That Ticking Quiet: Grace, Fallen from by Marianne Boruch
The painting on the cover of Grace, Fallen from, by Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi, shows in muted tones a close-up of a woman sitting on a chair. At first glance, Rest (1905) exudes calm, but the woman is looking away from us: we have no clue as to her disposition. The painting recalls a note from another Dane, Søren Kierkegaard’s, “Journal IV A 164” (1843): “It is quite true what philosophy says; that life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forwards. Which principle, the more one thinks it through, ends exactly with the thought that temporal life can never properly be understood precisely because I can at no instant find complete rest in which to adopt a position: backwards.” This form of existential restlessness pervades Grace, Fallen from. The semantics of the title, stating a present state and then, in hindsight, a detraction from it, resumes the experience of disillusionment when finding that present certainties are problematized by past conflicts and experiences.
The collection of poems is organized in three parts, titled simply I, II, and III, with a poem that precedes them called “A Moment.” In this poem, the poet waits in anticipation — it is spring, with “every tree gloriously poised” — for a man whom she has not yet met. He arrives, and mistakes someone else for her. Normally, she would be there, “rushing in,” as is socially “required,” but something “small” in her makes her hold back and take the risk of “giving up” her date “just like that,” as if her inaction was involuntary and, in retrospect, unsettling. This “small” part of herself, which intrudes into the present and brings pain, recalls the focus on her childhood self throughout this collection.
The semantics of the title, stating a present state and then, in hindsight, a detraction from it, resumes the experience of disillusionment when finding that present certainties are problematized by past conflicts and experiences.
The message in part I is that the past is in the present, and is powerful in its capacity to hurt. The part opens with “Still Life,” an ambiguous title referring both to the seventeenth-century still-life painting discussed in the text, and to the event of life that still continues in the present. The poet imagines the setting-up of the fruit and animal parts in preparation for the artist. Suggestions of pain infuse the description: the lemon was “rare,” so someone “paid a lot”; the garden from which the apple came is now “lost”; as the wine was “for the painting,” someone was deprived of it; a rabbit has been killed so that its skull can join the arrangement; a workman moving the table toward the light is heard to “cry out” in “pain.” His “sharp” howl momentarily distracts those making the arrangement, who accuse him of howling for “no good reason.” He had distracted them from “the talk of beauty,” which soon “started up again.” Beauty not only conceals present pain; it can be used to cause it.
In “Studying History,” the poet’s childhood is juxtaposed with the task of reading about the past. Childhood enters the author’s peripheral vision as an unsettling disturbance of her present engagement with the text – and is discussed as an afterthought: “Was that childhood going on? That noise / in the background – half-starved, deranged bird…?” This irony of past-in-past-in-present is in itself painful, as the intrusion of childhood arose from a thought that life was but drudgery and fleeting joy: “happiness is momentary / and eternity is work.” The poem exposes our limits as historians: how we create and recreate our own fiction from texts, interspersing elements from the author and ourselves. Similarly, our own memories are continually being reconstructed. In “A Musical Idea,” one of the poet’s memories is undermined by her brother’s recollection of events, and she suffers a breakdown. She remembers her stoic confrontation of situations in her childhood: “I kept turning / full-faced into everything, never // saying a word.” Her brother disagrees: “You like / to think that… I heard you / plenty of times. And you were hiding.”
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