Salvador Dalí, “Christ of St. John of the Cross”
A few of us went up to a cabin in Wisconsin, a place located in the mythical “Up North” that Wisconsin natives aver to as if it were guarded by a shroud of fog and, I don’t know, elves. “I am going Up North,” they say with all the conviction of specificity, apparently unaware that lots of things exist in that cardinal direction. Common sense has no power over colloquialisms.
We in any case had made it to this mystic land, which consisted in a small lake and a small cabin and tall trees. A quiet place well worn by the weather, musty and wet, with houses and piers jutting out along the edges of the water to vie for their territories of peace. Our ragtag band of well-educated nerds busied itself with boats and books.
I removed myself from my companions and walked up to the end of the pier. The waters rippled at an angle, troubled by the wind. I breathed deeply, aware of profound troubles beneath the surface. All at once, my sense of location shifted – dislocated – and a new awareness rose up like the waiting silence before an orchestra plays.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness
– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
I felt myself at the edge of poetry. Just at the edge of some broad movement of spirit, a sweep of figure and word. Some illumination of being briefly seen and briefly understood. I know the place well, though I comprehend it less than most anything else. I know the feel of it, the strange electric rush. At once disoriented and awake.
It had been much too long since I had walked these unseen and unspoken spaces. Much too long bereft of movement and stillness. Wandering as one starved or struck blind. I greeted the old sensation as one might the sight of a dear friend: with a heart so filled it splinters. I sat down on the warped wood of the pier as if cut free from strings, stretching out to lay myself down – breathing almost ragged. Tears stung my eyes.
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,
Erhebung without motion, concentration
Without elimination, both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy,
The resolution of its partial horror.
Yet the enchainment of past and future
Woven in the weakness of the changing body
I lay still, arms extended out to grip the wood beams, bracing against the storm of imaginative turns. The water and the sky reeled, and I began to envision their circumincession more radically. I pictured shards of mirrored glass reflecting fragments back and forth endlessly. The world seemed to bend itself inward and catapult back out, vertiginous and painful. I could wrestle none of it to order, affix no meaning. Already rushing against itself – itself the source of the disordered order, churning like the waves and the clouds – my mind sprinted through Dante and Dalí and Thomas Aquinas, as if desperate for a figure who could direct the tempest.
And the poet tightly concealed beneath the theologian simply let the surge run wild. Watching without a word, darkly and delightedly unwilling to command the winds to cease.
“Poets do not experience life like everyone else,” a good friend of mine once said. “They stand at a distance in an experience, alert to it yet removed from it, recording it so that it may be articulated again, like a human seismograph. The rest of us, we exist in the middle of the experience without calculation.”
Often the feeling surfaces and I will hardly give an external reaction, though I am immediately removed to that place of strange awareness and distance. Certainly I will never announce that I have “seen” a poem, since surely that sounds mad. Rarely anyway does the sight remain with me long enough to emerge on a page. Sometimes I must fight it into existence with almost concentrated, methodical violence – pinning it down just long enough for work to be done. Sometimes it performs a sort of violence against me, and I write as if under direction. I don’t know: imagination is weird. I suppose that is the lesson I am attempting to illustrate in my recollection.
At the lake I lost the feeling in a matter of moments, everything slipping away except the memory. Yet another almost-poem, resurrected perhaps in pieces in some future effort or perhaps never again. I felt vaguely as if I had died. (The theologian scowled at the notion.) Weary now, having traversed many miles with neither a movement nor a word, I lifted myself to my feet and returned to my friends.
That night found me restless in the dark, arms stretched out again, reeling. Haunted by an unarticulated desire, harried by unspoken pain.
I could make nothing of it.
Art, I think, is mostly silence.
Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence.