WILLIAM OLSEN & DAVID WOJAHN
In Praise of Darkness: An Exchange
I write to you from within the dark—it’s night here in Kalamazoo—with some abiding hope that you may understand some of what I am saying. I trust to you, my best reader, and to my best reader’s patience. It is almost a natural phenomenon, a moving stillness, like a waterfall lit by moonlight, a good friend’s imaginable equanimity. It must be witnessed from afar all the while it is dreamed of with such hope as denies the distance from one solitude to another. There is the river, and there are two shores, and on one is the writer, and on one the reader, but the waterfall is the same for both, that is what hope tells us . . . that an unending plunge out of one’s identity will be required. And that plunge, that abandon has me thinking of the Borges poem “To Whoever Is Reading Me”:
The poem prophesies that one day its reader will acknowledge what the blind Borges already has acknowledged, but that prophecy is rendered with such authority and with such an unmitigated knowledge of fatedness that a reader might well find himself shaken out of any possibility of acknowledgment. I desire to understand these lines with all my heart and soul, but their sublimity is almost too great for me even to hear my thoughts. This poem suggests that I, as a reader—whose destiny portends “the certainty of dust” (and that phrase makes me feel anything but certain)—both embody and will be surrounded by a greater darkness. And yet a unblinding voice crosses over. In the microcosmos of this poem the fear of darkness is more than a little redundant: there isn’t that much to distinguish between our “dark” selves and the literal darkness, as the difference between identity and the world is hardly that one is mortal and that the other continues to go on. Both perish. What benights us is not our dark selves or any larger darkness but the fear of both. This fear is analogous to hell, which is not a landscape of death but a landscape of our fear of death. And this darkness isn’t counteracted by light. I can’t hear in Borges the wacky, Persian-koan spirit I hear in Rumi’s lovely line, “Darkness is a candle.” Here, darkness isn’t a candle, it is a self-enfolding worldliness that takes in all self-doubting creatures.
I say this with counterfeit authority. The passage scares me. I want to know where my fear comes from. Why darkness in Western poetry so often figures as a negative. Why, when people appraise poetry that unnerves them, they should say something defensive like, “but this is so dark." Why they should articulate what unnerves them as darkness per se. How it is that darkness has become a pejorative. David, I think it starts with the Bible. From the beginning, the “earth without form” and “darkness upon the face of the deep.” I read that face as being God’s, the same face as, in Psalm 102, when the psalmist says, “Hide not thy face from me . . . when I am in trouble.” O hear, the psalmist says, as only voice cuts through that darkness. God’s light doesn’t blind: of it, the psalmist says, and the King James Version translates with wit, “His lightnings enlightened the world: the earth saw, and trembled.” Darkness blinds. The psalms contain many personal pleas, but, as a rule, in the Old Testament darkness is experienced collectively, as a veil coming between a chosen people—and what a dismal myth this one has repeatedly been for humankind—and its maker on His mercy seat. It comes as the ninth plague of Egypt, darkness “which may be felt” (Ex. 10:21). Here is the Biblical source of Milton’s “palpable darkness,” but it’s not experienced by a fallen angel but by a whole people and by the land itself: behind any literary plague lie literal, crushing forces. Yet this is the darkness Moses must draw near unto, “the thick darkness where God was” (Ex. 20:21). It surrounds God and obscures his glory, it is the inscrutable nature of God’s workings. Yet God is to be found in the very darkness that conceals him, and nowhere else but in it is his habitation. In the New Testament, by the time of Paul’s epistles, the collective nature of darkness gets personalized. It becomes a matter of individual crisis. It also gets demonized, and so, in turn, does the physical world. It becomes equated with shame.
(“For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” [1 Cor. 13:12]. I read that line inaccurately, or not fully, for decades: in her wonderful book on the literary history of mirrors Sabine Melchior-Bonnet reminds us that “glass” denotes a mirror and that mirror connotes the world, and we look for ourselves in the world, we turn to the world for an image of ourselves. “We see through” means that we see “with the aid of.” Paul, the proto-Gnostic and the greatest proponent of earthly and physical renunciation literature has ever known, would have us look elsewhere and, finally, live elsewhere, in a heavenly mutuality of man and God, in an endlessly reciprocal knowledge. Darkness now suggests not a place God inhabits but the world that has fallen from God in the first place.)
I think that this is why the Deep Imagists of the Sixties were eager to reclaim darkness as a metaphor, to de-Satanize it. When James Wright refers to the child listening to “the hallway of a dark leaf,” he is implicitly arguing with a Pauline tradition that he unwittingly perpetuates. He has not demonized darkness, he has angelized darkness. It’s the same Manicheism of Paul, only reversed. Light becomes synonymous with oppression. It has become the klieg lights. And so the light-and-dark imagery in the ironic opening to “Eisenhower’s Visit to Franco, 1959”:
Franco stands in a shining circle of police,
We’d best hide, David, before the angels of Authority crack open our skulls and start a kinder fascist state. Milton may have been in the devil’s party; Wright is on the side of the nocturnal, the creaturely, the internal—othernesses which we have been brainwashed to see as a threat to individual salvation and our national security. Yet all he has really done is to look in the mirror with the same distrustful eyes as Paul and gotten a reverse image of a dichotomy. Darkness becomes an angelized sanctuary.
David, help me out of this cave of dichotomy.
