Death

Daniel Tiffany: On "In a Station of the Metro"

What difference would it make to the history of Anglo-American poetic modernism if we were to read Pound as a poet whose progress begins and ends in the realm of the dead, the author (and protagonist) of a literary odyssey culminating in a political inferno haunted by his earliest poetic principles? What if we were to read Pound essentially as a poet of mourning—not elegiac precisely, but fetishistic and transgressive. . . .

[. . . .]

Pound is unable. to part with the. "cadaverous dead," to complete the task of mourning. The. poet's lost male companions become remote and inexorable fathers to his writing. In a very real sense, death both quickens and captures Pound's writing. "The work of the phantom," Nicolas Abraham writes, "coincides in every respect with Freud's description of the death-instinct" ("Phantom" 291). Haunted by a series of ghosts, Pound continually seeks to return to a place he has never been, to converse with the dead. His experience of the dead (which is the experience of the unknown or the impossible) and his conception of memory converge with the poetics of the Image. If, indeed, Images and the phantoms of memory are analogous in Pound's mind (as in the phrase "resurgent EIKONES"), then we should view the poetic Image as the return of a lost or dead object, a moment in which the subject is haunted by reality .The Image is life imaged as death, a living death) as the Egyptian Book of the Dead taught Pound and others (including Yeats and Wyndham Lewis) around the turn of the century.

[. . . .]

Pound's infatuation with the dead was not lost on his contemporaries, or on his later critics. Wyndham Lewis, for example, wrote of Pound, "Life is not his true concern . . . His field is purely that of the dead . . . whose life is preserved for us in books and pictures" (Lewis, Time 87). Elsewhere, Lewis described Pound as "a bombastic galleon " with "a skull and crossbones" flying from its mast. Richard Aldington's parody of the famous "Metro" poem also registers Pound's necrophilic bias:

The apparitions of these poems in a crowd: 

White faces in a dead black faint. (SC 191)

As tor Pound's critics., Hugh Witemeyer has described "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" as aIl "elaborate autopsy" ( Poetry of Ezra Pound 162 ), and Humphrey Carpenter describes Pound's fifth volume of poetry,Canzoni, as "the last twitch of a poetic corpse, the body being recognizably that of the Pre-Raphaelites" (SC 157).

[. . . .]

Distilled to a handful of syllables, the Imagist poem derives its power from its resistance to language, from the perilous condition of its own medium—a form that is inherently self-destructive. Thus, the influence of ]apanese haiku on Imagism, for example, can be understood as an exotic means of formalizing and dignifying a poetic suicide. The remains of Victorian poetry assume the haiku form as a cipher of ritual death (hence the arduous and protracted deletion of "In a Station of the Metro"—reduced over a period of six months from thirty lines to fourteen words).

[. . . . ]

Imagism's entanglement with the idea of death portrays allegorically the mortality of poetry itself, as well as the essential negativity of the Image: language is consistently deployed against itself in the name of the Image.

[. . . .]

Pound worked on the poem sporadically from 1911 to 1913, a period of tremendous ferment and change in his poetry ( and, incidentally, the period in which he produced his translations of Cavalcanti ). Pound reprints the poem in his memoir of Gaudier:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd: 

        Petals, on a wet, black bough. (GB 89)

Bearing in mind Pound's affection for medieval concepts of memory, the "station" of the metro can be compared to the locus of memory in which the "apparitions" (imagines) appear. What's more, Hugh Kenner argues that the poem records a descent "underground," and recalls Odysseus' encounter with the souls of the dead in Hades. The "faces in the crowd," like the "EIKONES" of memory, are "apparitions": they emerge into visibility (as images), yet they are also phantoms. Obviously, this poem, which is cited by Pound (and everyone else) as a paradigm of the modern, formalist Image in poetry, is haunted by other conceptions of the Image. Indeed, Pound portrayed the "Metro" poem as a crucial turning point in his career, a work that forced him into an "impasse" ( GB 89). He struggled during a period of a year and a half to complete the poem, and cut it down from thirty lines to a single sentence. Pound leaves no doubt that the "Image" of the poem is ultimately a product of shaping and carving resistant materials. The Image is made, not received. Yet the content of the poem alludes to the Image as phantom, even as its mode of creation identifies it as an artifact. Hence, we can understand the "Metro" poem as the moment in Pound's career when the Image as phantom begins to assume the artifactual properties of the formalist Image.

