A personal fantasia

An exploration of the author’s abiding interest in the nature of time, memory, the force of the past, and the promptings of nostalgia. His speculations touch on notions of the past’s ‘reachability’, the question of fate and free will, and more implicitly on the impulse to faith and transcendence. The discussion is counterpointed with a range of examples from his poetry in which these concerns are foregrounded or implied.

 

Keywords: poetry – time – the past – nostalgia – speculation – philosophy – science fiction

 

A man lies awake gazing
at the curtain into the past
that hangs in front of his eyes.

He can discern shifting images
beyond the delicate gauze
and the ache in his diaphragm

Is pleasure and regret,
the silent curlicues of desire
trapped in the chamber’s gloom.

The future is hurting
but he knows nothing about the future,
he traces the trembled outlines

Of each dancing apparition
(for each dancing apparition is
himself), and struggles for focus.

He strains to re-enter
the cathedral of the past, it is prayer
(the past is prayer)

And he could worship there
if only the gauze would clear
and he touch the flesh

Of history. Because he needs
to know again, know
again, he needs to touch

The outlines, pry them apart,
push his entire being
into every last one of them

And maybe then, maybe
then he would know
why the curtain is forever

Stirring in the breeze
of his desires, why the gauze
shimmers like reprimand,

And why each curlicue
of the music that breathes him
is singing the irony of time.

That was my poem ‘Night-Errand’. Ever since I can remember I have been intrigued by time, its nature, its enigmas, and its ironies. I have pondered memory, the past, its meaning, the meaning of time itself, and the interplay of that meaning with all that we hold sacred. I’ve speculated on the links between our linear notion of time and the age-old tussle between fate and free will. I have read what philosophers have had to say, and science-fiction writers with their time-warps, wormholes and parallel universes; I’ve skirted the tricky slopes of relativity, the paradoxes of time-travel, the seductive images of time that can curve, and of time that can run backwards. Alongside all this, I have maintained (not surprisingly, I suppose) a strong, abiding interest in history, and with it a special fondness for dates—for remembering days, months and years. I came close to confessing this in a fanciful poem called ‘The Crate’:

Many decades back I embarked upon
A project that entirely consumes me
I collect years and my hoard is growing
I keep them in a crate under the bed
And trundle it out at night to examine them
To fondle their forms and permutations

All are approximately similar in size
But so many subtle shifts and variances
Of shape and texture, colour and design
Some flow through fingers almost lazily
Others are brittle, or tender to the touch
Others again recalcitrant, compliant
Slippery, sharp, translucent or opaque

My scrutiny is random, or it’s planned
I twist and twirl each specimen about
To reacquaint myself with its uniqueness
Reanimating its peculiar charms
Its tragedies, its fantasies and fears
Its physiognomy, alive under my hand

Each has a number pressed into its side
And when I spell it out, it starts to gleam
Images swirl, and I relive the past 
As if the past had never abandoned me

The only trouble is I’m running out
Of room inside the crate, and truth to tell
Everything depends on keeping the years
Arranged together, all in the one box —
So I attempt new, tighter rearrangements
Checking that each can still be lifted clear
Dreading the crisis that must yet arrive

The crisis has yet to arrive, but over the years I have thought a lot about an impulse at the centre of my own imaginings—one that is probably inseparable from my fascination with time in the first place. It translates into a readiness, sometimes, to embrace a mode of remembrance, or of meditation, coloured by the undertones of a mellow but insistent nostalgia. The Oxford English dictionary provides two definitions of ‘nostalgia’. The first of these runs as follows:

1. Path. [Pathology] A form of melancholia caused by prolonged absence from one’s home or country; severe home-sickness.

The second, more modern definition may come a little closer, at least in part, to pinning down my own preoccupation with the past:

2. transf. [transferred sense] Regret or sorrowful longing for the conditions of a past age; regretful or wistful memory or recall of an earlier time. (OED 1989)

Note the italicised preposition in this second entry—a longing for, in contrast to an absence from in the first. It’s not that I regret or lament my absence from the past. I know better than to regard the past as somehow ‘better’: I don’t want to restore it, or disappear back into it! Nor does the word ‘longing’ describe it exactly. Rather, it’s the sheer pull of the past, the pull of memory, the mystique of what once was—a kind of magnetism almost spiritual in character. It surfaces, now and then, as an urge to revisit and penetrate my own history—if not physically, then at least in vivid dreams, or in writing. But as well, it transmutes into something like an unquenched desire for time to be eternally porous, or for a knowledge that the past (not unlike the future) exists—and might somehow even actually be retrievable! My poetry has often touched on these ideas, most recently in my collection of prose-poems, Autographs (2008). I’ll come back to that. For now, let me prospect a little further. Near the start of his 2002 novel Ignorance, Milan Kundera opens his discussion of nostalgia with an excursion into etymology. He writes:

The Greek word for ‘return’ is nostos. Algos means ‘suffering’. So nostalgia is suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return. (Kundera 2002: 5)

As I’ve said, this ‘yearning to return’ should not be taken too literally; yet I’ve already admitted that, for me, it’s more complex than ‘regretful or wistful recall’, as the OED has it. In a strange way which is hard to explain, I seem to want to access the past, in more than mere memory. At this point one might wonder if, in my case, the two Oxford definitions above don’t begin to converge—am I describing a form of melancholia; or worse, an eccentric pathological state? And yet, I don’t experience nostalgia as eccentricity, or as a form of suffering (far from it); nor do I think of my wistful musings as an unhealthy condition I need to monitor or throw off. No, to me it’s more akin to a ‘soft exquisite aching / That lulls and lacerates’, as I’ve expressed it in what I sometimes call my signature-poem, ‘Sisyphus’ (where the laceration is, importantly, a sweet or bittersweet harrowing of the heart). Here’s that poem:

I choose my boulders carefully,
They are scattered like words across the white plain;
I scoop my syntax from the clouds’ dictionary —
The path to wisdom is difficult, rich and mundane.
I have my nostalgia, the soft exquisite aching
That lulls and lacerates; and I can dream
The dazzling city that drives upward to the horizon
Beyond the land where the rumbling boulders lean.
One evening soon, as the crescent overtakes me,
I’ll slip discreetly over the edge of the plain
And into the valley beyond, because I know
The song of terrible grace that summons me.
But the clouds are backing away; an exquisite pain
Is pleading for me to stay. How can I go?   (Skovron 1992: 9)

For all its pastness, the past, for me, is a climate that can radiate a curious, tender sustenance. It’s a not-so-foreign country I enjoy visiting, and a land of ambiguous allure which contains, as I’ve written elsewhere (in a prose-poem titled ‘Nostalgia’), ‘places still reachable, humming to us their bittersweet music, luring us onto the rocks of reminiscence, those beautiful sad melodious phantoms washed by the waters of the impossible’.

Impossible, or still reachable? If reachable, how? Does the past then truly exist? It’s a question that tantalises the imagination. It makes me think, too, of T.S. Eliot’s Four quartets, where at the very start of ‘Burnt Norton’ the poet writes, famously:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

And yet he immediately goes on to declare:

If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.   (Eliot: 1979)

So, where does all this leave us? I’m not sure. But it is not my purpose here to tackle a conundrum of such magnitude; nor, on the personal level, to ‘resolve’ the riddle of these counterclockwise inclinations of mine. And while I might harbour an interest in their mystical meaning, if you like, I don’t wish to pursue a psychological reading that invokes my childhood, or in particular my formative migrant adventure spaning three separate continents and cultures in the early years of my life. Nor, for that matter, are my reflections governed by an idyllic impulse to regain the lost purity of the very young, a time when time was of no concern; or, as Rilke writes in his Fourth Elegy:

                                     … Oh hours of childhood,
when behind each shape more than the past appeared
and what streamed out before us was not the future.   (Rilke: 171)

Nevertheless, I do find it exciting to interrogate that mysterious planet, the past: to orbit its shadowy contours, to feel the tug of its gravity, to exult in its elusive landscapes, to draw joy and inspiration from exploring its hazy familiar outlines. And if one should accuse me of sentimental fantasies, I would reply, a little perversely, that there can be no sense without sentiment, and perhaps no sentiment without fantasy.

Sometimes, special objects and precious keepsakes can be the most vivid touchstones of those magnetic sentiments and fantasies that have their roots in memory. From my collection The man and the map (2003), here is a poem entitled ‘The Wooden Box’:

Like a rhetorical question to which an answer is expected,
The wooden box inhabits the corner of my desk.

It’s barely four inches by three, an inch and a half deep,
With a framed chessboard design roughly embossed on the lid —

Though the chess-grid is eight by eleven, a rectangular field,
Too many squares — you couldn’t play real chess on this.

Besides, no fingers could properly clutch such miniature men
But a child’s, or God’s (and we know He’s not interested in chess).

