Palimpsest Palinode: A Pilgrimage of the Aesthetic

She got good poems and bad poems, and she’ll swear on the Bible she can’t
tell which is which. I explain to her only the good poems are exactly true.

— John Gardner’s October Light

1. No truth but in things

I am sixteen and alone and my grandmother is dying, but this cannot be the first line of the poem. My mother has sent me out of the Health Care Center in Oakland where black elders have been abandoned by their family, where my grandmother is being nursed to the end of her illness and speaks to no one because she’s the only Chinese here. It’s Thanksgiving Day. A parade on a distant TV. A lunch of gravy and turkey, pureed for smooth swallowing. My mother has sent me to the car so I won’t have to watch her spoon soup for her mother, who said nothing to me while I stood at her bedside, too distracted save to yowl (ai-yaw, ai-yaw) in pain, jaws stretching wide to expose the skeleton inside, wax-yellow teeth jutting out as they will weeks later when we find her dead in the same bed, stuck in a final gasp. I’ll remember the soup my mother brought as a bowl of tears — but this is untrue, a romanticized anesthesia.

All language is anesthesia, concept-filters for a reality so intense or mundane our bodies can’t grip down on it. Memory is a language; that is, a reconfiguration.

Alone in the passenger seat, I scramble for a ballpoint pen and the car insurance sheets, the only paper I can find in the glove compartment. I am about to write my first poem, or my first urgent cry participating in what Shelley called “episodes of that great poem, which all poets… have built up since the beginning of the world.” My sentiment is fresh enough to stave off the sentimental, avoiding a self-pitying “I” in the poem. I collate a list of pure things, not for what they symbolize but for the atmosphere they rub against. Over her bed: the broken wall clock. The hallway smell of full diapers. Squirrel at the window in sequestered sunlight. The empty truck we passed coming here, its sign, Oranges 26cents, the hooded man walking ahead and shedding a trail of orange-peel crescents.

The poem, in small handwriting on paper that does not belong to me, is a drawbridge closing against what I have seen. Staring out the window at a gray parking lot, perception has suddenly decayed into a toxic event and the only safe place left is memory. Eliot writes in “The Music of Poetry” of “the inner unity which is unique to every poem, against the outer unity which is typical.” I understand this askew, and see that outer unity as not just typical but so massively intense (or chaotically mundane) that we need language as an anesthesia, as a concept-filter. Memory is a language; that is, a reconfiguration. Memory-training experts say we seldom “forget” things (as if memories decayed in half-lives), but rather we fail to experience things fully enough to remember them in the first place. So if you’re constantly running back to the house to double-check the front door’s lock, the simple cure is to be present-minded: picture your head as the doorknob, and that you’re locking your nose. The same goes for abstractions — convert a number into a vivid image and you’ll never forget it. Metaphor is naming power; its aliveness is the ownership of reality.

Information overload — numbness — is a moral buzzword today, but it’s nothing new. Numbness is anesthesia, which is distraction, which may be fear. In Portrait of the Artist, Joyce says, “Perhaps they had taken refuge in number and noise from the secret dread in their souls. But he, apart from them and in silence, remembered in what dread he stood of the mystery of his own body.” It’s a plastic refuge, Stephen Dedalus realizes here as he learns to distrust the reality taught and handed to him. But poetry, like the body itself, is a sweaty step outside of society’s timetable, a place in which language is stripped of automatic values. Poetry is building reality from bare syntax — a frightening responsibility.

So in the car, I begin my poem with things: all eyes to avoid the lie.

Yet where do things end? My grandmother passes away some weeks after the draft of my poem. The burial commences an influx of revived memories; the solemn ceremony reshapes them, wipes a veneer over them. Then the funeral itself becomes another memory for the dusting. Memory always menaces present experience, because it’s never fully reconstructed, no instant is ever finished. Just like a well-constructed guitar wood vibrates in response to harmonies in the room, the last line of the poem excites the first line of the poem, and the later draft excites the earlier. But the things of poetry — the statements, the vivid experiences — are ubiquitous and inexhaustible. As such, they are always subject to the arguments of poetry — its methods, its forms. The “I” and its role is at the center of the aesthetic inquiry: how objective? how confessional? We chisel stone looking for the David, unsure if what we’re finding underneath is just more stone.

