I was lost. On purpose. I’m a bad map-reader, so when I’m alone in a city I don’t know, I like to set out on foot, get thoroughly lost, and then try to find my way home. In most cities, the method works. Rome wasn’t totally unfamiliar – I’d been there once, briefly, with my husband, who is a human compass – but it is a spiraling labyrinth of cobbled alleyways and strange diagonals. I could find my way easily to a place on one day and get hopelessly lost the next, taking what I knew for a fact to be the same route. I could go to Piazza Navona, set out in any direction away from it – and find myself ten minutes later in Piazza Navona. It made no sense.
I was wandering in aimless circles, fretting about the lecture I was about to give. The talk was something of a confusing spiral in its own right; there were connections I wanted to illuminate but I felt like they didn’t work: like central Rome itself, there was almost too much going on to make sense of.
MAKE SENSE OF IT is one of the recurring refrains of James Merrill’s Ouija Board epic The Changing Light at Sandover. The other is THERE IS NO ACCIDENT. Part of my freakout was that the lecture led inexorably to that poem, which is terribly ambitious and complex, and and I was scared to death of having to talk about it, especially in front of a professor who had known Merrill and touched that stupid board. I thought of Merrill’s own lines, his own insecurity as, in the trope of the poem, he’s been charged by spirits with the writing of “poems of science.”
Dread of substances, forms and behavior
So old, original, so radically
Open yet impervious to change
That no art, however fantastic or concrete,
More than dreams of imitating them.
Make sense of it, I was muttering to myself. But in the labrynthine swirl of references and citations, Ovid and Pliny and Keats and Frost and Merrill and naming and mythmaking and mastery, each a tessera of its own, supposed to fit together in a mosaic like the ancient basaltic cobbles on which I circled, but like those stones too, catching my heels at every step. I wanted someone to tell me it was going to work, and there was no one there to tell me anything.
I stopped in a sleepy, unprepossessing side street to get my bearings. There was a small hotel across the way. A car caught my eye as it pulled into a parking space. I watched a woman get out, noting with amusement how so many Italian women bore a resemblance to the mother of my ninth-grade boyfriend: the austere peeled-onion bun of dark hair, the deep tan, the slender figure artfully draped in effortlessly stylish clothes.
Then the driver’s side door opened and her husband got out, and I realized that I was in fact seeing Jon’s parents.
I called out to them. My God! What a coincidence! We’ve been in Florence for a month. We just got into town, literally this minute. We’re flying out in the morning. How is it we find you on this exact piece of sidewalk? Unbelievable!
Thousands of miles from home, utter accidents of time and place, and here were people who live five miles from me, whom I’ve known two and a half decades. It was unbelievable, and yet somehow strangely inevitable. There is no accident, I thought, and yet what were the odds that as I stood there feeling unusually desperate for reassurance, there appeared, ex nihilo, two of the most enthusiastic, supportive people I’ve ever known. I explained about the lecture and the last minute misgivings I had about what I’d chosen to do.
“Forget about it!” Jon’s dad boomed. “You’ll bring the house down! How could you not? You’re you!”
I think a lot of the time when we speak of things like “no accident,” it has the pat, infuriating undertone of the stupid well-meaning friend who croons “everything happens for a reason” when you get robbed or diagnosed with something awful or your spouse runs off with their secretary. That’s not what I’m talking about. Jon’s parents did not appear, armed with jolly reassurances, because it was part of a divine plan. They appeared because I was looking.
The lecture went great. In fact, people marveled at how seamlessly it dovetailed with the things they’d been talking about in the days before I arrived, and I loved how it reverberated against the ideas that came up in the days following. Accident? I had no idea what anyone else was going to be talking about. But the mosaic made perfect sense.
Pattern recognition is the human method for validating knowledge. Harnessing it is how we make art. In a way there really is no accident. And yet, you know that feeling – the one we writers live for where something entirely random happens that jars a series of seemingly disconnected ideas into place and suddenly it’s almost as if something is writing through you? Accident? Design? Are they even different? Merrill’s occult exhortation, the one repeated again and again, is to “make sense of it,” and he means “sense” in both – well – senses of the word. Both logical, rhetorical meaning, and sensuous meaning, the eye- and ear-touching correlations that separate what we call art from what we call a shopping list. Good poetry can tickle the intellect, but so can a work of philosophy, an abstract in a science journal, or a raw idea. What it must also do in order to be poetry is to dazzle our senses in some way, to make us feel. To make us see pattern, see design, see inevitability arising from the chaotic jumble of undifferentiated information by which we’re surrounded.
I’ll leave you with two short poems that touch on this: Frost’s “Design,” and Amit Majmudar’s ghazal “By Accident.”