Poetry Friday: January is the cruelest month

Forget that T.S. Eliot character and his arguments for April.  Anyway, I am barely keeping my head above water right now, which is evident in last week’s omission of a Poetry Friday post and the fact that I haven’t gotten too far with my current Pulitzer novel.  Things will be better soon, but in the meantime, I don’t want to leave this space bereft of poetry—I bought a new volume of Jack Gilbert‘s poems recently, and although I know I featured him not that long ago right after his passing, I think he deserves another go-round, and I’m hoping I’ll inspire a few of you to trot down to your local bookseller and grab a copy of something of his.  This is a poem from The Dance Most of All, which was published in 2009: the poem itself is entitled “Winter Happiness in Greece”—

“The world is beyond us even as we own it.
It is a hugeness in which we climb toward.
A place only the wind knows, the kingdom
of the moon which breathes a thousand years
at a time. Our soul and the body hold each other
tenderly in their arms like Charles Lamb
and his sister walking again to the madhouse.
Hand in hand, tears on their faces, him carrying
her suitcase. Blow after blow on our heart
as we grope through the flux for footholds,
grabbing for things that won’t pull loose.
They fail us time after time and we slide back
without understanding where we are going.
Remembering how the periodic table of the elements
didn’t fit the evidence for half a century.
Until they understood what isotopes were.”

As he often does, Gilbert starts off with a bang—two lines that may be as attention-grabbing (for me, anyway) as any two opening lines I’ve read in a while.  He’s toying, I think, with Robert Frost’s “The land was ours before we were the land’s”, but he’s not tying this to any locality or identity beyond that of being human.  The unusual phrasing that makes the world a “hugeness in which we climb toward” is just right for me: he gets away with being just elusive enough that I don’t quite know what me means and yet I feel really instinctively that I know exactly what he means.  But is that the thesis of this little poem?  As Gilbert also tends to do, the poem spreads out in all directions—he often seems more interested in mood and theme than he does in linear sense.  At first he embraces the abstractness of a world that only the wind knows (why the wind? what does that imply?) and the alienness of his moon imagery…who is breathing a thousand years at a time, the moon or the kingdom, and what does it mean anyway?

But then he makes a 180 into the poem’s best image, I think—the analogy of our soul and body who cling to each other like Charles and Mary Lamb on their way to the madhouse again.  If you don’t know the Lambs’ story, a brief synopsis—Charles and Mary are brother and sister, born in an English family in the mid-1700s.  Mary is unstable, and after being forced to care for her invalid mother for a number of years, Mary snaps one evening as her mother is yelling at her, and stabs her to death with a table knife.  She is sent to the madhouse after the courts fail to convict her of murder on the grounds that she is a lunatic.  Charles, her devoted brother, gets her out of the asylum a few months later, and keeps her with him for years, returning with her to the asylum on occasion as her condition worsened and then bringing her home when it improved.  They both develop talents in writing, befriend Wordsworth and Coleridge, rewrite Shakespeare’s plays as stories for young readers, and ultimately Mary has a final breakdown and is sent to an asylum for the end of her life—Charles dies not long after she is institutionalized this last time, with Mary allegedly so far gone that she is able to understand that Charles is dead, but cannot find the capacity to mourn for him.  Taking all of that and packing it into this image, what is Gilbert saying to us?  In the image of Charles and Mary headed to the asylum—the caretaker and the one in need of care, the one going to return again alone and the one going to remain—who is the soul and who the body?  What does their tear-stained walk signify to us, and how can we connect it to this world we cannot know or understand, but into which we are climbing?

Gilbert’s humanity is in a perilous place: not only do we not know where we’re climbing towards, but when we slide back we find we don’t know the place either.  But I don’t feel anxious when I read the poem—am I alone in that?  The title, too, is strange in association with these images…what does all this have to do with winter or Greece, or more confusingly still, the idea of “happiness”?  The ending of the poem is mysterious enough to me that I hope someone who knows more chemistry will chime in: I think I get the basic theme that our understanding of the world doesn’t always match what it really is.  There’s almost an element of faith there, I think—a periodic table that we believe is right even though we don’t know why.  But where do the isotopes come in?  Are they symbolic of something, and if so, of what?  Am I crazy to try and tie all this together into a single idea, or is there really a theme that weaves all (or most) of this together?  I like this poem but I’m also baffled by it—I hope commenters can offer their own thoughts for my edification, if for no one else’s.

And as a parting note, another modern American poet named Jack has now also left us—the wild-eyed slam poet named Jack McCarthy, who brought the last years of his genius to poetry readings in Seattle and Bellingham where I knew him briefly (and where friends of mine became good friends of his), passed away yesterday.  I’m not ready today to tackle a poem by Jack McCarthy, and I don’t know if I will be next week, but I hope I will.  In the meantime, have a look at his website if you want to know more about the man or his art—I’ll spend this weekend hoping that, on some plane of existence beyond our own, Jack Gilbert and Jack McCarthy are hoisting glasses together and reading aloud the ones they love best.

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2 comments on “Poetry Friday: January is the cruelest month

  1. Kristi Martinez says:

    I’ve read your posts and many times I get halfway through typing a comment and for a variety of reasons I never actually post – this time will be different. Before reading your analysis, I knew nothing of Charles Lamb and his sister, Mary, but your synopsis of their story does remind me of radioactive elements. If an element goes through alpha decay, it moves over two spots to the left on the periodic table. However, if two beta particles are next removed, the element returns to its original place in the periodic table but has less mass and as such behaves differently.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Kristi, I’m glad to know you drop in the blog! I also appreciate your comments about the isotopes—I still find this poem baffling in a number of ways, but I think you’ve added a really interesting comment on Mary Lamb (I think? That’s how I read it, anyway), and one that deepens the poem for me. 🙂

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