The box doesn’t lock, the clasp won’t even click. You squeeze it shut:
Chunky, tight as concealment — and the half-broken hinge

Doesn’t help, a trick to open and close. Inside, in a cottonwool sac,
My mother’s necklace of small coloured stones — too small

To be carved into miniature chess. Sifted and stirred in the half-open
Palm of my hand, they rustle, they whisper, like memory.   (Skovron 2003: 22)

Let me modulate now to a different but related key, with the opening four stanzas of a poem called ‘Bounty’, from my first book, The rearrangement (1988):

We have tracked deep
into the country of the clock and mapped only
the printed archipelagos.

We have travelled round
the rim of the great wheel where thought burns
and returned empty.

We have traced beyond
the folds of the infinite and contrary to creed
there is no such place.

But we trapped once a too
brief dream without a name, a broad hospitable gulf
reminiscent of love.   (Skovron 1988: 75)

What are we to make of this? Beyond the country of the clock, our country (our kingdom of the mind, if you will), does love—and its familiar, faith—hold a truer glimpse, a retort, a counter-premise to the tauntings of time? Or, is the ‘broad hospitable gulf / reminiscent of love’ merely a ‘too brief dream without a name’; such that life and remembrance equate to Prospero’s ‘insubstantial pageant’, little more than an illusion destined to be ‘rounded with a sleep’—and oblivion? To reframe the problem in less uncompromising terms, throwing down the challenge I proposed earlier: could the past actually be out there somewhere—in its own right—as accessible as memory, if only we had the proper key? Let me hand over to several protagonists who inhabit my prose-poetry; firstly, the seeker from an unpublished piece entitled ‘Finding’:

…   The question had obsessed him for many years,  he must  be on the brink of an under-
standing. He had tried everything — hypnosis, drugs, meditation; one season he’d strained
for months to quit his body.  To no avail.  The past was memory alone.  He tried revisiting
some of  the  key  locations that dotted his lifetime — a  school, a  campus, the site of his
first  kiss, his  old  apartment, the  park where he’d wheeled his children, that other park,
far distant, where his  parents  took  him, or the village where the sun stood still when he
rode his bike. He’d even rapped on the door of the corner house, at the foot of the hill he
had climbed on a thousand mornings,  for permission to stand in the heart of his old room,
concentrate, focus, will the past to return. Alas, nobody home! …

So, on the one hand, the past is always ready to respond when we summon it; on the other, it’s never really at home when we come knocking. In the stark light of the present, it remains a twilit figment, a mirage, no matter how distinctly our memory can recount its details. Should we conclude, therefore, that all this, all nostalgia, is just a case of memory clinging to itself—a grand delusion, a grudging compensation for the irreversibility of time? A longing, as the American poet Robert Hass puts it in his ‘Meditation at Lagunitas’, ‘because desire is full / of endless distances …’? (Hass 2010: 79) Or, to twist slightly what the poet and critic Louise Glück argues in discussing Keats and Milton (Proofs & theories: essays on poetry), should we perhaps see this longing as linked to an ambivalence in facing what lies beyond this life, so that a reference-point of stability, of security, becomes ‘what was, not what will be, a world as stationary and alive as the scenes on the Grecian urn’? (Glück 1994: 39) Is mortality, then, the elephant in the clock? Maybe, but I don’t really want to think so.

In a spirit of speculation, I’d like to share a few more scenarios from within my poetry; not, I repeat, to approach anywhere near an ‘answer’ to the puzzle of time, but to offer some additional angles and perspectives, or should I say reformulations of the puzzle, that may (or may not) throw our predicament into sharper relief. Here is an extract from another unpublished prose-poem, called ‘Everythings’, which returns us to the fundamental question:

             What has  become of all things  that ever were?  This is not about memory.
Where, literally, is  the  past?  …  In  what  realm,  which  dimension, could I reach
these things, touch them?  This is not about time-travel.  In  what  ghostly  parallel
could I track  them  down?  Be  encircled  by  them  again?  This is not about empty
imagining. Where are those everythings, all of our everythings — that fracture each
second  into  infinite  everythings,  and  spread  like  invisible  magical honeycomb:
borderless,  timeless,  all  things  recorded (each place,  every moment, an endless
Akasha)?  All  right, it’s  partly about memory.  But think — to adventure beyond all
memory!  Backwards,  forwards  (yes, even  the  future), nothing amended, nothing
erased. Nothing not known at last.

