I’m living. I’m dying. I’m coming to an end. As I do, my wish is this: I’d like to stay awake, I’d like to pay attention as I live through the days between now and my last day at the university, between now and my last day, my last hour, my last human breath.
Two poems of A. R. Ammons, in particular, have stayed with me as touchstones for over thirty years, the much-anthologized “Corsons Inlet” and his lesser-known poem on the nature of thought, “The Misfit.” These poems seem important to me as warnings against the rigidity of a closed mind.
Not that long ago, I was talking to somebody—at the farmer’s market, of all things—on the hot, somewhat pundit-y subject of “cultural appropriation.” I remarked to a friend that I was in big trouble, because all my favorite cultures had been appropriated.
My mother read mysteries by American authors, but I have never been interested in mysteries set elsewhere than in England. The best of all such mysteries, in my opinion, and perhaps the one that best justifies my feeling for the genre, is the one that I have just re-read, Sayers’s finest work, The Nine Tailors.
You might be wondering how I can be so confident that our children will be happy to let recitals drift into oblivion. How do I know? Because I have been to scores of recitals and exhibitions, for music, for dance, even Lego robotics. The only people who are more obviously, thoroughly miserable than the adults are the children.
There’s no time, only space. I am sub specie aeternitatis. There will be no more suffering. It has been laid down and covered over, swaddled in boundless white. Peace: that’s how it is for me, swaddled too. I have the snow to keep me warm.
And that’s where “the sound begins.” Mindfulness of hearing. What sound? Here again the poem pauses. Instead of jumping ahead to disclose the source of sound, which is revealed to the speaker soon enough, the poem offers us an experience of what the mind does when it encounters an unknown.
In a suffering world, habits of mercy make strong medicine. The eighteenth-century Hasidic master, Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol, once said, “All God does is mercy. Only that the world cannot bear the naked fill of his mercy, and so he has sheathed it in garments.”
My dad’s new house: it’s not new anymore, but it is still strange to me; I have no memories here. My mom’s house is twenty miles north, and six miles north of her is our last family home, exited with the order of a death: an inventory, the quick snatching of keepsakes, a staging, a sale.
Entry for the twenty-eighth Day in the eleventh Month of the Year that Disease and Mania overspread the World
I have become friends with a White Pine. Go up the Hill from my house, through the Neighborhood, and as you descend again toward the valley that holds the Highway you come to a triangle of undeveloped land. A path runs through this Little Woods, opening onto the underpass, and there, on the other side of the Highway, you can climb again into the Larger Woods that grow on the hills over the River and fill its bottomlands.
In 1969 Lee Lozano began what she called her General Strike Piece. She started withdrawing from the artworld completely, documenting the process as she did. She kept notes as she visited various galleries and museums for the last time. She stopped exhibiting her own work. She stopped making new work.
When the magnitude of the possible
Dawned—a morning doubly brilliant—
Many were so near they vanished instantly.
Others ran to the city’s rivers, naked
But indistinguishable, woman from man.
As a black rain fell on the fires, the wounded
Dug for the buried wounded.
I never intended to get Frost’s birds by heart. For some months I’d been memorizing various of Frost’s lyric poems, moving from one to the next without agenda, allowing my taste for Frost’s wit and craft to guide me. But before I knew it, there they were, his birds, some named, some not: quiet, without fanfare, easy to miss, almost wanting to be missed.
To the American citizens who marched in Charlottesville, to the American citizens who defaced the Jewish cemetery in Grand Rapids, to the American citizen who hopes to see me in an oven, I say this: I’m trying to hold it all, hope and fear, present and past, apple and fire, light and gleaming dark, exile and home.
I’m thinking about Lefty because I worry about the growing disappearance of death—and by extension, the remembrance of death—from physical space in America. It’s not new: “Have you heard about the revolution in the funeral industry?” my brother the financial manager declared to me, years ago now—the growing preference for cremation over physical burial.
There is a liturgy of suffering that engrains my bones. The seasons of this life inhabit me. When I was young, what I first learned were the literal seasons: Spring brings hope, summer joy, fall coziness, winter magic. But life has shown me seasons within the seasons. Each loss returns to me in its appointed time…
Reading poetry is not like reading fiction. A good novel pulls me onward, makes me turn its pages, wondering what the protagonist will do next. A good poem does the opposite: makes me pause, draws me into itself and holds me there.
I’ve learned much from looking at visual art with my brother, John. He approaches a painting in stages, often bending close in search of clues to technique invisible to me. I got to thinking about his interest in how the finished work does what it does while reading two volumes of poetry published this year: Martha Serpas’s Double Effect (Louisiana State University Press) and Claude Wilkinson’s World Without End (Slant).
Probably it should be said that On the Sublime was written anonymously since the very point that the person who wrote On the Sublime makes in the treatise On the Sublime is that authorship, in a sense, transcends authorship. Authorship is weird, the text says, and texts are weird.
“The only person that I ever touch,” you write, “left town for a few weeks, and the city [L.A.] feels more threatening than ever…. There must be more to life than writing letters. Trying to describe with words what can only be communicated by touch.” That was in the 1980s, the last time we were in touch.