NOTES ON SECOND CHILDHOOD
And, to stop myself just short of the cliff, one of my word fugues, where words take on different parts of speech, as Bach’s notes play many roles, which says that we see more as our sight grows dim.
I wrote this on May 28th of 1987, finished the third version on May 28th of 2001 (precisely and yet entirely by chance fourteen years later to the day), and redid it with the lucidity of unfamiliarity in 2008. My lost-generation baby-boomer verses apparently need longer-than-usual incubations to grow into responsible adults, the collateral damage of our extended childhoods and lost decades of self-questioning.
This was the first of my word fugues. Being a pianist as well as a poet, I wanted words to weave and turn upside down like notes in a fugue, like children on monkey bars, like cloud portraits which scud into contradictory poses in the jet stream. That is, I wanted to write a verbal theme and then carry it, using the same few notes, setting myself baby Bach rules.
I picked twelve words, the same number of words as Schönberg’s twelve-tone or dodecaphonic scale, which he used for his own mathematical fugues, the basis of serialism in music. Hover, such pure arithmetic usually results in unemotional structures, and I wanted mine to be passionate. The reoccuring language of this poem is so incestous that people rarely notice its meaningful which, to me, as as strong as its shape, the way a beautiful woman finds it difficult to be heard.
So let me paraphrase: we only see the world when we’re old and our vision is failing. Our greatest insights come from lack of sights. Mystics, seers, prophets, are usually blind. This heightens their other senses. The world is too much with us. The only way to see it is to close our eyes, to get away from it. To become blind to it. We see the world’s most clearly as we leave it.
I think often of Milton’s poem “On His Blindness.” Myopics make for mini-Miltons.
I am especially interested in phenomena apparent only to the dim-eyed, as many of my poems deal with blurry apparitions, Broken specters, sun dogs, ghosts of the periphery. Myopia is perceived as weakness, but to me it is a strength. We dim pupils spend an inordinate amount of time inspecting things up close. We see dead bubbles. We obsess over microscopic events. The horror show of the bath turns our world into dioramas that seem fanciful, but are as real as Cinemascope.
When I had a chance to perfect my vision during two cataract operations, I chose to remain blind as birth. The inadvertent improvement foisted on me by overly competent Hawaiian doctors has been enormously distracting, leading me to state incessantly at billboard's and comb the skies for bats. Long distance vision strikes me, after all these years, as a cop out, a poor man’s perspicacity, Seeing for Dummies. Panoramas are like movies: the cheap thrill of movement presumes to compensate for the loss of detail, the lavishness of mediation, the warmth of intimacy.
This is one of my reflection poems (see volumes 4 and 16). Cows and venetian blinds and clouds and grass are suspended in a window pane. But they can only be seen when the light is polarized, say, by a filter on a camera, so the transparency of the glass grows dark and its reflected objects then come into their own. Insights brought to light by darkness.
I was in my forties, and, being Irish and having lost my entire family at an early age, was thinking I must be near death, and was looking back on my life with the great moments in it, one of which was a vast English pasture complete with grazing cows near the cliffs of Dover. The clouds in the afternoon sky seemed to chew on the sky the way the cows were chewing on grass. Cows and clouds have the same shape, the same indolent, calming fluffiness. I was reminded of Hamlet’s description of a cloud: “very like a whale.” Having just seen Hamlet himself as Stratford, the air smelled that summer like Shakespeare, like freshly pointed tourist brochures of Anne Hathaway’s house, like the mini books of plays I bought in the gift store of the theater and kept in my pocket for decades, even in the Himalayas, where I proved conclusively that you can’t memorize a word above 18,000 feet.
The Dover meadow was burned into my wind that day as clearly for the rest of my life as if it were still happening, so that I can live at will, with all its attendant whiffs of wheat, brushes of breeze, touches of grass, revelations of infinite sea, sky through which the eye flies endlessly like an airliner. I live among those clouds, like a high tech god, like a pasha between palaces. Each cloud has its use, its boundaries, its atriums, its prosceniums. Each space, each emotion, is separated by immense space from its rivals, the way Nabokov would travel all night to reach the sanctuary of his parents’ summer house. We live in a Kafka Labyrinth, in a neurotic Fritz Lang metropolis, in the tight synapses and apses of the cluttered brain, but every now and then we fly free.
