The wonderful poet Jon Anderson recently died at the age of 67. Though he had a high reputation from the Nineteen Sixties until the early Nineteen Eighties, and was widely anthologized throughout that period, from Paul Carroll’s The New Young American Poets to Daniel Halpern’s The American Poetry Anthology to David Bottoms and Dave Smith’s The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets to Jack Myers and Roger Weingarten's New American Poets of the 80s (rather oddly, since his first book, Looking for Jonathan, was published in 1968), he seems to have been largely forgotten today. His neglect is perhaps partly because he didn’t publish a book between 1983, when Ecco Press published his new and selected poems volume The Milky Way: Poems 1967-1982 (a collection that I still treasure, though now sadly out of print), and 2001, when Carnegie Mellon University Press published his fifth book, Day Moon.
Jon Anderson’s poetry was immensely influential on me as a young poet. His poems exhibit a kind of domestic surrealism, a mythologization of the everyday that opens the door to new imaginative realms rooted in the here and now of quotidian experience. Though it is far from ponderous, there is an utter seriousness in Anderson’s poetry. The poems are highly intelligent, thoughtful, often meditative, but there is no undercutting irony or self-consciousness, but rather a sense of total commitment not to any poetic persona but to the verbal worlds they create: “Clarity, I think I am/coming toward you, I bear/myself with such indifference” (“The History of Psychotherapy”).
Anderson’s poetry is concerned with memory not as reminiscence but as the material of identity, as the mode of reflection by which we constitute ourselves. Mirrors abound in his work:
But if all our losses are a mirror
In which we see ourselves advance,
I believe in its terrible, empty reflection,
Its progress from judgment toward compassion.
The self is not a given, the already defined subject of preconstituted “experiences”, but a fragile and malleable construct. Representation is not merely the technical means of narrative but the problematic of self and world and their interpenetration. As he writes in “Death’s Only Son,” “Memory, we grow/restless, you & I,/and accidental.” In a poem like “Homage to Robert Bresson” the reader is given the materials out of which a story, or a number of stories, may be constructed, but to relate the events of such a story, or to privilege one potential story over another, is not Anderson’s primary concern. There is no explicit speaker at all in this poem; neither the pronoun nor the concept I makes any appearance.
Anderson’s poem is a meditative description: objects are enumerated and possible or potential significances are rehearsed for them. (Bresson said of his film Un condamné à mort s'est échappé [A Man Escaped] that “I was hoping to make a film about objects which would at the same time have a soul. That is to say, to reach the latter through the former.”) Objects such as the “row of public urinals” (perhaps in the men’s room of the theater in which one views one of Bresson’s films) are implicitly ascribed significance by such laden though visually accurate adjectives as “alabaster,” emphasizing not simply their color but a quality of purity, perhaps because they are as yet unused, still in waiting. Objects such as the “single plate” (set at the place of an eventual diner, but metaphorically also a photographic plate) are assigned both immediate significance (the plate is like a “day-moon” or a “lidless eye,” with connotations of continual light, omniscience, sleeplessness and, more implicitly, madness: all concerns of Bresson’s films) and future significance: matters for which talk is either inadequate or irrelevant, “because the soul is speechless,” will be, may be, or simply are “Better revealed in this single plate,” which holds and preserves the image The plate will or may serve the soul as a mirror in which its visage is reflected, much as the face was traditionally thought to reveal the lineaments of the soul. This sentence which begins with that pregnant adverb “Now” enacts an intricate infolding of present and future, actual and potential time.
People are absent from the poem’s first three stanzas except as potential or future presences, but their absence is a strong presence in itself. The scene is one from which we glean instruction as how to proceed within it; we are given questions (“& who/Shall enter, already lost forever//In their lives?”) rather than answers. The search for the answers is, in one sense, the plot of the poem. On another level, this paysage moralisé sets the terms of the work which is the poem’s occasion, a nondiscursive statement of the concerns of Bresson’s films.
When people enter the poem (after the film has begun), we are given their actions (heavily adverbalized, as befitting the simultaneity of action and interpretation in Bresson), we are informed (by way of a question regarding it) of their anguish, and we are indirectly told that it is not proper that they should suffer. The young, here implicitly compared to Christ on the cross crying out in despair (“Why hast thou forsaken me?”), should be happy: “Why are these/Forsaken, too long in anguish?” If the following questions are taken as a reply, then we are told the answer is “because” (which may be taken as equivalent to “It is God’s will”), or perhaps that the question is simply unanswerable: “Why does the tree bear leaves,/The water bear downward into the earth?” Or the questions may simply be in series, equating human experience (here defined as suffering) and natural process. Does the tree suffer as well? Is the water also in anguish? “This is the law, the rest/A commentary.” The words, these speculations, are commentary on the image; the image is commentary on the words, by means of which “the world” exists in human terms. Or perhaps the endless questioning is itself the law, and any possible answer is only the scribbled marginalia. Nonetheless, one questions, these characters question: “Though nothing can be done,//They are not resigned.”
