This week’s guest blogger is Cyrus Console, author of Brief Under Water.
A contemporary poet by profession, I know a number of short poems “by heart,” though not so many poems as popular songs, which themselves I can number on two hands. Fact is, none of us can rightly comprehend the rigor of the former poets, who composed, composed (I have written “composed” three times now; let it stand) and performed their colossal works wholly from memory. In tribute to their achievement I have required myself to pen this testament offline, as I existed in 1994, when my literate friend introduced me to the work of Michael Van Walleghen, whose poem “For T.C.” was the first I committed, as the phrase goes, to memory:
T.C, believe me, the night you died
I dreamt the aurora borealis
and women in agony, lost on blinding ice
but it was useless, and still half dark
and simply winter, there, in Wichita
when I looked out, as if in nightmare
on trees so still, so delicate in detail
your life occurred to me like a stone
kicked loose into the tilted, attenuate reflections
of some black river, thick with leaves.
I’m not 100% sure about the title or the lineation or whether to put “thick” or “choked” at the end, but I believe the above fairly represents the original, with the possible omission of lines between “blinding ice” and “but it was useless.” Putting aside the question of whether memory has, in these intervening years, proven faithful to the letter, let me venture the point that until I memorized this poem, I did not begin to grasp the basic power of the medium, or the power it must once have had: namely, that although a complete musical score, the steps to a dance, or even an eidetically rich representation of a painting might find purchase in the memory, only poetry can reside, substantially, in its complete and original form, content, and character, there in the average mind. Poetry’s great claim was assimilability, or if one insisted that words were also mere sounds, that poetry had a dual nature and that poems were thoroughly phonetic structures as well as thoroughly semantic ones, then one’s own voice was always adequate to their expression, and they remained utterly portable. Thus I still have Van Walleghen’s poem, more or less entire, long since having lost his books, whose titles no longer come to me, with the dubious exception of “Blue Tango,” in various moves and minor floods.
About this poem—single catalyst of a process by which I developed, for good or ill, from high-school senior into poet, if that is what I am—what was it that so attracted and changed me? There was first of all its evident power over my friend, my wish to be moved as he seemed moved, or else my wish to possess his superior discernment. There was also the persona, dimly outlined, of the writer. I for one initially conceived the career as a respectable style of alcoholism, and my friend and I got drunk outdoors watching the interstate bypass Topeka, our home, memorable like Oklahoma City and Cleveland as a site where the traffic curved, and at some point one of us, quickly seconded, would begin to declaim “T.C.” A sentimental exercise, though when others were present, none likely to have heard literary English in a peer setting, it became a way of showing our learning or breeding, such as it was, and a macho display, a voluntary, fearless, invulnerable charge into the effete. So I endowed this poem and poems generally with a social function, however ambiguous.
Insofar as the identity I was then forming was “masculine,” I think thematic aspects of “T.C.” appealed strongly to my seventeen-year-old psyche. Death calling by night on the friend of an exquisitely sensitive speaker trapped in Wichita made a totemic image for someone like me, whose main strength was quickness of apprehension and who understood the chief proposal of his seriousness to be a capacity of suffering and loss, culturally overmatched to his epoch, place, and milieu. The elegist’s posture of intimacy with women as a class; his effortless subjection of that class to “agony,” even as he placed it elementally in series with the northern lights; the effect the poem’s policy not to individualize women had of confirming T.C.’s status as comrade, not lover—such content in the mouth of a prospective role model comforted and reassured me, tormented as I was by rumination of my weak chin and froglike elocution.
The poem taught me about form and meaning. I could perceive how rhyme linked “there” [Wichita] to “nightmare,” a sensible judgment, and “borealis” to “useless,” a nice irony, I thought, considering that humans have the power to conjure the night sky in a dream, but can’t help dying. I felt how the stone at poem’s end gave the sense of an ending, both in the way the language modulated from the cosmic scale (“life,” “aurora”) to the minute (“stone,” “leaves”) and in the way water represented a medium closed to speech and habitation, a boundary that freely admitted the token but could not relinquish it. In this resolution I intuited the poetic force of the wishing well, though years later I repudiated it as Spielbergesque (probably following Lerner, who remains my guide through much literature), just as I dismissed the poem’s aimless intensification (“so still, so delicate”) and, for reasons harder to articulate, the rhetorical scumbling of “some black river.” I guess I felt—and this was years later—that the poet should not stop writing at “some black river,” as though any black river would do.
For poetry, fiction, and interviews, visit Memorious magazine at www.memorious.org.