2. The self-effacing self

I’ve called the grandmother piece my first poem because it was my first sincere use of language with no expected return. It was that unself-consciousness a young writer loses when he faces readership, sophistication, and the anxiety of influence. Years and drafts later I come across Marianne Moore’s “burning desire to objectify what is indispensable to one’s happiness to express,” which I recognize as an endeavor back to prelapsarian sincerity, the cultivated absence of the insipid “I.” This is, vaguely, the objective art shucking off — like Stevens’s “authentic and fluent speech” with “its single emptiness,” like Eliot whom Moore named “master of the anonymous,” even like Coleridge and Shelley becoming wind-strummed Aeolian harps — the objective art shucking off caprice and insecurity, an art that merely is, just as our bare and sweating selves merely are. A Tai Chi instructor once told me, “The hardest part is ziran: the being self-so.”

Memory always menaces present experience, because it’s never fully reconstructed, no instant is ever finished.

Consider Marianne Moore for example, a frigid poet if ever there was one, with her syllabic forms, her obscure animals, her terribly Latinist phrases — all this resulting in an effaced poet and reader. She accomplishes with grammatically logical sentences what lesser poets need the koanic jazz of fragments to achieve. Let’s take for granted the modern theory that words are unfixed approximations, sliding texts without a resting point. They’re fingers pointing each at different moons. If the goal of the poet is to see the moon and not the dancing fingers, I believe there are two diverging roads. One is to silence words and reach comprehension by some alternate, non-cerebral path: the clarity of physical exercise, for instance, or music (although these are problematic because how then to understand/direct feelings without words?). The second road is to do the opposite: find a written aesthetic which so overloads language that we start to hear not the words but the modal spaces between them.

Here is a long sentence from Moore’s “The Pangolin,” bookended with two short sentences, which I have converted (and thus violated) into prose, to make the syntax digestible. I trust the reader will compare with the original from her Collected Poems:

To explain grace requires a curious hand. If that which is at all were not forever, why would those who graced the spires with animals and gathered there to rest, on cold luxurious low stone seats — a monk and monk and monk — between the thus ingenious roof-supports, have slaved to confuse grace with a kindly manner, time in which to pay a debt, the cure for sins, a graceful use of what are yet approved stone mullions branching out across the perpendiculars? A sailboat was the first machine.

The inattentive eye glazes over the prose block. The delayed and dangling tension between “why would those who” and “have slaved to confuse” is a technique taken directly from Latin, in which words can be linked many lines apart by corresponding declension. In the original, line breaks and tabulation further stretch the tension; Moore uses this to make a peculiar music in English. Not only do internal rhyme and repetition move us along like octave notes, the syllabic lines in the original give an immutable structure to her verse, a stanzaic architecture. And converting the passage to prose actually highlights the metrical cadence that her jarring enjambments are meant to minimize. As W.S. Di Piero put it, “If, as the maxim goes, poetry teaches me how to live, it does so in its mysterious effects of completed form.” Inasmuch as form is personal style, Moore teaches us a personality that has no recourse to autobiographical detail. The “I” is merely the inquirer and the formulator; the reader can share in the reproduction of her vision precisely because it is impersonal.

If we read the poem cerebrally, with Wordsworth’s “meddling intellect,” we find the fruit rotten or plastic; but read it with Negative Capability, self-so, and it undulates over us. It’s like taking in long stretches of James Merrill’s Changing Light at Sandover or Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew in a single sitting; the suspension of a passage like Moore’s yields a fugue state, that misty feeling of losing ourselves to an alien other-language. We trust the art, D.H. Lawrence said, not the artist.

