don't plow or prune or fertilize. They just pick.
I think it was Cicero who, when asked about the advantages of growing old, listed as one of many "freedom from the tyranny of passion." I asked an 80 year old man, hours away from getting married, if he had experienced this kind of freedom. He assured me he was experiencing no such thing. But I get Cicero's point. The passion of youth was tyrannous and bloody exhausting. Much better is the love that comes with--I was going to say middle age, but that's not it. Love that comes after miles traveled, aborted journeys, break-downs, rest stops, grand vistas, and the memorable good traveling companion. My only fear is that Cicero's tyranny may yet again rear its head. Perhaps the downhill journey to the doors of the tomb is traveled in fits and starts, not so different from the uphill part of the journey.
Thank you, Michael. The concern with decline that you mentioned in your comment on the previous post, “The Homelessness of Wallace Stevens,” was a vital part of my inspiration for the current post.
Prose is “always there for me” because it’s a craft rather than art. It can rise to the level of art, but it doesn’t need to. Prose can give pleasure just by trotting along. Poetry that doesn’t rise to the level of art is not worth reading. In fact it’s not even poetry.
Creating true poetry is not controllable, which is both the glory and the agony. “I haven’t written a poem in months!” is the familiar lament of a poet who’s frightened that it’s all over now. For me to each new poem seemed like the last one, and yet a week later . . . but that was then.
Both “Spirit Horses” and “Last Night of the Leonids” were written many years ago. You will see many more of my classics, my “golden oldies,” my “magicals,” on this blog. From the start, I’ve been using poems that I’ve already written. Sometimes I touch up a word here, a line there. Yes, it does feel like harvesting. That’s why I am not devastated by the departure of poetic inspiration. Rather, I feel grateful for such a rich harvest.
And it’s likely that you’ll see the same poem twice or three times. One of the pleasures of poetry is that a good poem gains with each re-reading. As with music, familiarity breeds affection.
Can I really be sure it’s over? Falling in love produces a dopamine tornado, and I know from experience that writing would result — either poems, or more artistic prose. But falling in love is unlikely. I love the peacefulness of my well-upholstered rut.
It’s more difficult for men because it doesn’t take much testosterone to maintain libido — less than it takes to maintain muscles and bones. And the male brain has a much larger area devoted to sex. This happens already in the womb: sex, aggression, and spatial ability are the gifts of testosterone, with fewer neural regions available for social skills and nurturing. Still, the libido at eighty is not what it is at eighteen.
But at some level both men and women keep waiting for the “magical other.” While it’s always women who are mocked for waiting for the Prince, studies show that men are more emotionally dependent on women than women on men; both sexes are emotionally dependent on nurturing women. Of course individual cases can differ. My life has been mainly about vocation, vocation, vocation. Becoming a writer was the first stage of liberation. But simply having serious interests of any sort has a profound effect on one’s priorities. There is an old joke: “An intellectual is simply someone who has discovered something more interesting than sex.”
After the great discovery of vocation, and the better-late-than-never decision against depression, I keep on making little discoveries. Reading books, for instance, makes me peaceful, while reading online is pro-inflammatory. Deep focus heals the brain, while surfing Facebook gives me a rash (a symbolic image of hellfire, I'm sure). And writing arising from serenity is different than writing arising from passion.
That downhill journey to the tomb that you mention — as long as health holds out, that can be the best part of the journey. Autumns and sunsets have a beauty vastly beyond high noon. As always, “individual results may differ.”
Speaking of autumns and sunsets:
“Great mothers, which way?”
I ask red desert rocks.
The mothers do not reply,
their faces always serene,
their breasts a stone lullaby.
“Where to?” I ask the ocean.
“Where are you leading me, my life?”
Only the glassy breaking of the waves;
only rustle of pebbles rushed
toward and away from the shore.
“Where am I going?” I ask
the wind harp of trees,
hillside grasses hurrying into green
before smoke, before straw.
I know what the earth will reply.
I watch the stained glass of autumn,
the wine-dark river of sunset.
Late Venus shines
purest light. Then the diamond
winter of the stars.
~ Oriana © 2015
A friend looks at me sadly and says, “I don't have any strong desires anymore.”
“How about the weak ones?” I ask him.
“Weak ones — yes,” he says, after a pause. “But they're so weak, most of the time I'm not even quite sure I do have them.”
~ Mikhail Iossel
Less dopamine. Bring back the dopamine, and you can have strong desires again. But do we really want that?
I still have the desire to “harvest” my best poems — not because they will be immortal, but because simply the act of collecting them and sharing them in a modest way gives me a lot of pleasure. That's one way I practice unbridled hedonism.
And I still have the desire to read good books and learn interesting new things. And to keep enjoying beauty. If the worst comes to the worst, if I can still watch the sunset, it’s a sufficient reason to live.