[. . . .]

Images pieced together like mosaics, "in little splotches of color" (as Pound described the genesis of the "Metro" poem), arise from a place that hides its identity as an Image, a place that is no place: the crypt.

[. . . .]

One discovers in Pound's "Metro" poem (the most famous of all Imagist poems) a striking illustration of the principle of sublimation informing the Image. In his "Vorticism" essay, published in the Fort nightly Review in September 1914, Pound offers his readers a detailed account of the origins and compositional history of the "Metro" poem, as an exposition of Imagism in practice. He dates the genesis of the poem to a moment three years prior to the writing of the "Vorticism" essay, which would be 1911—the same year he wrote "Silet," the opening poem of Ripostes. Following what Pound calls "the impasse in which I had been left by my metro emotion" ( GB 89 ), he writes a series of drafts of the poem, each more condensed than the previous one. By eliminating what he calls material of "second intensity," Pound shrinks the poem from thirty lines to a single sentence. Clearly this process, whose principles Pound formulates during the "impasse" between 1911 and 1913, represents the essential negativity of the Image—that is, the regime of elimination and prohibition that I have described as fundamental to the "objectivity" of Imagist poetics.

The sublime aspect of the Image derives from its irrepressible "substance"; indeed, the negative practice of Imagism serves not to eliminate but to preserve the "life" of the crypt: its elegiac feeling, its eroticism, its fatality. The remains of language—the Image—render the volatile materiality of the crypt; the ascetic mode of the Image draws attention to the body by making it disappear. Though Pound presents the "Metro" poem as a paradigm of modernist practice, its reference to an apparitional event in an underground "station" quite obviously links it, as I indicated in the previous chapter, to the Decadent properties of Pound's crypt poetry. Indeed, the archaic dimension of the "Metro" poem is more pronounced than Pound suggests. He dates the origin of the poem to 1911, without indicating any possible precedent in his earlier published poetry. K. K. Ruthven has demonstrated, however, that the specific "image" of the "Metro" poem derives from a very early poem of Pound's, "Laudantes Decem Pulchritudinis Johannae Templi," published in Exultations (1909). One section of the poem, addressed to "my beloved of the peach trees," describes "the vision of the blossom":

the perfect faces which I see at times

When my eyes are closed—

Faces fragile, pale, yet flushed a little, 

            like petals of roses: 

these things have confused my memories of her. ( CEP 119 )

The essential features of this vision" survive intact in the "Metro" poem:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd: 

        Petals, on a wet, black bough. ( GB 89)

It is essential to emphasize that the original "vision" occurs with eyes closed, and that the visuality of the Imagist poem must therefore be described as highly ambiguous, if not dependent on a kind of blindness.

By 1913 (if not from the outset) the "vision of the blossom" becomes associated in Pound's mind with Japanese poetry (haiku). Indeed, the "vision of the blossom " continues to circulate in his work in a manner that eventually discloses its specifically archaic, or nostalgic, dimension. An early manuscript of Canto 4, composed in 1918, contains the following lines: "the thousand-year peach trees shed their flakes / into the stream, out of a former time." These lines suggest that the apparitional petals of the "Metro" poem should be viewed as drifting "out of a former time," as ghosts. The "peach trees in magical blossom" appear in yet another context, in Pound's essay on Remy de Gourmont, published in March 1919: "I do not think it possible to overemphasize Gourmont's sense of beauty . . . His pays natal was near to the peach-blossom fountain of the untranslatable poem" (L 343). The "vision of the blossom," which we now understand to be an apparition of the dead, is described here by Pound as "an untranslatable poem." Indeed, we could argue that the "pays natal" of the modernist Image is an "untranslatable poem"—a poem encrypted in the Image, a vision preserved and concealed by the negative praxis of Imagism. Yet the phantasmic "substance" of the "Metro" poem differs not at all from its antecedent, its forgotten ancestry, in Exultations. Thus, the "Metro" poem emerges as the nucleus of a constellation of apparitional poems spanning the entire Imagist period, from 1909 to 1919.