3. The self-affirming self

Yet all that sounds so sterile. It was personality, not linguistic bravado, that drew me to poetry as a teenager. When I was a teenager and discovered Meg Kearney’s “Creed,” her last poem in An Unkindness of Ravens, I had a shockwave experience: the voices of the Apostles’ Creed and Dr. King’s I Had A Dream and Ginsberg’s Howl all collided into the instant of that poem. An evolution of incantations had moved from their universal proclamations to Kearney’s individual ones. The sacrosanct became modestly personal. The poem begins by reclaiming idioms and clichés:

I believe the chicken before the egg
though I believe in the egg. I believe
eating is a form of touch carried
to the bitter end; I believe chocolate
is good for you; I believe I’m a lefty
in a right-handed world, which does not
make me gauche, or abnormal, or sinister.

The appropriated “I believe” rejects moral fixity, starting with a dualistic statement (A therefore not B) that turns inclusive (B is okay too). While the Apostles’ Creed is a recitation of items handed down from tradition, Kearney’s “Creed” must begin anew, must revise the items. She demonstrates that our language-template of common little sayings is moribund, misguided, sometimes simply wrong. Here, language must be made personal to be made true. Here, belief is not subscription to an other but a process that is its own touchstone. Her poem is an act of self-creation, an apologia for herself and for her poetry. Apologia — from the Greek, from 1 Peter 3:15: “ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason for the hope that is within…” The poem progresses from the nameable (“I believe ‘Give a Hoot, Don’t / Pollute,’ ‘Reading is Fundamental,’ ”) to the insistent unknown (“that ugly baby I keep / dreaming about — she lives inside me”) and finally to contextual particulars in which we share her scope of vision (“if you hold / your hand right here—touch me right / here…”).

Here, language must be made personal to be made true. Here, belief is not subscription to an other but a process that is its own touchstone.

I heard Kearney read this poem once, at the Cornelia Street Café in New York, a candlelit and curtained venue just a small flight of stairs below street level. I was welcomed from behind the bar: “Red or white?” The room was arranged as for a jazz show, the audience sitting at small round tables and corkscrewing to face the stage with drinks in hand. Each of the poets reading had the option to incorporate live saxophone improvisation from a woman who hung around stage right and never said a word. Her contribution was as a live interpreter: with her sax, she guessed and squeezed her breath of rhythms between the breath of the poet’s. The accident of harmony was a regular surprise.

When Kearney finished reading and was about to exit the stage, a number of us who were familiar with her work spontaneously yelled at her to please read “Creed,” which she rarely did. So she walked back to the podium. She began, “I believe the chicken before the egg,” her fingers spread to hold the book open. Then, she looked us each in the eye and recited the rest of the poem without glancing back down. As she neared the ending, her eyes closed. I realized halfway through that I knew much of it by heart as well. A woman at another table mouthed the words to the poem with one hand over her breast, like she was reciting a teary pledge of allegiance for the first time since grade school.

What makes a poem great and everlasting? The masses. The human touch.

4. Re-visioning

More years pass. My grandmother poem has rubberbanded outward and snapped back tight and gone through bits of every phase: narrative, sublime, moral, surreal, epic, epistolary, postmodern. The “I” slips in and out. The poem is not about me, but there I am all the same, holding a candle in the darkness and noticing my own nose glow.

Then I’m twenty-two — and my uncle is dying. I think of an old friend, a poet, who used to argue with med students about the use of poetry. “Medicine doesn’t save lives,” she’d say, “it only delays death. Poetry saves lives.” By now I’ve graduated from college and been disillusioned by the job market and the very idea of a career. The secret mantra of growing up has come to beat beside my heart every day: Then what? Then what? The future: an abyss of disposable names and dollars. We all die, goes the other refrain, which is a kind of nostrum.

Yet I keep writing. My feeling becomes a metaphor, a memory made. Anything written is something affirmed. Language feeds itself. I’ve only removed a mirror in a room of mirrors designed to get the sunlight blazing on the walls.

