Clouds that hang like cows in sky,
Cows that pull like clouds
On grass in window panes that blind
Us with a sky of clouded glass;
Sky that pulls like wind on blinds,
Sun that hangs like blinds on wind,
Wind that darkens minds with sky,
Glass that winds up blinds like sun;
Blinds of sky and grass
Hang us in a pane of wind
And windowed cows, as
If mind lost sight like eyes
Lose sky, and blinding glass
Grew clear as cows on grass
And wind on sky when eyes and minds
Grew dark as window's blinds.
I wrote this on May 28th of 1987, finished the third version on May 28th of 2001 (exactly and yet entirely by chance fourteen years later to the day), and redid it with the lucidity of unfamiliarity in 2008, the collateral damage of an extended childhood.
This was the first of my word fugues. Being a pianist as well as a poet, I wanted words to weave and turn upside down like notes in a fugue, like children on monkey bars, like cloud portraits which morph constantly out of the same vapor. I wanted to write a verbal theme and then vary it, using the same few notes, the way Bach did.
I picked twelve words, the same number of words as Schönberg’s twelve-tone or dodecaphonic scale, which he used for his own mathematical fugues, the basis of serialism in music. Arithmetic usually results in unemotional structures; I wanted mine to be passionate.
The recurring language of this poem is so diverting that people rarely notice its meaning which, to me, is as strong as its shape. So let me paraphrase: we only see the world when we're old and our vision is failing. Our greatest insights come from lack of sight.
Mystics, seers, prophets, are usually blind. This heightens their other senses. The only way to see the world is to close our eyes, to become blind to it, to get away from it, as the insane Monseigneur Marguérite says in Philippe de Broca’s film King of Hearts. We see the world most clearly as we leave it. The eyes pull bandwidth away from the brain. They blind us to sounds.
I am especially interested in phenomena apparent only to the dim-eyed, and many of my poems deal with blurry apparitions, Brocken spectres, sun dogs, ghosts of the periphery.
Myopia is perceived as a weakness, but to me it is a strength. Monet could have photographed the water lilies he planted at Giverny, or painted them with his glasses on, but he chose to see them through his myopia. We dim pupils spend an inordinate amount of time inspecting things up close. We obsess over microscopic events. My "tub" poems turn minute phenomena in the bath into dioramas that seem fanciful, but are as technical as Cinerama.
When I had a chance to perfect my vision during two cataract operations, I chose to remain myopic. The improvement inexorably foisted on me by overly competent Hawaiian doctors has been enormously distracting, leading me to stare incessantly at billboards and crowds. Long distance vision strikes me as an evasion, a deflection, Seeing for Dummies. Panoramas are like action movies, where motion presumes to compensate for the loss of detail, for the richness of meditation or the inner warmth of dialogue.
This is one of my reflection poems. Cows and venetian blinds and clouds and grass are suspended in a window pane. But they can only be seen when the light is polarized, say, by a filter on a camera, so the transparency of the glass grows dark as its reflected objects then come into their own. Insights brought to light by darkness.
I was in my forties, and, being Irish and having lost my entire family at an early age, was thinking I must be near death, and was looking back on my life and the great moments in it, one of which was spending one of those light-blue summer afternoons on my back in an English pasture near the cliffs of Dover. The clouds seemed to chew on the sky the way the scattered cows were chewing on grass. Cows and clouds have the same shape, the same calming fluff.
I was reminded of Hamlet's description of a cloud: "very like a whale." Having just seen the play at Stratford, the air smelled that summer like Shakespeare, like freshly printed tourist brochures of Anne Hathaway's house, like the minibooks of plays I bought in the gift store at the theater and kept in my pocket for decades, even in the Himalayas, where I proved conclusively that I couldn't memorize a word above 18,000 feet.
