In the Cold Theatre of the Poem

This is how you live when you have a cold heart.
As I do: in shadows, trailing over cool rock,
under the great maple trees.

— Louise Glück

Part I.

The coldest I’ve ever been was in Muonio, northern Finland, above the artic circle, near the Swedish border, winter 2009. I was just getting to know Tiina, years before we got married. We stayed in a cottage with two other couples. It took more than a day for the fireplace to warm up the bitterly cold cottage. At night Tiina and I curled up together under thick blankets in our little wooden room. She surprised me when she spoke out of her dream, her eyes flickering. “Ice sailors,” she said, “navigate an ice ship on the ice. The mountain took away our ability to forget, so we must abandon it.” At night I gently withdrew from her arms, slipped my parka over my pajamas and, there being no bathroom, stepped outside to urinate in the bright dark, alone in the snow. Minus forty, no wind. It was so quiet. Such quiet contains its opposite. Shrillness, stifled. Sheer, mute. I could feel my body temperature lowering. Alone in that cold, I’d surely die in an hour.

Certain art reminds me, distinctly, of being out there in the cold in Muonio, among the frozen birch trees and ice moon. Art that makes me shiver, shaking free my deeper beliefs: I will die, this body is not permanent, I would like to change my life. Such art I consider cold.

The films of Stanley Kubrick contain impossibly eerie spaces, paranoiac compositions. In The Shining, the lunatic protagonist Jack unravels in the labyrinthine Overlook Hotel, followed by the smoothly gliding Steadicam. Kubrick composes his shots coldly: using symmetry, static framing, distance. Think of the Steadicam drifting into the great hall where Jack types “All work and no play …” over and over. Or the famous ending in the hedge maze: a dead still shot—held, agonizingly, ten seconds—on Jack’s frozen grimace. Such shots are at once mundane and violent. Kubrick designed films the way he designed the architecture of the Overlook: as disorienting structures which don’t quite add up, unsettling the audience. The “eye” that captures the scene is unblinking, objective, unsympathetic.

Quite a few artists make what I would call cold art. I love them all ferociously. The sculptures of Louise Bourgeois, those bronze spiders crawling out of an infinite sinkhole. The unleashed free jazz rage of Amiri Baraka. Samuel Beckett’s grisly, trammeled, self-harming misanthropes. Eduardo C. Corral’s deep song of the desert on the U.S.-Mexico border. The emaciated self-portraits of Egon Schiele, blood on his lips. William Basinski’s haunting ambient drone compositions, each a tale of encroaching dread. García Lorca and his giggling blood-soaked goblin duende.

Such art has the ability to pierce the heart with its flying horn like a bull, to knock us off our rigid plinths.

*

I think of mindsets as realms we visit for a while. They feel so real! It’s always a shock when they vanish.

The word realm (from old French, reaume: “kingdom”) connotes myth, psychology, and physical location. Buddhists sometimes speak of realms, or realming, in the psychological sense. Khyentse Norbu, Tibetan lama and filmmaker: “Loosely, you can say when the perception comes more from aggression, you experience things in a hellish way. When your perception is filtered through attachment, grasping or miserliness, you experience the hungry ghost realm.” We can, Khyentse Norbu explains, be trapped in a realm, like anger or grief, or we may pass through it to something else: “actually we are talking about experiences that can come within the course of a day. It’s not a different place.”

Cold art has the potential to shatter the realms we hide in. Cold art cuts us, wounds us. Doesn’t Kubrick make us “experience things in a hellish way”? Exactly what else is art good for, if it can’t jar us out of our old patterns of thinking?

Art can rattle not just our personal identities, but also our social identities. In the web-like society that surrounds us, there are powerful industries in place—media, education, entertainment, finance, food, and so on—that reinforce the same overlapping values on us all. We believe we came up with our ideas ourselves, that my realm is mine alone, but because the messages of these industries are so consistent, so seamless, so ubiquitous, we actually share ways of thinking with almost everyone in our society.

