John Donne, The Holy Sonnets, [Holy Sonnet XIV]

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I just now finished reading and studying a series of poems by 17th Century metaphysical poet, John Donne. These 19 poems are his “Holy Sonnets,” poems in sonnet form about God and death and salvation, etc… I had read some of these before, but this was the first time I read through all 19 in sequential order. I put these poems on my thesis reading list a while ago, but chose to read them now since I recently read Wit by Margaret Edson. This is a play about an English professor, who specializes in John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, and how she deals with stage 4 ovarian cancer.

Donne’s proficiency in formal poetry (the sonnet) is impressive, as he lets it carry what he says rather than letting it inhibit what he says. My favorite of the sonnets, I believe, is the 14th, a poem about suffering and reason, among other things:

[p.s. I am unsure of the textual accuracy of my text, but this is the spelling and punctuation that is in my edition]

Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee’and bend
Your force, to break, blowe, burn and make me new,
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labout to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearly’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish me.

This poem, I think, is a beseech the Lord to break and imprison the one who is speaking to the Lord. “Break me,” “batter me,” “imprison me,” and “MAKE ME NEW.” This pain, these blows are working towards some purpose, and the poet knows that, and asks the Lord to bend him that he might be made new.

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Scott Cairns, Idiot Psalms, Erotic Word, Idiot Psalm 11

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Last night, I finished the fourth part of Idiot Psalms, Erotic Word. It mainly focused on Eros, in all its different facets. He seems to bridge the gap between the sexual relation between man and woman, and the creative relation between author and reader, which I find very interesting. I also might just be reading into Cairns, but perhaps not.

I have enjoyed Scott Cairns’ poetry extensively so. It was hard for me to get used to his writing, but that’s how I feel with every new poet I read. His language leads to the mystic and archaic and biblical – yet there is a contemporary inventiveness every now and then.

I am quoting his first poem from Part IV, Idiot Psalm 11:

– a psalm of Isaak, growled against the floorboards

O Undisclosed, O Surreptitious, O Most
Furtive Father of all things manifest
and all things tucked away, O Pulse
Unceasing within each quark, both
up and down, both strange and charm, O
Deep Threefold Only Who sets amid this
vast menagerie Your pouting children, we
who for some duration remain, oddly
propelled and for the most part upright,
if alternately weeping, if alternately
bursting forth in broad guffaw, O Arch
and Covert Cause, do come again, incline
yet to be shown here in our midst, You
Who Are, allegedly, ever here, and ever
thus, impossibly among us.

Like Christian Wiman, another contemporary Christian poet, Cairns poetry is upfront about the emotions of the Christian. God is among us, but “allegedly.”

I discussed with one of my friends recently, the use of inventive apostrophe in Cairns’ poems. I had never thought of apostrophe, the direct invocation of someone or something, as much of a literary technique. Yet, Cairns has shown me how much can be done with apostrophe. He is able to show in inventive ways, the negative emotions the Christian has toward God. He feels gone, and sometimes diabolical. Yet, he is not. And he is able to show us this in these iterations of apostrophe.

Scott Cairns, Idiot Psalms, My Byzantium, Idiot Psalm 9

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I have been continuing this four-part book of poems by contemporary poet and professor, Scott Cairns. I have just finished Part III. My Byzantium. In this section, most of the poems seem to be from, or set during, Cairns’ trip(s) to Greece – especially to Mount Athos and surrounding areas. These poems seem to concerned with getting somewhere, finding silence, and coming to understanding (by stripping oneself of everything).

The epigraph for this third part is this:

… let him become a fool, that he may be wise.

-Saint Paul to the Colossians

I will say I’ve noticed that Cairns seems to constantly use the same words across many poems. For example, he uses “fraught” and “lit” frequently, along with other words. This is not a bad or good thing – I merely have noticed that trend.

