Repetition and stories…

Because you’ve also lived–you’ve been living and reading for years, sometimes both at once–you are not suprised that people often repeat their most unpleasant experiences. It’s probably for the same reasons we tell the same stories over and over, with minor variations–“The Seven Ravens,” “The Seven Doves,” “The Twelve Ducks,” “The Six Swans.” It is cozy to have one’s expectations met, though there is also, always, the possibility–is this a happy thought or a sad one?–that things turn out differently this time.

The Swan Brothers, Shelley Jackson

In your line of work you must see it all the time, the way people continue to repeat the same story of themselves over and over, complete with the old mistakes.

The Great House, Nicole Krauss

The problem is that once upon a time they all began like that, all novels. There was somebody that went along a lonely street and saw something that attracted his attention, something that seemed to conceal a mystery, or a premonition, then he asked for explanations and they told him a long story.

If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italio Calvino

He tells the story over and over and over again when he is feeling unsure of himself. Why? Because there is a beginning a middle and an end. He is comforted by it–the structure–knowing there is an answer to the strange question being asked.

The Boy Detective Fails, Joe Meno

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But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair…

In my inbox this morning I found the following poem…

La Figilia Che Piange (The Weeping Girl)
by T. S. Eliot

STAND on the highest pavement of the stair–
Lean on the a garden urn —
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair —
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise —
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.

So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind deserts the body it has used.
I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and a shake of the hand.

She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over hear arms and her arms full of flowers
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cognitions still amaze.
The troubled midnight, and the moon’s repose.

I like this poem. It’s short, it’s nice, and it’s very pretty. I arrived at my desk this morning, opened Outlook, and after erasing all the junkmail  I subscribe to (J. Crew, the Gap, and edWeek to name a few) I saw this. ( I can’t remember the mailing list that sent it to me now but I’ll give them credit later.) To be honest, I usually delete these poems but I like T.S. Eliot so I read it while finishing my coffee.

So the first thing that caught my attention was the line, “But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.”

This is a beautiful line and a lovely image. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t mind weaving the sunlight through my hair.

After reading this I thought, Huh, this is a way I’d like to think of myself–as a girl, as a woman, weaving the sunlight through her hair. But not just that, because this phrase evoked many images–images of myself having triumphant moments, of standing on the edges of mountains or the tops of cliffs and looking down on things (things like oceans, lakes, trees, large bodies of water, valleys–you know, the usual) while the wind blew and the sun weaved through my hair. Because, for whatever reason, these were the  moments I felt like it would be appropriate for sunlight to weave in my hair. I thought about this for a while. I sipped more coffee. I held on to that line. I even took out a pink sticky note and wrote it down and posted it on the wall of my cubical.

But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.

It sounds like an anthem doesn’t it? An axiom of sorts. Something meant to inspire. I think it stands alone rather well.

But then, of course, I went and reread to the poem to figure out what it actually meant. Because though I like to let things stand alone, eventually I get curious and have to know the whole story. I can’t help myself. I often react to life and literature in just this way.

Well, actually this way:

  1. Initial reaction
    I am struck by beauty and/or sadness.
  2. Interpretation based on initial reaction
    I usually shamelessly romanticize the event/story/poem/piece of art or life.
  3. Revisiting the initial inspiration
    I reinterpret the piece of life and/or literature based on (somewhat) careful analysis of actual events/plot/words/happenings. In other words, I un-isolate the beauty and sadness and put it back into context.
  4. Inevitable conclusion is reached
    Quite naturally, my conclusions are terribly confused and are really more of a beginning to an extended and ongoing exploration. However, no matter what I come up with in step number three, the initial impression still remains.  (Though I should probably mention that it is tainted and/or heightened by the complexities and confusions brought forth by my own failed attempt at finding meaning in something I don’t fully understand.)

I hope that made sense to someone out there other than me. It probably didn’t but it’s the only way I know how to explain it.

<SIDE-NOTE>

There’s this Virginia Woolf novel, that I love like I love all her novels, called, Night and Day. At the end of this novel two of the main characters finally realize their feelings for each other (which are romantic of course) when the man draws a picture of a dot with all these circles around it. I’m not explaining what this doodle of his looks like and can’t find the exact passage that explains it now but this is how I picture it:

(Which, oddly enough, also reminds me of the moon in a Van Gogh painting or an elephant’s eye.)

But yes, this drawing, this doodle that this man makes actually (in total Viriginia Woolf fashion) holds all the secrets of his soul. It is a doodle yes, but it is also the way he thinks of the world. This is the passage I did write down:

It represented by its circumference of smudges surrounding a central blot all that encircled glow which for him surrounded, inexplicably, so many of the objects of life, softening their sharp outline so that he could see certain streets, books, and situations wearing a halo almost perceptible to the physical eye.

So the woman sees him make this drawing and she has absolutely no idea that he is thinking these very profound and real thoughts. The man says nothing about the drawing or what it means to him–it’s just something he makes in the moment of silence that they’re having–and yet the woman looks at the dot with it’s surrounding smudges and says this:

“Yes, the world looks something like that to me too.”

And, oh man, isn’t that just perfect? She totally got it, she got him, and all from his stupid circle dot smudge thing. And then this happens:

Quietly and steadily there rose up behind the whole aspect of life that soft edge of fire which gave its red tint to the atmosphere and crowded the scene with shadows so deep and dark that one could fancy pushing farther into their density and still farther exploring indefinitely. Whether there was any correspondence between the two prospects now opening before them they shared the same sense of the impending future, vast, mysterious, infinitely stored with undeveloped shapes which each would unwrap for the other to behold; but for the present the prospect of the future was enough to fill them with silent adoration.

So yes, this is pretty much what I hope will happen every time I attempt to explain something to someone. I hope that somehow, someone, somewhere will actually understand what I’m saying or doing, will say to themselves, “Yes, the world looks something like that to me too,” and then love me for it.

Quite naturally, I am often misunderstood. Luckily, I also happen to think that failure is beautiful and poetic so it sort of works out no matter what.

</SIDENOTE>

Going back to the original point of all this…

Right now I am only at step 2 of the before mentioned way I react to life and literature.

So now it’s time for the exploration. Yay!

My questions after reading are this: Who exactly is speaking in this poem, who is he speaking to, and what exactly is going on?

And also, of course, the inevitable question that we all ask our poems: What does it all mean?

My first reaction, without really thinking about anything but the fact that the one line about the hair and the sun is really pretty, made me think it was a man writing to the object of his affection about his love for her and that it meant we should all, you know, love each other and frolic in the sun and be free.

But after actually reading the first stanza closely I realized that it’s so much better than that.

STAND on the highest pavement of the stair–
Lean on the a garden urn —
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair —
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise —
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.

So yes, okay, this was and is still beautiful. However, after rereading it I felt kind of silly because, well, it’s a little exagerated. I mean, wow, standing on a high (neigh, the highest!) stair, clasping flowers with pained surprise, throwing them to the ground, blaring angry eyes?! (I’m imagining a firey-haired woman now, maybe some screaming, definitely some foot stomping.)

It’s so dramatic!!! I mean, it’s so dramatic I just gave that last sentence three exclamations points. It’s so dramatic it could be a scene from a soap opera. Think about it…You throw flowers, or a drink, or you push a man in a pool, or you break the dishes, run the car into the side of the house. You are so angry!! You weave, weave, the sunlight in your hair! You dump his ass and walk away triumphant and beautiful and glowing!

But this scene, this throwing of the flowers, well, it’s a little overdone. And it made me sit up and think to myself, Ut oh, I think I read that entire poem all wrong.

So then I read on:

So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,

Oh, okay, I get it. So it’s how he WISHES she would have broke up with this man, this ex-lover. That makes sense. And the passage goes on to describe a scene that is incredibly un-dramatic. In fact, it’s almost the perfect breakup.

I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and the shake of the hand.

