A world away

Tsunami map for Pacific Rim 2011With my eyes averted and in tears from the wind, I half expected to see a full moon in the east, just over the lightening.  Everything in my peripheral suggested white, but everywhere the sky turned out blue, even the darker rim of clouds in all directions far away.  Last night’s storms were gone, and a sunny day would take things up soon.

No one was at my neighborhood gym when I got there.  It was half past six, and the five-o’clock crowd had left.  About four or five would probably show up towards seven.  My only company was the satellite TV and radio, which seemed to presume more about me than I would admit of myself.  The music was particularly out of sync today.  The owner had never bothered training me on how to work the satellite radio tuner since I never open the place, and the early people left me with the sixties oldies station again.  Neil Young’s plaintive murder confession seemed about two stages of grief too advanced for the news on the mute TV above the dumbbell racks.  It was the first word of the Japanese earthquake.

Radio must be broadcast with as little humanity as possible.  No one interrupts programs for special news bulletins anymore.  I felt complicit with the radio industry that must have shed disk jockeys and newsmen sometime during the decades I was focused so completely on my career.  It’s hard to keep an eye on everything, I thought.  The TV seemed equally uninhabited, running the same, short tsunami footage in a loop.  My radio conspiracy broadened to implicate CNN, the gym’s automatic lights, my key fob, and every other gadget I used to permit myself to give up personal contact in order to afford things.

I lay on my back.  The weights rose and fell.  No one staring down from space would have seen that this morning was any different to me.  Janis Joplin, and I forget who else.  The Doors.  No one had come by the time I left.

The bowl of suburban sky is my morning walk’s only large variable, my only way to feel how one day differs from another.  I’ve seen better days.  When I was a teenager in Tidewater, a city bus would take me by the James River every morning on the way to my summer job at the shipyard.  The tidal river’s moods and its complicity (or argument) with the sky would affect me all day.  Some days an agitated gray-green river pitched reluctant white caps against an imperturbable blue sky.  Other days the river’s ghost seemed to channel the sky’s white corpse.

I thought of the morning’s annular blue clouds when I stretched out my unguarded hands and laid a Teflon ring like a wreath over my half-baked piecrust.  A pumpkin pie for someone’s shower or loss, I forget whose.  Then I ran upstairs and got dressed.

I had found the rings at a kitchen store years ago.  Victoria was selecting a blender.  At first I thought that the rings, hanging by a nail where you’d line up to pay, were replacements for the steel rims that you have to remove in order to clean beneath the elements in an electric stovetop.  When I looked closer and discovered their true function, it pleased me.  Friends and coworkers had begun to recognize me as something of a baker, and I had become experienced enough to know that, depending on the recipe, crust sometimes burns at the edge.

While the pie baked, I found a color-coded map online of where the tsunami would strike next and how hard.  A staid Pacific Rim dreamed of a tie-died ocean.

I drove to work.  Sill no moon.  The pumpkin pie rode shotgun.  I had forgotten to take the rim from around the pie’s face, which seemed more sweaty and furrowed than when I had pulled it from the oven.  I thought of Jupiter.  For years we focused on its colorful, round storm, admittedly many times the size of our Earth.  Is that why it took an unmanned spacecraft to finally discover its rings?

Poetry & prose

The self-absorbed speaker in Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth” who can’t connect with his surroundings reminds me of the narrator in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  Both narrators have poetic flights that fall into prosaic prose – a sort of never fully getting off the runway.  Prufrock’s attempts are based more on imagery and are more the product of an active imagination.  Eliot keeps up the meter even in the most prosaic expressions.  But Lowell collapses the meter to emphasize his narrator’s inability to get beyond himself.  Compare, for instance:

I grow old . . .  I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind?  Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.


Outside, the summer rain,
a simmer of rot and renewal,
fell in pinpricks.
Even new life is fuel.

My eyes throb.

I’ve read that Lowell is widely credited with making poetry personal again after the likes of Browning and Eliot focused on dramatic monologue.  I don’t see that clean of a break, though.  Four Quartets is as personal, in its way, as “Eye and Tooth” is.  And a poem’s narrator is never exactly the poet.

I’ve selected Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth” for my celebration of SoloPoMo.

