Passions of the Denk

So much and so little has been happening more or less at the same time here in Denkland that I am at a loss what and how to post. I feel like my receptors for sadness have gotten bigger, as if swollen by some emotional MSG, but the slow sorting and consideration of this sadness has cheered me up.

The other night I was in the subway, on my way to a totally pointless social encounter, and my eyes wandered. Across and far to my left sat a petite girl of 18 or so with way too much mascara, high leather boots, and quite tight jeans. She was thin, alert, linear, upright; but in contrast her boyfriend lay slumped loosely, diagonally against her, with his face turned entirely into her neck; a scarf was draped over the meeting-point of their bodies and for all I knew he was a vampire drinking her blood. Her face was slightly turned away from this neck-spectacle, as if she couldn’t bear to look. The oddest thing was that she held her cellphone cocked to her ear, and appeared to be listening, though there is of course no signal down in the tunnels; was this to prove to observers that she had business more pressing than the amorphous, passive, man/parasite she was with: an imaginary agenda? But sitting directly across from me, a very different sight: a mother and her two twin boys. The boys (who were probably 7 years old) from time to time gazed across at me disquietingly; my heart wanted to run to them; one ate Animal Crackers one at a time from a well-used Ziploc bag, and the other sent his open eyes around the car like me, hungry for people’s meanings. The mother’s face was clear, free of makeup, with her hair short and pulled back so that her face and especially her eyes seemed to stick out, tired and honest: plain, beseeching. At least it seemed to me there was no parasite or agenda here; only dependency and sufficiency.

I am obviously addicted to the tenuous connotations of appearance. Something about the juxtaposition of these two groups made me quite sad; I felt them both as metaphors for elements of myself, the “cultured” and the plain, the affected and the needy; and while following this therapizing train of thought suddenly I imagined everyone in the car’s destinations for the evening, all the beds for which they were headed, and imagined all the unfamiliar smells of their pillows, bedmates, and even the switches on the lamps they would turn off before their bedrooms were dark. It was an overwhelming thought; I imagined myself like Superman following each of them, in turn, to their homes and beds, and how strange it would be to have to pull the covers on myself in all of those odd-smelling places, to trust myself to fate in so many foreign rooms. A New York subway car, itself hurtling, in process, an engine of fate, contains so many fates running into each other at any one time; each other person is a path you have not taken, a randomly avoided–some would say unchosen–self. Finally I imagined my own life as others in the car might see it: settling down into my bed, covered with clothes, books, remote controls, in an untidy strangely shaped room, and I judged myself like a butcher eyeing a piece of meat.

This is the sort of meditation spring has brought to me, when I should more appropriately be obsessed with sex, new asparagus, and shortsleeved shirts. And this same mildly gloomy muse followed me yesterday morning into 60 Centre St., where I was called by the Supreme Court of New York to do my civic duty and possibly judge my fellow beings. In a severe mood, I brought only two pieces of reading material: Cortazar’s experimental novel Hopscotch, and a collection of translations of Montale’s poetry, entitled “Montale in English.”

My time in the jury room became a renewed love affair. Which is good because my “real” love life can easily be sneezed at. I couldn’t swallow the novel but the poems came in bite-sized, mind-sized scrumptious pieces, and I sucked them up greedily, again and again, no matter how bitter or sorrowful the inner pill. The frenzy began, really, with the following poem:

Low Tide

Evenings alive with cries, the garden swing
Flashing in the arbour of those days
And a dark veil of mist hardly hiding
The sea’s fixed face.

All past, all gone. Rapid slanting flights
Cross the wall now, and the crumbling, the fall
Of all things without respite is a confusion
Burdening the steep bank, burdening the rock
That first bore you on the ocean.

Now I am brought with the light breath of spring
A ghostly eddying
Of the drowned swallowed times and lives; and at evening,
Dusky convolvulus, only your memory
Twines, and wards off time.

It climbs on the parapet, on the tunnel in the distance
Where the slow slow train crawls into its lair.
Then comes a sudden gathering on the hillsides,
The flock of the moon, invisibly browsing there.

(Eugenio Montale, tr. Edwin Morgan)

I clutched at silver linings like I clutched my coffee on the subway; there seemed no more magnificent reason for me to be pointlessly sitting on my butt than to be forced to fully digest this beloved book of poems. That last image (the sudden gathering of the flock of the moon on the hillside) blew me away, and–I assure you I don’t exaggerate–I emitted a slight moan, which was heard by the crazy woman sitting across from me; she smiled at me, baring dubious teeth and almost completely concealing her googly eyes, one of which meanwhile weirdly winked, and I felt it was time to flee posthaste to the vending area. When I returned with my cool fizzy ginger ale, she no longer smiled or winked, and I sipped and moaned in peace.

