Wednesday, February 25, 2009

TC/VK: The Night of the Life of the Mind 2 / Creeley in Helsinki


Robert Creeley: Autobiography

I can watch, from this window, an insistent height of sky that has been all this past fall and winter a companion to my being here, and a subtle, unaggressive information of where, in fact, it is. It's as if I can't really see ground but, rather, the tops of birches, planted in the back common ground of this large apartment block, which are on ground level. One could reach out, with sufficiently long arms, and pick off twigs from their crowns. Elsewise I look across at other apartment windows, which are of regular dimensions, set and abstracting, in the flat yellowish-brown stucco. Above there are details of brickwork, the point where an edge of roof meets another. There are galvanized tin roofs, one painted a barn red, another black, both common colors of industrial cover paints. And the sky is another thing entirely, persistently, though it is within a set frame, the window, a place, simply up there. It isn't only its being far, or indeterminant, or just this massive, shifting place of light and weather. It is just that it proposes no human convenience, that it isn't simple, that it won't go away... Zukofsky was shy of such writing as this, because it fouls up the gauges, makes them stick. There is a broken-record tone of necessity in it that keeps coming back to the beginning of the proposition, that there was someone to begin with, and that something therefore followed. Wittgenstein proposes that it is the 'I' that is 'deeply mysterious,' not 'you' or 'them.' What cannot be objectified is oneself...

Vincent Katz's photo (below) documents a particular Robert Creeley milieu. RC spent much of the winter of 1988-89 in Helsinki. Away from familiar social settings and thus often alone with himself, he composed the autobiographical memoir which appears toward the back of the book we did together (Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place: New Directions). The Finland essay was written almost exactly twenty years ago, and completed on March 23, 1989. Bob related that it was the extreme isolation of his wintertime stay in Helsinki that made possible the introspection necessary to undertake such an intensive examination of his own life. That sense of isolation, enhancing the memory of distant and departed friends, informs the emotion of the piece. It approaches an ending with references to Creeley's fellow poets Duncan and Olson, then a quote from Ted Berrigan on life's quality of adventure ("I'd like to take the whole trip"), then a lovely passage from Hart Crane:

Distinctly praise the years, whose volatile
Blessed bleeding hands extend and thresh the height

The imagination spans beyond despair,

Outpacing bargain, vocable and prayer.

The bare tops of the birches, the hulking apartment blocks, the snow field in the common ground beyond and the vast pale sky expanding over everything, tinged with rose as the early northern evening comes on--one can imagine the poet dwelling on this view as night falls and he reflects upon his life. And too, seeking an entry to his thoughts, one may follow his reading of the time, in Wittgenstein's Tractatus:

Death is not an event in life; we do not live to experience death.

If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.

Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.

Not only is there no guarantee of the temporal immortality of the human soul, that is to say of its eternal survival after death; but, in any case, this assumption completely fails to accomplish the purpose for which it has always been intended. Or is some riddle solved by my surviving for ever? Is not this eternal life as much a riddle as our present life? The solution of the riddle of space and time lies outside space and time...

How things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world...

It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.

To view the world sub specie aeterni is to view it as a whole—a limited whole.

When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question be put into words.

The riddle does not exist.

Looking through the window of the lit-up computer screen at Vincent's photo, one is reminded that the omnipresent night of the life of the mind contains all that has existed in the luminous darkness of its riddle, which can never be captured in words. One imagines Bob pausing over his nearly-completed text.

And it closes so movingly, bringing us back with the poet to his memory of the human world, that limited whole, that open riddle never to be solved, endless yet coming to an end, mystical yet entirely real and palpable in this suspended moment of his final words:

One had the company.


Helsinki, near The Church of the Rock
photo by Vincent Katz, February 2009


elanecu said...

When Bob went, I remember him saying he'd thought everyone would be like Anselm.....


TC said...

...and when I go, in my reveries, I always think everyone will be like Match Factory Girl.

Marten said...


Beautiful, luminous, standing tall and humanely invoking Ludwig in substance and form. Not to mention Robert... "One had the company." Such a haunted statment, in one way, but honest, it sets up the two sides for that fleeting interplay. Grateful, as ever, for yours.

Loved the Fertile Grounds Ode too. Very much. Great work lately, per usual.