The Opulence Notebook

1. Geology

In one of his books on geology, John McPhee observes that geologists tend to specialize in the kinds of terrain where they grew up. So the Swiss, who spend a lot of time among mountains when young, end up being structural geologists. And the Dutch, who live in a place where water and land are constantly battling each other, end up being sedimentology geologists. And because, of all places, Cincinnati has treasuries of Ordovician fossils in its hills, geologists from Cincinnati tend to be paleontologists.

What is behind that moment when the artist realizes… that doing one kind of art or another is the necessary piece of her life’s fulfillment?

As for poets and their original landscapes, maybe there is a case to be made for the same correlation. After all, in the same way that first novels tend to be thinly-veiled autobiographies, many poets in their early books often write about the places where they came from: think of Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist, Yusef Komunyakaa’s Magic City, and countless more. As Annie Dillard wryly points out in The Writing Life, “Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world. A writer’s childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience.” Dillard is being hyperbolic, of course, but there must be some truth to the firsthand-ness that we experience only as children, and how that original perceptiveness gets imprinted before self-consciousness starts to muddy our ability to uninhibitedly see the world. What is intriguing to me, though, is how artists become artists at all. What is behind that moment when the artist realizes — whether she is eight years old or sixty-eight years old — that doing one kind of art or another is the necessary piece of her life’s fulfillment? The idea that an early trauma wounded the artist into her art — this seems plausible enough, given the wreckage that seems to define the early lives of many artists. But the idea of art as compensation is also too grand, and doesn’t speak to the experience of many artists. I don’t feel wounded in any way, but I do feel continually dazzled by the world, and it is that dazzlement I try to transcribe in my poems. Nor do I feel that I became a poet because of the places where I lived during my most formative years: my first ten years in the Philippines, and then the years in Oakland prior to going to college. In my life as a poet I often feel like that guy you see in the park or at the beach with his metal detector, picking up tiny bright things, often useless. My poems often feel like collections of those bright things, even if I know that in the heart of that vaguely crazy guy wielding the metal detector, a kind of vocational principle is passionately in play.

2. Radnóti

Forced March

Forced March: Selected Poems
BY Miklós Radnóti
BY George Gömöri AND Clive Wilmer
(Enitharmon, 2004)

For weeks, I have been reading Miklós Radnóti. Specifically, two books: Forced March, a collection of his late poems, translated by George Gömöri and Clive Wilmer, and Camp Notebook, a book that reproduces in facsimile the final notebook Radnóti kept, with translations of the poems by Francis Jones. A quick sketch of Radnóti’s story: in the early 1940s, when the Germans took Budapest, Radnóti was made to do repeated stints in various labor camps; on November 9, 1944, while on a forced march from a camp in Serbia back to Hungary, he was shot along with 21 other prisoners; a year later, the bodies were dug up, and Radnóti was identified by the notebook of poems in his coat. He was thirty-five. At the time, he had already published some books, and had some repute in Hungary. The early poems were modernist, but increasingly became more classical in temperament as Europe darkened towards World War II. The late work is rigorous in form and acute in thematic clarity; the diction is plain-spoken; the sensibility is anxiously morbid and resignedly serene by turns. The poems are situated more or less in a pastoral mode, though in their gloom anticipate the “majestic black” that Paul Celan would deconstruct and describe in his poems. Radnóti’s poems are at the end of the world, Celan’s are notations on the aftermath.

From Radnóti’s “Seventh Eclogue”: “You see? As dark comes on, the barracks and the grim oak fence, / Girded with barbed-wire, dissolve: night soaks them up. / Slowly the eye relinquishes the bounds of our captivity / And the mind, only the mind, can tell how taut the wire is.” There is intense irony in that title, “Seventh Eclogue,” in the way the pastoral gets aligned with the vagaries of the camp. The bucolic world of the one couldn’t be farther away from the horror of the other. And yet there they are, running on parallel tracks in the poem: the world, as always, moving from day to night to day; the prisoner’s mind, snagged on its bits of knowledge and its delusions. The world of night looks free, but the mind knows the limit of the wire: “I write this poem here, in the dark, just as I live, / Half-blind, like a caterpillar inching my way across paper.”

And why the pastoral mode? According to Gömöri and Wilmer: “For a man writing at the very edge of survival, whose finest work flowered in conditions of intellectual darkness and moral anarchy, the expression of thought and feeling within the clear but flexible order of the Latin hexameter came to seem a moral act.” In this reading of Radnóti’s classicism, the classicism is a kind of nostalgia in the midst of a chaotic, beleaguered time. But in his introduction to Camp Notebook, George Szirtes cites a Hungarian scholar, Laszlo K. Gefin, who argues that “Radnóti’s use of Virgil is primarily sardonic.” In this latter reading of Radnóti’s classicism, the recourse to the classical mode is meant as a necessarily camouflaged critique of what was going on around him. The modernist had never gone away: it had put itself into old clothing.

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