The Night Sky in Black & White: How the Poem Listens

Posted on October 27, 2011


Where do poems start? Where do they finish? What do they hear?

The problem, as Olena Kalytiak Davis points out (or rather, as her invention, the speaker points out) in one of those astonishing poems in her Brittingham Prize-winning book, And Her Soul Out Of Nothing, is that “the brain sits right next to the ears.” (U. Wisconsin Press, 1997 already.)

And I couldn’t agree more. There’s not enough listening in the world and what listening gets done goes all cortex-baked, deep brain-fried, and we find ourselves so punch drunk with the processing that the poem (or the story, or the essay) leaves off dazed and confused on the canvas, short-shrifted and sad. Word processing (the waking variety) begins, like it or not, in the upper reaches of the body. And not in a good way.

For example, I swear that on a deep, starry night you can hear distant galaxies cool. If you would write about it, you must listen and you must try not to think.

You will ask, but Jeffrey, what about the eyes? The eyes are a useless, and frankly, frightening sense for the writer. All the fragility we can possibly handle offers itself up to us as sound. The sounds of stars. The sounds of water (discover Wallace Stegner’s astounding book, Sound of Mountain Water, Penguin 1997). The sounds of words. Mostly, we don’t listen with our bodies, and when we listen with our heads alone, we imagine ourselves the very fulcrum that moves the universe. Not a very useful kind of ecstasy, as poet Ira Sadoff says about something else.

The flip side of self-loathing is grandiosity, says a grandiose character in Jeffrey Eugenides (no relation) new novel, The Marriage Plot. An incandescent thing, that novel. Frightening, disturbing, funny, and vivid as hell. I think I’ve never gotten used to color. The world is vivid enough for mortals in black & white. Too vivid, perhaps. To make regular life seem regular need not always be to bleach the strong colors out. But just for a time it can help. When you look for what’s unique and also true of life, you’re lucky to find less than you imagined. – Richard Ford, Accommodations, Best American Essays 1989 (Ticknor & Fields, Ed. Geoffrey Wolff and Robert Atwan)

Color adds a dimension nearly incapable of transcription and a texture more inscrutable and layered than the innumerable varieties of ice. Which is why the night sky, in all of its terrifying splendor and monstrous silence and earned (one supposes) grandiosity, remains largely a black and white display. Let’s not get me started on the deep Hoover-humming of black holes.

Last month in Truchas, New Mexico for a Colrain poetry conference, I had a room on the second floor of the inn and ventured out onto the deep, wide porch in the middle of the most star-filled night in recorded history. There were planets. Constellations. Supernovas. Everything bright and close and pulsing. Even the dead stars had come back to life, the granular stuff of the Milky Way nebula, close as a cloud slowly passing across Jupiter. You could touch the inner rings of Saturn with your index finger. I know. Look at this burn. There are alien things one can’t look at, at least not without the support of friends.

There in the corner of the room by the collected Napoleonic Wars in the tall bookshelves squatted what looked like the kind of telescope an important astronomer might covet: large, black, gleaming, on its own large, black, gleaming tripod. Doubtless it housed mirrors, polished lenses, rarefied air. And oh god, useless to me. It was more than I could do to look at the sky with the naked eyes. More than any human should be asked to do. The sky was deafening, filled with presences. Clearly it would anger the spirits merely to touch that telescope.

I was blessedly reminded on returning to the Berkshires (with my story of heavenly sortie) of that strange Nabokov story about a young man, Emery Lancelot Boke, “Lance,” who “is to be a member of the first interplanetary expedition” (a plot detail which, N writes “is the one humble postulate of [his] tale”). It is, truly, a really strange story, stranger even than I remembered it being. Lance first appeared in The New Yorker in 1957 and is collected in Nabokov’s Dozen: Thirteen Stories (Anchor, 1984).

Lance’s elderly parents watch him make his way from star to star.

There’s this: The nakedness of the night is appalling.  Lance has left; the fragility of his young limbs grows in direct ratio to the distance he covers.  From their balcony, the old Bokes look at the infinitely perilous night sky and wildly envy the lot of fishermen’s wives.

And there’s this: The main problem is:  Will the mind of the explorer survive the shock [in ‘the imagined silence of an inimaginable world’]?  One tries to perceive the nature of that shock as plainly as mental safety permits. And if the mere act of imagining the matter is fraught with hideous risks, how, then, will the real pang be endured and overcome?

