But listen to the end… Then nothing more…
It changes its meaning.
(Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus)
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon…
For me Charon’s Ferry, Bruce Berlind’s beautiful translations of Gyula Illyés’ poetry, is also a remarkable selection of last poems. Why call them “last poems” or read them in that way? If last poems form a genre – and Harold Bloom suggests that they do – this does not require that the poems be the last that their authors may have written. I can write a last poem at any age. I can write many last poems over many years. A poet, Bloom says, begins to write last poems when “lastness” for the poet becomes an active “part of knowing,” when in the light of this event and its compelling imaginative impulse, “the the” (as Stevens calls it) changes meaning. “When was it one first heard of the truth? The the,” Stevens asks.
William Wordsworth may have been the first modern poet in English – not because he was a poet of nature (although most Victorians remembered him that way), but because his poetry recalls the “blank misgivings,” the “obstinate questionings / Of sense and outward things” that as a child he found disturbing the landscape.
A defining revision occurred in English poetry when Yeats substituted old age for childhood and found, unlike Wordsworth, that “blank misgivings” do not diminish but intensify with ageing. Faced with “this absurdity …this caricature / Decrepit age that has been tied to me as to a dog’s tail,” Yeats found he could still assert that he “never” had “had… more / excited, passionate, fantastical / Imagination, nor an ear and eye / That more expected the impossible.” “No, not in boyhood,” he cries out. Yeats made this assertion in 1926, when he was only sixty, but the ageing imagination was defining for Yeats from the beginning (Yeats began with the persona of Shelley’s prematurely aged, young man). Being sixty-three myself, I am happy to find freedom in what I have learned to read as Yeats’s fierce insistence: “No, not in boyhood”! Yeats did not die until 1939 at age seventy-three, but twenty-two years earlier, faced with “growing old” and “remember[ing] Wordsworth withering into eighty years, honoured and empty-witted,” he had already articulated the gnosis that is a perennial wisdom for last poems: “I shall find the dark grow luminous, the void fruitful, when I understand that I have nothing.” Such clarity also characterizes Gyula Illyés’ poetry in Charon’s Ferry. “Nothingness is nearest,” Illyés writes, and as I listen to this wisdom in his poetry, I think I also feel what I first learned to value from Yeats – the luminous dark found in nothing, the fruitful void that is always about to be – in a future I imagine I shall find (in Yeats, as in Wordsworth, it is always imagination from the abyss that is “something evermore about to be”).
“Nothingness Is Nearing:” this is the title of the poem from Charon’s Ferry that I just quoted, which ends with “Nothingness is nearest.” If nothingness is nearing, if it is approaching, then isn’t nothingness also bringing near? When nothingness is nearing, there may be an experience that leaves me bare, undressed to nothing in myself, but at the same time this also offers intimacy: it nears. Or, more accurately, even tenderly, there is an emerging intimacy between reader and poet as together we experience the nothingness as nearing – of each other, to each other, together – in this nothingness that also brings us near. “In the Sunday afternoon,” there is “so-to-speak breezeless silence,” the poem says, there is “a repeated succession of bangs,” but no, “not, after all, of guns.” Living with violence is a given, even in this “so-to-speak …silence,” but for the moment it is not this given “after all,” not guns but instead the “old familiar” – the sound of “playing skittles” that is “more familar still when it cuts out,” when we listen together: listening-in this way intensifying silence. The sounds we have heard, inasofar as they are familiar, speak to us of us, of our familiarity and therefore of ourselves, of each self together, while “the timeless frame of silence / grows prodigally pitted with human rustling” – grows with this rustling that pits it, in that way seeds or unseeds it even as it digs a pit, even if pitted against it. And then “Nothingness is nearest” (perhaps like Jacob wrestling with his angel):
The continually receding tiny rustlings
gradually saturate it, so that – gradually empty
earth and sky to such a degree of noiselessnes,
that – take a breath! –
Nothingness is the nearest.
If I am not mistaken, “nothingness” in this poem for the moment is almost a caress. In one of his earliest last poems, I think Stevens offered an analagous wisdom when with “a mind of winter… the listener” who is “nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is,” but to me what is wonderful in Illyés’ poem is what is not in Stevens poems, our intimacy together because the “nothingness is nearing.”
The American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce distinguished experience from perception by contrasting their distinctive offerings. “We perceive objects,” Peirce insisted, “but that which we …experience… is an event”: “it is the compulsion, the absolute constraint upon us to think otherwise than we had been thinking that constitutes experience.” Perhaps what is compelling in last poems is the impulse of events that age induces. Is it this experience in Charon’s Ferry that for me makes Illyés poetry so dazzling? When I listen to his poetry for nothingness, I am compelled to hear human rustling; when I listen to human rustling in turn, I am compelled to listen to nothingness. With each of these events, I “think otherwise.” Each complements the other-like particle and wave in quantum physics.
“Nothingness Is Nearing” is a late last poem, but in “Flood,” a much earlier poem from 1948, nothingness is already nearing, already pitted with human sounds. What is beautifully pitched is the balance between events. “In a stinking oil lamp’s smog,” as a “congregation sings… abruptly a young girl’s bell-tongued voice / breaks out of the gloom like a knell.” Outside “the deluge increases …It’s black as pitch outside… the whole world has become an ocean, / and fiercer and fiercer with every minute the skies / pour down their winter rain on the dark water.” Here then are the complements: on the one hand, the fierce sky; on the other, human sound. And for the moment the dark does grow luminous from the “young girl’s bell-tongue voice.” By the end of the poem there is nothing, there is only the night and silence – even fierce skies rain silently – but the young girl’s voice, which is no longer there, still vibrates nonetheless. Meaning does change because the poem is an event, because the poem’s “knell” changes meaning.
