February 1, 2007

The Wake of Nightmares

you cling because
I, like you, only sooner
than you, will go down
the path of vanished alphabets
the roadlessness
to the other side of the darkness
your arms
like the shoes left behind,
like the adjectives in the halting speech
of old men,
which once could call up the lost nouns.

Galway Kinnell turns 80 today and tonight will be in New York City, reading to a room of admirers, friends, and onlookers while the city life outside dwarfs that hour, shrinks that room, swallows the electrified and brittled words of the reading. While the event unfolds, the old man before the microphone is dying before the eyes of the audience, working through another combination of his words put together to give a taste of a way of seeing, sensing, and making sense.

Still, beyond, scattered throughout the boroughs children will be working at sleep: caught on the threshold of rest and restlessness, awake in the dimness full of anxious fear, deep in lovely dream, or simply swamped by the blackness of oblivion. While they sleep the whole city, and everywhere, shifts to the interminable (like language itself?) "cadence of vanishing." With each word he recites tonight and with each hand he shakes in the afterwards of a ceremonial night, certainly, a child will also wake for briefest instant, see the dark room that is their immediate world, sense the certainties or shudder with the perceived enormity beyond, then lapse once more.

Kinnell's most famous book of poetry is surely "The Book of Nightmares." It is a long, bracing fable for the child of such thresholds, each "Little Sleep's-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight." It teaches the only true lesson to the loved child: despite the inevitable sense of being orphaned in the world, a voice will call, spectral, voicing a fatherly presence that is, despite the content, all that is necessary: that the wages / of dying is love.

It is the voice that whispers, unheard at the time, promises of what will be shared, if properly felt, that rarest truth. Learn, it insists, and moreover instills through performance and showing, the false hope of one day this will only be memory. "Learn to reach deeper / into the sorrows," it says and shows, reminding itself all the while. Theirs is the inevitable truth that binds the voice, nearing knowing and calming itself so as to teach the child in the crib, there on the cusp:
Listen, Kinnell,
dumped alive
and dying into the old sway bed,
a layer of crushed feathers all that there is
between you
and the long shaft of darkness shaped as you,
let go.

Even this haunted room
all its materials photographed with tragedy,
even the tiny crucifix drifting face down at the center of the earth,
even these feathers freed from their wings forever
are afraid.