Monday, December 19, 2011

"This consciousness that is aware"

With winter break comes a welcome and terrifying expanse of free time. I've heard that this will be the only grad school break that's really free, what with orals and the dissertation to consider down the road. I don't quite believe that. The life of an English graduate student (judging by mine, this past semester) is not overwhelmingly busy, certainly not the busiest life I've led. Lots of work, yes, but work of the most enjoyable sort. Working (for wages) 20 hours a week on top of my course load would not have been detrimental to my academic achievements, but fortunately (or was it?) I didn't need to.

This is not to say I was idle; there was plenty of text to fill my days. Mostly novels, as it turned out, and now it seems my next semester will be filled with them too. So now one item on my list of Things To Do 'til Jan. 17 is Refresh and Enhance my relationship with verse. Hence poem blogging. A poem (that I've never studied) and a few words about it. Nothing explicative, nothing definitive, nothing at all academic -- just something about each work that strikes me. Something to share with the many friends who don't necessarily reach to poems for a dose of concentrated human existence, and with the few who do.

To start, a short poem by Emily Dickinson, whose work I barely understand:

This consciousness that is aware
Of neighbors and the Sun
Will be the one aware of Death
And that itself alone

Is traversing the interval
Experience between
And most profound experiment
Appointed unto Men--

How adequate unto itself
Its properties shall be
Itself unto itself and None
Shall make discovery.

Adventure most unto itself
The Soul condemned to be--
Attended by a single Hound
Its own identity.

What is it about this poem? I have found it nearly impossible to memorize, or at least to hold in my long-term memory. Other works I committed to mind at the same time are still intact; this one breaks through in fragments. The meter is responsible for at least some of the difficulty. The first stanza's rhythm is well-ordered, predictable iambic. Easy enough. But then the first line of Stanza 2 completely throws you off! Or at least, throws me off. To keep the meter ordered, you'd have to say TRA-versing vs. the more (currently) standard tra-VERSing. I frankly don't know which Dickinson intended, or which pronunciation was more common in 19th-c Massachusetts, but I like to think that she wanted to create a jarring effect.

And I don't think it's an accident that she starts the jarring with the word "traverse."

Like so many words in this short poem, "traverse" is a combination of two (or more) Latin roots (trans = across, versare = to turn). To name a few more, there's "consciousness" (con=with, scire=to know), "interval" (inter=between, vallum=rampart), and "adventure" (ad=towards, venire=to come). Here's where it gets crazy: several of these combo words' parts are seemingly easy to break off and attach to parts of other words in the poem. I say "seemingly" because you can't really break apart and recombine the words (to make "ex-versing" or "ad-periment," say... although now that I think of it inter+venire=intervention), but the potential for such word-play makes the poems actual words very difficult to distinguish and memorize.

Minor (and self-serving) as this point seems, I think it provides a key for understanding one of the poem's central concerns: taking apart the notion of the individual. From the first line, we know that "consciousness" is the subject of the poem, the noun doing all sorts of things like "traversing" and being "adequate." From the last stanza, we can (erroneously? I'm not sure) gather that the "Soul" is synonymous with "this Consciousness," and also that "its own identity" is not synonymous with it. The "Hound" of identity is distinct from, yet attached to, the "aware" consciousness. Something similar can be said of the long-ago compounded words that dominate this poem: the parts have meanings of their own, but they also have a meaning (distinct but related) upon being combined.

This attention to distinction/separation is delightfully apparent in the poem's most common word, "itself." Emphatically non-Latinate, "itself" appears in full form five times. It has the freshman-discovers-Derrida double-meaning going for it, where pronounced it is impossible to determine whether it serves as the reflexive pronoun "itself" or the (etymologically identical but contextually distinguishable) "its self." This second, separated form is suggested twice: "Its properties shall be" and "Its own identity." In fact, Dickinson never refers to the "consciousness" merely as "it." The consciousness, until the moment of its re-definition as "Soul" is referred to only as "itself." Her double-reference to the possessive consciousness "its" all but forces the reader to read "itself" as an instance of the "consciousness" possessing a specific self.

If this reading works, then the last stanza is incredibly chilling. The words "condemned" and "Hound" don't set expectations high for a cheerful finale, to be sure. And consider the last line: is it too much of a stretch to equate "identity" with the "self" that has been attached to "its" throughout the poem? I make this leap based on definition alone: one's "self" is, in common parlance, nearly indistinguishable from one's "identity" -- hence the emergence of phrases like "self-identity" and questions about how you "self-identify." If the association of "self" and "identity" is possible (albeit questionable), then the "identity" has in fact been "attending" the consciousness/soul throughout the poem. Even at the end of the first stanza, when the consciousness is supposedly "itself alone," its "identity" is secretly tagging along in the form of "self." There is literally (letter-ally, linguistically) no way in English to separate the broader, perhaps universal "consciousness" from the discrete and possibly miserable "self."

Yes, this claim could lead to an over-long argument about definitions of self, individual, consciousness, and all those other terms that prove so easily deflatable, but what's here is already more than "a few words."

Saturday, December 3, 2011

I must have a mind of winter

Spring is too thrilling to think anything and summer is for slipping back into past times, into lush white-lit cycles; autumn is for sharpening a focus and winter oh winter is for coming alive inside your own mind. These are my seasons, the markers I grew up marking, the weathers of the Northeast, and now that they too are threatened, vanishing, it seems ever more important to notice and grasp at them and feel all the things I've always felt with their coming and going.

Everyone hates winter. My father hates winter and skinny-legged girls hate winter, but I was born in winter and am built for it and outside my high school was a brown-grass field beyond which lace-branched trees supplicated a smoky lavender sky. Dendritic trees. Before the snow falls, skeleton season: bare trees, bare earth, someone who's not me might say the "true nature" of things. In any case, as naked as the land gets.

Every winter, an obsession. All that darkness and the cold that confines you to a small warm space - it concentrates my thoughts. When I was a kid I knew they were obvious because I would get themed gifts on my birthday: countless calligraphy pens one year; a platoon of teapots another. In college I got lucky and devoted several winters to writing. Last year, I wandered empty Gowanus streets and etched Hopkins into the inside of my skull. Now here it comes again: long nights, muted skies, loud weightless air. The Thing hasn't taken shape yet but the restlessness is here; right on cue the restlessness is invigorating my veins. Just in time for me to finish up in Virginia and head north for a real winter.