Poetry Friday: Reboot

So, some changes coming to Poetry Friday.  First of all, though I’ll still be posting poems from the year of the novel I’m reading on some occasions, at other times I’ll be posting poems from other eras.  I think being tied to specific years has in some ways been good (I’ve discovered interesting and talented poets) but in other ways it’s been bad (limits my scope, very time-consuming research with sometimes little result, etc.).  Today’s poem, for instance, is not from 1930, and I don’t know if next week’s will be either.  My other goal is to have something to say about each poem — to make this not a place where a poem is posted just to be read, but a place where I share a little of who I am as a reader and hopefully hear from some of you.

A good friend of mine (and a talented poet, to boot), Graham Isaac, gave me a book of poetry a year or two ago, and I’ve been reading from it and pondering off and on ever since. The poet, Jack Gilbert, wouldn’t have been my usual style—I can’t imagine that I’d have picked up this anthology, The Great Fires, in a bookstore, much less have bought it on the spot—but I’m glad Graham wanted me to read him. I’m going to post one of his poems, and afterwards share a few thoughts—we’ll see if this approach works in the long run (feel free to chime in with your reactions). For now, the poem, entitled “Haunted Importantly”:

It was in the transept of the church, winter in
the stones, the dim light brightening on her,
when Linda said, Listen. Listen to this, she said.
When he put his ear against the massive door,
there were spirits singing inside. He hunted for it
afterward. In Madrid, he heard a bell begin somewhere
in the night rain. Worked his way through
the tangle of alleys, the sound deeper and more
powerful as he got closer. Short of the plaza,
it filled all of him and he turned back. No need,
he thought, to see the bell. It was not the bell
he was trying to find, but the angel lost
in our bodies. The music that thinking is.
He wanted to know what he heard, not to get closer.

A few thoughts. First, this is one of the first poems of Gilbert’s to reach me, and I think it’s because he opens in a way I like—I love interesting lines about winter, whether we’re talking Christina Rossetti (“snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow” is a brilliant little trio) or Wallace Stevens (in spite of that particular poem’s somewhat gimmicky nature, “it was evening all afternoon. it was snowing, and it was beginning to snow” is perhaps the most evocative set of lines I’ve ever read). Gilbert’s a lot less lyrical than either of those poets, but he’s getting at something from moment one. I love them pressed against the church door listening, like two travelers come to the stone ribs of some elemental giant and straining to hear his heartbeat. The moment where “he” (whoever he is) turns back from the plaza is exquisite—just when I’m ready for him to find “it”, he’s just one step wiser than me, he’s just able to recognize the difference between longing and possession, and to know which is better. But while I “feel” the rightness of that last line, I’m not sure I can articulate it. What does it really mean, after all, to “know what he heard”? How does getting closer (but not too close) give him that?

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2 comments on “Poetry Friday: Reboot

  1. Paul Hamann says:

    If it’s “the angel lost in our bodies” he seeks, if it is the intensity of otherworldly beauty, then the effort to possess it, even to “get closer,” is doomed. Knowing beauty is enough; we can’t cage it.

    That said, I could live without the line “the angel lost in our bodies.” Too specific. But the last line rocks.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for the reflection, Paul—I see what you mean (though I think “know” in this context feels too strong, too comprehensive, for what he’s after…I don’t know what I’d prefer, but “knowing” seems too intellectual and total for the level of understanding he’s reached). The only reason I like “angel lost in our bodies” is that, for some reason, I got the image of a bird trapped in a church…that those people with their ears at the door could hear the distant flutter of wings. But I couldn’t tell you why I got that image, since I went back to the poem and it’s not there. I read too much in, I guess. Regardless, I think “the music that thinking is” is so much better — a great line that makes me stop on it and chew just a little.

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