September 16, 2015KR BlogUncategorized

Kayak Morning Blog Post #5: The Bird Who Hesitates Is Not Lost

Throughout this month, we’ll be using the blog to have a conversation about Roger Rosenblatt’s Kayak Morning. Rosenblatt will receive the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement in New York City on November 5, and he will be in Gambier on October 2-3 to give a keynote address at the Kenyon Review Literary Festival.

While in this corner, a crow with the head of a gambler addresses a waterlogged tree trunk and takes a peck. He’s in charge, and he knows it. After a night of whoring, booze, and Texas Hold ’Em, he is ready for the new day of dissipation. No crisis of conscience disturbs his plans. He harbors no guilt, no remorse. Never humbled, he does not eat…he chuckles at the thought. He asks himself no philosophical question–is there life after crows? He has no politics. He does not vote. His education is limited. He has read neither John Dryden nor Edmund Spenser, not even John Ransom. (“Why, son, Crowe is mah middle name!”) He yearns for nothing he cannot have. Prince of Halloween, he is impervious to insults. Unloved, unadmired, inelegant (that voice!). He could not care less. Born a crow, die a crow. A crow in every feature. He surveys the world that was designed for crows—telephone wires, jungle gyms, meadows of flowers, harvests, roadkill—all created with crows in mind. He licks no wounds. He misses no one. The black sheen of his morning coat fits him like a glove. (Kayak Morning, 97-98)

At KR, we like our crows. It’s the legacy of Ransom (“Why, son, Crowe is mah middle name!”), along with the fact that our online magazine is called KRO. And then there’s this:

But what’s that thieving, dissipated crow doing in Kayak Morning, a book about mourning a beloved daughter while paddling up a creek in a tiny boat? One the one hand, the crow is a figure of some envy for Rosenblatt as he paddles along, brooding on the deepest questions of grief, memory and how to endure the pain of loss. The crow asks no philosophical questions (“is there life after crows”), licks no wounds, misses no one, yearns for nothing he cannot have. How nice it must be to see the world through a crow’s black and merciless eyes. This brutal world is made for crows, not for grieving fathers. And this crow seems a figure of death itself: “He harbors no guilt, no remorse. Never humbled, he does not eat… Prince of Halloween, he is impervious to insults… The black sheen of his morning coat fits him like a glove.” Don’t go playing Texas Hold ’Em with this crow, or chess if you should find yourself along a rocky Swedish coastline: he’ll take everything you’ve got – hopes, dreams, daughter, life itself. Carrion bird, he feeds on the world.

Ginny, Rosenblatt’s wife, sees their daughter’s spirit in cardinals. “When the bird flies into view, she smiles. Jessie, Sammy, and James know this about her. They will call out, ‘Mimi! There’s a cardinal!’ Death in a billion cardinals. Death in thrushes, tulips, breezes.” Where Ginny sees that flash of a bright red wing and smiles, Rosenblatt sees only death, black as a crow.

Readers of the poet Ted Hughes may remember that he devoted his own period of mourning and guilt after the death of Sylvia Plath to personifying another crow, a trickster figure – creator, destroyer, comedian, inventor of sex, witness to our pain, born of a nightmare to embody all that is unbearable in life. Here is Hughes’s Crow getting fitted with his own morning suit:

Examination at the Womb-Door

Who owns those scrawny little feet? Death.
Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face? Death.
Who owns these still-working lungs? Death.
Who owns this utility coat of muscles? Death.
Who owns these unspeakable guts? Death.
Who owns these questionable brains? Death.
All this messy blood? Death.
These minimum-efficiency eyes? Death.
This wicked little tongue? Death.
This occasional wakefulness? Death.

Given, stolen, or held pending trial?

Who owns the whole rainy, stony earth? Death.
Who owns all of space? Death.

Who is stronger than hope? Death.
Who is stronger than the will? Death.
Stronger than love? Death.
Stronger than life? Death.

But who is stronger than Death?
Me, evidently.
Pass, Crow.

Like all of us, Crow must acknowledge Death’s dominion over the world, over our hopes, our will, our love, even life itself, to enter this bleeding world. And yet, simply by living, Crow proves himself, for a moment at least, stronger than death. Similarly, to gaze at a crow is to see merciless death in a clownish disguise. Is that all death is? Dip your oar, and move on. You’ll see him again.

