Tuesday, August 26, 2008

On Alvin Feinman’s “True Night”

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.

True Night

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.


seana graham said...

Thank you.

tyrone said...

Get well, my friend.


Anonymous said...

Reginald, it breaks my heart to hear that you're back in the hospital. Here's wishing you a complete recovery.

Reginald Harris said...

Thinking of you and praying for a speedy and complete recovery!

Nada Gordon: 2 ludic 4 U said...

Reginald, I'm so sorry to hear your news. I'm amazed that you can engage poetry to this extent at the moment. Please feel better soon.

Rethabile said...

Get well soon. And thank you for this post, as well as for past and future ones.

Alfred Corn said...

Dear Reginald, Very sorry to hear about the relapse. But you'll pull through again, as you have before. Writing under these circumstances reminds me of Mandelshtam composing poems in his head at the prison camp in Voronezh.

A good reading of the Feinman poem. One of the most striking paradoxes is the "madman's lucid shrinking circle." A less good poet would have put osmething like "furious" instead of "lucid."
I notice that there are departures here and there from the overall tetrameter, though the expressive reason isn't clear. And the concluding rhymes, with "wing" as a discordant near-rhyme. No doubt this wing belongs to one of the angels mentioned in stanza one, but here unwelcome, bringing a lyric comfort in some ways disloyal to the sorrow it means to relieve and therefore not fully condoned. And yet the poet will inevitably sing, no matter what.

Jim K. said...

Your commitment to verbal art
in this new trial says so much.
Thanks for sending your signals.
It's all in the way you say it..

Mark Granier said...

Reginald, so sorry to hear you're back in hospital. I wish you wellness, a proper, long overdue recovery. And bravo for keeping at the writing, and giving us such a wonderful poem and commentary (again).

Omyma said...

This is my first visit to your site, and what an amazing discovery! But how sad to hear about your illness. I wish you a recovery more amazing than my finding you & your blog - but similar in being an unthought-of lift from a general sinking state - in your case, that state seems to be only physical, and your spirit and intellect obviously are rising above it. Thank you for your sharing your wonderful mind.

John Gallaher said...

My thoughts to you right now, my friend.

scotland said...

Dear Reginald, I'd worry about you if I believed any part of your beauty could really be bought or sold. God, I love ya.

equatorjive said...

Reginald: It has been a long time. Even in sickness, you write like a dream. Here's to your strength.

C. H. said...

I just heard that you are gone, dear friend. I dind't know what to do but wanted to say good bye to you. This seemed like an appropriate place to say how much your thoughts, poetry and support meant to me. I'll miss you.

As you always signed your emails

Peace, poetry...rest in both, Reginald.

You will be remembered.

C. Dale said...


I, too, wanted to say good bye. It seems like just yesterday I got that letter from you, the one where you tried to introduce yourself to me, which made me laugh because I knew who you were, had read your two books (at the time) and felt as if you were a real poet, unlke me. That seems like yesterday, but it wasn't. It was almost 13 years ago.

Thank you, Reginald, for all the times you reminded me what poetry was for, what it did. It is very difficult for me to believe you are not here with us, but I know you are here with us. I can never thank you enough for all the good words we have shared over these years.

Robert said...

This is so sad. The word tragic is overused, but surely this is a tragic loss. I knew Reginald only through his writings, but it was clear that his spirit was rare, the intensity of his quest for truth and beauty, and his extraordinary generosity and respect for everyone he encountered on that quest.

Ivy said...

I didn't know you, but your reach was far. Goodbye, Reginald.

tr said...

farewell, this most extraordinary friend.

JMKH said...

I took a workshop with Reginald several years ago, and I am so very sorry to hear of his passing. He was a fine, sensitive teacher, and a brilliant poet.

Lee Herrick said...

Peace and blessings, Reginald.

Mark Granier said...

Goodbye Reginald, this it terribly sad news, a tragedy. May your excellent poetry and prose live for as long as you wished to.

Brian Campbell said...

May you rest in well-deserved peace. You had all my admiration and respect.

Hedgie said...

I've come to know him only through this blog and Fata Morgana, despite which I feel as if I've lost a close and valued friend.

Sleep well and peacefully, Reginald.

Unknown said...

Reginald - You were kind and sweet to me when I published you and I will always remember you that way.


Peter said...

You will be missed.

Anonymous said...

Sending my farewell--out to the universe.

Oliver de la Paz said...

Goodbye, Reginald. You are missed.

John Gallaher said...

You always started your emails "Greetings from Redneckistan".

Thanks for that.

Don Share said...

Peace be on your soul, Reginald, esteemed colleague and friend. Thank you for fighting the good fight without faltering.

George S said...

I echo Don Share above. We never met, Reginald, but I thought you were a real beacon, a proper poet and a good man. - George Szirtes

Unknown said...

peace to you and Robert. your poems were small gifts to me.

ninyabruja said...

I'm so sorry. It was only a few months ago that I found this blog and learned that he had been so ill.

Reginald was a year ahead of me at Iowa. I have never met Robert, but I want him to know that my thoughts are with him.

Kristin LaTour said...

Our bodies can never do justice to our minds and souls. That your body broke down much too early, that your intellect shone through despite this, are testiments to the need for poetry in a world that needs to lift its spirit. Robert, bless you as you move forward through your loss. You and Reginald will be in my thoughts and prayers.

Unknown said...

Such grace and intelligence. Rest in peace.

Jim K. said...

Thank you for the clear-eyed
meaning you left.

Ron Slate said...

Take if you will this boy made out
of wish and will-not-ever-be, made out
to be something he's not, breeze
through the trees. Puzzle his riddling
skin, his irrigated desert
body couched in eroding
mountains. Ride out the rustling sibilants
and make a man into an effigy:
of summer skin, the last exemplar.

Final lines from Reginald's "Along With Whatever Has not Been Named"

Reginald was an exemplar. In a business of trivialists, he showed us how to open further to what matters. His standards were challenging, his tastes were broad, his opinions were equal to the savoring of his tastes. And he could write. Here's to his memory, and the long life of his poetry.

David Groff said...

When I heard that Reginald was gone, I came here and reread the Alvin Feinman poem he posted, and Reginald's acute and loving introduction to it, which he posted just two weeks ago. It reads as an apt valicdictory for Reginald as well.

Thank you, Reginald, for your engagement, talent, and commitment.

Robert, I know our thoughts are with you.


Rethabile said...

Farewell, and rest well.

Nicolette Bethel said...

Walk good, Reginald. Walk good.

seana graham said...

Like a few others here, I am a newcomer to Reginald's thought and work, but that doesn't take away the sting from his death or my sadness at the loss of someone whose words I was starting to follow and whose writing I greatly respect. My thoughts go out to all of you who were close to him. I know it must be very hard right now.

Reginald Harris said...


How thankful we all are to have known you. How glorious to have your words so that you truly can live forever.

Love always


January said...

Rest in Peace.

Montgomery Maxton said...

we'll make sure your poetry lives.

rest in peace, trooper.

Neil Aitken said...

Farewell Reginald. I've been an avid reader of this blog for some time and will greatly miss your insights and commentary, the humor and passion you had for our shared craft of poetry, and most of all the way you always brought us back to what was important, human, and ultimately vital in the work. Rest well and know you are remembered.

Joseph Duemer said...

I only met you once, Reginald, though I have read your written words. In person & on the page, your beauty came through. Peace.

Anonymous said...

I shall miss the comments you sent to my blog and the ever-interesting posts on yours. You always had that rare ability to combine humanity and intellect with humility. I wish you peace in that eternal world of myth.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Grateful to have had the opportunity to visit your work, Reginald (never Reg) Shepherd.

Nick said...

I was touched by your comment on my blog and am saddened that I will never get to hear or meet the author of those words.


blog for steveLi said...

Reginald, it breaks my heart to hear that you're back in the hospital. Here's wishing you a complete recovery.cheap electronics

LotusBee said...

Thanks for providing recent updates regarding the concern, I look forward to read more
fatty liver foods to avoid