Wallace Stevens’ poem “Sunday Morning” ends with these lines:
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
I love the final image—that graceful downward swoop into darkness, held aloft by the lightness of wings fully extended. That final juxtaposition of dark and light, I find deeply moving.
Steven’s poetry has been a huge influence on me. I see traces of it everywhere in my writing.
The final lines of this poem introduce a short story I wrote, Tamara in Her Garden, where a woman who has been deeply traumatized by life finds healing in her garden–not just in the beauty she find there, but in the natural decay and death that comes with it. She tells us:
Sometimes when I kneel in the grass at the edge of my flowerbed, leaning out over the border of sweet alyssum that is heaped like snow, leaning so close that my face feathers the fragrant petals, and then breathe–breathe deeply, I sense that with each breath I am gathering up a huge lungful of myriad, microscopic creatures that course through my nose and mouth and throat in a rhythmic pattern of respiration perhaps eons longer than the life-spans of such tiny beings. And I feel lightheaded, what with the deep breathing, the heady fragrance, the thought that so much life and so much death passes with such pleasure through me. I sway when I rise. My bare knees and tops of feet bear a moist imprint–a fine cross-hatching of grasses.
While some think she’s hiding more than healing in her garden, she sees it differently—and here’s where Steven’s influence is clearly seen:
I see my garden as highly invigorating and precarious, teeming with raw necessity, a microcosm of all the life and beauty, decay and death, that ever was. Sometimes I stand in my round garden as if standing upon the edge of a precipice, poised for flight. Not to fly away as I once had supposed, but to delve ever more deeply.
That “delving ever more deeply” is what interests me, the fact that we have to explore the dark places in life in order to grow, for that’s the only way to bring in the light. We’re not sustained by beauty and lightness alone, but by seeing the beauty and lightness in the dark places, in the brokenness that lies all around us, seeing it in the very places where it doesn’t seem to exist. And seeing how the beauty and lightness is nurtured in the dark places of our own lives.
These are old ideas, of course–how the transience of beauty intensifies its pleasure. How the brighter the light, the deeper the shadows, how both together help us to see the object and its roundness more clearly. It’s a theme that is played over and over in poetry and literature and art. We never tire of it because it’s so rich in associations and, at the same time, still so veiled and mysterious. We sense the deepness there, some truth not fully plumbed. We walk around it and around it, but never fully grasp it. Perhaps that’s why we return to it so often in our art, not to touch it, but to be touched by it.
Sometimes that touch is healing, as in the garden I wrote about. Sometimes it is transforming. It tears us to pieces in order to create us anew.
I wrote about this in my poem “Walking Among Flowers.” Here’s an excerpt from a blog post that tells how this came about:
Walking through the village on Nuka Hiva down narrow, winding roads, past pastel-colored houses surrounded by gardens overflowing with flowers and dense tropical foliage, melting in the heat and humidity and the perfumed air . . . . . I felt physically and mentally assaulted, overcome by the intensity of the colors and the abundance of the beauty that surrounded me.
Colors exploding all around me, shattering the senses—sight, smell, and sound washing together. Undulating waves of color, wrapping around me, streaming through me, carrying me away.
Sometimes it was a soft, sensual immersion. Sometimes a harsh, brutal slaying. It knocked me off my feet and broke me open. I swallowed it whole.
In the poem I tried to capture how the brutal beauty of the experience tore me apart, leaving me bloody and trampled. Yet out of this seeming “death” rose something new, ethereal, like light, and powerful. Here’s where we see Steven’s influence, in the final downward swoop:
I lay like a light on the garden wall
then swooping, swallow, flowers and all.
The same “beauty and brutality” that tore me apart, transforms me, and allows me to partake of its wholeness, to become one with the wholeness, and holiness, of life.
It’s odd though. I don’t think of the beauty and brutality in equal terms. In this life, as we normally experience it, the brutality, the darkness, is the shadow side of something that is “real” in a way that the shadow itself is not. We still experience it, it still gives depth to the wholeness of our experience. It still shapes us, even as it torments us or tears us apart. It’s very “real” in those harsh, experiential ways. It’s perhaps part of the birthing process, but it’s not the birth itself, or the thing we’re giving birth to.
But what it is, is not something we can easily put our finger on. So we write poetry about it instead. And we feel it, as we too swoop “downward into darkness on extended wings.”