28 September 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/39

"There is a gold light in certain old paintings"

There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.
It comes from everywhere and from nowhere at once, this light,
             And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
             Share in its charity equally with the cross.

Orpheus hesitated beside the black river.
With so much to look forward to he looked back.
We think he sang then, but the song is lost.
At least he had seen once more the beloved back.
             I say the song went this way: O prolong
             Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.

The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
             And all that we suffered through having existed
             Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.

Donald Justice

Here are three vignettes. The first is, on the surface, a description of dramatic lighting in some Old Master paintings. At first, we see only the splendid gold light spreading through the canvas, and the paint conveys a feeling: it is like happiness, which, the phrasing suggests, is provisional, temporal, and not all that frequent: when we are happy. (The phrasing might also suggest that it is only like happiness when we are already happy, that our happiness changes the substance of what we're seeing so that it, too, shares and becomes our feelings.) This light, now associated with happiness, comes "from everywhere and from nowhere at once", suggesting again a sort of arbitrary and mysterious essence at work. Only at the very end of the stanza do we discover the specific subject of these paintings: the Crucifixion. So this light that is like happiness (even the word light suggests a buoyancy of spirit) is associated (and possibly has its source in) a scene of intense suffering but ultimate redemption.

Yet in the final two lines the light is disassociated a bit from Jesus on the cross; it falls on the cross but also on the soldiers sprawled below who were instrumental in this execution. There is a further nuance: they are seen as poor soldiers, which indicates mostly a sense of pity for them (those poor guys!), but also suggests their economic status (the army might have been their best way out of poverty; how much responsibility do they, mere instruments of the will of others, bear for state orders?), and also perhaps a hint that they are not so good at being soldiers (sprawling on duty seems like poor soldiering). The gold light falls on all of them, benign and with perhaps a certain amount of divine indifference (there might be an echo here of Matthew 5:45: ". . . for [your Father which is in heaven] maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust").

The second vignette moves us from the Christian to the classical world, with Orpheus emerging from his trip to the Underworld in his vain attempt to rescue his dead wife Eurydice. Again the "story" is told mostly indirectly; we are more concerned with the Black River (which balances off the gold light we saw in the first stanza). We know we're in the Underworld because of that river, the River Styx, which flows between the worlds of the living and the dead (Styx is associated with a Greek word for gloomy and black is the traditional color of mourning). We see Eurydice as Orpheus did, only in a fleeting and final glimpse: a "beloved back" momentarily appearing and then disappearing forever. Orpheus hesitates just when he's almost reached success (he's already at the border of the Black River). With so much to look forward to, he looked back: his uncertainty and failure to move forward sabotage his approaching happiness, an act which might seem perverse if it weren't so essentially human.

Art is involved in this vignette as well; just as we were given an Old Master painting (though only indirectly and partially) in the first stanza, now we have music – at least, we think or assume that he sang then, because that is what Orpheus does, he sings; but the song is lost. Even in his sorrow there is some consolation in glimpsing his beloved: "At least he had seen once more the beloved back." Not even her face – even a glimpse of just her back is a consolation. Once again the final two lines add a twist to the stanza, as our poet takes over from the mythological poet and suggests a song that conveys some of our longing for continued life even when we are suffering: O prolong / Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong. As in the first stanza, art is a way of shaping and transfiguring  (and also highlighting) human suffering.

After scenes from the Christian and classical worlds, the third vignette is intimate, contemporary yet also timeless; you can imagine a pastoral poet of ancient Greece saying something similar (though no doubt substituting a suitable instrument, perhaps a lute, for the modern guitar). Family is invoked; the speaker addresses his uncle. Why an uncle, rather than a parent or a son or daughter or a lover? Perhaps it is to suggest that he is addressing a society larger than his immediate clan (uncle can also be a term of respect for an older man you are not related to).

The stanza begins with an understated but overwhelming truth: The world is very dusty. This is a description not of a cataclysm or disaster but of ordinary relentless troubles: it's impossible to keep dust from accumulating everywhere! There may also be a reminder here that the Bible has humanity created out of and belonging to the dust: "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Genesis 3:19) – in other words, as with the soldiers at the cross or Orpheus looking back before he should, perhaps these problems are inherent in our condition as humans – perhaps we are some of that accumulating, troublesome dust. Dusty can also imply that something is old and undisturbed, since the dust has settled on it so thickly; there might be a suggestion here of the weight of our knowledge of history.

I hear echoes in these lines of Hemingway's stripped-down and suggestive style, particularly in the definition of what is to be valued: that which is strong and clean and good. The lines are simple, rhythmic, and direct as a prophecy is direct: One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good. (For good means forever, but it also suggests that this change will be for the good.) The speaker says Let us work, but it is unclear how much, if anything, our labor has to do with clearing the earth of the sickness (a term both precise and vaguely evocative, suggesting not only physical failures but also psychic ones). Nonetheless, we work. The transformed world is seen in intimate, very local terms: The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar. An orchard in bloom promises sweet abundance; it also suggests human labor and organization (an orchard has to be planted; these aren't just random fruit-bearing trees). And again we have the presence of art transforming the landscape: someone will play the guitar (an intimate instrument associated with love).

Again, the final two lines send the stanza in a different direction: And all that we suffered through having existed / Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed. But our suffering is so essential to our condition, not just in this stanza, with the sickness and the dustiness of the world, but in the previous ones, in which both the Christian and the classical worlds are shown as permeated with loss and pain: we're being told that the thing that defines most of our lives will be forgotten. Yet we ourselves are not completely forgotten: we have also just been told that our work will be seen as worthwhile. This suggests that what we do (specifically, what we create: the gold light of the old painting, the invented song for Orpheus, our guitar-playing among the flowering trees we've planted) has a chance of lasting beyond our physical being and its attendant suffering.

The rhymes in this poem are restrained and musical. After an internal and charmingly four-square rhyme in the first line (gold / old), all the other rhyming pairs (the second and fourth and then the fifth and sixth lines of each stanza) are repeated words, occasionally with a different meaning. In the first stanza, we have sunlight / light and cross / cross; in the second, looked back / beloved back and prolong / prolong; in the third, good / good and existed / existed. That set in the third stanza might be, hidden in plain sight, a little hymn of praise for our human existence. The repetition helps add to the sense that the structure of this evocative poem is – well, strong and clean and good.

This is from The Collected Poems by Donald Justice. The book was first published in 2004, the year the poet died, and this is the last poem in the collection, a position which gives it in context a kind of valedictory feel.

No comments: