From My Bright Abyss
But the fight is quiet sometimes too. Even for those in hell. Bonhoeffer: “It will be the task of our generation, not to ‘seek great things,’ but to save and preserve our souls out of the chaos, and to realize that it is the only thing we can carry as a ‘prize’ from the burning building.”
What is the difference between the cry of pain that is also a cry of praise and a cry of pain that is pure despair? Faith? The cry of faith, even if it is a cry against God, moves toward God, has its meaning in God, as in the cries of Job. The cry of faithlessness is the cry of the damned, like Dante’s souls locked in trees that must bleed to speak, their release from pain only further pain. How much of twentieth-century poetry, how much of my own poetry, is the cry of the damned? But this is oversimplified. It doesn’t account for a poet like A. R. Ammons, who had no religious faith at all but whose work has some sort of undeniable lyric transcendence. Perhaps this: a cry that seems to at once contain and release some energy that is not merely the self, that does not end at despair but ramifies, however darkly, beyond it, is a metaphysical cry. And to make such a cry is, even in the absence of definitions, a definition, for it establishes us in relation to something that is beyond ourselves. Ammons:
…if you can
send no word silently healing, I
mean if it is not proper or realistic
to send word, actual lips saying
these broken sounds, why, may we be
allowed to suppose that we can work
this stuff out the best we can and
having felt out our sins to their
deepest definitions, may we walk with
you as along a line of trees, every
now and then your clarity and warmth
shattering across our shadowed way:
Can you build a vocabulary of faith out of a rhetoric first made of dread and then stand behind this new language? Is faith created by a shift in rhetoric, one that can be consciously constructed, or must there be a shattering experience, one that trashes the old words for things?(Fanny Howe)
There must be a shattering experience. Words are tied ineluctably to the world. Language has its bloodlines, through history and through our own beating hearts. “To change your language,” writes Derek Walcott, “you must change your life,” though that still smacks of the will. Humans – especially artists – love to imagine that they might will themselves into new dispositions of self and soul. Otherwise it’s all waiting, all readiness for a change that may never come.
Does that mean that no artist ever changes from inside? That one cannot build a vocabulary of faith out of what Fanny Howe calls “a rhetoric of dread”? That the work, when it has become fed by nothing but absence, emptiness, despair, is for nothing?
Yes. Sometimes the work is for nothing and should be stopped. You work your way as far as you can in one direction and then life either changes you or not. The mistake many young artists make is in thinking they can will such changes, or – much more dangerous – float close to the fires of circumstance and suffering without being burned:
Oh, should a child be left unwarned
That any song in which he mourned
Would be as if he prophesied?
It were unworthy of the tongue
To let the half of life alone
And play the good without the ill.
And yet t’would seem that what is sung
In happy sadness by the young,
Fate has no choice but to fulfill.
(Robert Frost, “The Wind and the Rain”)
I’ve always been struck – haunted, really – by Wallace Steven’s phrase, in his great poem, “Sunday Morning,” “Death is the mother of beauty.” Like that Robert Bringhurst poem I quoted at earlier, Steven’s line was practically tattooed on my brain for years; it was a kind of credo by which I lived. Or, as “Poŝtolka” makes clear, almost lived. It’s the old carpe diem cry, Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, etc., etc. Except that Stevens, unlike Horace and Herrick, isn’t encouraging haste and excess in the face of time slipping from one’s grasp. “Sunday Morning,” right from its famous first lines, is all about slowness and deliberation, about savoring experience:
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug, mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
No, Stevens believed that a concentration of death concentrates life, that we cannot see life clearly except through the lens of death, but that once we have seen it with such clarity, we can savor it. This is what I believed, and how I tried to live – until one day I found myself looking through the actual lens of death.
The view, it turned out, was quite different. From the moment I learned I had cancer – on my thirty-ninth birthday, from a curt voice mail message – not only was the world not intensified, it was palpably attenuated. I can still feel how far away everything – the people walking on the street beyond the window, the books on the shelf, my wife smiling up at me in the moment before I told her – suddenly seemed. And long after the initial shock, I felt a maddening, muffled quality to the world around me – which, paradoxically, went hand-in-hand with the most acute, interior sensations of pain. It seemed as if the numbness was not mine, but the world’s, as if some energy had drained out of things. At some point I realized that for all my literary talk of the piquancy and poignancy that mortality imparts to immediate experience, part of my enjoyment of life had always been an unconscious assumption of its continuity. Not necessarily a continuity of reality itself – the moment does pass, of course – but a continuity in memory at least, and a future that the act of memory implies (there must be somewhere from which to remember). Life is short, we say, in one way or another, but, in truth, because we cannot imagine our own death until it is thrust upon us, we live in a land where only other people die.
“Death is the mother of beauty” is a phrase that could only have been written by a man for whom death was an abstraction, a vaguely pleasant abstraction at that. Remove futurity from experience and you leach meaning from it just as surely as if you cut out a man’s past. “Memory is the basis of individual personality,” Miguel de Unamuno writes, “just as tradition is the basis of the collective personality of a people. We live in memory and by memory, and our spiritual life is at bottom simply the effort of our memory to persist, to transform itself into hope, the effort of our past to transform itself into our future.” In other words, we need both the past and the future to make our actions and emotions and sensations mean anything in the present.
Strictly speaking, though, the past and the future do not exist. They are both, to a greater or lesser degree, creations of the imagination. Anyone who tells you that you can live only in time, then, is not quite speaking the truth, since if we do not live out of time imaginatively, we cannot live in it actually. And if we can live out of time in our daily lives – indeed, if apprehending and inhabiting our daily lives demands that we in some imaginative sense live out of time – then is it a stretch to imagine the fruition of existence as being altogether outside of time?