The jury gathering room with its enforced silence and prohibition of cell phones and aura of waiting was a pretty ideal venue for digestion of verse. Really the Winner of All Time, the best possible place to read poetry, is the monument in Tappan Square in Oberlin, of a mid-to-late April afternoon, with a light transformative breeze, and the coolness of the stone underneath you, and the wild quasi-castle of Peters Hall looming, and with your shoes and socks strewn on the surrounding steps, and the cries of frisbee-playing Oberlin students coming across to you like birdcalls from various points in the campus, near and far, and some classmates, nearby, ignoring books and thoughts and finals and all nonsensual activities, sunning themselves in as little clothing as they can get away with, whispering to each other in the grass, and cuddling, and taking themselves off to their rooms from time to time to …

Oh, excuse me. What was I talking about? Yes, poetry, hm. Yes in those days I was a poetry-reading nerd amidst the herds of students stunned by spring. But anyway, the jury room made it possible for me to really hear the poems in my head, and savor them, in a sense, in the same way I do pieces of music… as temporal, visceral unfoldings… The parallel of poetry and music became very vivid to me, and I kept dipping into the same poems again and again for similar thrills, in the same way you press repeat on your CD player. This one was a favorite:

Portami il girasole ch’io lo trapianti
nel mio terreno bruciato dal salino,
e mostri tutto il giorno agli azzurri specchianti
del cielo l’ansietà del suo volto giallino.

Tendo alla chiarità le cose oscure,
si esauriscono i corpi in un fluire
di tinte: queste in musiche. Svanire
è dunque la ventura delle venture.

Portami tu la pianta che conduce
dove sorgono bionde trasparenze
e vapora la vita quale essenza;
portami il girasole impazzito di luce.


Bring me the sunflower so that I can transplant it
into my soil burnt with brine,
for it to show all day to the sky’s mirroring blue
the anxiety of its amber face.

Things that are dark lean towards clarity
the bodies of things flow out and empty themselves
in colours: colours in music. Vanishing
is therefore the luckiest of chances.

Bring me the flower which leads
to the springs of transparent gold
where life like an essence turns to vapour
bring me the sunflower crazed with light.

[trans. Bernard Spencer, c. 1946-8]

The first stanza is really “just” the presentation of an image: just a flower planted in parched soil, in the sunshine. But I really love this image, the idea that the blue sky and the yellow/amber face of the flower look at each other, face each other; they stare across their divide like I stared at my subwaymates… and then the added, illogical, unreal, beautiful touch, my favorite: the flower’s anxiety.

Whatever meanings one may draw out, this first stanza is couched, expressed, planted in sensual reality: in colors, tastes, things (blue, amber, soil, briny, flower). But the second stanza takes a different approach; it is entirely fashioned of abstractions. It is what in poetry passes for a syllogism, illogical logic, a series of magical deductions, proving the unprovable:

1) First proposition: a tendency: dark/obscure things lean towards clarity.
2) Second proposition, paralleling the first: bodies exhaust themselves in colors.
3) Conclusion: To vanish is the “ventura delle venture,” the adventure of adventures, the luckiest of chances… hard to translate.

At each node, a paradox, a seeming contradiction: oscure/chiarità; corpi/tinte; Svanire/ventura. Obscurity towards clarity, bodies towards colors: in between each, a missing, implied transitive spirit, the yearning of one for the other: the passing between, the verb. But I have left out a step: “Queste in musiche.” After the two propositions, and before the conclusion, music appears, the interloper, the renegade abstraction: colors in music? No further explanation. The poet barely pauses for breath. I really felt this moment, as I read it, as a sort of deceptive cadence, a central slip or skid of meaning, an accident which holds the key. “Queste in musiche.” For we as readers are suddenly forced to leap from the visual to the aural, to imagine bodies into colors into music, the passage of the corporeal into the intangible; and this is precisely the point, the flash of another world of unimagined meaning: the passing over between states: our mind must transplant itself elsewhere, into intangible soil.

The annoying, analytical musician in me calls this poem a ternary form, ABA, in which the outer parts concern the flower and the inner is a contrasting other. Perhaps: Images/Ideas/Images. But Images #2 is not remotely the same as #1; when we revisit the flower in the third stanza, the wonderful deductions of the second have had their effect. In place of the separated dualism of flower/sky, Montale provides a thrilling constellation, a chain… The flower is connected both above and below, to some deeper spring of transparent gold, which vaporizes through it like an essence of life; it passes this essence up to the blue sky, through light (which is what color? an intangible color?); and this whole process is “crazed,” a passionate giving-over. Before, we saw the flower staring at the sky, anxiously, we perceived the opposition; now we know what passes BETWEEN the sky’s blue eyes and the face of the sunflower, what look, what force they share: the verb is light, which comes from the sky and radiates from the color of the flower; the sunflower is crazed with it, and we too are seduced by the image as action. Between the first and last stanzas, the flower has been poetically brought to life.

