The Proximate Shore
by John Koethe
It starts in sadness and bewilderment,
The self-reflexive iconography
Of late adolescence, and a moment
When the world dissolves into a fable
Of an alternative geography
Beyond the threshold of the visible.
And the heart is a kind of mute witness,
Abandoning everything for the sake
Of an unimaginable goodness
Making its way across the crowded stage
Of what might have been, leaving in its wake
The anxiety of an empty page.
Thought abhors a vacuum. Out of it came
A partially recognizable shape
Stumbling across a wilderness, whose name,
Obscure at first, was sooner or later
Sure to be revealed, and a landscape
Of imaginary rocks and water
And the dull pastels of the dimly lit
Interior of a gymnasium.
Is art the mirror of its opposite,
Or is the world itself a mimesis?
This afternoon at the symposium
Someone tried to resurrect the thesis
That a poem is a deflected sigh.
And I remembered a day on a beach
Thirty-five years ago, in mid-July,
The summer before I left for college,
With the future hanging just out of reach
And constantly receding, like the edge
Of the water floating across the sand.
Poems are the fruit of the evasions
Of a life spent trying to understand
The vacuum at the center of the heart,
And for all the intricate persuasions
They enlist in the service of their art,
Are finally small, disappointing things.
Yet from them there materializes
A way of life, a way of life that brings
The fleeting pleasures of a vocation
Made up of these constant exercises
In what still passes for celebration,
That began in a mood of hopelessness
On an evening in a dormitory
Years and years ago, and seemed to promise
A respite from disquietude and care,
But that left only the lovely story
Of a bright presence hanging in the air.
Source: North Point North: New and Selected Poems (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2002)
alarmshrill in the inkblack
ironsharp on the tongue
under the elms, plumshadow
now barnward stumbleboot
here is ticktick dimhush
the wordless prophet
the smoldering stars
the undying glory of the day
by Leslie Harrison
That this is the morning in which nothing much
that the sky is still there and the water dresses
accordingly that only at night does the water rest
vanish from sight that the stars are too small too far
to register there that all our names too are writ
invisibly on water that abiding requires more hope
than I can possibly acquire that hope is not a thing
with feathers that hope is a thing with a fist a thin
crust sketched over oceans that hope is what despair
uses for bait come in hope says the water’s fine
that hope is the blood with which you write letters
that start dear sea dear ocean stop asking so fucking
much that hope is a telegram delivered by men
in pairs men in uniform a telegram that says missing
stop that says once again presumed lost stop
© 2017 Leslie Harrison from The Book of Endings
Two soldiers on her porch, one much younger than the other. For a heartbeat, then another, no one speaks. They’ve stepped outside of time now, into the gap between Before and After.
Meanwhile her eyes take in their berets, their perfectly knotted ties, their ribbons.
Under her gaze they refuse to flinch, their training doing its work.
In the younger man’s face she chooses to see his mother’s features. His eyes her eyes.
On her face he sees his mother’s expression, the one that said to him, “You are my whole life – never forget.”
Except for the uniforms, a passerby might glance their way and think, “What a nice-looking family.”
Alone there inside the unbroken jar, under the lid, remained hope. It did not fly out. The lid stopped it. Such was the will of God, who gathers the clouds, who wields the terrible aegis. The rest, a myriad of miseries, wander among humankind. The earth is full of evils. Full of evils is the sea.
~ Hesiod, Works and Days
Pandora, the first woman. Each of the gods gives her a gift. The jar she holds contains those gifts. Pandora removes the lid, not knowing what will happen, or suspecting what will happen, or knowing perfectly well what will happen — the myth doesn’t say. Out fly diseases and backbreaking toil. These are the gifts the gods chose for us.
Their last gift, hope, is slow. Before it can escape the jar, Pandora has the lid back in place.
A catastrophe: we must find a way to live without hope.
Or a gift, the true gift of the gods. For only inside that jar can hope live on. Its essence, after all, is belief. Belief that the future will be different from past and present in some as yet unknown way. And so our ignorance of that future is a precondition of our ability to believe that it will be better.
Lift the lid, catch hope in your hands, watch it die. Or believe me when I say, you are the jar.
And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” … Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey …”
~ Exodus 3.1-8
The girl in the center, her head turned. The whites of her eyes, skin, pants. Between sloping shoulders and cocked hips, she’s one continuous line: trace it down her forehead and nose, to the chin just above her left shoulder, to the straight hair and dangling arm, to her legs. Or go the other way, and keep going up the fence pickets to the branches of the tree, curving upward toward the center line of the photograph.
And look, the flames seem to be reaching for her. She’s Eurydice maybe, glancing back at Orpheus as she returns to the underworld.
Is this it, I wonder. Is this Yahweh’s promised land — a dead tree, a can of gasoline, a match?
The young Eurydice’s face says no, not here. It says, keep looking. Don’t stop looking.
