Time Outside of Time
Bill Long 12/27/04
If words are the currency of the poet, time is his/her medium of exchange. Learning how to make wise use of the past is the key to coming up with vivid or memorable images. Stanley Kunitz said that maturity in a poet brings with it an economy of style and gravity of tone. Invariably a poet is moved by the same things that move anyone else--vivid memories from the past. These moments become frozen in time, and then move in their frozenness throughout the caverns of our mind, something like an ice floe, which is both frozen and moving at the same time. But the poet's willingness to allow the frozen moments from the past to continue to claim her present separates her from many other people.
Two examples will illustrate this tendency. In his poem The Portrait, Stanley Kunitz reflects on the time when he found an old photograph of his father, who had committed suicide years previously, and showed the picture to his mother. His mother, who never forgave the father for killing himself, unceremoniously ripped the portrait in two and slapped young Kunitz in the face. He says:
"When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
Vivid, wouldn't you agree? Kunitz has learned to freeze the past in his mind and call upon the right words to make alive the feeling that stayed with him throughout his life when recalling the event. The poem is effective precisely because Kunitz has learned how to freeze time. We feel the sting, see the wince and the tears, experience the pain, the shame and the incomprehension in the child-turned-man.
We see the same thing in Fury, by the African-American poet Lucille Clifton. Her mother was also a poet but did not have a formal education. Clifton says, "She was very shy, a homebody kind of woman, and my father wouldn't let her do it (i.e., write poetry)....It was because it was the 1940s when husbands liked to think they could tell wives what do do....but when my father did that, my mother burned her poems. She took them down in the basement to the coal stove and put them in the fire, and I was standing on the basement steps when she did it (p. 90)." Hear the words of Fury (for Mama):
"remember this./ she is standing by/ the furnace./ the coals/ glisten like rubies./ her hand is crying./ her hand is clutching/ a sheaf of papers./ poems./ she gives them up./ they burn/ jewels into jewels./ her eyes are animals./ each hank of her hair/ is a serpent's obedient/ wife./ she will never recover."
And we almost never recover from the vitality of the frozen memory that she puts to words. We see the coals seething, the hand shaking, sweating, crying. Is she an automaton? A seething animal? An obedient but refractory animal? Nevertheless, we see the creative spirit going up in smoke. Who knows whether it wasn't an experience like this that fueled Clifton's desires to be a poet?
A Film's Frozen Moment
There is a moment in Chariots of Fire where life is frozen for a moment. It is the finals of the 100-yard dash in the 1924 Paris Summer Olympics. Harold Abraham is perched in the starting blocks, charm bobbing on his chest. He tucks in the charm. "Ready." "Set." The film slows down to a snail's pace. Each segment of film flickers by in slow motion. Action is frozen as all the hopes and fears, the years of training, the mental and the physical struggle, come to focus on the narrow lanes that separate the runners. Then the gun goes off, and life returns.
Facing our Frozen Moments
So, how do we identify and understand the frozen realities of our past? Our past is really more like the frozen ice floe than the moving picture. We have images from the past, at times moving with the greater flow of life, but usually stationary, immobile, as solid as concrete. In those moments we see ourselves, find ourselves, define ourselves. We need to recapture those moments, discover what it was about those moments that left such an impression and relive the confusing emotions of that instant--the humiliation, shame, anger, confusion, embarrassment, bitterness, rejection, joy. By so doing we are enabled to enter into our "well," as Rita Dove calls it, or our "wilderness" as Kunitz names it. We begin to recognize that even though memories are often plastic and malleable, these images are more like hinges around which things from our past revolve than easily-manipulated and changeable scenes.
But, as often is the case, we are too fearful even to admit those times of fear, rejection and humiliation. Often we cover the pain of those events with soft cushions; like Satan, though unaware, we quote the Scripture that the Lord will take us up lest we scrape our feet against a stone. We deny the bruising and harsh reality of our past because it tells us that ultimately we are vulnerable to forces that we do not control, and that people and things over which we had no influence have exercised determinate control over our lives. That is too fearful to face, especially in a nation and among a people which believes in freedom of choice and the ability to define one's own future. But true it is, as the next essay will show.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long