Thursday, April 19, 2018

`Still, Still We Long for Light's Communion'

Aubade -- the word, I mean – in my lexicon will always be Philip Larkin’s. Plenty of poets have used that title, from William Empson to Bill Coyle, but Larkin copyrights it. His “Aubade” is one of the defining poems of the last century. It has a rival, however, from early in the twenty-first, a poem that reads as though it were written by a representative of a species sharing almost no genetic material with Larkin’s. Dick Davis’ “Aubade” was published in the Summer 2001 issue of The Threepenny Review. I cite the time and place because the poem helps define for me the pre-9/11 world, which became a world only after 9/11.

I flew to Philadelphia for a three-day conference that June. I had never visited the city but had little time to tramp its streets. With me I brought along The Golovlyov Family by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin and that issue of The Threepenny Review. The days were long and that’s how I wound down in the evening in my hotel room. Davis’ poem shares with Larkin’s a seemingly straightforward absence of faith: “These are the dawn thoughts of an atheist / Vaguely embarrassed by what looks like grace.” In a stringently philosophical world, Matisse’s colors are “a fake.” However, “Still we consent, and actively connive / In their unreal adjustments to our being.” Positivism, in the final stanza, never quite triumphs:

“Still, still we long for Light’s communion
To pierce and flood our solitary gloom:
Still I am grateful as the rising sun
Picks out the solid colors of my room.”

The upper-case “Light” is left undefined. It might be the deity, as “communion” suggests, despite the speaker’s self-definition in the first line as an atheist. No sane person would choose to inhabit a world in which “neither Fauve nor Esfahan survive.” I remember Davis’ poem, on first reading, kindling a sense of buoyancy. Humans are more than passive sensory receptors.

No comments: