A bright soul keeps on beating



Nothing to be said about it, and everything –
The change of changes, closer or further away:
The Golden Retriever next door, Gussie, is dead,

Like Sandy, the Cocker Spaniel from three doors down
Who died when I was small; and every day
Things that were in my memory fade and die.

Phrases die out; first, everyone forgets
What doornails are; then after certain decades
As a dead metaphor, “dead as a doornail” flickers

And fades away. But someone I know is dying –
And though one might say glibly, “everyone is,”
The different pace makes the difference absolute.

The tiny invisible spores in the air we breathe,
That settle harmlessly on our drinking water
And on our skin, happen to come together

With certain conditions on the forest floor,
Or even a shady corner of the lawn –
And overnight the flashy, pale stalks gather,

The colorless growth without a leaf or flower;
And around the stalks, the summer grass keeps growing
With steady pressure, like the insistent whiskers

That grow between shaves on a face, the nails
Growing and dying from the toes and fingers
At their own humble pace, oblivious

As the nerveless moths, that live their night or two –
Though like a moth a bright soul keeps on beating,
Bored and impatient in the monster’s mouth.


Robert Pinsky, from The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems (Carcanet, 1996)


I must have first read this poem during my big Robert Pinsky phase something like twelve or thirteen years ago. I first came across him in Helen Vendler’s The Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry which I loved at the time and kind of still do but also cannot forgive for omitting both Kenneth Koch AND James Schuyler. In truth I have no idea why I picked him up this week. (James Schuyler, on the other hand…  I reread ‘Hymn to Life’. My goodness, it’s good.) I think it was to do with something that Angela Topping had said on her blog, about having a clear-out of poetry books. I resonated with every word she said. Don’t keep anything you have not looked at for 3 years, she said. Well, RP certainly fits into that category. I’d put it at closer to 8-9 years, if I’m honest. And that made me think -what poets can I do without, right now? Do I need two, actually two whole Selecteds of Robert Pinsky? Nothing at all against him. Love him when I reach for him. The problem is -how often am I doing that? Not a great deal, it turns out. And yet. And yet. Here is this amazing poem fresh off the page like something we all need to hear right now, about naming and connecting with what this moment we are living through is all making us think of but not necessarily give voice to, namely dying and death. I think about it all day every day. Those ‘tiny invisible spores in the air we breathe’. Those moths. That monster’s mouth. That extraordinary multi-claused final sentence, all fifteen lines of it, culminating with that equally astonishing almost final image of the bright soul keeping on beating. That’s what I want to hold on to today. The memory of that. Of the person I am losing and trying to hold in the light at great distance. The book? It may go in the out-pile; I haven’t decided yet. If I do chuck it possibly other great poems will go with it. If only I had the time to read them all.


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