Dislodge the house

I like a home with lots of windows.  I like to look outside.  I like outside, but I like to look outside even more.  I am a potted plant.

Lowell’s narrator in “Eye and Tooth” is, too.  He never goes outside, though he refers to things just outside, things that come inside his house and his body.

Nothing can dislodge
the house . . .

Of course, the house, we go on to learn, or the doorknob in the house, is where he lost his eye and his tooth, the former first figuratively and later literally, and the latter literally.

“Eye and Tooth” scales from body and its components (eye and tooth) to house and its components (doorknob and bathroom) to outside and its components (rain, roof, and hedge) so that the narrator never escapes.  Watch stanzas three through five in this nine-stanza poem:

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

My eyes throb.
Nothing can dislodge
the house with my first tooth
noosed to a knot in the doorknob.

Nothing can dislodge
the triangular blotch
of rot on the red roof,
a cedar hedge, or the shade of a hedge.

The only thing dislodged, after all, is the tooth.   Because the tooth is dislodged (executed, as it were, for the sin of the eye we learn about later), the house can’t be dislodged.  The moral impossibility is reinforced by the logical and ironic impossibility of dislodging a house, itself a lodging.

The house scales down to a blotch, suggesting sin and close in sound and sense to the earlier and later “rot” as well as the first stanza’s “unwashed goldfish globe.”  Wonderful assonance and consonance.  “Blotch” also re-shushes the “sh” and “dge” sounds in its stanza’s “dislodge,” “hedge,” and “shade.”

This blotch, this sin, is the poem’s nub.  Nothing dislodges the narrator’s guilt.

But the poet’s prerogative to scale up and down so is only acknowledged in that softening, dreamy transition, the final line in that fifth stanza:

a cedar hedge, or the shade of a hedge.

The “or” is the poem’s first direct acknowledgement of the poetic imagination and suggests the imagination’s complicity in the poem’s retribution.  But this softening, this movement from a hedge (itself only suggested by the cedar roof’s blotch) to only the hedge’s shade, also amounts to a three-way scale, and in that soft rush we move fully into the poetic imagination.  One senses night (outside), or a nap (inside), in which the objects inside and out may assert themselves more strongly.

And we’re not disappointed.  The imperial, ascetic hawk makes his appearance to quote, raven-like, the harrowing “eye for an eye” scripture.  But he’s not outside rapping on the narrator’s chamber door.  He’s only in the “birdbook there.”  (The birdbook is the Bible at some level.)  The hawk, which is the climax of the poem’s imagery and figurative language, presages the narrative climax, which is the boy’s illicit use of the house’s doorknob in the eighth stanza to spy on the ladies’ bodies.

This first “or” anticipates the only other “or,” which in the poem’s final stanza anchors a three-word summary of the earlier imagery: “waters or flames.”  The implacable “waters or flames” well summarizes, for instance, the poem’s third stanza:

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

But “waters or flames” compresses imagery into judgment, though the “or,” as opposed to an “and,” keeps the poem’s light touch and acknowledges, by echoing the first “or,” the role of poetic imagination in the narrator’s guilt and loss.

Because poetic imagination, and by extension the poem itself, is as complicit in the narrator’s moral and physical loss as the house and the world beyond it.

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

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.

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.


It’s funny: some days every funny’s funny. I was so tickled by two last night that I cut them out and glued them in my journal. One of the strips struck me hard this morning after I’d slept off my first impression. Frame #1: A kid calmly rolls up his sleeves for his turn at show and tell. Frame #2: He puts his face in his hands, as if to prepare for some feat. Frame #3: He juggles his eyes and teeth. Frame #4: He’s sitting in the classroom corner wearing a dunce cap.

Rachel and Shai have taught me that part of celebrating week two of the Omer is examining boundaries. Some of my boundaries are my bedtime, my early morning time, and my exercise. I overthrew them all, pretty much, to get this site up this past month.  I do that every now and then.  I’m like Lio, dialing up my eyes and teeth if necessary to satisfy my urge to create and my perfectionism that joins it.

My creativity comes best as a fruit of cultivating my half-acre of spirit, soul, and body.  I’m happier that way.  When I go beyond myself, I’m deluding myself.

Personal relations, too. Two people have misunderstood me for some time, but I knew I could do nothing about it. Both came to me this past month and came away (I hope) with something new to think about. I had no choice but to be patient in both situations – to recognize boundaries in both situations; nevertheless, patience and an adherence to boundaries paid off.