In corporate countries like America we’re encouraged to feel, among many other things, what I think of as “toothless optimism.” We’re taught that we are most productive when our purchasing power is high, when we don’t impede the government, military, police, or the other power structures around us. That we can best fit in by working until we’re flatlined, buying products incessantly, not voting, not protesting, and so on. By buying Amazon products, I can turn my house into a kind of showplace like those I’ve seen on Instagram. An enviable space, where I can hide. Through products we acquire an illusion of protection, contentment, empty hope. We can’t live in a society with universal health care, but we might, if we land a good job, get on an insurance plan. We can’t live in a neighborhood without guns, but we can purchase a gun ourselves. We can’t relinquish our debt, but we can obtain credit cards. Instead of contentment or happiness, we can feel toothless optimism.

One of the industries with the highest impact on our collective social identity is advertising, which teaches us that our agency comes from our buying-power, that we have no inner worlds, that toothless optimism is the best strategy.

The mid-20th century world of ads—the Lucky Strike cigarette campaigns of Mad Men, the glossy magazine ads John Berger critiqued in Ways of Seeing—has been superseded by the internet. Now multi-billion-dollar corporations like Google and Facebook use algorithms to design pop-ups and embedded ads targeted at us personally: spamming our social media feeds and internet searches with products based on our specific demographic, informed by our recent clicks. We believe we see through ads, but their effect on us—on our social interactions, our love life, our language, our dreams—is profound. They appear innocuous, so we lazily assume that we’re immune to their effects. But, while we might ignore many, ads have a collective, mosaic effect. “The triumph of advertising in the culture industry,” as Theodor Adorno says, “is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.”

Ads are the most distilled, ubiquitous form of subjective expression—or, as Adorno calls it, being-for-other—of our age. Without knowing it, we have adopted the language and thinking and gestures of ads. We post flattering pictures of ourselves in the best possible light, with gleeful faces, like models in a soda commercial. Then we wait, as if lobotomized, for the “likes” to roll in.

Cumulatively, over our lives, the exposure to all these ads has a destructive effect on our psyches. Art, especially cold art, can counteract it.

*

I don’t think anyone would call me cold. I wave to my neighbors. I’ll stop to give a stranger directions. Uncomfortable silences make me cringe. I am one of the toothless optimists. Clinging to moments of comfort. Watching “Married at First Sight” on Netflix, gobbling microwave popcorn, distracting myself from the corrupt government and the new storms rolling over the east coast of the U.S. every year, which rattle the windows of our row home in West Philadelphia.

But in art I like to be surprised. There is a great pleasure in being cut and battered by art. One way that art—particularly cold art, I think—shakes us out of our toothless optimism, is by telling us the story of the brutality of life on earth, by showing us how close to animals we really are.

In the first act of King Lear, Lear lives in a Kardashian-esque realm of being-for-other, acquiring his agency from the opinions of yes-people. He is sentimental, narcissistic, weak-minded. He imagines that, with all his power, he can make the world fit his notion of it. He would like, for example, to make his daughters Goneril and Regan love him. But such a realm is, of course, dangerous and unsustainable. Over the first three acts, Lear’s assets, his esteem, and his power are all taken from him. Then Edgar arrives dressed as Poor Tom. In this “mad” person, Lear envisions the breakdown of civilization, which ultimately shatters his realm. Lear’s culture and manners and ego have to be stripped from him before he can see a human being, himself included, as it is: a “poor, bare, forked animal.”

This vision of humans as animals gives me the shivers. Witnessing Lear’s revelation, we too are shaken out of our realms. It’s a continual shock to us that in the end we, like Lear, can’t change the world, that we must adjust our realms to see the world as it is. It’s a brutal reality that most of us, in our comfort-seeking lives, would just as soon forget. What happens to Lear also happens to us when we watch Lear. We’re proxies for Lear: in the storm on the cold heath, rain whipping against our faces. This is cold art.

