Saturday, September 1, 2012

Jaydn DeWald on "Nocturne (or, Landscape with Father)"

Nocturne (or, Landscape with Father)” is an elegy written in the first-person plural, a point of view largely reserved, at least in the case of elegies, for public figures. Still, I had a hunch that the use of the “we” to speak for the grieving siblings might allow the poem to travel more freely through time and place: “we” can be in Oregon in the present, near an anonymous wooden bridge in the past, in Poros, Greece, in the future, and so on, all in the same moment. (“There’s no way to just live in the present,” as Robert Pinsky said.) “We,” in other words, can be multitudinous, contrapuntal, even prismatic. In short, I was attempting to capture the lives of the speakers, in connection with the father, on multiple, simultaneous planes.

“The mirrors would do well to reflect further” (Jean Cocteau, from Orphée).

The death of the father is itself a time-shattering, rug-swept-out-from-under-you experience. When I wrote, “we can no longer even believe in time,” I felt I had to shoot for the illusion of simultaneity—although I could’ve taken, in retrospect, a different route—so as not to deny perceived reality (“Our father is dying— / Nothing stopping it”) or the speakers’ emotional stake in it. I too am drawn, like Kazim Ali, “toward plural thought and multiplicity.” In the end, I hope this experiment with time and place strengthens, rather than dilutes, the poem’s sense of loss.

But point of view alone, of course, cannot create the illusion of simultaneity. Like many cubist paintings—consider Picasso’s Portrait of Dora Maar, for instance—the poem had to fuse various images, various points in time, into a single image. In my view, this occurs all too rarely in poetry, but it occurs nonetheless, and then often with startling, awkwardly charming results:

We are afloat
On our dreams as on a barge made of ice,
Shot through with questions and fissures of starlight
That keep us awake, thinking about the dreams
As they are happening.
                        —John Ashbery, from “The Erotic Double”

A man thinks lilacs against white houses, having seen them in the farm country south of Tacoma in April, and can’t find his way to a sentence, a brushstroke carrying the energy of brush and stroke . . .
—Robert Hass, from “Spring Drawing”

I still have this pain that falls through the entire night sky
in my shoulder, where, when the thunder has stopped,
your head has lain on my arm for twenty-five years.
            —Marvin Bell, from “Song for a Little Bit of Breath”

This is just to say that “Nocturne (or, Landscape with Father)” doesn’t experiment with anything new; it merely attempts to densify and sustain the illusion of simultaneity—of the father, in this case, continuing to live in the face of imminent death. I should also admit that the elegy is in private contention with Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”—I have a fond memory of my own father reciting this poem to me (I could have been five years old) as we drove through some little desolate downtown—particularly Auden’s ominous, mood-shifting lines, “But all the clocks in the city / Began to whirr and chime: / ‘O let not time deceive you / You cannot conquer time.’” Indeed, one might say that this elegy attempts, and in the end fails (“our father: he is gone”), to conquer time and to exist in any tense.


  1. You have constructed a vivid poem full of mirror shards, mood and color. But your short essay is so jammed with quotes and cultural references (you call up at least eight boldface names) that poem-cum-essay left me feeling that I'd just churned through somebody's college English paper. Salud, Dave Steward

  2. Thanks for your comment, Dave. You're right: this little essay is packed with quotes. Still, when I was asked to write about "Nocturne," I realized I had a lot of interest (both personally and intellectually) in the use of time and of simultaneity. More importantly, though, this seemed to me an excellent opportunity to reveal a few poets whose work had figured in the making of the poem. Thanks so much for reading.

  3. Can't dispute that, Jaydn, but critical writing, auto-critical in the case of BQ's monthly reflections, is most telling when it details deeply sources and commonalities in the way, say, Guy Davenport uses Pound to clarify Charles Olson, Joyce to illuminate William Carlos Williams, Olson and Pound in turn to drive his reading of Zukofsky. DES

  4. Ahh, if only I were as brilliant as Guy Davenport.

    In any case, I can't create the historical distance that (in my view) facilitates Davenport's ideas of "sources and commonalities." That is to say, I'm in the muck of the present: I have neither the advantage of "looking back" nor the ability to be somebody else. To put it still another way, it is easier for Davenport to explain that Olson had "stolen" the forward slash from Pound, who had in turn stolen it from the John Adams' letters, because Davenport is able to survey these texts from a distance.

    In twenty years, I might be able to explain more deeply the commonalities between "Nocturne" and Ashbery. In the meantime, however, I can only say that several of his poems, such as "The Erotic Double," colored my own attempt to create the illusion of simultaneity.

    But I really appreciate your pushing me on this subject, Dave. You're absolutely right that my essay is, in terms of the spiderweb of influence, inadequate.

  5. Jaydn,
    Really enjoyed your poem. I think the play with simultaneity works wonderful here, and really compliments the topic of “Nocturne.” The poem brings together a vivid collage of disparate images, but does well to remember the reader, and situate them throughout—the “ah” that brings us to the present, etc.

    The combination of exterior and interior images in the poem is powerful, and I particularly love the subtle movement towards the personal in the end. The inclusiveness of the first-person plural narrator in the beginning leaves the reader curious just who this father belongs to—one can’t help thinking of a prayer. But towards the end when we’re brought back to the present where the music fills “this house and this house alone” it’s clear that this bereavement belongs(or will belong) to someone, that there is a specific father that has left the speaker with music and memories, and for me it’s then that the ethereal trumpet heard throughout the poem takes on the tactile hiss and crackle of well-loved vinyl. Nice work.

  6. Sean,

    Thanks so much for these comments. I was particularly happy (and relieved) to hear that the final image provided, for you, such a rich sensory experience—that you could hear both the trumpet and the sputtering of the record player.

    (I almost chucked that image, believing it was too obvious, even rehashed. It has always brought to my mind—talk about the spiderweb of influence—the skeletal, half-built dream-house in William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow.)

    Anyway, thanks again for the comments. Perhaps I can contact you for a book blurb? Just kidding.