Everything about that day seemed complacent, lazy, zen. it was a still life, as never-ending as Claesz. Adolescents have all the time in the world, as do cows, as do fields, their grass waving in wind made permanent by memory. Timelessness springs from moment that have no thought of permanence, as poems never spring from people under deadlines. The purpose-written poem is a bad poem. The purposeful day is forgotten. Only wasting time fires the imagination. Laziness if a prerequisite to poetry. Ignoring, of course, counterintuitive efforts to write it down and perfect it, which require anything but laziness. So I suppose poetry is a schizophrenic combination of lassitude and obsession.
I was finally seeing the reality of the world, I thought. Only in my forties did I have the accumulated reverie which nudged me to preserve those refrozen images of my Birdseye childhood. And so it seemed logical to marvel at how greater distances in fact focus events. Life is like a telescope, able to see clearly only the more distant lives. Memory in old age, when the vision has grown blurrier, is stronger than in youth, when the reality is so fresh there is no need even to have memory, or vision. So this says something positive about panoramas, which I have just been bashing. The opposite of a truth is also true.
This fossilized afternoon was not only a memento of childhood, but of death, a memento mori, a note to myself to write up the moments of my life before it was too late. And, of course, tomorrow is always too late, because today’s thought rarely recurs.
This poem sprang from an image I recalled every time I saw a cloud or a cow. They even sound similar. Cows have spots as clouds have holes. Both are somewhat dappled. Clouds dapple the meadows as cows do. They scud, and cud. They both seem like shadows inverted into whiteness. They both convey the Lewis Carroll summer’s afternoon, the slowly flowing river, the slowly floating sky, the softly waving grass. The light air, the airy light. Cloudy cows and cowed clouds. So I have written the imagery unconsciously for years.
As filled as the memory was with classic England, ordinary language would have been an insult. It needed to be new, but old as Van Brugh: superficially exciting, but also deeply structured; musical, but also rational.
The roots of pomes can be, for me, too naive, too vulnerable, too unguarded to let pass unmarshalled. I didn’t just want to blurt out the sentimental nonsense which seems to lurk permanently behind my brocaded arras.
If my own defense, the atmosphere in which I grew up in the 50’s was rife with spinet music, hapa haole Hawaiian ditties (Hanalei Moon), mock-Irish ballades (Galway Bay), pseudo virtuosic parlor pieces (“Shine little glowworm, glimmer…”), maudlin magazines (Reader’s Digest): even the wainscoting and the radiators clanked with steamy nostalgia for mysterious eras which my parents had possibly encountered in their youths, and to which the war had sent them for reassurance. I inherited from my Mother some five hundred songs, from Chopin wales to Kipling’s Mandalay. I was very big in my youth on Leroy Anderson’s Goldilocks and Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend, both of which I eventually accompanied in various productions. (Not that I hadn’t memorized on the piano Beethoven and Mozart sonatas, some concerti, Liszt Rhapsodies, Carmen, The Magic Flute, a huge assortment of classical “lollipops,” etc. But
I’m going back into the postwar atmosphere of our small neighborhood. I was in some part oblivious to it, and while the crack of bats and shriek of children called to me from the offing of the bay window, I doggedly stayed inside and memorized Beethoven and Mozart sonatas, the Grief and Warsaw Concertos, Liszt Rhapsodies, Carmen, The Magic Flute, a huge assortment of classical “lollipops,” much Chopin and some Rachmaninoff. But there was another, darker, postwar side to music, hidden in the piano bench, and I devoured it indiscriminately.
