Four hours at the heart of Sunday was dedicated to helping our landlord remove a defunct microwave oven bolted to the wall above the stove and installing a new one in its place. The landlord is an aeronautical engineer with pretensions to being a handyman. I’m no handyman, pretentious or otherwise, and now have a sore back, skinned knuckles and a swollen ring finger to prove it. Our synergy was Laurel-and-Hardy-like.
I had other things to do but tried to stay focused, foolishly thinking that would help finish the job faster. We passed the time, as people do, with small talk – kids, jobs, weather. Sometimes I feel like an alien anthropologist trying to learn and mimic the folkways of homo sapiens. Most of the time, I compartmentalized my mind and devoted a small sanctuary within to something I had read by Richard Wilbur. At a poetry conference at Bard College in 1948, Louise Bogan and William Carlos Williams discussed poetic form and Wilbur replied to them in an essay, “The Bottles Become New, Too” (Responses: Prose Pieces, 1953-1976). On formalism he writes:
“It is the province of poems to make some order in the world, but poets can’t afford to forget that there is a reality of things which survives all orders great and small. Things are. The cow is there. No poetry can have any strength unless it continually bashes itself against the reality of things.”
I found this passage immensely cheering, and not just for poets and readers of poetry. One doesn’t expect good sense of poet, at home or on the page, yet I’m always attracted to work that not only acknowledges that “Things are,” but celebrates the fact. The funniest scene in all of French literature is found in Nausea, when Roquentin looks at a chestnut tree and gets sick, or something. If you can look at a chestnut tree without feeling gratitude and reassurance, nausea is the least of your troubles. Three paragraphs later, Wilbur writes:
“In a time of bad communications, when any self-transcendence is hard to come by, to perceive the existence of a reality beyond all constructions of the consciousness is to experience a kind of call to prophecy. To insist on the real existence of the four elements, of objects, of animals, taking these things as isolable representatives of the ambient reality, is a kind of minimum devoutness in these days. It is a step toward believing in people.”