Sunday, January 10, 2016

`And Sense the Solving Emptiness'

Rice University adjoins the Texas Medical Center, the largest such facility in the world, with twenty-one hospitals, four medical schools, six nursing schools and all the ancillary services, totaling 21 million square feet of floor space . More than 52,000 people work there and 4.8 million patients annually are treated (I’m three of them). It is a small, densely inhabited city within the fourth-largest city in the country. On campus, the almost-perpetual soundtrack is supplied by sirens and helicopter rotors. We hardly hear it anymore and seldom see the parade of ambulances echoing down the urban canyons, making it easy to ignore the presence of so much health care and mortality. Periodically I remember Larkin’s “Ambulances,” which the poet completed on this date, Jan. 10, in 1961, and later collected in The Whitsun Weddings (1964). Passersby observe the ambulance                                                                                        

“And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.”

The sound of an ambulance is less an irritant than a tastefully distant memento mori. In his notes to The Complete Poems (2012), Archie Burnett suggests the first two lines just quoted may allude to these lines in Auden’s “New Year Letter” (1940): 

“Heroic charity is rare;
Without it, what except despair
Can shape the hero who will dare
The desperate catabasis
Into the snarl of the abyss
That always lies just underneath
Our jolly picnic on the heath
Of the agreeable, where we bask,
Agreed on what we will not ask,
Bland, sunny and adjusted, by
The light of the accepted lie?” 

Auden writes under the sway of Kierkegaard, a thinker we can safely assume never meant much of anything to Larkin, for whom religion was “created to pretend we never die.”

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