The Word “Dear” on the Upper Verge

Landor reading Homer in Greek for one last time, in his mid-eighties, sketched by his friend William Wetmore Story

Landor reading Homer in Greek for one last time, in his mid-eighties, sketched by his friend William Wetmore Story

 

We who are getting older— everyone is, but the term accumulates force with time— have particular reasons to consider Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864). Note those dates. A memorable sketch of him shows him reading Homer, which he decided, since he had lived so long, to read, in the original Greek, one more time.

Landor kept writing into his nineties. In his late seventies he published a book called Last Fruit Off an Old Tree expecting it to be his last. Five years later he published another book, titled Dry Sticks. As those titles suggest, he could be funny about the subject. One poem begins, “The leaves are falling; so am I.”

Landor’s poem “Memory” was teasing in my own memory when, in this Forum a couple of months ago, I introduced Elise Partridge’s poem “Chemo Side Effects: Memory.” Landor was deeply literary, a writer when that word’s meaning included someone who made marks on paper, by hand. That action of applying ink to paper inspires the memorable, heartbreaking moment in his poem. When he sets out to write a letter to a friend, the word “Dear” “hangs on the upper verge,” waiting for the unremembered name. The conventional word of the salutation (in email, largely supplanted by “Hi”) takes on a great charge of feeling: the attachment to the person and the passion to write, momentarily survive the ability to remember the name.

For some contemporary readers may Landor’s language may seem merely old-fashioned, with its lofty, Latinate “vernal” and “autumnal” for spring and fall; personally, I am all the more moved by the formal, somewhat learned language: the implicitly classically trained mind expressing its attachment to the seasons, as to friends, to writing, to the one beloved he remembers best. For that great love of his life, Jane Swift, he invented the name “Ianthe” in his many poems to and about her.

It’s impressive to me that Landor can put that love-ideal in the context of other relationships, including his ability to write, or to remember. Early friendships and more recent ones, he says, are equally vulnerable to oblivion. For me, this nineteenth-century poem by someone who felt old so long ago, gets sharper as the language itself— along with us all— keeps getting older, and changing.

MEMORY

The mother of the Muses, we are taught,
Is Memory: she has left me; they remain,
And shake my shoulder, urging me to sing
About the summer days, my loves of old.
Alas! alas! is all I can reply.
Memory has left with me that name alone,
Harmonious name, which other bards may sing,
But her bright image in my darkest hour
Comes back, in vain comes back, called or uncalled.
Forgotten are the names of visitors
Ready to press my hand but yesterday;
Forgotten are the names of earlier friends
Whose genial converse and glad countenance
Are fresh as ever to mine ear and eye;
To these, when I have written, and besought
Remembrance of me, the word Dear alone
Hangs on the upper verge, and waits in vain.
A blessing wert thou, O oblivion,
If thy stream carried only weeds away,
But vernal and autumnal flowers alike
It hurries down to wither on the strand.

LISTEN TO ROBERT PINSKY READ WALTER SAVAGE LANDOR’S “MEMORY.”

The Projection of Meaning

The Poet And His Characters

The Poet And His Characters

 

What is meaning? Like laughter (or in a well-known formulation, pornography), it is easier to recognize than define. The more I think about meaning, the more interestingly strange the concept becomes.

The psychological term “projection” indicates an inner, subjective feeling imposed on an outer, objective world. As the word “imposed” suggests, there’s often a negative, or at least corrective sense: you look uncomfortable to me, but really you are comfortable and I’m projecting my discomfort onto you.

But, I say to myself, can that kind of process be separated altogether from meaning itself? Could I get through a day without imposing or projecting all sorts of meanings? Isn’t that how Sherlock Holmes and his descendants do their logical (or intuitive) deducing?

My amateur philosophizing about projection and meaning is inspired by a contemporary poem I admire, Tom Sleigh’s “Block and Bag,” from his 2007 book Space Walk. The process of meaning is demonstrated, as in time-lapse photography of a plant or larva, through forty-five lines of (implicitly) staring out a hotel window at the “blah arena” of an empty courtyard. For me, the poem is an interesting example of both meaning and laughter.

Sleigh’s shrewd, attractive, comical phrase “blah arena” is more accurate than my “empty courtyard,” which begs an adverb: “seemingly empty” or “basically empty” or “drearily empty.” The characterization of the observer who says (or thinks, or writes) “blah arena” proceeds through description of two other characters: a block of styrofoam and a plastic bag, in the wind.

A range of language, including “afflatus of breath” and “john/whore,” whirls and puffs around the two protagonists—in a single, persistent gust of a  sentence!— creating a shaped cloud of feeling and . . . meaning. The poem evokes a mood and a frame of reference, personal and lyrical, yet the only use of the personal pronouns “I” and “you” is in the italicized twenty-first and twenty-eighth lines, where “I” is not the poet but either of the two characters, Block and Bag.

What does it mean? That tiresome pedagogical question, as always with true, meaningful works of art, can be answered entirely and properly only by the work itself. There is a lot to say about “Block and Bag,” as the poet demonstrates, but the saying cannot exhaust the meaning.

BLOCK AND BAG

(Tom Sleigh)

Pursuit, delay, anxious moments of dallying,
then leaps, bounds, hilarious cartwheels turning
manic with rage or fear performed in a concrete

courtyard bare but for hotel windows replicating
everywhere these mad, senseless, random chases,
a little styrofoam block fiery as Achilles

racing after a plastic bag kiting and billowing
round and round this blah arena, this angle/plane world
stripped to extremes of sun scraping concrete

bare, or blasted dark, obliviated by clouds,
the light neutered to the spirit’s dullest grays while Block
and Bag now seem hunter/prey, john/whore,

then inexplicably bound and flutter to a halt,
exhausted, Block’s corners pitted, rounded
by bumps and skids and somersaults,

Bag blowzy and worn, bedraggled by all this
unexpected passion, this afflatus of breath swelling
it full then sucked out so it collapses in ruin,

abject, pleading, overdoing it maybe, knowing more
than it lets on, only playing dead for Block’s titillation,
You did it, you conquered, I’m nothing, nothing …

until the whirlwind hits and drives them on
obsessed without purpose in their abandon
that could be joy, terror, elation of love, despair’s

deflation, desire’s movements like armies
maneuvering across no man’s land, the spirit
coquetting after the unreachable

as Block now bounds to within an inch of Bag
fluttering off at an eccentric angle,
the light winking off it like an eye winking,

you know I know you know someone’s watching—
now Bag crumples in a corner, seemingly blacked out,
Block hovering near as if debating to strike

and demolish Bag, put an end to this pursuit—
no angle of approach, no middle ground,
no terms of ransom, no truce—

just this squarish, brick-faced concrete
among endless displacements rippling out
across this nowhere courtyard where Block and Bag

are at it again, running amok, racing round and round,
giving no quarter and desiring none
the way heroes of old lavish on each other

ferocious attentions no lover can rival,
oh most worthy and wedded of combatants:
berserk Block; shrewd tactician Bag.

LISTEN TO ROBERT PINSKY READ TOM SLEIGH’S “BLOCK AND BAG.”