I write you from the dark as well, dear friend; it’s just past five in the morning, and this is the time, on good days, when poetry seems most possible to me and for me—in an hour or so I’ll hear Noelle’s footsteps on the stairs as she goes to the kitchen for coffee, and before long the boys will also stir, and I’ll hear the thumps (little feet never patter) as they move about the room above me. But until then the world is silent, and I am composed not of who and what I am but of language. I covet such times, and in December, when I write you, these times are especially rich, for this dark will linger a little longer. This is not to say I begrudge the morning, or the strange good fortune of my life; for these things I am endlessly grateful, just as I am grateful to speak this way with you, my friend of thirty years. But on many mornings I want this dark to linger, for I know, at least for fleeting moments, that I have not lost my way in Dante’s dark wood, but that I wander in that “forest of symbols” that Baudelaire invokes in “Correspondences,” that place “vast as midnight and as vast as clarity.” As often as not this darkness terrifies as much as it consoles, and in it one stumbles rather than finds a path; furthermore, you have come to this place mesmerized, entranced. Yet this darkness is the place from where poetry can blaze forth. Mandelstam extends Baudelaire’s metaphor in his great “Slate Ode.” Our world is a vast, indiscernible curtain, a confounding tabula rasa, but on this inscrutable background our words flare up as we inscribe them. I think often of his lines, as Merwin translates them, “my burning chalk which breaks the night.” Mandelstam wants the poet to be a figure like the one Stevens describes in “Of Modern Poetry,”—a “metaphysician in the dark.”
I suspect, old friend, that you too desire to be a metaphysician in the dark. Yet as we venture into that place, that condition, we are encumbered by that sense of “demonized darkness” which so troubles you. And even some of the greatest writers of our tradition have a blanket fear of and mistrust of the dark, much in the way that you and I walk in terror of the Republican Party. I love the poetry of Henry Vaughan, but these lines from “Corruption," which imagine life in the aftermath of the Fall, trouble me despite their beauty:
Darkness hatches; hatches over us, covers the sky like the locust plague in Exodus which Vaughan is likely invoking through this metaphor. The dark means only pestilence. Vaughan, I am told, was steeped in the religious dualism of the early Christian era, and not just in the dualism of the scriptures. He was familiar with the hermetic and Neoplatonic traditions as well, where darkness is error, where darkness is sin, where darkness represents our immeasurable distance from God—and of darkness the material world was fashioned. I must admit that there are times—watching Presidential news conferences, for example—when this view of the world makes absolute sense to me. But I hope not to believe it when I write and think about poetry.
I wonder, old friend, if it might be useful for us to remind ourselves that the motives for lyric poetry pre-date Western philosophy and religion, and that the writing of a poem will always in one way or another be a transgressive act, even when its ostensible purpose is to justify the received wisdom. When Vaughan talks earlier in this poem about our ancestors “sighing for Eden,” the gesture seems rather pedestrian to me. But when darkness “hatcheth o’er thy people,” I’m enthralled—the image is visceral, surprising, surreal. It’s ironic that a poet whose most famous line is “They are all gone into a world of light” writes better about darkness. But it is not surprising.
When I make the claim for the act of poetic creation predating the codes and systems of the Western heritage, I borrow from a statement that comes at the end of Mircea Eliade’s great book on shamanism. Eliade talks about poetry only once, on the five hundred and tenth page of his five hundred and eleven page study. But if you’re a poet, you have to love Eliade, for the implication is that his decades of work on shamanism, his visits to all those continents, Bushmen, and Siberian tribes, his mountains of research, have all added up to this:
Like so many other European intellectuals of the last century, Eliade doubtless knew his Rimbaud so well that it came out unconsciously, much in the way that you and I summon up Dylan lines all the time without intending to. Eliade is rewriting Rimbaud’s famed “seer” letter of 1871:
Earlier, Bill, I spoke of writing poems as a kind of mesmerization or entrancement; perhaps it is a version of the “second state” which, for Eliade, characterizes the shaman’s inner journey. And perhaps the “long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses” which Rimbaud insists the poet must enact is unlikely to take place in the daylight. Shamans of the Ostyak tribe of Siberia begin their ecstatic journeys not by invoking the spirits of light, but by praying to the Spirit of Darkness. And caves, those Stygian locales beyond the light of day, have invariably been realms of mystery and power. Here the ancients would situate oracles, and here the various mystery cults would gather for their rites—which seem always to have taken place at night. A recent book by the anthropologists Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams entitled The Shamans of Prehistory, makes the claim that the painted caves of Paleolithic Europe—Lascaux, Altamira, Chauvet, some of the earliest and most gorgeous examples of human artistic endeavor—were sites of shamanic rituals, executed to help guide Ice Age magi in their odysseys to the spirit world. The paintings, the authors insist, derive from magical visions, from trance; and perhaps were even rendered during such experiences. (We know that certain of the paintings were executed very quickly.) Clottes and Lewis-Williams base their theory on the premise, bolstered by recent brain research, that trance states follow a psychobiological pattern of three stages. These stages, they claim, are “universal and wired into the human nervous system.”
So into the caves the Paleolithic shamans went, and as they ventured deeper into the earth and into their trances, the decorated walls served as their guides, the means by which their visions could be channeled and configured. The visions the initiates encountered were likely as fearsome as they were consoling, but shamanic tradition insists that after such an initiation a shaman may revisit the spirit world at will, and do so fearlessly; and these visitations can instruct him on the means to heal the sick, predict the future, or bring rain to end a two-month drought. Although shamanizing is dependent upon the perceptual dishevelment of entrancement, this process is highly orderly and ritualized. Eliade’s study of the subject insists upon this even in its cannily oxymoronic choice of title: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Ecstasy is never more than an extension of technique, and vice versa.
Let us speak of caves such as these, Bill, not of “caves of dichotomy.” The images inscribed upon the slate are inscrutable, fearsome, and summoned up from dream. They astonish and console. But I would also seek to decipher them.
Your letter reveals to me that part of me that is a vast, precipitous skepticism. It is part of the Western heritage, and I can imagine ways out of that cave, should it exist in the first place. I remember once, in western Kentucky, taking a tour of some limestone cave and the tour guide flicking off his flashlight so that we could experience “total darkness.” It wasn’t, as such. Or, rather, “total darkness” was made of those drifts and bursts and morphing amorphous patterns of various colors that Stan Brakhage tried, successfully to my sensibility, to capture in his “closed eye vision” films. There is no total vacuum in space, we now know; John Cage, in his quest for silence in a Harvard University sensory deprivation box, reports that there is no total silence, either: you hear your heart beat and your breathing—and his long book-length essay poem Silence offers its long pauses as opportunities to hear noise, in its delicacies or its thuddings, as you simply cannot hear silence. In fact, you can, literally, only see silence: that of a cat crossing a street. And I’d guess analogously that you can only hear darkness: it can’t, literally, be seen. For Brakhage that internal seeing is a way for “the verbal” to “open into the visual, like a swing gate in the mind, or sprung door, revealing plethoras of inexplicable and often utterly unexpected visitations.” He understood cinema, by the way, to have its closest kinship in . . . cave drawings. His films enact vision at its most elemental, almost prenatal, unobstructed by the net of overloaded visual information. Brackage says, by way of explaining the Ur-cause of cave drawings, that “life was always tending towards the human brain, so that the universe could start talking to itself.”
So yes, David, I am very much a metaphysician in the dark! There’s a comical, self-effacing notion to be unpacked from this line of Stevens, our great apologist of the imagination. But now I think of Eliot’s first requirement for metaphysical poetry, “the sensory apprehension of thought.” You know, what our colleagues in English Departments would call “cathexis.” But think of Eliot’s requirement along with me critically for a moment, if you will. It prioritizes thought over the senses, as, say, Creeley prioritizes, or says he prioritizes, thought over feeling. I don’t think I’d wish to do either. I think I’m more of a Buddhist, at least in this one regard: senses and feelings and thoughts are phenomenal, and equal. I just refuse to detach from them: that seems willful and thus contradictory to anything I understand peace and understanding to be. I love Rimbaud, his controlled hallucinations, his assertion je suis un autre, which is strikingly like Borges’s assertion of “a single sightless self, a plural I.”
Let me try to experience this plurality with two poems. Or first, a piece of a poem by the Korean poet Ko Un from the long sequential series of haiku-like shots that comprise his book-length poem Flowers of a Moment. They seem new to me each time I read them. They convince me, in a sense, to quote Borges again, how “the truth is that I never learned to read.” Or to quote Paul again, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” Or again, as Borges puts it, “these steps have to be taken, not told.”
Not a word about darkness and yet is it there, everywhere. You don’t see it, you hear it.
I wish I could leave my commentary at that. But the poem doesn’t leave me alone. It keeps good, if troubled, company, and it makes darkness not so much palpable as audible. Darkness not as blanket metaphor, but as individuated phenomenon, as in Buson’s
Not one darkness but as many darknesses as there are lives, as there are moments in a single life.
Exhaustion is the ruling response (if you can even call it that: such exhaustion comes without volition) in the Ko Un piece: we are in the realm of the other habit of time, night. David, you have kids, you know that we associate night with exhaustion, often a good exhaustion, a hard day’s work over. Here no values are ascribed to exhaustion. It has, exclusively, a literal presence. We get our narrative statements, we get the proximity of mother to baby, and no more and, as importantly, no less. We get the familial distances that no love, not even maternal love, can entirely bridge: the baby’s perceptions, and who isn’t this true of, no matter their age, are “all alone” perceptions. We’ve loads of literature about the primal scene, and we have primal scream therapy; here is an instance of something like primal aloneness. We get the distances rendered by the senses: we don’t know if the train is coming or going, just that it is outside, far off. There is the dramatic irony that the baby can’t see the night train or probably even understand the source of that sound; we readers can, though, and therefore can visualize a train. Such visualizations come unsummoned; from the act of our “alone” listenings, we can draw a picture that can be shared. The only thing that cues us to the presence of the author, as darkness has the self transparent, and plural, is the knowledge he shares with us that this train is a “night train,” a scheduled event, part of a social world that, to complete this endlessly expansive poem, must also be intuited. I suppose we also get the urban cave, some Korean dwelling, all of it there fully and undiminished by description.
Here is the second poem, a narrative one from Manimbo, Ko Un’s long series of poems about his village that he wrote while in yet another kind of cave, a prison cell, where he sat out several years of his life. He populated his mind by writing poems in his head, as we say, as a way to keep him company; what you get in these poems is analogous to Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology portraits, only unsentimentalized, and far more personally urgent. Here is “The Women from Sonjerie”:
I don’t have to imagine much about this one, David: it imagines it all. I keep company with it instead. Darkness in this poem is a medium for everything we see and hear: the distances the impoverished women must cross, the distances between dogs barking and geese calling and the echoes of the same. One sound echoes another. Darkness increases that sense of distance, “several miles gone, several miles left to go in deepest night”—in that line distance is not just emphasized. For a moment even the cinematic visuals disappear to a blunt truth that, back to Borges, “these steps have to be taken, not told.” The reader is stuck there with the writer, the writer with his townspeople. And that last line summons the very indifference this poem, to use your word, David, transgresses. It personifies indifference, a lack of response. And “Still they don’t suffer alone” is also true on more than one level. These women have each other, and we are reading about them. And we are also in the dark, yet our senses have been made more acute, our perceptions take on more distinctiveness, edge, and depth, and our passage through time is allied with a step-by-step existence. The present moment becomes more vast than ever, to the point of being almost overwhelming, but somehow our places in it are clarified.
To that present moment I say this: night is sleepless. It is awake in ways we never dream of.
As I read your second gathering of night thoughts, I am reminded again that you are the greater maker. I want to keep my mouth and eyes shut, power down the laptop so that its chemical, subaqueous blue no longer fills my otherwise dark study, let what dark there is prevail, and let you guide me through its precincts. I want to put myself, o greater spelunker, in your more capable hands. You write:
I hear in your expression of this dilemma the same sense of terrifying liminality that Rothko expresses when he says, “silence is too accurate.” The silence and the dark console and instruct—during one of those moments when he is more disposed to admit such things, Vaughn talks of “a deep but dazzling darkness.” Yet as our eyes adjust, the night reminds us anew of what it has always been, a vast memento mori. Beauty is the beginning of terror, again and again—in the light, surely, but also (and perhaps especially) in the dark.
I think back, old friend, to a visit that Lynda and I made to you and to Nancy—it was 1983, and the first time that you’d met her. I know you recall the night during that visit when we consulted the Ouija board, and found ourselves speaking to the spirit of James Wright. Surely you remember what he spelled out on the planchette—STOP THE ELEGIES WRITE POEMS OF JOY. (What we would have given to have followed that advice!) But also I’m thinking of our visit to the Rothko Chapel, those fourteen huge canvases of black and accurate silence, a black which slithers, pulsates, contorts, a “place of mottled shadow.” It is a site of unease as much as one of meditation. Here is Rothko’s biographer, James E. B. Breslin:
That day was long ago. I remember few of its details, but I recall distinctly that I experienced those same feelings Breslin summons up, and we sat there on the chapel benches for a long time. The paintings pull you in, then set you adrift; your awe grows indistinguishable from dread. As Breslin bluntly puts it, “after time, these paintings feel oppressive.” I remember very clearly what Lynda said, breaking herself from that needling trance: “Let’s get out of here now, or we’ll have to stare at these damn things forever.” Even the torporific noon sun of Houston felt welcoming.
Later that year, Lynda and I were living in a house in Provincetown that Rothko had once owned. He lived there, off and on, for several years during that period when he began to replace the bedazzling reds and yellows of his great early ‘50s phase with the maroons, grays, and blacks of the phase that led to his Harvard panels and the chapel paintings. Our neighbor, a kindly man named Phil Alexander, had been Rothko’s gardener and handyman. He told us Rothko couldn’t paint much in Provincetown, and that after a few summers there he sold the house. I wonder today if the austere and probing light of Race Point and Land’s End had something to do with his decision to leave the Cape, if its famous clarity became incompatible with his new palette of shadow. I think of the poem his friend Stanley Kunitz wrote after Rothko’s suicide:
I would not want to visit this gallery often, Bill, let alone seek to decorate its walls. Apparently, not even Rothko did—not all the time at least. According to Phil, he several times attempted to buy the house back from its new owners. Perhaps, in the end, his element was not the Stygian, after all, though his acquaintance with the night was deep and abiding. And, Bill, I know also that Lynda’s element was not the night, though her poems so often derive from it.
So I find myself speaking, Bill, of another greater maker. What kind of poet am I, then, as troubled by the deities of the shadowlands as I am by the bringers of light? We know what happens to the bringers of fire. Is it uncourageous to say that I don’t want such a fate? As for the spirits of the shadowlands—is it really better to rule in hell? I have searched, these weeks in which we have addressed our subject, for another path.
You speak of Ko Un in your letter, and for me he represents one such path. In the darkness of his prison cell, he sets out to inscribe the night, to fashion from memory and imaginative will a heroic replication of the life that was stolen, the life forsaken. He does it partly to survive, to keep from going mad, much in the way that the singularly unheroic Albert Speer (though a genius nevertheless) calculates in his Spandau prison cell the number of steps it will take him to walk around the world, and starts up his journey. His Spandau diary is madly pedantic in this summoning—”today I crossed the border into China.” He’s not so very different from Proust in his cork-lined room. Duress and urgency turn such enterprises all the more quixotic—I will write a poem about everyone I have ever met. You wield your burning chalk for long enough, with enough possessed dedication, and the dark slate will be covered with light. I marvel at the sheer dogged obsessive tenacity of Ko Un. But you and I, old friend, have choices of the sort that he was not permitted. For better or for worse, I am a compulsive writer, not an obsessive one.
Where does all of this bring me, Bill? I am thinking of another visit which I made to you, during the year you and Nancy lived in St. Ives, that picture-postcard village on the Cornish shore. You met Noelle for the first time there, at a time in my life filled both with sorrow and with promise. Like Provincetown, St. Ives is a place where the old ways of life—the tin mines and the fishing—have been given over to tourism and to artists, many of them famous ones—here D. H. Lawrence settled briefly at one stage of his restless journey; here To the Lighthouse is set. But here too lived a far less famous writer, the poet W. S. Graham. I recall how we talked of his work during my visit. Strangely, it’s to Graham’s work I’ve been drawn above all others as I’ve searched in these past weeks for a voice to guide us through the darknesses we’ve sought. It saddens me that Graham is almost completely unread in the United States, and though he is admired in the UK, his writing had no influence there.
Born in 1918, he’s the same age as the America Middle-Generation poets you and I so dearly love—Lowell, Berryman, Bishop. But even these famously suffering poets had an easier time of it, in some ways. When Graham’s mature phase began in the 1950s, it was an era of retrenchment in British poetry; the gaudy excesses of Modernism were being challenged by the conservative aesthetic of the Movement poets; the dyspeptic formalism of Larkin and his lesser contemporaries was the dominant period style, and Graham’s approach is altogether stranger. That must have been a problem for him, for he is given to vatic gestures and imagistic reveries which to British readers of the ‘50s must have sounded uncomfortably like Dylan Thomas, a writer anathema to the Movement.
