Wednesday, March 27, 2013

`And All Was As It Should Be. I Was Young'

“a small boy’s adhesiveness / To competent old age” 

The narrator of E.A. Robinson’s “Isaac and Archibald” is speaking. Word choice is everything: “adhesiveness” (borrowed from phrenology, a favorite of Whitman’s) and “competent” are irreplaceable. I’d been rereading Robinson’s poems, but not this one, until a reader singled it out in an email: 

“Perhaps E.A. Robinson’s definitive poem on friendship is his rather long narrative poem titled `Isaac and Archibald.’ The narrator, we might assume, is the poet who reflects on the relationship of two elderly men he knew when he was a boy.” 

Robinson, a great story teller among his other gifts, encourages the reader to inhabit at least four characters – those named in the title, the narrator and the narrator’s younger self. This complex arrangement of sympathetic ties mirrors our life and the way we preserve it and transform it in memory: 

“`Look at me, my boy,
And when the time shall come for you to see
That I must follow after him, try then
To think of me, to bring me back again,
Just as I was to-day. Think of the place
Where we are sitting now, and think of me—
Think of old Isaac as you knew him then,
When you set out with him in August once
To see old Archibald.’—The words come back
Almost as Isaac must have uttered them,
And there comes with them a dry memory
Of something in my throat that would not move.” 

When read aloud the passage sounds almost unbearably plangent – Isaac speaking of himself in the third person, as though he were already dead, urging the narrator to remember; the narrator’s act of remembrance as a man of the boy he was; the boy’s tacit sense that Isaac’s words are important and deserve to be remembered. And then our narrator remembers his time alone with Archibald and the old man’s warning that echoes Lambert Strether (“Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.”):

“I’m in the shadow, but I don’t forget
The light, my boy,—the light behind the stars.
Remember that: remember that I said it;
And when the time that you think far away
Shall come for you to say it—say it, boy;
Let there be no confusion or distrust
In you, no snarling of a life half lived,
Nor any cursing over broken things
That your complaint has been the ruin of.
Live to see clearly and the light will come
To you, and as you need it.” 

There’s another line, almost a throwaway, that makes me look at myself and the boy I was and at my own sons: “And all was as it should be. I was young.” Robinson encourages this sense of mutual vision, of being the see-er and the seen, the remembered and the one who remembers. Isaac and Archibald are at once foolish old men and heroes out of Homer, “the loved and well-forgotten.” The nameless boy remembers that summer moment under the apple tree and his vision of the anticipated future: 

“…I felt
Within the mightiness of the white sun
That smote the land around us and wrought out
A fragrance from the trees, a vital warmth
And fullness for the time that was to come,
And a glory for the world beyond the forest.” 

That a poem about a boy and two old men should kindle powerful emotions in a reader is no surprise. When not trivial or pyrotechnical, when the poet subsumes himself in words, a poem can be as humbly potent as a memory. The late Rachel Wetzsteon honors the power of poems like Robinson’s in “Gold Leaves” (Silver Roses, 2010): 

“Someone ought to write about (I thought
and therefore do) stage three of alchemy:
not inauspicious metal turned into
a gilded page, but that same page turned back
to basics when you step outside for air
and feel a radiance that was not there
the day before, your sidewalks lined with gold.”

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