One of the choice poems from Part III is Idiot Psalm 9:

IDIOT PSALM 9
a psalm of Isaak, in the stillness

We say flight of the imagination,
but stand ankle deep in silt. We say deep
life of the mind
, but seal the stone to keep
the tomb untouched. O Stillness. Nearly all
we find to say we speak for the most part
unawares, what little bit we think to say
unmoved, O Great Enormity Unmoved.

Brief thaw turned ragged March extending, O
Lost Cause, into yet another ragged April, so.
Brief shoots of new green trampled underfoot
by sleet, and lo, accumulating weather, moot,
sore-clipped — spring flowers tattered with the cold.

Lord, we say, have mercy on us, by which
each idiot more nearly means to plead
O, Silent One Unspeaking, save me.

This poem, among other these, points out two aspects of human life: (1) the way we speak and (2) the way we perceive God speaking. When we do speak, we do so “unawares” and “unmoved.” We find God to be the “Silent One Unspeaking.” Yet the idiot cries out to the one perceived as unspeaking for salvation. For God has SPOKEN – and he has ACTED – and by those words and deeds he has saved these idiots.

Scott Cairns, Idiot Psalms, Hesychasterion, Articulation

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I have been continuing my reading of Scott Cairns’ book of poems, Idiot Psalms. This second section is titled “Hesychasterion.” This comes from the word “hesychasm:” stillness, rest, quiet, silence; a mystical tradition in the Eastern Orthodox Church; the process of retiring inward by ceasing to register the senses in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God. This second part is a search for stillness, and this is deeply intertwined with the journey towards idiocy that Cairns has already set up.

The epigraph to Part II is this:

I beg you, never disregard a single soul,

especially when it happens to be a monk or a beggar.

For Your Charity knows that His place is among the beggars…

-Saint Simeon of Syria, the Holy Fool

 

My favorite poem from this part, I think, is a poem titled “Articulation.” I share much of the concerns about language that this poem sees to posit.

What I have come to say is never quite
sufficient; what I have come to say falls
ever short, if reliably — my one,
my only certainty. This fact, for now,
can prove both deep discouragement and deep
elusive hope. I’ve come to trust our words’
most modest crap shoot; I have come, as well,
to see their limit as my proof. If, one
fresh morning, I should come to apprehend
how ever full with presence every breath
now is — and even now — I have a sense
my words would grow so heavy as to still.
I suppose that morning then would open
to our eighth day, whose sunrise will not set.

I don’t know exactly what to do with Cairns’ poetry, but I have been enjoying it. His hearkening and mystical voice is consoling. And his poems named after the title of the book (Idiot Psalm 1-14 – I have read 1-7) are especially good. A few of these poems go among my favorite poems period. They are a good mixture of humor and sincerity.

Scott Cairns, Idiot Psalms, Part I. Unawares, Idiot Psalm 2

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I am currently read, as I work on my thesis in creative writing, a book of poems by contemporary Christian poet, Scott Cairns. Along with other books of poetry, Cairns has translated writings/poetry of the mystic Christian Fathers. Thus, his poetry, as I have experienced from the first part of Idiot Psalms, is deeply mystical and aged, even if it still contemporary and experimental at times.

This book is separated out into four parts: I. Unawares, II. Heychasterion, III. My Byzantium, and IV. Erotic Word. I just finished part one, and I will now quote one of my favorite poems from this first section.

Idiot Psalm 2

-a psalm of Isaak, accompanied by baying hounds

O Shaper of varicolored clay and cellulose, O Keeper

of same, O Subtle Tweaker, Agent

of energies both appalling and unobserved,

do not allow Your servant’s limbs to stiffen

or ossify unduly, do not compel Your servant

to go brittle, neither cramping at the heart,

nor narrowing his affective sympathies

neither of the flesh nor of the allegéd soul.

Keep me sufficiently limber that I might continue

to enjoy my morning run among the lilies

and the rowdy waterfowl, that I might

delight in this and every evening’s intercourse

with the woman You have set beside me.

