Prose tries to be only itself and, while it does so, it is not poetry. Yet there are all too many experiences that come back only as themselves. Not a shred of divination in them, only a thin and grimacing reality. Here was one. We were walking near the Arkansas River, although the river's water was now running only at the sides of sandy-blond flats that looked like a beach in the middle of the wet. We were visiting in Tulsa. We walked along the high ridge between the street called Riverside Drive and that low sluggish thing where a blue open river used to run up almost to the level where my father had taken us out, with the handsome, fidgety collie. On the other bank were the colossal white drums containing natural gas. The dog with his lovely axe-swift bark was probably also bothered by the faintly stinking trough that used to be a river. This reminded me of the most mysterious and horrible thing about my grandmother's house. It had a wheel made all of metal, fixed flat on the concrete floor of her basement, like a wheel that you use to seal a door in a ship. It was near a gradual dip in the floor that went down to a dark drain with an open metal grid on top of it. Whenever she did her laundry, water that smelled like the river backed up into her house, and she would have to release it again. "That is sewage," she said, drawing up her top lip; I think she may have said "sewerage," but I clung to the nastiness of the word "sewage." The sewage water, mixed with suds, would come up only to a certain line on the concrete floor, and then take itself back down when she stooped over and tugged against the wheel. The sewage smell kept to the basement, strongest when you first opened the door to go down, but I think it stayed in your nose. This was also the house where, when you touched the door of the refrigerator and the light switch at the same time, an attentive ripple would come up through your fingers and skim along your arm—as if you were being watched by the electricity, and a little scolded.
We were always, more generally, being a little scolded. Perhaps I never felt the difference between the world of children and their world more than I did there. It was cold, but with no snow, no moisture, just a drying-out and breaking-down cold. We were always out in it longer than we wanted because the ground was brown and hard and, when seen from indoors, benign. So we were allowed—in retrospect it is clear we were expected—to play outdoors hour upon hour in the chilly leaves below the evenly allocated, faintly stinking, windless, bony dusk.
That is what I mean. "Windless, bony dusk" is rather good, but in prose it is just too pleased with itself. A poem I am not writing yet might chasten it.
Notes from earlier decades. Traces of poems vanishing like straw in mud. Unabsorbed events. Grimaces of reality that I also fear because they block the lightning of forgetfulness. Even the dreams disturbing and complex. Regret, resentment, yearning, apprehension in both senses, suffering, and desire—but always stopped in gargoyle postures. Those scraps of loosened handwriting jotted down late at night, confessions stiffened by self-consciousness and peculiar longings and equally peculiar vanities and the urge to destroy and the urge to shine and (therefore) memories with the unnaturally strong shoulders of fiction: all of this avid pinning-down proved how great was the rift between the surges of will and the power of intuition.
Lost Poems Like
those streets down which
sun never falls
stories cloud up
with a god onlooking
twisting about the sky
The poems to burn through into code
like an opera in silver
When death begins
the muscles under the teeth and jaw
disintegrate down to the chest
That is death that
the flame goes on rotting
in the windless, bony dusk
The last phrase is no longer a bas relief standing out, polished, "rather good," above the smooth ground. It is desolate. Anger watches it. Fear drains it. Spirit is already gone from it. It is an afterwards, not an apex. Nothing follows.
When I turned fifty I couldn't read a book at night. It turned out I couldn't see. I had to get my first pair of glasses—not just to be able to read, but also to see at a distance. I was given trifocal lenses, with different prescriptions in the upper and lower thirds, and no prescription in the middle (this was where I could see people walking toward me and the license tag of a car that was pulling away; but where it counted, the codes of shape were stormy). With the glasses on, I couldn't walk straight or change levels, couldn't find the right focal depth, which was too tiny to lock in on quickly. I fell down stairs. I tripped. I was falling out of coincidence with myself. I was blurred in space as things in space were blurred in front of me. I was far away from where I thought I was. My hands weren't useful. My mind wandered. I disliked to read: I dithered. I would get distracted by money worry, and would work for a time each day with a small solar-powered calculator.
Chores grew heavier, also doing my job, which was a never-ending humiliation. The surer I became about the mystery of words in time, the more intricate the disdain of the professionals around me. This was a world in which there was a constant encouragement to promote oneself, to mention every little mention of oneself. To be your own entrepreneur. Deadly to art. I tried not to play, but did just a little—enough so that I neither made a good showing among them nor kept my heart pure. Caving in "just a little" is the hateful side of humiliation, for one is driven by fear of going under, by doing nothing. This anxiety doesn't end with a small cowardice. It is a world based on worry, because they themselves are always heartily, greedily worrying, scratching the sand of their little plots of earth.
Is this behavior so harmless? Poets in the middle ages knew that the world of functionaries in the chicken yard, distracted by little lies, ran parallel to a world of gruesomeness. The able knight was served by the gnomes of hell, the innocent child by leering familiars who turned into puppets of fang and gore as soon as they turned their faces away. In my dreams, I was like the disintegrating ones, teeth exposed to the chin and a premonition of my end told by the pain that reached across my chest. I couldn't cry out. I couldn't be kind. The jaw was clamped. This was what I would die of, but would I be struck? Would it happen among others?
How many women think of themselves as tiny mechanical dancers on a music box. "Failures of nerve and energy are not permitted," I wrote, "that's what it means to be an object." And a jolly crust is a kind of thing-making, too, a forcing by the world, to which one dare not show the shrinking and weeping within. Does prolonged distress really humanize the soul? Hardens it, rather; even the raw spots that never heal grow hard. Shyness is not the recoil of something tender but the locking away of something already ruined. It comes to the surface in childhood. No, not the surface. It presents itself like a tiny ledge on a sheer mountain. This is impossible to step off from because beyond the ledge there is only silence and the long drop. Speech seems irrelevant—can you speak your way out of the punishment of gravity? I looked at those other figures, roped safely to crags of dark matter, who could speak, in full sentences, in public, marshaling example and parallel, followed by foreclosed counter-case, speeding toward the warm updraft of conclusion. Still, rhetoric must first presume that others listen and attend to you, otherwise it is mad.
Attend lat tendere to stretch attendere to stretch toward: to take care of to look after accompany be present (at) await. Without attention, nothing can proceed. Thought stops in its tracks, or rants. Thought drags itself inside. One becomes haunted by muteness, among mute things.
Stevens thought that things, which were once human, had lost their former power to conceal themselves. But if we imagine things as having once been persons, wouldn't they retain at least the shape of their once symbolic hulls, however little they could now hide within them? Isn't the material world fundamentally a kind of vulnerable or inept concealment? A fly apparently buzzing in place within the web, but in a shell the spider has siphoned the strength out of, moved now only by the wind ... the reflection of a stone granary in the mere ... freckled leopard apricots.... Grace that has been frozen—a bicycle frame like an antelope; a submerged jar; a shoe made of willow. At the edge of a hot field, a cow shed and chicken coop; beyond these, in a forest of hard blue, the "pierced iron shadow of the cedars" (Marianne Moore). Close around them, against the male sun and the cool female forest, the stretch of ground somebody has mowed despite the desolation of these frames with their sagging silvery boards. The coop. The shed. Who abandoned them and yet comes back to mow? Don't ask realistic questions. Patience, soon you too will sleep.
Sometimes the world of things has something to say. Randall Jarrell wrote that stream water made a sound that was like a spoon or glass breathing.
Now we are awake together just after I have come in to get her from her nap. I have had my hair cut. My daughter looks over my head for the clue to the newness. As if to find the strings that pull me. Her attention is radiant. Attention: careful observing thoughtful consideration of others readiness to respond observant care. Agility. Transparency. We are in a half-darkened room together, with a bit of brick and sky visible out the window and a small rough white cloud scooting by. It is a moment. It promises to move, quickly, away from itself, out into time. To stop it spilling over, we understand that we would be happy to stay, as we are, leaning with the side of the crib between us, both standing, making small shifts. We know that everything is before us, including the steepening light and the "haar trees" (willows) bobbing a little. All the years we have spent together since then—all those moments of nearness without possession—were before us. But they no longer include that moment.
Mania might spur it on again, the work of the poem, as it did with Pound, wanton, clumsy. As a permission, however, not a working method. How can temper release poems, or lead one down to them again? Perhaps it never could. For it is also weak to be a storm, self-obscuring. If poems are given to a sufferer, they may be epiphenomena, like steam from the pavement after a cloudburst. Real, but tenuous.
If the only way to live
were to be cold
moss and leaf mold
up in the box elder
water coating me
with a steady weeping
through which nothing
would ever pass again
or to be feral
would I choose this
and go on
Poems have entered my being only after a stupor of watching, running my eye down the flaking seams. Except that now the mineral is hard and serious, at the level at which I must mine, and little moisture reaches its refreshment down. The stone has anchored itself together against anything that wants to grow. Perhaps I am like the hard vein that moves through Rilke's equally rigid mountain? Hardness clamped within hardness. No breath of distance. This sense that the light, the gift, the water has been withdrawn might still lead to poetry, I suppose—hypothetically conceived. Job today, not Job as he knew himself yesterday. But Job was not Job in that yesterday life. He is Job only where he is now, his terrain of deprivation the dense impacted slab of mountain, a waste crag far above the tree line, which irritates and sets off the self-involved, hugely suffering, heroic will—and this is out of my reach. (My place is really more like a parking lot.) No Job yesterday either, of course, with the hard rock pouring out, for me, a stream of oil. A daughter with her soft breathing close to my face and a sense of grace like dew collecting everywhere and making everything lucid. No. Only cars trolling for a parking place and acres of brand names. Das Herstellbare: the jumble of gadgets and skills that can be brought-forward-and-placed-before the multitude. The eager grinning of that multitude. The calculator whirring.
