Sunday, November 14, 2010

Practical Economies (Must We Always be In Arrears?)

3:30 am, Sunday 14 November

                 like the chinook
salmon jumping and falling back
nosing up to the impossible
               Robert Lowell, "Waking Early Sunday Morning"

The fire crackles, flames, scatters orange light across the room.  Sleepless again.

A sudden gust of wind rams into the wall of the house, rattles the beams, tests the flex of the wood.  Winter is coming and we are getting ready for it: six more cords of wood stacked in the garage now, our hands and wrists aching from so much picking up and shifting, lifting, placing.

The sea was purple last evening at sunset, my only camera my memory, my eye.  --For we were otherwise occupied, racing against dark, falling dew, cold, to get the last row loaded on the truck bed, then stacked, moving shadows in a yellow puddle of electric light.

I had wakened Saturday morning, cross despite the sun, overwhelmed by a dread of what seem like infinite numbers, those large collections of multiples we must manipulate--wood to stack, pictures to snap into powerpoint slides, pictures to review and edit, papers to grade, laundry to sort and do and hang, articles to revise, letters to write. 

Wanting, instead, just to drift lazily in the morning sun, unaccosted by the rough discipline of counting or accounting in spheres where I am always found wanting.

Stop, back off...
Fierce fireless mind, running downhill.

Death seems close when we are only counting.  As if all we can manage is a life lived in arrears.  Unadulterated despair.

But Robert Lowell says it well in "Our Afterlife I," a poem in his last collection, Day By Day (he too struggles with the stacking up of impossible accounts):

We are things thrown in the air
alive in flight...

Yes, that's what I mean! I want to sail--

ride the wind


Stop the accounts, the endless worry. Now!

Robert Lowell, "Waking Early Sunday Morning" Near the Ocean (1967).   Other lines in italics in this piece "Stop, back off....Fierce, fireless mind...." are also lifted from this poem, which is really a lament about a loss of sacred spaces in a time of greed and war, a time that remains our time.

Lowell's "Our Afterlife I" in his last collection, Day By Day (1977), is dedicated to the poet's old friend Peter Taylor, who goes on, Lowell jokes, planning to live, despite the recent deaths of friends Ezra Pound, Edmund Wilson, and their nearer contemporary, W.H. Auden. More than anything, however, here Lowell writes for himself, for at 60, he is feeling increasingly weary and physically unwell.  In 1975 and 1976, he will be hospitalized three times to try to control his mania, and then again in January 1977 for congestive heart failure.  He will die in a taxi of a heart-attack on September 12, 1977, enroute from Kennedy airport in New York.  He had just left his third wife, Caroline Blackwood, in the UK, and when he died, he was on his way to rejoin his former wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, in New York.

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