Poets in the Well
A Meditation on “Untitled 47” (“Where are the poems I want to write?”)
by Conrad Martin
Notice sometime our fraught relationship with language. Life has pressing mysteries, and words brush past them, sometimes soothing, sometimes rubbing. Expression is our compulsion, but any hope of completing the project is doomed, if not damned.
Kyle Lehman’s poem titled “Untitled 47” (which I like to call “Poets in the Well”) takes a common case of writer’s block and climbs up onto it—gestures expansively, gracefully—and steps down with honor.
To summarize briefly: there’s a kind of speech which a human cannot access but which Life begs, and while Nature gives its own kind of answer, it leaves an ache unquieted. This might be what most poems end up saying.
Grant then that there is something unfinished and unfinishable, but here before us we have a poem made of human words. Despite emptiness, a deeper need is being fulfilled, and something is enough.
Where are the poems I wish to write?
Where are the songs I’ve yet to learn?
The firefly flings his sparks at night,
And syllables fall from falcon wings.
But broken the keys I ache to type
Of echoes and echoes of long-lost things.
The keys are broken. (Could the metaphor play on piano keys as well as a computer keyboard?) Some in-between part of a vital process is missing, and the unease cannot escape. But we have clues to where the inaccessible hides—something in the points of light called fireflies and at the tips of the falcon’s wings. It grows deep in the exotic wealth of the rain forest, but also it is hiding in the woods just out the back doors of the dwellers in Dacia (the ancient realm comprising present day Romania, where the poet lives).
No words arise from the Amazon.
No wisdom wakes from the Dacian wood.
Silent strength flows silent on.
The bird tongue breaks what no human could.
This poem is not essentially a complaint, but a statement of faith in the intrinsic goodness “deep down things,” because “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” (Gerard Manley Hopkins). I think of another Hopkins poem, “The Windhover,” where also a falcon flies: “my heart in hiding/ stirred for a bird.” That same stirring is here, where “silent strength flows silent on.”
But there is more than silence: “The bird tongue breaks what no human could.”
I like to read the word “breaks” as the peak where the poem crests, perhaps subtly. The first three lines of the stanza do not set this up; the first two having parallel meaning (a pattern throughout the poem), and the third line containing “silent strength flowing silent on,” one anticipates the fourth to be subdued and contained as well. And indeed, it is pliable and can be bent to fit that feeling, but it will spring back. It is an unexpected touch of release, coming after silence and sleep.
This breaking is perhaps a solution to the poem’s struggle to express, but the word’s broader connotations are of wounds—its image follows “bird tongue” haltingly— and it is an echo in this poem of inadequacy: “broken the keys I ache to type. . .”
This word “break” is the last verb before the shift to the closure of the final stanza. It has a single meaning of two moods; I do not know which is primary. One mood is of gain—the bird tongue breaks open a flow of mystery. The second is of loss—it is the bird tongue which breaks open the flow of a mystery which the poet has been longing himself to enter.
The last stanza unifies the spirit of the poem to a reconciled, almost exultant nostalgia:
Long live the beauty unbeknown.
In all his searching, this worshipful humility is the health and honor of the poet.
The forgotten gold in the village well.
O but please . . . if we could just have one more detail here? Who . . . why . . . what delicious mystery is this? Gold in the village well! Follow downward this dark column of damp air, through the still depth of the cold. Feel the heavy worth of the gold lying undisturbed through long years, millennia, ages—and all this ancient treasure present just beneath the daily small-talk and sunny brilliance of thoughtless villagers. A bucket let down on a long twine is a space-capsule floating through a worm-hole tunnel from an alien universe. Here are two realms pressed so close together in space and yet so distant in mind, held apart by nothing but a glimmer of time the length of a flick of falcon’s wing. But I must forget it—this gold is forgotten gold, and its forgottenness is golden.
Truth stands below what is understood,
Looking closely, we notice that everything which is understood has something standing under it. That something must also be true, or more than true. If one could only stretch out the arms and reach around it—take it in all at once . . . But it is not unknown. It comes as it slips away. Let us swim into it, each and all,
while poets grow old, and can never tell.