My two favorite songs from this ara are still “Let me Call You Sweetheart” and “Lippen schweigen” from Léhar’s The Merry Widow - hideous in translation, gorgeous in German. You can hear from right where you are Domingo and Netrebko at the Hofburg Palace, Hvorostovky and Renée Fleming, Nicolai Gedda’s subtle humanity, Bo Skovhus’s unimpeachable authority, all miraculously preserved on YouTube. The are my guilty roots, sprinkled liberally with the Clancy Brothers. I have much to hide.
So postmodern fancy footwork must be my response to living in an age too wounded for what I would like to be true. If the world cannot anymore condone emotion of the immoderate Viennese variety, then it can exist in the living room theater, the secret codes of poets and playwrights.
I remember saying, my first day at Columbia, in Michael Wood’s creative writing class, that my goal in writing was to know the world. A very snide and obviously more experienced classmate slowly turned to me and, with deliciously lubricated vowels drenched in sarcasm, sneered, “Do you mean in the…Biblical sense?”
I was just reprimanded by the New World, and I realized I had to go into hiding, even though the supportive Mr. World nonetheless read aloud everything I wrote to my mute and superior peers.
These explanations are then possibly an ex-post-pablum attempt to emerge in prose from my highly spun cocoon. I owe it to the verse to unearth it. Not that I could eve alter it, turn it back to those naive early days when my poetry wasn’t so much heartfelt as pretentious, macaronic, flitting from Greek to Latin to Cuneiform, while maintaining the requisite cummings and ferlinghetti paginations. I can only hope to paint it with the understory which protects trees when they’re small. A forest swept of its brush might be less of a fire hazard, but it is precisely the natural fire which springs from the hidden past that allows a wood, through adversity, to grow in a more sustainable fashion. Trunks without brusk are like streets without dirt: there is something inhuman about them: cathedrals without buttresses, poems without their attendant prosaic acolytes, swinging frankincensed thuribles down the wooded aisles of Easter.
I had spent years humming along Gouldishly with the Well-Tempered Clavier as the Beacon Street light of late afternoon fell on my 1928 Steinway by its river window, teaching fingers and neurons the patters on the sheeplike but endlessly inventive ivory and ebony tongue depressors of the keys. For years I lived for Bach. I was also an organist, and the chief of the pipes in a Saanen church at Christmas was as close to god as the copiously layered patters of the keyboard against the equally white Swiss snows. The ivory pulls of the German-lettered organ racks morphed into Currier & Ives ice-saint scenes, into flakes drifting in muted foreign forests, into delusional bourdon blasts just before sleep.
(I always find the most complex thoughts come right before nodding off, when logic leaves the darkened room in disarray, in matted ferns and fallen seeds.)
Nested inside the Matrushka of my woodland Bach were beer gardens in Munich, Christmas shops in Salzburg, rockfall on the Eiger, a slideshow of terrifying and banal symbolism welling up and dying to explode into words and music, like a spiraling helicopter tourist taking in the Alps. I wanted to bend words into patterns more significant than the carelessly strung Christmas lights of the guidebooks. The way that seemed most Bacchanalian in this poem was to vary the part of speech for each word, the way similar notes, when they recurred, were suspended over different harmonies in a fugue, or turned upside-down, or hidden in scales. Thus, a word should occur as a noun, a verb, and an adjective. Then, too, the words should recur not just mathematically, or harmoniously - they should make sense as well.
So the poem has several layers to its nostalgia for that pastoral diorama. Second childhood is of course another name for senility when our judgement is blinded. I was thinking of my aunt’s Venetian blinds which replaced the invigorating calm of the Bedford Green with the bland infirmary ivory of her bed-sitting room, of how they were lit up from behind by the sun every afternoon, even though my Great Aunt Tessie was too blasé or too contrary to notice. So the imagery came out of a young person’s horror at the saccharine light of the wrinkled, amber age, and from the parallel exception that I would die before my time, as my Mother had. I never expected to live past forty. (of course 21 is the goal of all youth. Thirty is failure. Forty is death. No one is, or even had been, older than 40.)
Sight improves with hindsight, as does death. As Proust was dying he was rewriting his death scenes in his vast novel, In Search of Lost Time. May we all live long enough to correct our texts.