While dwelling on that superb Nabokovian coinage, “an inimaginable world,” I imagined such an ‘inimaginable’ place where there are no coincidences. Which is to say that if you live long enough you come to honor that “things happen” in a way that reflects something far more particular than chance would admit, something not at all contingent and fragmentary as the theorists would have it. For example, the existence of that story, brought back to mind–at exactly the right time in exactly the right place–by one with a better memory.

For further example of “more things in heaven and earth,” I opened Susan Stewart’s book (black cover, white pages, black type) The Open Studio: Essays on Art and Aesthetics (U. Chicago Press 2005), to this very page, in the chapter titled, “What Thought is Like,” subtitled, “The Sea and the Sky”:

Le silence éternal de ces espaces infinis m’effraie. ‘The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me’ Pascal recorded in that famous pensée his overwhelmed and overwhelming fear of the stars. He knew that the vast spaces of the heavens evoke none of the possessive confidence we feel in looking out over a ‘view’ of the land.

There it was, and there it remains. That same terror, no less in the Age of Enlightenment. They have to be written into being, those times. These times.  That’s how we record what we hear, and that’s how we know that all good writing begins in loss of confidence, that place where we lose that grounding “view of the land.” We have to go to that place the brain can’t help us with in those moments of greatest fear, of impending losses. To practice hearing the here and now:

. . . this is the actual life now, not a stopover, a diversion, or an oddment in time, but the permanent life, the one that will provide history, memory, the one I’ll be responsible for in the long run. Everything counts, after all. What else do you need to know.  (Ford, Accommodations)

Let’s wind this up for now with Susan Stewart. In the middle of another essay, “Organic Form and Perfection in Painting” (Ch. 14), Ms. Stewart invites the artist Peter Flaccus to describe how to make the “perfect painting.”  (Flaccus, whose paintings Stewart describes thus: “Peter Flaccus’s paintings are paintings of duration, durable and radiant records of human making. To respond to them is to respond to something alive in us, as well as to their colors and light.”)

Flaccus sends Stewart notes which she then transcribes mid-essay. Three such notes interest me most as a poet reading about painting and trying to analogize back to the written page:

  1. Order. The structure of a painting is designed to create pictorial tension, which means contradiction, conflict, and drama, which means interesting to look at.
  1. Since the perfect painting is not a metaphor for the fragmentary and contingent aspects of life, it will not be left unfinished. The masters (from Leonardo through Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, et al.) who left works in an unfinished state were obviously after bigger game than mere perfection. “Perfection,” when technically possible means simply fulfilling a very limited set of criteria.
  1.  The perfect painting has no more than two and a half ideas. A painting with three ideas is already a logjam. I tell my (skeptical) students to pare it down to two and a half. A pair of main ideas to establish the governing dialectic, plus a subordinated one to ramify the internal relationships are significant.

Well then. Number 5 sounds right in an arguable sort of way about poems, individually, and the poem that is the book. Number 10 sounds fairly blowhard-esque, but interesting. Who doesn’t at least halfway admire the idea of half an idea? I’m not sure what that is, exactly, but I know I’ve heard many. And how many poems boast even a single idea? Although 2 1/2 sounds a worthy standard.

Number 9 though is so beautifully and thoroughly nuts, and I love it. Not the notion that the perfect whatever (painting, poem, symphony, ballet, rap) “will not be left unfinished,” but rather that it’s bred in the bone to want be after that bigger game: to know when the page, the canvas, the book, is perfectly unfinished. Really, though, how can it be otherwise?

I remember reading a review of Olena Kalytiak Davis’s And Her Soul Out Of Nothing when it the book first appeared and was somewhat smugly satisfied (in direct proportion to how stunned I was by how closely and movingly connected her imagination was to her innards – but that was the Beta version of me, fifteen years ago, before the enlightenment and diminished expectations and similar satisfactions conferred upon me by senior citizenship) that the reviewer fairly dismissed her poems as “unfinished.” If I remember more or less correctly. He was, I submit, half-right with his half-idea.

She was brave enough to stand out alone under the stars, brave enough to stand there trembling, brave enough to listen, to rue the mind, celebrate what was fragile, and to get some of it down with her own singed fingers before it was too late.

Back once more to Nabokov:

Nothing will keep him back.  He is the ancient curieux, but of a hardier built, with a ruddier heart.  When it comes to exploring a celestial body, his is the satisfaction of a passionate desire to feel with his own fingers, to stroke, and inspect, and smile at, and inhale, and stroke again–with that same smile of nameless, moaning, melting pleasure–the never-before-touched matter of which the celestial object is made.  (Lance)

We pay a price for such acts of bravery. We learn to hear an unfinished world, and finally, to leave it unfinished, fingers burning, our stories out of nothing.

Posted in: Poetry