If it would still be meaningful to say, There are an infinite number of universes – if their profound otherness did not embarrass even the language of Being itself…if something we could discern and recognise as intelligent life were to occur in certain of these other realities, might we not learn that our notions of intelligence were, so to speak, parochial?
(Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind)
You might think it would humble us to know
at the end of all our knowing that, for all
this knowing, we are immeasurably small.
You might think the sheer expanse, the sheer scope
of all that we name Universe might blow
our very sense of union. That we call
"known" what keeps evading scientific thrall
(after all our knowing) only goes to show
that, while we think we can admire stars,
they do not give a damn. We are in truth
the dots beneath their microscope.
What are we
that we are mindful of ourselves? By far
better than knowing is to be known,
beneath an ancient love we cannot see.
Coming unbelievably to the end of another month, it is time for me to draw to a close my study of Marianne Moore’s work. To finish it off, here is an essay I have written on her poetry – a rich and fascinating body of work which I often do not understand but am always rewarded by. I hope that you have also enjoyed our month of looking at her poetry.
Today’s poem – my last one responding to Marianne Moore – is inspired by her great reflection on mortality and eternity, “What are Years?” It was the first of her poems that I ever read, back when I was studying poetry in the fourth year of my Literature degree, and I still remember the impact of those words when I first encountered them. You can read Moore’s poem here. As always, I am quite sure that my poem does not do justice to Moore’s work, but here it is anyway – a good reminder to me, and hopefully to all of us, of the wisdom of Psalm 90:12 – “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
Numbering Days (After “What are Years?”)
Days are short and time fades,
but breath is shorter: the
out and in, the lungs finding
reason, purpose, yet ephemeral
as the flower’s first
petal, peering tentative to sun,
or a child teetering
on feet not yet attuned
yet little time to learn.
How wonderful to be wise!
But apples’ after-taste
is bitter like a seed; so
weak the life we breathe, how lasting death.
The snake, condemned to
spend its days in dust, belly-crawling,
knows how futile those first
steps can prove. But the one
who walks bravely, feeling
finitude yet breathing,
embracing breath, days numbered,
will see through humbled eyes how days wane
when held too tightly
how breath lengthens when released, how sun
shines brightest when it shines
humbled under true light.
Today’s poem was a difficult one to write. Enchanted as I am by Marianne Moore’s work, she is a tough poet to imitate, tougher still to understand. But I have given it my best shot! Fascinated by animals, human nature and the poetic contrasts and parallels between the two, many of Moore’s poems deal with weird and exotic creatures and draw unlikely comparisons between them and humanity. In today’s poem I have tried my hand at this strategy, with the blind burrowing mole and my sister’s cocker spaniel-poodle cross as inspiration. You can read the original poem that inspired it here, thanks to another blogger who has kindly posted it.
Instinct (After “Melanchthon”)
What prevents man, individually and collectively, from behaving reasonably andmorally is not so much ignorance as a self-blindness induced by some passion ordesire.
(W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand)
but less like a mind,
more like an eager dog in search of a worn-out bone.
These things comfort me: in my corner of the garden,
gives safety, blanket-
like, tattered and torn, yet homely in its weathered wear.
The mind glimpses, encompasses these things which Bentham
sees from his
prison tower and knows;
surveillance gives the impulse, but instinct the reason.
And so a dog returns to its own refuse and Jonah
hides for days
inside his whale; and
I too need corners and familiar scents. Why I am
what I am, I do not know. The dog has its goals and
so too the mole which,
though blind, is quicker than the human mind’s quickest percep-
tion. Yet we move by more than mere impulse, by brain-waves
which fly and flit
before we hear them.
Reflexes have no accompanying, conscious thought
yet some things are learnt and made reflex that should be conscious.
“Adam, who told
you that you were
naked?” No need to teach him to hide his shame in leaves
once the brain already knew, “Eat apple”. Automated
the hardest to overcome; and we are cursed (blessed?)
with the knowledge that instinct, though enchanting, is
not enough, blessed
(cursed?) with eyes to see
both the apple and the consequence. If blind, we are
wiser than our blindness knows, yet too blind to know it.
The dog, the mole,
defy us, yet we
are called to more. “Naked, man, the self”: what’s been bestowed
on him, on us, declares we cannot plead ignorance.
Man – the height, though
helpless before the
creatures that preceded him – must bow and rule, burrow
and build, obey and reason, trust and know, be blind and see.
What calling, what
heights beside what depths!
What impulse and what instinct, what knowledge planted through
that first breath, knowing all the blindness yet breathing still.
Marianne Moore is both an intriguing and a daunting poet to imitate. Her poems, visually and linguistically, dance in complexity and variety, and her subject matter is often both fascinating and impenetrable. Today’s poem is based on “In the Days of Prismatic Colour“, a wonderful meditation on Creation, complexity and simplicity. I offer it tentatively, but happy to have survived the challenge.
At the First Dawn of Brightness (After "In the Days of Prismatic Colour")
when seasons and order were only yet imagined,
impressions in the Creator's mind, the spirit
hovered over waters deep,
the plan a temple in His heart, a stool
for feet to rest beneath Heaven's radiance; the light
of first-dawn being, time and space instantly conceived,
and domes there waiting for division, no ribs yet and no
apples there for eating; and colour
hummed at first acquaintance with the light, its purpose
soon to be unveiled: water blue like baby's clothing,
Heaven thick, its door ajar, the light from it refracting
over domes and oceans and the parting of ideas,
and celebrations declared when
the lights, large and small, appeared in the sky,
marking out our days and giving rhythm, pace and tone,
while colour grew in the teeming oceans and over
Leviathan on his frolicking back, the texture
of water atop the scales of skin
and flesh, each according to its various kinds: this was
the season declared by the first dawn of brightness,
when shade was a new language and nothing was known
but the days given order and purpose within every
breath of soft life, when our
wisdom had not learned to eat its own fruit, and spring
was silent punctuation. There colour hovered,
potential unrealised but tranquil: a tone, a hand,
a promise that when white was spoiled, there would be
other words, like red,
on hand, and spectrum-bows in place of floods.
It’s hard to believe, but another month has passed and it’s time for a new poet. We are now into the 20th century, and our poet for September is the brilliant and eccentric American modernist poet Marianne Moore. One of the most accomplished and celebrated poets of her century, Moore was also a devout Presbyterian, a fact which does not immediately show itself in her work but which we shall try to look at more closely as the month unfolds. She will be a challenging poet to work with, for the complexity of her style, but also a delight. I’m looking forward to sharing her work and my responses to it with you all.