The Trembling Web and the Storage Facility

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The summer 2016 issue of Raritan, Volume XXXVI Number 1, arrived not long ago; and (with a nod to the first sentence of Howards End) one may as well begin there. I only irregularly subscribe to Raritan, but I’m always happy to read the issues which make their way to me because I have work in them. About my two small poems in this particular issue, more later. When I opened the quarterly, the second thing I turned to was an essay with an arresting title: “All Poems End with the Word Paradise.” The author of the essay was Kenneth Gross.

Though I doubt if I’d now recognize him on the street, I knew Kenneth Gross slightly a decade ago and more. Most likely we’d originally crossed paths at a meeting (when I still attended such meetings) of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. The last time I saw Kenneth was when we had a drink together at the MLA convention in Philadelphia in late December 2006. I was at the convention only because I’d agreed to be on a panel devoted to sound effects in the poetry of Wallace Stevens.

It had been a strange, crowded afternoon. Fresh off the train from New York, I’d had lunch near the University of Pennsylvania Medical School with Dr. John Trojanowski, an expert in fronto-temporal dementia whom I’d encountered back in September at a conference in San Francisco devoted to that murky non-Alzheimer’s dementia. As a reluctant recruit to world of FTD in my capacity as a caregiver, I’d been happy to talk to anyone from whom I thought I might learn something. And indeed, in January 2007, I was to take the train to Philly again, this time with my husband, in order to consult Trojanowski’s colleague Murray Grossman, whom I had also met at the FTD conference and who was an expert in the disease.

Today – December 30, 2006 – en route from lunch to the hotel where the panel would take place, I took off one figurative hat and put on another: I emerged from the taxi no longer a harried spousal caregiver but rather a poet and an academic. After the Stevens panel, I went out to dinner with a fellow panelist, Tom Cable, a scholar from Texas whom I’d known for years. With Tom, I headed back to the neighborhood of the University of Pennsylvania, where we ate at the White Dog Café, a beloved haunt of my son’s when he was a student at Swarthmore. After dinner, it was back to the MLA hotel, where Tom had some academic function to attend and where I was to meet Kenneth Gross for a drink. I remember almost nothing of my conversation with Ken. It had been a long day. What I do remember is going back to my hotel room after our drink, turning on the TV, and learning that Saddam Hussein had been hanged.

What a concatenation of memories, then, strung itself together when I read Ken’s name in Raritan! The individual links in the chain are surprisingly vivid, but put them together and the result is as jumbled as a dream. As one gets older, dreams and memories become increasingly indistinguishable anyway. The occasions mashed together or juxtaposed; the different roles I was playing; the varied fields of knowledge, each with its distinct vocabulary and bibliography, each impinging on my life from a different direction, each with its own kind of urgency: had this congeries been in abeyance for the decade that had elapsed from 2006 to 2016? I do remember that beneath the patchy surface of the events of that December day was the constant pulse of anxiety, also dreamlike but all too real: who was looking after my husband at home? No doubt one of the aides I’d recently begun hiring from an agency called Home Instead. Instead of what? That was never specified – it didn’t need to be. A year later, in January 2008, at the end of my rope, I’d opt for that Instead.

December 2006 marked the end of a year spent busily acquiring knowledge, or at least names. As if words could make a difference, I’d been wanting since early 2005 to learn a precise name for my husband’s diagnosis. That search was what had taken me to San Francisco in September 2006. For the first time in twenty-five years, I’d skipped the first week of classes at Rutgers and gotten on a plane. I remember sitting in a bar on the top floor of the hotel where the dementia conference was being held. Watching the fog roll in from the bay, I chatted with two California men whose wives suffered from the same murky malady as my husband. I learned a lot at that conference, but even there, the focus gradually and inexorably shifted from the elusive condition or conditions called FTD to the more mundane challenges of how to cope from day to day. Indeed, only when George’s brain was autopsied, in the fall of 2011, was it possible to ascertain that he had after all been suffering not from FTD but from Alzheimer’s, albeit an “abnormal presentation.” And it no longer mattered. In the absence of anything resembling a cure, it had never mattered.

As if words could make a difference. But for me they always have made all the difference in the world – that is, in one of the worlds that brought me to Philadelphia on the next to last day of 2006. That realm is the place where the practical problems of day to day living, the flurry and babble of scientific nomenclature and the euphemisms of the caregiving world, fall away, and where what prevails is a strangely tranquil landscape which both is and is not personal and timely. It is the realm which Gross’s essay so eloquently evokes and celebrates. It is the realm of poetry.

