In another lifetime they might have been good, perhaps even great friends. Their natures each pitched to unusual keys, offset enough to harmonize in inspired ways. But they didn’t. Not this time around. What emerged between them instead, was the relationship equivalent of elevator music. A vast politeness, a blameless bond neither strong nor interesting. It held them temporarily in the same orbit, no more, no less. Like passengers seated next to each other on a plane, who exchange brief pleasantries then fall into their separate worlds. Or acquaintances at a mutual friend’s party, who listen to one another’s stories with that air of formal attentiveness that betrays a lack of natural sympathies. From their forgettable interactions was absent the trouble or reward of real conversation. They traveled a shared highway, a little more than distant and much less than close. You know how it is with some people. And so it was with them. Though it might have been otherwise.
Category Archives: The Abstract
And if there’s no bread to be had tonight I will eat words she said
I’ll sprinkle them all with pepper and salt, and gobble them up in bed.
If light is a language and sunset a sermon
And dusk is a tribesman in deep purple turban
Then why speak in words that will ruin the night?
When nothing that’s said can ever be right.
Bright lights on the hillside no stars in the sky
My heart it is heavy and it won’t tell me why
The frogs they do croak and the crickets they chafe
While alone at the window I stand like a waif
Though my life it be full of love and its singing
It harbors still shadows of pain and its stinging.
Who put the cluck in the chicken and
Sharpened each green blade of grass?
Who rouged the cheeks of the sunset and
Filled the blue rivers with bass?
I’ve scoured the world for the artist
Whose skill grazes everything
I haven’t glimpsed her yet, but once
I think I heard her sing.
Sometimes it strikes me as curious. The many, seemingly disparate meanings certain words hold. Words like Swiss Army knives. Small enough to slip in your pocket and capable of unfolding in different ways, depending on whether you need to whittle a piece of birchwood, open a bottle or tighten a screw. This makes them convenient– but also at times when context is unclear– confusing. A Swiss Army knife on a camping trip is easier to understand for instance, than a Swiss Army knife in carry on luggage going through airport security.
Misunderstood Swiss Army knives are typically confiscated. Misunderstood words however, will typically continue to travel through the world unchecked, trailing bafflement, umbrage, heartbreak, hilarity or–fertile possibility in their wake. Unlike a misunderstood Swiss Army knife an imperfectly word can cause happy accidents, advantageous reactions– even poetry. Especially poetry.
Meaning more than one thing means carrying, at all times, the potential to be useful, problematic, poetic, or various combinations of the aforementioned. In some ways this is the precise definition of what it means to be a person.
In the dictionary the word ‘visitation’ has several meanings. Though they do not at first glance appear to be related to one another, they actually are. These meanings brush up against one another in inventive ways.
“an official visit by an important person especially to look at or inspect something
The appearance of a divine or supernatural being
a time before a dead person is buried when people may view the body
a special dispensation of divine favor or wrath
a severe trial
access to a child granted especially to a parent who does not have custody
the visit of the Virgin Mary to Elizabeth recounted in Luke and celebrated July 2 by a Christian feast”
Yesterday, after sunset, a visitation. Actually, two.
I stepped into our mudroom and startled a little cat sitting at the top of the staircase outside our front door. She darted down the steps. Then stood behind the trumpet vine bush at the base of the staircase, her head peeking around it so that she could still hold my gaze. We stared at each other silently for a few moments, then I called out to my husband to heat up some milk for her. I crouched down at the top of the staircase and began talking to her. Where did you come from sweet one? What do you want? Are you hungry you beauty? I began to walk towards her and she stepped cautiously out from her hiding place. Then rolled on her back and let out a plaintive miaow. A movement so trusting, and endearing it made me smile. If it was a movement calculated to win over hearts, then it was well played.
When I placed the container of warm milk on the step below me, she stepped up to it on her ballerina paws with no hesitation. Began to drink, pausing every so often to look up at me again as if suddenly transfixed by what she saw.
We stood at the top of the staircase, in our darkened mudroom watching her. She drank and my heart filled.
Not long after she had vanished into the night, we looked out and saw a little fawn at the base of the staircase — a startled brown face in lamplight looking up at our startled brown faces in the window.
