eternity is too full of eyes–
Paul Celan, from Breathturn
Eternity buries itself in smaller things.
How desperately I have wished for memories to be eternal, but eternity exists only insofar as it buries itself in smaller things. The photograph will exist longer than I can ever remember its being taken. Even the candle which burns exists longer than my recollection of the candle or its burning—it exists but is transmogrified.
In this way, in smaller things, it is buried. In this way, maybe, I am buried too.
Poetry is already strange, and estranged, even from itself. When we speak of translation, there is a phrase that comes to mind: “the poem behind the poem.” Behind every existing text there is the sense of things, the poem behind the poem, waiting, for the reader, to be unveiled. All poetry is in translation. Reading the poem, even in your native tongue, requires your participation and active translation. We modify and are modified by the language of this cultural text. To read–in the way poetry demands it be read–is to translate.
Do I think this is a “problem?” No. At least surely not in the normal sense. It is one of the things I most love about poetry. Because many of my favorite poets and poems have only ever been accessible to me in translation, I have come to think of the translated poem as a gift. Yes, it is something different from the “original” (though we must consider the tenuous nature of the original itself).
So often we focus on what is “lost in translation”–culturally, subtextually; but there is also something gained–a movement, a conversation between cultures, readers, a dialogue, and an opening in which the strangeness of language is accepted and revealed as a promise rather than a fault. A poem is a cipher, and translation deciphers.
“We must recognize that ethics requires us to risk ourselves precisely at moments of unknowingness, when what forms us diverges from what lies before us, when our willingness to become undone in relation to others constitutes our chance of becoming human.
To be undone by another is a primary necessity, an anguish, to be sure, but also a chance–to be addressed, claimed, bound to what is not me, but also to be moved, to be prompted to act, to address myself elsewhere, and so to vacate the self-sufficient ‘I’ as a kind of possession. If we speak and try to give an account from this place, we will not be irresponsible, or, if we are, we will surely be forgiven.”
“If you are sleeping when the axe buries itself
in the stump outside your home, wake and walk
softly through your halls. Walk softly through
this house that is like your heart, built in the solace
of these woods from things you claimed as your own.
Touch everything. Touch it roughly, and
think of the heartbeats of the trees giving
their lives, each swaying wood grain a
skipped beat of gasping titans beneath
your hands, your careful eyes, your gentle
push, the settling of these quiet things.
But your hands are not in this house. Your
heart is not in this house. Your love is not in
this house. This house was not built from tall,
certain things, but from the surest things
you could find: roots, nests, not clocks
but the parts hidden behind their faces,
reminders of belief in always moving forward.
One morning you will wake in this home that
is like your heart to find that the axe, the certain
and the strong, has buried itself in the wet stump
outside, you will touch everything roughly, this
house will sound no longer like your heart but
your heart will sound like this house, built tall
from imagined things, high ceilings, echoes,
stopped clock pieces, empty nests, gasping
roots. Your heart will feel like this house. You
will burn it to the ground.”
– Lewis Mundt, “After Stephen Dunn”
The whole content of my being shrinks in contradiction against itself.
Experience is surely a debate.
“Grief is the continuation of love.” (Robert Solomon)
I neither believe in nor find possible the notion of an “ideal” or “inherited” poetics, insofar as anything (and everything) is arguably ideal (and everything is certainly inherited). Cut up, erasure, projectivist, free verse — many of these forms and schools, by taking verse, lines, conceits from past works, force us to see the intertextual nature that constitutes all writing. When, say, one “cuts,” rearranges, or erases a poem to bring to light another, possible poem, one illuminates the infinite possibility of language, the infinity of language. The poem lying in wait behind (or above, or to the left or right of) the poem. Thus, I do not think it is possible for a poem to exist autonomously, apart from other poems. Western “canonical” poets (what you might call the traditional poets) — Yeats to Byron to Keats — approach the poem as if it could, somehow, exist autonomously: a gift from the suspended will of (original) genius. Thus, their poetry enacts this while ignoring the vast body of language it relies on to enact itself (what Eliot later called the anxiety of influence). If I could call any poetic endeavor “ideal” — which is something I am incredibly hesitant to do — it would be any and all endeavors which not only pay homage to but are overtly aware of their predecessors (and by predecessors I mean the entirety of language itself) often in an arguably destructive way — where the language fails in its inability to grasp the immensity of itself and all it is responding to, all it could possibly be. Put more simply: give me ten words and I will show you an infinity of poems, not only in the order of the words but in their space on the page, their materiality, their sound, their weight. I think the Black Mountain poets and the language poets came close. I think Paul Celan came close. No one can ever succeed because language would have to break itself entirely to succeed. The perfect poem is silence, not the signifer.
The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.
Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.
I do not know which of us has written this page.
Andrei Tarkovsky, Polaroids
Poetry is not a genre or even a way of writing but a way of seeing the world and being-in-the-world (you could even say it is a way of assembling one’s life, an assemblage). Therefore everything can be done poetically; everything can be the poem you are writing. In this sense, it is beneficial to move from ontology (being) to praxis (practice)–to not so much worry about what a poem is (or is not) but what it does. If your very sense of being-in-the-world is poetry then everything you do will simultaneously be a movement closer to the poem and also a stepping outside of and away from the world of the poem.
“The sadness will last forever.” (Vincent Van Gogh, Journals)
“I had always been aware that the Universe is sad; everything in it, animate or inanimate, the wild creatures, the stones, the stars, was enveloped in the great sadness, pervaded by it. Existence had no use. It was without end or reason. The most beautfiul things in it, a flower or a song, as well as the most compelling, a desire or a thought, were pointless. So great a sorrow. And I knew that the only rest from my anxiety—for I had been trembling even in infancy—lay in acknowledging and absorbing this sadness.” (Hayden Carruth, Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays)
“How to make my sadness more than a lament for feeling? How to feel? How to burn? How to make my anguish metaphysical?” (Susan Sontag, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks)
“A feeling that everything must end, the music, ourselves, the moon, everything. That if you get to the heart of things you find sadness for ever and ever, everywhere; but a beautiful silver sadness, like a Christ face.” (John Fowles, The Collector)
“Not individuals only, but the human race was and always will be inevitably unhappy. Not the human race only, but all animals. Not the animals only, but all other beings in their own way. Not just the individuals, but the species, the races, the kingdoms, the spheres, the systems, the universes.” (Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone)
“Sad are only those who understand.” (Arab Proverb)
“Both Freud and Schopenhauer emphasize how, from a cosmic perspective, conscious life is a minor and temporary deviation from the normal state of things. Schopenhauer speaks of the infinite amount of time both before our birth and after our death, compared to which an individual life is but a moment. Freud describes consciousness as the detour an unconscious wish takes on the way to its satisfaction; and life as a detour from death to death. From this perspective, it is not really surprising that our experience is dominated by unhappiness. Our situation is out-of-joint with the universe to begin with. We cannot hope to set it right—we can only await the release from this predicament provided by death. In the meantime, we merely manage our condition—such management is, to Schopenhauer, the purpose of philosophy; for Freud, it is psychotherapy that serves this end. But the aim, in both cases, is not to create happiness or virtue but to minimize unhappiness by bringing us to greater knowledge of the gap between time-bound consciousness and the timeless reality consciousness defies.” (Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit)