It’s four-thirty in the morning. No birdsong proceeding the sun. No warm light threading through my squinting blinds. The newspaper won’t be delivered for a couple hours. My eyes hurt; a minor headache. Only hours ago I shut my laptop, regretting staying up late watching an embarrassing amount of Netflix. In five minutes my alarm will go off again. The siren of a sinking ship.
This is ridiculous.
Ridiculous that it’s five a.m. and I’m hunkering down in a pew for what I anticipate will last for more than three hours. Ridiculous that I’m standing in a dark chapel, holding a candle, alternately sitting, standing, singing— waiting for the sun to come up.
Ridiculous to think this touches deeper than nerve, that some divine particle or cosmic quirk, intelligent being, or God if you prefer, is pleased with us—our bowing or our song.
But it is beautiful. All of it. Passing the fire row by row. In the darkness it seems the tips of our fingers are flaring. We listen as long passages of the Old Testament are read. The creation narrative is read straight through and I too am ready for a holy nap. But rising for the Collects keeps blood flowing. Ezekiel is read and I’m wide awake. Then the gospel: the flight of the disciples, a rolled back stone, a perched angel welcoming the women to an empty tomb. And let there be light and rattling of bells, kids in pajamas jingling their parents car keys like party favors. I’m suddenly aware of how crammed the chapel is; my friends beside me, the excitement on our priest’s face, and my own presence, not just observing the strangeness of this moment, but feeling my way into and beyond it—existing, as certain as it exists. It is bright, it is loud; together, everyone is singing.
O’ Quantum God, my God, this is ridiculous—ridiculous that I am here.
The night before Easter morning, before I trade my jeans and a button down for pajamas and fall asleep, before I party-trick-open a beer with my BIC, before I fire the starting gun to a New Girl marathon, I thumb the pages of some poetry collections. Only a few days ago I read an essay by poet, critic, and translator, Robert Hass. The essay, exploring the type of personal lyric he encountered in reading Swedish poet, Tomas Transtromer, delights in implementing, to use Hass’ phrase, a “pointlessly beautiful” poetic voice entirely its own. I had seen Hass’ name printed across the front covers of several of my books by Milosz, but never had I thought of investigating any poetry he himself had written.
Ridiculous to strike gold on the first go, but I discovered a Hass poem in a collection of poetry I got as a Christmas gift three years ago.
The poem is called Faint Music, and reading the first line, which is also the first stanza, made me both immediately skeptical and uncharacteristically vulnerable.
“Maybe you need to write a poem about grace.”
Maybe I needed to read one.
The poem continues, “When everything broken is broken,/ and everything dead is dead”
My immediate intuition tells me this is a poem you brace yourself for; dig your heels in and hold on to your hat. These are high stakes first sentences. They are more than defeated—they are final. There is an extra layer of destitution; in the world of the poem, the dead get deader.
But this second stanza goes on and love, no, self-love, the secret to human dignity, the choosing of life simply because it is life, no matter how dark, blossoms as a weedy stalk.
The complexity of the second stanza is obvious, but a close reading reveals that although it is eighteen lines long it is a single sentence. The rhyme scheme is loosely slant from line to line, but the music internal to each can be traced by way of frequent alliteration, word suffixes repeating themselves, and pacing varied through a precise implementing of punctuation. The structure intentionally misleads the reader, while at the same time freeing the interpretation of the poem from becoming too static. The phrase found in line 17, “maybe then”, on which the stanza pivots, can be applied so as to transition the reader out of any of its proceeding lines and into the final line, “faint music under things, a hovering like grace appears.”
Diagramming the sentence reveals that the phrase, “maybe then” is inseparably linked to the stanzas first word, “When” and, in my opinion, especially to the first two lines, “When everything broken is broken,/ and everything dead is dead”. Although it seems that I am eliminating the bulk of the stanza by reducing it to the three lines previously mentioned, that is not my intention. My hope is to simplify, to link the conceit of the finality the world of the poem introduces to the surprising and so far unearned phrase, “maybe then”. We are not given an overwhelming amount of evidence at this point to conclude, as Hass does, that when the light of love is snuffed out and stomped on, when “everything dead is dead,” that, “maybe then…a hovering like grace appears.”
This is where Hass is leading us, into the felt grace of the strange yet familiar. The third stanza, potentially the poems most musical, at least faintly, presents the reader with an image that defends the notion of grace as a thing that “maybe” appears when our darkest is also its deepest.