In Yeats’s poem “Byzantium,” the verb “to break” also means “to make.” In “Byzantium as in “Flood,” it changes meaning. The young girl’s voice “breaks out of …gloom,” and, like a breakwater reshaping the waves that break against it, Yeats’s art “break[s] …furies of complexity,” what years earlier, in “The Second Coming,” Yeats called these furies the “the blood-dimmed tide,” his metaphor for the political violence of his time, and Illyés’ flood may figure political violence as well. But between Yeats and Illyés there is also this contrast. If “Flood” offers an allegory for violence, literally its deluge is innocent. Like Steven’s auroras of autumn, it need not be a “symbol of malice.” In Yeats’ poetry the “tide” is only a symbol. “Break[ing] the flood,” Yeats’ poetics remakes fury as image (“those images that yet / Fresh images beget”) and in that way finds “tragic joy”: “When such as I cast out remorse / So great a sweetness flows into the breast…
“And: “What matter though numb nightmare ride on top / And blood and mire the sensitive body stain?” And: “Hector is dead and there’s a light in Troy; / We that look on but laugh in tragic joy.” I first read Yeats carefully in 1968 when
I was twenty, in a seminar with Bloom, and from Bloom I learned to be wary of “tragic joy,” Yeats’s often obscene conflation of the gnostic void with atrocity.
At the time Stevens seemed a welcome relief inasmuch as he writes with an integrity that does not make violence aesthetic (if “death is the mother of beauty” in Stevens, murder and rape are not). For the most part reference to his era’s savagery is oblique, perhaps at best intimated in “The Auroras of Autumn” when he identifies with a rabbi’s art and “opens the door his house / On flames.” Still history for me is mostly missing in Stevens – in this way his poetry may not suffice – but then, with the exception of Carolyn Forché’s poetry of witness, I’m not sure that I know of a poetics in English that does more, that nears nothingness with human rustlings by distinguishing it humanely from barbarism. For that a poetry like Celan’s is also needed, perhaps like Mandelshtam’s, where Celan could find his own poetics confirmed. And what Celan and Mandelshtam can offer, I think is found in Illyés as well.
The political courage in Illyés’ poetry is a palpable as in Mandelshtam’s, as clear in “One Sentence on Tyranny” as in Mandelshtam’s Stalin Epigram. What
I would like to consider here, however, is not the exemplary courage but the source as I can find it in the poetry. In Charon’s Ferry, the poem that immediately follows “Nothingness Is Nearing” is titled “On a Private Golgotha”:
Now my shadow alone
is crucified from behind
and cast ahead by the sun.
I stalk it without success.
The light is merciless:
you’re not the only one.
Every word in Berlind’s translation seems stunning. Oddly each is also consoling. If light mercilessly shadows here, if it crucifies my shadow with my body from behind and “I stalk it without success,” still it is only “my shadow alone” that is crucified in this way. But: “you” are not alone as the poem ends – ”you’re not the only one” – you, the shadow; you, the reader; you, the poet to whom the poet, or the poem, or we, or the shadow, perhaps even someone else, is saying the last line. In this private place of the skull (my skull, the poet’s, whose?), there is also the other Golgotha, the other place of the skull where Christ experienced God’s silence (“Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani”), but wasn’t this also the nothingness of God? In the traditions of Kaballah and Christian mysticism, the first manifestation of the God in whose image we are made is never as this image but always as “no one” and “as nothing,” in Hebrew, Ayin. When Jacob wrestled with his stranger, he may also have wrestled with Ayin. Perhaps it was with this in mind that Celan after the Shoah could begin the poem “Psalm” with the difficult wisdom that “no one moulds us again out of earth and clay,” and “no one conjures our dust”: “Praised be your name, No one. / For your sake we shall flower …the nothing-, the / no one’s rose” (Michael Hamburger’s translation). Perhaps on Illyés’ Golgotha, nothing flowers again; in No one’s image we feel moulded. It is true that the light is merciless, and it is true that I am not forsaken. I experience both events, the shock of the incommesurate, but when nothingness is nearing, I believe it can also offer courage.
“How shall I end?” Illyés asks in the last of his last poems in Charon’s Ferry, and he concludes, “I do not know.” For Wislawa Szymborska, the conclusion that “I do not know” is always the source for poetry, and Yeats came to a similar conclusion in one of his final and most beautiful last poems: “what do we know but that we face / One another in this place?” Illyés was writing in February 1983, near the end of a long life. All he knows is “the farewell word”; all he says is how it orders. First, with this word, “I order that you outlive me,” ordering, perhaps, so that you will outlive me, will find more life in all the over-determinations that the word “outlive” can suggest. And next: with this word
I order “that each of your steps be blest.” Perhaps I also order so that each one of your steps can be blest. And then, uncannily but inevitably, Illyés’ last poem ends in mid-sentence: Finally “I order …that the sin you judge you live unconscious of” – But this sentence does not end, it only says nothing more. In this way is the sentence a judgment? Try to unravel the judgment, and you will find it is like a Zen koan. It does not unravel; it perplexes. Or perhaps I unravel as it complicates, with pleasure as it changes my mind. With nothing more to say,
it is saying it. “How are we to get at the meanings of last poems?” Bloom wonders. Last poems “intimate a time without limits,” thus “the blessing of more life,” but “be wary of method,” Bloom warns. Because a last poem can end in mid-sentence, it may offer a human life. “It changes its meaning.” “Oh! Blessed rage for order.”