The Dover meadow was burned into my mind that day, so that I can live there whenever I summon it up, with its whiffs of hay, brushes of breeze, waving grass, the English Channel, as immense as the rolling land, poking out in the corners of the postcard, and a sky through which my eye still flies like a plane. I live among those clouds, a pasha between palaces. Each cloud has its use, its boudoirs, its atriums, its prosceniums. Each space, each emotion, is separated by immense space from its rivals, the way Nabokov would travel all night to reach the sanctuary of his parents' summer house. We live in a Kafka labyrinth, in a Fritz Lang metropolis, in the tight synapses and apses of our cluttered brain, but every now and then we fly free.
Everything about that day seemed complacent, lazy, midsummer. It was a still life, as never-ending as a Claesz. Adolescents have all the time in the world, as do cows, as do fields, their grass waving in the wind, immortalized by memory. Timelessness springs from moments that have no thought of permanence, as poems rarely spring from people under deadlines. The occasional, purpose-written poem is a bad poem. [Frost couldn't read the bad poem he'd written for JFK's inauguration, due to wind and reflective snow (very Frostian obstacles), so he recited an older poem, "The Gift Outright," from memory, which was the poem JFK had originally requested.]
The purposeful day is forgotten. Only wasting time fires the imagination. Laziness is a prerequisite to poetry. Ignoring, of course, counterintuitive efforts to write something down and perfect it, which require anything but laziness. So I suppose poetry is a schizophrenic combination of sloth and obsession.
I was finally seeing the reality of the world, I thought. Only in my forties did I have the accumulated reverie which nudged me to preserve those refrozen images of my Birds Eye childhood. And so it seemed logical to marvel at how distance in fact focuses events. Life is like a narrow telescope, able to see fully only the distant houses in the neighborhood. Memory in old age, when our vision has grown blurrier, is stronger than in youth, when the reality of our clumsy days is so fresh there is no need for memory, or vision. (This says something positive about panoramas, which I have just been bashing. The opposite of a truth is also true.)
This fossilized afternoon was not only a memento of childhood, but of death, a memento mori, a note to myself to write up the moments of my life before it was too late. (Tomorrow is always too late, because today's thought never comes back, unless you memorize your thought patterns and repeat them endlessly in sleep, as I do, to little effect; they are still gone in the rush of morning.)
But some images persist. This poem sprang from an image I recalled every time I saw a cloud or a cow. They even sound similar. Cows have spots, as clouds have holes. Both are dappled. Clouds dapple the meadows as cows dapple fields, as clouds dapple cows. Both seem like shadows inverted into whiteness. They both convey the Lewis Carroll summer's afternoon, with its slowly flowing river, slowly floating sky, the slowly waving grass. The light air, the airy light. Cloudy cows and cowed clouds. I had dreamed these antilogies unconsciously for years.
As filled as the memory was with classic England, ordinary language would have been an insult to the dream. It needed to be new, but old; exciting at first sight, but also deeply structured; musical, but also rational.
The roots of poems, the first drafts, can be, for me, too naive, too vulnerable, too unguarded to let pass unedited. I didn't want to just blurt out the sentimental nonsense which seems to lurk permanently behind my brocaded arras. (Dylan Thomas's first drafts were often quite ordinary, until he reworked them into fireworks.)
In my own defense, the atmosphere in which I grew up in the 50's was rife with spinet music, hapa haole Hawaiian ditties like "Hanalei Moon," mock-Irish ballades like "Galway Bay," pseudo-virtuosic parlor squalor like "Shine little glowworm, glimmer...," maudlin magazines (Readers' Digest): even the wainscoting and the radiators clanked with steamy nostalgia for mysterious eras which architects had copied from their Victorian youths. I inherited from my Mother some five hundred songs, from Chopin waltzes to Kipling's "Mandalay." I was very big in my youth on Leroy Anderson's Goldilocks and Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend, both of which I eventually accompanied in various productions, milestones to me, but trivia to the world, unless you catalogue the smell of the seats in the empty school auditorium, the adrenaline that froze in memory John Quinn, the large-bottomed and more talented pianist whose seeming genius roamed over the keys every afternoon, the thrill of how relatively adolescent chord structures produced entire choruses in flapper skirts and spats line-dancing across a convincing Riviera beach which, when the music stopped, became an empty and scratched-up stage.
