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J Cage: Music is permanent; only listening is intermittent

Monday, December 13, 2010

In my World Literature class this semester we have been talking about wandering as transformational experience in a way that corresponds with HD Thoreau’s discussion of ecstatic contact in “Walking.” For Thoreau, walking combines aimlessness with a sense of holy purpose; it is a means of stepping out of agency, security, and the trappings of privilege in order to be organized by “Higher Laws.” There is no return for Thoreau’s walker (“Knight Errant”) because the activity of walking is change. Thus, he encourages us to walk using the same language that Jesus uses to call to his disciples in The Gospels: “We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return,—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again,—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.”
Getting ready to leave Tuscaloosa for North Carolina later this week, I keep returning to Rimbaud’s poem “Departures” from Illuminations. I have known the Louise Varese translation by heart for years
Seen enough. The vision was met with in every
Had enough. Sounds of cities, in the evening and
in the sun and always.
Known enough. Life’s halts.—O Sounds and Vi-
Departure in new affection and new noise. (New Directions 1946)
*There is a note in the margin that I wrote ten or more years ago in a script that I now barely recognize as my own: “Departures are arrivals.”
Thankfully, my teacher Donald Revell has recently translated “Departures” anew
Seen enough. The vision strives against itself in all atmospheres.
Had enough. Hubbub of cities, at evening, and in the sunshine,
and always.
Known enough. The impediments of life. —O Hubbubs and Visions!
Departure into new affections and noise! (Omnidawn 2009)
I’ll take two.
Both translations evidence the way departures and arrivals press against each other to celebrate Rimbaud’s realization that leaving makes way for wakefulness as it allows us to see our surroundings with fresh eyes—we arrive “into new affection and noise.” (Ezra Pound in a guerilla cage at Pisa: “Nothing counts save the quality of the affection.”) Revell’s translation also cuts in two directions because it addresses tensions of departures related to perspective by emphasizing that “the vision strives against itself” to be born.
Virgil’s Eclogues explore this tension as a matter of attachment, marking the elegiac nature of departures as his shepherds often find themselves displaced. Meliboeus: “But we have to leave our homes and go far way” (“Eclogue 1”). Doing so, Virgil calls to life as a constant birthing forward that couples joyfulness with sorrow:
I was trying to drive my goats along the path
And one of them I could hardly get to follow;
Just now, among the hazels, she went into labor
And then, right there on the hard flinty ground,
Gave birth to twins who would have been our hope,
Back on our farm. (Meliboeus, “Eclogue 1”)
Change is especially terrifying when we are fixated on what must be left behind—our friends, our family, our routines and our sense of safety. Meliboeus is emotionally shattered to leave his home and fields because he loves them. Lycidas is, likewise, heartbroken that he will forget all of his songs because he knows that our new lives forget the old ones—they are the beginning of a new circumstance. “Having no particular home,” they must, necessarily, learn to be “equally at home everywhere” like Thoreau’s walker.
Leaving, Virgil’s shepherds find themselves singing as a means of processing their loss and moving forward “into new affections and noise.” Because they walk while they sing, their songs score distance and a dispersal of agency; the poverty of the “I” extends outward towards the “you” the way an echo spreads out as it carries through the forest. Lycidas: “Let’s keep on going, but singing as we go./ Singing makes the journey easier./ I’ll carry the basket for awhile, so you can sing” (“Eclogue IX”). Making way for company, The Eclogues also reveal change to be harrowing and solitary as Lycidas’ inability to recognize a song he has heard speaks to the insurmountable distance across which they attempt to translate. Lycidas: “What was that song I heard you singing, alone?” (“Eclogue IX”). Ecstasy is transit and ecstatic experience is always, finally, absolutely singular as it finds us alone with God. (W Whitman: “I am afoot with my vision.”)
Reading Virgil’s Eclogues in the beginning of the Christmas season, I am overwhelmed by the promise that the angel of the Lord first delivers the gospel of Christ’s birth to shepherds. While I look around our apartment, preparing to begin to pack up what’s left of our stuff, it’s hard not to feel like we failed here. We’ve made some new friends, for sure, and I am forever grateful. My partner wrote a beautiful book. This was also a hard place to live, far away from loved ones and primary company. Like everybody else, I worked my ass off working full-time for part-time pay sans benefits, and it was hard to buy groceries the last couple of weeks between paychecks. I am not leaving for a job. I have been trying hard to get one, but I can’t seem to pull it off—most of our friends can’t get jobs. The economy is bad and the current academic “system” is a fucking nightmare. It seems like there’s no room for us at the inn.
Faced with what have felt like soul-crushing circumstances this fall, I am desperately clinging to Thoreau’s belief that the poverty of wandering is advantageous because it strips away what is unnecessary. (I woke up thinking about the Gospel of Luke this morning.) I know it’s true. God comes the way of the lowest. I have seen plenty of evidence. I am also scared as Hell. (“The impediments of life.”). Paradise Lost admonishes us that home moves to begin in Hell or otherwise. We are going. We’re gone. (Milton’s Satan: “Space may create new worlds.”) Looking backwards to some perceived sense of safety is ruin; it’s a problem of perspective. (Satan: “I myself am Hell.”) Getting caught up “trying” to agent our way out of the circumstances is ruin—feeling tired, worried, angry, etc. Even the obligation of hope is exhausting.
Like Thoreau’s “Walking,” Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems calls to the advantageousness of poverty as Maximus advises that, in America, the poet should “take the way of/ the lowest” because “the light does go one way towards the post office,/ and quite another way down to Main Street.”
Presence is the baseline and we are leveled to it. Thoreau: “We need to witness our own limits transgressed.”
W Whitman: “Why should I wish to see God better than this day?”
WC Williams’ “Burning the Christmas Greens” also asserts that “the vision strives against itself” by locating the Christmas tree (a symbol of our renewal) as a part of a much longer Lucretian process as Williams watches its ashes crackle in the fire: “All recognition lost, burnt clean.”
My disappointment, shame, anger, and, finally (hopefully), my grace.
WCW: “Ash and flame and we, in/ that instant, lost,// breathless to be witnesses,/ as if we stood/ ourselves refreshed among/ the shining fauna of that fire.”
We leave here, and we arrive here. Robert Creeley: “Here now—/ begin!” (Pieces).
There is no room for privilege or accumulation.
I am sitting at an old card table that my dad found by the side of the road, eating soup with my girl in a strange place that never felt like home (not for a second); our dog is asleep on the carpet next to us.
“Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.”


  1. I get to teach a course on pilgrimage in Jan term. Gonna make your blog required reading!! I wish you, your girl, and the hound safe travels and a real sense of home.

  2. Thanks! It will be an honor!! What texts will you be reading? We braved some nasty weather getting into our new place--at one point, a neighbor even had to rescue us by pulling our truck and U-Haul trailer the rest of the way up the ridge with his tractor after we got stuck in the snow, but we got in fine and got most of our stuff settled.

    Back in MI for Christmas with my family this week, designing syllabi, reading and watching snowmobiles gun their way up and down the river past the living room windows. Off to SLC the day after Christmas.

    Happy Holidays to you and yours, Nicole!