The ostensible subject of Gross’s Raritan essay is Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, a poem that does indeed end with the word “paradise.” But as Gross hyperbolically suggests midway through his essay (and the hyperbole is echoed in his title), there is a sense in which all poems are one, so that all poems end with this word. He writes:

I have a bad habit of finding in any poem that really absorbs me, if only for a moment, the archetype of all other poems, a kind of insistent double or shadow of them. It is as if that one poem were simultaneously the only poem and all poems.

Before settling down to discuss Kubla Khan, Gross describes reading a plethora of poems during what sounds like a sabbatical leave, when he is “free for a season to wander…taking up books by impulse and whim rather than a fixed plan.” He’s in search of “something very basic…call it poetry’s way of knowing.” But he finds himself becalmed in the midst of “too many poems, and too many books about poems,” until his partner Liza challenges him to name the one poem he can’t do without – the “poem of many, one,” as Coleridge’s friend Wordsworth in his Immortality Ode memorably refers to a tree which is, in Gross’s words, simultaneously the only tree and all trees. That poem turns out to be Kubla Khan.

Given the bad habit Gross confesses to of finding in any absorbing poem the archetype of other poems, his essay inevitably opens out from Kubla Khan to talk about how all poems behave, so that, as he puts it, “a single lyric seems to offer an idiosyncratic diagram of a larger, still unknown landscape.” Thus for Gross in this mood, all poems are composed after having fallen asleep over a book; all poems are pleasure domes under threat; somewhere in all poems there is an “oh;” all poems fix their design in water; and so on.

And though my own tendency, especially when I’m teaching, is not to equate all poems to all other poems but on the contrary to distinguish how differently different poems set about expressing what they have to express, doing the work they do, nevertheless I found Gross’s “bad habit” intriguing and contagious. I especially liked the notion that all poems are written after falling asleep over a book. (One thinks, for example, of the “mysterious dream” in Il Penseroso, waving “at his wings in airy stream…”) A lot of prose gets written that way too – not quite literally after falling asleep, but after opening a book and letting it lead you where you seem to want or need to go. After all, I chanced to see Gross’s essay only because it happened to be in the same issue of Raritan as my poems. Fortuitous, contingent – but then such contingency is of the essence of intertextuality, to give a cumbersome and needlessly abstract name to the being or the dynamic also known as the Library Angel. I encountered this term in Robert Moss’s book The Three ‘Only’ Things: Tapping the Power of Dreams, Coincidence and Imagination. When we approach books with enough fervor, Moss writes, “the benign entity that Arthur Koestler called the Library Angel becomes more and more active, ensuring that the book we need appears, or falls open at the right page, just when we need it.” Just where Koestler says this Moss doesn’t reveal. No doubt some Library Angel knows.

As I paged through Raritan, what next caught my eye was a long, ambitious poem by Gabriel Levin, a name that sounded familiar. Levin (my exact contemporary, born in 1948) turned out to be the son of the novelist Meyer Levin, whose 1956 novel Compulsion, about the Leopold and Loeb case, I suddenly remembered having gulped down a few years after it first appeared. I also remembered that my late husband’s father had gone to the same Chicago high school that Leopold and/or Loeb had attended – a connection as random as the fact that I’d last seen Ken Gross on the same day that Saddam Hussein was executed. In the spider web of contingency, literature and life nudge up against one another, the web trembles, and we use one kind of experience to anchor another one.

“Experience,” writes Henry James in The Art of Fiction, “is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue.”

Levin’s poem, appropriately entitled What Drew Me On, was long and complex. I understood right away that it was ambitious and accomplished, but I couldn’t easily or quickly wrap my mind around the four very different sections of the poem, some themselves subdivided.

What I did absorb – what drew me on – was Levin’s “By Way of a Preface,” a prose paragraph which explains that his inspiration for the poem was the work of Tel Aviv artist Tamara Rikman. At its very inception, then, Levin’s poem could be described as the result of a collaboration – a meeting of artistic minds as unexpected as it was fruitful. Here, perhaps, the Library Angel was at work in the realm of visual art as well.

Levin was inspired by Rikman’s art; but as he recounts how he conceived his poem, its chief sources seem to have been literary. He writes: “The skeleton of a poem appeared to be taking shape: a twelfth-century Hebrew poem had come to mind in which the poet contemplates the stars through the tattered holes of his overcoat, which in turn led me to Plato’s magnificent “Vision of Er” at the end of the Republic. “

The antecedent of that second “which” could be either the overcoat or the Hebrew poem – no matter. All poems, Gross reminds us even if he calls the perception a bad habit, are types of other poems. Follow the web of texts (both words that refer to weaving), and you’ll stumble onto unexpected turnings and connections. A thread can guide you deeper into the labyrinth, or through it. “I just follow the thread,” says Curdie’s mother in The Princess and the Goblin. Wife and mother of miners, Mrs. Peterson is adept at untangling the balls of thread (the clues, in the original sense of the word) her husband and son use to guide them through the darkness of the mine.