Bromide. A dead spa in Oklahoma. My earliest memory. I was standing on the running board of a car holding the post between the front and back windows. It was summer. The people in the car were all my relatives. Grandpa was driving; next to him were the small pair who made fires to keep warm even in summer, Uncle Gerald and his wife Nona, who was part Blackfoot. In the back my mother and father, and Percy, who was asleep, then barking, sat next to someone I don't remember. I watched the baby on my mother's lap move her eyes without moving her head. We were driving home from the empty town one of the relatives had built, which was entirely red. Pieces of red stone had also been stuck sideways into the red buildings like parts of saucers. All the panes of glass were yellow with a hard fur of dust that seemed to be growing there.
There was a red fountain, empty, bigger than two cars. I lay down in it and saw nothing but the red sides and the hot blue sky. Everything was dry. Mother put down a quilt on the limited shadow of a tree with a big trunk and no leaves, and we had a thirsty picnic. On the way back I was very hot on the outside of the slowly moving car. We came to a place that hadn't been there on the way, where the dry orange road went down into a pool. You could see a bank of dark leaves, partly wet, on the other side of the flooded place, where the rest of the orange road pulled up against the hill. Grandpa stopped and then coasted down. His fingers moved about on the steering wheel. We could smell the road going into the water the way you can smell a candle going out. I planted my feet on the running board. The water came over the rubber grids. Do you remember, I asked my mother, how the water came up to my knees! When was that, she said. When we were at Bromide with Nona and Gerald and Grandpa and Percy and I lay down in the fountain. Yes I remember, she said, but Nona wasn't there.
We didn't have Percy yet, she said. That was when you were four. And the water was so black, I said, and the sun was in a big circle around us but then the water got dark black again and it was a four-door Packard. Oh darling, she said, you've never been in that car; that was in the album. We'd never have let you do that, anyway, if the road had been flooded.
Memories, word-images like jumps of flame. Irrlichter. As if they were things whose life-sparks had become wayward, they coast about our world like particles which have lost the others. How does one remember what was never there? But the dreams were there.
The words that were over the dreams were there.
I read the dictionary, the record of resemblances, a book that like a drug releases again the half-heard and the half-understood from the edge where you'd forgotten them. Better still, it puts you at the crossing where the past of other tongues, from a time long before, pours along the present. I discover that a word I thought of as a green liqueur popular in the forties is also a cloth full of holes (with the seeds of war mistakenly mixed in). Grenadine fr dim. of grenade, pomegranate (in turn from LAT pomum apple granatum stocked with seeds); from being spotted with grains (grain lat granus): a thin loosely-woven cloth of cotton silk or rayon used for blouses curtains. What had been dense is charged with a loosening light. The charge of sources. The action of apt definition. Energy loose and running just below the surface. A blouse of sheer grenadine. Ash with its wingèd fruit. Brogue a bond or grip on the tongue. Light pictures. Photographs, which are not images of living beings but of the light that once shone through them. Lintel, the timber that binds a doorway at the head or foot or the threshold stepped across or through. Scrape to make a trench or grave. A grave being scratched out, a love being frozen. Leaves scrape on the lintel under an icy light. Light turns the flakes of snow to bits of mica, streams of shadow rising from the radiator like thin throngs of microscopic creatures or the minute reticulation (net-work) of high wind on open water. Open water, which long remembers nothing, neither wind nor wake, Nemerov wrote. Wake on vök a hole in the ice track left in water by a passing ship the ghost of something that has passed by. Words as ghosts of all who used them but have passed by. Haunt ofr v.t. to frequent resort to bother pervade visit as a ghost n. (1) that place lair feeding place (2) also hant a ghost. The lesson of Kafka's burrow: when you're in it (as you are in the present moment), you're afraid of losing it. In fact, with its walls about you, you must see it as already lost. No lintel. No hearth. No haunt. No time. No home.
A city truck just went by, pulling, on a flatbed trailer, a small ochre-yellow bulldozer with the brand VERMEER in black block letters shining in significance against the dirt.