In Judith Barrington's striking collection, Horses and the Human Soul, human emotions come ushered and accompanied by animal companions, especially the horses this speaker loves. Here they are witnesses, companions to the spirit, and as vulnerably mortal as human beings. Socially and politically alert, lamenting and celebrating, Barrington's passionate poems inscribe the broad range of her affections.
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I've been moving a little to the music while I worked ...and then I realize I am actually dancing. It feels wonderful, though I can feel how stiff my muscles are, how rigidly I've been holding myself...Mostly I've been moving cautiously, numbly, steeled because I know, at any moment, I may be ambushed by overwhelming grief. You never know when it's coming, the word or gesture or bit of memory that dissolved you entirely...It happens every day at first, then not for a day or two, then there's a week when grief washes in every morning, every afternoon.
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Desire I think has less to do with possession than with participation, the will to involve oneself in the body of the world, in the principle of things expressing itself in splendid specificity, a handful of images: a lover's irreplaceable body, the roil and shimmer of the sea overshot with sunlight, a handful of cherries, the texture and weight of a word. The word that seems most apt is partake... We can say we partake of something but we may just as accurately say we take part in something' we are implicated in another being, which is always the beginning of wisdom, isn't it- that involvement which enlarges us, which engages the heart, which takes out of the routine limitations of self?
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This is what history is: all those centuries of bodies, moving over these canals, twisting and blooming into life in these houses, these streets; all that flesh hungering, coming together, separating, continuing, accumulating, relinquishing, aging and breaking down. Bodies as tulips bent to the demands of light, colored into blossom, spent.
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Because this painting has never been restored there is a heightened poignance to it somehow; it doesn't have the feeling of unassailable permanence that paintings in museums do. There is a small crack in the lower left, and a little of the priming between the wooden panel and the oil emulsions of paint has been bared. A bit of abrasion shows, at the rim of a bowl of berries, evidence of time's power even over this-which, paradoxically, only seems to increase its poetry, its deep resonance. If you could see the notes of a cello, when the bow draws slowly and deeply across its strings, and those resonant reverberations which of all instruments' are nearest to the sound of the human voice emerge-no, the wrong verb, they seem to come into being all at once, to surround us, suddenly, with presence-if that were made visible, that would be the poetry of Osias Beert. But the still life resides in absolute silence. Portraits often seem pregnant with speech, or as if their subjects have just finished saying something, or will soon speak the thoughts that inform their faces, the thoughts we're invited to read. Landscapes are full of presences, visible or unseen; soon nymphs or a stag or a band of hikers will make themselves heard. But no word will ever be spoken here, among the flowers and snails, the solid and dependable apples, this heap of rumpled books, this pewter plate on which a few opened oysters lie, giving up their silver. These are resolutely still, immutable, poised for a forward movement that will never occur. The brink upon which still life rests is the brink of time, the edge of something about to happen. Everything that we know crosses this lip, over and over, like water over the edge of a fall, as what might happen does, as any of the endless variations of what might come true does so, and things fall into being, tumble through the progression of existing in time. Painting creates silence. You could examine the objects themselves, the actors in a Dutch still life-this knobbed beaker, this pewter salver, this knife-and, lovely as all antique utilitarian objects are, they are not, would not be, poised on the edge these same things inhabit when they are represented. These things exist-if indeed they are still around at all-in time. It is the act of painting them that makes them perennially poised, an emergent truth about to be articulated, a word waiting to be spoken. Single word that has been forming all these years in the light on the knife's pearl handle, in the drops of moisture on nearly translucent grapes: At the end of time, will that word be said?
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I've been moving a little to the music while I worked ... and then I realize I am actually dancing. It feels wonderful, though I can feel how stiff my muscles are, how rigidly I've been holding myself... Mostly I've been moving cautiously, numbly, steeled because I know, at any moment, I may be ambushed by overwhelming grief. You never know when it's coming, the word or gesture or bit of memory that dissolved you entirely... It happens every day at first, then not for a day or two, then there's a week when grief washes in every morning, every afternoon.
