NOTES ON BLUE
The deep blue mountain sky that autumn, polarized by nature, by a surfeit of water in the air, which before had been the epitome of safety, had become for me a harbinger of horror.
Mario Pei points out in The Story of Language (1949) (one of the books that made my childhood palatable, freezing in my aerie, originally intended for servants (where I was not so subtly indentured to my father, screaming hostile military commands up the waiter's staircase at ungodly hours)), that all things come to mean their opposites, a metaphor for the indefatigable perversity of the human mind. A beldam (hag) was originally a belle dame, a beautiful noble woman. A belle dame later became a vampire, as in Keats's poem. Bad' in the hood used to represent a sort of cool. A hood, once a woodsy crusader against oppression, later a criminal and a hat, is now the heartening nabe. And so language blackens.
Blue sky had similarly transformed quite suddenly in my sense of kinesthesia, my internal color wheel, from safety to danger. Ocean as well, the source of so much joy in Book One, sloshes around in my mind now with a certain dread, after the Christmas Tsunami of 2004, which swept across the many islands where Cathy and I and so many others had just been. In fact, it came into Ko Phi Phi from both sides at once.
I'd been feeling uneasy that month, an emotion which started at the end of the Aspen Music Festival, where I wrote the poem, Gorecki (in Volume Eight), on August 22nd, 2001, which shared a similar unease, as does The Changing of the Leaves, written a few days after September 11th, 2001.
It seemed fitting to circumscribe a world suddenly exploded into chaos with a serene sonnet form from the Elizabethan era, when order was also threatened by distant forces, and yet when the pinnacle of rational language was reached, possibly as a refuge against the dark.
As Coleridge said, poems should surview their contents. The surface should draw us into the sense. Although poems celebrate their meanings with with contradictory cymbals and symbols (as Mozart made death so sinisterly entertaining in Don Giovanni), the onomatopoeic display can be distracting, despite its collaboration with the deeper rumblings of a poem's more lumbering gears. To be clearer, the monsters conjured from Morbius's hidden id and the buried turbines of the Krell which drive it are more diverting than Shakespeare's Tempest, which runs under the subterranean caverns of the Forbidden Planet, less dramatically but more importantly.
Which is why I sometimes sense that the oppressed victims of my Janissaries are waylaid by the surface noise of the triangle and oblivious to the base drum in the distance. They miss the forest for the trees. So I would never dispute the need for a prompter, the fat man in the scuppers on stage, who mimes the words at distracted singers. Or the need for the sheet music itself, which provides an anchor around which currents of sound spontaneously swirl. The hubris of performing from memory often distempers the imagination with its concomitant fear of forgetting. The ability to soar over safely noted landmarks easily compensates for the false bravado of flying without instruments, or playing from memory. The disgust of a noisy audience at the fallible, page-reading pianist is dwarfed by the freedom the automatic pilot of the sheet music provides the buttressed flier. Better to have earth in your sights when looping the loop.
So, to provide a stern line to my quartering coracle, the poem here talks of Paul Bowles's sheltering sky, which protects us from the horrors beyond its sunsets and its dawns, the void and vacuum of decidedly unlyric emptiness.
The brisk skies of fall make us dream, and symbolize the weather of our childhoods, the weather of going off to college, the excitement of meeting new friends, of meeting our future on the lawns of autumnal schools. The crisp in the air, the colors in the fallen leaves bring us back to when we were young, when there were castles in the air.
But such dreams are creations of the Romantic era, of Wordsworth and Keats, and later of Frost and Wilbur, where we layer the benign imagery of nature over inconvenient facts. Our current world allows no such liberties, given the horror-movie reality of global terrorism. Our most human qualities, such as imagination, are turned against us by humanity gone bad. The pathetic fallacy, the solipsistic reverie that colors nature with our moods, is revealed to have no telling influence on a world that simply stands by impassively as we destroy it. Hues are shorn of the resonances built up for centuries in more innocent eras.
The true loss of innocence is the loss of connotation, the loss of partnership with the universe. The sheltering sky is pulled aside to reveal indifferent nature. A red sky has often been seen as a warning of storms, but a blue sky has its own hale-fellow, wild west, Dover cliff integrity which has finally been taken down by the flip side of the same organism that invested the simple past with such delight, as monsters slouch heavily towards the sleeping spaceship.