The figure of the crypt mediates the divergent symbolic economies that lay claim to the modernist Image. On the one hand, the crypt is the symbolic site of modern literary positivism, and the Image is what lies within the crypt: corpse, fact, word-thing, symptom. The irreducible materiality of the Image, in this case, poses a challenge to the hermeneutical concept of meaning itself, which is based on a distinction between surface and depth, the manifest and the latent, history and divination. Yet the Image, like the figure of the crypt, harbors figurative debts to this hermeneutical model, and must therefore also be understood as reviving the phantom of meaning from the dead letter of the crypt. That is, the Image, as an emblem of hermeneutical understanding, is not an inscrutable yet all-too-obvious "thing" in the crypt, but the crypt itself and its spiritual "content."

From Radio Corpse: Imagism and the Cryptaesthetic of Ezra Pound. Copyright © 1995 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. [Note: This little collage of passages is meant only to suggest the outlines of a more complex argument detailed in Tiffany's book.]

Paula Bennett: On 465 ("I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--")

Like many people in her period, Dickinson was fascinated by death-bed scenes. How, she asked various correspondents, did this or that person die? In particular, she wanted to know if their deaths revealed any information about the nature of the afterlife. In this poem, however, she imagines her own death-bed scene, and the answer she provides is grim, as grim (and, at the same time, as ironically mocking), as anything she ever wrote.

In the narrowing focus of death, the fly's insignificant buzz, magnified tenfold by the stillness in the room, is all that the speaker hears. This kind of distortion in scale is common. It is one of the 'illusions' of perception. But here it is horrifying because it defeats every expectation we have. Death is supposed to be an experience of awe. It is the moment when the soul, departing the body, is taken up by God. Hence the watchers at the bedside wait for the moment when the 'King' (whether God or death) 'be witnessed' in the room. And hence the speaker assigns away everything but that which she expects God (her soul) or death (her body) to take.

What arrives instead, however, is neither God nor death but a fly, '[w]ith Blue—uncertain--stumbling Buzz,' a fly, that is, no more secure, no more sure, than we are. Dickinson had associated flies with death once before in the exquisite lament, 'How many times these low feet/staggered.' In this poem, they buzz 'on the/ chamber window,' and speckle it with dirt (# 187, F, 152), reminding us that the housewife, who once protected us from such intrusions, will protect us no longer. Their presence is threatening but only in a minor way, 'dull' like themselves. They are a background noise we do not have to deal with yet.

In 'I heard a Fly buzz,' on the other hand, there is only one fly and its buzz is not only foregrounded. Before the poem is over, the buzz takes up the entire field of perception, coming between the speaker and the 'light' (of day, of life, of knowledge). It is then that the 'Windows' (the eyes that are the windows of the soul as well as, metonymically, the light that passes through the panes of glass) 'fail' and the speaker is left in darkness--in death, in ignorance. She cannot 'see' to 'see' (understand).

Given that the only sure thing we know about 'life after death' is that flies--in their adult form and more particularly, as maggots--devour us, the poem is at the very least a grim joke. In projecting her death-bed scene, Dickinson confronts her ignorance and gives back the only answer human knowledge can with any certainty give. While we may hope for an afterlife, no one, not even the dying, can prove it exists.

Like 'Four Trees--upon a solitary/Acre, ' 'I heard a Fly buzz' represents an extreme position. I believe that to Dickinson it was a position that reduced human life to too elementary and meaningless a level. Abdicating belief, cutting off God's hand, as in 'I heard a Fly buzz' (a poem that tests precisely this situation), leaves us with nothing. Not just God, but we ourselves are reduced--a fact that has become painfully evident in twentieth-century literature. . . .

From Emily Dickinson, Woman Poet. Copyright © 1990 by Paulk Bennett. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Caroline Rogue: On 465 ("I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--")

Emily Dickinson's "I Heard A Fly Buzz When I Died" should be read, I think, with a particular setting in mind—a nineteenth-century deathbed scene. Before the age of powerful anodynes death was met in full consciousness, and the way of meeting it tended to be stereotype. It was affected with a public interest and concern, and was witnessed by family and friends. They crowded the death chamber to wait expectantly a burst of dying energy to bring on the grand act of passing. Commonly it began with last-minute bequests, the wayward were called to repentance, the backslider to reform, gospel hymns were sung, and finally as climax the dying one gave witness in words to the Redeemer's presence in the room, how He hovered, transplendent in the upper air, with open arms outstretched to receive the departing soul. This was death's great moment. Variants there were, of course, in case of repentant and unrepentant sinners. Here in this poem the central figure of the drama is expected to make a glorious exit. The build-up is just right for it, but at the moment of climax "There interposed a fly." And what kind of a fly? A fly "with blue, uncertain stumbling buzz"—a blowfly.

How right is Mr. Gerhard Friedrich in his explication . . . to associate the fly with putrefaction and decay. And how wrong, I think, is Mr. John Ciardi . . . in calling the fly "the last kiss of the world," and speaking of it as one of the small creatures Emily Dickinson so delighted in. She could not possibly have entertained any such view of a blowfly. She was a practical housewife, and every housewife abhors a blowfly. It pollutes everything it touches. Its eggs are maggots. It is as carrion as a buzzard.

What we know of Emily Dickinson gives us assurance that just as she would abhor the blowfly she would abhor the deathbed scene. How devastatingly she disposes of the projected one in the poem. "They talk of hallowed things and embarrass my dog" she writes in 1862 in a letter to Mr. Higginson (Letters, 1958, II, 415).

Thomas H. Johnson: On 258 ("There's a certain Slant of light")

[Emily Dickinson's] dread of winter [is] expressed in one of her remarkable verses, written about 1861 [,"There's a certain Slant of light"]. It is, like the somewhat later "Further in Summer than the Birds," an attempt to give permanence through her art to the impermanent; to catch that fleeting moment of anxiety which, having passed, leaves the beholder changed. Such moods she could catch most readily in the changing seasons themselves. . . . /89/ Winter to her is at moments intolerably dreary, and she here re-creates the actual emotion implicit in the Persephone-Pluto myth. Will spring never come? Sometimes, winter afternoons, she perceives an atmospheric quality of light that is intensely oppressive. The colloquial expression "heft" is especially appropriate in suggesting a heavy weight, which she associates with the weight of great bells or the heavy sound that great bells create. This might be the depressing chill and quiet preceding a snowfall. Whatever it is, it puts the seal on wintriness. Coming as it does from heavens, it is an imperial affliction to be endured ("None may teach it—Any"). Even the landscape itself is depressed. When it leaves, she feels that whole body. The strong provincialism, 'Heft' (smoothed away to 'Weight' by former editors), carries both the meaning of ponderousness and the great effort of heaving in order to test it, according /216/ to her Lexicon. This homely word also clashes effectively with the grand ring of 'Cathedral Tunes,' those produced by carillon offering the richest possibilities of meaning. Since this music ‘oppresses,’ the connotation of funereal is added to the heavy resonance of all pealing bells. And since the double meaning of 'Heft' carries through, despair is likened to both the weight of these sounds on the spirit and the straining to lift the imponderable tonnage of cast bronze.

The religious note on which the prelude ends, 'Cathedral Tunes,' is echoed in the language of the central stanzas. In its ambiguousness 'Heavenly Hurt' could refer to the pain of paradisiac ecstasy, but more immediately this seems to be an adjective of agency, from heaven, rather than an attributive one. The hurt is inflicted from above, 'Sent us of the Air,' like the 'Slant of light' that is its antecedent. In this context that natural image takes on a new meaning, again with the aid of her Lexicon which gives only one meaning for 'slant' as a noun, 'an oblique reflection or gibe.' It is then a mocking light, like the heavenly hurt that comes from the sudden instinctive awareness of man's lot since the Fall, doomed to mortality and irremediable suffering. This is indeed despair, though not in the theological sense unless Redemption is denied also. As Gerard Manley Hopkins phrases it in 'Spring and Fall,' for the young life there coming to a similar realization, 'It is the blight man was born for.'

Because of this it is beyond human correction, 'None may teach it—Any .' Though it penetrates it leaves 'no scar' as an outward sign of healing, nor any internal wound that can be located and alleviated. What it leaves is 'internal difference,' the mark of all significant 'Meanings. ' When the psyche is once stricken with the pain of such knowledge it can never be the same again. The change is final and irrevocable, sealed. The Biblical sign by which God claims man for his own has been shown in the poems of heavenly bridal to be a 'Seal,' the ring by which the beloved is married into immortal life. But to be redeemed one must first be mortal, and be made conscious of one's mortality. The initial and overwhelming impact of this can lead to a state of hopelessness, unaware that the 'Seal Despair' might be the reverse side of the seal of ecstasy. So, when first stamped on the consciousness it is an 'affliction.' But it is also 'imperial . . . Sent us of the Air,' the heavenly kingdom where God sits enthroned, and from the same source can come Redemption, though not in this poem. /217/

By an easy transition from one insubstantial image to another, 'Air' back to 'a certain Slant of light,' the concluding stanza returns to the surface level of the winter afternoon. As the sun drops toward the horizon just before setting, 'the Landscape listens' in apprehension that the very light which makes it exist as a landscape is about to be extinguished; 'Shadows,' which are about to run out to infinity in length and merge with each other in breadth until all is shadow, 'hold their breath.' This is the effect created by the slanting light 'When it comes.' Of course no such things happen in nature, and it would be pathetic fallacy to pretend they did. The light does not inflict this suffering nor is the landscape the victim. Instead, these are just images of despair. /218/ 

From Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1955), pp. 189-190.

Edward Brunner on "The Asians Dying"

In the closing group, death is an occurence that links us with others. This realistic acknowledgment of death can appear with the old abstract concept in the same poem; it is one reason why the ending of "The Asians Dying" is so powerful. In the middle of the poem, Merwin uses "the dead" to speak of persons who were once alive: "Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead / Again again with its pointless sound / When the moon finds them they are the color of everything." Their "open eyes" also proclaim their status as individuals, not generic categories. Like the animals who would "look carefully" and return the glance of the poet in "The Animals," perhaps even speaking back to him, these too would look back accusingly if they could. But at the end of the poem, the old abstract, categorical idea of death emerges again, as "the possessors moved everywhere under Death their star." For the possessors, death is as remote as a star, an emblem calling them forward in their rapacious progress; it is a concept, having nothing to do with individuals. The two versions of death radically distinguish Asians from Americans, a distinction underscored with irony: the death the Asians experience leaves them with their eyes open; the death star under which the possessors march leaves them as blind as ever.

Marjorie Perloff: On "For The Anniversary of My Death"

What distinguishes a poem like "For the Anniversary of My Death" from the "undecidable" texts of a Beckett on the one hand, as from its modernist predecessors on the other, is the marked authorial control that runs counter to the lipservice paid to "bowing not knowing to what." Far from being a poem of dis-covery, a text whose "echo repeats no sound," "For the Anniversary of My Death" is characterized by a strong sense of closure.

Consider, for example, the stanzaic division. The first stanza (five lines) describes what happens "Every year"; the second (eight lines) refers to "Then" (when I will be dead). The first concentrates on the silence of eternity, beyond "the last fires," the eternity symbolized by the beam of the lightless star. The second recalls, even as does the final stanza of Yeats's "The Stolen Child," what will be lost when death ends the inexorable forward movement of time, when the "strange garment" of life is shed: namely, the love of one woman, the shamelessness of men, the singing of the wren, the falling of rain, and, yes, the "bowing not knowing to what," which is to say, "bowing" to the premonition of death one has in moments of transition, as when a three-day rain comes to an end.

Does the language "mock the poet with its absences"? Not really, or at least its mockery seems to take place only on the surface. The first line quickly gives the game away: since there is obviously no way to know on what day of the year one will die, the phrase "without knowing it" strikes a rather self-important note. This is the language, not of dream or of mysterious Otherness, but of calculation: the setting up of a hypothetical situation that brings the time/eternity paradox into sharp relief. Again, the reference to "death" as the moment when "the last fires will wave to me" seems to me the very opposite of "spare" (a word regularly applied to Merwin's poetry by his admirers); it is a gestural, a decorative metaphor reminiscent of Dylan Thomas rather than René Char. Indeed, lines 2-5, with their heavy alliteration and assonance, their repetition and slow, stately movement, have the authentic Thomas ring:

When the last fires will wave to me And the silence will set out Tireless traveller Like the beam of a lightless star

The language of the second stanza is increasingly abstract, conceptual, formulaic, recalling, as Bloom points out, the conservative rhetoric of poets like Longfellow or MacLeish. To call life "a strange garment," to define one's humanity in terms of "the love of one woman" and the need to wrestle with "the shamelessness of men"--such locutions have the accent of the Sunday sermon rather than the surrealist lyric. Given this context, the "bowing not knowing to what" in the unpunctuated last line is a predictable closural device: it points us back to the title with its recognition that one of the days now lived through will, one year, be the day of the poet's death.

The poem's closure is reflected in its formal verse structure. Merwin's heavily endstopped lines, each followed by a brief rest or hush, are lightly stressed, anapests predominating as in

Like the beam of a lightless star

or

And bowing not knowing to what

but in many lines the pattern is complicated by an initial trochee:

Every year without knowing it Tireless traveller Hearing the wren sing.