What if –we are each other’s visitation?
St. Kevin and the Blackbird
by Seamus Heaney
And then there was St. Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labor and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
How achingly lovely is this poem? It’s based on an Irish legend nearly 1000 years old, that Heaney retells to perfection. The vivid imagery of the first section holds you hostage. You are captive in the cramped cell of this verse with its kneeling saint, its window and that single upturned palm. Then the arrival of the bird! Hard to read these lines and keep your hands from tingling. Such a precise description, that for a moment, it is the reader’s hand that holds the nesting bird. And it is the reader who has, with the arrival of this winged legend, been linked into “the network of eternal life” [what a magnificent phrase]. And then the birth of that breathtakingly generous commitment so quietly announced. “Until the young are hatched, and fledged and flown.” A softly stunning line that requires a moment to recover from. How thoughtful Heaney’s placement then, of that starry asterisk. A beat, in which to find the ground again.
And how masterfully the storyteller shifts the tone directly after. Lifting the curtain to tease out the truth that lurks beneath the mythical. Introducing the paradox of seeking out the real in the realm of the imagination. We must try to put ourselves in the skin of the saint. And doing this, are shown a fork in the road — does our inhabitation of the holy introduce our rickety mortality to the saint, or does it elevate us into his transcendent experience? Heaney gives us both possibilities to live. And how. He gives us the sore forearms and the suffering knees. He gives us too the numb lostness –the creep of the underearth. And we, in all our unsaintliness, know exactly what this feels like. Because while we may have never incubated blackbird’s eggs in the hollows of our palms, we can extrapolate. We know what it is to have pins-and-needles. “Is there distance in his head?” And again the poem makes a beautifully abrupt turn. From the physical to the metaphysical.
A question that places distance like an object as a possibility in someone’s head. And the beauty of it is that we know instinctively what that means. To feel an inner expanse that is not an attenuation [Remember St Augustine’s claim: time is the distension of the mind.] The spaciousness that does not stretch, that is one with timelessness and that can sometimes be stumbled into. “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space…” said Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and being no saint he concluded the sentiment with “…were it not that I have bad dreams.” But Kevin’s dreams are unclouded. His heart mirrored undistorted in the river. His prayer untainted and transparent, “To labor and not to seek reward.” An aspiration that mirrors the pith of the Gita:”You are entitled to your labor, not to the fruit of your labor.” An aspiration that issues forth not from mind or lips but from the entirety of his being– and then those lovely, lovely last lines:
“For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.”
And we, standing again in the skin of our own lives, full of mistakes and memories and self, we know, as the poet relies on us to know, what St. Kevin does not. That the river’s name, of course, is Love.
Heaney reading St. Kevin at the offices of his publishers, on the occasion of his 70th birthday.
“[This poem is] based on a sense of doing the right thing for the reward of doing the right thing. And I think that a literary publishing house which continues to hold those values is in that domain of a self belief and faith and chosen values opted for and stood by. Publishing is to some extent still, and to a great extent here I think, a labor of love, and a matter of work for the right reason, and–even if you aren’t going to get any great monetary reward–to keep going.”
For V (with gratitude and apologies to Billy Collins), 2005
You are the rice and the bowl
The brass lamp and the prayer
You are the distant sound of temple bells at dusk
And the elephant’s trunk poised in blessing above a child’s head
You are the wholesome fragrance of thulsi in the garlandmaker’s basket
And the wise old banyan tree where the birds rest their songs.
However you are not the droplet that sleeps on the lotus leaf in the
middle of the pond
The potter’s wheel or the stray notes in Krishna’s flute
And you are certainly not the cry of the milkman in the morning
There is just no way that you are the cry of the milkman in the morning.
It is possible that you are the splash of the bucket lowered into the well
Maybe even the custard apples on the bough
But you are not even close to being the red banana flower
And a quick look in the mirror will show
That you are neither the saltspraysting of the sea
Nor the hurling grace of the fisherman’s net.
It might interest you to know,
Speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
That I am the sound of crickets at sundown.
I also happen to be the shooting star,
The umbrella turned inside out by the wind
And the silk woven mat on the floor
I am also the sway of the coconut palm
And the longing of the red earth for rain
But don’t worry, I’m not the rice and the bowl
You are still the rice and the bowl
Not to mention the brass lamp and — somehow — the prayer.
Ten years and more later…
My husband is not a sentimental person. He has a box of old letters, photographs and miscellaneous keepsakes saved more by benign neglect than emotional attachment. He is as likely to ever want to look through it as he is to want to go salsa dancing on a Friday night. Which is to say– very, very unlikely. As far as I can tell, he is immune to nostalgia. This affords him a kind of peace that I sometimes envy. While I am far less sentimental than I once was, I’m still prey to occasional bouts of nostalgia that fell me like the flu.
“I miss you.” Three words that I’ve said so often to V over the years, and his response has always been the same: “But I’m right here.” And he always is. I have never known quite how to explain this quality of missing. The piercing sense of the absence of a thing that surfaces bewilderingly and most keenly in the full-blown presence of that thing. It is a subtle, gnawing, uncomfortable sensation. Like an itch that’s impossible to scratch because it is impossible to locate. A distance impossible to bridge because it isn’t located in space. But you feel it. You know you feel it. In an unguarded moment this feeling can bring you to tears. In moments when you are better defended you laugh it off.
Life is a strange animal. And animals get hungry. And it is hunger that gives us the potential for tragedy, comedy. Hunger that gives us the potential for metamorphosis, and evolution.
Hunger is an animating force. Perhaps the animating force of this world. And it is fundamentally defined by the sensation of lack, and its identical twin, the sensation of longing.
“It’s funny,” says my husband, “But these days I get hungry while I’m eating.” I look up at him across the dining table and we burst out laughing, because it’s a ridiculous statement and yet it makes perfect sense. It is not long after the ER visit. V at this time had spent two weeks on a strict diet of fruit, rice and boiled vegetables. No spices, no sugar, no gluten, no dairy and very little salt. “I’m eating plenty,” he says, “But there’s this entire compartment in my stomach that stays permanently empty.” He is smiling as he says this, his eyes full of merriment and not a trace of self-pity. V has always enjoyed variety in his food, but he has no trouble accepting, with monk-like contentment, whatever happens to be served on his plate, literally and metaphorically.
I think again, what I’ve thought many times over the years: This person whom I live my days side-by-side with, is no ordinary being.
From the Online Etymology Dictionary:
Old English hunger, hungor “unease or pain caused by lack of food, debility from lack of food” from Proto-Germanic *hungraz(source also of Old Frisian hunger, Old Saxon hungar, Old High German hungar, Old Norse hungr, German hunger, Dutch honger, Gothic huhrus), probably from PIE root *kenk- (2) “to suffer hunger or thirst” (source also of Sanskrit kakate “to thirst;” Lithuanian kanka “pain, ache; torment, affliction;” Greek kagkanos “dry,” polykagkes “drying”). From c. 1200 as “a strong or eager desire” (originally spiritual).
- 1300, “craving for food,” from Anglo-French appetit, Old French apetit “appetite, desire, eagerness” (13c., Modern French appétit), from Latin appetitus “appetite, longing,” literally “desire toward,” from appetitus, past participle of appetere “to long for, desire; strive for, grasp at,” from ad “to” (see ad-) + petere “go to, seek out,” from PIE root *pet- “to rush, to fly.”
“I miss you.”
“But I’m right here.”
This is what it distills down to.
“I miss you.”
“But I’m right here.”
Just so you know — this is the only conversation we are having. And by we I mean me. I mean you. I mean almost anybody. Almost everybody. This is the only conversation we have ever had (no matter how much it seems otherwise, it’s all just variations on the theme), with each other, with ourselves, with our God/s, with our time, with our reality.
“I miss you.”
“But I’m right here.”
The compartment in your stomach that cannot be filled. The itch that cannot be located.
The hunger we carry like a koan (that is our privilege to carry like a koan)–
Until we don’t.
[End of conversation.]
“Praise, but tell the angel about the world,
not the indescribable. You can’t impress him
with your lofty feelings; in the universe,
where he feels with far greater feeling, you’re
just a beginner. So show him some simple thing,”
And here Rilke inverts the tendency of some kinds of seekers, to skip past the thing-ness of things to exalt their essence. The tendency to dismiss form and utterance, in blind favor of the rarefied, featureless, unsayable.
