When Imaginative Art & Science & all Intellectual Gifts, all the Gifts of the Holy Ghost, are lookd upon as of no use & only Contention remains to Man, then the Last Judgment begins, & its Vision is seen by the Imaginative Eye of Every one according to the situation he holds. (William Blake)
When and where is this poem set, if that’s not too specific a question to ask of a poem? All poems are of course “set” in the mind of the poet, which is everywhere, geographically located in the body of a writer, and nowhere.
Like a number of other poems in Merwin’s 1988 collection The Rain In The Trees, there is an end-times feel to this poem, as if bequeathing us with modern-day revelations. But the poem also seems to hark back to earlier historical periods (“remembering wars and the police at the door”)? There is also, as is often the case with possibility-generating poetry a sense of future tragedies to come. Are not these unnamed individuals running out of their glass-panelled offices, grabbing some food from the lunch buffet or the canteen, all of us 13 years later as those two glass and metal filing cabinets (what Lewis Mumford called the Twin Towers), got knocked out of the sky by American Airlines 11 and 175 respectively?
“Everything is happening at once,” Merwin tells an audience in 2012 at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in San Francisco:
“History usually has to be written in a pretty literal, linear way. And history is information, chronological information. But experience doesn’t happen in a linear way, as you I hope have noticed [polite laughter from the audience]. Everything happens today, and then everything happens tomorrow. And what the connection is, you think you know, but you only know a few of the little connections, you don’t know what they all are….Some of them, you wish you didn’t know what the connections were, some of them you just don’t, and some of them you never think about it.”
The two braided notes of Chord are some biographical details from the life of the poet John Keats’s as he wrote Ode to a Nightingale, and concurrent events occurring in Hawaii in the early 1800s, notably the decimation of the islands’ unique sandalwood forests in order to feed an insatiable demand for the fragrant wood from China.
Chord suggests a notion of globalism that it would take another 20 years to become fully realised. Imagine Keats in the era of global simultaneity the poem would suggest. Imagine those light-winged Dryads perched on branches of “his” trees in the melodious gardens of the Spaniard’s Inn, or what is now known as Keats House in Wentworth place. Imagine him listening to them singing “of summer in full-throated ease” whilst also aware, perhaps via an article in one of the 52 London newspapers he might have had access to at the time, of the ecological devastation occurring on the other side of the world? And does this not too cast a different light, or some extra light on the opening lines of that poem: My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense? Perhaps Keats himself has already made this connection, recognising as he does in his versifying the timeless, but also democratic quality of birdsong and poetry:
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
Every day is an apocalypse. What I mean by this is that I think our notion of the apocalypse, the final event, the end time is a thanatophobic projection. Apocalyptic thought and literature is perhaps written by one of our contingent selves yoked together under a single name to present the illusion of an arguably monolithic self (me) that might accompany an inarguably distinct and indivisible body to its end. And considering the amount of care, attention, cultivation and worry we give to ourselves (self-discovery, self-determination, self-discipline, self-development) is it any wonder that the termination of this self might get propelled or transmitted onto everything, the whole world, in visions of apocalyptic doom?
“Yikes, we’re all heading down the chute!” maybe just translates, as it often does in our seemingly altruistic group-think into: I’M heading down the chute, I’M going to die. Or in the case of the Holocene/Anthropocene extinction, “MY HALLOWED AND ALL-IMPORTANT SPECIES HAVE FUCKED THINGS UP AND OUR DAYS ARE NOW NUMBERED!”
It is not surprising,” writes Maria Manuel Lisboa in her book The End of the World: Apocalypse and Its Aftermath in Western Culture “that the dread of finitude, whether of the self (through death) or of the commonweal (through social anarchy, the collapse of the rule of law), or of the physical environment (through global destruction), should be a meta-narrative since our earliest cultural manifestations.”
Lisboa goes on to suggest that there may even be a link here to the fundamental question of why and how we possess symbolic language, that there might be something intrinsically apocalyptic woven into the very nature of thought itself: “Language’s desirability in terms of survival resided in an enhanced ability to make sense of the world through sensory speculation (‘if I fall off that cliff I might hurt myself and die’) rather than through empirical verification (‘I will jump off that cliff and see what happens’)”. Apocalyptic notions, including the smaller-scale versions we’re all familiar with (“Oh shit, my life is not heading in a direction that feels generative!”) may lie at the very root of how we think, or at least how we think when the mind heads switches into neurotic/anxious mode.
