Thursday, September 12, 2013

`I Think Oblivion to Be Memory's Daughter'

Daryl’s Hine’s final collection of poems, &: A Serial Poem (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2010), is a book-length work of 303 ten-line stanzas of accentual verse, with an unvarying ABBAABCABC rhyme scheme, in search of but never quite finding a theme worthy of Hine’s dazzling technique. To say the poem is about depression, flagging inspiration, the waning of love, memory, death’s inevitability, what have you, is merely to suggest it resembles Shakespeare’s sonnets, which it does but loosely, without deep focus. A grander unity, if present, eludes me, but I love this poem. Once the editor of Poetry, author of sixteen poetry collections, a classicist and translator (Ovid, Hesiod, Theocritus), one of the best poets of his generation, Hine lived the final decades of his life in relative seclusion in Evanston, Ill., dying last year at age seventy-six. Here is section 243 of &: 

“`On love, on grief on every human thing,’
The epigrammatist Walter Savage Landor
Remarked with his habitual savvy candor,
`Time sprinkles Lethe’s water with his wing.’
Time so personified could be anything
With wings: a hummingbird, a crow, a goose or gander,
A pterodactyl. As for Lethe’s water,
Having been dipped in that revivifying spring—
Deeper than hell & colder, more forgiving, grander—
I think oblivion to be memory’s daughter.” 

Robert Pinsky gives a reading of Landor’s epigram here. Lethe’s waters grant forgetfulness. The king says in Richard III: “So in the Lethe of thy angry soul / Thou drown the sad remembrance of those wrongs.” In the Purgatorio, Dante Christianizes the classical understanding of the river. The poet immerses himself in the Lethe and his memory of past sins is erased. Dante hears the antiphon sung during a solemn mass, Asperges me (“purge me”), an echo of Psalm 51. He next drinks from the Eunoe, Dante’s coinage from the Greek for “good mind” or “good memory.” Its waters strengthen his memory of good deeds performed in life. For Hine, the Lethe is “revivifying.” The final line in the stanza is puzzling. Memory decays. Hine’s phrasing suggests memory loss – “oblivion” – is our natural lot. To have memories is to lose them. Here is the following stanza, 244: 

“You will forget nothing in the syllabic long & short
Run, conserved by illiberal emotion:
The mind resembles some overwhelming pacific ocean,
Yet is simultaneously sharp as a tax report
& indomitable as a boy’s cardboard toy fort,
Emollient & slick as balsamic lotion.
Who, walking without a walker, can talk without
A talker to talk to? What will conceives will seldom self-abort.
The divine being such a curious notion,
While belief remains disbelief, what is there left to doubt?” 

At times, & reads like the endlessly digressive conversation of a brilliant, charming, witty, difficult, formidably learned old man who “can talk without / A talker to talk to,” who doesn’t always know when to quit. Perhaps the title is a clue. For the book’s epigraph, Hine uses “Ampersand = `and per se and’ – Oxford English Dictionary.” To give the OED’s full definition: “Corruption of ‘and per se—and’, the old way of spelling and naming the character &; i.e. ‘& by itself = and;’ found in various forms in almost all the dialect Glossaries.” Ampersand, &, and – in the OED’s charmingly linguistic phrase, “simply connective.” & connects people, places and things; verbs, nouns and adjectives, including writers & readers. & also implies something to come, an eventuality. There’s always something to the right of &.  The final line in the poem’s first section is “Non omnia omnia in anima.” Here is the translation Hine gives in his sparse notes: “Not all omens (signs or portents) are in the mind or soul.” He adds: “See concluding stanza for affirmative, O omnia omnia in anima.” Here are the final stanza's preceding lines: 

“What if I waited till at last you came,
The never forgotten & the undeceased?”

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