In the moment
Poems can be the record of an occasion, great or small, as it enters the poet's consciousness
Published: February 6, 2002
|We speak casually of time as well as of times. But in poetry I cannot know and grasp time, which is always becoming something different. As the dogwood leaves on the trees in my yard go from pink to maroon, the seed-bearing berries turn red for the birds. And on the same branch, other twigs are organizing tight, period-distinct buds for blooms next spring. Last fall, as I watched the sunlight penetrate a leaf, lighting it from within, I had a strong sensory memory of the similar (but different) sunlight in a leaf the previous spring. I drafted a poem in which I tried to record the exact seasonal shade and slant of October, with just a hint in it of the spring past and the spring to come. I felt myself fixed in the instant, even while remembering what went before and anticipating what would come after.|
I thought, "Why not write a series of poems that would each document a specific moment?" They would accumulate through the weeks and months, so that the poems—together—would begin to graph out time. If time in general is ineffable, I could still describe its particulars, day by day, as in a diary. By recording the days next to each other, I could begin to put their sequence together.
Maybe as October slid into November, I could feel a hint of the river's whole course. My wife and I live next to the Eno River State Park in northern Durham County, N.C. I walk in the park several times a week. Maybe I would climb that stone outcropping, as tall as a two-story house—the one called Buzzard's Roost—and from there see the wrinkling, chaos-circled water like a map of time's secret drift.
These poems I was beginning to write in my head felt very simple. They would be unpremeditated, without any plot or intention, except what my thinking and feeling and reading happened to trace out. The only firm decision I made at the outset was to use a four-line, slant-rhymed stanza. I believe the major influence on that choice may have been reading—and teaching—Emily Dickinson, in the new format edited by R.W. Franklin (The Poems of Emily Dickinson). Her poems are mostly in four-line stanzas, slant-rhymed and strictly chronological in this new arrangement—and, of course, without titles. Especially in the years 1862 to 1865, there are enough poems through which to follow the seasonal cycles. There are few references outside the Dickinson household, yet the typical events and situations portray the village context and Puritan outlook, within which Dickinson encountered love and loss and God and nature. Her poems define her time.
There were many other influences pressing on me, from Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop (especially her book Geography III), to Adrienne Rich (especially the poem "From an Old House in America"), to A. R. Ammons, Langston Hughes, W.H. Auden and John Ashbery. I decided to include, side by side, as part of the same temporal flux, different sorts of experiences--from nature to interactions with my family and neighbors to traveling to popular entertainment to national and international events as represented in the media. I would allow these certain slants of light to interplay and counterpoint—whether it's the angle of sunlight altering with the season or the particular look cast on events by the glare of TV. If there seemed to be discrepancies between different levels of reality, they would have to express themselves as irony.
Each poem would be the record of an occasion, some event—great or small—as it impinged on my consciousness. I would define each partly by the context: a landscape with its weather and season, or an excited, morbid aura of speculation and discussion in the national media. The sequence of events would play out, all on the same level, each focusing my attention and emotion; thus, defining a segment of time.
One day, after sad TV watching, I realized that John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane had been lost with all aboard. Here is what I wrote:
“How We Fall”
Gorgeously, they dive into oblivion.
They rise above the common condition,
then plummet, the radar screen holding
wife, sister-in-law. Then nothing.
Memory frames a President's son
saluting his father with three-year-old hand.
The droning drums and horse-drawn caisson
align us as mourners. We stand
shoulder to shoulder, in crowds, as when Lincoln's
train-borne coffin passed. The nation's
leader is broken, our oneness in loss known
only as he passes on.
The brightness that haloes this dying magnifies
one day, camera lights glaring in our eyes—
might not making right (we also taken for no reason)
nor smallness consolation.
It is difficult for poets writing now to connect their private perceptions and emotions with larger historical contexts. But as this poem implies, we can still feel the impact of momentous events. Though perhaps, ironically, the connection between our ordinary lives and those of the famous is experienced at a deeper level only in loss. The death of JFK's son brought back the solemn state funeral of the president-father, which I associated with the funeral train that carried Abraham Lincoln, as described in Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."
Such a public event as JFK Jr.'s death, as framed by commentary in the altering light of TV, is somehow both available and unavailable. One doesn't know exactly what one feels. The experience is thus partly ironic. I needed to reference earlier history, and Whitman, to make sense of it emotionally. Most of the poems of my sequence, in contrast, are much more direct in origin. For example, in mid-October, when I'd returned from the dentist after undergoing a root canal, I walked in the brilliant riverside woodland, remembering a woman who'd waved to me as I'd left that morning. Suddenly a male pileated woodpecker appeared, and my thoughts moved into the present tense. He
claps black-white wing over
water, then swings upside down
where vines cage his crest, a red fire
among berries he beaks ...