But this crow serves another function in Kayak Morning. He’s what we might call a focal point: a small thing on which the writer fixes his eye, his mind, and his imagination, when the big things are too vast, too painful to contemplate. Here’s the paragraph that follows our encounter with the crow:

Is this France, Albuquerque, or Greece? I paddle to the mouth of the creek and stare eagerly toward the canal, and beyond. A few strokes and I am in Portugal. A few more, China. Where is my spirit of adventure? Time was, I would go anywhere, especially alone. I would go anywhere alone. My eyes burned. I could see into the dark. The tip of my kayak touches the crosscurrents. The sun flecks the water like salmon skins. All it would take is a stretch of the forearms. Yet I paddle backward into the creek. (98)

How do you look at death, at grief, and the huge expanse of time that comprises a life lived under the weight of this emotional pain? The simple answer, for a writer, is that you don’t. You paddle up to the mouth of the creek, gaze out across that vast expanse of open water, then turn your boat and paddle back up the narrow creek that can be safely navigated. A writing lesson: talk about small things, like a single crow, and your words can stretch to contain all that lies beyond.

What makes a writer? It’s the impulse to see into the dark, to go anywhere, alone. But the dark we see into when we write is nothing more than the black of a crow’s eye. There is a deeper dark, a lonelier alone, and once you’ve seen into that vastness, you know how easy it would be to drown there. So you paddle your tiny boat right up to the place where the current meets the tide, rest there, feeling the pull of that vast and deadly ocean, too large for such a small craft: At sea in the fig. sense of “perplexed” is attested from 1768, from lit. sense of “out of sight of land.” At sea: lost. (113) And then you turn back. Fix your gaze on small things. See as the crow sees, with his beady, greedy eye.

The mind, as one writes, is in flight, soaring, predatory, eyes bright with the glint of the sun and the hope of what might, any moment, break cover below, darting away in terror as you fold your wings and dive upon it. Small animals, big ideas. Rosenblatt tells us:

There’s only one point to writing. It allows you to do impossible things. Sure, most of the time it’s chimney sweeping and dung removal. Or plastering. A lot of the time, writing is plastering or caulking or pointing up the bricks. But every so often there is a moment in the dead of morning when everything is as still as starlight and something invades your room, like a bird that has flown through the window, and you are filled with as much joy as panic. And then you think: I can do anything. (127)

Anything, that is, except make sense of grief. Typically, in the next paragraph, Rosenblatt takes it all back: “I told a class of mine: writing makes sorrow endurable, evil intelligible, justice desirable, and love possible. I talk the talk.” What he tells his class of eager young writers might sound good in the classroom, but at some level, it’s a lie. Writing can’t make sorrow endurable. A book can’t replace a child, or keep her alive. Writing isn’t consolation; it’s flight. And even birds have their moments of doubt:

On the creek, the birds too hesitate. Customarily they seem all flight and motion, yet like everyone, they come to a dead stop from time to time, deciding where to go next. You see them clearly when they hesitate—the cocked head of the egret, the glazed eyes. A taxidermist’s dream, they pause between the past and something else. You can say they are only themselves when they use their wings, but they are no less birds in this. The bird who hesitates is not lost. I watch them, still as an egret. (137)

Even in stillness, a bird is still a bird. But watching them, a grieving father becomes, just for a moment, something else. Look closely enough at the things of this world, and you become one of them, even as your mind tries to escape, take shelter in abstractions, or deliver itself to death, that all-consuming sea. So what makes sorrow endurable? Small things. Paddle your tiny boat, move your pen across the page, weep, praise, be alive with memory. “Water heals itself,” so stay close to the water, close to the birds. That’s a writer’s lesson “—Say it, no ideas but in things—“ but it’s also the lesson of time, of grief, of small boats and thieving crows. It’s a kind of trick, a sleight of hand, by which we defeat death and squeeze that vast ocean of pain into something smaller, just the size of a creek, which our hearts can manage. Most of all, though, it is what we learn from love, as the smallest things in our memories – a daughter’s smile, the way she skipped stones on the water, the way she tossed her head back when she laughed – can not only allow you to hold your place against that rushing tide, but move forward:

Love conquers death… This morning when I climbed into my kayak and headed out, I knew that I would be going nowhere, as I have been going nowhere for the past two and a half years. But my love for my daughter makes somewhere out of nowhere. In this boat, on this creek, I am moving forward, even as I am moving in circles. Amy returns in my love, alive and beautiful. I have her still. (146)

Who is stronger than Death?
Me, evidently.
Pass, Crow.

Read the next post in this series here.

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