Wednesday, March 11, 2015

"Strange How The Count Of Time Revalues Things!"

The smallest things can evoke the essence of a season.  Or of a life.  This past Sunday, a cloudless day, I was walking on the bluffs above Puget Sound, which glittered in the west.  As I walked past a wide green field in which people were flying kites and dogs were frolicking, a strong breeze buffeted my ears.  In an instant, that sound brought back the distilled essence of decades of windy Marches, the details of which I have long forgotten.

At that moment, I did not feel "happy" or "sad."  Nor did I regret the irrevocable passing of the years, years that had briefly returned, and then vanished again.  Instead, I felt an inarticulate sense of calmness and serenity.

     Everything Is Going To Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford University Press 1979).

Samuel Bough, "Shipyard at Dumbarton" (1855) 

As I think back now on that windy moment I experienced on Sunday, I am reminded of an anecdote about Ludwig Wittgenstein:

"When he was about 21 years of age . . . something occurred that had a lasting impact on him.  He saw a play in Vienna which was mediocre drama: but there was a scene in which a person whose life had been desperately miserable, and who thought himself about to die, suddenly felt himself to be spoken to in the words, 'Nothing can happen to you!'  No matter what occurred in the world, no harm could come to him! Wittgenstein was greatly struck by this thought (as he told me approximately forty years later)."

Norman Malcom, "A Religious Man?" in F. A. Flowers (editor), Portraits of Wittgenstein, Volume 4 (Thoemmes Press 1999), page 192.

This anecdote can be interpreted in any number of ways.  Norman Malcolm puts a religious gloss upon it.  In the case of the enigmatic and mystical Wittgenstein, who can say?  But I have a vague notion of what he was getting at.  I think.  Or at least I have inklings of the feeling of which he speaks.

Samuel Bough, "Fishing Boats Running into Port: Dysart Harbour" (1854)

These visceral, bone-deep, and crystal-clear distillations of our past are wonderful.  Inexplicable and wonderful.

                         White Cloud

One evening in the blue month of September
we lay at peace beneath an apple bough.
I took her in my arms, my gentle lover,
and held her closely like a dream come true --
while far up in the tranquil summer heaven
there was a cloud, I saw it high and clear;
it was so white and so immense above us
and, as I watched, it was no longer there.

Since then so very many different evenings
have drifted blindly past in the general flow;
perhaps the apple orchards have been flattened,
and if you ask me where the girl is now
I have to admit I really don't remember.
I can imagine what you're going to say
but even her face I truly can't recapture,
I only know I kissed it there that day.

Even the kiss I would have long forgotten
if that one cloud had not been up there too --
I see it and will always see it plainly,
so white and unexpected in the blue.
Perhaps the apple boughs are back in blossom,
maybe she holds a fourth child on her knees;
the cloud, though, hung there for a moment only
and, as I watched, it broke up in the breeze.

Bertolt Brecht (translated by Derek Mahon), in Derek Mahon, Echo's Grove (The Gallery Press 2013).

Samuel Bough, "Dunkirk Harbour" (1863)

Brecht's meditation on the quirkiness and the majesty of how our memory works is strikingly paralleled in the following poem, which has appeared here before, but is worth revisiting.

                         Revaluation

Now I remember nothing of our love
So well as the crushed bracken and the wings
Of doves among dim branches far above --
Strange how the count of time revalues things!

Patrick MacDonogh (1902-1961), Poems (edited by Derek Mahon) (The Gallery Press 2001).

We never know what our revenants will turn out to be, do we?  A lone white cloud, crushed bracken, the wings of doves among dim branches far above: we each have our own list.  What survives out of our thousands of moments of living is a mystery.  Which is perfectly fine.

Samuel Bough, "Edinburgh from Leith Roads" (1854)

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

In the noisy street,
Where the sifted sunlight yellows the pallid faces,
Sudden I close my eyes, and on my eyelids
Feel from the far-off sea a cool faint spray,--

A breath on my cheek,
From the tumbling breakers and foam, the hard sand shattered,
Gulls in the high wind whistling, flashing waters,
Smoke from the flashing waters blown on rocks;

--And I know once more,
O dearly belovèd! that all these seas are between us,
Tumult and madness, desolate save for the sea-gulls,
You on the farther shore, and I in this street
--Stanza 4 of Conrad Aiken's "Discordants?

A breeze at twilight, the look of an October sky, a few lines from an old song--memories surprise us, seep through into our consciousness when we least expect it.

Sometimes, as in the excerpt from Aiken above, something comes from where the winds usually sleep and, as if going at us with a knife, remind us what is gone forever.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for the stanzas from Aiken's poem, which are new to me. They capture the working of memory very well. For some reason, the sea seems to be particularly evocative in this regard, doesn't it?

Thank you again for the poem, as well as for your thoughts.

John Ashton said...

A wonderful post. I have little else to add. What you say in the post and the poems themselves say it all.Thank you Mr Pentz.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: It's good to hear from you again. Thank you very much for the kind words about the post. I'm pleased that you liked it.

As always, I greatly appreciate your stopping by.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Penz,

I wonder whether the below poem by Hardy, one you no doubt know, fits your idea of some workaday gesture, something otherwise insignificant, somehow, mysteriously, triggers a memory: "The sweet sharp sense of a fugitive day":

Under the Waterfall


'Whenever I plunge my arm, like this,
In a basin of water, I never miss
The sweet sharp sense of a fugitive day
Fetched back from its thickening shroud of gray.
Hence the only prime
And real love-rhyme
That I know by heart,
And that leaves no smart,
Is the purl of a little valley fall
About three spans wide and two spans tall
Over a table of solid rock,
And into a scoop of the self-same block;
The purl of a runlet that never ceases
In stir of kingdoms, in wars, in peaces;
With a hollow boiling voice it speaks
And has spoken since hills were turfless peaks.'