Now to me this sort of breakup is infinitely more depressing than the first but, okay, I could see how most people would think this was a nice way to part. But here’s where I got confused… Why is he saying, “I should find.” Does that mean he’s breaking up with her? He’s with her now and he’s planning on breaking up with her? I didn’t know, so I read on again…

She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers
And I wonder how they should have been together!

So after reading this I went back to thinking he’s her current lover thinking about her past lover…She has walked away from him and her hair is over her arms and her arms are full of flowers. So I guessed that, no, she did not throw her flowers or toss her hair or have a tantrum and weave sunlight or whatever. She probably had a really calm, great breakup. And now he, the man speaking to us, wonders “how they should have been together!”

So is he distraught? Does he think they still love each other because their breakup was so great? Whenever I have questions I read on:

I should have lost a gesture and a pose
Sometimes these cognitions still amaze
The troubled midnight, and the moon’s repose.

So okay, ya, he’s upset. He’s up and midnight and he can’t sleep, he’s troubled and then, as the final kick in the ass, the moon is reposing (sleeping/resting) and he has to sit there and watch it be perfect and content while he tosses and turns all night. Totally sucky. And he has to think about his chick with this other guy that she had this simple and faithless breakup with. Sad right?

Poor guy. Poor poor T.S. Eliot.

And this was/is an okay interpretation. I could almost believe this. But the line, “I should have lost a gesture and a pose,” made no sense to me. And why did he say, “I should find,” in the second stanza? Why does he have to find a nice way to break up with her? He’s just her current lover. Right?

Who is this guy? I asked myself again.

T.S. Eliot, I answered trying to be a smartass.

And then I was like, No, that’s the author. Who’s the guy talking to us?

And then, I thought, Oh, ya, maybe it’s T.S. Eliot, the author T.S. Eliot.

And then I remembered this thing I learned a long time ago about how postmodern poets like to talk about how they’re postmodern poets. And then I reread the confusing parts again.

I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,

The author, the writer, T.S. Eliot should find a good way for her to break up. Because maybe the poem is about an author writing a scene about a woman breaking up. And the first scene he comes up with is this great big beautiful dramatic scene with the weaving of sunlight that I so adore.  But then he feels bad, because this is a very dramatic scene. The woman is weaved in sunlight but she is probably breaking up inside. It is probably very hard for her. So he thinks he should find another way–a light and deft way. A clever  and skillful way. A better way.

So then after that, when he obsesses about her, maybe he’s just obsessing about how he made these two lovers break up, how he created this scene, this big dramatic scene for her, but now he wonders, “how they should have been together!”

The artist is doubting his decision! Was he too cruel to his character? Was he too cruel to his reader? Did he do the right thing? Did she? Should the lovers still be together? Would it have been better that way? Was it okay for him to destroy a love for art?

Because if they were still together he, “should have lost a gesture and a pose.”

Is it okay to destroy a love for a gesture and a pose?

We would never have had that moment. Her weaving, weaving, the sunlight through her hair would not have existed. I would not have read it and imagined standing on triumphant bittersweet mountaintops.

Either way–whether I think the man speaking to us is a lover or a poet–the result is still the same. He’s left awake at night thinking of a woman.

Ha, and isn’t that how every poem should end? (Well, not every poem, that would be boring.)

And it’s still a rather nice moment for the woman. Though, okay,  a somewhat bittersweet one. After all, she is alone. Either she is distanced from her current lover by his knowledge of her past or she’s, you know, alone and fake/fictional and being controlled by a man who likes to add waaaaaaaay too much drama to her life.

Also, I looked up “O quam te memorem virgo” and found this:

Here’s the literal translation of “O quam te memorem, virgo”, a quotation from Virgil, Aeneid, I, 326, where Aeneas addresses this way his mother Venus who had appeared to him disguised as a Carthaginian huntress so that he does not recognize her, though he thinks she is a goddess:

“O, how should I call you, virgin?”, i.e.:
“O virgin! or what other name you bear.