Syntactic parallelism--"And the silence will set out," "And the love of one woman," "And,the shamelessness of men"--provides a further ordering principle. And although the stress count ranges between two and five (and syllable count between five and thirteen), the lines are organized tightly by qualitative sound repetition: Merwin's patterning is extremely intricate, as in the alliteration of t's, r's, and l's in "Tireless traveller," the assonance and consonance in "Find myself in life," and the internal eye rhyme in "And bowing not knowing to what."

"For the Anniversary of My Death" is thus a very elegant, wellmade poem; it has a finish that would be the envy of any number of poets, and its theme is certainly universal--just mysterious enough to arrest the reader's attention, yet just natural enough (this is the way we all feel about death sometimes) to have broad appeal.

By Marjorie Perloff. From W.S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson and Ed Folsom. Copyright © 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Edward Brunner: On "Sun and Rain"

At its most effective, the caesura allows a degree of movement simply unavailable in verse with only one kind of pause within it. It allows for levels of activity within the activity promised by the individual line. Moreover, the flexibility of the caesura allows for exchanges of position: midway through the line, when we anticipate a weak turn, we may experience a strong one, and the reverse can happen at the end of the line. The line can turn intense or grow slack, within itself, according to the poem as it is shaped.

The immense advantage of the variable caesura, then, is that it can orchestrate such a minor turn--not strong enough to deserve an entire line to itself yet indicating a distinct shift. Its inflection can be reserved for the turn that occurs within memory, the turn less active than the major turns unfolding as the poem develops. Although the caesura is exclusively associated with verse and related to the fundamental verse unit, the line break, it allows Merwin to borrow a feature from the spaciousness of prose: syntax can now be used adroitly, in the form of the prepositional phrase, to downplay turns, to render them less active.

One poem that draws on phrasings that might be considered weak, yet that serve to orchestrate the poet's feelings most precisely, is "Sun and Rain." In the first stanza, the last halves of the lines form around prepositional phrases, weak turns that present Merwin's movement back into the past "after five years." In general, active statements begin after the line break, honoring its greater authority ("I find that," "looking down," and "hearing the current") while the afterthoughts, the deepening downward pull towards the past, occur in prepositional phrases that follow the caesura. Merwin conveys the sudden downward spiral of being overtaken by a memory of sorrow; the softening into darkness is palpable as we move from "a bright window" to the image of his mother looking "at dusk into a river" and "hearing the current as hers."

Against this emerges the saving gesture of the second stanza-- hands held out for another and clinging to a long moment on the edge of death. The strength in the gesture is kept up in the forthright clauses that now begin to dominate and even spill over beyond the boundary of the caesura. This in turn leads back to the present, with the vivid movement of creatures that "turn uphill" in "a band of sunlight" and stand "as the dark rain touches them," as the hands of his mother and father once touched. It is a complex surrogate moment, in which Merwin's longing to reach out to his own mother is answered by this recollected moment in which his father had been able to overcome his own hesitancy to extend his hand to hers, and then comforted further by this encompassing vision of sun and rain mingling together. The vision is a gift much as his father's gesture was a gift to his mother: it keeps that gesture alive and recovers it for the present.

Marjorie Perloff: On "The Asians Dying"

It is, I think, this blend of strangeness and a clear-sighted literalness that makes a poem like "The Asians Dying" memorable. Consider the lines

Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead Again again with its pointless sound When the moon finds them they are the color of everything

We don't usually think of rain falling precisely into open eyes, let alone "the open eyes of the dead." The image is an odd one and yet the third line has a kind of photographic accuracy: in the moonlight, the dead bodies, clothed in khaki, would indeed blend with the colors of the forest ground, and so theirs is "the color of everything." Add to this the irony--a rather heavy-handed irony, I think--of Merwin's implication that, in our world, the color of death has become "everything" and you have an intricate enough layering of meanings, which is not to say that Merwin's construction is in any way radical or subversive. Indeed, I submit that nothing in "The Asians Dying" has the startling modernity of

I was neither at the hot gates Nor fought in the warm rain Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass, Bitten by flies, fought.

Cary Nelson has rightly noted Merwin's debt to Eliot, but it is a good question whether "Gerontion" doesn't capture what Lieberman calls "the peculiar spiritual agony of our time" at least as well as do poems like "The Asians Dying."

By Marjorie Perloff. From W.S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson and Ed Folsome. Copyright 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Frank O'Hara's: A Step Away From Them

The structure of this poem may look random, the details--Coca-Cola signs, hours of the day, objects seen in store windows--are seemingly trivial, but in O'Hara's imaginative reconstruction of New York City, everything is there for a purpose. We might note, to begin with, that the speaker's thought processes constantly return to images of life, vitality, animation, motion. From the "hum-colored / cabs" to the skirts "flipping / above heels," everything is in motion. Even the sign above Times Square "blows smoke over my head, and higher / the waterfall pours lightly."

But what particularly delights the poet is the paradox of heat and motion: no matter how hot the New York streets, their life force remains intact:

                                            . . .A  Negro stands in a doorway with a  toothpick, languorously agitating.  A blonde chorus girl clicks: he  smiles and rubs his chin....

At this point, "everything suddenly honks," and the moment ("12:40 of / a Thursday") is endowed with radiance.

Just as the Negro's languorous agitation forces the observer to pay special attention, so he finds "great pleasure" in the conjunction of opposites of "neon in daylight" or in the absurd tableau of the lady unseasonably wearing foxes, who "puts her poodle / in a cab." Such unexpected juxtapositions are pleasurable because they allow the poet, who remains essentially "A Step Away from Them," from the blondes, Puerto Ricans, and laborers on the Avenue, to create new patterns in space, new compositions of color, texture, and light.

But the vibrancy of the lunch hour would not seem special if the poet did not remember, near the end of the poem, those of his friends--Bunny, John Latouche, and Jackson Pollock--who can no longer perceive it. The faint undertone of death, captured in the final image of the Manhattan Storage Warehouse, soon to be torn down, qualifies the poet's response and heightens his awareness of being alive. The poem has, in short, been moving all along to the central recognition of the affinity of life and death, to the perception that death is, as it was for Wallace Stevens, the mother of beauty. The poet's knowledge that he is only "A Step Away from Them," from the fate his artist friends have met, makes the final glass of papaya juice and the awareness that his "heart"--a book of Reverdy's poems--is in his pocket especially precious and poignant. Death, in short, is always in the background, but the trick is to keep oneself on top of it, to counter despair by participating as fully as possible in the stream of life.

Of course "A Step Away from Them" would be spoiled if it included any statement as bald, abstract, and pretentious as the one I have just made, and indeed the only place in the poem where O'Hara is perhaps guilty of such a lapse is in the question, "But is the / earth as full as life was full, of them?," a question which did not need to be asked because its answer was already implicit in the poem's network of images....

Kevin Stein: On "The Day Lady Died"

The tone at the opening of the poem is giddy and excited. After all, this is a somewhat glib speaker who is readying himself for dinner at the home of someone he doesn't know, who can smart-aleckly refer to the "poets / of Ghana," who is prone to "stroll" and "casually ask" for cigarettes, and who can "practically" go "to sleep with quandariness" over the simple decision of what book to buy a friend. This is not a speaker burdened with metaphysical deliberations about the meaning of life.

Even when he sees the "NEW YORK POST with her face on it," he refuses to break into discourse on the brevity of human life, "thinking," instead, in visual and sensory images. He recalls an instance when he heard Billie Holiday sing so sweetly that life itself seemed to halt in deathly pause while "everyone and I stopped breathing." Up to this point, he had offered the reader an ontological account of selfhood based largely on a narrative retelling of the way the individual fragments of his day melded into a mysteriously unified whole. But at this juncture, where anticipation and profound loss meet head on, the collision results in image, scene, a moment of experience which itself is of ultimate value. The present moment and the remembered one do not require metaphysical rumination in order to clarify them. That kind of deliberation has preceded the poem onto the page: the understanding that life is unpredictable and crass, capable of imparting immense pleasure and equally formidable pain. Although O'Hara may very well have agreed with the Heraclitean conception of a universe forever in the process of change, he would never use Heraclitus's fragments as poetic epigraphs (as Eliot did) or allow such thinking to impose an overtly philosophical structure on his work. O'Hara has already decided on these epistemological and ontological issues before the poem began. And more importantly, they were first of all personal values, which naturally (but secondarily) gave form to artistic values.

From "Everything the Opposite" in Frank O'Hara: To Be True to a City. Ed. Jim Elledge. University of Michigan Press, 1990.

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