Monthly Archives: January 2016

There must be very two, before there can be very one. Let it be an alliance of two large, formida­ble natures, mutually beheld, mutually feared, before yet they recognize the deep iden­tity which beneath these disparities unites them. (R. Waldo Emerson, “Friendship”)

Carol is an agonizing working out of this truth so well expressed by Emerson, the truth that every relationship is a meeting of two individuals who are fully formed as individuals, no matter how much they may be re-formed by the relationship. In the abstract this is a beautiful, ennobling truth, the sort of truth that sounds a note of falseness if not expressed, as Emerson expresses it, in language befitting its grandeur.

Carol is a working out of this truth not in the abstract but in the details. It is here that it becomes agonizing, without loss of its beautiful and ennobling nature. For what the film shows is the risk that such individuality – which, as Emerson also knew, always entails partiality – however much it may be undergirded by a deep identity, nevertheless may stand in the way of, and chip away at, that identity. Carol depicts, with extreme sensitivity, the motions that small and large, personal and societal, drive individuals apart even as they are drawn ineluctably together.

The overall feeling the film left me with was of emptiness, though that is a dangerous word to use in describing it. It is perhaps a testament to the film’s power that, two days after having seen it, I still cannot find the word that will do justice to both the complexity and unity of this feeling. I will stick with ‘emptiness,’ then, and try to explicate it. It is not a negative emptiness, but a positive one, a sort of pit that reminds you it is a cavity capable of housing life. I say that the feeling has complexity because it is the product of the many namable emotions the film evoked: rage, sadness, frustration, happiness. And I say that it has unity because each of those emotions, and others, were subsumed by the overarching feeling that I have only been able to call emptiness, a feeling that allows them to exist together and in tension but precludes any naïve state of pure rage, pure happiness, pure anything. Only the delicate balance.

The mastery of the film lies in its ability to force you feel, utterly and without reservation, every precarious moment of the relationship between Carol and Therese: the whimsicality and arbitrariness of its beginning; the way it brought together, but brought together only partially, two people who were complete individuals before they met, and remained so even after; the way this mutual partiality led them to approach the relationship wholly differently, and at times to chafe against one another; the way the external world threw up extraneous and lamentable barriers to their relationship, as if the internal inconsistencies were not enough; and finally the ambiguity and uncertainty of their final (revealed) meeting, the happy but inscrutably wry expression on Carol’s face, the unexplained and multiply interpretable softening of Therese’s earlier wounded-animal-coldness over tea.

In ways I still struggle to express, Carol forced me, with all the individuality and partiality that has coalesced around my own struggle to live, to experience all of that, and the sum total of that, the abiding reconfiguration wrought in me by the film, is this but imperfectly namable feeling I have, for lack of anything else, called ‘emptiness.’

If reverse causality obtains anywhere in the universe, if the arrow of time ever points, however briefly, upstream, it surely makes its exceptions for letters. Who has not watched as meanings cavort across centuries? They are such acrobats. A reader cannot read without leaving some mark on his material.

Tonight I feel the aftereffects of a passage in Kafka. It seems to reach out and alter the possibilities of reading a poem of Dickinson’s, my favorite poem of hers. Let us begin with the poem:

I breathed enough to take the Trick –
And now, removed from Air –
I simulate the Breath, so well –
That One, to be quite sure –

The Lungs are stirless – must descend
Among the Cunning Cells –
And touch the Pantomime – Himself,
How numb, the Bellows feels!

The poem tells of desperate subterfuge. A person, abandoned by God, “removed from Air,” must coax Him back by pretending still to breath, by the machinal simulation of Breath. So thorough, so convincing is this pretend inspiration, that One (to be quite sure the lungs are stirless) must touch the Bellows himself, and feel its numbness. But He is the Breath: He cannot carry out this procedure without the poet regaining the Air so longed for.

There is one layer of meaning, so far as I can tell the primordial layer. But now I recall the passage of Kafka:

“Well,” he thought, “if I could tell her the whole story, she would cease to be astonished. One works so feverishly at the office that afterwards one is too tired even to enjoy one’s holidays properly. But even all that work does not give one a claim to be treated lovingly by everyone; on the contrary, one is alone, a total stranger and only an object of curiosity. And so long as you say ‘one’ instead of ‘I,’ there’s nothing in it and one can easily tell the story; but as soon as you admit to yourself that it is you, yourself, you feel as though transfixed and are horrified.”

Everything speaks against reading Dickinson in light of Kafka. I hardly need to run through the arguments. But this passage has marked me: only with difficulty can I read “one” otherwise than as a defense mechanism, an attempt to distance oneself from events concerning oneself. Do you not feel it already, in the previous sentence?

