June 22, 2009KR BlogKR

Sun Break

In an 1856 letter to Emerson, Whitman wrote, “As for me, I love screaming, wrestling, boiling-hot days.” Those days haven’t yet arrived — at least not in the Berkshires, where it’s been rainy and cool. Still, the calendar announces that summer has come in — and not for the first time, either:

I too saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams,
Look’d at the fine centrifugal spokes of light around the shape of my head in the sun-lit water

(Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”).

When I take the ferry from Anacortes, Washington, to San Juan Island, as I do at least once each summer, I read aloud Whitman’s great ghost-poem to the future. Sometimes the “centrifugal spokes of light” appear; sometimes the sea-birds “fly sideways, or wheel in large circles high in the air.” Always Whitman feels near, feels questioning:

Closer yet I approach you;
What thought you have of me, I had as much of you — I laid in my stores in advance;
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.

Who was to know what should come home to me?
Who knows but I am enjoying this?
Who knows but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?

Later, on the island, the day’s dazzle gives way to a special kind of dark, as glimpsed in this haiku by Issa:

Summer night —
even the stars
are whispering to each other.

Summer is a time of fluidity, of new arrangements. It’s a holiday from reality. Colson Whitehead tracks these small moments of license in his new novel, Sag Harbor, an autobiographical coming-of-age story set in the summer of ’85. When the summer ends, the novel ends, too. Whitehead’s narrator, Benji, emerges slightly wiser, prepared for what John Berryman calls “the world of Fall.” Compare Benji’s prospects to those of the title character in John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” By the story’s end, Neddy Merrill has lost his youth, his family, and his mind. The summer world of roses has given way to “some stubborn autumnal fragrance,” “strong as gas.” Neddy looks up at the night sky. “What had become of the constellations of midsummer? He began to cry.” (From the film version’s trailer: “When you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about [slight pause] yourself?” For a recent discussion of the story on Slate, click here.)

But you don’t have to go on a demented dead-end swim to understand that summer gives way to fall. The transition may even be a welcome one. In Philip Larkin’s “Mother, Summer, I,” the narrator concludes:

Too often summer days appear
Emblems of perfect happiness
I can’t confront: I must await
A time less bold, less rich, less clear:
An autumn more appropriate.

Jack Gilbert‘s “Alba” moves similarly:

After a summer with happy people,
I rush back, scared, gulping
down pain wherever I can get it.

Is John Haines’ “Trees Are People and People Are Trees” a summer poem? A near-fall poem? The trees (or people, really) are fully in bloom — and a bit eerie. Russell Edson takes Haines’ conceit to its fantastic, illogical conclusion in “The Fall.”

And while it has nothing to do with this post, did you catch Paul Muldoon on The Colbert Report last week? Quite wonderful. Watch it soon; the days are already growing shorter.

dark day 2.jpg