REMEMBERING by W. S. Merwin
There are threads of old sound heard over and over
phrases of Shakespeare or Mozart the slender
wands of the auroras playing out from them
into dark time the passing of a few
migrants high in the night far from the ancient flocks
far from the rest of the words far from the instruments
* * *
THE WAY IT IS by William Stafford
There’s a thread you follow.
It goes among things that change.
But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop times unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
Though I tend to get them scrambled, it is plain that there is a distinct language for science, for medicine, for law, for music, for commerce, for obfuscation, for beguiling, for courtship. There is a mythic language and an archetypal vocabulary. There is a language 4 texting and a language for dreaming.
Poetic language only hints at something not found in the words. Call it the image. Robert Bly has said, in lacking that something not found, too much of today’s poetry is “like Death of A Salesman, with no death and no salesman.” He favors Leaping Poetry which is alive with images, related or not, seen from points of view outside the conscious mind. Poet Laureate William Stanley Merwin puts the idea this way: “There has to be part of [the poem] that is not my own will; it comes from somewhere I don’t know.” Author, Peter Grandbois, advocates for Leaping Prose, hopscotch emotional associations of images rather than logical proofs.
What food for the soul is found in guessing at the relationships between free associations? Like the sculptor chipping away everything that does not look like an elephant, when you are assessing your own poems, Bly says with characteristic heavy-handedness, “If you understand it cross it out because it’s no good.”
Unconscious images relate to each other obliquely. You trace the constellation. Call it your interpretation, one of many, no one of which is definitively right or wrong—except that, as we looked up into the sky above Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park, one of my friends said it was time for new constellations. “That one looks like The Squash Racquet. That one should be called The Cell Phone…” It might have been funny then, but something was purposefully off in those interpretations. The interpretations were not true to the image. Offering an earlier outlandish example, absurdist author, P.G. Wodehouse makes merry by having one of his insipid female dreamers ask our hero if he doesn’t think that the stars are God’s daisy chain. He doesn’t. So, what is inherent in the stars? What do we know to be true about the stars? They are eternal and present even when unseen. They are nuclear fires, whose ancient light has traveled unimaginable distances to reach us. They cook into being and scatter the atoms of which we are made. To find a useful image in the stars we must stay close to truth. Can we say in Merwin’s words that the stars are somewhere I don’t know?
* * *
He leaps, neither into belief, nor to disbelieve, but just to entertain the notion, that this world would be a better place, if everyone could step out into the darkness and see, night after night, the turning of the starry heavens, as they can on clear nights in northern Minnesota. But he doesn’t tell anyone else. He just carries his notion in his pocket, dusts it off occasionally, and puts it back. Notions, he remembers, are useful things, like pins, thread, and buttons, so he keeps it. His notion is pinned securely to one evening in particular when pointed sparks rose toward the great remote sparks and in the morning left cool silken ashes on the ground.
He carries the memory of looking up and strung to that image is the memory of a calming nighttime conversation on a log. He doesn’t remember what was said. He remembers the tenderness in the proximity of a soft-spoken man’s shoulder; the fire and the night sky coming close by to listen.
* * *
He wants his enlivening memory to happen again. He wants another fix. As the year at this time begins to fill with night, he looks for the arrival of Orion, the hunter of winter. Not yet. Not his belt. Not his bow. Not his dogs. Not his nebulous knife. No brilliant Rigel at his feet. No red giant Betelgeuse on his shoulder. Not yet.
* * *
Instead, half his life he agrees to go without food, without light. His days, set aside for food and light, are no more his life than the night’s depths and what happens there. When he gets out of bed in the morning, it is as though he has been in a fight, grumpy and scuffed up by the dream world standing there with its arms folded across its chest, in the hollowness of the night. He makes the familiar effort to rise. He checks for sunrise. Not yet. The day is still dark. He listens for threads of old sound, birdsong ideally, but more likely, Dylan’s “trembling, distant voice, unclear.”
Much later, just now, in fact, he sees in that hodgepodge of paper a scribbled rabbinical question, saved presumably for a welcome and necessary redemptive leap, but can he stick the landing?
The teacher asks the students at his knees, “When can you distinguish day from the night?” Eventually he tells them, “It is only when there is enough light that you can look into the face of a stranger and see a friend. Otherwise, it is still dark.”
Author: Mark Gardiner
William .Stanley Merwin