Adam Cooper on Sarah Breisch
Sarah Breisch’s poem is born of decision. (By decision I mean the opposite of indecision: the mood of taking one’s attitude from the reality that one goes to meet. An indecisive mood directs itself toward this or that self-proposed goal, and fails again and again to sense the necessity and reality of what it encounters. Reveries born of indecision, where one’s attitude can find no sufficient directional, always seem to glide into the mere ghost of syntax, failing to engage the palpable analogy that is the life of poetry.) The first line represents this decision; unmediated by an “as,” “when,” or “once,” it lets its action introduce itself: “walking out this morning.” The attitude of the morning-walker, in whose voice we hear the poem, makes the sharp perceptions and reflections that follow come alive. “This morning” takes on the particularities of life with “falling leaves and limb-cutter fumes.” These details of the morning air, which provide a sharp sensory setting, receive their bright possibility only within the decisive opening—the “walking out,” through and around which its setting can emerge. The speaker has set forth, and a world rises around her.
That world is attended by the presence of “another morning” that “was remembered to me”: do you see what I mean about letting the action introduce itself? This is a far more decisive statement, than, say, “another morning &ellip I called to mind,” because it acknowledges an unfolding action in which the speaker’s mind takes a part, rather than entertaining a self-directed or fanciful mental exercise.
The contrast between these mornings gives the subject matter of the poem. This contrast, first of all established by difference of location and time, is transformed when the remembrance of this first difference calls to mind a deeper, more displacing difference—the speaker’s discovery that she is not at home, out of place, neither here nor there. The third line then introduces the displacement in which the poem’s “walking out” takes place.
Rome it was then. Home it is now, and I am not at home.
The words “and I am not at home” upset the simple contrast of time and location—here/ there, now/ then—causing this deeper displacement to take hold. What the speaker knew as Rome she can only now, being absent from it, call home. Her place in Rome’s city becomes real only now that she is fully displaced from it; thus the reflection on her sojourn there takes on a new aspect, a quality of bitterness, tenderness, and quiet rebuke—the aspect that a neglected reality will show when we are made aware of that neglect.
How I wandered down that limpid green river and past turning cobbly streets,
On the surface aimlessly but in the back of my mind looking,
For something more than “looking for a good place to read.”
Short black-coated idiot.
Always skirting those warm enveloping colonnade arms,
But always part of me turning my shoulder back toward them.
In these lines, the aimless reverie of the past is undergoing a transformation, in which the past becomes present in a new way. In the recognition of their hidden aim—“in the back of my mind looking”—these wanderings, then vague and unrealized, are now a matter of poetry. Wandering within Rome becomes the analogue of an utterly human condition: the condition of one who cannot find his proper place, not because it is somewhere far from him, but because he does not admit the thing that he senses all along: that he is not yet arrived; and, failing to admit this, cannot sense the draw of his home, a resting place concealed in the midst of life: “always skirting those warm enveloping colonnade arms.” This admission is itself the “walking out.” It is also somehow an arrival there.
This kind of arrival-by-“walking out” that the poem presents has a more common name: pilgrimage—a journey whose goal is commonly conceived as concealed somewhere within the city—here: Rome. Thus the poem finds itself in a rich and deep tradition, whose call to the heart of things has been experienced in the analogy of “walking out.” Chaucer:
Here is non home, here nys but wyldernesse.
Forth, pylgryme, forth! forth, beste, out of thi stal!
Know thi contré! loke up! thonk God of al!
St. Paul’s invitation to a new life as the summons to a hidden city:
Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.
Aeneas to his wander-weary companions, anticipating his final arrival in the city of Rome:
Recall your spirits; your dejected worries
Set aside. Perhaps one day even these present troubles
Will give comfort to remember. . .
We strive for the Latin land, where our destinies
are just now showing us some quiet dwellings.
The streets of Rome are layered, lives on lives, each decade leaving traces of what seem (on the surface) little more than aimless wanderings, overlapping surfaces that slide un-mappably one into another as the living in turn wander by. But the “turning cobbly streets” of Rome, like a labyrinth, conceal something that is skirted at every turn; something Aeneas encountered when he allowed “these present troubles” to be transformed by the arrival of his still-distant end, allowed his wandering to take on the displaced aspect it shows from the perspective of a quiet dwelling, or grave. Somewhere in Rome one may rest in the returning presence of the peaceful dead, bringing with their past one’s own, whose perspective pervades and transforms the hopeless chaos of the city’s intersecting streets, of the overlapping pathways of one’s inner life:
on the surface aimlessly, but somewhere in the back of my mind looking,
for something more than ‘looking for a good place to read.’
Enough said on my part. I’ll let the last lines, with their palpable analogy, speak for themselves:
How like a dog snuffing for his bed,
Turning and turning in some disheveled corner,
Turning back over his shoulder
To gaze at that warm spot beneath his master’s feet.
Original bio from the Fall 2008 edition:
Adam Cooper has no problem standing in a long line only to leave when he gets to the front. He is an expert at that.