February 3, 2013:
Strange things, poems. They come out of an image or a phrase that emerges, as John Keats put it in a letter once, "like a whale's back in the sea of prose," unexpectedly, out of depths you cannot imagine, and it demands your attention and you know that it would be morally wrong not to respond, not to write it up, make something of it. You have no idea what yet, and it may take a very long time to develop. But if you're wise you will hold on to that first unformed message from your unknown inner life, because it appears for a reason. Because you're stupid and you don't really know your own heart. Because you're in pain, or in love, and you haven't gotten the message yet. Because something in you needs to speak. Because your body has a mind of its own. Because you're a poet, you have talent, and this is a command.
Of the twenty-five or thirty poems I would like to preserve I find, looking back at the little pile of them that I keep track of in my incredibly crowded, messy office, that many of them were written during my first marriage, which on the surface was, I thought, reasonably happy, as good as I could hope for given my own difficult personality--moody, dark, bookish, lonely. I expected to be lonely. My first wife and I were very unlike, and I thought that was the way it was always going to be; it was just the way of the world, love bridging unbridgeable gaps as best it could. My first wife had adopted sunny as her disposition but I knew her well, knew it was her own attempt to disguise from herself who she really was. It was the who she really was--passionate, more than a little bitter, struggling to keep her disappointments down--that I loved; it was the woman who, when she discovered you couldn't broil flounder fillets, took a spatula and beat them with it until fish fragments were flying all over the kitchen. But I couldn't abide the sunny surface. It was merely surface, never real, and it came across as a lie.
Those early poems when they arrived made it clear what that marriage really was. Here is the one I like best:
WALKING ON WATER
Of the place itself I remember most
clearly the frozen corrugations
in the snow, their settled patterns
and what they seemed to reveal about
the wind; that, and hearing the water
running deep under our feet near the dam.
We were always best in winter. On ice
or snow there's no place to rest
and the cold keeps talk to a minimum.
This poem came out of an actual experience when we found ourselves walking over a frozen pond, probably in Fahnestock State Park in Putnam County, not far from where we lived then. Other poems came from walks in the country. We lived for a while when the children were very young on a winding road with few houses along it that followed a small valley bottom. Hunter Brook Road. I remember a meadow on one side, thick woods on the other, and we used to take long walks up and down this road on warm evenings, to see the light fade on the meadow, listen to the birds shutting down for the night. The following poem sprang from a walk I took by myself on that road, and the way it turned dark, and who I was then. This is one of the poems I have worked on most of my life, to get right. When poems are really short like this you cannot waste even a comma; everything has to be as perfect as your talent and attention can make it. I'm probably still not quite done. But I offer it anyway. It's called
While the puffy clouds slowly sponged away
the light, while birds sang from their refuges
in the darkening woods, I lost track of the time;
and the country road behind me, the old trees
leaning over it, seems to have burrowed into
Have you felt this way, friends? Do
you know how it feels to wander unthinkingly
into the darkness?
Dawn always seems so far
away, while what we call headlights plunge
and careen like the Batmobile through your mood.
Friends, yes. Anyone willing to work through a poem is a friend. The marriage lasted eighteen years but we did not come out of it friends. I see that happen with some couples and I envy them their ability to talk to one another, but it was never going to happen in our case. By leaving her I seem to have awoken the bitterness she had worked so hard to hide. I am sorry for it all, every bit of it. But I couldn't have stayed. Staying would have meant living more and more lies, hers and my own, and I believed at the time, and believe it still, it would have put my soul at risk.
Or maybe not. Hearts are devious by nature. This is why so many seem to need a god, to watch them, know them, love them despite their duplicity. It must be a great comfort. I find it hard to live without comfort, and sometimes seek it out. Great art is a comfort. Lorraine, my second wife, and I find ourselves crying at the movies of late at sentimental moments, or any moment that depicts kindness, compassion, forgiveness, love, and this is a comfort, too. Looking at Rembrandt's self-portraits, which so profoundly understand what is in a human being, this is a comfort of a higher order. Writing poems is a comfort; the process takes you out of yourself, into another space, seldom visited. I wish I had written more of them. This last one is fairly recent, written in the last four or five years, sprung from a walk downtown to the water on a summer night in Sag Harbor, where I sat by myself on a bench staring at the boats while a band played in the distance.
DEATH BY WATER
Wild music beats against the surface of the harbor
with an absolute minimum of response. It is the same
with the moonlight; watch, it is in constant motion,
like a Pollock painting, yet perfectly still. Look also
into the shadows of the boats, darkness resting on darkness.
Near Maracaibo I saw dead dogs adrift among the stilts
supporting the houses. We think there is a story
to everything, like Natalie Wood's drowning, or anyone's.
Yesterday she said she loved him, too. Today he saw her
cruising. I think it is all background, atmosphere.
The small waves they allow in here have absolutely
nothing to say, do not speak of anyone's anguish.
It is the same thing again and again: moonlight, shadows,
inappropriate music the impenetrable water drowns out.
Now what is that about? I cannot say. The whale's back emerges from the sea of prose, but whales speak with their strange music only to other whales. "If a lion could talk," Wittgenstein once wrote, "we could not understand him." Poets search for a music, a form of speech that approximates the feelings and the intuitions that hover beyond the edge of language, that call out of the darkness. Sometimes we find it, sometimes not. You must judge for yourself, friends. For me it is all background, atmosphere.