I walk farther on and see his reflection broken on the river: "Doubled on the glassy rapids/he looses his colors like beads." I feel myself joining this vector of change, as "Delighted and hurt I follow the season/that combs me in its single direction."
Where the river surface roils from a disturbance underneath, I feel as if my psychic flux is being printed outside me, in moving Rorschach blots—
my thoughts almost in focus, like flat
balloons that wrinkle, fall apart
then reform, flicker and bloom
as if lifting from a flame.
The suggestion of hot-air balloons rises paradoxically from the wet, flat current. The "woman's hips" that "brought tongue to my dry lips" as I'd left that morning, flow together with a much earlier memory: "morning, here/collapsed into a midnight year" when we "Drove toward the hospital in fear/ in the black car, my brother with infected ear/that lifetime ago." As the "falling waters veer/in a motion our bodies share," I realize the pattern of my days. I pass "a hurricane-broken horizon/where maples of a new generation/lamp light still with yellows and scarlets." The visual images seem to turn into sounds: "A feeling like the dissonance in a song/blows through autumn, bronze." The pain in my jaw and the woodpecker's fiery pileation unite in a musical flux over the moving but staying water.
Wallace Stevens said, "Death is the mother of beauty." Through the river, I felt time as our sequence of sensation, what we grow and change and love and lose in—the medium of acute emotion. The pain and the scarlet and the bronze exhilaration moved indistinguishably, the feeling stamping itself into words, in a water surface distinctive as a fingerprint. The line of my days bent back on itself, in these chaos-vortices where time circled and stood still. I tasted entropy—the changingness we live in, sing of, breathe—the drift that brings us to ourselves and takes us away, in a single burning instant. But the moment sometimes seems to stand apart, perfect, complete, permanent, resisting the direction of its passing. Again in the present of the poem, I hear the nuances of the season as I hurry among
things that change, panged to rejoicing
by curve of hip, red crest and wing.
I swallow the pressure of time
that stings my jaw like a flame.
I saw the possibility of a long poem composed of brief, diary-like entries that would document the times as they unfolded. Longer poems allow the development of themes and concerns over time, and thus afford the possibility of poetic growth. But today, without shared mythologies or commonly agreed-on ideas of national purpose or historical development, it is almost impossible to maintain interest in an extended poetic narrative or exposition. My answer is the time-documentary poem, wherein the sequence is unpremeditated, moving with the seasons and with private and public events, as chance flickers them across the screen of my attention. I must trust to luck that some pattern will emerge, like the daily zig-zags of a graph—the stock market, for instance—moving gradually, showing an underlying direction.
Though I wanted to encounter the days of a year head-on, without preconception or personal mythology, I did retain a kind of irrational faith that the moments of one life, when read retrospectively over the course of a complete seasonal cycle, in the context of nature, family, neighborhood and nation, would make sense emotionally. Human beings are, after all, meaning-making creatures. Our culture, our aspirations and our historic struggles are inscriptions of purpose (and hope) across time. I wanted to reiterate this on a personal level--perhaps representative of the larger human impulse as graphed in history. Maybe belief in the potential meaningfulness of time was my remaining mythology. This impulse to relate the smaller and the larger would include the earth's turning on its axis and rotating in its orbit--those underlying motions that make our day and night and seasons.
Here is a poem I wrote almost exactly a year ago. I had been sitting in our screened-in porch that overlooks Seven Mile Creek and a rocky ridge of the state park beyond. As light lessened, a broken oak against the horizon held a spray of maroon leaves, like a flag. I felt the huge round world, rolling over, as it cast the shadow that was lengthening across my page. I wanted the poem to catch this feeling of the larger—the ridge beyond the stream, like the earth's shoulder—and to impinge upon the smaller: me, where I sat, experiencing time.
Maroon and brown. Blue past a high
ridge inscribed by a broken oak,
that branches again, refusing to die.
Horizon of pink and smoke
striped by a waning glow. Wrought iron
limbs with wiry twigs, closer by,
flying red leaves flecked with brown:
these dogwoods translucent to sky.
Autumn is moving on now, its slow
weight felt, spiders sated with moths
while my writing fills with a shadow
that Earth's shoulder smoothes
across the page. Last light
where I sit looks slightly pink, faint
illumination for this ink I scrawl
signing away fall like a will.
The path we trace through the seasonal landscape is one we often don't see, because of forgetfulness, or the distractions of other concerns. I recommend time-documentary poems, in a series, as a way of outlining this winding, returning, ongoing course, like that of a stream, seen from above. The perspective of poetry may be as close as we can come to this viewing of our lives from a distance, mapped in time.