Life as verb? We can isolate the verbs of the poem and consider them: transplant, bring, show, tend towards, flow out, vanish, conduct, vaporize … A relentless catalogue of transferences. (The poem is about transference.) These kind of magnetically attracted words remind me so much of the grouping of ideas in music, of the way certain related musical motifs call to each other … The energy from word to word, from idea to idea, seemed deeply musical: not the sounds of the words (one aspect of poetry’s musicality), but their thought-associations. The musicality of ideas?

I suppose a musical motive can feel at times like a thing, an image: when it is presented, when it is framed. The incredible E-flat Major Prelude from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier (which I brought to the courthouse just in case I got sworn in, so that I could propose it in place of the Bible), begins with a beautiful but generic flourish, and then presents us with a specific musical image:

Ahh, the texture is familiar: vocal polyphony, with the rising fourth, passing gently from voice to voice. It is a musical image in so many ways: not just the motive itself, which is powerful; but an allusion to genre, to venue (church), to style (Palestrina?), to countless rules of composition, to a whole sacred musical tradition. The “holy moment.” But this image, however beautiful, runs its course, and begins to peter out; the main motive appears in the bass “one last time;” it falls onto a dominant cadence, and you imagine it might be over … Amen?

But this is not The End. Bach, lover of elision, picks it up just as it flags … Now the fourth motive is back, with new flowing countermelodies. It is back, and back, and back; it passes between the voices relentlessly, in canon, in stretto… So many times that you cannot believe it… For me, after a certain point, this repetition is the very opposite of tedium or monotony; paradoxically, the rising fourth is almost completely irresistible, the very spirit of rising; I begin to feel that I cannot go any higher and yet I do… (this sense of infinity which so many modern composers try to create through extreme dynamics and repetition and all the tricks in the toolbox: Bach already got it, so there.) Gradually, I am crazed with the idea of the rising fourth, I realize now (hopefully not too late) that this elation is the point, that the few notes are just the emblem of the essence (golden transparent springs), which the piece gradually brings to life, the rising fourth, the simplest possible thing–the idea, the image–finally understood, finally traversed by the arc of the piece, illuminated and resurrected. I really think this is how it feels. I love to be crazed; I love to play this prelude over and over again and to feel the thing, the image, become a verb: to be crazed with Bach’s light.

You must love to be crazed, too. Otherwise, why would you subject yourself to Think Denk?

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  1. Anonymous
    Posted April 3, 2006 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    With your enlarged capacity for sadness, perhaps you can advise: What to do, when one is too sad even to practice? In previous heartbreak, Bach had soothed. A walk in the spring weather was attempted, but we felt assaulted by the very existence of sunshine.

  2. Anonymous
    Posted April 3, 2006 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Not surprised that comments are few. So much to think about and digest in this post that it’s impossible to comment in a hurry.
    Cruel and unusual punishment for those of us who complain that you don’t post enough???

    Give us a few days.

  3. R J Keefe
    Posted April 3, 2006 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your remarks about BWV 852. The WTC remains very difficult for me to penetrate without such comment.

  4. former music student
    Posted April 3, 2006 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Agree with the 2nd anonymous comment … overwhelming sadness, too much to consume … though I already have someting to say … give us some time to combat.

  5. Margarita
    Posted April 3, 2006 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    It’s easy to be crazed with Bach isn’t it?

    p.s. as for Bach, “lover of elision”… he intended his WTC preludes to be played “over and over again” … on a harpsichord. 🙂

  6. Allison
    Posted April 4, 2006 at 5:54 am | Permalink

    Yes, I suppose we must… Not that you require any reassurance, but God, what an absorbing post this is. I find myself at a loss for words right now, so I will politely exit the response window, but I did want to take a moment to thank you for sharing. Please keep doing so.

  7. Anonymous
    Posted April 4, 2006 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Like other commenters, I’m still absorbing this lovely post; but I have to say, my heart beat faster on reading your words about the Bach prelude – I myself had been crazed over it for the same reasons only yesterday, playing it endlessly with my car CD player on repeat! How wonderful the way Bach can thrill (over and over and over, I can attest!). And discovering someone else experiencing that same thrill near the same time (and articulating it so brilliantly) – another layer of marvel. “Who knows? perhaps the same bird echoed through both of us yesterday, separate, in the evening…” [Rilke]

    Thank you for sharing!

  8. noreen
    Posted April 4, 2006 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the deep post! Like other readers, I am still re-reading and digesting and thus unable to comment yet. Please continue with your wonderful posts.