The third stanza invites us to hear the story of a young boy whose girlfriend has left him: “As in the story a friend told once about the time/ he tried to kill himself.” This first sentence is much more direct than anything in the previous stanza, and the next sentence continues to take the wind out of the labor done in getting through stanza two, “His girl had left him.” The scope of the second stanza is funneled into an image and that image begins its dialogue with discourse:
“He climbed onto the jumping girder of the bridge,
the bay side, a blue, lucid afternoon.
And in the salt air he thought about the word “seafood,”
that there was something faintly ridiculous about it.
No one said “landfood.” He thought it was degrading to the rainbow perch
he’d reeled in gleaming from the cliffs, the black rockbass,
scales like polished carbon, in beds of kelp
along the coast—and he realized that the reason for the word
was crabs, or mussels, clams. Otherwise
the restaurants could just put “fish” up on their signs,
and when he woke—he’d slept for hours, curled up
on the girder like a child—the sun was going down
and he felt a little better, and afraid.”
Here, the complexity and power of the mind is exposed in its ability to connect, like metaphor, the interworking of the world within too the life that exists out there. Things are cobbled together, it seems by chance, and meaning is created; what Robert Cording insightfully calls, “the plenitude of the unintended.”
For Hass, the test of grace is its absurdity: “there was something faintly ridiculous about it.” Why the boy, who is more than ready to kill himself, is caught off guard, as well as persuaded toward life, when blindsided by the foolishness of such an umbrella term like “seafood,” is kept a mystery to us.
What we do glimpse, in the interplay between image and discourse, is the connection between self-love and the givenness of life. It is the gleaming rainbow perch reeled in from out of the deep ocean, and the black rockbass that suddenly appear as the poems epicenter for life. The boy affirms his love for them by the tender memories he carries, and likewise evidences that it is first our self-love, the choice to go on living, which preserve their existence also.
I don’t want to stretch Hass beyond what the poem is capable of bearing, but intended or not, that the “ordinary light” in the second stanza remerges in the word “rainbow” should not be overlooked. Is not a rainbow the filtered light that has outlasted the storm? It appears this way to Noah as much as it does to those of us who call Seattle our home. The rainbow is the afterimage of struggle, the beauty the sky has not earned but exists nonetheless. Grace.
The poem continues with as much power in the final two stanzas as the previous three. Like the sudden memory of the fish, the boy, at the sight of her “lemon yellow panties”, goes on not only to remember, but replay and reimagine his painful memories. It is the boy’s admission to the lastingness of his pain, that it is his, which lead to the poems bravest, nearly unbearable but inescapably hopeful, lines:
“And he, he would play that scene
once only, once and a half, and tell himself
that he was going to carry it for a very long time
and that there was nothing he could do
but carry it.”
To carry our hurts means to keep life near, to go on living with the weight of our own existence. This is the absurdity of grace, that it prompts us to choose life.
As much as I would love to investigate every detail of this poem, the syntax and diction of each line, how the stanzas tug on each other, and how the image present in the poem illuminates the discourse as much as the discourse illuminates the poem, it is better to use the poems final lines as bait, that you will seek to read it as a whole. (I have included a link at the end)
What finally appears is order among disorder, song where you would assume there should be silence, and self-love so strong it becomes finally capable of survival.
“I had the idea that the world’s so full of pain
it must sometimes make a kind of singing.
And that the sequence helps, as much as order helps—
First an ego, and then pain, and then the singing.”
The world is full of pain, and it is only by being so full of pain that “maybe” grace can appear.
It was this very awareness that life is a kind of shouldering of death, and paradoxically a weight making it bearable, that enabled me to see the meaning in waking up at four-thirty to sing and stand and ignore my getting-hungrier-by-the-minute stomach. I was there to affirm life. I am here because I continue too. I was there because the liturgy that carried me through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday carried me a little further.
I still think there is something faintly ridiculous about all of it, but not in the same way I did before. I used to have this idea that the world’s so full of pain that there was little room left for anything like a God. Now I know the world’s so full of pain because it is first so crammed with life. Grace comes as a surprise spooling up out of the darkness and gleaming; like the rainbow perch; like the song rising to my lips as the chapel lights come on.
Here is a link to the poem:
I welcome your thoughts!