My uncle is in a quiet, damp nursing home north of Berkeley and will be the first of two uncles this summer to be taken, independently, by lymphoma. When my mother and I walk in, he smiles with real color for longer than is comfortable for me. At first I think it’s the morphine, but he’s been refusing to take it. Which means his smile is real surprise and real pleasure, a holy glimpse. It is better here than it was for my grandmother. He sits up; his wife is with him; minus the grimace and the clock, there is life in the room, a slow consumption of food, drink, medicine; his slippered feet wag underneath the table when he talks about the difficulty of walking; his mug of warm water slaps the table loudly when he lets his hand fall to gravity.

Grief hits us differently at different ages. This time it howls at my own mortality, which howls back in kind. And the guilt of responsibility emerges when I’m asked, a week later, to read something at his wake. How will I remember this goodbye, this man who was a father to me? How will I write it? My grandmother poem is magnetizing inside me again, and already I’m brushing it away. I think: No more of these words, these doughy things we’re pounding at. But what else can we do if unable to re-enter the box of routine and status quo? Language is the only individualizing power.

So I write, and what emerges is a palinode. Nietzsche said that sometimes the value of a thing is not in what we gain from it, but what we give for it, what we lose. Like getting your first tattoo, or giving up your virginity: self-ownership embodied in the choice of self-destruction. For me, the palinode is verse in contradictio, resisting convenience, pushing toward unease. It’s a poem upset with itself. This new poem rejects the objectivity of its earlier drafts. And with its deluge of drama, I find myself fed up with an anesthesia that doesn’t work, this music that never resolves. On the day of the wake, I tell them I don’t have anything, that I can’t read or speak. None of my drafts have been quite honest; and I sense that when I reach that point, it won’t be an honesty designed for heroism or public weeping. The dead die twice in our veneers.

So I sit silently in a pew, molding a lifelong regret.

Yet I keep writing. My feeling becomes a metaphor, a memory made. Anything written is something affirmed. Language feeds itself. I’ve only removed a mirror in a room of mirrors designed to get the sunlight blazing on the walls. The light reflects against anything that will take it; every small adjustment has kaleidoscopic ramifications. The process of the poem — the palinode, the poem and anti-poem — is itself a life experience. It marks a becoming: the work of a life lived, of visions wrestled.

In Eastern and Western poetry, there’s a sharp difference of color in journeys beyond death. In Daoist poetry, for instance, such as Li Po’s drunken approaches to the purple aurora (an entry to heaven), or Tao Yuanming’s peach blossom spring beyond the grotto (a living paradise), the literary trope is one of hues and shadows. The purple aurora is the divine flash of color in a sunset’s final moments; the land of peach blossoms is sheltered and shaded by imposing houses and mulberry trees. But in Dante’s Paradiso, as we ascend his empyrean toward primum mobile, the heavens are so bright as to be blindingly white. In order to see at all, Dante must have the light reflected through Beatrice’s face, who is herself so sublime that she too escapes color and description. The difference here is one of hierarchy or provenance: Li Po’s purple sunset is a watercolor apotheosis where nature converges, while Dante’s Living Light is the source itself from which color deviates and corrupts. But the impulse of the two poetries is similar: both strive for a perfect order, formally and cosmologically. As Beatrice explains in Canto 28, “blessedness is in the act of vision.” I’ve taken this out of context (she continues morally that love leads to goodwill which merits such vision), but the gesture of the line has always stuck with me. It points and says, You have to see the grotto entrance; you’ll miss transcendence, the divine mirror, if your eyes are closed. It says to the poet and the seeker, even when blinded and regardless of color, Keep looking.