Line 1, part 2

I inherited my father’s sunny disposition, my mother frequently says.  Depressing things don’t depress me.  I tried sharing a recording of Faulkner’s short story “That Evening Sun” with Bethany, but she hated it, finding it too depressing.  A lot of people find most of Faulkner depressing, but I never would.

I’ve lived long enough to know that “Eye and Tooth” is not only about depression but that it is, to many – to most, maybe – in and of itself depressing.  But if you’re not subject to the black bile, you can find much beauty in depressing things.  Perhaps this explains the attraction between air and earth, between the sanguine and melancholic humors.  (Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin again!) Surely they see a completion in each other; surely they encounter a kind of wholeness together!

I just wish more people around me liked my poem.  (I can’t claim that anyone’s depressed around here.  And – I admit – you don’t have to be depressed or even given to a melancholic disposition to dislike depressing things.)  Oh, well.  I go around the house quoting parts of the poem, so people are bound not to hate every line equally.  I love saying, for instance, “I chain-smoked through the night, / learning to flinch / at the flash of the matchlight.”

(The narrator learns “to flinch at the flash of the matchlight” as a kind of penance for unflinchingly staring through a keyhole as a boy, “when the women’s white bodies flashed / in the bathroom.”  “Penance” is too strong a word, perhaps: his “learning” is hardly religious.  Instead, it may be at the outset the inevitable guilt he associates with his chain-smoking habit.  But isn’t that snatch of verse wonderful (“learning to flinch / at the flash of the matchlight”)? I mean, disassociate yourself from the poor wretch for a moment.)

Speaking of depression, we return to the first line:

My whole eye was sunset red,

Comparing his eye to the setting sun introduces a major contrast in the poem: interior vs. exterior.  The outside world is frequently referred to, but the narrator never escapes to it; instead, he posits his own experiences on it.  We are to understand through this that he never escapes himself.  His world – his reality – is his depression.

Depression seems to some who don’t suffer from it as solipsistic or even self-centered.  To suggest that his eye is the sun, even a setting sun!  It’s megalomania; it’s the manic side of manic depression.  But he’s no megalomaniac, and he’s not manic.

Let’s say a person going through depression sees a beautiful sunset, but the experience doesn’t lift his spirits as much as it lifts his friend’s.  His friend needn’t judge him: don’t we all tend to imprint every scene, even nature itself, with ourselves, even as we claim to experience it?

And isn’t poetry an imposition?  So much connects.  You could clone “Eye and Tooth” from any line of it, I think.  You can read a good poem back and forth and find symbiotic relationships among sound, rhythm, layout, and theme similar to the benefits that inure to the sea anemone from its relationships with the clownfish and single-cell green algae.  Or that inure to the sanguine from the melancholic.

I’ve selected Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth” for my celebration of SoloPoMo.

The Union cause

Regional pride doesn’t make one side wish to re-prosecute the Civil War; philosophy does.  States’ rights in their politics and strict constructionist in their jurisprudence, Confederate apologists are apt to see the war’s sesquicentennial as a gift – as a megaphone for their argument in favor of a federalism based on the states’, and not the people’s, consent.

The Union side will not be as vocal.  The Unionists’ near-silence will not come from a victor’s apathy; indeed, Lincoln found the Union cause just as unarticulated as we find it today.  Slavery – the sole cause of the war – was argued vociferously by abolitionists and slaveholders alike, but Lincoln made clear that the North wasn’t fighting to free the slaves. Lincoln felt at all times that the Union cause would advance emancipation, but he never believed that the North was fighting to accomplish emancipation, as much as he favored it. The North fought to preserve the Union.

In this week’s New Yorker, Adam Gopnick reports on the results of a recent poll demonstrating New Yorkers’ ignorance about the Union statues and memorials in their midst.  He argues that the ignorance is indicative of the misconceptions over the war’s cause and aims perpetuated, at least in the first instance, by Confederate sympathizers.

While accurate in other respects, Gopnick’s The Talk of the Town essay implies that the Union cause did not long precede the Civil War.  “And Union Square is confidently identified [by those polled] as being named for the Union cause when in fact its name long predates the war.”