Make me to awaken daily with a willingness

to roll out readily, accompanied

by grateful smirk, a giddy joy,

the idiot’s undying expectation,

despite the evidence.

In the end of this poem, he wishes to be humbled to the role of “idiot” – the one who is able to smile “despite the evidence” of the grim abundances of reality. This is possibly the central thread that I have seen run through all of the poems in this collection (hence, Idiot Psalms). The epigraph to Part I comes from one of my all time favorite writers, Fyodor Dostoevsky:

…one must first begin

by not understanding many things.

-Prince Myshkin, from The Idiot

I believe that Cairns wishes to bring himself and the reader to a place of stupidity. For there alone can we encounter truth and attain any sort of knowledge.

I look forward to continue my reading of these poems. Cairns is both an atypical and historical/traditional poet. He also has quite a bit of humor (I especially noticed it in Idiot Psalms 3 [0:55-2:22]). I hope I can become “an idiot” in being a companion to his poems.

Seamus Heaney, Wintering Out, Fireside

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As of tonight, I have finished Seamus Heaney’s book of poems, Wintering Out. These poems are subtle and earthy as I said in my previous post. They are also very dark. Either they are outright gruesome like “First Calf” or “Bye-Child” or they are visually dark (or dull lit at least) like “Good-Night” and “Fireside.” I am going to quote one of my favorite poems from Part II of this collection, “Fireside:”

Always there would be stories of light

hovering among bushes or at the foot

of a meadow; maybe a goat with cold horns

pluming into the moon; a tingle of chains

on the midnight road. And then maybe

word would come round that watery

art, the lamping of fishes, and I’d be

mooning my flashlamp on the licked black pelt

of the stream, my left arm splayed to take

a heavy pour and run of the current

occluding the net. Was that the beam

buckling over an eddy or a gleam

of the fabulous? Steady the light

and come to your senses, they’re saying good-night.

My notes: [1] flashlamp: either a flash for a camera or a flashlight (I prefer the latter but it is an inference), [2] splayed: spread out, expanded, extended, disjoined, dislocated, [3] occluding: closing, shutting, or stopping up, [4] buckling: shriveling, bending, curving, curling, applying, [5] eddy: a current at variance with the main current in a stream of liquid or gas, especially one having a whirling motion.

I enjoy this poem because it shows the darkness: he goat is under the moon, the chains are tingling around midnight, the stream is a licked black pelt. Yet there is a great amount of light in this poem: the moon, the fishes lamping, the flashlamp, the beam/gleam of the fabulous. Heaney sees the darkness, but only among such darkness does he witness the “stories of lights.” He sees the “traces of peace,” the “veins of grace,” in the muck of reality. In the final two rhyming lines, Heaney calls for a steadying of the light – can the light be made more consistent, steady? Can the light stay and not be so flickering? That is the hope.

Housekeeping

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A while ago I read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, the second of her novels. I just finished yesterday, for class and for myself, her first novel, Housekeeping. The novel centers around Ruth and her grandmother’s house. Ruth and her sister, Lucille, were born to Reginald Stone and Helen Foster in Seattle. Their father was not around for their upbringing. Helen, their mother, after a while, decided to bring them back to Fingerbone, where she was born. She then drops Ruth and Lucille off, and proceeds to drive her car off a cliff, into the lake which her father was submerged in a train accident. Two aunts of sorts, Lily and Nona, take care of the house and the two girls until they get Helen’s sister, Sylvie, to come to the house and become the caretaker herself.

The novel is rooted in a deep sense of tragedy – constant abandonment and recurrent death. And somehow, even with the serious events of devastation, the novel feels uneventful, and often quite humorous. This lack of excitement gives rise to Robinson’s empowerment of the ordinary. The everyday item becomes an opportunity to think about the core of things. The ordinary becomes remarkable.

Each sentence of this novel is delicately but exactly constructed.

I am going to quote at length some of my favorite passages:

So the wind that billowed her sheets announced to her the resurrection of the ordinary. Soon the skunk cabbage would come up, and the cidery smell would rise in the orchard, and the girls would wash the starch and iron their cotton dresses. And every evening would bring its familiar strangeness, and crickets would sing the whole night long, under her windows and in every part of the black wilderness that stretched away from Fingerbone on every side. (pp. 17-18)

***

[What has she seen? – ] The earth and sky and the garden, not as they always are. And she saw her daughters’ faces not as they always were, or as other people’s were, and she was quiet and aloof and watchful not to startle the strangeness away. (p. 19)

***

And as we glided across the ice toward Fingerbone, we would become aware of the darkness, too close to us, like a presence in a dream. The comfortable yellow lights of the town were then the only comfort there was in the world, and there were not many of them. If every house in Fingerbone were to fall before our eyes, snuffing out every light, the event would touch our senses as softly as a shifting among embers, and then the bitter darkness would step nearer. (pp. 34-35)

***

In fact, I dreamed that I was walking across the ice on the lake, which was breaking up as it does in the spring, softening and shifting, and pulling itself apart. But in the dream the surface that I walked on proved to be knit up of hands and arms and upturned faces that shifted and quickened as I stepped, sinking only for a moment into lower relief under my weight. The dream and the obituary together created in my mind the conviction that my grandmother had entered into some other element upon which our lives floated as weightless, intangible, immiscible, and inseparable as reflections in water. So she was borne to the depths, my grandmother, into the undifferentiated past, and her comb had no more of the warmth of a hand about it than Helen of Troy’s would have. (p. 41)

***

Loneliness bothers lots of people. I knew a woman once who was so lonely she married an old man with a limp and had four children in five years, and none of it helped at all. (p. 66)

***

But Sylvie had fallen silent again. Guessing that she must be listening to something, we were silent, too. The lake still thundered and groaned, the flood waters still brimmed and simmered. When we did not move or speak, there was no proof that we were there at all. The wind and the water brought sounds intact from any imaginable distance. Deprived of all perspective and horizon, I found myself reduced to an intuition, and my sister and my aunt to something less than that. I was afraid to put out my hand, for fear it would touch nothing, or to speak, for fear no one would answer. We all stood there silently for a long moment. (p. 70)

***

During those days Fingerbone was strangely transformed. If one should be shone odd fragments arranged on a silver tray and be told, “That is a splinter from the True Cross, and that is a nail paring dropped by Barabbas, and that is a bit of lint from under the bed where Pilate’s wife dreamed her dream,” the very ordinariness of the things would recommend them. Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. So shoes are worn and hassocks are sat upon and finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on, just as the wind in the orchard picks up the leaves from the ground as if there were no other pleasures in the world but brown leaves, as if it would deck, clothe, flesh itself in flourishes of dusty brown apple leaves, and then drops them all in a heap at the side of the house and goes on. So Fingerbone, or such relics of it as showed above the mirroring waters, seemed fragments of the quotidian held up to our wondering attention, offered somehow as proof of their own significance. But then suddenly the lake and the river broke open and the water slid away from the land, and Fingerbone was left stripped and blackened and warped and awash in mud. (pp. 73-74)

***

Such a net, such a harvesting, would put an end to all anomaly. If it swept the whole floor of heaven, it must, finally, sweep the black floor of Fingerbone, too. From there, we must imagine, would arise a great army of paleolithic and neolithic frequenters of the lake – berry gatherers and hunters and strayed children from those and all subsequent eons, down to the earliest present, to the faith-healing lady in the long, white robe who rowed a quarter of a mile out and tried to walk back in again just at sunrise, to the farmer who bet five dollars on one spring that ice was still strong enough for him to gallop his horse across. Add to them the swimmers, the boaters and canoers, and in such a crowd my mother would hardly seem remarkable. There would be a general reclaiming of fallen buttons and misplaced spectacles, of neighbors and kin, till time and error and accident were undone, and the world became comprehensible and whole. Sylvie said that in fact Molly had gone to work as a bookkeeper in a missionary hospital. It was perhaps only from watching gulls fly like sparks up the face of clouds that dragged the rain the length of the lake that I imagined such an enterprise might succeed. Or it was from watching gnats sail out of the grass, or from watching some discarded leaf gleaming at the top of the wind. Ascension seemed at such times a natural law. If one added it to it a law of completion – that everything must finally be made comprehensible – then some general rescue of the sort I imagined my aunt to have undertaken would be inevitable. For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when we are asleep, and even when we are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally? (pp. 91-92)

