I am in the hospital for the fourth time in the past five months, this time for excruciating abdominal pain that turned out to be due to a partial bowel obstruction which has still not cleared up. I have had a tube down my throat and have been unable to eat for over a week. I spend most of my days trying to sleep through the pain and nausea.
In the course of the various tests to try to determine the cause of the obstruction, my surgeon found several large masses on my liver which, after a blood test and a liver biopsy, have turned out to be a fast-growing resurgence of my colon cancer. Thus I am in the hospital cancer ward for the foreseeable future, starting chemotherapy again (it had been on hold during my assorted medical crises of the past few months), before I have had time to fully recover from my recent illnesses and surgeries.
Despite all this, and to remind myself that I am not a bundle of symptoms and sicknesses, I am posting (or rather, having my darling Robert post) this final tribute to my recently deceased mentor Alvin Feinman, a discussion of his poem “True Night.” This is an excerpt from a piece on Feinman’s work in general that is included in the anthology Dark Horses, edited by Kevin Prufer and Joy Katz, and in my essay collection Orpheus in the Bronx.
So it is midnight, and all
The angels of ordinary day gone,
The abiding absence between day and day
Come like true and only rain
Comes instant, eternal, again:
As though an air had opened without sound
In which all things are sanctified,
In which they are at prayer—
The drunken man in his stupor,
The madman’s lucid shrinking circle;
As though all things shone perfectly,
Perfected in self-discrepancy:
The widow wedded to her grief,
The hangman haloed in remorse—
I should not rearrange a leaf,
No more than wish to lighten stones
Or still the sea where it still roars—
Here every grief requires its grief,
Here every longing thing is lit
Like darkness at an altar.
As long as truest night is long,
Let no discordant wing
Corrupt these sorrows into song.
“True Night” is a lovely example of what Bloom calls “a central sensibility seeking imaginative truth without resorting to any of the available evasions of consciousness,” whose temptations are both acknowledged and refused The poem opens at midnight, “The abiding absence between day and day,” a present absence which is both instant (and an instant) and eternal, because it is no given day and no single time, but rather the moment between dates. This no-time is all times, both everlasting and utterly ephemeral. It is (or rather, it is “As though”—what we know is not the thing itself, but only its appearance, our own knowing of it) an air which has opened soundlessly, an air which we take into ourselves with every breath. Particularly within the precincts of a poem, the phrase “an air” in conjunction with the evocation of sound calls up a pun on the Renaissance sense of an “air” as a song. Here, it is a song without sound; it was Keats who wrote that unheard melodies are sweetest, and this soundless air is sweeter than any song one could ever hear.
Here in this time which is no time, the polarity of identity and difference is suspended, and opposites meet. Things are beside themselves, at peace with their own restlessness and discontent, their own failure to be identical with themselves: they are “Perfected in self- discrepancy,” like the off-rhyme of the words “perfectly” and “discrepancy.” All wrongs are posed in the perfection of a still-life, no less wrong but now transfigured into necessity and equipoise: “Here every grief requires its grief.” The poet’s task is both to capture this momentless moment and to leave it undisturbed, to touch its untouchability into art without marring or altering it. The line “I should not rearrange a leaf” can be read either as “I wouldn’t rearrange a leaf even if I could, all is perfect as it is” or as “I should abandon any desire to rearrange a leaf, to insert my own will into the seen/scene.” For this poem, paradise is paradox, where longing (the source of suffering, according to the Buddha) is illumination, and to be lit is to be like darkness “at an altar,” at prayer, prayed to, or both.
The poem’s last stanza insists that no discordant wing (shattering the harmony of the soundless air) should be allowed to corrupt the sorrows the poem presents into song, at least “As long as truest night is long.” That is to say, this admonition holds both forever and only for the most fleeting of (non-) moments. And yet the poem itself, unavoidably, is a song (“lyric,” after all, comes from “lyre”), voiced and heard. The poem both “mystically” asserts a paradoxical concord (echoing and amplifying Stevens’s avowal that “The imperfect is our paradise”) and takes a potentially ironic stance toward it: the poem is both entranced and undeluded.
The inescapable paradox of “True Night,” the truth that it both embodies and struggles against in the name of truth, is that the poem’s discordant wing has corrupted the scene into song: it is helpless not to do so, for otherwise there would be no poem. But the poem has also acknowledged and honored the difference between scene and song: it has reminded us that is remains is however much mind and music might wish it otherwise, however much metaphor and song might wish to translate being into seeming.