  9. former music student
    Posted April 5, 2006 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    I cannot remember who played the WTC LP that quietly keeps sitting somewhere in my father’s audio room. Now that I do not have a piano, I read the bars (the image in your post) and scythed through vague memories of the melody of each prelude and fugue, trying to reach out to the E flat major Prelude. Difficult … so distant from the time I had it played over and over again. I gave up, went to, and listened to some samples of BWV 852. Yeah, I remember it! The spiral ascent, which had brought me sheer joy, pure ecstasy, and the spring light through the stained glass on the wall of the sanctuary, revived. I wish I could hear you play it.

    I called my mother to ask who played it, the LP. She could not remember exactly, but said, “I guess, a Canadian.” Oh, Glenn Gould?

    I actually picked up Richter and Gould at Wow, what a difference!

    There are also some others around … anyway, I’ve gotta have it! Anybody, which one would you recommend?

  10. alan
    Posted April 5, 2006 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful post. That line about the ‘flock of the moon invisibly browsing’ got me too. Someone asked about versions of the WTC – as well as Glenn Gould’s I would recommend Keith Jarrett’s take on it.

  11. Molly
    Posted April 5, 2006 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    On another note entirely, I must wholeheartedly endorse Cortazar’s Hopscotch. It’s a difficult book to read – I usually tear through books like a ravened (though still discerning) animal, but it took me months to finish Hopscotch. Yet somehow it sticks in my head; I find myself thinking about it often.

    “I do not believe the firefly gets any great satisfaction from the incontrovertible fact that he is one of the most amazing wonders of this circus, and yet one can imagine a consciousness alert enough to understand that every time he lights his belly this light-bearing bug must feel some inkling of privilege.”

    If you end up liking it half as much as I, I also recommend Djuna Barnes’ “Nightwood”, which though it is an entirely different novel, reminds me of Hopscotch in some way.

  12. molly
    Posted April 5, 2006 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    p.s. I belatedly recognized the prelude and now have to run to the piano to play it for the first time in months, holding the Montale in my mind.

  13. Anonymous
    Posted April 6, 2006 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    Enjoyed yr close reading of the Montale poem – you do have a gift for this, you know. It is heartening to see how yr aptitude and/or training for penetrating observation of music informs (as I assume) a parallel enterprise with words. And for all I know (which is naught) of chemical bonds. Thx.

  14. Anonymous
    Posted April 8, 2006 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Kurt Tucholsky
    Augen in der Großstadt

    Wenn du zur Arbeit gehst
    am frühen Morgen,
    wenn du am Bahnhof stehst
    mit deinen Sorgen:
    dann zeigt die Stadt
    dir asphaltglatt
    im Menschentrichter
    Millionen Gesichter:
    Zwei fremde Augen, ein kurzer Blick,
    die Braue, Pupillen, die Lider –
    Was war das? Vielleicht dein Lebensglück…
    vorbei, verweht, nie wieder.

    Du gehst dein Leben lang
    auf tausend Straßen;
    du siehst auf deinem Gang,
    die dich vergaßen.
    Ein Auge winkt,
    die Seele klingt;
    du hast’s gefunden,
    nur für Sekunden…
    Zwei fremde Augen, ein kurzer Blick,
    die Braue, Pupillen, die Lider –
    Was war das? Kein Mensch dreht die Zeit zurück…
    vorbei, verweht, nie wieder.

    Du mußt auf deinem Gang
    durch Städte wandern;
    siehst einen Pulsschlag lang
    den fremden Andern.
    Es kann ein Feind sein,
    es kann ein Freund sein,
    es kann im Kampfe dein
    Genosse sein.
    Es sieht hinüber
    und zieht vorüber…
    Zwei fremde Augen, ein kurzer Blick,
    die Braue, Pupillen, die Lider –
    Was war das? Von der großen Menschheit ein Stück!
    Vorbei, verweht, nie wieder.

    Eyes in the Big City (1930)
    by Kurt Tucholsky

    When you go to work
    early in the morning
    when you stand in the station
    with all your troubles:
    the city shows you
    in a funnel of people
    a million faces:
    Two strange eyes, a quick glance,
    the brows, the pupils, the lids –
    What was that? Your happiness, perhaps…
    gone, passed, no more.

    All your life you walk
    on a thousand streets;
    you see on your way,
    those who forgot you.
    An eye winks,
    the soul rings;
    you found it,
    only seconds long…
    Two strange eyes, a quick glance,
    the brows, the pupils, the lids –
    What was that? No one turns back the time…
    gone, passed, no more.

    You’re obliged on your way
    to wander through cities;
    you see for a pulsebeat
    the unknown other.
    It could be a fiend,
    it could be a friend,
    or could in the struggle
    offer a hand.
    A looking over
    then passing by…
    Two strange eyes, a quick glance,
    the brows, the pupils, the lids –
    What was that? A piece of grand humanity!
    Gone, passed, no more.

  15. Posted November 24, 2008 at 2:27 am | Permalink

    Absolutely loved the poem, beautiful!

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