***

As it was, I thought of telling them that our grandfather still lay in a train that had slid to the lake floor long before we were born. Perhaps we all awaited a resurrection. Perhaps we expected a train to leap out of the water, caboose foremost, as if in a movie run backward, and then to continue across the bridge. The passengers would arrive, sounder than they departed, accustomed to the depths, serene about their restoration to the light, disembarking at the station in Fingerbone with a calm that quieted the astonishment of friends. Say that this resurrection was general enough to include my grandmother, and Helen, my mother. Say that Helen lifted our hair from our napes with her cold hands and gave us strawberries from her purse. Say that my grandmother pecked our brows with her whiskery lips, and then all of them went down the road to our house, my grandfather youngish and high-pocketed, just outside their conversation, like a difficult memory, or a ghost. Then Lucille and I could run off to the woods, leaving them to talk of old times, and make sandwiches for lunch and show each other snapshots. (pp. 96-97)

***

But the deep woods are as dark and stiff and as full of their own odors as the parlor of an old house. We would walk among those great legs, hearing the enthralled and incessant murmurings far above our heads, like children at a funeral. (p. 98)

***

Lucille would tell this story differently. She would say I fell asleep, but I did not. I simply let the darkness in the sky become coextensive with the darkness in my skull and bowels and bones. Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings. The nerves and the brain are tricked, and one is left with dreams that these specters loose their hands from ours and walk away, the curve of the back and the swing of the coat is so familiar as to imply that they should  be permanent fixtures of the world, when in fact nothing is more perishable. Say that my mother was as tall as a man, and that she sometimes set me on her shoulders, so that I could splash my hands in the cold leaves above our heads. Say that my grandmother sang in her throat while she sat on her bed and we laced up her big black shoes. Such details are merely accidental. Who could know but us? And since their thoughts were bent upon other ghosts than ours, other darknesses than we had seen, why must we be left, the survivors picking among flotsam, among the small, unnoticed, unvalued clutter that was all that remained when they vanished, that only catastrophe made notable? Darkness is the only solvent. While it was dark, despite Lucille’s pacing and whistling, and despite what must have been dreams (since even Sylivie came to haunt me), it seemed to me that there need not be relic, remnant, margin, residue, memento, bequest, memory, thought, track, or trace, if only the darkness could be perfect and permanent. (p. 116)

***

Every winter the orchard is flooded with snow, and every spring the waters are parted, death is undone, and every Lazarus rises, except these two. They have lost their bark and blanched white, and a wind will snap their bones, but if ever a leaf does appear, it should be no great wonder. It would be a small change, as it would be, say, for the moon to begin turning on its axis. It seemed to me that what perished need not also be lost. At Sylvie’s house, my grandmother’s house, so much of what I remembered I could hold in my hand – like a china cup, or a windfall apple, sour and cold from its affinity with deep earth, with only a trace of the perfume of its blossoming. Sylvie, I knew, felt the life of perished things. (p. 124)

***

We had really never had any use for friends or conventional amusements. We had spent our lives watching and listening with the constant sharp attention of children lost in the dark. (p. 130)

***

For need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when its the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any things so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing – the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries. (pp. 152-153)

***

It is better to have nothing, for at least even our bones will fall. It is better to have nothing. (p. 159)

