Friday, October 25, 2013

`See the World More Clearly Than Before'

My youngest son came home from walking the dog and said as I stood in the kitchen, “Dad, I got something for your birthday. I know it’s not until Saturday but this might not last till then.” In his hand was a monarch butterfly, dead but still freshly lifelike, antennae intact. The wings, unfrayed and softly iridescent, were closed. Though freighted with a thousand associations in memory, it weighed nothing in my hand. For safe keeping, I put it in a glass inkwell a friend gave me thirty years ago, and screwed on the top. Life is allegory for those who pay attention. See “In Late November” (The Glass House, 2009) by Daniel Mark Epstein: 

“Of the butterfly-bush, whose purple flowers
The monarch and the swallowtail
Sipped in August, near my windowpane
(Such a wealth of wings and flower clusters
I could hardly see the grass, the trees)
Only stalks and branches remain,
And panicles tipped with russet berries.
Now I see everything so vividly:
The young woman on her hands and knees,
Planting the meek shrubs three years ago --
Three short years and thirteen feet below --
Told me the light was perfect here and so
The plants would thrive, just wait and see
How gracefully the flowers would bear wings.
I would see her when she was not there,
Then go blind, standing right beside her.
How could I begin to explain such things?
Soon enough the blossoms reached my sill,
A floor above her terrace flat. Too late
For her to see the wonder she had wrought
Or for me to tell her. She'd moved out.
I never dreamed these branches in full bloom
Would all but block the summer view below:
Garden, gardener and terrace door,
Casting a dappled shadow across my room.
I never knew that when November came
I would miss the butterflies so much
And see the world more clearly than before.” 

With age, one comes to see things in time-lapse. Flux becomes visible. Everything is itself and multiple – what it was, what it will be. Epstein writes of vision and how it changes over time. Of the past: “Now I see everything so vividly.” And of the present that once was future: “And see the world more clearly than before.” Epstein’s poem reminds me of E.A. Robinson’s “The Poor Relation” (The Man Against the Sky, 1916), which in turn reminds me of Anthony Hecht’s “The Transparent Man” (The Transparent Man, 1990). Robinson’s title character sees the “good ghost,” herself in youth: 

“But one friend always reappears,
A good ghost, not to be forsaken;
Whereat she laughs and has no fears
Of what a ghost may reawaken,
But welcomes, while she wears and mends
The poor relation's odds and ends,
Her truant from a tomb of years --
Her power of youth so early taken.” 

Robinson’s voice is wryly grave where Epstein’s is chastened and wistful, which suggests the difference between third-person and first-person narration. Told by an “I,” “The Poor Relation” would skirt if not spill over into mawkishness. For Epstein, missing the butterflies of summer and seeing the world more clearly in November are joined.  

Epstein was born on this date, Oct. 25, in 1948. 

[James Matthew Wilson writes about Robinson and “What Miniver Cheevy Means” at The American Conservative.]

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