“The Nightfishing,” that rhapsodic seven-poem suite, laden with mythic symbolism, is Graham’s contribution to the Modernist long-poem tradition, and his first display of greatness. But it arrived at a time when no one wanted to hear this sort of thing, at least not in Britain. American readers of the poem will be reminded of Crane, or of Roethke in The Lost Son. James Dickey admired the poem unreservedly, and Graham can be said to have influenced Dickey’s poetry of the early 1960s, the period in which Dickey is in places a poet you’d want to read. As with Crane, Roethke, and Dickey, Graham above all else is concerned with moments where quotidian reality gives way to myth and archetype. Seascapes are his preferred place for such transformations, and—unlike Crane, who usually encountered his seamen in the men’s room—he had an intimate knowledge of nautical life. And, very unlike Crane, he was born poor, in a Glasgow slum—and he stayed poor when he moved to St. Ives as a young man. Poor and ignored: when the editor Michael Schmidt tried in the early ‘70s to contact Graham to solicit poems for a journal, Graham’s publisher told Schmidt that the poet was dead. Fortunately, his best poetry was still ahead of him.
Home becomes this place,
You can also see the stylistic parallels with Roethke: we are presented with a moment of visionary reckoning, yet it is rendered with a craggy eloquence thanks to the enjambments—it’s the stammering sense of wonder we know from “The Long Alley,” or “The Shape of the Fire.”
The poem I’d like to discuss in detail is one of Graham’s later efforts, appearing in 1977's Implements in Their Places, the last individual collection to appear during the poet’s lifetime. Its title surely doesn’t suggest the mythic concerns of the poet’s earlier work.
Lines on Roger Hilton’s Watch
Which I was given because
O tarnished ticking time
I lift you up from the mantel
You realize your master
Tell me the time. The time
Like many of Graham’s later efforts, the poem is rough-hewn and seemingly straightforward, but the approach belies a nervy idiosyncracy. Graham defamiliarizes both the conventions of the ode and those of the elegy. Botallack—you know that town, Bill. It’s not far from St. Ives, and at one time it thrived, thanks to the Botallack mines. Graham’s friend, the British abstract painter Roger Hilton, spent his later years there. And Hilton seems to have been, as a website devoted to his work puts it, “famously quarrelsome.” The title of the poem prepares us for one of those simile-drenched hymns to common things we encounter in Neruda’s Odas elementales or in certain of Simic’s poems. It teases us with the expectation a metaphorical tour de force—for how can you address a wristwatch without trying to liven things up with some engaging imagery? But Graham, whose capacity for surprising metaphors is considerable, refrains from such a strategy here: the figurative language is in fact deliberately awkward. The poem’s most notable gesture toward metaphor—“the time is Botallack o’clock,” manages to be strident in its consonance, but utterly lacking in musicality. It’s as though Graham doesn’t want the willing suspension of disbelief to arrive without some effort on the reader’s part—Graham doesn’t permit you to grow comfortable with his premise. Nor does he seem to want his elegizing of Roger Hilton to be predictable. The portrait of the dead friend is decidedly ambivalent. The deadpan “We had terrible times together” frames the poem, and our most vivid glimpse of Roger comes in that eerie nocturnal scene in the center of the poem.
Of course, the poem has a second refrain, one of more interest to me than Graham’s insistence on the “terrible times” the two men shared. First, we are told that the watch must have been
Later, the speaker himself enacts the same transaction with the watch:
Botallack o’clock is less a time than a condition, the dream state, the vision state, the moment when the speaker becomes the watch, much in the way that in stage three of his trance the shaman becomes a man-beast or animal. And at this moment the dead friend comes alive as well, if only to light a cigarette and pour himself a shot. The three subjects of the poem commingle, superimposed upon one another almost inextricably. And then the vision fades; the indented stanzas which have signaled this reckoning are replaced by conventional stanzas; the speaker winds up the watch, and conventional time and reality return as well. I never fail to be astonished by these lines, Bill. Astonished, first of all, because the poem should come across as preposterous—after all, much of it is spoken by a talking watch. Yet there is nothing cartoonish here. The tone is brooding and earnest—and strangely bracing. Bottallack o’clock is not the Dark Night of the Soul; it is instead the time when the souls of living and dead may commune. How companionable this darkness seems. Is this, in some small measure, the kind of darkness we are seeking to explore?
I am no greater maker than you, and pray tell if I ever do go spelunking, I hope that you agree to keep me company: I’ll let you lead the way. One of us has to go first. But both of us can be thinking of these lines from another of Graham’s poems about Roger Hilton:
After your last letter I find myself wondering about the relationship between making and darkness in ways I never have before. Except for welders, perhaps, and photographers, people don’t usually construct things in the dark: making requires light—specifically, working light—in a way that perception doesn’t, and so the disconnect between vision and making. Even Brakhage had to keep eyes open to create his closed-eye vision films. Rothko can’t have worked in a blackened room. This disconnect constitutes the dark side of negative capability, a concept Breslin echoes when he notes Rothko’s skills at “combining rest with dynamic, almost restless activity.” “The capacity to rest in uncertainty without irritable reaching after fact or reason” that the young Keats propounded prohibits action, stays reaching, halts grasp, perhaps even bars human touch. The darkened company I am glad to keep with you in these letters is a paradoxical one, as it also necessitates aloneness. Yet just as there is no dark without light —“ain’t no dark till something shines,” our hero Townes van Zandt says—in the sanctuary of reading poetry and writing letters there is no aloneness without company. As for descent, it is inevitable, and yet it is not exactly to be wished for. There is a martial element, perhaps, to some forms of literary descent. It didn’t make Aeneas a better man. And Odysseus, remember what his mother said when he met her in hell, after appeasing the dead with blood sacrifice—and blood sacrifice, I am afraid, is the awful, the most extreme, and, then and now, the most frequently politically sanctioned method of communing with the dead —of his long account of his journey, his need to return to Ithaca, and thus his need for guidance from his ancestors, she said, simply, “you must crave sunlight soon.”