Does this mean she’s a virgin goddess too. Because that makes me think she’s even more alone but even more er… sought after and glorious and youthful and weaved in sun.

So now my mind is completely running away with itself and I’m just going to go with it…

I’m thinking of Ode to a Grecian Urn and how the two people are just on the verge of kissing and never get to and so they’re suspended in this beautiful perfect moment of young love and excitement and anticipation (which is sweet) but they are never going to actually kiss and complete the perfect moment (which is bitter). But then they’ll also never know what it’s like when that moment ends and the kiss is over and their love is no longer perfect and suspended and young and beautiful. (Sweet.) But they’ll also never know what it’s like to grow old together and love each other even when they’re ugly and smelly and fart in their sleep and poop their pants (which, believe it or not, is bitter).

And the woman in this poem could be kind of like that. I mean, for one, she’s a piece of art. Two, she’s (possibly) a virgin. We know she left her lover so we know she lost this great love and won’t know what it’s like to grow old with him. And then three, there is an urn mentioned in the second line, “Lean on a garden urn,” which might have nothing to do with Keat’s poem but, you never know, it made me think of it.

<SIDENOTE>

I always find I come up with more questions than answers when I try to interpret something. I used to write these  informal responses for a writing class of mine in college and I’d usually end each one with a series of Megan-type life questions brought about by the story. One time in particular, after reading Deborah Eisenberg’s, Some Other, Better Otto I went off. (I really liked this story and was kind of crazy and excited about it. Ha, kind of in the same way I’m crazy and excited about T.S. Eliot tonight.)  I saved this paper and just went and found it.

Here’s what I said (Yes, I am quoting my 20 year-old self. Sorry about that):

One of the last images is of Sharon and the doctor sharing a brilliant smile. So can people unite only in moments? “In this life (and, frankly, there would be no other) the hospital was where they would meet” (174). So in the end do we really only have one life, one real life, and that is all that matters, the now? Can we only meet in a hospital because ultimately we are all flawed? Can we heal each other? Perhaps, these are questions Eisenberg is merely trying to raise not answer. Perhaps it is simply a mystery like William’s face, the moon’s face, and the ultimate question posed by the last line of her story, “What are we doing here?” (174).

Huh, that’s better than I thought it would be. Good for me. I knew how to bullshit. But this isn’t what’s really important (though it was fun reminding myself that not much has changed in how I approach my literary conclusions and confusions over the past six years).

What’s important is what my professor wrote in response:

You’re willingness to live with these questions is all a writer could hope for.

And I’ve always remembered that for some reason. I think it’s a good point and I should remind myself of it more often. Sometimes writing, a piece of writing, isn’t supposed to have an answer or a meaning. And definitely not one big answer or one big meaning. I’m always acting like writing always has to mean something. That there is this great big purpose to everything in a story or a poem and that it all, all the words the action the characters the line and the meter, exists for a reason. And maybe it does to some extent. (I’m sure Eliot put that garden urn there for a reason.) But sometimes I think it is not so deliberate as I’d like to believe. Maybe sometimes a piece of writing just makes you think or feel something or raise more questions, or makes you look at your own life in a new way, bla bla bla, etc. etc. etc.  (Insert rant about the purpose of literature here.)

It’s still fun to try though. And to argue yourself in circles until your digging through old college reading responses at 1:03 in the morning looking for the exact thing your WR 301 teacher wrote down.

That professor’s name was/is Marjorie Sandor by the way. There were a lot of things she wrote and said to me that I kept and that I still think about and wonder about to this day. I could barely talk to her when I took her class and now all these notes of hers have somehow become the things I reference when I am having arguments with myself. It’s funny how someone can become one of the voices in your head like that. Ha, and I only had her for one class.

Well, I think that’s a nice way to end this incredibly long rant about a short little poem. (And well, a few other things as well.) So much for getting to my own writing tonight. Obviously, I felt like losing myself in someone else’s words.

I just hope I don’t get all sleepy tomorrow at work and have some kind of weird late-night poetry hangover.