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01 July 2007

July Poem of the Month

THE MYTH OF MEMORY

I finally learned to dive,
and found joy mysterious and unsettling
hovered there: a sphere of longing
sublimed with the lake.
Below me all appeared an indeterminate lightlessness
the color of afternoon through spring-new leaves
or dawn’s shadow cast on grass;
above: desire quivering in a sunlit circle.

Well-mouth, cave-mouth, it shone
like virgin oil spilled on the surface
of a sea-born Paradise: compelling,
fixing my imagination
on its unknown and unlabled hues.
What color did it cast?
—I do not know.
That strange, inviting light held me;
I crystallized, became the prism,
casting scattered shafts
from each toe and finger, every hair.
Is it that light I long for in my dreams?

That shade of light
from woods-between-the-worlds
made mystery. In an underwater limbo,
suspense and longing intermingled.
I remember yellow, brown, and green;
and then a fading gradient into monochrome.
I was the center of something
all-surrounding, a type of solipsistic
smoothness drenching grace
over my land-clumsy arms and legs.
Delicious, like a taste;
refreshing, as if I drank and it were pure;
wet and pulsing like the act of love.
That unity in isolation seemed
the archetype of other, severed, pleasures:
I swam submerged and drowning in desire.

What did I desire? Not that muddy lake,
that real dive split in fragments by my five
unpracticed senses, spluttering in fact.
Not to catch the fascinating disc
of sunlight on the surface.
Not to stay and drown;
no, not to stay and contemplate, for
the very brevity of underwater music
gave a glimpse behind the veil.
Fish, submerged forever,
do not live suspended in a state
of constant wonder—or perhaps they do.
Maybe that explains the lack of eyelids,
gazing in a perpetuity of awe,
always awake, always in sudden shock.
Alba-cool, slick as satisfaction.

Everything that happens goes too fast,
and nothing is, but only was or has been.
It must be in memory meaning grows.
Without it, sehnsucht hovers
undescribed and unidentified,
while dives and sun-discs dissipate in time.

I never felt desire when I dove, but fancy joy
had stabbed me underwater
somewhere in the past.
Then I have longing only second-hand,
or not at all. It is just one of those
sensations people speak of, poets say.
If every minute lives at one remove,
have I ever had one feeling of my own?
Nothing is, but made in memory,
and my immortal longings mere charade.

I yearn to have a yearning of my own—
or say I do. I read significance in himmelslust
as if feelings will be real,
as if every ecstasy will be itself
and every moment, lingering.
I live like longing unifies and re-embodies
in its consummation
and the consecration of desire.


~ Admonit

3 comments:

Rosie Perera said...

This might be the first time I've ever had enough of a suggestion for improving your poems to post any comments. First, I like the imagery, the watery sounds, the linking of this experience with a sense of longing for a past remembered joy (like C.S. Lewis).

However, I found that the two German words stood out like sore thumbs in a poem that otherwise uses quite straightforward language. Came across sounding kind of like an academic showing off her foreign vocabulary. (Ouch, I know that sounds harsher than I intended my criticism to be.)

I'd also offer you (tentatively, as one who hasn't figured this out herself yet) the words of Luci Shaw when she commented on some of my mother's poems: "My one word to you is that in poetry less is more and that the leaner [this poem] can become the stronger [it] will be."

Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks, Rosie! Hum, I see what you mean about the German words, but I'm not sure how to fix it. Those words are exactly, precisely what I mean to say, and they're untranslatable. That's the problem of being some sort of "scholar": I'm studying those words and their definitions/connotations, so I'm stuck with them. But I'll look over the poem and see if there's anything else to do.

I also like the Luci Shaw quote, but I have very little idea what it means. Less what is more what? Fewer words? A single image? Fewer thoughts and ideas? What's leaner? Shorter? Simpler? Less sensory? Honestly, that's one opinion of poetry. I happen to get a lot more out of a long, lush, complicated poem like Tintern Abbey than out of, say, Emergency Supplies. And I would choose Luci's own “Three Worlds” (from The Green Earth; a poem which doesn’t seem to be online) over her Peace on Earth. So I’m not sure I agree with the principle.

But in this particular case, what are you telling me? Probably that there are too many different things going on in this poem, and it takes too long to do something that might not be worth all the trouble of getting to it? I’ll take a look. Thanks!

Rosie Perera said...

I recently read that Horace said, "Brevis esse laboro, obscurus fio." (When I labour to be brief, I become obscure.) That's precisely what's wrong with using those German words that no general reader would understand. It's OK to make an interested reader do some work/research to understand a poem, but you've got to have a dedicated readership first. Only someone of the stature of T.S. Eliot can get away with making his readers do more than consult a dictionary for the occasional difficult English word to understand his poems. People are going to read him anyway in spite of that, and there are good teachers and guides to help people along the way. But you used words that you've been studying in depth for some time to get a grasp of. That's totally unfair to your readers.

Fortunately, you are a better poet than one who would get "stuck with" only one way of saying something, and I'm glad to see you found a way through.

And here, for the record, though now moot since you've revised the poem, is the rest of the response I gave you in email to the rest of your comment:

I guess with "less is more" Luci is saying if you can convey the impression you want to make with fewer words, do so. That takes more craftsmanship. I felt, in reading your poem, that you were saying the same thing more than once several times or using unnecessary and extraneous verbiage (see, I just did it there to illustrate what I'm talking about). I suppose I should give some specific examples: This sentence seemed superfluous "It is just one of those / sensations people speak of, poets say." First of all, you are a poet, so you don't need to say "poets say"; and second, good poets wouldn't say "it is just one of those sensations people speak of" -- a bland and clichéd clause which adds nothing to the strophe.

I'm usually bored by a "long, lush, complicated poem." I like the spare economy of words in a poem like, say, George Herbert's Love (3), where every word counts, better than any number of longer poems that have achieved more "classic" stature. I'd rather spend my time and effort unpacking a tightly written multi-layered poem than taking in for the first time all the words of a longer poem that doesn't yield as much in rereading. But you might be right; it might simply be a personal style issue. Which is why I'm so hesitant to offer feedback on poetry in the first place.