Cold snap. Five o'clock.
Outside, a heavy frost - dark
footprints in the brittle
grass; a cat's. Quick coffee,
jacket, watch-cap, keys.
Stars blaze across the black
gap between the horizons;
pickup somehow strikes
its own dim spark - an arc -
starts. Inside, familiar
metal cab, an icebox
full of lightless air,
limns green with dash-light. Vinyl
seat-cracks, cold and brittle;
horn ring gleams, and chrome
cuts hard across the wrist
where the sleeve falls off the glove
as moon-track curves its cool tiara
somewhere underneath your sleep
this very moment, love --
Richard Kenney 1985
A friend asked me a disarmingly simple, interesting question yesterday: would I rather read a poem about something or experience that thing myself? It caught me so off-guard that I couldn't properly answer. I stuttered and incomplete and scattered thought, but left realizing that I hadn't actually given that issue any thought before. I love reading poetry, and that was enough for me. But reading critically means reading life carefully as well, and slowing down enough to notice whether our actions and assumptions are problematic. His question prompted me to think about whether it can be insulating to read. The question's, at its core, asks whether reading inhibits living, or perhaps substitutes for it.
All I could offer, at the time, was my idea about one of poetry's great faculties. Let's see if I can articulate this. Something happens; say, a child somersaults from an ottoman to the floor. If everything that happened that hour in that particular room, including the kid's acrobatics, was somehow translated into a physical loaf, and if you sliced infinitely thin pieces and peeled off one slice, you would have a complete, 3-D representation - complete with smell, sound and taste - of exactly what happened that moment. Are you following? Now, put a bunch of those together and you have my jelly-loaf.
Poetry can move in, take a slab from the loaf (i.e. from time and life) and compress it onto a page, leaving one chunk of time combed and waiting in front of one. The poem somehow translates the child's somersault to a page without changing its essence. Poetry, in that way, is life.
As such, I think that it can offer experiences that are lost to us, normally inaccessible, or especially revealing. By slowing down on times that often flit by too quickly to notice, poetry can allow us a kind of contemplation not usually possible. Then, too, it has a very selective lens; poets write about things that, even if common, have a special significance, even if it is the specialness that brings us a greater appreciation of our everyday experiences. If it portrays a "typical" experience, along the lines of "Aubade," it may also give us an opportunity to empathize with an Other, or connect our similar experiences to the Other's.
For "Aubade," I want us to notice how precisely the poem draws the morning. It immediately takes us into one moment, beginning with the statement "cold snap." An "aubade" is a morning song, often of a parting of lovers, and this is, to me, a wonderful example of this. There is no bittersweet denial of the dawn a la Romeo and Juliet; rather, this is a regular man going about his regular life, thinking of his love. The first five lines or so capture the chilly air and the surrounding environment. The choppy syntax (those five lines have eight caesuras - pauses in the middle of a line - not to mention three end-stops; punctuation at the end of a line) transmits the freezing air, as if it is so cold outside that the speaker can't quite put a sentence together.
One of the things the poem does brilliantly is relay early-morning mode. Many of you, I am sure, know the feeling: you are so tired that all you can do is mentally move from one thing to the next. It is not really possible to out-think oneself in the morning, much less think at all (for some haha). We also get the feeling that there is a kind of ritual in this man's morning. He does his usual "thing," checking his possessions off almost list-like, noting "Quick coffee / jacket, watch-cap, keys."* The next line, "Stars blaze across the black / gap between the horizons," hands us a new take on the sky; I have never heard the great scope of the sky described as a gap between the horizons. The unusual comment, though, lets us into someone else's way of looking at the world, if only for two lines.
If the earlier lines introduce us to the narrator, presenting us with artifacts from his world and his casual, everyday observations, the next outline his surroundings. The lines, "an icebox / full of lightless air, / limns green with dash-light" literally trace his pickup truck. To "limn" means to outline in clear, sharp detail (m-w.com). Again, Kenney is careful to etch the important details of this very normal morning.
The narrator, too, limns his pickup truck, again listing his possessions. I think that this is kind of like setting a stage with props; perhaps Kenney is implying, in having the narrator pay so much attention to his physical world, that space is important to who we are. I would agree with that whole-heartedly. Even if things don't make us, they can certainly make us comfortable. And I don't mean extraneous things, but one's familiar watch-cap, the known cracks on the vinyl, the aged and geometric metal cab of a pickup: these things serve as touchpoints in our day-to-day wanderings.
After the choppy lists and notes about the external, the syntax suddenly shifts in the final six lines. The only time the narrator leaves early-morning mode is thinking of the moon and of his love. The last lines are wonderfully constructed: layered, repeated images, balanced, tense emotion, and a remarkable use of enjambment roll the poem to its sudden and beautiful conclusion. It occurred to me about half way through this close-read that there are a lot of arcs in the poem, leading to the final (and privileged) arc of the moon. The final lines cycle these arcs, first in the gleam of the key-ring, then in the chrome cutting the wrist (a beautiful example of onomatopoeia, sound words), and finally in the moon-track's cool tiara. These arcs perhaps imply a sort of cradling, being held.
Then, too, the tenderness of the moon-track (what could be softer than a moonbeam?) contrasts sharply with the cold cut of chrome or even the chilly, fragmented opening lines. This gentleness sets the end of the poem apart as a special moment, a great in-breath. The final hyphen freezes it at that, then, crystallizing the emotion at it's peak, emphasizing the importance of the lover by having "love" conclude the poem, and truncating the slab of time very suddenly and specifically. It never exhales.
All of that said, we can return to the question with which I began this PotW: reading or experience? I know that, for me, there are times when I do hole myself up with books, when a paper world is easier to live in than my own. But I usually get uncomfortable after a day or so of that, and go back into an emotional world. My dad once told me that one of his worries for me was that I would learn that it is very easy to lose one's emotions in work; ever since, I have been attuned to my own experiences reading, writing, and working. I would never sacrifice my own life and my own experiences to stay in and read. At the same time, though, reading is part of my experience of living. I suppose that it's like most things, then; if you don't overdo it, it can be wonderful. Reading enriches myself and (I am confident to say) others. I certainly hope so, at any rate!
And if this Poem of the Week has been somewhat less thesis-oriented, I think I like it better that way. I realized that a close-read is a close read, but I don't want the PotW to be an extra essay a week. I want it to be a forum for thought, for communication, and wherein my appreciation for and love of these poems can shine through. So I appreciate all of you who read this every week, or at least when you can. It really does mean so much to me! I hope that you are all doing well.
*for a picture of a watch-cap, go to this website, a random google find: http://www.royea.net/twistedrib.html