October 23, 2010KR Blog

Radio, Net, Siren

Does a poem express the self or create it? What happens when we read “I?” A few days ago, I sent Caryl the following note about The Shadow of Sirius. My words are in bold, below, with her gently inserted enjambments corresponding between. Are Merwin’s poems similar collaborations, not between two people but between a person and nature, language and time? ZS

Dear Caryl,

I mean to ask you about Merwin and the self, the “I” which is both word alone and a sense that rings through other tones, as though phrases said at the right frequency can cancel out one’s throat, even as they come from it. If I hum in harmonics with an air conditioner–can I create a quieter chord? I have two starting thoughts.

A thought before your thoughts, ZS: this getting-to-a-question reminds me of a poem that I return to over and over when thinking about the form “I” that exists in life and in poetry–or, the form of the world that “I” relates. Should I quote it in full? It is the first from a book called Aversions by Devin Johnston:


When talking to myself,

I take a tone I’ve learned

from you–not of boyish charm,

but probing and sever–

to say, some things are clear

and some withdrawn from sight.

A cyclist is only such

while seated on a bike,

a sleeper while asleep.

These forms are only forms

fulfilled, as you are now

no more than this–a tone.

(1) In Merwin, a sense of self, that is more than mind and speech, sometimes juts poignantly, with the effect at the end of Keats’ “This living hand,” the self suddenly present after attention to sound and time have been carrying themselves away. E.g., the end of “Still Morning” (“silent now / while I go on seeing that patch of sunlight”). At other times, despite the book’s full cache of (autobiographical) memory, this self seems mostly vessel, a vehicle for song to start from, the subject required if ones wishes a verb to follow. Is this true and how does it seem to you?

It is true, and it seems so. When I take a long walk through streets of my city (Milwaukee), my eyes trace the angles of skyscrapers, I round each corner with curiosity or boredom or expectation, and try always out of habit to catch a glimpse of the lake (Michigan). I listen to music or a book on my iPod, think about that day’s class, or you, or “you,” or a line I’ve been working on writing. I watch the patient waiters at the bus stop, the weather, plan trips, and am called back to the last walk and what I was considering in that same spot. I hear voices, imagine conversation, invent visions of things that are not there, and am surprised by things that are. I forget myself as I go, but am never not. I end up somewhere. Sometime. When I think of the self in Merwin, or, Merwin’s self, I see his attempt at capturing the rhythm, the pace of thinking, the “taken” over sense of the self when the world requires it. I don’t know how to describe it (this “I”) exactly. Vessel, yes, in a way, but not just. Not merely container–but medium? Radio? Net? Siren?

In The Shadows of Sirius (and most poetry), I (I?) don’t prefer the purely autobiographical. The re-telling or living document of memory. I don’t know why. Perhaps, like Darcie, this seems like subject (attempt at fact?) better captured in prose (?). I like to see the effects of the having of the memory upon, with a re-tuning (harmonizing with the air conditioner?) because of, but also with presence of body (eye/heart/ear/tremor), occurrence of time(s), and imagination (future). So: you tell me how I feel about I or Merwin’s I–(an “I” attempts to enter into another’s “view”= interview? ((I’m sorry)))–if, in The Shadows of Sirius my taste runs to the mind-figuring-out-self-in-time over the mind-explaining-memory, or “My Hand” over “Shadow Hand,” “Cold Spring Morning” over “The Pinnacle,” etc.

Merwin has an active relationship with voices, and with listening for the after-effects or shadows (apparitions) of those “I”s that still speak to him. He attempts to relate the act of listening to the past tones as they act the present, which is more unusual and impossible than simply what happened. So, the poem you mentioned is a nice example of the self acting as balance or counterweight to consciousness–the self is shown coming out of trance, waking up, coming to, or back into self or body. And, I appreciate how this happens both in the poem (to Merwin) and to the reader. We come out of hum together–but how was the whole world occurring in a separate time?

From “A Note from the Cimmerians”:

By the time it gets to us

we can make nothing of it

but questions or else it makes

us turn out to be only

questions that we are helpless

not to ask

in the first place

is it real which is to say

is it authentic which is

to say is it from someone

not one of us and if so

how do we know that and where

has it come from“

(2) “From the Start” has stuck with me. Recalling his early poem “Memory of Spring” (“The first composer / could hear only what he could write”), it shows one who writes “words for singing” for people he does not know. In standing to sing, they already know his words. It concludes “while they sing they have no names.” A view of the communal, the unconscious? How song obliterates? Elsewhere, we see song represented as spelling out the self–”Me me,” the bird says, crying out the simple present, particulate self, as though identity that becomes nameless in singing names itself in the basic notes of song? Oh, respond to any of this.

At heart, I’m curious if any of this feels relevant for your writing–do words convey a self that speaks or do they take its place? Poetry as mining the self or keeping it at a necessary distance, so some wind can come between me and me?

Miss you,

The tone of another (of one who is gone or absent or was only ever voice or words or memory) is still a physical thing, a sound–as in Johnston’s poem (above)–and may embody the body of another, becoming (fulfilling? contributing to? disrupting?) that person’s “I,” while still acknowledging the space of the original “I” (the person who suffers the body and recognizes/takes on the tone). So, what “I” isn’t existing with other “I” (making one I the vessel, or just a source/public space?). I don’t know. Am I an I or a we? Am I an eye or form? Am I a past or mined mind? Am I an I or this question?

These problems are difficult for me (me me), and not for lack of struggling with these very questions. Perhaps this is poetry? This me-anxiety? The most honest way I have of thinking about it is that yes, words convey a self that is a self and has a body (importantly! a body acts you through your song! a body creates life! a body can destroy! a body chokes out words!) and an aesthetic and politic. But–where is this self in time? Can it actually, through words, break out of time and space (the body) and create other time, and space, and reality? This is why lines in the road, balconies, boundaries, limits, and forms are important. I have eyes–I see–but what I see is not always what is there, or has ever been there or will be. Often when writing I feel full/certain of body/eye/self, but still invisible (trapped in my mind)? Ugh. Help! Me is in emergency.