Saturday, December 17, 2011

Guided By the Unmighty

I have been reading a poem by Bill Olsen, “Human Ashes.”

At night in bed when my husband is away, I fear his death. This has something to do with pregnancy. Where will I go? I think. How will I survive? Morbidity is not such a bad thing, I decide and remember once telling him that he had to find me after he died, we had to find each other again. Today I wanted to tell him something as cheesy as, “If I die, remember, I will always be with you.” But then I thought if I die so will his child, and if I say that, he’ll think I’ve really lost it, not just sort of lost it, which is where he’s at right now.

About that poem: I’ve seen Bill Olsen read and give a lecture and roam around the VCFA campus, so it’s hard for me when reading his work, not to see him there writing it at a desk somewhere in Michigan. I see his slouched shoulders and hear his distant voice. His sauntering around the cafeteria with a tray, or in lecture refusing to offer up any easy answers to questions of poetry that perhaps haunt him.

Recently he published an essay on one of my favorite literary websites, Numero Cinq, titled “On the Prayerful in Poetry.” Even his picture, a man on a park bench in casual clothes that do not quite fit all the way….reminding me of the composer’s hair, offers up a mysterious creature of a poet.

The Poet William Olsen

It is not those who try for mystery that accomplish it, of course, but those who are so enveloped in their own mystery that their outward-ness has no attempted composition. Dg calls the essay one of the most moving published on NC, and it is, especially this line:

Poetry obligates a measure of freedom: prayer obligates a measure of surrender.

And what does it mean to surrender? Or, what of poetry and freedom?

Olsen then writes, “I can only be guided by the unmighty, by those who relinquish any authority ordained by cultural identification, those confident enough to surrender confidence, or assumed power.”

How true, I think, and then, it is also true that a poet must be a lover of freedom for only in freedom can we find the brutal honesty that poetry calls us to—its task and potency.

Haven’t we always been guided by the unmighty? Not always, but, at least the unmighty have been marked as leaders we most loved. Those who stood in truth, unwavering, and offered no force, they are the beloved of the people.

And here is that poem I’ve been reading:

Human Ashes

Even if we are
     what we were,
our senses,

     our crying,
     so many downs,

such long nights,
     so many
dreams and wishes,

     even if fulfillment
betrayed longing,
     even if it didn’t,

even if what we
      are is joy
that loves itself

     and sorrow
is a way of
     seeming free

from any vanishing,
     even if we are
creatures with pasts,

     beasts with prayers,
even if some
     lasting aspect

of our essence
     is beyond
its sad occasion,

     what part
was strong then, what
     part weak,
     what part
as a child
     did I touch,

     whatever part
placed my head
     in its hands

and soothed me
     and whatever
part loathed

     the rest to death
doesn’t anymore
     feel that discrepancy

between the fire
     and ash,
love or lost love.

It is in “doesn’t anymore/ feel that discrepancy,” built with the beautiful image of the child’s head being soothed by hands, and the touch of the child, that something frees and perhaps it is only because something was surrendered, that such a line could be created.
In the morning when I wake, the sun is not exactly out there in a blue sky, but there is light. I feel less morbid and fearful. I sleep on for as long as I can manage—hips soar, neck kinked. In the quiet of the apartment, I hear the clock tick or the water dripping from the faucet.

Please see “On the Prayerful in Poetry.” It's really an amazing essay.