Readers: Welcome to Plume Issue # 63 –
October: and, naturally enough, given this month’s Featured Selection on the work of the recently passed Max Ritvo, as I cast about for a theme for this note: thoughts of death, early. I imagined at first that I’d say something about Max’s consciousness of his impending departure and how that did and did not inform his poetry, or conjure some encomium to his courage and grace and preternatural goodwill; or perhaps annotate – find commonalities among — other poets who had died in their youth – Max was only 25. But, these ideas were – ah, dead ends. Others have covered these subjects, including Plume, now, in Nancy Micthell’s interview. Instead, I found myself returning to the actual work, my first encounter with it. Its radiant here-ness, all wobbly narrative, vast expanses, intimate visions and hard distances. How to say it, what I’d felt? That was the problem. But, chance took me by the hand – or was it, as Manguel observes in his The Library at Night, rather a case of “some books calling to one another”? In any event, I happened to be reading Karl Ove Knausgaarde’s My Struggle, had managed to make it to the final book, 6. Reading faithfully, too, several hours every day, as one must such works. (To dip in and out of Proust? — no). So: my head had been full of him for weeks, and it was in that forest of words that I found – recalled, vaguely and then found after some searching — what I was looking for, some 3,100 pages back from my current position. For what I could not say myself, Knaursgaarde kindly had said for me: though the subject is painting, I understood instantly that his words resurrected precisely my reaction to first reading Max’s poems.
from Book 1, Karl Ove Knaursgaarde, My Struggle
“It was a book about Constable I had just bought. Mostly oil sketches, studies of clouds, countryside, sea.
I didn’t need to do any more than let my eyes skim over them before I was moved to tears. So great was the impression some of the pictures made on me. Others left me cold. That was my only parameter of art, the feelings it aroused. The feeling of inexhaustibility. The feeling of beauty. The feeling of presence. All compressed into such acute moments that sometimes they would be difficult to endure. And quite inexplicable. For if I studied the picture that made the greatest impression, an oil sketch of a cloud formation from September 6, 1922, there was nothing there that could explain the strength of my feelings. At the top, a patch of blue sky. Beneath, whitish mist. Then the rolling clouds, white where the sunlight struck them, pale green in the least shadowy parts, deep green and almost black where they were at their densest and the sun was farthest away. Blue, white, turquoise, greenish-black. That was all.
…I wandered around the Nationalgalleri in Stockholm or the the Nasjongalleri in Oslo, the National Gallery in London… I was always unsettled when I left them because what they [the paintings I saw] possessed, the core of their being, was [as I say] inexhaustibility and what they wrought in me was a kind of desire. I can’t explain it any better than that. A desire to be inside the inexhaustibility. That is how I felt this night as well. I sat leafing through the Constable book for almost an hour. I kept flicking back to the picture of the greenish clouds, every time it called forth the same emotions in me. It was as if two forms of reflection rose and fell in my consciousness, one with its thoughts and reasoning, the other with its feelings and impressions, which, even though they were juxtaposed, excluded each other’s insights. It was a fantastic picture, it filled me with all the fantastic feelings that fantastic pictures do, but when I had to explain why, what constituted the “fantastic,” I was at a loss to do so. The picture made my insides tremble, but for what? The picture filled me with longing, but for what?
…on the commuter train between Stockholm and Gnesta a few months earlier…the scene outside the window was a sea of white, the sky was gray and damp, we were going through an industrial area, empty railway cars, gas tanks, factories, everything was white and gray, and the sun was setting in the west, the red rays fading into the mist…and the pleasure that suffused me was so sharp and came with such intensity that it was indistinguishable from pain. What I experienced seemed to me to be of enormous significance. Enormous significance.
I recognized the feeling. It is akin to what some [other] works of art evoked in me: Rembrandt’s portrait of himself as an old man, Turner’s picture of the sunset over the sea off a port of antiquity, Caravaggio’s picture of Christ in Gethsemane. Vermeer the same, a few of Claude’s paintings, some of Ruisdael’s and the other Dutch landscape painters. I didn’t know what it was about these pictures that made such a great impression on me…there was a certain objectivity to them, by which I mean a distance between reality and the portrayal of reality, and it was doubtless in this interlying place that it “happened,” where it appeared, whatever I saw, when the world seemed to step forward from the world. When you didn’t just see the incomprehensible in it but came very close to it. Something that didn’t speak, and that no words could grasp, consequently forever out of our reach, yet within it, for not only did it surround us. we ourselves were part of it, we were ourselves of it.”
And then, there is this, as coda, Donald Revell’s poem “Death”, which needs no explanation or introduction, other than to pay both poets, him and Max, the great compliment of imagining that both, either, might have written it; Donald got there first, but I think Max would have, too, and sooner rather than later…
Death calls my dog by the wrong name.
A little man when I was small, Death grew
Beside me, always taller, but always
Confused as I have almost never been.
Confusion, like the heart, gets left behind
Early by a boy, abandoned the very moment
Futurity with her bare arms comes a-waltzing
Down the fire escapes to take his hand.
“Death,” I said, “if your eyes were green
I would eat them.”
For what are days but the furnace of an eye?
If I could strip a sunflower bare to its bare soul,
I would rebuild it:
Green inside of green, ringed round by green.
There’d be nothing but new flowers anymore.
“Death,” I said, “I know someone, a woman,
Who sank her teeth into the moon.”
For what are space and time but the inventions
Of sorrowing men? The soul goes faster than light.
Eating the moon alive, it leaves space and time behind.
The soul is forgiveness because it knows forgiveness.
And the knowledge is whirligig.
Whirligig taught me to live outwardly.
Shoe shop. . . pizza parlor. . . surgical appliances. . .
All left behind me with the hooey.
My soul is my home.
An old star hounded by old starlight.
“Death, I ask you, whose only story
Is the end of the story, right from the start,
How is it I remember everything
That never happened and almost nothing that did?
Was I ever born?”
I think of the suicides, all of them thriving,
Many of them painting beautiful pictures.
I think of boys and girls murdered
In their first beauty, now with children of their own.
And I have a church in my mind, set cruelly ablaze,
And then the explosion of happy souls
Into the greeny, frozen Christmas Eve air:
Another good Christmas, a white choir.
Beside each other still,
My Death and I are a magical hermit.
Dear Mother, I miss you.
Dear reader, your eyes are now green,
Green as they used to be, before I was born.
Source: Poetry (June 2008)
21 September 16