Gated Community IV
I remember once crossing a lawn at night that was outfitted with an automated sprinkler system; in the available light I could see colorless rainbows. At least that's what I thought they were. But the lack was in me, not the rainbows: I didn't know that, at night, humans are technically colorblind.
So when I read Anne Finch's scientifically accurate account of walking at night, "A Nocturnal Reverie," I'm impressed that the only colors mentioned are green and red amid the general shadowy, pale, grisaille nightscape. It's a poem that is simultaneously gentle, lonely, and precisely observant. (For the second time, I'm reminded of James Schuyler, with his naturalist's eye, e.g. in this poem.)
A woman walking alone in safety at night; a woman allowed to be absorbed in her own thoughts under the stars. This seems a benchmark of civilization to me.
Outside as I write this the Pennsylvania sky is clear indigo.* Given how many places I've lived in, I think I can attest to the uniquely pure, saturated hue of twilight in the Keystone State. When I was a sullen teenager in my parents' house I used to walk at dusk and after dark in Valley Forge National Park. Its stunning panorama of rolling hills and tree stands, whence the dark would rise, was where some of my very first poems originated. Encroached on all sides by housing developments, commercial industrial parks and highways, the conservancy of this land always seemed vulnerable to developers and their interests.
It is not nearly as private a place as the Kent estate would have been for Anne Finch—and the fact that the footpaths were well populated by joggers and bikers and dog-walkers meant that I was relatively safe to dwell on my own thoughts, without constantly looking over my shoulder. Though one bleary day when I was alone on a stretch of path hard by some reconstructed log cabins, a homeless man emerged with his pants down (I beat a hasty retreat). No, the Park was not a place of absolute protection and contemplation. That's partly why reading "A Nocturnal Reverie" feeds a strong fantasy of female safety in a place of "sedate content"—
But silent musings urge the mind to seek
Something, too high for syllables to speak;
Till the free soul to a composedness charmed,
Finding the elements of rage disarmed,
O'er all below a solemn quiet grown,
Joys in th'inferior world, and thinks it like her own:
In such a night let me abroad remain....
A "tyrant man does sleep" in this poem, and it bears repeating that when Anne Finch and her husband retreated as guests to Eastwell Park in 1690, it was to escape political harassment and possible arrest as Catholics and Jacobites in a turbulent climate. Eventually, they returned to London and to civic life; their time in the gated garden came to an end. But the poem remains, and when the reader revisits this paradisical, twilight space she is rewarded with a sympathetic "composedness charmed"
Til morning breaks, and all's confused again;
Our cares, our toils, our clamors are renewed,
Or pleasures, seldom reached, again pursued.**
* My new itinerary from JFK to Beirut via Cairo and Larnaka, promises to be the most excruciating journey I've ever undertaken. I depart tomorrow. This will give me some time to think about Martin Earl's gorgeous post.
**It bears pointing out that the last line opposes the activity of "A Nocturnal Reverie," to "pleasure"—i.e. entertainment. What is it, then?
Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...