Sunday, May 11, 2008

Tolstoy V: Audience

Yesterday I wrote a little about Carl Dennis. Unknown Friends whetted my curiosity enough that I went back and got a copy of Practical Gods, which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize. There, among many other poems of interest, I was please to find this meditation on Anna Karenina, which I offer both as a further example of his poetic style and as a sort of guest appearance to wrap up the series of posts I myself was doing in response to Anna Karenina. I like the patient way in which Dennis works back and forth between how he thinks about what he has been reading and how he connects all of that to his life at the moment, and then opens up, toward the end, into the larger questions suggested by the title: if we were to think of ourselves as being characters, who we would imagine to be the audience for the lives we are living, and would they be pleased with us?


When I take the time to read slowly, the words sink in.
If I hadn't rushed my reading of Anna Karenina
The first time through, focusing on plot, not nuance,
I might have been able to say why Karenin,
On the night he discovers his wife loves Vronsky,
Gives her a cool lecture on the proprieties
And hides what he feels, how the bridge of his life
Has suddenly fallen away beneath him.
Why does a man who's tumbling into the void
Want to tumble in silence, without a cry? `

Now as I drive to visit a friend in the country,
Listening as the story is slowly spoken on tape
By an actress with all the time in the world,
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It's clear to me the invisible beings
Karenin imagines watching him from their balcony
Would be embarrassed by any display of feeling.

As to why Karenin's selected an audience
That judges on the basis of a cool appearance,
Good form, good show, and neglects the soul,
This must be what it means to live in St. Petersburg,
City of courtiers and court ambitions,
And not in Moscow, its country cousin,
Noisy with laughing and crying families.

I'm glad the friend I'm driving to visit
Lives hours away in a country village.
No doubt the silent invisible ones
A tolerant woman who won't reproach me
For driving slowly, who’ll be glad to learn
I’m takng my own sweet time for reflection.

It's a shame no one enlightened steps forward
To tell Karenin he's a character in a novel
Where no one's commended for preserving his dignity,
Only for shouting and weeping and tearing his hair,
For throwing a book of philosophy out the window.

It looks like I'm one of the fortunate few
With leisure to listen, leisure to ask myself
If all the invisible beings watching my life
Hail from Moscow. And I'll have leisure this evening
To ask my friend her honest opinion
And to weigh her answer.
And then it's time to ask if the life she's living
Pleases whoever it is she imagines watching
And whether they watch from duty or sympathy.

Life would be easier, I'll say, if our audience
Were a single person, like Dante's Beatrice.
Just the thought of her silently looking on
From across a stream was enough to brighten a path
Otherwise forlorn. But how can Dante be sure,
My friend will ask me, that he knows her wishes?
What if they don't all show in her face, or only show
As if veiled by mist, and he sees them darkly?

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