Sunday, January 29, 2017

"Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun..."

Any of us may have times when we can't bear dealing with reality. We may be over-focused on having fun, telling anecdotes and jokes to cheer up ourselves and others, diving into a variety of attractions to avoid a difficult scene of some kind. Stevie Smith's "Not Waving but Drowning" captures in metaphorical language this compulsion to enjoy at all costs:
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought...
And not waving but drowning.
If we look beyond the surface of this aspect of personality, we see that all the happy chatter and good times may be symptomatic of underlying pain (drowning). Thus the person in Smith's poem appears to be waving (having a good time, swimming), but always "much further out than you thought," in pain, beyond what we can see on the surface -- yet reminiscent of the joyful Sixties cry, "Far out!" 

The title of Paul Zimmer's "Zimmer Resisting Temperance" is an irony because temperance (or renunciation) is the spiritual path for addiction to pleasure: 
... Puzzled by melancholy, he pours a reward
And loves this world relentlessly...
Someday he may fall face down
In the puke of his own buoyancy.
 
None of us is without emotional bruises and we all cope at times by seeking pleasure to avoid pain. That's why we're drawn to such poetry. Good poets are good observers, able to share their own emotions and experiences in ways that touch us as readers -- when we see someone seemingly waving we are drawn to join in the fun. We need also to be aware of the pain behind a perennial smile, especially in ourselves. The persona of Zimmer's poem is looking for meaning in the wrong places. 

Nonetheless, focusing on the positive can lighten things up when we're too dark. One of the funniest and most touching poems I've read is "The Belly Dancer in the Nursing Home," where Ronald Wallace describes the pleasure of his father and others dancing their wheelchairs to and fro: 
...thumping their tuneless canes and stumps
driving old age and infirmity
out of the room like an unwanted guest.
If I ever land in a nursing home, without my teeth, I hope I'll get a chance to thump my cane to the music! On the other hand, I hope I don't hold on inappropriately to youth, treating old age as an unwanted guest.

We begin to feel the draw of deeper experience as we become more self-aware. In Billy Collins' delicious poem "Osso Buco," he hints at both the external pleasure and the pull to the inner secret marrow: 
I love the sound of the bone against the plate
and the fortress-like look of it...
And best of all, the secret marrow,
the invaded privacy of the animal...
Later in the poem, Collins acknowledges the suffering in the world, yet brings us back to the pleasant warm glow of this exquisite meal, seemingly to counter the pain of considering hunger: 
Somewhere, a man is crawling up a rocky hillside
on bleeding knees and palms, an Irish penitent...
But here, the candles give off their warm glow...
Real depth comes from a balanced life and not one that ignores the reality of pain. May Sarton's "Now I Become Myself" reminds us that true joy comes from developing the maturity to be centered in the moment, whatever it brings:  
...in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

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