One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate — “We lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first “we” there grows a still more dangerous thing: “I have a little food” plus “I have none.” If from this problem the sum is “We have a little food,” the thing is on its way …
~ John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
In solitary confinement on death row, Shujaa Graham meditated every day, pretending to visit his mother and other family members. Anthony Graves spent 16 years in solitary confinement: he asked friends outside of prison to pretend that they were spending time with him, and to send him photographs of the places that they and Graves had supposedly visited together. In North Africa, Tabir was kept in a cell without a bed or toilet. He took some comfort from the screaming of torture victims, because it reassured him that he still existed in a world with other people. For the same reason, he picked fights with prison guards — the result could be brutal for him, but it was a form of human contact.
After [Michael] Jewell’s 1970 death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, he served 40 years, seven of which were spent in near-total isolation. He says he used to kill time for hours working out detailed visualizations of himself in a vivid alternate reality, where he could inhabit open spaces and converse with people.
“I might imagine myself at a park and come upon a person sitting on a bench,” he says. “I would ask if she or he minded if I sat down. I’d say something like, ‘Great weather today.’ The other person would respond something like, ‘It is indeed. I hope it continues until the [football game].’ As we conversed, I would watch joggers, bicyclists, and skateboarders pass by. The conversation might go on for half an hour or so. When I opened my eyes and stood, I would feel refreshed and even invigorated.”
The Angola Three spent a combined 113 years in solitary confinement. It was their friendship, in large part, that kept them sane. After one of them had been released, the warden had the other two men transferred to different prisons.
When the psychologist Craig Haney visited the two men at their new prisons, he was shocked to see how much they had aged. “The separation was devastating,” Haney told me. “They had a powerful connection to each other that had sustained them.” Woodfox told Haney that he had “lost interest in everything.”
I had a dream a couple of weeks ago. It was one of those dreams that each of us has every now and then. Fully realized, I mean. Cinematic. In successive chapters, I passed from childhood into adolescence. The story, moreover, set in a halfway house for wayward children, encompassed both the mundane and the macabre, as if Stephen King himself had written a script for it. A child’s disappearance. A shallow grave. A black sedan. Eventually I realized that what had seemed to be a series of terrible but isolated and accidental events was neither.
I was in peril. All the young people who lived in that weary-looking, white frame house, sitting well off a road in an abandoned pecan orchard, and had lived most of their lives in that hopeless place, were in mortal danger.
Dreams, we are beginning to discover, are about emotion:
Despite differences in terminology, all the contemporary theories of dreaming have a common thread — they all emphasize that dreams are not about prosaic themes, not about reading, writing, and arithmetic, but about emotion, or what psychologists refer to as affect.
~ Rosalind D. Cartwright, The Twenty-Four Hour Mind
In fact, we sometimes wake from dreams shaken, because the emotions we felt in sleep were so intense.
In that vein, I can tell you this. The despair I felt when my would-be rescuers, a man and his son who were making regular deliveries to the facility, appeared to be returning me to it, and then the relief and hope that flooded me when I realized they weren’t, when their truck turned out of the parking lot onto the paved road and began to speed up, when sitting backwards in the bed of their truck I watched that awful place receding into the distance, when I knew that the nightmare within my nightmare had ended … the intensity of those feelings revealed something to me:
Emily Dickinson is exactly right. It’s a song. We listen for it, or we don’t.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
“So that mofo right there” — he pointed at me — “fucked that guy up real bad.” He cackled. “That sumbitch was bleeding out his mouth, out his nose, out his ears. Shit. You looking at one crazy, wild-ass mofo right there.”
I’d never seen him before. Or any of the rest of them. I was just waiting for my bus.
The bus came. I got on board. Everyone stared at me. Two people, sitting next to open seats, got up and walked to the back. I sat down. The bus wheezed and set off.
The driver kept glancing at me in his big rearview mirror. No one spoke. I could tell that the woman sitting in front of me was crying.
We made the turn onto Lamott. I saw a bird drop out of a tree onto the pavement. Then another and another. I saw a woman running down the sidewalk. She had a baby in her arms. I saw a jagged line of living fire descend from a coal-black cloud. I saw three houses go up in flames.
I watched as one by one, just ahead of the bus, the colors of Lamott Avenue faded and died.
We reached my stop. I stepped down from the bus. The doors of all the shopfronts were smeared with blood.
I could see that Tania was behind the bulletproof glass at her parents’ store. The door chimed when I opened it. She looked over at me and she smiled.
I smiled back.
At any rate, there is a rolling, all-pervasive upwash of dread, one great, hot, shooting surge of dread-sensation through mind and body, a sense—perhaps?—of Time, carrying a body from Sunday night to Monday morning, to every Monday morning after that, and on and on, willy-nilly, to extinction, a mountainload of moments forcing the body from now to then, from drab to drab, from exposure to exposure, this progress, this exasperating, non-negotiable, obliterating motion forward into the dark—the dark what? Was a body (at age five) too new for it? Could it be saved from it? Whom to implore? What enemy forces, where? And what about the sheer searing thrill of it—boiling-hot bathwater—this could not be denied: a brilliance shot up through it, and the body fairly sang. Then it was gone. She took the shock as a lullaby and did not expect anything different. When does that begin, the expecting anything different? Is there a childhood sublime? Does it end where expectation begins? For the sublime is punctured by egotism, by the rapt, hard, small beak of my self demanding to be me. My self finding the words for that. If I can find the words I can make it real, she thought …
~ Anne Carson, “Flaubert Again” (2018)