“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.