Thursday, January 03, 2013

`Down to the Bone of Light'

One morning in the week before Christmas we woke to a welcome Northern sight – frost on the grass and on the windows of the car. The boys crunched across the lawn in the backyard. The novelty of frost in Houston excited them but so did the clarity of the air, the sense that it had been cleansed overnight as the dew point dipped. Neighbors more vigilant than I had covered plants with blankets and towels, and I skimmed ice from the windshield. All melted as the winter sun rose a little higher. 

From the Irish essayist Chris Arthur I learned of the Ulster poet John Hewitt (1907-1987). As the epigraph to his 2009 collection Words of the Grey Wind, Arthur uses a fragment of prose from Hewitt: “My cast of mind is such that I am moved by intuitions, intimations, imaginative realisations, epiphanies, which, after all, may not be the worst way to face life…” Customarily, I shy from those who proclaim reliance on the mind’s lazier, less formal modes. Scorning reason is fashionable and dangerous, but so is earnestly deploying rationality. Our minds are more complicated than hippies and positivists can imagine. Hewitt sounded interesting and I borrowed The Collected Poems of John Hewitt (The Blackstaff Press, 1991) from the library. That’s where I found “Frost,” dating from the nineteen-forties: 

“With frost again the thought is clear and wise
that rain made dismal with a mist’s despair,
the raw bleak earth beneath cloud-narrowed skies
finds new horizons in the naked air.
Light leaps along the lashes of the eyes;
a tree is truer for its being bare. 

“So must the world seem keen and very bright
to one whose gaze is on the end of things,
who knows, past summer lush, brimmed autumn’s height,
no promise in the inevitable springs,
all stripped of shadow down to the bone of light,
the false songs gone and gone the restless wings.” 

“Rain made dismal with a mist’s despair” took me back to Seattle, where thought is never “clear and wise.” Written by a man of about forty, the poem anticipates the gift and burden of aging. The phrase “one whose gaze is on the end of things” hinges on the richness of “end” – at once conclusion and purpose. Aging is not accumulation but a paring away: “stripped of shadow down to the bone of light.” In this, Hewitt resembles another Irishman of Protestant birth, Samuel Beckett, who writes in the final lines of his final work, Stirrings Still:  “Such and much more such the hubbub in his mind so-called till nothing left from deep within but only ever fainter oh to end. No matter how no matter where. Time and grief and self so-called. Oh all to end.”

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