Eleven is drawn with parallel lines. Parallel lives.
In one, my son survived. He is with us in England, in the rain; or we are still in California, in drought. He is like me at that age — obsessed with science and discovery; or like his mother, he is at the piano, practicing. He is like neither of us, in surprising ways. Ways we will never guess.
I inhabit life on the other rail instead. It is definitely England, definitely raining, and I have become a poet. Science and engineering failed to show me how to address the vast inner landscapes I felt pressing from an early age. Miłosz, Dostoevsky, and Mahler succeeded. Subjectivity is the enemy of science, but the lifeblood of poetry.
Objectively, our son is gone. Subjectively, he is everywhere.
I am not a monorail. I am the smoke drifting up from a neighbour’s chimney, and I am the chimney, and I am the air.
Only at the place where parallel lines intersect, only there, at the point of points, can this all make sense.
One day I will join you in the space between lines. Until then, of each day I will try to make some kind of poetry, and in it, a space for you to dwell.
Godspeed, James, my son.
The Essence of Instinct
for Charles Darwin
That summer you were alone
with your thoughts, which is to say
you were never alone.
Nuage. Vapours. The Narwhal.
Collecting iridescent bugs
in your barely-visible net.
Cataloguing, by sputtering candle
the endless lists, ink darkening
the corner of your mouth.
Your armament of facts
was nothing much to her, as she
tested your reflexes with a pin.
Birdwatching. Beetles. Pheasant
a black stone’s coup de grâce.
Once there was no pattern,
the crochet unpicked by needles,
coloured threads, broken limbs.
Pricked, you bleed like a prism,
dividing light from light
through the aperture of pain.
All at once, the peacock
opens his eyes, and the threads
pull tight, stitching you in.
“There are two ways to live your life: one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle.”
I recently met someone who is striving to further the idea of the technological singularity. He used an interesting metaphor to describe his work. He asserted that, given three wishes from a genie, the best possible first wish would be to wish for more wishes. Striving to eliminate disease, aging, and death, he said, was a bit like “wishing for more wishes” from life.
It was a clever way to describe the hope some hold for technology’s seemingly unchecked advance against death. But something about the metaphor did not seem right to me. In the end, I came to the conclusion that the best first wish would not actually be to wish for more wishes, but to wish instead to know the summum bonum — the highest possible good — for the use of the remaining wishes.
The next wish might, indeed, be for more wishes, or for the strength to carry through on that final summum bonum wish — or for something else entirely. Because I have not actually been granted this first wish to know that highest good, I can not know what would come next. But I do know that unchecked individual omnipotence, in the form of endless wishes, would alter not only the consciousness, but quite possibly the physiology of the wisher. In the face of limitless opportunity, the brain chemistry could change — causing one to become paralyzed by choice, go mad with power, or drop dead from a heart attack.
“To fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme and figures of speech, then ask two questions: 1) How artfully has the objective of the poem been rendered and 2) How important is that objective? Question one rates the poem’s perfection; question two rates its importance. And once these questions have been answered, determining the poem’s greatness becomes a relatively simple matter.”
-J. Evans Pritchard, PhD., “Understanding Poetry”
A recent comment by a fellow poet on my post about negative capability got me thinking about the dance between the known and the unknown in the creative act. Alejandro Escude points out that some poets seem to “have something to say and say it” rather than adopting a “neither here nor there approach.” He mentions poets in either camp that share certain stylistic qualities with their comrades in the same camp. And while I agree that William Stafford writes a very different kind of poetry than Sharon Olds, I still believe that it is actually negative capability that makes both of them first-rate poets.
In an early scene of the film version of Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams encourages his students to rip out the introduction to their set-text poetry anthology written by the fictitious J. Evans Pritchard, PhD. Dr. Pritchard’s essay is a striking, if hyperbolic, example of how literary criticism can stray so far from the creative act as to reduce the experience of a poem to an exercise in mathematical graphs. The repeated use of the word “objective” in relation to poetry — its “importance,” and how “artfully” it is “rendered” — makes me laugh every time.