It takes just one awful second, I often think, and an entire epoch passes. —Sebald
In the smallest of intervals, one discovers the indefinite change. I love the dizzying blur of time in Sebald’s quote, but more than that, I love to imagine that second. To populate its momentary world. See: the second after a hand stops waving. See: the seconds between rain leaving the clouds and, “Hey, it’s raining.” See: not the seconds that measure lightning from its thunder, but the precise waving of those treetops.
In Euripides’ The Bacchae, Dionysus places the young king Pentheus at the top of an enormous tree overlooking the field in which he will die. It is a story of divine wrath. Dionysus destroys the family of Cadmus for denying his worship, and the details of suffering are explicit in the extreme. No one has a more shocking fate than Pentheus: Dionysus clouds his mind, dresses him as a woman, and leads him to a group of female worshippers (the Bacchae, led by Pentheus’ own mother) who dismember and decapitate him with their bare hands. And yet, somehow, Dionysus remains unblemished—in purity, in consequence—by this act. It is an atrocity transcended in the simplest of gestures: after Pentheus is put out of mind and sense, before Dionysus leads him to the hillside of his death, there, in the waiting—just before—Dionysus watches Pentheus primping his hair. When one of the curls falls loose, Pentheus says Arrange it. I am in your hands. [This, too, is an awful second.] Dionysus reaches for Pentheus’ face, tucks the curl back under its ribbon.
Gesture: an action that surpasses its acknowledgments.
In Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” there’s a moment that astonishes me every time: Just after an anecdotal backstory of the song’s “you” (And you treated my woman to a flake of your life…), just before the lyricism reaches its crescendo of address (And what can I tell you, my brother, my killer…), and, when it’s all over, when we’ve realized that the song is also a letter, we find a window on the letter’s creation, the moment of its reality: Well I see Jane’s awake—she sends her regards. I can almost see Jane’s lithe coming-to, her awareness of the letter-writer’s presence, that first talk of nothing much at all, and the final “Tell him I said hi,” or perhaps, a casual wave of the hand.
Poets are often asked what kind of poems they write, and it seems so natural, so humble in its curiosity, so clear in its hope for a window on the poet’s imaginative landscape. I’ve been asked this question many times, and it’s always an unexpected strain. The truest answer I can give is also, I’ve been told, the least helpful: “Short. I write short poems.” Or, even worse: “Well, I write my experience of experience.” The reason, I think, that these answers can come off as lazy or evasive or smug is because what is really being asked for is a view from outside—the way one would describe a distant skyscraper without getting into the nuances of interior design or architecture. In this spatial analogy, the outside and inside descriptions of the skyscraper are unique views, equally legitimate and exacting on their own terms. And there’s the crux, which also serves, I hope, as an overture to my blogging week: I cannot see the outside of a poem—I see only an expanding interiority that goes as far as the action it performs. As readers, we ackowledge that action, and in the moment of our acknowledgment, it surpasses us.