What, then, of Dickinson? Clearly, “One” is a name for God, a glorious name that draws attention to His unity, wholeness, His lack of all imperfections. And yet… perhaps it also suggests that the poet is distant from herself, but shudders to confront this fact. Perhaps she seeks distance from the horrible cold that she feels upon encountering herself. God, after all, is more resistant to such pain, and at any rate God’s pain is not our pain. Perhaps “One” is mere externalization, disburdening.

On such a reading, the poem becomes doubly awful, once for its surface, and once for what that surface evades.

Title: Portent
Poet: William Carlos Williams

Red cradle of the night,
…..In you
…..The dusky child
Sleeps fast till his might
…..Shall be piled
Sinew on sinew

Red cradle of the night,
…..The dusky child
Sleeping sits upright.
…..Lo! how
……….The winds blow now!
…..He pillows back;
The winds are again mild.

When he stretches his arms out,
Red cradle of the night
…..The alarms shout
From bare tree to tree,
……….In afright!
Mighty shall he be,
Red cradle of the night,
…..The dusky child!   !

My initial plan for this post was to primarily discuss the meter of the poem (which I may still do later). I also planned to mention, briefly, an interesting way that Williams toyed with the rules of rhyme in the poem. But investigation of the deviation I thought I had found revealed something more interesting. Williams obeys the rules of rhyme, but this forces us to read the poem in an unintuitive way. I present below my initial reading of the lines in question, followed by my reasons for abandoning this reading.

Williams in the first stanza Williams rhymes “in you” with “sinew.” Other poems in his collection The Tempers (in which “Portent” appeared) show Williams experimenting with feminine or double rhyme. “The Death of Franco of Cologne: His Prophecy of Beethoven,” for instance, is written almost entirely in couplets with feminine rhyme. Generally, such rhymes are held to the rule that the first syllable of the rhyme must be stressed, the second unstressed. I did not check carefully, but I think every rhyme in “Franco of Cologne” follows this rule. But the “in you”/”sinew” rhyme does not. Out of context, it could: both “in” and “you” could take or leave a stress. But in context I think “in you” must be read as an iamb, not a trochee.

Or so I first thought. But my instinct is to treat deviations of meter and rhyme as justified, if at all, by their impact on the meaning of the poem, and I could find no reason for any such variation in this instance. This led me to experiment more seriously with reading “in you” as a trochee, preserving the proper feminine rhyme, and I’m now convinced that this is how Williams intended the poem to be read. It is certainly a less intuitive reading than the iambic reading I first countenance, for a few reasons. First, the poem is dominantly iambic, and the first line presents the appearance of perfect iambs (but see my discussion of this above) so that’s what I expect of that line. Second, line-opening trochaic substitutions are generally connected to action and generally involve words that demand a stress, not words that merely take them optionally. Third, semantically I expect the stress on to fall on “you,” because the first line of the poem establishes the red cradle of the night as the subject thereby addressed. Knowing only that, and not knowing what is to follow, it is more natural to stress the address (“you”) than the seemingly more incidental statement of location (“in”).

But the rhyme dictates that “in” must be stressed, and indeed I think this is ultimately semantically justified. The true subject of the poem is not the red cradle of the night, but the dusky child. The red cradle of the night is of no intrinsic interest except for the fact that within it sleeps the dusky child. But we do not know this until we have read the entire poem. This creates the interesting effect that it is nearly impossible to correctly read this poem on the first try. It must be reread.

Poem: Bird song by a mountain stream
Poet: Wang Wei


Person idling, osmanthus flowers falling,
Calm night on the vacant vernal mountain.
The moon comes out, startles the mountain birds,
Their cries recur amid the vernal stream.

This is less an exercise in translation (I can hardly claim sufficient Chinese competency to translate unaided any but the simplest sentences) than in creating a new English poem built from imagistic materials and metrical suggestions found in the Chinese original. An explanation of some of the ways I’ve tried to put the mood of the original into an English idiom follows, for those interested.

The original poem splits into two parts, each consisting of two lines. The first two lines present an image of peacefulness; the last two of action and unease. I’ve attempted to preserve this sense metrically, using predominantly trochaic pentameter for the first two lines and iambic pentameter for the last two lines. I’ve also used a few metrical variations to try to capture something of the original mood. In the original, the first two characters in each line are followed by an implicit break. I’ve transmogrified this as follows. In line one, there is an extra unstressed syllable after “idling,” which, along with the mid-line pause enforced by the comma, creates a strong break between the two images. In line two, I’ve opened the line with a double trochee (“calm night on the”), clustering two stresses at the start of the line and thereby setting off the mountain from the night. In line three there is of course the comma, but also a trochaic substitution (“startles”) that is meant to spring upon the reader in a way suggestive of the fright given to the poor bird. The last line is perfect iambic pentameter with no obvious mid-line break; if there is any such break it is there only because the first three lines have effectively set up that expectation in the reader; but that is not for me to decide.