This poem is by my first teacher and adviser during my undergrad studies at Sarah Lawrence College. Technically he’s my ‘Don’; I’ll leave it to all of you to discern what that means. I’ve always felt incredibly lucky to have a personal relationship with this guy because besides being a brilliant, universally wonderful (or to use a word I’ve only ever heard him use, numinous) person, he’s also become one of my favorite poets in the world.
The Play of Light and Shadow
We want to give ourselves away utterly
but afterwards we resent it, it is the same
with the sparrows, their eyes burn so coldly
under the dusty pines, their small chests swell
as they dispute a crumb, or the empty place
where a seed was once: this is our law too,
to peck and peck at the Self, to take turns
being I, to die in a fierce sidelong glance,
then to hold the entire forest in one tilt
of a tufted head, to take flight suddenly
and fuck in midair, tumbling upward.
I realized just now that I’ve never posted this poem, the last line of which was the original tagline for this blog. It is my favorite poem of all time.
I found this in Czeslaw Milosz’s (Cheh-shwah Mee-lohsh is my impression of how to pronounce it) Nobel Prize portfolio. Milosz is a polish poet who is particularly fond of attempting to describe the indescribable nature of things. He is astonishingly successful at this hilariously ironic enterprise, and captures absolute beauty as he does it. I love him because he has come closer to describing anything than anyone I’ve ever read.
As a lure into more of his work I’m going to quote the last couple lines of his poem “Earth Again” which I read in his book “Unattainable Earth”. These are the lines that first made Milosz one of my favorite writers of all time.
“…for a short moment there is no death
And time does not unreel like a skein of yarn
Thrown into an abyss.”
Also search youtube for videos of him speaking/reading if you want an example of a great poet voice.
If you’re interested in other Polish poets check out Zbigniew Herbert.
I looked at that face, dumbfounded. The lights of métro stations flew by; I didn’t notice them. What can be done, if our sight lacks absolute power to devour objects ecstatically, in an instant, leaving nothing more than the void of an ideal form, a sign like a hieroglyph simplified from the drawing of an animal or bird? A slightly snub nose, a high brow with sleekly brushed-back hair, the line of the chin – but why isn’t the power of sight absolute? – and in a whiteness tinged with pink two sculpted holes, containing a dark, lustrous lava. To absorb that face but to have it simultaneously against the background of all spring boughs, walls, waves, in its weeping, its laughter, moving it back fifteen years, or ahead thirty. To have. It is not even a desire. Like a butterfly, a fish, the stem of a plant, only more mysterious. And so it befell me that after so many attempts at naming the world, I am able only to repeat, harping on one string, the highest, the unique avowal beyond which no power can attain: I am, she is. Shout, blow the trumpets, make thousands-strong marches, leap, rend your clothing, repeating only: is!
She got out at Raspail. I was left behind with the immensity of existing things. A sponge, suffering because it cannot saturate itself; a river, suffering because reflections of clouds and trees are not clouds and trees.
A horse walks into a bar and the bartender doesn’t even like horses because of something to do with the length of their faces but his daughter is giving him those eyes and he groans like, “not those eyes!” and later when the bar closes they take the horse home.
In this one dimension, the big bang occurs in such a way that the universe is a bar and everything walks into it.
Osama Bin Laden walks into a bar and the special forces throw everyone’s bodies into the ocean.
A boy, a bear, a piglet, a tiger, a rabbit, and a donkey all walk into a bar, mess the place up, and pay in honey.
God walks into a bar and Jesus is already there and there’s this Awkward Silence.
A serial killer walks into a bar and kills everybody.
A bar walks into a bar.
A bar walks in on a bar and it’s uncomfortable and the first bar doesn’t know what to say and just closes the door.
A man and a woman walk into a bar and then later out of a bar.
Sisyphus pushes a bar all the way up a hill and when he is about to walk into the bar it rolls back down again.
A psychotic maniac charges into a bar but is very well spoken and makes a lot of friends. Later they’re all into regime change.
God kills himself in the bathroom of a bar and all of time is spent piecing him together.
War is in a bar and never leaves because a genie keeps refilling its glass.
A bomb goes off in a bar and destroys everything and your philosopher friends are like, “Well, what really is ‘a place’?”
The wind blows into a bar and Dawn is in the back spinning a frisbee on her fingers.
The scales on the
are not well-fixed.
In fact, they are all falling
Oh well, everything is made of
this is another important space,
I guess. We all gaze up
and see space.
It’s like night
but no stars
Full crowd tonight– all of Niobe’s kids,
Eurydice, who’ll be leaving early,
and Persephone’s here. It’s Spring in Hell.
I spent this morning crossing the river
In Charon’s boat; he’s gives the best feedback.
I’m still trying to write this one poem
But it just won’t come. I think it’s about
Filling an empty place up with something,
And how the emptiness grows around it.
Sisyphus takes my shoulders in the wings;
Inside I’m trembling over this line like:
I made my world one endless metaphor.
I almost called my brother yesterday.
I just want to figure out everything.
I think I can see you more clearly
If you would move the windows
Please? Paint on the shadows
And if you can, the light.
What I mean is, the dog
Came splashing towards me,
His head all in white shells
And also scattering them.
I underline the dog, there.
Then, he is lost.
I dive into bushes, looking
I am smoking a cigarette
In your robe, turning my radio
To the lake. I listen closely
to our old, sealed letters.
I see a face through the woods.
It is like the open spaces between
Trees: like our so many windows.
One grand sheet: a painting
You can see from only one angle.
I cannot walk into that flatness:
My own right eye taking over
The left. The lake is inside it.
There are rocks and the water
Is freezing. My father is in it
Somewhere. It is flat like this
But only if you can remember it.
“I got it,” the girl says, laughing
at how incompetent I am
because I fumble at the door
as we leave the coffee place.
It is early in the morning.
And I remember this
as I am walking to school.
I regret that I didn’t ask her
to walk with me. Imagining
that could carry me all day.
We would have split here.
That song, “Can’t you see?
Oh, can’t you see…” in my head.
“It’s not that I miss my ex-girlfriend,
it’s that I miss having a girlfriend.”
My marine friend said to me,
“I just want to be back overseas.”
My professor calls it a cycle
of fullness and emptiness and he rolls
life in the air with his hands.
I cannot remember on what end
we write poetry. Does it drain
or fill us? I wonder how a marine
feels when he shoots his gun,
how it feels to truly fuck.
I went to class two stanzas back,
talked to someone, took a shit,
thought about masturbating.
Am I fuller or emptier now?
Maybe I just ruined the poem.
My mom called me.
The only other way it could be:
either you are entirely full
or empty. Like honesty, pregnancy,
you can’t be sort of complete.
I want to call my mom back,
hold her voice in my head.
It pours in and strengthens me.
Poetry is like that—
fullness shooing emptiness away.