J.M. Coetzee’s books are unfriendly, cynical, cerebral. Cold. In Life & Times of Michael K, Michael K has no luck. He is very poor, and has a harelip. Even his mother is repulsed by him. A cruel civil war has torn his country apart. Everywhere he turns, he’s robbed, denied, rejected. His mother decides she must return to the idyllic farm of her youth. Michael K accompanies her, but she dies on the way. He makes it his quest to return to the farm. After many hardships he arrives, but still nothing improves. Starving, he chases a goat, and finally kills it in the muck:

He had never cleaned an animal before. There was nothing to use but the penknife. He slit the belly and pushed his arm into the slit; he expected blood-heat but inside the goat encountered again the clammy wetness of marsh-mud. He wrenched and the organs came tumbling out at his feet, blue and purple and pink; he had to drag the carcass a distance away before he could continue … His hands and sleeves were full of gore; there was no water nearby; he scoured himself with sand but was still followed by flies when he returned to the house.

Having cut the goat’s belly with a penknife in desperation, Michael K is covered in organs and muck. As we read, it’s painful to see ourselves in Michael K, “hands and sleeves … full of gore.” Hopeless, stripped of dignity. It disturbs the realm we’ve been cozily curled up in.

Artists like Shakespeare and Coetzee and Kubrick don’t appear to be concerned with compassion or empathy or any of the qualities I treasure in myself as a social being. Kubrick, in the spirit of Keats’ negative capability, seems to erase himself from the process of creation. What comes through, instead of autobiography, is a brutal vision, or a psychic x-ray of a human being. Although Kubrick certainly had biases and used filmic techniques to spin his stories, in the end he gives me the impression of leaving the subject alone, in the cold, in front of the camera. The results are chilling and forceful. Think of the “villain” Alex in A Clockwork Orange, the camera zooming in, slowly, patiently, on his choking face and watery blue eyes, before he jumps out the window.

“If we knew the value of suffering,” says Mary Ruefle, “we would ask for it.”

*

Yes, but what is cold art? It’s a short story whose main character I hate until suddenly I do not, and I find myself lowering the book and making a little sound at the back of my throat. It’s an abstract painting that, even on a hot summer day, makes me shiver as on the night in Muonio among the birches. It’s a film that appalls me but then that night fragments of it float into my dream and I wake scribbling a poem about it into my notebook.

Cold art conveys a brutal “truth.” But truth in art is, as Emily Dickinson tells us, slant. We’ll never reach a consensus about what is true in art—or even what is good art and bad art. In a work of art, like a play, truth isn’t determined by one scene or one mood or one character. But the aggregate of all the scenes and moods and characters together amounts to an impression. This impression—which is ultimately unnameable—may be thought of as cold or warm.

Most art is too slippery—shifting under our feet, chimeric—to categorize in such a binary way, as cold or warm. Even a short poem, even a line, oscillates between cold and warm. A deft poem can evoke warmth just to shock us with coldness, or the other way around. The process is dynamic, inviting us to participate, if we choose to accept.

James Tate’s later poems frequently shift back and forth from dead sober to wildly funny. In “The Cowboy,” the speaker finds an alien in his kitchen. The alien loves John Ford movies and wants to become a cowboy. The alien asks for sarsaparilla. They become fast friends. The speaker offers to take the alien “to meet a real cowboy,” in Wyoming or Montana. The end of the poem, which has thus far been spoken in a folksy vernacular, makes a cold shift when the alien reveals that it will die: “probably / my reward for coming here safely and meeting you.” The cold finale, which is surprisingly touching, could not work if Tate hadn’t shown us the warm repartee of the unlikely friends.

To be distinctive, coldness needs a counterpoint. The cold artist puts a cushy rug under our feet, then pulls it away. As we spend time with a work of art, our assumptions accumulate: we think the world is one way, but really it’s another way. We think the king is a fool. We think the alien is going to Wyoming. Then, amid the aggregate of scenes, is an unexpected variation. A deviation. Overturning of expectation. Breakdown of cause and effect. As a result, our certainty is shattered. The self-control we cherish vanishes. And—sometimes, beautifully—the surprise of the poem is a revelation on the street.

