14 July 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/29

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In the rear-view mirror suddenly
I saw the bulk of the Beauvais Cathedral;
great things dwell in small ones
for a moment.

Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass

Zagajewski offers us a brief but richly suggestive poem -- only one sentence, but it covers a lot of ground in time and space. The speaker is in a car and checks his rear view mirror. The car must be going fairly fast because objects appear suddenly (and presumably are replaced just as suddenly). So the first line establishes where we are and how quickly we are moving and then the line breaks on the dramatic word suddenly. What happens suddenly? He sees "the bulk of the Beauvais Cathedral." Bulk here conveys not only that he is seeing most of the cathedral, but also that it is massive in size, even by modern standards. The cathedral in Beauvais, which is in northern France, is one of the largest manifestations of the lacy ornateness of the high Gothic style. It is so large that it has always been structurally unsound, a few trusses and buttresses away from collapse. So the first line establishes that we are in modern times, in a car, moving swiftly; in the second line we have the dramatic appearance in an unexpected perspective (the rear-view mirror) of the Gothic cathedral.

Cars and cathedrals are both engineering marvels, but one conveys speed and forward movement, individuality, and modernity; while the other conveys a sense of history, starting with the Middle Ages when it was built, of a specific rooted place, and of a community drawn together by religious beliefs. A Gothic cathedral moves upward, towards Heaven, rather than forward, like a car. Although both are the products of largely anonymous engineers and artisans, we associate cars with the individual freedom they offer their drivers (never mind that such freedom is semi-illusory), and we associate cathedrals with (though this too may be semi-illusory) a communal life united by faith and place and hierarchy (remember that a cathedral is the seat of the local bishop). Two contrasting metaphors are briefly joined in the speaker's rear-view mirror.

In the third line the speaker draws a moral from this glimpse: "great things dwell in small ones": this is, on the one hand, a literal description of seeing the reflection of the massive, mighty cathedral in the small rear view mirror. On the other hand, the line opens the way for metaphorical contemplation. Great can mean both of large size and of outstanding excellence. Ever since the Industrial Age began the Middle Ages have been associated not with barbarity and superstition, as they once were, but with a richly meaningful spiritual and communal life, in which everyone used his or her hands in artisanal ways not for individual fame and wealth but for the glory of God and the joy of creation. This view is the Middle Ages seen as metaphor, and as an implicit contrast and rebuke to the chaotic, mechanistic, spiritually barren modern age. Perhaps the "small thing" in this line, in which the great thing dwells, is not so much just the rear-view mirror as it is a person's life, so brief and so harried, rushing on; perhaps the small thing is the insignificance of the modern age itself, contrasted with the metaphorical power of the great cathedral -- but though the cathedral building is from another time, many of its metaphorical uses are a creation of the modern age: perhaps that is one reason the great thing dwells in the small one, rather than merely being reflected  in it. (These are prevailing cultural metaphors, and such things are always slippery: "great things dwell in small ones," the thought here of our contemporary, the poem's speaker, is at its heart a spiritual perception; and for all we know, those who built this grand cathedral, larger than any of its like, were motivated by individual pride and ego.)

And then after the line break comes the kicker to the moral: "for a moment." We are passengers in the car and have to keep moving forward so that we don't cause a crash. He notes the cathedral and reflects upon the sight even as he speeds onward, leaving it far behind. Its old grandeur and beauty are inexorably metaphoric for us. You could spend a lifetime studying its details. But the speaker won't, or can't, stop, even for a visit. We don't know where he's going, but he continues on, his ride and his thoughts enriched momentarily ("for a moment": but everything is only for a moment) by the sight of the cathedral.

I took this from A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry, edited by Czeslaw Milosz.

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