And the Lord said, I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping
things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them. (Genesis 6: 5-7)
Perhaps with a nod to Nietzche’s idea of eternal recurrence, my mind has recently started thinking about these day-containers in which I reside as condensed or encapsuled versions of the whole shebang. The thought that I may have, unless an accident or an illness abbreviates that span, another 100,000 repititions of the daily round described below fills me on the day I write this with utter dread. A useful dread perhaps, as from these places of self-loathing and despair, we may make important changes in our lives. Or we may not.
This is my schedule (my life) at the moment. I wake, usually thinking Oh not this again. Do an hour of 8-minute snooze alerts, before getting out of bed to go to bathroom. Start reciting my hour-long poetry liturgy whilst washing the dishes, stretching, sweating on the spin bike for 15 minutes, showering, stretching, drinking tea, breakfast. This previous uninterrupted sentence is of course usually punctuated with many moments, minutes, or sometimes-longer slips of distracted thinking/tweeting/getting lost in a screen, or a poem, or a thought before pulling myself back to the liturgy, as one does in meditation to the breath. After breakfast some writing, the laptop propped up on the half-moon shaped bean-bag-cum-food tray on which I key in these words. Then clients, walking Max and myself while learning whatever poem I’m by-hearting for the liturgy this week. Evenings involve more clients, perhaps some reading, a podcast, television/film, cannabis, bed (at this point thinking: “Oh thank God, that’s all said and done for another day? Perhaps this is what death will feel like too, in which case goodnight consciousness goodnight.”)
On top of this basic template, you can of course add shopping for groceries, the occasional phone call with a family member, hiking in the countryside, masturbation and time spent on Twitter (which I have consciously grouped together). This is my life. Do you live some version of this too? Other than when I’m focused on writing, reading, or speaking to clients, I find it a somewhat wan existence. But I have chosen this wan existence and lived this way for a while not entirely sure how to alter its shape. Perhaps because to alter its shape, would require me to be more open, and hence more accepting of the discomfort of stepping outside the zone-of-control that I have shaped for myself to keep safe. Stepping into a more threatening space of uncertainty, boredom, and social effort with few immediate rewards.
“Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood” (Genesis 8: 20-21)
Of course whichever of the two Frostian paths you choose, you can’t really “win”: the inner world is riven with apocalyptic forces even whilst the outer world is kept stultifyingly regular and settled. But you wouldn’t probably realise much was amiss, unless you were reading this, and even then. This is the kind of low-key, not-especially-significant suffering most of us experience on a daily basis. You’d never know from our carefully curated media streams, or what we say to each other when letting language spill from our mouths, describing the handful of moments we place in the world for others to join dot-to-dot together fashioning an image of ourselves as we’d like to be seen. But I suspect lots of people, maybe even the majority of us live these lives, sans the apocalyptics of definitive endings or beginnings, but vaguely, masochistically, yearning a little for them. Anything to break up the grinding humdrummery of existence.
And so perhaps, even though something cataclysmically awful is happening in this first stanza, there is also a kind of excitement and vitality, sharpened by bystander interest and curiosity that agglomerates around road accidents and pavement brawls. At least something is happening as the night falls, an Event, even if the Event itself might signal some terrible outcome. The line “standing by windows looking out in our directions” seems to suggest both looking in and looking out. It is as if Merwin first wrote the more prosaic, but syntactically appropriate phrase “standing by windows looking out in all directions” and then deliberately misheard or miswrote it as “looking out in our directions” in order to give the phrase a koan-like twist.
Windows are reflective surfaces. The word “reflective” has its roots in the Latin reflectere, which means “to bend back”. In this stanza, we are all bending or turning back, like Lot’s wife, to compulsive catch a last glimpse of some devastation we are trying to avoid or escape from. But we can also bend back in a solipsistic manner to think about our own lives, of actions taken or not taken, of thoughts arising and then possibility haunting us as if they were blood and bone entities, bidding us to dwell on them, neurotically, for as long as they keep us en-tranced.
This also brings us back to the roots of the word apocalypse which suggest transformation as much as devestation:
“The Greek term apokalupsus or apokalupsis implies an unveiling either of future events or of the unseen realms of heaven and hell. It signifies laying bare, making naked; a disclosure of truth, instruction concerning things before unknown; events by means of which things or states or persons hitherto withdrawn from view are made visible to all manifestation; revelation; appearance.” (Lisboa)
“Ours is indeed an age of extremity,” Susan Sontag wrote in her 1966 essay “The Imagination of Disaster“, an essay which very much resonates to this day, even if the threat of nuclear genocide has perhaps slightly abated for now, only to be replaced by that of climate extinction.
“For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors—real or anticipated—by an escape into exotic, dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it.”
Merwin’s apocalyptic poem and the way in which it chimes in with my my own humdrum existence as well as the fears we all now have of disruption on a cataclysmic scale, brilliantly dovetails these two anxious modes.