There’s a twin in the room. The tone is familiar and strange. Unheimlich. Home and alien. There are two Jacks: the charismatic father overseeing the Overlook Hotel, and the lunatic creating a literal hell out of the Overlook Hotel. Hope and despair exist side by side. We, the audience, feel real hope for Jack the charismatic father. The hope builds in us as we watch him. Each time Jack speaks to his son, each time Michael K arrives in a new town, each time Lear meets his daughters Goneril and Regan, we think, Maybe this time it will work out for them. As their lives worsen, as despair grows, still we cling to hope.

Cold art cannot exist without flashes of warmth. Where there’s cold there’s warmth. One implies the other. Cold art builds hope, thwarts it. This oscillation makes it dynamic. Art without hope is a theater of cruelty. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Marquis de Sade’s Juliette. Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Cold without a smidge of warmth. Melancholy unlimited. Cormac McCarthy treads dangerously close to such nihilism, but allows in just enough warmth for a certain oscillation.

The oscillation happens within us, the viewers, in the theater of the mind. That’s the feeling of lowering the book, making a small sound. Widening in our chairs.

 

Part II

Warm art is not the opposite of cold art. It’s not a zero sum game.

Where cold art makes me shiver with the possibility of death, warm art makes me giggle with the possibility of pizza. Warm art is a friend you like to drink beer with, but you might not mention to them that you have cancer. Warm art forgot, at some point, that death exists. That suffering exists. Warm art tells us we’re all right the way we are. Reminds us to put on our mittens. As if we had all the time in the world. As if suffering were not omnipresent. As if warm art himself were not suffering before our eyes. Warm art’s intentions are clearly so good. What harm could there be?

Cold art is the friend you want to spend your last night on earth with. Cold art looks you square in the eye, speaks their truth.

“Do what you are going to do,” says Sharon Olds, “and I will tell about it.”

Warm art reaches too quickly for sentiment. Perhaps the artist, feeling a chilled panic, wants to assuage the reader, or themself. This can happen even in a heartbreaking, beautifully-crafted novel like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Big, lumbering, “simple,” doomed Lennie likes to pet his dead mouse with the tip of his finger. His best friend George tells him, “‘That mouse ain’t fresh, Lennie; and besides, you’ve broke it pettin’ it. You get another mouse that’s fresh and I’ll let you keep it a little while.’” Here Steinbeck has reached too willingly into the cookie jar of pathos, and the cold spell is broken.

In Clark Park, West Philadelphia, two blocks from my house, there stands a monument to warm art: the statue, “Dickens and Little Nell.” The stouthearted author sits on his majestic writing chair, while the young girl Nell admires him from his ankles. The death of Little Nell, angelic pre-teen orphan-heroine of Dickins’ The Old Curiosity Shop, is one of the most famous episodes in literature: “She was dead. Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead. Her little bird—a poor slight thing the pressure of a finger would have crushed—was stirring nimbly in its cage; and the strong heart of its child mistress was mute and motionless for ever.” Oscar Wilde responded, “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears … of laughter.”

Warm art—to borrow from Greek hamartia, an archery term—“misses the mark.” But how? A surfeit of pathos? Sweetness that just doesn’t scratch the itch? Warm art, in the end, leaves us in our realm. Not to interrupt us. It’s polite. Romantic. And, as Louise Glück says, “romance is what I most struggle to be free of.”

According to Nabokov, even Dostoyevsky—whose novels are full of violence, addiction, and poverty—misses the mark: “Remember that when we speak of sentimentalists, among them Richardson, Rousseau, Dostoyevsky, we mean the nonartistic exaggeration of familiar emotions meant to provoke automatically traditional compassion in the reader.” While Crime and Punishment is brutal at times, Nabokov argues that it leans too hard on romanticized notions of poverty and spiritual redemption: “Raskolnikov for some reason or other kills an old female pawnbroker and her sister. Justice in the shape of an inexorable police officer closes slowly in on him until in the end he is driven to a public confession, and through the love of a noble prostitute he is brought to a spiritual regeneration that did not seem as incredibly banal in 1866 when the book was written as it does now when noble prostitutes are apt to be received a little cynically by experienced readers.”

Even when the topic is gravely important, and the artist is sincere and gifted, the result can miss the mark. In Spielberg’s holocaust film, Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler watches the Nazis exterminate a Jewish camp in Kraków. Schindler is high above on his horse. It’s filmed in black and white. Wet, violent, chaotic. Machine guns rattle. A young girl in a red coat walks by, led by hand. This red is the only color in the entire movie. We watch the girl run away past terrible vistas: Jewish folks shot in the head, corralled into trucks. She enters a house, hides under a bed, hands over her ears. We cut back and forth from her to Schindler’s horrified face, as if he were seeing her the whole time, even under the bed. Later Schindler sees her body in a wagonload of corpses. This little girl, we understand, is Schindler’s reason for saving so many Jewish people in his factory.

It’s a very famous scene. Bring up Schindler’s List in any crowd and someone is bound to mention the girl in the red coat. But it misses the mark, I think, because Spielberg overdoes it. First, with the red coat. Second, by showing us the girl at angles that Schindler could not possibly have had. Spielberg—to help us not miss her, the significance of her—says, “Feel for her now. Pay attention!” But we were already paying attention. It’s a cold scene, beautifully filmed. But by forcing the feeling upon us, Spielberg lets our organic emotions slip away, and all that’s left is sentiment.

Son of Saul (dir. László Nemes, 2015, Hungarian) follows a Hungarian Jewish man for a day and a half in Auschwitz in 1944. Nemes lets the horrific scenes flow naturalistically, without telling the audience what to think about it. In Nemes’ vision of Auschwitz, despite overwhelming despair, there is a sense of muted hope in the air which, partly because it’s never overstated, does not turn sentimental.

*

Mirrors are cold.

I love the word mimesis. It’s derived from the Greek mimeisthai, meaning “to imitate,” and is the root of mime, mimic, imitation, and mimeograph. Hamlet’s advice to the players: “hold … the mirror up to nature.”

Mimetic art is enactment: the playing out, or manifestation, of the thing itself. Demonstration rather than command; production rather than reproduction. But isn’t art really a separate, new thing? Neither a copy of the thing nor the thing itself. Neither reflection nor absorption.

Nature doesn’t favor angelic orphans, kindhearted oafs, noble sex workers, or girls in red coats. Nature has neither agenda nor mandate. R.H. Blyth’s definition of sentimentality: “We are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.”

The artist’s truth is illusory. If the subject is a tree, the artist reflects it with not one but five, or six—or fifty—mirrors. And they’re funhouse mirrors, of course, distorting the tree till it’s unlike anything in nature.

One night in Muonio the six of us stood at the edge of the frozen lake and watched the northern lights high above. A green shimmering cloth, twisting slowly, endlessly, like a Möbius strip or a torus.

Can you almost feel the cold rising up out of the bright snow?

*

By cold art I don’t mean cynical, unpleasant, or passionless art. Or art that seems to have been made by a hard-hearted, aloof, or conservative human. I’m not searching for the word frigid. I certainly wouldn’t go as far as Yvor Winters in his poem “On Teaching The Young”: “Few minds will come to this. / The poet’s only bliss / Is in cold certitude— / Laurel, archaic, rude.” I’m not looking for “cold certitude.” I appreciate artists puzzling through problems, not pretending to have answers.

I crave an obsessive focus on the thing, with minimal distractions. When the object feels embarrassingly close. Where it stops and we start is not sure. Artwork feels, in such moments, like the thing itself, not a facsimile. Transcending the artist, lifting the viewer.

Most Hollywood movies miss the mark, distracting us with action and effects, and using simplified cues to evoke a Pavlovian response: sad character, cue rain on window, audience weeps. Such blatant manipulation might make us feel something, fleetingly. But when the lights come on we forget every detail. As if it never happened.

Kubrick is subtle. In The Shining, Jack is seated on a barstool in The Gold Ballroom, wiping his hands on his face, deeply distracted, as if dreaming. He removes his hands, emerging from the dream, looks dead into the camera, at us, and says, “Hi, Lloyd. A little slow tonight, isn’t it?” Lloyd—the bartender, part of the hellish dreamworld of the hotel—is now a double for us, the audience. So Kubrick thrusts us into Jack’s nightmare, and leaves us alone with him.

