then a brief essay
July 26-7 93
oblong windows lit
room a bare bulb
over the back steps
burning into the night
as if it’s all time
likewise facing the street
and a few patches of cloud
October 8 94
of a size
while there’s so much
about as quiet
as flowers I see
April 2 78
wind huge outside since when
falling asleep alpha rhythms I suppose
how many years
August 6-8 78
words and things among us go
wherever your end is
December 2-3 1992
t h e w h o l e o r c h e s t r a
up into the air
after the storm
Larry Eigner’s readiness / enough / depends / on, his last collection of poems before his death in 1996, explores the precarious position of the self that inhabits an uncertain place between the sufficient and the dependent, between the assurance of passing from one state to the next and the unknowability of how and when that crossing will play out. Eigner’s “I” is situated on lyric coordinates where it thinks and feels in time and place, though the breadth of the spotlight on the self remains open-ended in order to allow the concrete to be brought into relation to a wider map.
In “July 26-7 93,” for example, the perceiving subject is standing in a backyard at night, looking into a house. Oblong windows reveal the intimate space of a room lit from within. His attention shifts to the bare bulb over the back steps, shining infinitely into the night as if everything suddenly existed on a plane of time stretching into eternity. His perspective shifts again, this time to the front yard, away from the glare of the light bulb, facing the street and looking into the sky with its “countless stars / and a few patches of cloud.” The finite, the moment, and the place (the intimate room and the countable clouds) coexist with the endless and the infinite (the light from the bulb traveling into the night, all of time, and the countless stars).
The self isn’t located within the intimacy of the room, nor does it range into the cosmos. Instead, it observes both from the crux of the two. Microcosm and macrocosm, finite and infinite, hinge on the observing “I,” which neither refers to its own vantage point nor attempts to step outside itself to become an omniscient observer that generalizes humanity. It quietly situates itself between enclosed interior and far-reaching dimensions. It embraces neither and both. The night brings these various light sources—room, bare bulb, stars—in relation to one another, all of them best seen from the uncertainty and blindness of the dark.
The subject’s liminality is also apparent in “October 8 94,” a poem that seems to hover in suspended time, existing in the moment as well as an infinite string of moments. The self is meditatively poised within a time “of a size / possible / to live / at rest / a while,” slowing down the moments to awaken, in the midst of so much on the earth going on at once, to the delicate slightness and stirring of nature as morning begins.
In these poems, the perceiving “I” often exists in a state of uncertainty. “April 2 78,” a poetic slice of insomnia, asks “since when” the strong wind outside began, as though the self were not at first aware of the wind’s transition from breeze to gale. Just as the past is infused with doubt, so also is the future, in particular the unknowable moment of his death. And just as the present is suspended between two unknowns, so also is the self hovering between wakefulness and sleep. The break of the first line emphasizes that uncertainty: the word “when” is a swinging door, belonging to both “since when” and “when / falling asleep.” Alpha rhythms and thoughts of mortality’s threatening wind, as yet outside the safety of his bedroom, keep him on the wakeful side of sleep.
To read these poems is to become hyper-aware of the passage of time. The short lines compel us to slow down and read each line deliberately as if it existed in isolation as a concrete, material entity. Yet, as in “October 8 94,” the shifting margins of the lines inch their way to the right, bringing each pithy line line in relation to the others through their common descent down temporal stairs.
The memento mori seems to be somewhat out of favour these days with the poetics of political desire and conceptual play, and Eigner’s poems in this collection, I have the feeling, would tend to fly below the radar of the more fashionably vocal and sexy statements (or non-statements) of such poetics. They neither point nor sway. They are not haunted by injustice. But in their quiet, meditative way they undo cherished notions and unravel certainties just as surely as do the abject self and other of protest or the anonymous machine of the concept. Their syntactically skewed meditations on ephemerality and unknowability offer unsettling pleasures: mortality is never far away, but neither is the joy of dancing to a levitating orchestra after a storm lifts.
- Robert Zend – Part 11. International Affinities: Italy (Leopardi and Pirandello)
- Robert Zend – Part 10. International Affinities: France (Marcel Marceau)
- Robert Zend – Part 9. International Affinities: Argentina (Borges)
- Robert Zend – Part 8. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination: The Three Roberts, Norman McLaren, Glenn Gould
- Robert Zend – Part 7. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination: bpNichol