Willy Loman, Mary Oliver and the real story of joy

I’ve been collecting notes to do an essay on the theme of suffering in art.

For it, I had the scene of Jesus’ entombment painted by that fastidious German master of the grotesque, Matthias Grunewald. I had Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait as a leaping stag, pierced by a dozen arrows. I had a Modigliani titled, quite plainly, “A Suffering Nude.”

I was going to write about how I read these, the mutilated body of the Son of God, self-conception of the wounded artist, interior pain made visible, etc.

I might still write that essay, but it’s hard. It’s hard to contemplate suffering rendered unto art when my heart feels so raw.

Nowadays, my energy field feels porous, like my empath tendencies are magnified to the utmost. Today, on my way to do some Christmas shopping, I saw the poster for a production of Death of a Salesman (in Korean) on a train platform and felt overwhelmed to the point of tears.

 

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Looking at this photo, snapped on my iPhone, I am near the point of tears once again. Goddamnit.

The Korean Willy Loman’s funereal, ill-fitting black suit hangs off his slouched shoulders, sapped of pride or energy.

His gaze is both confused and resigned. The deep creases and the shadows on his weary face mirror the dramatic, blurry chiaroscuro of the background. Others pass him by in a hurry like indifferent ghosts, busily headed everywhere and nowhere. I almost hear that whooshing of the trains, muffled announcements, the sound of people looking away from each other.

My heart aches for the midcentury white American that Arthur Miller’s original Salesman was, and it aches for his incarnation nearly 70 years later on a different hemisphere.

I am not a salesman, nor am I any kind of a failed patriarch, but I am a student of alienation. And deep alienation has followed us Koreans in our pursuit of wealth and happiness. It is the shadow of the American dream, which begat the post-war Korean dream.

I wondered if Willy Loman is Don Quixote’s grimmer descendent — both succumbed to fantasy and death as a response to the absurdity of life, but the former is rendered without much humorous irony.

Is it that modernity has sapped us of the will to irony (let’s say, der Wille zur Ironie, in place of der Wille zur Macht)?

I had to turn away. I cannot go and see this place. Nor do I feel hardy enough to write that essay on suffering in paintings.

Nowadays, I see the darkness and sharp-edged inside me, too easily mirrored without.

Reading the news, both American and Korean, feels surreal. I doubt I have to do much explaining about the surreal despair of observing the Orange One Who Shall Not Be Named occupying the place he’d just been elected to occupy. In Korea, though, the president is embroiled in an impeachment scandal that is rocking our sense of civic solidity to the core.

Anger, suspicion and hopelessness abound. People’s emotional wounds are in the air and swayed by the wind, raining on creation like allergenic pollen at springtime.

At times like this, I have taken to turning to Mary Oliver.

I recently took a wonderful writing course (which actually is code for mind-body-spirit integration course) with Nadia Colburn. The course, Align Your Story, is a quiet, shimmering and softening invitation to carve the space out of our busy-busy lives for creative contemplation. It asks us to lean into wholeness as the principal way of becoming artists, which is an integral truth I now fight to keep in my heart all of my days.

(If the course sounds completely amazing, it is! And I cannot recommend it more.)

In it, there is a lovely module focused on the idea of Joy, which I find myself returning to time and time again.

Wouldn’t you agree with me that it is somehow so much more challenging, disruptive and subversive to study joy in the current environs than rage and despair?

Hardly a day goes by when I am not reminded of Yeats’ great poem, The Second Coming, the eerily, depressingly ever-relevant, muscular indictment of human folly. Is the engagement with joy somehow a negation of all the legitimate and justifiable anger and disbelief we feel at the state of the world?

Is engagement with joy a betrayal of those who have been profoundly wronged and mutilated — in our own hearts, in our homelands, far away in Aleppo?

Is engagement with joy more puerile than the fastidious study of sadness? Does it require less courage?

Nadia has reminded me to study who, to me, is the Poet of Holy Joy — Mary Oliver. I picked up my beloved copy of Why I wake Early and found myself totally arrested by the following poem. (Bold is mine.)

 

 

Breakage
by Mary Oliver
I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
       full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.
dock

Poems like this make me feel that Oliver was such a consummate artist of Joy. (And how joyful her language is to read, her short-syllabled American English, radiant with the acuity of love.)

Oliver’s eyes never look away from anything. This is a quality I most admire about her: her absolute insistence on looking at everything unflinchingly, including the scarredness, including the death and decay, and also no less curiously at that which is beautiful, blessed. There is a certain elegant discipline to this way of being and seeing.

You learn from Oliver that joy isn’t a state of “la-la-la”.

Joy is not a choice toward childish insouciance, effervescent and unweighted buoyance, or denial of the hard what-is.

Instead, Joy is the story of wholeness. Joy is the story of seeing that everything is broken and also not ugly; tattered but also shone on by the sun. Joy is salty.

Joy is the story of patience, of taking the time and the breath to not stop at each little word, but to weave together the many thousands of words, of knowings.

Joy is a kind of sober decision to wait to find out. Joy is the story of there is more, and that is always true.

And this is the best news of all. It means joy is possible — yes, even now, especially now.