***

She was a music I no longer heard, and not rang in my mind, itself and nothing else, lost to all sense, but not perished, not perished. (p. 160)

***

Then, presumably, would come parturition in some form, though my first birth had hardly deserved that name, and why should I hope for more in the second? The only true birth would be a final one, which would free us from watery darkness and the thought of watery darkness, but could such a birth be imagined? (p. 162)

***

And any present moment was only thinking, and thoughts bear the same relation, in mass and weight, to the darkness they rise from, as reflections do to the water they ride upon, and in the same way they are arbitrary, or merely given. (p. 166)

***

Sylvie stood in the door, looking out over the lake. “It’s pretty today,” she said. Portly white clouds, bellied like cherubs, sailed across the sky, and the sky and the lake were an elegant azure. One can imagine that, at the apex of the Flood, when the globe was a ball of water, came the day of divine relenting, when Noah’s wife must have opened the shutters upon a morning designed to reflect an enormous good nature. We can imagine the Deluge rippled and glistened, and that the clouds, under an altered disposition, were purely ornamental. True, the waters were full of people – we knew the story from our childhood. The lady at her window might have wished to be with the mothers and uncles, among the dance of bones, since this is hardly a human world, here in the fatuous light, admiring the plump clouds. Looking out at the lake one could believe that the Flood had never ended. If one is lost on the water, any hill is Ararat. And below is always the accumulated past, which vanishes but does not vanishes, which perishes and remains. If we imagine that Noah’s wife, when she was old, found somewhere a remnant of the Deluge, she might have walked into it till her widow’s dress floated above her head and the water loosened her plaited hair. And she would have left it to her sons to tell the tedious tale of generations. She was a nameless woman, and so at home among all those who were never found and never missed, who were uncommemorated, whose deaths were not remarked, nor their begettings. (p. 172)

***

The sorrow is that every soul is put out of house. (p. 179)

***

Cain murdered Able, and blood cried out from the earth; the house fell on Job’s children, and a voice was induced or provoked into speaking from a whirlwind; and Rachel mourned for her children; and King David for Absalom. The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted. That is why the first event is known to have been an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return. So memory pulls us forward, so prophecy is only brilliant memory – there will be a garden where all of us as one child will sleep in our mother Eve, hopped in her rips and staved by her spine.

Cain killed Abel, and the blood cried out from the ground – a story so sad that even God took notice of it. Maybe it was not the sadness of the story, since worse things have happened every minute since that day, but its novelty that He found striking. In the newness of the world God was a young man, and grew indignant over the slightest things. In the newness of the world God had perhaps not Himself realized ramifications of certain of His laws, for example, that shock will spend itself in waves; that our images will mimic every gesture, and that shattered they will multiply and mimic every gesture ten, a hundred, or a thousand times. Cain, the image of God, gave the simple earth of the field a voice, and grieved for the sorrow, so Cain was a creator, in the image of his Creator. God troubled the waters where He saw His face, and Cain became his children and their children and theirs, through a thousand generations, and all of them transients, and wherever they went everyone remembered that there had been a second creation, that the earth ran with blood and sang with sorrow. And let God purge this wicked sadness away with a flood, and let the waters recede to pools and ponds and ditches, and let every one of them mirror heaven. Still, they taste a bit of blood and hair. One cannot cup one’s hand and drink from the rim of any lake without remembering that mothers have drowned in it, lifting their children toward the air, though they must have known as they did that soon enough the deluge would take all the children, too, even if their arms could have held them up. Presumably only incapacity made infants and the very old seem relatively harmless. Well, all that purged away, and nothing is left of it after so many years but a certain pungency and savor in the water, and in the breath of creeks and lakes, which, however sad and wild, are clearly human. (pp. 192-193)

***

But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written on the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long. (p. 195)

***

But she left us and broke the family and the sorrow was released and we saw its wings and saw it fly a thousand ways into the hills, and sometimes I think sorrow is a predatory thing because birds scream at dawn with marvelous terror, and their is, as I have said before, a deathly bitterness in the smell of ponds and ditches. When we were children and frightened of the dark, my grandmother used to say if we kept our eyes closed we would not see it. That was when I noticed the correspondence between the space within the circle of my skull and the space around me. I saw just the same figure against the lid of my eye or the wall of my room, or in in the trees beyond my window. Even the illusion of perimeters fails when families are separated. (p. 198).