The poet reclaims for us then, the power of encapsulation. To be contained he argues is not a limitation, but a privilege. To give voice not a reduction but a ripening. And maybe we exist for these very precise possibilities.
“Are we here,
perhaps, merely to say: house, bridge, fountain,
gate, jar, fruit tree, window—at most,
pillar, tower? But to say them, you understand—
to say them in such a way that even the things
themselves never hoped to exist so intensely.”
I think of my niece whom I met in the middle of her second revolution around the sun. Words only recently being minted on her tongue, they slip out like new pennies, potent with un-use and their coppery original meaning. How she traveled on unsteady, eager feet alongside a wide pond, up a sweeping staircase, around the precipitously growing circumference of her days– pointing to and naming whatever was in her power to name. Urgent, insistent, daring, as though carrying out and protected by, a God-given duty. A small First Person tasked with the enormous responsibility of granting things their individual identities. As if aware that to name a thing was to call it more fully into being, was to release it, like bird from a net, into its consummate thing-ness, free it from the benevolent tyranny of being indistinguishable from eternity.
Chair. Chair. Chair. Apple. Apple. Apple. Dog. Dog. Dog. Broom. Broom. Broom.
How the world brightened in her twinkling wake, how it rose like a long-limbed princess stirring from a centuries-old spell. Shaking off the slumber dust of familiarity, the reverie of accustomedness, throwing the casement window open to the moment’s infinite arrival, its charmed variety, its alarming aliveness.
“Show him how happy a thing can be, how innocent
and ours, how even the groan of sorrow decides
to become pure form, and serves as a thing
or dies in a thing, escaping to the beyond,
ecstatic, out of the violin. And these things,
that live only in passing, they understand
that you praise them. Fleeting, they look to us,
the most fleeting, for help. They hope that within
our invisible hearts we will change them entirely into—
oh endlessly—into us! Whoever we finally are.”
Whoever we finally are…how deliciously he leaves that ultimate identity unknowable, unnamed. And isn’t it unsurprising then, that identity and identical are twins who share the same cradle. Both springing from the Latin, idem et idem again, and again, over and over, the same. Identity a repetition a continuation, a fidelity to sameness, ‘the condition of being oneself, or itself, and not another,’ again and again. The difference that dances on the other side of sameness. Our identities are plural in identical ways, they grant shape to growing invisibilities.
“Earth, isn’t this what you want, to rise up in us
invisible? Isn’t it your dream to be someday
invisible? Earth! Invisible! If not this change,
what do you ask for so urgently? Earth, loved one,
I will. Believe me, you don’t need any more
of your springtimes to win me: one
is already more than my blood can take.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been yours
completely. You’ve always been right,
and your most sacred idea is that death
is an intimate friend.
Look: I live. But from where do I draw this life,
since neither childhood nor the future grows less . . . ?
More being than I can hold springs up in my heart!”
Look out your window. Be a First Person. Like a ruler portioning out her kingdom by the generous fistful, grant things their names. Call them forth like gold medalists. Sky. Cloud. Tree. Street. Smokestack. Billboard. Old Man in a Beret. Let the names burst like first bite of an exotic fruit from a faraway land over your tongue.
May more being than you can hold spring up in your heart.
The poetry of misunderstanding is related to all that intends, and fails, to meet its mark. The arrow that whistles past the target. The hammer that descends on the unfortunate thumb. It is tangled up in many of the misguided habits we have perfected. Of chasing wild geese, counting chickens prematurely, and locating carts before their horses. It is implicated in our undignified tendency to bark up incorrect trees, and in our fondness for laboring under delusions. Also in our reluctance to bite our tongues, bide our time or swallow our pride.
In a world of variable weather conditions, the poetry of misunderstanding rolls into our lives, sometimes like fine mist in the valley, sometimes like thick fog off the ocean, sometimes like rampaging tornado, full of sound and fury. It obscures the view, shrouds the sun, and introduces a vast capacity for confusion. It creates labyrinths of resentment, riptides of blame and guilt, and dark woods of inarticulate rage. It also, however, embeds in all things, an element of mystery. With it the potential for adventure. Were every path unconditionally clear, and all maps readable, life would amount to little more than a long walk in the park. Pleasant for awhile, but soon grown tedious, and eventually, unbearable. Uncertainty is the price of every quest. The risk of misunderstanding who you are, where you are meant to go, and what you are meant to do. It has always been this way and will so always be. We are susceptible to blundering. And it is this liability that renders our best efforts noble.