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And, I think, this greening does thaw at the edges, at least, of my own cold season. Joy sneaks in: listening to music, riding my bicycle, I catch myself feeling, in a way that's as old as I am but suddenly seems unfamiliar, light. I have felt so heavy for so long. At first I felt odd- as if I shouldn't be feeling this lightness, that familiar little catch of pleasure in the heart which is inexplicable, though a lovely passage of notes or the splendidly turned petal of a tulip has triggered it. It's my buoyancy, part of what keeps me alive: happy, suddenly with the concomitant experience of a sonata and the motion of the shadows of leaves. I have the desire to be filled with sunlight, to soak my skin in as much of it as I can drink up, after the long interior darkness of this past season, the indoor vigil, in this harshest and darkest of winters, outside and in.
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Being in grief, it turns out, is not unlike being in love. In both states, the imagination's entirely occupied with one person. The beloved dwells at the heart of the world, and becomes a Rome: the roads of feeling all lead to him, all proceed from him. Everything that touches us seems to relate back to that center: there is no other emotional life, no place outside the universe of feeling centered on its pivotal figure.
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I don't know anything different about death than I ever have, but I feel differently. I inhabit this difference in feeling- or does it live in me?- at the same time as I'm sorrowing. The possibility of consolation, of joy even, does not dispel the sorrow. Sorrow is the cathedral, the immense architecture; in its interior there's room for almost everything; for desire, for flashes of happiness, for making plans for the future...
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There is some firm place in me which knows that what happened to Wally, whatever it was, whatever it is that death is as it transliterates us, moving us out of this life into what we can't know, is kind. I shock myself, writing that. I know that many deaths are anything but gentle. I know people suffer terribly... I know many die abandoned, unseen, their stories unheard, their dignity violated, their human worth ignored. I suspect that the ease of Wally's death, the rightness of it, the loving recognition which surrounded him, all made it possible for me to see clearly, to witness what other circumstances might obscure. I know, as surely as I know anything, that he's all right now. And yet. And yet he's gone, an absence so forceful it is itself a daily hourly presence. My experience of being with Wally... brought me to another sort of perception, but I can't stay in that place, can't sustain that way of seeing. The experience of knowing, somehow, that he's all right, lifted in some kind process that turns at the heart of the world, gives way, as it must, to the plain aching fact that he's gone. And doubt. And the fact that we can't understand, that it's our condition to not know. Is that our work in the world, to learn to dwell in such not-knowing? We need our doubt so as to not settle for easy answers. Not-knowing pushes us to struggle after meaning for ourselves... Doubt's lesson seems to be that whatever we conclude must be provisional, open to revision, subject to correction by forces of change. Leave room, doubt says, for the unknowable, for what it will never quite be your share to see. Stanley Kunitz says somewhere that if poetry teaches us anything, it is that we can believe two completely contradictory things at once. And so I can believe that death is utter, unbearable rupture, just as I know that death is kind.
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One last mystery: on one of the little ponds, this morning, I saw wind riffling the first of the waterlily leaves. They haven't all emerged yet, but new circles tattoo the water, here and there, a coppery red. When the wind lifted their edges, each would reveal a little shadowy spot, a dot of black which seemed to flash on the water, and so across the whole surface of the pond there was what could only be described as the inverse of sparkling; a scintillant blackness. Shining blackly, black but rippling, lyrical: the sheen and radiance of death-in-life. Is that my work, to point to the world and say, See how darkly it sparkles?
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In the museums we used to visit on family vacations when I was a kid, I used to love those rooms which displayed collections of minerals in a kind of closet or chamber which would, at the push of a button, darken. Then ultraviolet lights would begin to glow and the minerals would seem to come alive, new colors, new possibilities, and architectures revealed. Plain stones became fantastic, 'futuristic... ' Of course there wasn't any black light in the center of the earth, in the caves where they were quarried; how strange that these stones should have to be brought here, bathed with this unnatural light in order for their transcendent characters to emerge. Irradiation revealed a secret aspect of the world. Imagine illness as this light; demanding, torturous, punitive, it nonetheless reveals more of what things are. A certain glow of being appears. I think this is what is meant when we speculate that death is what makes love possible.
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Questions, inside the larger mystery of sorrow, which contains us and our daily transit, and is large enough indeed to contain the whole shifting tidal theater where I make small constructions, my metaphors, my defenses. Against which I play out theories, doubts, certainties bright as high tide in sunlight, which shift just as that brightness does, in fog or rain.