***

It had never occurred to me that words, too, must be salvaged, though when I thought about it, it seemed obvious. It was absurd to think that things were held in place, are held in place, by a web of words. (p. 200)

***

I learned an important thing in the orchard that night, which was that if you do not resist the cold, but simply relax and accept it, you no longer feel the cold as discomfort. I felt giddily free and eager, as you do in dreams, when you suddenly find that you can fly, very easily, and wonder why you have never tried it before. I might have discovered other things. For example, I was hungry enough to begin to learn that hunger has its pleasures, and I was happily at ease in the dark, and in general, I could feel that I was breaking the tethers of need, one by one. (p. 204)

***

I could fell the bridge rising, and then suddenly a watery wind blew up my legs and billowed my coat, and more than that, there were sliding and shimmering sounds in the water, quiet sounds but wide – if you dive under water and stay down till your breath gives out, when you come up into the air again, you hear space and distance. It was like that. A wave turned a stick or a stone on some black beach how many miles away, and I heard it at my ear. To be suddenly above the water was a giddy thing, an elation, and made me uncertain of my steps. I had to think of other things. I thought of the house behind me, all turned to fire, and the fire leaping and whirling in its own fierce winds. Imagine the spirit of the house breaking out the windows and knocking down doors, and all the neighbors astonished at the sovereign ease with which it burst its tomb, broke up its grave. Bang! and the clay that had held the shape of the Chinese jar was shattered, and the jar was a whirl in the air, ascending. . . bang! and the bureau mirror fell in shivers the shape of flame and had nothing to show but fire. Every last thing would turn to flame and ascend, so cleanly would the soul of the house escape, and all Fingerbone would come marveling to see the smoldering place where its foot had last rested. (pp. 211-212)

***

Of my conception I know only what you know of yours. It occurred in darkness and I was unconsenting. I (and that slenderest word is too gross for the rare thing I was then) walked forever through reachless oblivion, in the mood of one smelling night-blooming flowers, and suddenly – My ravishers left their traces in me, male and female, and over the months I rounded, grew heavy , until the scandal could no longer be concealed and oblivion expelled me. But this I have in common with all my kind. By some bleak alchemy what had been mere unbeing becomes death when life is mingled with it. So they seal the door against our returning. (pp. 214-215)

***

Or imagine Lucille in Boston, at a table in a restaurant, waiting for a friend. She is tastefully dressed – wearing, say, a tweed suit with an amber scarf at the throat to draw attention to the red in her darkening hair. Her water glass has left two-thirds of a ring on the table, and she works at completing the circle with her thumbnail. Sylvie and I do not flounce in through the door, smoothing our oversized coats and combing our hair back with our fingers. We do not sit down at the table next to hers and empty our pockets in a small damp heap in the middle of the table, and sort out the gum wrappers and ticket stubs, and add up the coins and dollar bills, and laugh and add them up again. My mother, likewise, is not there, and my grandmother in her house slippers with her pigtail wagging, and my grandfather, with his hair combed flat against his brow, does not examine the menu with studious interest. We are nowhere in Boston. However Lucille may look, she will never find us there, or any trace or sign. We pause nowhere in Boston, even to admire to a store window, and the perimeters of our walking are nowhere. No one watching this woman smear her initials in the steam on her water glass with her first finger, or slip the cellophane packets of oyster crackers into her handbag for the sea gulls, could know her thoughts are thronged by our absence, or know how she does not watch, does not listen, does not wait, does not hope, and always for me and Sylvie. (pp. 218-219)