Friday, November 22, 2013

`The Need to Lose What We Love'

Reading a good poem for the first time ought to leave us at first inarticulate, which is a good thing. It suggests humility in the face of something accomplished and alien. Worthy poems are rare but one reads expectantly, hoping to be surprised. When a good one comes along, we’re stunned until our native skepticism kicks in. Then we reread, assuming we got it wrong the first time, and skepticism mingles with, and sometimes is replaced by, wonder and gratitude. Before Thursday, when Micah Mattix introduced me to him, I had never heard of Richard Jackson or his poem “Everything All at Once.” Its thirty-four lines are plain-spoken and digressive. They remind me of Nick Adams leaving the important things unspoken in “Big, Two-Hearted River,” the best thing Hemingway ever wrote. The speaker says with tight lips: “The dignity of just being alive, the freedom of it” and “How is it we feel the need to lose what we love?” Such lines are neither non sequiturs nor overly portentous. At the midpoint of the poem we read these lines: 

“A hundred and fifty years ago two armies slaughtered
themselves here.”

Nothing prepares us for this opening up into history, presumably the Civil War, and yet it reads as though inevitable. In his essay on Dante, Eliot assures us that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Jackson’s poem communicates a sense of something lost, something essential missing from the scheme. It’s an elegy for the unnamed, perhaps something within the speaker not the landscape: “Aren’t our first words for what we don’t have / or have lost? Don’t we want everything all at once?” Including, of course, the elusive meaning of the poem we are reading. The hawk in the third-to-last line recalls many passages in John A. Baker’s The Peregrine, also about a man alone with another species: “Watching the falcon receding up into the silence of the sky, I shared the exaltation and serenity of her slow ascension.”

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