5. Alpha, meanwhile, omega

There is no single moment. Mathematics cannot account for the infinity of instants between one relative microsecond and the next. We think of “right now” when it’s already gone, already out of synch with our conception of it. We bite into a pizza and at that moment think “pizza,” but what we taste is the thing’s relationship to our expectations. That bite of pizza is every pizza we have ever had and ever imagined, compacted like an accordion into the illusion of this instant. Alan Moore got to the heart of this in a scene in Watchmen, when Dr. Manhattan is on Mars and his prescience can no longer be filtered for normal human time. Whatever he thinks, that’s where he is, and the frames are zoomed in so close that the setting and context don’t matter: “Twelve seconds into my past, I open my fingers. The photograph is falling. / … It’s 1945. I sit in a Brooklyn kitchen, fascinated by an arrangement… I am sixteen years old. / It is 1985. I am on Mars. I am fifty-six years old. / The photograph lies at my feet, falls from my fingers, is in my hand.” The numerical markers are hard facts, but their insufficiency brings us back to Stephen Dedalus and the false “refuge in number and noise from the secret dread in their souls.” Later in Dr. Manhattan’s memory, his father the watchmaker throws the cogs of a watch over a balcony, declaring that even time is untrue, inconstant from place to place. In a triptych, the falling cogs are juxtaposed to a meteor shower — reminding us that in the scope of space there is no “downward” — and the falling continues. The verb “to take place” seems to assume that an event is extant but timeless (in both senses: unrecorded and eternal) until it latches on to a concrete setting.

Individuality doesn’t make us citizens or fellows. It makes us ourselves, which makes us Others in a contextual time-trap.

Arthur Sze’s poem “Pig’s Heaven Inn” introduces an anthology he recently edited, Chinese Writers on Writing, of translated prose from 1917 to the present day. He is known for his poems of collage-like simultaneity and relatedness, and this poem is situated in his introduction to show that, as writers, we phase-shift between past and present all the time; our minds and intentions abide in no single, clean reality. The speaker of the poem closely pairs two memories in the present day: “during the Cultural Revolution, / my aunt’s husband leapt out of a third-story / window; at dawn I mistook the cries of / birds for rain.” There is no line to separate today’s morning and the uncle leaping decades ago; both memories have equal presence. Each noun is a word in relation to another: from aunt to husband, from birds to rain, and the enjambment calls attention to the “third-story” as a multi-level house as well as a multi-level narrative. The poem ends on a mountain path

where three trails converge: hundreds
of people are stopped ahead of us, hundreds
come up behind: we form a rivulet of people
funneling down through a chasm in the granite.

The anthology itself spans from early modernists like Hu Shi and Lu Xun to contemporaries like Gao Xingjian and Wang Ping, each of them entering the dialogue of literature’s how and why. The book’s collected pieces effectively cover China’s rapid modernization, which offers a sobering mirror to the West’s aesthetic puberties. Unsurprisingly, the dilemma of change is at the center of their discourse. “Outdated words” is a leitmotif. Many of the writers push against elitism, spotlighting and validating individual voice; many more straddle the modern fence between solipsism and service. Certain centers of gravity are unavoidable: the vernacular of the times, the self in society and nature, and the mystery of language consciousness. But all the rest — defining apexes and watersheds, using one aesthetic beacon to darken the next — seems somehow puerile in its mathematical pretensions. Poetry’s polestar is not a linear history but a synchronic human experience, and we see this now more than ever at a time when the education of the poet means the private re-enactment and distillation of centuries. The pulse of words is the memory of their history, which creates a new history. Xi Chuan points out that incentives to “nativize” a cultural language, to cash in on distinct and ancient heritages, is ironically modern. I believe that information technologies have already atomized us all into a global internet eternity. We have a freedom to pick and present our identities like never before; we have each deposed and supplanted the king, the prophet, the seer. Voice is the privilege and burden of absolute choice; and the choice to be free is already out of our hands.

Individuality doesn’t make us citizens or fellows. It makes us ourselves, which makes us Others in a contextual time-trap. In Middlemarch, Mrs. Cadwallader tells Dorothea, “You will certainly go mad in that house alone, my dear. You will see visions. We have all got to exert ourselves a little to keep sane, and call things by the same names as other people call them by.” But Dorothea says, stoutly, “I never called everything by the same name that all the people about me did.” So why not let poetry speak the rest? Especially if the poem is never-ending, if the memory and the reality are one distorted whole, and if the flight of words can keep us in any way. Poetry — for all its dense logic and denser intuition, all its masks and erasers and flashlights of self — is the unique truth of madness, the only refuge from the sane world.

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