“how many years / without death”: Larry Eigner’s memento mori

five poems from readiness / enough / depends / on,
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

                                countless stars
                                    and a few patches of cloud

                                                                       October 8 94

                                      of a size
 a tree
                                             to live
                                                at rest
                                                    a while
        the window
                                               while there’s so much
                                                               on round
    after I’ve
                                                                  earth, sky
          waked up

        to start
                                                                       )birds too
            the morning
                                                                           about as quiet
              there have
                                                                                    as flowers I see
                       been times

                                                                          April 2 78

                        wind huge outside since when
falling asleep alpha rhythms I suppose
                      how many years
                                            without death

                                                                          August 6-8 78


words and things among us go
    together enough

      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

                        for dancing

                                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.
Camille Martin

3 responses to ““how many years / without death”: Larry Eigner’s memento mori

  1. I was reading this book at a rural soccer camp as about fifty kids went through the rituals of soccer practice, and came across the one about the turd in the toilet. I passed it around and all kinds of people were getting a chuckle — carpenters, rug salesmen, insurance mavens, etc.

    They asked me if he was seriously writing about the beauty of the turd, and I didn’t know!

    The one that ends with the silence of the flowers on the right side above with delightfully airy and wondrous.

    Thanks for this.


  2. > They asked me if he was seriously writing about the beauty of the turd, and I didn’t know!

    Ha – I suppose that would depend on whether or not you like sausage . . .

    Glad you enjoyed the post.


  3. Pingback: Roundup: Poetry Close Readings and Appreciations « Rogue Embryo

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