I put down Raritan, got out of bed, padded down the long hall to the living room, and pulled Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns’s edition of the Collected Dialogues of Plato off the shelf. Back in bed, I found the Vision of Er.

Had I really never read this astonishing – what to call it? Passage is an inadequate word. Interlude? Fantasia? Better just settle on myth.

Texts are and are not as easy to forget as the person with whom one shared a drink at a conference a decade ago. They go in and out of focus; but texts are more permanent than people are, and much more patient. They wait until the Library Angel taps you on the shoulder.

Reading along in Er, I was stopped by a word:

And a man must take with him to the house of death an adamantine faith in this, that even there he may be undazzled by riches and similar trumpery… (Republic 619a, Paul Shorey translation)

I’d always liked “trump”as a verb, as in my oft-repeated dictum to students that in poetry the how trumps the what. But I’d recently begun to feel that I could no longer use this bumptiously vigorous monosyllable with impunity. It grated, it thumped, it echoed. And now here was another splendid word that had come to smell fishy: trumpery. Isn’t this a word that Caliban uses, disgusted that Stephano and Trinculo are so attracted, near the end of The Tempest, by the sparkly clothes hanging on the line? I had to check, and I padded down the hall again. It turned out to be Prospero who uses the word “trumpery” when he’s giving instructions to Ariel: “The trumpery in my house, go bring it hither/For stale to catch these thieves.” (IV.i.186-7). Later in the same scene, though, Caliban calls the gaudy clothing “trash” and “luggage.” So my memory hadn’t been too far off.

I checked to see what other translators of The Republic had made of what Shorey calls trumpery. Cornford has “wealth and such-like evils;” Grube has “wealth and similar evils;” Bloom has “wealth and such evils;” Reeve has “wealth and other such evils.” “Trumpery” was, I had to admit, more vigorous and memorable than any of these other versions.

By way of his reference to the Vision of Er, Gabriel Levin had taken me on a circuitous route and, via the vagaries of translation, to an unexpected if temporary dead end. Here was a word I was very tired of hearing and reading staring me in the face. Not Levin’s fault; certainly not Plato’s; not even Paul Shorey’s. Blame the Library Angel.

But as that angel and every reader knows, words always lead on to other words. If the word “trumpery” presented a nasty little cul de sac, the Vision of Er as a whole opened a vast territory of imagination. Kenneth Gross writes, as I’ve already quoted, that “A single lyric seems to offer an idiosyncratic diagram of a larger, still unknown landscape” – and what is Er’s vision if not an expansive and transcendent unknown landscape? If the proper name of a dreadful man brings one up short, then all the more reason to remember that there is a world elsewhere, and that that world is enormous.

Earlier in the Vision of Er, we are told that “the souls clean and pure… appeared to have come as it were from a long journey and gladly departed to the meadow and encamped there as at a festival, and acquaintances greeted one another, and those which came from the earth questioned the others about conditions up yonder, and those from heaven asked how it fared with those others.” (614e) Reading this, I realized that Robert Frost’s magnificent (and almost never anthologized) early poem “The Trial by Existence” is rich with Platonic echoes, with its “light forever…morning light” and its hills “verdured pasture-wise” and its “slant spirits trooping by/In streams and cross- and counter-streams.” A more obvious echo of the Er passage in “The Trial by Existence” can be found in the beautiful couplet “The light of heaven falls whole and white/And is not shattered into dyes,” where we can, in turn, surely hear Shelley’s Adonais. Frost had probably read Plato; he had certainly read Shelley, who had certainly read Plato.

The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of eternity…

And Shelley’s dome takes us back to Kubla Khan, written in 1797, when Shelley was five years old. The light (white in Shelley and Frost); the dome (shared by Coleridge and Shelley); the paradisiacal sense shared by all these poems – all such elements probably ultimately derive from Plato. But since poems comprise an infinitely spacious realm, the derivation allows for some unexpected twists and turns in the mind and memory of each reader. Here is Gross on the single word “dome” in Kubla Khan:

The word “dome”…seemed to name not just a high, spherical roof but a whole realm, a home of sorts (though I didn’t know the word’s source in the Latin domus). And how could you decree a “dome”? The august warrior-emperor Kubla decreeing that place of pleasure reminded me a little of the sick child who shapes a world with toys and blankets in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Land of Counterpane,” a poem I also read early, though I didn’t really know what a counterpane was, and imagined that it had something to do with pain.

Allusion, intertextuality, echo; the gently meandering or crazily zigzagging path (or the patchwork counterpane) from one passage to another: in this realm, a single word (and not only “trumpery”) can do a remarkable amount of work. As one of my students wrote in a line I later appropriated for a cento, “It’s an impossibility to map the mind.” Still, from large motions of the mind (“large-mannered motions of [Jove’s] mythy mind,” as Wallace Stevens puts it in Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction), there’s a trail for us to follow, as if we were Hansel and Gretel following breadcrumbs. Kenneth Gross, in the same issue of Raritan as my poems, took me to Levin. Levin took me to Er, which led me through heavenly spaces back to Kubla Khan and hence back to Gross.

The breadcrumb Gross ends with is the word “milk,” as in “drunk the milk of Paradise,” the magical final line of Kubla Khan. Perhaps it is that mention of milk, Gross writes, that puts him in mind of James Merrill’s “Lost in Translation,” a poem that as Gross notes “ends with a reverie on missing puzzle pieces, lost notes, lost words and books, lost names, buried truths, things lost in translation, and also things revived, built in air” – and isn’t that pleasure dome also built in air? Merrill’s poem ends with waste miraculously turning “to shade and fiber, milk and memory.”

That milk, Gross doesn’t mention, is coconut milk, for surely the palm in question is a coconut palm. But the lost poem he (Gross) does mention is Rilke’s translation into German of Valery’s poem Palme. Merrill writes in “Lost in Translation” that he has been unable to locate a copy of the Rilke translation in Athens (those were the days before the Internet). Merrill’s epigraph, though, is taken from his memory (memories having been stronger in the pre-Internet era) of Rilke’s translation of four superb lines from Palme. In Valery’s French, they read:

Ces jours qui te semblent vides
Et perdus pour l’univers
Ont des raciness avides
Qui travaillent les deserts.

Or in Merrill’s own translation, since he was himself to translate Palme:

These days which, like yourself,
Seem empty and effaced,
Have avid roots which delve
To work deep in the waste.

I was pleased to notice recently that the rich phrase “to work deep in the waste” was used by a reviewer writing in the Bellevue Literary Review on two books of poetry about trauma. In recycling their suffering into art, the reviewer said, referencing Merrill but probably not thinking about Valery or a palm in the desert, the poets had, she observed, worked deep in the waste. The reviewer had herself repurposed Merrill’s transformation of Valery’s line.

“Milk and memory” at the end of “Lost in Translation”: does that phrase (in addition to summoning Valery’s coconut palm) echo Coleridge’s “milk of paradise”? Very possibly. Or it could be an unconscious echo – they happen all the time.

What about the two poems of mine that had brought Raritan into the house in the first place? One, “Embarkation,” was wholly occasioned – really, wholly inspired – by my having seen Jodorowsky’s film The Dance of Life. Why didn’t I say as much in an epigraph? Was I trying to make my poem either more accessible or mysterious than it would have been with a helpful note? Why, in other words, didn’t I write a little version of something like Gabriel Levin’s “By Way of a Preface?” Why indeed?

My other Raritan poem, “Route 2B,” has more local roots than “Embarkation”; there really is a Route 2B near the house in Vermont where we spend summers. Yet “Route 2B” also draws upon dream material – and besides, isn’t 2B inevitably a reference, however involuntary, to Hamlet? Almost any given word in Hamlet has been used as a rich source of allusion. Ian MacEwen’s new novel, a spinoff of Hamlet, is entitled Nutshell, a pithy one-word allusion. “Oh god,” says the Prince to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” A single word or a pair of words – “nutshell,” “2B’ – opens the door to a literary realm, a kingdom of the imagination, one more tendril of the immense web.

In addition to literary echoes, and on what might seem a more practical plane, “Route 2B” evinces a not-so-veiled preoccupation with what Marie Kondo, in her recent global best-seller about de-cluttering, rather euphemistically (or is that just her translator?) calls “tidying up”: I write “Clear out/the attic, shed, storage facility.” The infinite space, the avid roots, the pleasure dome, the paradise – they are hard to find, they’re invisible, they’re interior. They lie in wait in allusions, memories, and echoes – echoes both intentional and inadvertent. The best storage facility for these unexpected riches, these patient dividends of reading and dreaming, is the same realm, or part of the same realm, as James’s huge spider-web – a place where things may be captured but nothing is necessarily lost. That place is poetry.

With thanks to Ryan Wilson for his helpful edits and his apt suggestions
of references to “Il Penseroso” and James’s “The Art of Fiction.”