Saturday, June 25, 2011
after you move your eye
A hallway runs through this flat from the front door to the room at the back, and as I was walking down that hallway yesterday I thought of the word telescope in my last post and gradually I felt worried. It seemed important that I should turn on the computer and change telescope to magnifying glass straight away, otherwise people would think that I didn't know what I was talking about, I thought.
But reading the post I saw that it was not telescope I had written but telescoping, and so magnifying glass would not be able to replace it, because the word I needed, which would have been magnifying-glassing, did not exist, and even if I had claimed my right to domination over my own small bit of language and invented the word I wanted, the sentence as a whole would have become obscured by this distracting showboat of a phrase, doing me no good and doing it no good either, and not helping anyone who tried to make sense out of me, in fact ruining everything. I had been reading several books of poetry by the American poet Louise Glück, and for a 2006 collection named Averno I remembered that she had written a poem called Telescope, in which the poem's "you" takes a telescope away from their eye and feels a vertiginous unreality. "There is a moment after you move your eye away / when you forget where you are / because you've been living, it seems, / somewhere else, in the silence of the night sky," she writes.
The telescope has given you a sense of closeness, she says, but that closeness is false; you do not live in the night sky with the planetary bodies; you are not "participating in their stillness, their immensity" as you imagined. Gradually the you realises that its sense of identification and unity was false, and as it achieves its quietude the poet concludes like this: "You see again how far away / each thing is from every other thing."
But as long as you had the telescope to your eye you had an equivalent of metaphor: disparate objects had been persuaded to unite, or to exist in the same place. We cannot live in metaphor, we are apart, every poor metaphor is fighting against the separating powers of the universe, all microscopic pinpoints snubbing one another and rolling around like grapes on a tray. Two of the writers I've read recently have gone out of their way to say that metaphor is important to poetry. One was Jorge Luis Borges and the other was Susan Sontag, and their examples were so similar that I wondered if Sontag, whose speech (she was accepting the Jerusalem Prize) was published decades after the Argentinian died, had found the idea in the same place that I did, the 1967-8 Norton lectures that came out with Borges' photograph on the cover over the title, This Craft of Verse.
But perhaps that is impossible, because the lectures were left in a recorded form for "more than thirty years" said Calin-André Mihailescu, the man who arranged the publication, "the tapes gathering dust in the quiet ever-after of a library vault" and so Verse didn't come out until 2002, one year after Sontag received her prize. The similarity seemed so great while I was reading it, however, that I wanted to believe she had somehow known, a message getting through, maybe a verbal report, but why would anyone bother to hold onto that nugget of information for thirty years, "Borges said that metaphor was essential to poetry, and he used such and such specific examples"? Or was she there in the audience, her mind clinging to this part of the lecture for decades before she found a use for it?
"One difference [between poetry and prose] lies in the role of metaphor," she wrote, "which, I would argue, is necessary to poetry. Indeed, in my view, it is the task -- one of the tasks -- of the poet, to invent metaphors." Borges says more or less the same thing but he comes to it out of a discussion of Leopoldo Lugones an Argentine poet who composed hundreds of new metaphors for writers to use when they referred to the moon.
Sontag also refers to the moon. I would like to bring out examples to prove my point about their similarity but both books were due back at the library about a week ago.
It's probably a coincidence and I don't want to use that as an excuse to dismiss it. What a strange thing. (But I know from past experiences that if I borrowed the two books again and tried to find the similarities I would be left wondering what I thought I had seen -- "These aren't alike; this is tenuous.")
Emily Dickinson's metaphors conduct the shrinking and growing effect that I was trying to get at with my telescoping and magnifying glass. Now I try to approach the idea of violence in her work, my impression that her metaphors, which jam objects together in startling ways, are violent towards their material, sadistic even, and I tell myself that if she could speak to the Abbey in He parts Himself -- like Leaves she would say, "You want to be strong stone because you are an abbey, but I will maintain a grip on you and with my powers I will turn you into quaintest Floss." She is sadistic with whimsy, I decided. What can I compare that to? A burning giraffe entered my head. Surrealism! What is an Abbey made of Floss? It is as weird as "the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella," Lautréamont's phrase that was borrowed with honours by André Breton, the strangeness of that, and the threat inherent in those ridiculous objects, the sewing machine with its stabbing needles, and the dissection table, which is, after all, a table where things are dissected. Surrealist whimsy is not kind, it loves to startle you with its viciousness, it takes a man and replaces his face with an apple, or it teases the Mona Lisa with a moustache, it dares you to underestimate it and call it childish, ludicrous, and silly, and so does Emily Dickinson, who sometimes seems to be a girl of about six exclaiming, "How happy is the little stone / That rambles in the road alone." In his introduction to her Complete Works, Thomas H. Johnson tells me that her famous correspondent Thomas Wentworth Higginson "was never convinced that she wrote poetry. As he phrased his opinion to a friend, her verses were 'remarkable, though odd … too delicate -- not strong enough to publish.'"