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What can I do but stand with my mouth open, no sound emerging? My lips move and I wave my arms making gestures from the other side of the glass, which I can't penetrate... people can speak out of anything, though the struggle takes years. The problem is, whatever I say about the present feels false-nothing contains it all, or catches the depth of things, or their terrible one-dimensionality. What am I living on? Someone said the other day, 'that old irrepressible-impossible- hope.' And I thought no, this doesn't feel like hope. But maybe that's what hope is, no shining thing but a kind of sustenance, plain as bread, the ordinary thing that feeds us. How could we confuse this optimism, when it has nothing to do with expecting things to get better? Hope has to do with continuing, that's all... I can imagine now, where I couldn't before, this long erosion of faith, this steady drawing from one's strength, until what's left is tenuous, transparent.
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I am not, anymore, a Christian, but I am lifted and opened by any space with prayer inside it. I didn't know why I was going, today, to stand in the long cool darkness of St. John of the Divine, but my body knew, as bodies do, what it wanted. I entered the oddly small door of the huge space, and walked without hesitating to the altar I hadn't consciously remembered, a national memorial for those who died of AIDS, marked by banners and placards. My heart melted, all at once, and I understood why I was there. Because the black current the masseuse had touched wanted, needed, to keep flowing. I'd needed to know I could go on, but I'd also been needing to collapse. Which is what I did, some timeless tear span of minutes sitting on the naked gray stone. A woman gave me the kind of paper napkins you get with an ice cream cone. It seemed to me the most genuine of gifts, made to a stranger: the recognition of how grief moves in the body, leaving us unable to breathe, helpless, except for each other.
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The state of mind above which my distraction floats like fog is suddenly perfectly clear, though the right word for it is less immediately available. Grief is too sharp and immediate; maybe it's the high pitch of the vowel sound, or the monosyllabic impact of the word, as quick a jab as knife or cut. Sadness is too ephemeral, somehow; it sounds like something that comes and goes, a response to an immediate cause which will pass in a little while as another cause arises to generate a different feeling. Mourning isn't bad, but there's something a little archaic about it. I think of widows keening, striking themselves- dark-swathed years, a closeting of self away from the world, turned inward toward an interior dark. Sorrow feels right , for now. Sorrow seems large and inhabitable, an interior season whose vaulted sky's a suitable match for the gray and white tumult arched over these headlands. A sorrow is not to be gotten over or moved through in quite the way that sadness is, yet sorrow is also not as frozen and monochromatic as mourning. Sadness exists inside my sorrow, but it's not as large as sorrow's realm. This sorrow is capacious; there's room inside it for the everyday, for going about the workaday stuff of life. And for loveliness, for whatever we're to be given by the daily walk.
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I used to walk out, at night, to the breakwater which divides the end of the harbor form the broad moor of the salt marsh. There was nothing to block the wind that had picked up speed and vigor from its Atlantic crossing. I'd study the stars in their brilliant blazing, the diaphanous swath of the milk Way, the distant glow of Boston backlighting the clouds on the horizon as if they'd been drawn there in smudgy charcoal. I felt, perhaps for the first time, particularly American, embedded in American history, here at the nation's slender tip. Here our westering impulse, having flooded the continent and turned back, finds itself face to face with the originating Atlantic, November's chill, salt expanses, what Hart Crane called the 'unfettered leewardings, ' here at the end of the world.
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After he died, there was a deep calm to his face; he seemed a kind of unfathomable, still well which opened on and down beneath the suddenly smooth surface of his skin... The heat in him lasted a long time. I loved that heat. I don't know how long I held his face and his shoulders and stroked him; as he began to cool I kept my hands on his belly, where the last of his warmth seemed to pool and concentrate. Here the fire of the body came to rest, smoldering longest, down to the last embers.
