Consolations of the Moment… But Which One?

'Southwest Reservoir Bridge,' by Bascove

[Image: “Southwest Reservoir Bridge,” by Bascove. (The artist also produced — selected and illustrated — the anthology in which I found Muriel Rukeyser’s poem, below.)]

From whiskey river:

A Journal of the Year of the Ox
(excerpt)

I find myself in my own image, and am neither and both.
I come and go in myself
as though from room to room,
As though the smooth incarnation of some medieval spirit
Escaping my own mouth and reswallowed at leisure,
Dissembling and at my ease.

(Charles Wright [source])

…and (italicized portion):

…if I go to sleep after lunch in the room where I work, sometimes I wake up with a feeling of childish amazement—why am I myself? What astonishes me, just as it astonishes a child when he becomes aware of his own identity, is the fact of finding myself here, and at this moment, deep in this life and not in any other. What stroke of chance has brought this about?

(Simone de Beauvoir [source])

…and:

Poem White Page
White Page Poem

Poem white page white page poem
something is streaming out of a body in waves
something is beginning from the fingertips
they are starting to declare for my whole life
all the despair and the making music
something like wave after wave
that breaks on a beach
something like bringing the entire life
to this moment
the small waves bringing themselves to white paper
something like light stands up and is alive

(Muriel Rukeyser [source])

Not from whiskey river:

Taking Down the Tree

“Give me some light!” cries Hamlet’s
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. “Light! Light!” cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it’s dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.

The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother’s childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.

With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcase increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.

By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it’s darkness
we’re having, let it be extravagant.

(Jane Kenyon [source])

…and

In the Moment

It was a day in June, all lawn and sky,
the kind that gives you no choice
but to unbutton your shirt
and sit outside in a rough wooden chair.

And if a glass of ice tea and a volume
of seventeenth-century poetry
with a dark blue cover are available,
then the picture can hardly be improved.

I remember a fly kept landing on my wrist,
and two black butterflies
with white and red wing-dots
bobbed around my head in the bright air.

I could feel the day offering itself to me,
and I wanted nothing more
than to be in the moment—but which moment?
Not that one, or that one, or that one,

or any of those that were scuttling by
seemed perfectly right for me.
Plus, I was too knotted up with questions
about the past and his tall, evasive sister, the future.

What churchyard held the bones of George Herbert?
Why did John Donne’s wife die so young?
And more pressingly,
what could we serve the vegetarian twins

who were coming to dinner that evening?
Who knew that they would bring their own grapes?
And why was the driver of that pickup
flying down the road toward the lone railroad track?

And so the priceless moments of the day
were squandered one by one—
or more likely a thousand at a time—
with quandary and pointless interrogation.

All I wanted was to be a pea of being
inside the green pod of time,
but that was not going to happen today,
I had to admit to myself

as I closed the book on the face
of Thomas Traherne and returned to the house
where I lit a flame under a pot
full of floating brown eggs,

and, while they cooked in their bubbles,
I stared into a small oval mirror near the sink
to see if that crazy glass
had anything special to tell me today.

(Billy Collins [source])

…and:

#23: Mystics will tell you, with some justification, not to concern yourself with the past nor to obsess about the future: you can’t change the one, and can’t predict (or — so it often seems — can’t even influence) the other. Live in the moment, they say. But there’s a catch: what if the moment is full of things going wrong — of misery and pain, real or psychological, personal or widespread? Must you settle for mute, dispassionate acceptance and suffering? Can you?

Here’s where the important, all but unspoken “Yes, but…” shows itself: Live in the moment… but keep both the past and the future close at hand. They both have lessons to offer, lessons other — neither better nor worse — than the lessons of the moment. The lessons of these other moments always take two forms: the past reminds you of a time when you (or someone you know) did not suffer; the future, of a time when you (or someone you know) will suffer no more. You must live in the present, yes. But both the past and the future remind you that any given present is no more substantial, no more changeless than the air you breathe.

Take one breath at a time; and if it hurts, recalling an earlier, easier breath, take the next.

(JES, Maxims for Nostalgists)

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