Friday, July 15, 2011

Forms of Farewell, or: Still a voice in my heart keeps repeating: You, you, you

Well-managed repetition is a great though difficult thing.  One of the touchstones for an actor in King Lear is the line "Never, never, never, never, never."  I love the way Paul Scofield does it, and the very different way that James Earl Jones does.  It's right up Derek Jacobi's alley too, perhaps too much so. But the point is the line is earned by the play, which is why Scofield and Jones can do it so well: it's there to be done well.

I was thinking about this because I was thinking about the way poems sometimes end with those kinds of repetitions, like this of Larkin's:
The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
"Never" repeats its own finality, so that even finality isn't resolution. "Afresh" repeats its own élan, acknowledging that what begins afresh has begun before, countless times, and is no longer fresh: and yet that freshness floods any demurral.

Stevens's "Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu" does its repetition in the title, so that the singularity of the moment of adieu can stand simply there without moving a hand:
                                              Ever-jubilant,
What is there here but weather, what spirit
have I except it comes from the sun?
The finality ("the the") is all the more final because it seeks neither to master repetition nor to express itself through its failure to master it.  The title tells you all you need to know about the finality of this form of farewell, the infinite incremental separation of life and death, which is aging, which is death ("World, world, O world! / But that thy strange mutations make us hate thee / Life would not yield to age").  That's the incremental decoherence of what the heart and heart-beat misses in Alvin Feinman's sense of the world undoing itself:
Something, something, the heart here misses.
Freud called repetition an attempt to stay the moment of disaster, to skip backwards like a record at its edge. "Cordelia, Cordelia" -- that's a heartbeat too -- isn't it? -- with a dying fall, since her name means heart. "Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little" - what else should Lear say at the end?

It is always at or near the end that these sad repetitions occur - the happy ones (since "deny, deny, deny is not all the roosters cry") such as those in Cole Porter, in Martin and Blane ("Zing zing zing went my heartstrings") may suggest that the moment is self-perpetuating, self-energizing, effortless, and so they can come in the midst of things. By contrast Larkin's ending is just "sadness, sadness, sadness" (last line of Dennis Johnson's poem "Our Sadness"); the fact that it's an ending makes it as effortful as the trees he's describing, like the end of Hopkins's sad lament for the felled Binsey poplars:
Binsey Poplars

      (Felled 1879)

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering
weed-winding bank.

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew-
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being so slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will made no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.
These repetitions stand against the strokes of havoc, try to, fail to. The repetitions are oriented towards the past, sometimes reduced to the pure sterility of the reduction to repetition itself, as in this moment from Hart Crane:
The grind-organ says…  Remember, remember
The cinder pile at the end of the backyard
Where we stoned the family of young
Garter snakes under ... And the monoplanes
We launched---with paper wings and twisted
Rubber bands…  Recall---recall
(The poem goes on, but the stanza is integral as a repeated call to repetition.)

Forms of farewell, as Stevens says, and yet they have a kind of choral quality, a sense that the farewell itself yields a culminating verse or line or chant or song: "afresh, afresh, afresh." As with Lear calling on the men of stones around him, or to Cordelia, as with Larkin or Hopkins flying to the trees, or Stevens waving adieu, the pressure of departure makes the words sing, as in the third of the endings of Flann O'Brien's great At Swim-Two-Birds:
Well known alas is the case of the poor German who was very fond of three, and made every aspect of his life a thing of triads. He went home one evening and drank three cups of tea with three lumps of sugar in each cup. He cut his jugular with a razor three times and scrawled with a dying hand on a picture of his wife, goodbye goodbye goodbye.
 This is more or less O'Brien's version of Cervantes's last words, which Javier Marías quotes and Margaret Jull Costa translates:
Farewell wit, and farewell, charm, farewell dear departed friends, hoping to see you soon, happily installed in the other life.
 I can't find this in Spanish, but the standard English translation has "merry friends." I prefer "departed friends." He is saying farewell to those already dead in this life, but saying farewell as though they're still here.  Where else would they be? That's Cervantes, that's the song that repetition sings, a lingering song of departure.

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