The Cold Green Element
At the end of the garden walk
the wind and its satellite wait for me;
their meaning I will not know
until I go there,
but the black-hatted undertaker
who, passing, saw my heart beating in the grass,
is also going there. Hi, I tell him,
a great squall in the Pacific blew a dead poet
out of the water,
Crowds depart daily to see it, and return
with grimaces and incomprehension;
if its limbs twitched in the air
they would sit at its feet
peeling their oranges.
And turning over I embrace like a lover
the trunk of a tree, one of those
for whom the lightning was too much
and grew a brillant
hunchback with a crown of leaves.
The ailments escaped from the labels
of medicine bottles and all fled to the wind;
I've seen myself lately in the eyes
of old women,
spent streams mourning my manhood,
in whose old pupils the sun became
a bloodsmear on broad catalpa leaves
and hanging from ancient twigs,
my murdered selves
sparked the air like muted collisions
of fruit. A black dog howls down my blood,
a black dog with yellow eyes;
he too by someone's inadvertence
saw the bloodsmear
on the broad catalpa leaves.
But the furies clear a path for me to the worm
who sang for an hour in the throat of a robin,
and misled by the cries of young boys
I am again
a breathless swimmer in that cold green element.
Irving Layton 1940
Before I begin, a note about the form: the fourth line in each five line stanza is indented, though Blogger absolutely refuses to show it.
Irving Layton died earlier this year, but it seems that he was thinking about death long before that. Not that this should be surprising - I have heard it said that what defines humans is our knowledge of our deaths. "The Cold Green Element" deals with a dreamlike vision of death, moving through surreal images of death and sadness, fear and despair. There is not quite a cohesive plan; rather, the poem's consciousness moves like thought, flowing from one thread to the next, always retaining a consciousness of the whole. Layton preserves the hopeless tone through the various hallucinogenic scenes, emphasizing the fragmented tale of a lost young man.
Well, there's a question. Is this man lost? The first stanza, at a glance, indicates no, for he is clearly on a garden path. But humans are constantly on paths. Being lost is not knowing what path you are on, or perhaps if that path is the right one. This narrator recognizes the path but not the meaning, so I would argue that he is no less lost than you or I. Am I being broad and preach-y today? I have felt like that the entire day. Ah well.
As the speaker continues his narrative, he meets the first omen of death: the black-hatted undertaker. This undertaker is headed down the same road, suggesting that this path is indeed death. This undertaker saw the narrator's "heart lying in the grass," an image that accomplishes several things at once. It is first shocking in its frankness; we almost glide over this observation, accepting it as true. Then, too, it intertwines humans and nature, continuing the garden imagery and perhaps alluding to death's part in the natural order of things.
The next image is delivered just as casually and is perhaps even odder. Layton writes of a dead poet "who now hangs from the city's gates." Both the gate reference and the allusion to the Pacific evoke images of San Francisco, lending this poem its first definite sense of geography. The realism ends there, though. Crowds who, "if it twitched its feet in the air / ... would sit at its feet peeling their oranges" flock to see this poet. This strange scene relays a phobia, perhaps, of voyeurism, or an intense awareness of being viewed. The "oranges" inclusion lends the diorama a twist of suburban oddity. The people sit and eat their California snack watching a dead body like TV. It distills people's fascination with destruction and the grotesque.
More importantly, I think that the scene is one of defeat - the poet is dead out of water, perhaps lambasted by his peers - which would explain (in part) the next stanza. Because the narrator turns to the tree "like a lover," and because it has a crown of leaves, this stanza is positive. He may be turning to it in comfort, for it survived a shock of lightning just as he hopes to survive a shock of voyeurism, death, or humiliation.
It doesn't give him much comfort, however, for the rest of the poem is an agglomeration of fragmented, despairing images of fear and death. The narrator sees himself emasculated through old women's eyes. I choose the word "emasculated" because Layton employs old women and "manhood" in this stanza of loss. The crones seem to represent a loss of fertility, a deadening of sexuality. We again see the narrator's very human concern for his loss of virility, for he has of late "spent streams mourning [his] manhood."
The next line, "in whose pupils," could refer to the women's pupils or his manhood's pupils; in any case, the viewed image is one of blood and death. Layton again reveals a consciousness of man's eventual tumble into death by twisting the sun's rays, associated with life and growth, into smears of blood. Life turns to death, inevitably. The poem is fixated on this image; its reappearance in the seventh stanza underlines its thematic centrality.
The line "my murdered selves" is interesting, because not only does it again connote death, but it conveys the sense that this narrator has been thinking of his death for a long time. He has accrued possible selves that died in different (probably horrific) ways. These images bang together "in muted collisions / like fruit." Layton again mixes death and fruit, creating a tension between the morbid and the bright. It also again brings together an image of death with that of fertility, nodding towards the cyclical way of things.
This order is terrifying to the narrator, however. He sees death as a black dog with yellow eyes, forever pursuing him. This dog can smell his blood, we learn, because somebody inadvertently showed it the smeared catalpa leaves. You know how something can almost feel crueler when somebody didn't think about what they were doing than when they pointedly did it? That kind of coldness and utter disregard can (though of course won't always) cut deeper than calculated malice.
All of this said, the poem ends hopefully. Despite the path that fate clears for all of us, the narrator will sing even as he falls down into the abyss like the worm in the robin's throat. This recklessness is due to "the cries of young boys:" perhaps the childlike belief in immortality, or a kid's hope. There is a kind of desperate tenacity to the final lines, "I am again / a breathless swimmer in that cold green element."
There is more to the final resolution than some American beat-the-odds mentality, though. This poem was a personal journey to a fierce resolve, one filled with a kind of love, if that makes any sense. You may find that almost every poem in this blog has something to do with love, and this poem has a very strange form of it. I feel love for this narrator's will to overcome his fear, and I think that he loves himself, too, enough to try, at least.