Thursday, June 9, 2011

"I Who Speak To You Am As Old As The World" -- or, Love finds a way---

The grace of our youth is maybe that the love of things arrives instantly, passionately, soaring. But an older grace is that we come to love more, if it is possible, and for broader reasons. If these are two extremes (there is a middle ground) they are both free to develop their intensity, and so this--call it an ambition, or circumstance--they share.

Opinions shift in intensity too. My arguments have eased in a way I never thought they would: A line is a line and you don’t cross it if your selfless humane action requires this immobility. For instance, I never liked war (I choose “liked” because in fact I remember being fueled in some pedagogical way by watching Saturday morning black and white movies such as The Bridge Over The River Kwai [indeed I would find out it was one of my father’s favorites]—in which the themes were not themes I liked: mainly war). Now one of my brothers works for the VA and poets I admire are—and I never thought this “possible” in recent wars—intimates of war. We are all “intimates of war” whether we’re in them or not. Each time we love we love in spite of violence, tragedy, oppressions, and wars that would love to overwhelm existence. The existence of empathetic opportunities begin close to the nose, near the bone, and—as a scientist neighbor once affirmed for me, paraphrasing Walt Whitman: in a blade of grass (ash works well also but you have to imagine the victories, its vitality).

Someone I’ve known for many years recently told me he was a “Special Ops” fighter in Vietnam, entering that conscription in 1963 (. . .the year I was born). This lifelong educator spontaneously quotes Shakespeare, in a photo held a beloved Fox Terrier William Faulkner gave him as a boy, drove through Havana in the passenger’s seat of a Cadillac convertible to meet Ernest Hemingway—a friend of his flamboyantly macho uncle, an old school actor—not anticipating mutual shark shooting along side them on a sixty foot yacht. If I don’t like war I don’t like my friend either? Is this the construct love smells or is love’s construct some blur, a combination of opposites? Romantic as some of this sounds, my friend called the last act “vulgar”—blood in the water and all (“Other sharks ate those sharks”).

History shows itself in layers of loves and fights to get back to love. I’m reassured reading a 1936 text, The Flowering of New England (by the funny and tremendously insightful Van Wyck Brooks [such a early 20th Century name, seems to me; I love it]) that indeed “The Younger Generation of 1840” (a chapter) contained the unrestrained spirit for justice and yearning, the resilience, duende, moxie, muster and elixir that every body stilled through time wants or wishes to make true. Liberation and being were two of the same cloth. What makes us think we’re any different?

Just barely out of college I remember dismissing Primo Levi’s poems. A fellow graduate, a baker whose relatives had become intimates of war, recommended the poems during a small and subdued party in his tiny Haight Ashbury apartment. Almost a lifetime later, I cannot see parting with my Primo Levi. When with challenging eyes I considered those poems too simple, I was a student of the complicated in love with a process of decoding that could string me along. Likewise, another friend offered his exuberance about Michael Ondaatje’s poems (this was before we could see the rendering of The English Patient in such a sensual gauze as film)—and I suspect I thought these poems “too direct.” Months later I was to encounter my mentor who would declare “direct treatment” of the thing to be the only way to compose. In fact, if we are negotiators in minute to minute life, we do well to use the mode of direct treatment.

The best war stories are about survival. There is—and this is a secret—no difference between war stories and the daily story. In both extreme situations and ordinary ones being “crazy with courage” is sometimes at odds with “the only important thing. . . to live like a human being!” (Kwai). The Chinese, I’ve read, have a word for “the wonder and mysterious” (I hope I’m not wrong): Yu. (I don’t know about you but I cannot help the ear wanting to hear “you.” It is not far off from the Spanish “I” [Yo, am I right?]). Left as we are, we are brought into our circumstances with wonder that is perhaps this crazy luck of chance (spoken as an intimate of births, I say). As we embrace the mysterious (because we have to?)—we can do so as Pablo Neruda accepted the drift he didn’t even have to comb from the tide of Isla Negra (such an island in negative space!).

The “poetic” comes when we need this the most, measure upon measure, but the poetic is also always there. “There,” the poetic is here. Sometimes we need and use all we have in store—and all we can find (let us hope so): crazy/whim, courage, importance, the thing, being, human. . . to guide our attentions.

Intention and attention are close intimates of activity and they share a lust for un-bridged passions and intensities both thinly and broadly delivered. Such a sentence, for a topic so delicate and essential to living, should not be so cumbersome. Maybe the paradox of wonder and the mysterious is that we can get there even by clunk and stumble. Ah, life. But we can get there.

In the class I teach, this week we have thrown out the expected discussion about “meter” in favor of the more spontaneous. This is not to say there is nothing spontaneous within the joy of meter—traditional meters or new schemes. And this is not saying there is not meter within the spontaneous. There is plenty. In essence (to get back to that blade of grass) there is no joy without meter and there is no meter without joy (although the thrum-beats of war sometimes suggest a different conclusion). In our stillness we cannot be. In the natural and cosmic world’s rotations, it will be still—and always a sight for sore eyes to be rescued in the throng of some spontaneous love.

Now I read poems “A Bridge”, “Autobiography”, “In The Beginning”, “A Profession”, “The Survivor”, and “To My Friends” (all Levi) with wide love and narrow time (that just as easily unfolds, vast).

Ondaatje, I have had the pleasure to find, is a cosmos full of grace and humor.

To all of you the humble wish/ That autumn will be long and mild. –That’s Primo. May you harvest each poetic chance while you have these.

“Just take nothing for granted” . . . “I live and breathe/ Eat, drink, sleep and put on clothes” (respectively from “A Profession”, “The Survivor”).

Amid all this I will go back, newly so now, to Alvin Langdon Coburn. . . “Wier’s Close — Edinburgh, 1906”, “The Bridge — Sunlight, 1906” (so much like history’s bridge, and spring’s), but also Gertrude Kaserbier—where glance, light shaft, shift made for her all the difference.