Bresson is a director very concerned with pattern and fate, with “spiritual style,” in Susan Sontag’s phrase. “All of Bresson’s films have a common theme: the meaning of confinement and liberty…. The plots all have to do with incarnation and its sequel” (“Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson,” Against Interpretation, 186). Anderson’s poem seems to be an oblique reflection on and of Bresson’s Le Journal d’un Curé de Campagne [Diary of a Country Priest], in which we see not a series of events but reflections on those events. “The drama of confinement is in the priest’s confinement, his despair, his weakness, his mortal body….He is liberated by accepting his senseless and agonizing death from stomach cancer” (ibid.). Whatever the relation of “Homage” to any particular film of Bresson’s (the suicidal, too-young girl is from Mouchette), these are obviously concerns of the poem. Yet I would like to go beyond the poem’s subject matter to its methods, a deeper level of kinship between Anderson and Bresson.
One may read “Homage to Robert Bresson” as a semiosis (to use Kristeva and Riffatere's term, as distinct from a mimesis) of a “Bressonian” film, a representation of a mode of representation. The poem’s concerns are not only spiritual but aesthetic, or rather, the poem’s concerns are spiritual because aesthetic, the aesthetic being that realm to which the spiritual is relegated in contemporary life. The reader enters the poem as a camera panning over the scene, while “Spaces await their people.” “An empty theater” may be a “shot” in the film, but it may also be a commentary on the film and on the poem: the audience have not taken their seats, the action has not yet begun. One can read stanza one as the audience (unseen because the reader occupies their subject position) entering the theater, and stanza two as the inception of the images the audience encounters. The reader is thus both audience and audience of the audience. The only characters are the actors, the only “voice” is that of the narration within the film, as much an element of the mise en scène as the “brass knob turning.” That “voice” is a constituent element of the total address of the film, no more or less privileged a source of meaning than the lighting or the decor.
Whoever enters this room (the room in the film, the room the film creates of itself, the room in which we watch the film), furnished with “a table,/Chairs, an oak door, heavily grained”, is “already lost forever//In their lives.” The film’s perpetual present tense is also a perpetual past tense: everything that will happen has already happened, can be rewound or fast-forwarded at any moment. Every frame of the film is a still-life, a frozen moment; the speed with which the frames pass gives the illusion of motion.
In this regard, film differs from the verbal media, for the beginning of a sentence leads inexorably to its conclusion. Words mean only in relation: no phoneme, morpheme, or lexeme stands alone. But Bresson asserted that in a film “each shot is like a word, which means nothing by itself, or rather means so many things that in effect it is meaningless. But a word in a poem is transformed, its meaning made precise and unique, by its placing in relation to the words around it: in the same way a shot in a film is given its meaning by its context, and each shot modifies the meaning of the previous one until with the last shot a total, unparaphrasable meaning has been arrived at.” The “endless movement” is the soul’s and the film’s. Whoever enters the theater has already surrendered to the conventions of the film, “lost forever” in the cinematic dreaming. Whoever enters this shot is fixed forever in celluloid.
Who asks the questions in this poem? Perhaps the narrator of the film. “Who/Shall enter?” is a bit of suspense-building in this poem in which nothing happens, in which we watch nothingness unfold. Sarah Jane Gorlitz notes that “In Bresson’s films, first-person narration in the form of voice-over replaces dialogue as the primary means of relaying the story. But interestingly enough, what the narration tells us is nothing that we don’t already know or are [not] about to learn” (“Robert Bresson: Depth Behind Simplicity”). Mostly, I suspect, the audience asks. Is it that the characters are not resigned (they simply act, entering rooms, preparing to drown) or that the audience is not? “Nothing can be done” because it has already been done, is constantly being done. The choices in a film, in a poem, have (for the viewer, for the reader) always already been made. The rest is commentary: the meaning of the film, the meaning of the events. The poem, in this case, in all cases, is both comment and event.
Homage to Robert Bresson
Spaces await their people.
An alabaster row of public urinals.
An empty theater. A table,
Chairs, an oak door, heavily grained,
Brass knob turning & who
Shall enter, already lost forever
In their lives? Now
Will a soul reveal its human face,
Secret luminous flesh,
& because the soul is speechless
There will be little talk,
Better revealed in this single plate
Set like a day-moon or
Lidless eye before its chair.
Who sits shall eat, because
It is important to stay alive, to
Bear the soul’s countenance
Down into the streets, their traffic,
Its endless movement. Here
A young priest, shaken, prays to give
False solace to the dying;
A girl, too young, casually prepares
To drown. Why are these
Forsaken, too long in anguish?
Why does the tree bear leaves,
The water bear downward into the earth?
This is the law, the rest
A commentary. She take off her clothes,
Folding them. He enters
A room. Though nothing can be done,
They are not resigned.