I’m sitting at home by the window, typing on my netbook, and reading poetry. The sky darkens and it rains for an hour. Then the clouds disperse a little and I look out at the garden pond that glistens with rainwater. Five minutes later it’s dark and raining again. Typical springtime weather for western Oregon.
As the rain picks up again, I sit back in my chair and work on a few stubborn poems. Then I put them away and pick up a book of poems by Larry Levis. The book is titled Elegy and it reminds me a lot of Rilke’s Duino Elegies or Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares. It occurs to me that I’ve been reading a lot of elegies lately. I’m not a morose, depressive person, but there is something about the elegy that moves me more than other forms of poetry. I find myself returning again and again to Rilke’s “Eigth Elegy,” where he writes:
Who has twisted us like this, so that –
no matter what we do – we have the bearing
of a man going away? As on the last hill
that shows him all his valley, for the last time,
he turns, stands still, and lingers, so we live,
forever saying farewell.
I admit, his vision seems kind of bleak. And yet, I think he is right – he is partially right. Our lives are defined by a series of “goodbyes.” But those goodbyes are always followed by “hellos.” For obvious reasons, most of us like to concentrate on the “hellos” and not linger too long on the “goodbyes.” We’d rather look for the life that’s ahead, rather than look back on the life that we’ve lost. But sometimes we can’t help it: someone dies, a lover leaves, whole cities are displaced by floods and earthquakes. At such times it’s hard not to look back and long for what was lost.
When I read elegies I often think about riding the blue line train into Portland. When I ride the train, I like to ride facing backwards. I prefer to see where I’ve been rather that look ahead at where I’m going. The future is such a muddle of possibilities that I’ve never been very good at seeing where I’m going anyway. Of course, it’s good to have a general idea about where I’m headed, and so I glance ahead every once in a while. But most of the time I like to keep my eyes on the past, on where I’ve been. On the train, I watch the power lines dip and rise; I watch street corners slip into the distance; I watch apartment buildings shrink away, their inhabitants hidden away in rooms I can’t see, listening to a music I can’t hear.
Elegies, I must note, do not dwell forever on the past. They linger on it. In an elegy, the poet stands and looks back, “as if for the last time,” then turns and walks away. Elegies linger, and then they move on. They are like people at a funeral. They pause at the open casket, touch the stiff wrist, kiss the forehead, and then move on. They shake the hands of family and friends, then continue out through the double doors of the funeral home, into the sound of traffic and the smell of blossoming trees. They say goodbye, and then they say hello. Always. The poet who writes an elegy, will often follow it up by writing an ode.
And so today, sitting by the window, watching the rain come and go, I think back on all I have lost: my father-in-law, my childhood home in Kearns, my grandfather, my faith in God. Even simple things like the birds one sees only in winter, or the plum blossoms that won’t be blossoms for long. I try to read a little. “Deity is in the details” Levis writes, “& we are details among other details. . .” I look at my poems again. I try to make them do what I want, but they sit on their hands and refuse to move. No matter. I put them away and look outside at the garden pond, slowly filling up with rainwater.