The Union cause, like the Confederacy’s, was based on a philosophical argument.  The Union cause is the cause of self-government, as Lincoln rightly pointed out in his Gettysburg Address and as Hamilton rightly pointed out threescore-and-some-odd years earlier in his preface to the Federalist.  Can a people govern themselves? Calhoun, who provided the philosophical framework for the South’s secessionist movement, thought mankind in general was too benighted to be trusted with government.  People weren’t born with rights, Calhoun believed; a race or nationality of people had to earn the right to govern themselves.  Madison’s view of man, on the other hand, while it was as dark as Dostoevsky’s, was based also on a hope as bright as Dostoevsky’s – a hope springing from natural law’s notion of the divine mark on, or spark in, human nature.

The Union cause is based neither on strict adherence to the Constitution’s base compromises, which is the heart of today’s strict constructionism, nor on a rejection of the Constitution as a racist document, which is the heart of today’s “living constitution.”  The Union cause was based on the values of the Declaration protected by the Constitution – Lincoln’s “apples of gold in pictures of silver.”  The Union cause was the spread of liberty and self-government.  Gopnick correctly points out that “The world saw the Union cause as a promissory note, to use Dr. King’s image, of a republican movement yet to be fully cashed.”

Would that the Union cause would be advanced with as much voice and interest as that employed by the states’ rights advocates this sesquicentennial.  It isn’t likely, but Gopnick’s thoughtful and inspiring essay this week is a start.

Human Transit

Here we thought the sign was just for us transit customers!  In fact, it’s talking to motorists!  Poems often take dramatic turns by suddenly enlarging or shifting the audience.

From Human Transit.

Open Reading

I do not have a mobile at all. I love it. . . . These days it seems everything rings or beeps. Walking down the street on Friday, I heard a beep nearby and laughed in delight at instantly knowing it was not a call for me.

From Open Reading.

not native fruit

Kerala is coastal territory, beaches and wetlands ringed by coastal mountains and the sea.  I wonder sometimes if my attraction to this spiritual tradition springs from my ancestors having come from coastal territories so much themselves.

From not native fruit.

Line 1, part 1

You could clone Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth” from its first line:

My whole eye was sunset red,

For instance, the poem starts with the Trochaic meter it abandons and returns to throughout the poem.  It fluctuates between a traditional, carry-all-before-it meter and a prosy and truncated metrical collapse.  The poem’s Trochaic opening fits the meter and syllable count of Blake’s famous “Tyger, tyger, burning bright.”  But the meter begins to fail in the first stanza (“darkly / as through”), anticipating when we later learn that the narrator’s “eyes began to fail” from a moral basis when he was young.  There’s always a foreshortened line, a slant rhyme (the first stanza’s throbbed / globe, for instance), or an extra unstressed syllable to resist the meter and to put the breaks on any progress.

The first line contains examples of the two devices that will carry the poem aurally when the meter fails it: hard vowel contrasts and consonance / assonance “elbows.”

Hard vowels start here with the i – o – i of “My whole eye.”  And sunset red has both assonance (soft e sound) and consonance (the two s’s in “sunset”) – the first of the assonance / consonance elbows that keep the poem turning in on itself.

“Whole,” the poem’s second word, works on at least five levels.  We see the eye as a globe and not just as a surface – the white, the pupil, and the iris – that we might otherwise see.  “Sunset” reinforces the spherical, and so does “goldfish globe” three lines later.  These spheres anticipate the doorknob on which the poem’s theme of retribution turns: eye as a setting sun, eye as an unwashed goldfish globe, and eye as telescope.

“Whole” and “hole” are homonyms, and it’s a sphere’s hole – a keyhole – that gets the younger narrator in trouble later in the poem (and earlier in life).

“Whole” also keeps first line’s meter Trochaic, and it ties to the second line’s “old” with a near-rhyme.

“Whole eye” hints at the religious notion of eyes and sight, too, and Lowell later draws on some well-known biblical analogies in both the Old and New Testaments that use eyes and sight.  The King James refers over and over to Jesus making people physically “whole.”  And the whole eye, the single eye, of course, is a metaphor for something spiritual that I’ve never been able to pin down:

If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.

It’s precisely this moral cast of the eye that the poem addresses.

The first line’s notion of the narrator’s eye as a setting sun also introduces the motif of the narrator’s inability to get beyond his depression.  Line 1, part 2 is next.

I’ve selected Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth” for my celebration of SoloPoMo.