Getting to the Big through the Small

Let's start with this short poem by Rae Armantrout:

Our Nature

The very flatness
of portraits
makes for nostalgia
in the connoisseur.
Here’s the latest
little lip of wave
to flatten
and spread thin.
Let’s say
it shows our recklessness,
our fast gun,
our self-consciousness
which was really
our infatuation
with our own fame,
our escapes,
the easy way
we’d blend in
with the peasantry,
our loyalty
to our old gang
from among whom
it was our nature
to be singled out
This is actually one of the few poems about friendship and relationship on the Poetry Foundation's website on the topic of friendship.  It is also, I believe, one of the few on this topic that manages to approach the topic from an angle of abstraction.  No names are mentioned here.  Barely a hint of specific life experiences.  Her terse lines somehow manage to evoke the cockiness of young artist friends in a removed manner without emotional reminiscence.  Surely, Ms. Armantrout is a master, an exception.  Another would be Picasso tackling sadness via his Blue Period.  Yes, his paintings are about specific things, though with an abstract approach, using colors that evoke--in our Western minds--gloom and cold.

Most of us get at larger concepts, though, through the particular.  I know it's long, but muster the patience to at least skim through this beautiful, meandering poem by Gary Snyder, perfect for these blistering days of record-breaking heat:

Finding the Space in the Heart

I first saw it in the sixties,
driving a Volkswagen camper
with a fierce gay poet and a
lovely but dangerous girl with a husky voice,
we came down from Canada
on the dry east side of the ranges. Grand Coulee, Blue
Mountains, lava flow caves,
the Alvord desert—pronghorn ranges—
and the glittering obsidian-paved
dirt track toward Vya,
seldom-seen roads late September and
thick frost at dawn; then
follow a canyon and suddenly open to
          silvery flats that curved over the edge
          O, ah! The
          awareness of emptiness
          brings forth a heart of compassion!
We followed the rim of the playa
to a bar where the roads end
and over a pass into Pyramid Lake
from the Smoke Creek side,
by the ranches of wizards
who follow the tipi path.
The next day we reached San Francisco
in a time when it seemed
the world might head a new way.
And again, in the seventies, back from
Montana, I recklessly pulled off the highway
took a dirt track onto the flats,
got stuck—scared the kids—slept the night,
and the next day sucked free and went on.
Fifteen years passed. In the eighties
With my lover I went where the roads end.
Walked the hills for a day,
looked out where it all drops away,
discovered a path
of carved stone inscriptions tucked into the sagebrush
          “Stomp out greed”
          “The best things in life are not things”
words placed by an old desert sage.
Faint shorelines seen high on these slopes,
long gone Lake Lahontan,
cutthroat trout spirit in silt—
Columbian Mammoth bones
four hundred feet up on the wave-etched
          beach ledge; curly-horned
                    desert sheep outlines pecked into the rock,
and turned the truck onto the playa
heading for know-not,
bone-gray dust boiling and billowing,
mile after mile, trackless and featureless,
let the car coast to a halt
on the crazed cracked
flat hard face where
winter snow spirals, and
summer sun bakes like a kiln.
Off nowhere, to be or not be,
          all equal, far reaches, no bounds.
          Sound swallowed away        
          no waters, no mountains, no
          bush no grass and
                    because no grass
          no shade but your shadow.
          No flatness because no not-flatness.
          No loss, no gain. So—
          nothing in the way!
          —the ground is the sky
          the sky is the ground,
          no place between, just
          wind-whip breeze,
          tent-mouth leeward,
          time being here.
          We meet heart to heart,
          leg hard-twined to leg,
                    with a kiss that goes to the bone.
          Dawn sun comes straight in the eye. The tooth
          of a far peak called King Lear.
Now in the nineties desert night
          —my lover’s my wife—
old friends, old trucks, drawn around;
great arcs of kids on bikes out there in darkness
          no lights—just planet Venus glinting
by the calyx crescent moon,
and tasting grasshoppers roasted in a pan.
          They all somehow swarm down here—
          sons and daughters in the circle
          eating grasshoppers grimacing,
singing sūtras for the insects in the wilderness,
—the wideness, the
foolish loving spaces
full of heart.
          Walking on walking,
                    under foot   earth turns
          Streams and mountains never stay the same.
                              The space goes on.
                              But the wet black brush
                              tip drawn to a point,
                                       lifts away.
                                                            Marin-an 1956—Kitkitdizze 1996
Snyder is only able to eventually make his way to a discussion of the "foolish loving spaces" by guiding us through every little detail of a West Coast landscape, and all the flora and human fauna that comes with it.

What interests the hell out of me is that lots of the more current of the 355 poems on the topic of friends and enemies on the Poetry Foundation's site are short elegies.  They lament the loss of a friend and get at the heart of human emotion around friendship by talking about their friend.

It was Williams who said, "No ideas but in things."  Think "The Red Wheelbarrow."

So all this is to say that I'm currently--in my head only--writing a poem about the loss of a friendship.  It was a rather long friendship with multiple ups and downs, but a great one overall.  Now it's almost gone completely, a small blip left on the screen of an analog TV for the few seconds after you turned it off.  And I don't want the details to be too specific in the poem, so as not to slip too deeply into sentimentality.  However, remaining too detached or removed from the subject could chance it being too trapped in aloof abstraction.  Where's the line?

Mark Strand seems to cleverly circumvent this whole problem by writing in the second person, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps of specificity with the self.  I make sure and watch this video at least three or four times every year, especially in winter.  Here's the elegant Mary-Louise Parker reading Strand's spare, gorgeous, haunting "Lines for Winter":

The themes of loneliness, growing older, and death come through incredibly strongly, but only because the poet forces you to think of your own loneliness, your own age, and your own impending death by placing you at the fore of the action.  No need to describe some character we've never met before.  No need to try and describe, for example, death as an abstract concept.  All of us, whether subconsciously or not, have thought about this things at length before.  Strand is just reminding us that we've done so.

So, how do I write an ode to a lost friendship?  Maybe I'll just remind you about yours.  Sorry.


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