I was usually oblivious, however, to the useless technicalities of the day, the whine of steam heat at Tessie's house, the depressing repetitions of linoleum in her antique kitchen with its formica oven. But over time, I began to realize that they controlled a large part of my unconscious dreams, the part which kept me from moving into the present.
The blinds in Tessie’s claustrophobic sitting room shut out the world, and became for me, without my realizing it, a metaphor for the sadness of all Victorian room trim, the sense of loss in all the houses I knew as a child where old people sat, barred by the shadows of the Venetian blinds from progress, from the future, even from the present. These blinds are behind the meaning of this poem, and what they meant to me takes a little explaining.
I had three aunts on the O’Brien side: Kathryn, the Bedford Village postmistress, who never spoke and married the German farmer next door, John Kinkel, who sat unspeaking in his green easy chair all day long, smoking his pipe; their daughter, Peggy, waiting around for everyone to die after which she and her proper, disapproving husband left town forever; my beloved Aunt Annie, who wrote funny poems skewering our family at parties, who played Suppé’s Poet and Peasant Overture with me on her upright piano (I was the peasant), and who herself played the organ in the other church my grandfather built: we were a family of organists you couldn't refuse, because my grandfather had built all the churches.
And then there was Tessie, who never left the farm. She had looked like a cat, to judge by her teenage photos, and looked like she might have been a lot of fun. I asked her once why she never married, and she said, “No one ever came by.” She never went to New York, only an hour away; she never left the farm, but handled the finances for the construction company my grandfather founded with my uncle. She kept my grandfather from giving away more than he made, as he was extraordinarily generous. She ended up becoming my trustee, and cut me off when I went back to college, as she disapproved of higher education, never having had it.
Going back to college was my imperfect solution for the sense of shallowness I was feeling with my life. Later on, poetry, marriage, and family became a way of exorcising the emptiness which welled up from my life to that point. Maybe a lot of people are saved by love. We all expect a certain love from family, and if it’s missing, we make up mythologies of where we expect to find it. In my case, it seemed ridiculous that Tessie, the sister of the wonderful Annie and Will, didn’t have some hidden tenderness which I could use as a lifeline during the void of my twenties. Of course, such voids can only be filled by ourselves, by our most intense loves, not by casual relations.
Tessie was all I had in the world, and when Cathy and I came over to the house on the village green which my grandfather had built next to the rectory and the church and the one-room schoolhouse which had been all the education my aunts had known, from a priest whom the family imported from the city, where my high school teacher Father Sheets (who let me write a year-long 300-page paper on witchcraft in eight languages instead of turning in weekly essays) was a constant weekend presence, when Cathy and I told Tessie that we were getting married, she paused to gather sufficient breath and cursed us with: “And you’ll burn in hell!” Cathy burst into tears; I thought it was more or less in character for Tessie. She let me store my books, my china, my piano, and my Bentley in her barn while I went back to Columbia: I had to erase the downward spiral into luxury which my inheritance had prompted, so poverty appealed to my other, ascetic side.
I drove a cab and tutored girls who all developed such crushes on me that I had to stop tutoring them, but I proudly worked my way through college and always returned to Tessie like a dog with a ball. I believed in family and my wonderful Grandfather, but was otherwise surrounded by mercenary relatives. Inheritance made so much possible, but it destroyed the people around it. Annie and her brother Will had died, leaving me provided for, but desperate for any touch of love from my one surviving family member.
So Tessie’s blinds blocked out love, at least while I was visiting her, as I did every week. In this poem I weave the sadness of the blinds into the freedom of the painted clouds which rolled over Dover, where in my youth I would lie in the meadows and watch the Constable clouds scud in the British sky. Not until I moved beyond the sadness in my birth families would I be able to take back my childhood and move into the clear skies which I knew were somewhere out there.