 

The opposite of despair

Poets are hard.
To talk to them,
I have to get honest,
drop some of the drama,
hush the pious certainties,
and most of all,
turn the gaze away from myself.
I have to look at the people.
And the people —
the old bent man with
memories, now dying in the cold.
The swollen lips of a Greek girl
about to be kissed
by an American.
A garden of vanishing lilies,
then, above, a hummingbird,
flitting away.
The opposite of despair is not hopefulness
but lies,
the lies that say
we can’t possibly look at it all,
walk toward it all,
without breaking.

 


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Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam

 Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam
(The brief sum of life forbids us the hope of enduring long – Horace)They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
Ernest Dowson

 

A brief meditation on the fleeting nature of our passions and woes.

It’s something I think about; the urgent intensity of things I feel when I feel them, and how vanishingly temporary they are, how they always pass without a trace. Sometimes the reminder is what I need to get through periods of emotional suffering; every time I think I will never recover from a wound, I do. Of course, I am glad to be relieved of pain, but when it does subside, it feels like a weird betrayal of the truth of its former intensity.

The same awareness of transience pulls me a few inches closer toward earth in moments when I’m drunk with ravishment. The idea also makes me anxious and mad. Why am I allowed a taste of this enthrallment, falling in love, submerging in beauty, but not to hold onto it? In these moments, I think of Salieri’s fury toward God, the anguish over desire and longing, having had a glimpse of transcendence too easily lost: “If He didn’t want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body!”

I wonder, for Dowson, in the last few lines — does he seem relieved or melancholy that “Our path emerges for a while, then closes / Within a dream“? Is he sad about that, or is it a permission to tread with freedom and curiosity, since it is all but a dream anyway?

If the “days of wine and roses” are not long, is the poem a call to carpe the romance of the diem while it lasts, or a lamentation of its futility?


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Reading Auden’s “The Fall of Rome”

This poem, it is said, was written when Auden was asked by his friend, Cyril Connolly, to pen a poem that would make him weep.

Well, to be honest, it didn’t make me weep, but it is still pretty fucking fantastic. What about you? Have a read:

 

The Fall of Rome

W.H. Auden

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

 

I didn’t have a keen interest in ancient history until I started reading about Rome and its decay as a way of getting insight about where the U.S. is headed today. The comparisons between the U.S. and Rome is not original or accurate if you get pedantic with a historian, but in a poetic sense, look how the themes Auden presents ring so awful and true for Americans today.

“Absconding tax defaulter” in “the sewers of provincial towns”? Sound like anyone on the news a lot nowadays?

(I mean Trump. In case you didn’t get it. I am increasingly less confident in my powers of allusion.)

“Cerebrotonic Cato may / Extol the Ancient Disciplines, / But the muscle-bound Marines / Mutiny for food and pay.” And when is it more apparent than today, the  vast and gaping gulf between the educated elite, with their high-minded liberal ideals, their academic feminism and muscle-free globalism VERSUS the working people of ghostly industrial towns and PTSD, stripped of dignity and insurrecting with virtue-free ire?

“Caesar’s double-bed is warm / As an unimportant clerk / Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK / On a pink official form.” Ah, here it is, why my heart beats and my breath skips for Auden. Such compact and damning imagery hidden in a lulling ABBA rhyme scheme (warm – clerk – work – form). His humour, laced with a bitterness; the way he crosses modernity with the ancients in one fell swoop, as well as the sacred with the profane (as in his Musee des Beaux Arts, where he goes swfitly from the massacre of children before Christ’s birth to a horse scratching its butt against a tree.) The idea of a Roman clerk scribbling words of dissatisfaction IN ALL CAPS on a pink slip of paper makes me first laugh, of course, and then despair a little bit — about the ubiquity of this condition, postmodern alienation, hiding in the crevices of trivial daily life. Was it also thus in Caesar’s day? I wasn’t there, and neither was Auden, but he thinks so, maybe?

Ah, and the last stanza! Suddenly, with “herds of reindeer” crossing “miles of golden moss, / Silently and very fast”, we suddenly zoom way, way fucking out, out of Rome, out of America or wherever your mind was, to… where the reindeer are, and that is — what — Sweden? Lapland? A borderless, post-human, northerly zone of stillness, for sure. One of those National Geographic aerial shots, surrealist in the lack of sound, and fast-forwarded. I love the cinematography of Auden; his imagination is vertiginously agile. While human folly and greed are unfolding with the utmost absurdity and drama in the greatest of cities, there it is on the other side, the uncommenting indifference of ever-moving nature.

 

 


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What is love

What is love but a fever? The same unpleasant damp hotness,
the same throat-scratching wind, the same way it devours first
then leaves you paler, thinner, then, with unconvincing memories
of having suffered once your color returns, when you do want
to roast chickens and go Christmas shopping in October.
Petrarch, he was in love with himself, drunk with the heat of
self-inflicted fever, a gift for that silver-tongued Italian.
Laura was busy doing what patrician ladies do, combing the density
of her chestnut hair and strolling about in some flowered corner
of Avignon, unaware that she would be contemplated by some girl
from the Far East, seven centuries later, because she was seen
once — once! — by a febrile man fathering humanism, sonnets,
and two children by, they say, unknown women.

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