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But we have, if not our understanding, our own experience, and it feels to me sealed, inviolable, ours. We have a last, deep week together, because Wally is not on morphine yet, because he has just enough awareness, just enough ability to communicate with me. I'm with him almost all day and night- little breaks, for swimming, for walking the dogs. Outside it snows and snows, deeper and deeper; we seem to live in a circle of lamplight. I rub his feet, make him hot cider. All week I feel like we're taking one another in, looking and looking. I tell him I love him and he says I love you, babe, and then when it's too hard for him to speak he smiles back at me with the little crooked smile he can manage now, and I know what it means. I play music for him, the most encompassing and quiet I can find: Couperin, Vivaldi, the British soprano Lesley Garret singing arias he loved, especially the duet from Lakme: music of freedom, diving, floating. How can this be written? Shouldn't these sentences simply be smithereened apart, broken in a hurricane? All that afternoon he looks out at us though a little space in his eyes, but I know he sees and registers: I know that he's loving us, actively; if I know nothing else about this man, after nearly thirteen years, I know that. I bring all the animals, and then I sit there myself, all afternoon, the lamps on. The afternoon's so quiet and deep it seems almost to ring, like chimes, a cold, struck bell. I sit into the evening, when he closes his eyes. There is an inaudible roaring, a rush beneath the surface of things, beneath the surface of Wally, who has now almost no surface- as if I could see into him, into the great hurrying current, that energy, that forward motion which is life going on. I was never this close to anyone in my life. His living's so deep and absolute that it pulls me close to that interior current, so far inside his life. And my own. I know I am going to be more afraid than I have ever been, but right now I am not afraid. I am face to face with the deepest movement in the world, the point of my love's deepest reality- where he is most himself, even if that self empties out into no one, swift river hurrying into the tumble of rivers, out of individuality, into the great rushing whirlwind of currents. All the love in the world goes with you.
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The physical reinvention of the world is endless, relentless, fascinating, exhaustive; nothing that seems solid is. If you could stand at just a little distance in time, how fluid and shape-shifting physical reality would be, everything hurrying into some other form, even concrete, even stone.
I'd write and read and let myself, a little at a time, step down into myself- like a stairway down into a dark, intimate kiva- where the work of vigil is taking place, the necessary attending. I imagine there's a little fire burning in there, a few steadily glowing embers, and a quiet chant going on, from me, from some singer in me, honoring and accompanying W's soul, which is with him as he is making his passage... there's a leavetaking in process, a movement towards increasing simplicity, away from complexity, activity, expectation. The bout of paranoia, with a childlike quality of being threatened, seems part of that-like a day or two when he couldn't just let go and float on the energies of other people, who are bearing him up-but had to doubt them, struggle. So much better when he can trust and float. There's enough love around him to carry him now...
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I have fallen in love with a painting. Though that phrase doesn't seem to suffice, not really-rather's it that I have been drawn into the orbit of a painting, have allowed myself to be pulled into its sphere by casual attraction deepening to something more compelling. I have felt the energy and life of the painting's will; I have been held there, instructed. And the overall effect, the result of looking and looking into it's brimming surface as long as I could look, is love, by which I mean a sense of tenderness toward experience, of being held within an intimacy with the things of the world.
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'Everything beautiful occurs when the body / is suspended,' Helena Mesa quotes a performance artist who hangs his own pierced body in the air. Mesa's poems are artfully suspended between lyric and narrative, between humans and animals, between Latin America and the U.S., between desire and the difficulty of its fulfillment. Horse Dance Underwater is an inventive, musical, and powerful debut.
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Intimacy, says the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, is the highest value. I resist this statement at first. What about artistic achievement, or moral courage, or heroism, or altruistic acts, or work in the cause of social change? What about wealth or accomplishment? And yet something about it rings true, finally""that what we want is to be brought into relationship, to be inside, within. Perhaps it's true that nothing matters more to us than that.
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Grief does not seem to me to be a choice. Whether or not you think grief has value, you will lose what matters to you. The world will break your heart. So I think we'd better look at what grief might offer us. It's like what Rilke says about self-doubt: it is not going to go away, and therefore you need to think about how it might become your ally.
It's unsettling, to lose the safety of the familiar, even when what's disrupted is an ordinary routine. When I began this poem, I was grieving for the loss of my old barbershop in Manhattan, and wondering at the strangeness of my new one. I didn't have any idea the poem would break into the underworld, opening a deeper subject: the continuing force of the old griefs routine helps to mediate, and my strange, sheer wonder at my own survival. Where's home now? In the contingent present, in which anything can disappear, and where we're sometimes granted some form of grace.
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Here and gone. That's what it is to be human, I think""to be both someone and no one at once, to hold a particular identity in the world (our names, our place of origins, our family and affectional ties) and to feel that solid set of ties also capable of dissolution, slipping away, as we become moments of attention.