While the crack of bats and shriek of children called to me from the bay window, I doggedly stayed inside and memorized Beethoven and Mozart sonatas, concertos, rhapsodies, operas, much Chopin, and some Rachmaninoff. But there was another, darker, shallower postwar side to music, hidden in the piano bench, and I devoured it indiscriminately.
My two favorite songs from the bench are still "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and "Lippen schweigen" from Léhar's The Merry Widow—tawdry in translation, but somehow seminal in German, from which I learned that meaning hides in deeper nooks than one language can embody.
If the world cannot anymore condone emotion of the immoderate Viennese variety, with modern horrors swirling around our devastated dreams, then it can exist in the offing, in the nostalgic laundry of poets, hidden in the piano bench.
I remember saying, my first day at Columbia, in Michael Wood's creative writing class, that my goal in writing was to know the world. An obviously more experienced classmate slowly turned to me and, with lubricated vowels drenched in sarcasm, sneered, "Do you mean in the...Biblical sense?"
I realized I had to go into hiding, even though the supportive Mr. Wood defiantly read aloud everything I wrote to my mute and superior peers.
These explanations are then possibly an ex-post-poetic attempt to fly out of my highly spun cocoon in kaleidoscopic swoops. I owe it to the verse to unearth it, and also to ground it, to plant it with the understory which protects trees when they're small. A forest swept clean of its brush might be less of a fire hazard, but it is precisely the blaze which springs from discarded accumulations of waste, of misspent youth, the errata that allows a wood, through reverses, to grow. (Modern fires burn too hot for regeneration.) Trunks without brush are like streets without dirt: there is something inhuman about them: cathedrals without buttresses, temples without caryatids, swinging atrophied, frankincensed thuribles down the muddy aisles of Easter.
I had spent years fiddling at The Well-Tempered Clavier on Beacon Street in Boston, where I lived for six years, letting fingers and synapses wander aimlessly like sheep through the patterns on the ivory meadows and ebony rocks of the keys. In my twenties, I lived for Bach. I had been an organist (a nepotistic one) in the church my grandfather built in Mt. Kisco, and later an apprentice at St. Patrick's in New York, studying under Charles Courboin, the kindly organist there.
The chiff of the pipes at Christmas was an epiphany, copiously layered Saanen snows swirling outside, ice fugues written by wind, imitating the warmer patterns of the notes inside the candlelit church, dark musical breezes gusting across the white keys. The pulls of the German-lettered organ ranks were bulbous drifts in Nutcracker forests, reeds picked just before sleep.
(The most complex thoughts come right before the last swirl of light, when failing logic leaves the room to the disarray of chalk boughs and mounded paths.)
Nested inside the Matryoshka of my woodland Bach were beer gardens in Munich, Christmas shops in Salzburg, séracs and suncups, a slideshow of antique symbolism welling up and dying to cascade into music and words and music again, a snowball putting on weight on its way to mass. I wanted to hang words into patterns like the Gstaad village lights blotted out by the midnight December storm.
The way that seemed most Bacchanalian was to vary the part of speech of each word, the way similar notes, when they recur in a fugue, are suspended over different harmonies, or turned upside-down, or hidden in scales. Thus, a word should occur as a noun, a verb, and an adjective. Then, too, the words should recur not just mathematically, or harmoniously; they should make sense as well.
So the poem has several layers to its Iditarod, the race towards its wintry Currier & Ives diorama. Second childhood is another name for senility, when our judgement is blinded. I was thinking of my Aunt's Venetian blinds, which replaced the calm of the Bedford Green (a view the blinds blocked) with the bland infirmary ivory of her bed-sitting room, of how they were lit up from behind by the sun every afternoon, even though Aunt Tessie was too ornery to notice. So the imagery came out of a boy's horror at the saccharine light of wrinkled, amber sunset, and from the parallel expectation that I would die before my time, as my Mother had. Like her, I never expected to live past forty.
Sight improves with hindsight, as does death. As Proust was dying, he was rewriting his death scenes in À la recherche. May we all live long enough to rewrite our lives. And especially our deaths.
May 28th, 1987
October 9th and 17th, 2008