I had two other situations in which my enthusiasm blinded me to boundaries and caused me some embarrassment over the past month.

I’m more conscious than ever of needing to pace myself for the future.  There’s a few things I’d like be in the position to do in a few years, and I’ll need good habits of sleep, diet, and exercise to lead a long life in which to do them.

Boundaries qua boundaries fight against the essence of creativity.  But, in another sense, are not creativity and boundaries the inspiration and expiration of a single pair of lungs?

Stay. Steady, and stay. The things I’d give my eyeteeth for aren’t that cheap.

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

The language

Most of the books I’ve read in the past three years I last read long ago.  Four Quartets is an exception: I started rereading it a decade ago.  But it’s typical – even a fugleman – of these books in another respect: I didn’t understand it when I read it in college, but I loved it anyway.

I wrote some pretty insightful notes in its margins back then, but I think that came from a professor’s lecture.  Anyway, none of that stayed with me.  What I remember is the language.  I loved it.  It’s what my younger self and I can share when we read it now.

Four Quartet’s thought helped save me from a dark time around age forty.  I never would have picked it back up then, though, if I hadn’t remembered it then like young love.

Milton paints purple trees.  Avery.
And Wolf Kahn too.
I’ve liked their landscapes,
Nightdreams and daymares,
pastures and woods that burn our eyes.
Otherwise, why would we look?
Otherwise, why would we stretch our hands out and gather them in?

(The first stanza of Charles Wright’s “Thinking of Winter at the Beginning of Summer,” the poem I rememorized this year for class when I couldn’t master Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth.”)

Eliot burned my ears.

Maybe that’s why I’m attracted to ornate language.  I mean, look at whom I’ve been rereading: Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Fielding.  Wallace is almost baroque.  Stevens. And Lawrence Sterne, too.  All stuff from high school or college. It’s the sound of it that made me swallow their seeds and kept them inside me for decades, long enough to germinate, long enough for me to have made some sense of it, or – better – for it to have made some sense out of me.  Sound before insight: the thunder before the lightning, in my case.

All of this stress on short sentences (or at least simple ones) and plain language.  I like plain language; I even believe in it, particularly deceptively plain language.  How could I not, given the present age?  But plain words don’t impact me like the winding-road sentences of, say, Tristram Shandy.  I dream recurring dreams of paths leading to bright lands of purple trees and orange sky.  I fall asleep listening to Peter Barker’s reading of Sterne as if to the swoosh-swoosh and universe of my mother’s womb.

The Program Era, Mark McGurl’s delightful, 2009 romp through the last century of American fiction, points out two major approaches to literature, one epitomized by F. Scott Fitzgerald and the other by Thomas Wolfe in an exchange of letters McGurl summarizes:

Taken up by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and subsequently by a great many of the writers who would be associated with writing programs after the Second World War, the poetics of “show don’t tell” would gradually evolve into a more general understanding of good fiction as founded on discipline, restraint, and the impersonal exercise of hard-won technique.  Thus we find Fitzgerald, in an avuncular letter to his fellow Max Perkins protégé, encouraging Wolfe to cultivate “a more conscious artist” in himself, and to consider the aesthetic benefits of subtraction, as in the example of Flaubert, whose greatness is measured as much by what he left out as by what he put in.  Wolfe’s response to Fitzgerald was both churlish and impressively learned; he invoked a parallel tradition in the novel, including works like Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, produced not by “taker-outers” like Flaubert but by “putter-inners” like himself.  All he could take from Fitzgerald’s advice, he wrote, circling back as always to the primacy of authorial selfhood, was that “you think I’d be a good writer if I were an altogether different writer than I am.” (99)

(The passage’s main point, for you kids using this post to prep for SAT’s, is how another Max Perkins is as unlikely to show up as another Shakespeare.)

Wolfe is always out of favor; he almost was from the start.  But as I’m looking homeward, myself, I might reread him, too.  (My grandmother gave me Look Homeward, Angel to help me cope with my adolescence, and maybe I’m coping with it still.)  I like Fitzgerald, but I’m a howling Wolfe man.

But don’t get George Steiner started!  Unlike McGurl, he takes sides.  He sees Hemingway as “a brilliant response to the diminution of linguistic possibility”:

Sparse, laconic, highly artificial in its conventions of brevity and understatement, that style sought to reduce the ideal of Flaubert – le mot juste – to a scale of basic language.  One may admire it or not.  But, undeniably, it is based on a most narrow conception of the resources of literacy. . . . By retrenching language to a kind of powerful, lyric shorthand, Hemingway narrows the compass of observed and rendered life.  He is often charged with his monotonous adherence to hunters, fisherman, bullfighters, or alcoholic soldiers.  But this constancy is a necessary result of the available medium.  How could Hemingway’s language convey the inward life of more manifold or articulate characters?  Imagine trying to translate the consciousness of Raskolnikov into the vocabulary of “The Killers.”  Which is not to deny the perfection of this grim snapshot.  But Crime and Punishment gathers into itself a sum of life entirely beyond Hemingway’s thin medium.

(From “The Retreat from the Word,” a 1961 essay republished in Steiner’s Language & Silence, pages 30 and 31.)

Steiner is more concerned in this essay with the extent of our functioning vocabulary than he is with sentence length or structure, strictly speaking.  But it’s all of a piece these days.  I heart Steiner’s précis of my man Faulkner, who loved big, fun-sounding words and vine-like syntax more than he loved merely long sentences:

Within a syntax whose convolutions are themselves expressive of Faulkner’s landscape, ornate, regional language makes a constant assault upon our feelings.  Often the words seem to grown cancerous, engendering other words in ungoverned foison.  At times, the sense is diluted as in a swamp-mist.  But nearly always, this idiosyncratic, Victorian night-parlance is a style.  Faulkner is not afraid of words even where they submerge him.  And where he is in control of them, Faulkner’s language has a thrust and vital sensuousness that carry all before them.  Much in Faulkner is overwritten or even badly written.  But the novel is always written through and through.  The act of eloquence, which is the very definition of a writer, is not let go by default. (32)

Steiner, who wrote this around age thirty, is an old soul, and, while I find that he often rushes too quickly to judgment for my taste, he is not afraid to say things that sound strange to me but I suspect were held true by most serious writers before McGurl’s “program era.”  So the act of eloquence is “the very definition of a writer.”  Who says that anymore?

Lowell never used eaves

Lowell never used eaves.

Nothing can dislodge
the triangular blotch
of rot on the red roof,
a cedar hedge, or the shade of a hedge.

No ease to the eye

“Eaves” sound like “ease”; eaves are overhanging roofs.  Maybe he put eaves in the white space, in my white space.

“Eaves” would have made an elbow of sound and sense.  It’s sound; makes sense.  We use sounds and looks the same way, metaphorically, I think.  But is there a difference between “sounds good” and “looks good”?  ”Sounds good” is signing off on a plan — still sounding things out — while “looks good” is inspecting the product, the plan’s execution. A time delay between looks and sounds, like a time delay between lightning and thunder.  (Though “looks good” could mean approval of a written plan or a set of blueprints, certainly.

My parents will have lived in my childhood home fifty years summer after next.  I remember my father carrying around those blueprints when I was four or five, and spreading them on the white metal kitchen table with those thin, corrugated, steel sides that reminded me of the old house’s gutters where the paint had flaked off.  A father at that age is all sound and sense.)

I’m getting a head start on SoloPoMo, using some material I posted on an obscure WordPress.com blog while I mulled over how to redo my blog.   I’ve selected Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth” for my celebration of SoloPoMo.

I come to the edge

I come to the edge of things and then back off.

I’d like to buy that green house in Bluemont.  I just see us there.  But certain things would be inpractical, and it would be more upkeep than here, probably.  Then again, I’m tired of suburbia’s good life.

I am tired.  Everyone’s tired of my turmoil.

“Eye and Tooth” never gets anywhere.  That’s the point.  Lowell goes from past to present tense, but it’s present tense when he has the childhood recollection that precedes the final stanza.

I’d like to start voys.us, but it’s so much work.  Yet I’ve pushed right up to the edge twice now.

It’s fun to work on.  Maybe I should keep pretending even when it’s live.  That was my approach to slow reads, after all.

Backing off isn’t like me twenty or even twelve or ten years ago. Is it my age, or is the timing not right?  A different conception of time now, maybe.  Maybe I’m play-acting for when we’ll be empty-nesters four or five years from now.

I think I’m coming to the end of something, and these are the birth pangs of something new.  Complicated by the fact that I’m past menopause.

I’m getting a head start on SoloPoMo, using some material I posted on an obscure WordPress.com blog while I mulled over how to redo my blog.   I’ve selected Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth” for my own celebration of SoloPoMo.