Perhaps Borges's frustration that memories and books are useless against “the dark I cannot name, the dark I must not name” suggest that we must go to and return from the unknowable with a respect almost impossible to bear. I admit I find measures of such deference in unlikely places, even in the most garrulous poems. Say, Whitman’s most extended poem about darkness, “The Sleepers.” This poem trades in mythic descent for democratic descent and maintains an almost impossibly unflagging lockstep sympathy with its castaways and outsiders as well as its well-off and oppressors. Its sympathetic imagination operates through radical, even jarring juxtapositions and accumulations, so that before long even its “sacred idiots” stand in for us all. It begins with the speaker in a state of exile from day, “wandering all night in my vision.” It ends, as so many of Whitman’s poems end, with the prudence he describes with wit in the prose as “extreme caution,” finally backing off from its voyeuristic night-vision:
The same force is at work here as is at work with Odysseus—the mother, agent of daylight and earthliness, draws Whitman back. This poem I love is at times shamelessly personal in its sexuality and at other times melodramatic—melodrama is part of human nature, after all!—in its de-Mille-like catalogues. And if its unqualified identifications are arguably negated by self-aggrandizement, it still manages to release moments of remarkable doubt owing to profound care. The greatest test to its universalizing identification are the bodies of the drowned sailors that wash up on shore:
Brave lines, David: had Orpheus been able to accept their wisdom, he’d not have lost his beloved to hell and his head to poetry and loss! Whatever it is that darkness enfolds outlasts any poem’s attempt to encompass it, and yet here is a resumption of commitment to darkness all the same. That commitment hinges upon an acceptance on the part of the speaker of his own confusion. He turns away from the dead, he detaches, but he does not extricate himself, he does not disown his puzzlement: he speaks freely.
So I’m not advocating the silence that Rothko questions. In fact, in contemporary poetry anyway, just as darkness has been demonized, silence has been idealized. I stand alongside Graham in his own refusal to BE silenced; as he ends a letter to one of his own friends, “please write. Silence has no vocabulary to speak of.” You so inhabit “Roger Hilton’s Watch” that I wonder if I have ever really read this poem I so love. His friend is dead; he needs to speak to something; yes, he defamiliarizes the conventions of the ode and the elegy: the motive is to grant himself a listener. The creation of something like a perfect listener—the clock that both summons his friend and that embodies the self—accepts some sort of ultimate unavailability owing to the transience even of friends. It’s interesting that the poem chooses not to put those terrible times to words, to leave them unsaid: he gives them their due. That’s all I am wondering, just what any good poem about suffering requires us not to explicitly speak. This lovely poem—to my mind Graham wrote two of the most moving and least pretentious elegies in contemporary poetry—begins and ends in the terrible, the same way Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” a poem about how soul-making hinges upon an awareness of others—is enfolded in an inevitable darkness:
David, if I were to blab on about line breaks, as I am also wont to do, I’d say, flat out, that this line break is one of the most forcefully subtle line breaks in the language.
I find in the dizzying darkness of “Roger Hilton’s Watch” both euphoria and woe. Though Graham’s elegy transgresses the barrier between the dead and the living, it also preserves, even honors some separation. No matter how sublime the vision of a poem, that separation, Wordsworth acknowledges, persists:
Then, everything slept.
In workshops, David, we are accustomed to call poetic form “strategy,” unwittingly martializing our understanding of form. There mean to be no stratagems whatsoever in “The Cry.” Its movements eschew formal consistency and instead follow the movements of the emotional life of the speaker, by slowly descending from an almost unbounded omniscient perspective to the almost infinitely limited perspective of a child. That very descent, that surrendering of mastery and equanimity, is this poem’s greatest achievement. We move from an aerial view Citizen-Kane-like into the window of the speaker and out from it again without warning. The poem tallies the white dust and the sitting-duck quail and the predatory hawk as democratically as Whitman might, yet that the hawk remains “apart from this world” undermines any appeal of omniscient remove. It leaves behind almost as quickly as it describes the blissfully personified sleep of sky and fields and the animal sleep of a horse to take up a different kind of sleep, the sleep of bars closed for the night, and the sleep of prostitutes and businessmen. The sleep of habit, avarice, survival, and oblivion. Sleep that constitutes an ignorance of others, the ignorance which, as Alice Munro says, is “ignorant of itself.” When the poem focuses on the transients by their transient river, it shuns the restraints of objective narrative altogether so as to fabricate an inner life for them, describing lustrously if bleakly how a “cold shape of fire . . . from each crystal of ash” made “the gray morning.” But even this bit of deep-image mining of darkness “consoled no one.”