Think of two friends delivering the same horrible news. One is histrionic, gesticulating wildly, screaming. The other is impassive, providing the bare sketch of the news without affectation or interpretation. The histrionic friend, while perhaps catching us in their emotion, bullies us into feeling their way about the news; this removes our ability to process the news ourselves. The impassive friend has not tried to force us into thinking or feeling any particular way; and therefore, with our agency intact, we’re free to respond according to the dictates of our own hearts and minds.

Cold art is, of course, the impassive friend.

*

I enjoy many poets whose work I’d call “warm.” I love Billy Collins and Mary Oliver, for example, but I would not depend on them to tell me their whole truth. They prefer, perhaps, to please me, to wish me well, to enable me. There is a place for them on my shelves. After a hard day, tired in the evening, I will reach for them.

But they don’t give me that shuddering thrill. They do not, like certain close friends of mine, stop me mid-sentence to challenge the bullshit I’ve been speaking. They do not lock eyes with me and tell me what’s really on their mind. They will never change my life.

At times just a hair’s breadth separates warm art from cold. John Haines’ poem, “Winter News,” is as cold as hell in theme and tone but in the end reaches for warmth and, I think, comes up short.

The poem describes the brutal cold near Fairbanks, Alaska, where Haines lived: “the wells / are freezing,” “Oil tins bang,” “Men go out to feed / the stiffening dogs.” The images transport me to Muonio. Even the time of day, “as evening comes on,” transmits the sensation of life coming to an end. In the last stanza—“the voice of the snowman / calls the white- / haired children home”—I imagine Haines intended the snowman’s voice to emanate in part from the children’s mothers and in part from the great beyond, as if from the “mind of winter” of Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man.” That voice is eerie and effective. But the final word, “home,” falls flat. As if Haines, seeking a familiar image to create a clear landing and oscillation in his poem, settled too quickly on a platitude, and broke the spell.

Part III.

Trees of ice. A windless night. Nothing can survive out here for long.

The scene in the Muonio forest is embedded in my archetypal mind. The way my grandmother’s apartment in Inwood, Manhattan has become an every-apartment, infinitely malleable, in my imagination and dreams. So the Muonio forest is my deathbed. My last moments. When there’s no further need to talk nonsense. All that’s left is to speak from the heart with cold clarity.

One poet whose voice sounds, to me, as if it is emerging directly out of that icy forest is Louise Glück.

Compare, for example, Glück’s poem “The Drowned Children” to the Haines poem. Both describe children in a brutal landscape. In Glück’s case, it’s a cold pond which “lifts them in its manifold dark arms”—claiming their lives. While Haines alludes to the mortality of the children, Glück’s drowned children remain dead (“blind and weightless”) throughout. As in “Winter News,” the drowned children hear a voice beckoning them at the end: “What are you waiting for / come home, come home, lost / in the waters, blue and permanent.” But, unlike Haines, Glück does not reach for solace, on behalf of the children or the reader. Quite the opposite. She lets the scene remain exactly what it is: horrifying, hopeless.

“The Drowned Children” does oscillate from cold to warm, briefly, by implying that the children lived a life of domestic comfort—“the lamp, / the good white cloth that covered the table”—before they drowned. Also the voice calling out to them, presumably their mothers, seems to miss them and love them. But the very last word, “permanent,” brings us back to the cold reality.

In her many books of poems, Glück’s voice conveys a sense of disciplined self-analysis, intense inner dialogue, determination to arrive at conclusions about the self. Her poems are psychological, almost narcissistic, but never sentimental or being-for-other. She does experiment with registers: Meadowlands, for example, is wryly funny. But, by and large, her poetic voice is that of the clear-eyed, stern village elder. The seer, unsmiling.

Her poems give me a frisson up my spine, as if she were speaking to me directly out of her dream.

