During this social distancing period, I have been seeking escape in fiction and resolve in non-fiction, but also turning to poetry for something else. Poetry distills experience, and also focuses the gaze in such a way as to make a familiar thing new or uncanny or reformed. Right now, I find in seeing the world with new eyes a way to make sense during this very strange experience we are all having a version of.
A few poems have been halting me in my tracks, like this one from Mary Oliver that swept my breath away.
I Go Down to the Shore
I go down to the shore in the morningFrom A Thousand Mornings
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
“Excuse me, I have work to do.”
This poem reminds me of my smallness in the grand scheme of things, the smallness of my problems, but in a way that frees rather than judges. The sea has its work to do. I do too.
I also share the “Eighth Elegy” of Rainer Maria Rilke from his Duino Elegies, which punched me in the throat when I expected a leisurely dip over morning coffee. This poem questions our avoidance of simply being and how we got this way. Rilke compares us to animals and the natural world, which exist in pure presentness, without fear of death or the future. He writes:
With all its eyes the natural world looks out
into the Open. Only our eyes are turned
backward, and surround plant, animal, child
like traps, as they emerge into their freedom.
We know what is really out there only from
the animal’s gaze; for we take the very young
child and force it around, so that it sees
objects—not the Open. …
Never, not for a single day, do we have
before us that pure space into which flowers
endlessly open. Always there is World
and never Nowhere without the No: that pure
unseparated element which one breathes
without desire and endlessly knows. …
And we: spectators, always, everywhere,
turned toward the world of objects, never outward.
It fills us. We arrange it. It breaks down.
We rearrange it, then break down ourselves.
Who has twisted us around like this, so thatTranslated by Stephen Mitchell
no matter what we do, we are in the posture
of someone going away? Just as, upon
the farthest hill, which shows him his whole valley
one last time, he turns, stops, lingers—,
so we live here, forever taking leave.
This turning outward not only takes us out of pure being it also turns the rest of the world into objects to be viewed—and owned and controlled and other-ed away from the I that I think I am. I’m not sure this elegy says anything particular about this moment right now but perhaps its larger reflection may take root within us right now.
Last, I have long loved Pablo Neruda’s “Keeping Quiet,” which originally sounded like a dream scenario. In wondered if, in the context of now, it may feel less idyllic. But then I read it again and, instead, found a suggestion for what we might work for and hold during this strange time of forced stillness.
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelveFrom Extravagaria, translated by Alastair Reid
and you keep quiet and I will go.
What readings or art of other things have been resonating for you?