Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sing, Words

Here is the first poem in Mark Granier's Fade Street (Salt, 2010):


That you may survive
those star-grazed years after I've 
gone back to where I'm going: air

of a song, dead air, my dark star 
set in the glimmerless hush, 
cool enough to touch.

Sing, that something remain
of these epic, mundane
conversations hoofing it down my back

clicketty clack—
that you may hit or miss
with a flourish, a backdraught, a hiss

like intaken breath. Life itches to get out 
of its mildewed coats,
glint with the motes turning

in a slanted beam—O sing
the slow schoolboy's daydream
counting them in.


The Swiss critic Peter von Matt has argued that poems want two things: to be beautiful and to be immortal. There's a long history of poems that stake their immortality precisely on their beauty. Here, the poem's speaker directly appeals to the poem's words to "sing"—to be beautiful—as a way to make it possible for them to "survive"—to be immortal. 
If the poem's own immortality is not an issue, this poem's opening rhyme juxtaposes the words' immortality with the speaker's own death in such a way that the speaker can live on in the rhyme itself: "I've" may be followed "gone" in the phrase "when I've / gone," but it is also contained in "survive". By admitting his future death into the poem in this way, the speaker allows his own self, his "dark star," to continue to shine even in the "glimmerless hush" of a cooling universe. This is a world of grand drama on a cosmic scale.
But a few lines later, the poem's second strong rhyme approaches the issue of survival from a different direction: "Sing, that something remain / Of these epic, mundane / conversations …" "Remain" picks up on the desire marked by "survive" in the poem's first line, but now it is not the speaker's self that may survive through the poem's singing. Instead, it is the speaker's down-to-earth, everyday experience of "mundane / conversations". This is an everyday world on the scale of human dialogue.
Yet before they are called "mundane" (and even before they are named as "conversations"), these everyday experiences are also called "epic". And of course the opening appeal to "sing" in a poem comes from the great epics about "great" issues like war and the founding of nations (or the grand cosmic drama of this poem's first appeal that its words "sing"). The contrast between "epic" and "mundane" both contests the idea of "greatness" as a necessary feature of the "epic" and elevates the "mundane"—in this case, everyday conversation—into something worthy of the immortality represented by great epic poetry.
The epic poem bases its appeal to immortality on the beauty of its presentation of "great" themes. This small poem also appeals to immortality through beauty, but after appealing to the grand drama of the universe through its opening images of stars, it calls for the mundane to be seen as beautiful as well.
The poem does not close with that image, though; it moves on to acknowledge the desire to escape the mundane: "Life itches to get out / of its mildewed coats". Yet this escape does not aim for the stars; this "itch" can be realized in "the slow schoolboy's dream" as he tries to "count the motes turning / in a slanted beam." This schoolboy, slow as he is, does not aspire to the greatness of the epic hero; his escape from the mundane world of "mildewed coats" is much simpler than the grand journey of an Odysseus—and this schoolboy's private dream can also be sung. And insofar as it is sung, it, too, aims for the epic, for survival, for immortality, and for beauty.
In the end, "Sing, Words" does not privilege one of these ways to escape the limitations of life over the others. They are all modes in which the words of a poem may "sing" beyond the life of the poet and beyond the lives represented in a poem. Grand cosmic drama, everyday discussions, childhood dreams—these are the matters that poems address, "hit or miss". And all of them can miss, but all of them can, sometimes, hit, when the words listen to the poet's exhortation and begin to sing.


I could leave it at that, but I can't help but mention how I love this line in particular:

of a song, dead air, my dark star 

Any fan of the Grateful Dead will love that play of "dead air" and "dark star."

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