When the poem shifts to the familial, its descent becomes irreversible. Narrative becomes ineluctable. By breaking down omniscient point of view so thoroughly the poem breaks with its own dream that subjective experience can ever finally be objectified. We end up in something like a primal scene, I suppose. But I can’t and won’t do a Lacanian turn on this passage. It is too precious, in the best sense of the word. It’s not just psychotherapeutic knowledge the adult speaker takes of his parents; any knowledge here, and the language for it, is implicitly sympathetic, not compensatory. This passage is more than oedipal. And elegiac: for the first time the speaker sees that the charmed circle of two his mother and father are for him is as imperiled as this rural landscape and all its human presence. Self-abstracted perspective breaks down for good when the poem’s languorous syntax is halted by a one-line short sentence, an unadorned, unreflected-upon, terminal fact: “they lay their on their bed.” We do have the testimony that the speaker “saw every detail,” followed by the resumption of an expansive syntax, but the poem culminates not in vision but in ignorance, albeit an ignorance aware of itself:
And yet what riches, what gifts are here. Every presence is singularized: Whitman’s technique is given to Homeric catalogues; Levis’s to novelistic, individuating influences. We end in aloneness, but a charged aloneness, a ruthless plumbing of a childhood and a culture betrayed by circumstances. And yet the cinematic grandeur of the poem seems at the same time to protest those circumstances. But not, emphatically not, a refusal of the earthly and the human: the lines of the “Sleepers” Levis’s poems recall most vividly for me are these:
I will have to live longer with the insights of your last letter in order to appreciate them, but they seem to me deep and abiding ones. “The Cry” is not one of Levis’ poems that I’ve ever paid much attention to, but your reading of it astonishes me. How strange that we so often descend into the darkness with the intention of discovering ourselves, yet the recognitions which the dark offers up have more to do with others, and it is not a recognition of our bonds with them, but of their separateness from us—yes, Eurydice is really dead, and the hubris of exquisite lamentation will not bring her back; yes, Aeneas’s father is incorporeal. You may be a hero, but each time you try to touch your father, your hand passes through him. You’re exactly right to see the mother’s cry in Levis’ poem as the same cry that comes from the throat of poor benighted Aunt Consuelo in Bishop’s poem, and the speakers, when they emerge from these initiations, are wiser but inconsolable. The gift of knowledge does not save or help you. Shamans are typically seen as wise pariahs. They are apt to live apart from the tribe; their costumes frequently suggest androgyny, and typically they are forbidden to marry. Often as not it is sickly children—the lame or mentally ill—who are selected by the tribe to train for the role. And they come back from the spirit world with the tools to save others, but never can they save themselves. The changes they undergo in their trances do not offer them the chance to heal their own wounds: your descent into the underworld may change you into your spirit animal, it may bring you to an audience with the Lord of the Dead himself, but it can’t straighten your clubfoot or your misshapen hand.
A similar sense of outsiderhood animates Levis’s work. As with Bishop, his poetry is deeply empathic, but always addressed from a place of acute isolation, and that isolation is deeply rooted in childhood. Parlier, California, the village whose distant lights blink on in “The Cry,” was a one-horse farm town, even smaller than Bishop’s Great Village, Nova Scotia. When Levis writes about childhood, he too is that child we see in Bishop’s bittersweet memoir “In the Village”—a kid who is wise beyond her years in many respects, but almost a feral child in others. In an interview I did with Larry many years ago, he said this about Parlier:
I went to a little schoolhouse where there were only three people in the first grade: there was Ronnie Barker, a girl named Margery Elm, of all names, and myself. It was a three-room schoolhouse, so they had the first and second grade in the same room; they had a real bell on a rope that the teachers would ring. My grandmother once taught there in the 1890s . . . I saw few faces . . . The school was so tiny—there were only about thirty-five people in it—that when neighboring schools would come in to compete in athletic contests, I was always struck by the variety of faces that could exist. I didn’t think there could be such an incredible array of eyes, faces, bodies: I remember actually thinking that as a child. It was wonderful that there were so many certain faces, but how could they exist? They were so out of place, shocking, strange . . . .
It’s eerie how much this resembles that crucial stanza of “In the Waiting Room”:
I don’t know if such a childhood bestows a predilection for the dark, but I do know that Larry did his writing mostly at night. In his wonderful essay “Some Notes on the Gazer Within,” there’s a passage about writing his long poem, “Linnets,” and it alludes to a darkness that is rich and companionable. Near the end of the essay, there are some lines that remind me of the start of your first letter to me, Bill:
The hermitage of the poem. Yet I know from the tragic vision of Larry’s poems, and I know too from the accounts of his final years that my VCU colleagues and students have shared with me, that this hermitage did not always offer Larry peace. It is oddly fitting that he spent his final years in Richmond, the city of that other literary outsider and helpless connoisseur of darkness, Poe. Larry’s friend Mary Flinn, who is the custodian of Larry’s literary remains, recently hired a student of mine, Kathy Davis, to catalogue his notebooks, drafts, and papers. Larry apparently wrote his last poems through a labyrinthine process of ceaseless revision, cutting and pasting of old poems in order to combine them into new ones, a relentless chopping and channeling in order to get things right—a near-pathological doggedness that seems to have often found him lost within that darkness he so craved to inhabit. Long into the night he would labor, trying almost desperately to hold it all together. But Bill, the thing that most moved me as Kathy related this was something small, something that should have been insignificant or evidence of writerly vanity. A few months before his death, in the middle of writing yet another long and sinewy set of fragments designed to somehow alchemize into a poem, he sets this down, in parentheses, as kind of offhanded aside: I am writing like a motherfucker and I don’t know why.
The darkness giveth, and the darkness taketh away, and I would like to think that at this moment Larry knew, if only in that fleeting and serendipitous way that writers know such things, just how greatly the darkness we have been speaking of had gifted him, even as it cursed him. I want to think that at that moment he was like Colonel Shaw in Lowell’s great poem, rejoicing “in man’s lovely / peculiar power to choose life and die.” That particular sort of rejoicing moves me as almost no other sort can. And I want to bring our exchange to a close with two other examples of it.
Exhibit A is not a poem but a song. It’s called, “Black Mule,” and was written by the late Grant McLennan, one of the two principal singers and songwriters of the Go-Betweens. I offer it in part because the song has never been far from my mind in these weeks in which we’ve addressed our subject. And in part because the song is incomparably beautiful.
The Go-Betweens never achieved anything more than cult status in the US, yet in their native Australia they were revered, and I would rank them as the most enduring band to have emerged from the Punk and New Wave movements. They formed in Brisbane in 1978, and their early work is reminiscent of the more cerebral wing of Punk’s first generation—it sounds a bit like Television, a bit like Talking Heads. The nucleus of the band was McLennan and Robert Forester, high school friends and art school dropouts. In a DVD recorded in 2005, the pair sit in a living room and reminisce about their twenty-seven-year collaboration. As they speak, you get the sense of the near-psychic connection between them, and at the same time you understand how fraught the relationship has always been—it’s Jagger and Richards, Lennon and McCartney: two large and quite different talents, symbiotically linked but almost involuntarily so, always egging each other on to the sort of work they could not do alone—much as they might each prefer to go it alone.
Temperamentally and physically they were a study in contrasts. In the DVD, Forester seems more than a little foppish; he’s sitting on a rickety chair in a squalid living room, wearing the sort of suit and tie he always has favored, his hair slicked back in a nerdy imitation of Brian Ferry. He is obviously not a rock star, but you sense that he could have faked the role when called upon. Not so McLennan, who is short, bald, and rotund, looking alternately beatific and truculent. Imagine Bob Hoskins starring in a biopic of the Buddha, and you get something of the effect. As their songwriting evolved over the course of ten Go-Betweens albums and various solo efforts, Forester was the one who wrote the pop songs—literate ones, mind you, with titles along the lines of “The House Jack Kerouac Built.” Songs of obsessive doomed love became his specialty. McLennan’s songcraft was different. He favored Dylanesque wordplay, and subjects which usually fall outside pop music convention: character studies, for example, and Wordsworthian evocations of childhood. The songs can’t be said to have hooks or catchy choruses, but they wend their way into your consciousness nevertheless—they’re what the Germans, with their mania for compound nouns, call “ear worms.”
“Black Mule” can be found on a live album recorded in August of 2005, not too long before McLennan died suddenly in his sleep at the age of forty-seven. It’s a ballad of the brooding and eccentric sort you find on Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. Here’s my transcription of the lyrics:
The spareness of McLennan’s narration helps to imbue the song with the same mythic quality you find in Dylan efforts such as “All Along the Watchtower” and “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.” In fact, one reason why the man’s violent twenty-first century demise comes as such a shock to us is that the song up to this point has seemed to stand outside of historical time. We feel that we’re hearing a fragment of wisdom literature from some ancient and only partly recovered tradition; the anachronism is never forced, and when the four horsemen beat and rob the song’s protagonist, we can’t escape the echoes of the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke. But the Good Samaritan is merely someone who does the right thing; the nun on the black mule is an altogether weirder creation—and she has some powerful mojo. Her retribution on the robbers is swift and total; she seems to vaporize them with a glance. And then, like Clottes’s and Lewis-Williams’s Paleolithic shamans, she leads the protagonist down into a cave, where he is trained and healed. It might even be that he is resurrected; if our nun has been powerful enough to nuke the horsemen with a snap of her fingers, she may also be capable of bringing the dead back to life. At any rate, she has transformed the man, and—tenderly, it seems to me—she sends him off to see the world.
The action of the song takes place entirely upon a darkling plain. The horsemen “come out of the midnight sky.” And the nun arrives as a kind of late Rothko painting come to life—her black habit and black mule are barely distinguishable from the darkness out of which she emerges. Then we enter the subterranean hermitage of the cave. Throughout the song, McLennan evokes two opposing kinds of darkness, a malevolent one represented by the robbers and the life-affirming one represented by the actions of the nun and her mule. The man’s death on the Baghdad street comes as such a shock to us not only because it causes the song to enter historical time, but also because he has already died once and been reborn. This second death is final, doubly senseless, yet when the body of the man is brought to the morgue, McLennan insists that it is not mortality which has the final word, but those mysterious “hoofprints of a mule.”
And this for me is what it is all about, Bill—about being on the side of mystery and initiation, the side of the Black Mule and Bottallack o’clock, the side of limestone and not brimstone, the side that chooses life and dies, the side of the darkness that giveth. The other side of darkness will have the final say, but the Black Mule rides on.
Bill, I would like to close with a poem by Tomas Tranströmer, for I think I love his work more greatly than that of all other living poets, and I know of no other poet of our time who has explored the world of darkness so thoroughly, both the dark which annihilates and the dark which sustains. I wonder if this may have to do with the simple fact that as a Swede he has lived his eighty five years on the cusp of the Arctic Circle, where the night sky on a day such as today—and it is fitting, old friend, that I write you on the shortest day of the year—is the only sky to look upon. Sometimes his poems achieve their grave and stately music simply by noting the cold vastness of that sky. Such is the case in an early poem, “Tracks,” which ends with
As when someone has gone into an illness so deep
The train is standing quite still.
And when the truth barrier is broken, we are apt to find ourselves in a night town that is terrible and wondrous by turns, yet with Tranströmer there to guide us we fear not. He worked for many years as a child psychologist, and he records his impressions of the Other Side with the non-plussed reserve of a clinician in a labcoat taking notes on his clipboard. And we come to suspect that this detachment, this matter-of-fact professionalism, is what will allow us to emerge unscatched from our katabasis. This nordic Vergil knows his way around, as Morkerseende, the title of one of his most compelling collections suggests: Bly translates the word as “Night Vision,” the Scots poet Robin Fulton as “Seeing in the Dark.” This skill is frequently put to the test, for Tranströmer often finds himself in states of great visionary duress: “The Gallery,” one of his longest poems, is nominally set in a roadside motel room, but it conjures up a panorama of suffering humanity that is at least as acutely rendered as the crowd scenes in “The Wasteland”—and, for what it’s worth, the poem renders with uncanny precision the three psychobiological stages of trance which Clottes and Lewis-Williams describe in their research on shamanism.
But “Funchal,” the poem I offer here, is the obverse of “The Gallery”; it celebrates the dark, but celebrates also human connectedness. One aspect of this, as you can see in the poem’s second stanza, is married love, married love of the Long Haul Division. But it also seems right, Bill, to think of that celebration in terms of long friendships. And as the poem finds itself suddenly in the midst of jostling humanity, in what it terms “the human whirlpool,” we do not find ourselves in the desolating isolation of Bishop’s waiting room, but—honest, Bill—glimpsing something of the far shore of Jordan.
That’s it for now, Bill. Merry Christmas to you both.