'And why gives this the only prime
Idea to you of a real love-rhyme?
And why does plunging your arm in a bowl
Full of spring water, bring throbs to your soul?'

'Well, under the fall, in a crease of the stone,
Though precisely where none ever has known,
Jammed darkly, nothing to show how prized,
And by now with its smoothness opalized,
Is a grinking glass:
For, down that pass
My lover and I
Walked under a sky
Of blue with a leaf-wove awning of green,
In the burn of August, to paint the scene,
And we placed our basket of fruit and wine
By the runlet's rim, where we sat to dine;
And when we had drunk from the glass together,
Arched by the oak-copse from the weather,
I held the vessel to rinse in the fall,
Where it slipped, and it sank, and was past recall,
Though we stooped and plumbed the little abyss
With long bared arms. There the glass still is.
And, as said, if I thrust my arm below
Cold water in a basin or bowl, a throe
From the past awakens a sense of that time,
And the glass we used, and the cascade's rhyme.
The basin seems the pool, and its edge
The hard smooth face of the brook-side ledge,
And the leafy pattern of china-ware
The hanging plants that were bathing there.

'By night, by day, when it shines or lours,
There lies intact that chalice of ours,
And its presence adds to the rhyme of love
Persistently sung by the fall above.
No lip has touched it since his and mine
In turns therefrom sipped lovers' wine

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for bringing Thomas Hardy into this discussion, and, specifically, "Under the Waterfall," which is perhaps emblematic of Hardy's poetry as a whole. As you know, a significant portion (one could even say the lion's share) of his poems seem to have been triggered by talismanic memories, whether of past love, family, or childhood. As I have noted before, he once remarked that he could recall with great clarity events that occurred decades in the past. These recollections often produced poems.

I appreciate your sharing the poem. Thank you again.

Anonymous said...

Absences
by Donald Justice

It's snowing this afternoon and there are no flowers.
There is only this sound of falling, quiet and remote,
Like the memory of scales descending the white keys
Of a childhood piano- outside the window, palms!
And the heavy head of the cereus, inclining,
Soon to let down its white or yellow-white.

Now, only these poor snow-flowers in a heap,
Like the memory of a white dress cast down...
So much has fallen.
And I, who have listened for a step
All afternoon, hear it now, but already falling away,
Already in memory. And the terrible scales descending
On the silent piano; the snow; and the absent flowers abounding.

In the above poem Donald Justice watching the snow fall through the afternoon is reminded of his piano lessons in Miami many years before. The falling snow and its triggering his boyhood piano practice leads to the conclusion that "much has fallen."

For a moment the poet thinks he has returned to the past, but he, as we all must do, knows the past is gone forever and all we have left of it is memory. And the epiphany, if we can call it that, vanishes like smoke into the wind, and he is left with the cold snow falling on the barren earth, wrapped in winter's barren arms.

You are quite right in your post about how the seemingly most mundane thing can fire memory, not in a nostalgic way (this way is cheap and manipulative way) but in a way that illumines, if just for a moment, the human condition--the memory of a footstep, one that seems it might be born again, that will never come again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for your thoughts on memory, and for the poem by Justice, which is new to me. Your point that these moments "illumine . . . the human condition" is an excellent one. Perhaps this was what I was inarticulately trying to get at when I said that my momentary experience did not involve a feeling of happiness or sadness, or a regret for the passing of the years, but only serenity.

Thank you again.

R.T. said...

The Mahon poem -- as graciously presented by you -- arrives in front of me at just the right time. The past several days and weeks here at Beyond Eastrod -- tucked away into an inlet on the Gulf coast -- have been wretched. Thank you for sharing Mahon poems. It dovetails nicely with my posting today at B/E.

Stephen Pentz said...

R. T.: I'm pleased you liked Mahon's poem, and I'm glad that it came at an opportune time. It is one of my favorites by him (well, by anybody, actually). I saw your posting of the Rossetti poem, which does go well with Mahon's poem. As you may have noticed, she is also a favorite of mine, and her poetry has appeared here quite a few times.

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for your thoughts.

Deb said...

I found may way here belatedly via your mention of the Derek Mahon poem in your most recent post. Thank you so much, it is just lovely, and I promptly shared it.

The piece about Wittgenstein also really spoke to me, and echoes something that came up earlier today in conversation. And White Cloud, by Bertolt Brecht, also very lovely, and now saved to my growing file of favourites.

So glad I found may way back to this earlier post of yours. Just lovely all round - as are all your posts, OF COURSE!! :-)

Stephen Pentz said...

Deb: I'm very happy to hear from you again. Thank you for the kind words about the post. "Everything Is Going to Be All Right" and "Revaluation" are two of my favorite poems, and they have made their way into my posts on various occasions. "White Cloud" I only discovered around the time I wrote the post. It is lovely, isn't it? Wittgenstein's "no harm can come to me" anecdote has always stuck with me, and I've read a few different versions of it: he seems to have recounted it to several of his close acquaintances. Most of what Wittgenstein writes leaves me befuddled, but he sometimes comes up with these aphoristic insights that get to the essence of things. I've often felt that he was a Buddhist or a Taoist at heart. And Bertrand Russell described him as a "mystic," which I like.

Thank you again for the thoughts, which I greatly appreciate. It's always a pleasure to hear from you.