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Where Would You Like to Live?: A Reading of a Poem I Like, Plus a Question
Real estate is on a lot of minds these days, but it’s in them, too; isn’t the mind (read: the imagination) a kind of low-rent housing to which we can retreat, however briefly, when we’ve been startled by a sudden scattering of cockroaches or when life, in general, looks grim under its bare bulb? I write “low-rent” because the only price the imagination exacts is our attention to what’s going on around us, in the real world, which is not always very interesting. But why limit ourselves to our own imaginations when we can live comfortably in those of others? This is a question that was prompted by a recently reprinted Don Coles poem:
On a Caspar David Friedrich Painting Entitled ‘Two Men Observing the Moon’
They have been standing here, tiny hands
clasped behind tiny backs, gazing upwards
at a full moon ever since their arrival 179
years ago. My heart swells with – with what? –
envy, not much but some, also with admiration,
looking at them. So small and so undemanding –
this patch of stony ground has always contented them.
How full their heads are with moon-thoughts!
Though there is more to be said. I for instance
who all my life have been discarding
patches of ground, stony or picturesque makes
no difference, have of late begun gazing upwards
fairly often, more than I used to, I would say,
thinking harmless thoughts. If I had been glimpsed
even one of those times, just then, or then, or
that other time, by someone who walked on past
and never turned to look again,
I’d live in that one mind forever serene as these,
a thought I’ll keep. I could say more
but they show me there’s no need.
How the moon shines! How the two men observe!
And how willingly would I have spent my life
as they have, murmuring small comments
to my friend as the years pass!
To live in someone else’s mind forever – this is not exactly what the critic Lester Bangs means when he suggests that the session musicians on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks seem to be “dwelling inside of each other’s minds.” (Bangs seems to be talking about the sort of relationship which we sometimes say ‘shares the same wavelength’ and for which we now have an uglier term: ‘synergy’.) No, to live in a mind is to be kept alive by it, to be as delicate as data, but as retrievable, too. It is to be the woman in Citizen Kane, the one in the white dress, glimpsed for a moment by Everett Sloane’s character but called to mind, unbeknownst to the woman, once a month for the rest of Sloane’s character’s life. In the age of Internet stalkers who copy and paste our images onto hard drives more permanent than memory banks, such behavior may sound creepy; to many fans of Kane it probably just sounds romantic (Sloane’s character is kind of a sweetheart).
Coles’ speaker would certainly be content to linger in the mind of “someone who walked on past / and never turned to look again.” Sure, the speaker’s wish is narcissistic in that “I-am-thought-of-therefore-I-am” sort of way. But the thought that one could be housed and nourished in someone else’s thoughts is, as the speaker suggests, an attractive one. It’s “a thought I’ll keep,” a thought worth keeping. (Funnily enough, Coles himself, though very much alive, is a specimen of poet’s poet who seems to live mostly in the minds of a too-meager few; he avoided a recent launch of a new selection of his poems, although he did send a gracious note to be read at the event.)
But there’s another place we can live, the poem proposes, and that’s a painting, a work of art. It’s a romantic, silly, impossible notion but a not entirely original one. The songwriter Paul Buchanan, for instance, once wished he could inhabit the first 16 bars of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” Buchanan is on to something – have you heard those 16 bars? – and so is Coles’ speaker. It would be nice to have a “patch of stony ground,” to have a friend to murmur “small comments” to, though one senses the speaker, unlike the moon-gazers, could never be contented with such modest turf – at least til now, anyway, the time of the poem, the dwindling present. “[H]ow willingly would I have spent my life / as they have,” are the words of someone at the end of a slightly squandered life, a life that was too nomadic.
I myself am no nomad, and could settle in any number of works of art: amidst the Viennese rubble of the film The Third Man; in the leafier stretches of Astral Weeks; in the whole of Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues”; in the brief, beautiful crescendo that opens up, like some clearing, at the end of I think it’s Tom Verlaine’s long solo in the Television song “Marquee Moon”; in certain poems of Elizabeth Bishop, especially “Questions of Travel.” Maybe in a poem or two by Coles. For his part, Coles’ speaker tells us in a blunt voice, unafraid of exclamation points, where he would like to live even if it is a place that doesn’t exist or a place that couldn’t content him if it did. Question is, which works of art would you like to inhabit?
“On a Caspar David Friedrich Painting Entitled ‘Two Men Observing the Moon’” was recently reprinted in The Essential Don Coles (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2009), selected by Robyn Sarah.