Friday, October 20, 2006

Archaeology of Cold

Where I'm sitting, in the second floor of Mizzou's library, I can see the giant, vaulted ceiling of the study room that looks like a ballroom with carpeting (and tables, and people studying). Plaster roses curl in squares sunken into the ceiling, and the waves that surround them take the shapes of dolphin tails in illuminated manuscripts, and the slowly declining daylight outside is bringing the sky out there to match it a little bit more. Like the rest of this campus, it looks simultaneously ready to host a flock of monks and a . . . what kind of pack would jocks travel in? Not a fleet, not a herd . . . maybe a 12-pack. I could see the monks coming in to douse the lights with ancient slingshots so they could light torches that would gutter the color of ash up. But that could be because I've been reading "Four Quartets," which has this masterfully monastic restraint. T.S. Eliot's kind of cold draws me close, like the opposite of a fire, something I mosey up to to freeze my hands, but there's a deeper endearance to it, too, and a yearning for closeness that matches mine when I'm walking in a . . . smorgasboard of beautiful people here on campus, and feeling this distance that seems like an obligatory part of being in grad school, but is more just good, old-fashioned fear.

I've been reading Yeats, too, and getting completely blown away all over again. In the MFA, at SIU, the poets we read the most, talked about, and studied were contemporary, narrative poets, a whole, vibrant pantheon we could step into the tiers of at AWP, with Larry Levis as the grizzled messiah, old school by our terms. In undergrad, and, so far, in the Ph.D., I've been thinking about modernists the most--Eliot, with his masks (mostly in his poems, but he was known to wear a greenish face paint to parties), Pound with his clown hair and Roman ambition, and Stein with her extended jumbles of iterated sentences that seem like cave painting fed through a grammar book. But Yeats was the Modernist who never shied away from dripping honey, and his mask was "burning gold with emerald eyes," and that's the one I would most like to wear to a party.

Also, his amazing way of constructing lines that dazzle but seem as elemental as a pulse, "I went out to the hazel wood/Because a fire was in my head," conjures up the commonalities in all of the places I've most recently lived, and all of the people I've most recently been. Maybe most importantly, a postcard of him stared at me all year in Colorado, from my bedroom wall, his glasses casting half-translucent shadows over his eyes, the caves they made hinting at a glitter of sight the way a real cave implies a center of the earth, his hair raked back like a battered tom cat's, his mouth half-open like he's about to stumble on the most sublime syllable ever uttered, one that Cuchullain stole from the mouth of a god and gave to a bard, who passed it down the genetic line to W. B., whose immersion in the Celtic twilight finally dredged it up.

That was a syllable that followed me through the mountains, and emerges again here, in the shunted, jade husks of walnuts on the sidewalk by my apartment, the storefronts all masked with yellow pawprints for homecoming tomorrow, the student at a conference today picking up a wriggling inchworm to set him free outside, and the gradual softening of the lines in my face like an invisible mask there is being winched away. It's a holy kinda thang. But I'm rambling. That's what a day of conferences, coffee, and Reese's peanut butter cups will do to a blog entry.


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