Close to Me Now
Through low valley mist
I saw the horses
barely moving, caressed flank
and forelock, the dip
of the back. Human love is a wonder
if only to say: this body! the mist!
from Moon Crossing Bridge (Graywolf Press, 1992)
There’s something beautiful about a poem that contains an exclamation. Such a fact is made even more beautiful when you consider, perhaps, that a poem is, in and of itself, a kind of exclamation — even when it does not literally exclaim. A poem — this often beautiful, often weird, often meaning-filled attempt to render the unsayable into language — is, at its heart, its own exclamation of what we do not have words to say but still try to say anyway.
And I love the exclamation at the end of today’s poem by Tess Gallagher because it feels like the only way to say such aforementioned unsayable things. To exclaim in the face of what is un-understandable feels appropriate. It’s as if the poem is saying: I’ve tried my best with words. I can only yell in awe.
This week, I read Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End. In it, she writes:
We grownups quickly feel at a loss for words when what words we have can’t do half of what we want them to do.
And maybe that’s part of the beauty of the exclamation: it accepts what folly it is that we try to describe anything at all. In that implied raised-voice of love, or awe, or wonder, is an acknowledgement that what is being loved in that moment has no possible description, only feeling — the feeling it has, and the feeling it inspires.
As perhaps with anyone who has read Tess Gallagher’s Moon Crossing Bridge, written in the aftermath of Raymond Carver’s death, I find myself struck by the way in which Gallagher continuously finds her grief translated into wonder. In her poem, “Now That I Am Never Alone,” she writes:
that stills a moment so I can never look
Beautiful mischief is maybe the only way one could describe a life that takes at the same time that it gives. The word “mischief” calls to mind the mess a toddler makes, this wayward compilation of mistakes that sometimes end in joy and sometimes end in pain, but never truly end in a way that makes you blame the child. You blame the circumstance, or the timing. You blame the way things played out, the happenstance of it all, but — because you are in love — you have to find just a little bit of beauty in it all. It makes me think sometimes that, if there is a god, such a god might be a child — somewhere out there, stringing us along the wide line of their mischief, toying with us so that we might find some wonder in it all.
Which makes me think: the other day, in the AP Language and Composition class I teach, I had assigned an old essay prompt from the AP exam. It was a fun one — at least I thought — and it asked students to make an argument about what they considered to be the most overrated concept or idea or thing in the world. When I first saw the prompt, I immediately thought: adulthood. Why celebrate this grand testament of age when it so often drains us of our wonder?
The counterpoint to such a question might be today’s poem by Tess Gallagher (and so many other poems, as well). I’m struck by so much of it: its occasion, its length. But most of all, I’m struck by the fact that the image it presents exists in a kind of haze. The speaker is watching through “low valley mist.” The horses are “barely moving.” What is described is described essentially in outline: “the dip / of the back.” And then, the result of such a haze is pure exclamation: “this body! the mist!”
One might say that the hazy mist serves as a metaphor for the fog of grief, the way one feels in the aftermath of loss, when sharpness turns vague, and all is a little bit blurry with the weight of what is gone. But I don’t think such a metaphor even needs to apply. I think the beauty of Gallagher’s poem is the way in which she seems to be saying that we don’t need to see the whole picture of anything in order to be astounded. At the end of the poem, Gallagher’s speaker isn’t just praising the physical forms of the world; she’s also praising the mist itself. The poem is an acknowledgement that sometimes it is beautiful to stand without complete understanding. Sometimes not knowing is the greatest wonder of all.
Such a sentiment reminds me of a favorite Jim Harrison poem, “Water.” In it, he writes:
There are conclusions
to be drawn but I can’t do it anymore.
Harrison’s poem has a tinge of resignation, but I don’t know if that’s the main point. It seems that Harrison’s speaker wants to live in the ongoing truth of where he lives, rather than attempt to extend meaning into the uninhabitable future, where he will never find himself. It’s not that there’s no truth out there; it’s that there’s enough truth here, in the presentness — where he is surrounded by surrounded by “pink, red, white / hollyhocks in the yard” — for him to find something approaching beauty, or love, or the simple but hard-to-find appreciation of being alive.
This is why I love Gallagher’s phrase if only to say. It’s not just that “human love is a wonder.” It’s that such wonder allows us to name the simplest things — our bodies, and the literal and metaphorical fogs that surround our bodies — and just be in some sort of contented awe at their mere existence. To be in love, Gallagher seems to be saying, is a little bit like pointing at something that makes you smile, or laugh, or cry, and just saying wow. Maybe it sounds childish, but maybe that’s okay. If love reduces us to some child-like experience of wonder, maybe that’s not a reduction at all. Maybe that’s a clue about how we should interact with both ourselves and the world.
Perhaps this is best explained by the end of Franz Wright’s poem “5:00 Mass,” where he writes:
We love one another. We don’t really know
anyone well, but
we love one
I have too many favorite lines of poetry, but these are some of my favorite lines of poetry. I think often of asymptotes — the mathematical concept that occurs when intersection is impossible, and all that happens over time is an ever-growing, but forever infinite closeness to touch, never touch itself. Replace “touch” with “knowledge,” and an asymptotic curve presents a direct representation of human experience with the world. We grow forever closer to touching, or understanding, or knowing the world. But we never do. We simply progress toward such impossible knowledge for infinity. And what happens in the gap? The space between where we are and what (or who) we are trying to know? I think love does. And wonder.
As Franz Wright suggests: “We don’t really know / anyone well.” And as Tess Gallagher suggests, there is, perhaps, a “low valley mist” shrouding all of our attempts at seeing anything with absolute clarity. The point is that we see enough of what or who we want to know that we can look in its direction and still love what we see. We can love the outline of a body, the outline of a soul. We can be astounded, always, by the bare glimpse of something. A shudder in the moonlight. What light there is that is not in shadow.
The beauty of this, I think, is that it allows a deeper appreciation for what is fleeting, which is the same as having a deeper appreciation for what is present. It makes me think of another passage in Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End, when the mother’s son — Nikolai — says:
I prefer a world made of the perishable…Not the inevitable.
This is followed by this exchange:
Inevitable makes time more bearable, I thought.
Time doesn’t make sense if not for the perishable, he said.
Part of an exclamation is an implicit acknowledgment that what one is exclaiming about is perishable. It might go at any second. You have to yell your awe — there is no other way. There is not enough time to formulate the proper words. And, as such, perhaps there are no proper words. But this is why, maybe, we fight so hard to say the right thing, to find the right words. We know that time exists because we, at some point, will no longer exist, so we must try to say it right while we are still here.
We live in a perishable world, a world that could go at any second. Part of our responsibility is to preserve it, to extend its longevity for as long as we can, and as long as we are responsibly allowed. But part of our responsibility, I think, is to exclaim while we can. To shout out our wonder. To shout out our joy. To shout out our love. Today’s poem provides a blueprint for such an interaction with the world. It is short, but it is so full of life. It teaches us that we don’t have to see everything with absolute clarity in order to find appreciation. We can wake up, find ourselves in morning, and see the sun filtered through the windowpanes but not see the sun itself. And though that’s not everything, it is enough. There is light there, even if we don’t completely see its source. And light is light. Even filtered through a window, or fogged by a valley’s mist, it is there. It illuminates the forever unreachable. It begs you to wonder.