I’m not really one to believe in destiny or serendipity or the stars aligning in my favor. On the rare occasion that I do allow myself the thought, it almost always bites me in the ass. However: I mostly enjoy the idea of it. I’d like to think that sometimes, synchronicity does occur, and whether the cause is fate or coincidence, or simply good timing, I don’t really care much for.
Synchronicity (or part of it), this past week, came in the form of some of the books I’ve finished reading, namely: Light Boxes by Shane Jones and Refusing Heaven by Jack Gilbert. These aren’t reviews; they’re just tiny ruminations on what I’ve been reading and the unexpected weight they bore on recent events.
I brought Jones’ novel on my trip because it was short enough to read on the plane. I had always been curious about it, and although it was difficult to get into at first (atypical format, especially since it’s classified as a novel), I quickly drew parallels to my life. It tells the story about a town that has been forced to endure hundreds of days of February. Funnily enough, my February had started out pretty horribly. Reading it, I feel, instigated a sort of Existential Standoff, where I found that I could choose from many different ways of looking at my then decidedly crappy situation. In Light Boxes, February meant a lot of things, but it stood for a bleakness, a desolation and unending sadness that could be fought relentlessly against, but was hard to escape from. Not to give too much away, but Jones, in his last few pages, allowed me to see that there is a way out of February, but that I would have to make my own light boxes, to invent ways to see myself out of the dark. The final pages do not depict a soaring victory, but a resolute finality—a sigh of relief instead of masses of loud cheering.
This tiny book gave me hope that things will definitely get better, that even though the shortest month sometimes feels like the longest, it will come to an end.
It is in reading Gilbert’s collection of poetry, though, that I began to understand what it meant to make peace with loss, and that it was possible. I had been on the look-out for Gilbert’s collections (any, really) for months, and I found two in Kinokuniya. I started with his earlier one—out of respect for chronology than anything else—and found, quite serendipitously, that it brought me to a place where I needed to be.
Line after line came blow after blow. Gilbert was telling me about the temporariness of things, that the state of things is always going to be uncertain and precarious—but also, that it was OK. Not to speak of every poem in the collection, but I came to the understanding that some things were meant to come to an end. This used to terrify me and in some ways, it still does, but Gilbert reminded me that endings also mark new beginnings. And that endings don’t negate the things that came before it. “Thinking love is not refuted because it comes to an end,” he ends “Elegy for Bob (Jean McLean).”
I know it’s not the central, all-encompassing theme of this surprisingly dense (90 pages!) collection, but it really helped me get through a lot of stuff, and let go of a lot of attachments. I have been welcoming the idea of momentary things, and being at peace with the reality that they might go. I know it sounds kind of bad and dismissive and defeatist, but this idea comes from a good place. For example, in “The Lost Hotels of Paris,” he writes: “But it’s the having not the keeping that is the treasure.” There is an awareness of the fleetingness of things, and I think I’m slowly understanding what it means to be OK with that. He puts it brilliantly in “The Manger of Incidentals“:
We are blessed
with powerful love and it goes away. We can mourn.
We live the strangeness of being momentary,
and still we are exalted by being temporary.
The grand Italy of meanwhile. It is the fact of being brief,
being small and slight that is the source of out beauty.
We are a singularity that makes music out of noise
because we must hurry. We make a harvest of loneliness
and desiring in the blank wasteland of the cosmos.
And also in “Burma”:
Used, misled, cheated. Our time is always shortening.
What we cherish is always temporary. What we love
is, sooner or later, changed. But for a while we can
visit our other life. Can rejoice in its being there
in its absence. Giving thanks for what we are allowed
to think about it, grateful for it for even as it wanes.
For knowing it is there.
He talks about the endurance of the human spirit, despite everything, and that is comforting to me. (“Until all the world is overcome / by what goes up and up in us, singing and dancing / and throwing down flowers nevertheless.” — A Kind of Courage; “Our spirit persists like a man struggling / through the frozen valley / who suddenly smells flowers / and realizes the snow is melting / out of sight on top of the mountain, / knows that spring has begun.” — Horses at Midnight Without a Moon; “We must admit there will be music despite everything.” — A Brief for the Defense; “But the air stills, the heat comes back / and I think I am all right again.” — A Close Call )
One of my favorite Gilbert poems is “Failing and Flying,” which I read way before I got the book. I was glad that it was part of Refusing Heaven, because I got to “own” it—whatever that means.
“Failing and Flying”
by Jack Gilbert
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.