Ararat, Glück’s fifth book, shows her willingness to step out in front of the ghostly gliding Steadicam of her own gaze. She observes herself with uncanny clarity and coldness. In “Brown Circle,” the speaker’s mother asks her a terrible question: “why, if I hate / family so much, / I went ahead and / had one.” The speaker doesn’t respond. She wanted to be the type of person who finds a flower and lets it be, but instead became “the scientist, / who comes … / with a magnifying glass …” Consequently, she “burns a brown / circle of grass around / the flower.” Her desire to possess and control, learned from her mother, creates damage. The last lines are devastating: “I must learn / to forgive my mother, / now that I’m helpless / to spare my son.”

Lamium”—from The Wild Iris, a connected sequence using voices of flowers, a poet-gardener and a gardener-god—is about one flower that lives a cold life, obsessed with light. The flower-speaker begins with an icy Ars Poetica: “This is how you live when you have a cold heart. / As I do: in shadows, trailing over cool rock, / under the great maple trees.” The flower feels the warmth of the indirect, faint light “glinting through the leaves, erratic.” She craves more light, but concedes that “Living things don’t all require / light in the same degree. Some of us / make our own light.” The light she speaks of is, I think, the vital life force in all living things: “a path no one can use, a shallow / lake of silver in the darkness.” She’d like more warmth, but has come to terms with her cold life. The final lines—“But you know this already. / You and the others who think / you live for truth and, by extension, love / all that is cold”—sound austere and bitter. The flower speaks a cold truth, but there’s a warm solace, too: she sees herself as separate from others, but powered by her own light. Aware that beauty, even the beauty of community, is fleeting, the flower takes comfort in her distant observations.

No wonder Charles Simic says that Glück “writes in an idiom that is as old as literature.”

*

Muonio has become my personal metonym for the deep coldness at the core of life on earth. For the hard feelings we’d prefer to ignore, like suffering, sorrow, depression, and death.

Cold art, when it enacts the moment of death over and over, isn’t interested in death in itself, but wants to remind us of death. We are, as at a funeral, not the corpse but the attendees. The life force still surges within us. Cold art doesn’t urge us toward nihilism, but reminds us to live now, to get things done, that we are vital. This is the wisdom of it. Without such reminders we risk becoming fools, like Lear.

Cold art is not harmful or bad at all, but provides a useful counterpoint to “happiness” in our society, which is severely overemphasized. Our existence naturally oscillates between warm and cold. This oscillation must be allowed, or the pendulum will break.

When that deep cold is invoked—in a poem, a song, a painting, a voice on the subway—the windless ice forest wakes within me. And it’s in me always, the cold. The spiritual, psychic cold. While driving my motorcycle through the potholed streets of Philadelphia, while leading a poetry workshop, while chatting to my mother, while eating dinner, while watching Netflix with Tiina. That cold forest, its myriad frozen boughs, bristles within me.

Tiina was speaking out of her dream, in images that described the reality outside our window. And, just as I was falling in love with Tiina in Muonio, I also fall in love a little with anyone who tells me what is outside their window, speaking their truth, as if out of their dream.

I crave this. I want my cage rattled. I want to be triggered. To lurch out of my realm. I want to be reminded. That something has gone gravely wrong with the human race. That people are trapped in huge, indifferent machines, fated to die alone, without any clear meaning or hope.

Part IV.

Light rises from the snow, absorbing the darkness in the air.

Your body temperature is lowering.

John Wall Barger

John Wall Barger

John Wall Barger is the author of four books of poetry, including The Mean Game (Palimpsest Press, 2019). His poems and critical writing have appeared in American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review (online), The Hopkins Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rattle, The Cincinnati Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Best of the Best Canadian Poetry. His poem, “Smog Mother,” was co-winner of The Malahat Review’s 2017 Long Poem Prize. He lives in Philadelphia, where he teaches Creative Writing at The University of the Arts. johnwallbarger.com
John Wall Barger

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Author: John Wall Barger

John Wall Barger is the author of four books of poetry, including The Mean Game (Palimpsest Press, 2019). His poems and critical writing have appeared in American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review (online), The Hopkins Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rattle, The Cincinnati Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Best of the Best Canadian Poetry. His poem, “Smog Mother,” was co-winner of The Malahat Review’s 2017 Long Poem Prize. He lives in Philadelphia, where he teaches Creative Writing at The University of the Arts. johnwallbarger.com