On happy occasion, misunderstanding can be dispersed as gracefully as a cloud of butterflies, dissolved effortlessly as a sugar cube in your cafe au lait, by a gentle word or a well-timed gesture of sincerity. In less fortuitous instances it springs out of ill-nourished soil like an enchanted hedge, intractable and laced with thorns. Or an unscalable concrete wall, studded with watch towers and armed guards. The poetry of misunderstanding casts shadows and spells, whose effects often lie far beyond the conjuring of prediction. Imagine at large in the world, a persnickety dragon beleaguered by a chronic cough. When he flares up it is difficult to say with any degree of well-reasoned certainty whether the trigger was merely a tickle in his throat, or his temper. This ambiguity leads to many singed encounters and tragicomic quantities of heartbreak on all sides. It does not require familiarity with dragons, persnickety or otherwise, to understand how this plays out.
Meaning is implicit. The facts require reading into. A slammed door might mean the wind, or someone’s desperation. Errors of interpretation are inevitable. One day you say ‘water’ and mean ‘I am thirsty’. Someone brings you a shining glass full to the brim. It is not far-fetched to assume that someday you will say ‘water’ but what you mean is ‘My house is on fire!’ And someone will toss over their shoulder, directions to the well, as they run to catch a train, a plane, a falling star. It is natural and also absurd, that in that moment you will feel fiercely betrayed. It has occurred to you that the message spoken was not the message heard. Yet somehow this consideration is insufficient to soothe the sting. In the middle and the muddle of it all, it does not help that sometimes you will say ‘water’ when what you actually mean is, ‘I do not agree’, or ‘What are you thinking?’, or ‘There must be another way.’ It does not help that under other people’s pleasantries and your own, you sometimes sense the slosh of deep, unquiet waters. Language is gorgeous, convenient and faithless. Perhaps it is our extensive vocabulary that complicates things. It affords us inexhaustible ways to say what we do not mean, and to hear what was not meant. The quarrels of birds are of a simpler, less exhausting sort.
Because our gaze is untrained, and our spirits sometimes perverse, we often seek what we do not wish to find. And the strange truth is, that if we are looking for disappointment, we will never be disappointed. All things will oblige, will fall short if we wish them to. A fact that is exceedingly hard to remember when the world fails to measure up. We are creatures well-attuned to dissatisfaction and not unprimed for despair. Amidst our mixed messages, our cross-purposes, our contradictions and frictions and frays, is is easy to miss the miracle.
The miracle is this: That we are ever understood at all. By anyone or anything. Sometimes you catch another’s eye in a crowd and feel reinforced in sympathy. Sometimes a child cries and is cradled, fed. Sometimes a single line in a single letter wakes a slumbering giant in your heart. And a perfect conversation is held in the hammered gold silence of friends. Sometimes we complete each other’s sentences. Sometimes we are the answers to each other’s unspoken prayers. Sometimes the colors of twilight, or the whir of a hummingbird’s wings, a thieving squirrel, or a flower that opens in the rain is all it takes to set the record straight. To right a series of wrongs. And restore the tumbled crown. These affinities are available, this communion possible.
And when properly considered, the facts are astounding. That we, who have yet to perfectly understand the one person we have lived with all our lives, are granted this kinship. Again and ever yet again. A grace so great, that sometimes we are ready to be the one who forgives before being forgiven. The one who comforts before being comforted, and understands before being understood. The one who throws open the prison gates, releases into stormy skies a brave flock of snow white doves, draws woodland animals and woeful mortals alike into a circle of love. Where all is resolved, and all refreshed. Sometimes we are ready to do these things. And sometimes we are not. But it behooves us to believe that we each do our best.
And in the end, the poetry of misunderstanding is why poetry exists at all. In a world where no true thing is utterly sayable. No sayable thing ever utterly true. It has always been left to poetry, to perfect the delicate art, of miss and tell.