Sunday, May 27, 2007

Metaphors 1

"...sometimes I am asked by the occasional journalist who wishes to interview me why I stopped writing poetry. Either I say that the poetry I wrote wasn't any good, perhaps that it was even terrible, or I say that a poem has the potential for perfection and that this possibility finally silenced me, or sometimes I say that I felt trapped in the poems I tried to write, which is like saying one feels trapped in the universe, or trapped by the inevitability of death, but the truth of why I stopped writing poetry is not any of these, not nearly, not exactly. The truth is that if I could explain why I stopped writing poetry then I might be able to write it again."

I was taken by this passage from the Nicole Krauss story "From the Desk of Daniel Varsky," from the current issue of Harper's in which the narrator, a woman looking back from a distance of 30 years at one particular day in her life, recounts the events of that day and its associated afterthoughts. I like the way she poses the question that is put to her, and the way she moves through a series of plausible but ultimately unconvincing answers only to arrive at "the truth," which turns out to be not an answer at all but an acknowledgment of bewilderment, of limitation, of being shut off from that which she seeks. The context for the reflection is that she is thinking of a desk, presumably the one she is sitting at as she writes, which received from a friend of hers, a poet, now dead. The passage continues:

What I am saying is that Daniel Varsky's desk, which became my desk, my desk of now more than thirty years, reminds me of these things. I've always considered myself only a temporary guardian and had assumed a day would come, after which, albeit with mixed feelings, I would be relieved of my responsibility, the responsibility of living with and watching over the furniture of my friend, the dead poet Daniel Varsky, and that from then on I would be free to move as I wished, possibly even to another country. It isn't exactly that the furniture has kept me in New York, but if pressed I have to admit that this is the excuse I've used to myself for not leaving after all these years, long after it became clear that the city had nothing left for me.

When a passage like this conveys literal truth with such authority and precision, it's hard NOT to feel the metaphorical weight as well. Starting with the desk itself. The narrator feels simultaneously a sense of responsibility to the desk and to its owner—all the more since he is dead and unable to reclaim it as his own—and a sense of inadequacy, combined with a wistful desire to be "free to move." But she has not moved, even though the place she lives no longer fuels her emotions or imagination. I suppose all of us who write feel to some degree the burden of responsibility that other writers place on us. We want to measure up, to carry the torch, to hold up our end. And at a certain point, and often at many points, we run up against the invisible walls that constrain us. In this sense, the desk feels like the whole weight of the literary tradition, every writer one has ever read and admired, every writer whose presence in our lives has generated the desire to emulate, and it's darker twin, the anxiety of influence. The more you feel like you have something to live up to, the harder it is to write anything at all.

A few days ago I posted a poem by Richard Wilbur which similarly literalizes the dilemma, and uses clearing the "sill of the world" as the metaphor for transcending it:

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
He we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove,
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait there, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.
That dazed starling, trapped in the room, battering against the invisible barriers, hoping to fly free, that starling is everyone who has ever sat down at a desk to write. The woman in the story, who feels "trapped in the universe, or trapped by the inevitability of death," is likewise, in some fairly obvious way, in exactly the same situation as you, or I, or anyone else.

My favorite line in the whole piece is the part where she says that maybe one reason she stopped writing is that she realized "a poem has the potential for perfection and that this possibility finally silenced me." So we have to deal not only with the ideal represented by those we admire, but with the inherent ideal of the writing itself.

And, as long as we're waxing metaphorical, there's no real reason why we need to limit our reading of these two texts to the context of writing, because writing itself can easily stand as a metaphor for That Which One Aspires To Do Well: Dance. Teach. Be a good parent. Play piano, or chess. Paint. Run a business. Create a blog. Live your life.

(Tech note: I just figured out that if you are a subscriber to Harpers' print magazine you can create an account which allows you to access the Harper's archives, which include not only the current issues but issues all the way back to the 1850's. Too cool.)

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