An irresistible thought? Those everythings ‘that fracture each second into infinite everythings’—could they really be located, isolated and retrieved? The Greek philosopher Democritus, whose life straddled the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, was among the first to propose that everything in the universe was made up of atoms, including time-atoms—instants that actually existed as separate entities. Later thinkers, such as the 12th-century Jewish philosopher and scholar Moses Maimonides, disagreed with the atomists. He saw time as an accident of motion, itself an accident of matter. The past was gone, the future didn’t exist, the present alone serving to separate them … But I really shouldn’t go there, because the line from the pre-Socratics to the theories of Einstein continues into the stratospheric realms of contemporary quantum mechanics, particle physics and the science of time. And mine remains a poetic not a scientific enterprise.

Well then … Even if we could locate all those ‘everythings’—even if we could reconstitute those ‘atoms’ of our past, discover their hiding-places—what about the problem of access? And then, how would we navigate among them? Could bizarre, barely imaginable cyber-technologies and time-machines be waiting around the next impossible corner to be invented? From my book Autographs, here is ‘Memorandum’:

           This morning I discovered the ultimate  website. It can answer any question
about my history,  access any part of my past!  The search-engine is utterly beyond
imagination, an infinite  internet  of  autobiography,  a limitless book of my life.  I
typed in ‘Warsaw’ — hits: 28 million! — began to browse. Every  connection I’d had
with that city, every moment of my three  days  there, my  every thought  or word
about  Warsaw, my  merest  drop  of  its  name!  All  entries  open  with a boldface
datelog (say, Haifa, train-station, 6/5/57, 11:24:42);  then a line,  a sentence, one
page or many,  with  a  perfect transcript of the conversation or a verbatim text of
the thought. And each hit  is  linked to an audio or video — with a single click I can
now re-experience  precisely  that  instant:  see  what  my eyes saw, hear what my
mouth  said  (or somebody else’s),  zoom  in  and  out,  or pan round the  scene!   I
entered in rapid succession ‘strawberries’, ‘Ghana’, ‘Helen’, ‘prosciutto’,  ‘chess’;
I  counted  the  hits  under ‘book’ (12 trillion),  ‘stapler’ (4 million),  and (gingerly)
‘sex’. (When I checked ‘2030’ my backbone tingled, for the future’s online as well!
This is regrettable, but  you  can’t  disable  it — I  promise I’ll  never type ‘death’.)
I  roamed  the  timewaves — examined myself at the age of eleven, studied the lips
of a teenage girlfriend,  explored  a  gallery  briefly  visited,  relived my first day at
school. With memory conquered, I’m  master of time! O  glorious,  miraculous,  all-
knowing website. I shall give it my name, and worship It.   (Skovron 2008: 24)

All right. If we could be made capable of going this far, why not up the ante by another notch? The following is from a prose-poem called ‘Possibilitron’:

                   Maybe  it’s  all the  sci-fi he’s been swallowing,  but he dreams one night of a
machine for what might  have  been!   In his  dream  it’s called  ‘Possibilitron’.   A module
cloaks  your  head  like  a  medusa;  you log  your  settings  and  options,  power-on,  then
upload  the  chosen  memory—that  is, you imagine-in  the moment you’re recalling:  time
and place, the people you wish to summon,  your hopes and fears and feelings, the sounds
and sights, the textures, tastes, aromas, the play of light. Then, by a wilful self-extension,
you   design   what   you   wish  could   have   happened.    Possibilitron   rechannels   your
parameters,  reconfigures  fancy  into fact—your  private  alternative universe,  which you
live for the journey’s duration …

Let me try to impose a little sobriety here, and come back to the rather simpler concept of the interconnectedness of time past, present and future. I’d like to invoke a rather different poem of mine, though very much on theme. It begins with an epigraph borrowed from Two cities, a volume of essays by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski: ‘We have no control over the past. There are as many secrets in it as in the future.’ (Zagajewski 2002: 90) Here is my poem, ‘Climate Change’:

The past never happened and never will
the future has come and gone
the present is loitering somewhere on the outskirts
of intention, biding its time, alone

among the old tenses with no place to turn
and nothing to do but await
word from the foggy reaches of photographic memory
as it scans itself, recalling too late

the long latitudes of desire, all those isobars
swimming about an erratic map
like an eternally changing and unchartable weather
like crosshairs that refuse to overlap

to fix at last upon their softly shining target
lurking somewhere in the zone
of a past that no longer can pretend to happen
and a future forever gone.

If this sounds gloomy, it’s not meant to be. Maybe the poem is telling us, as the mystics do, that the trick is to try to live outside of the tenses, in the realm of pure experience. It seems to me natural that the whole riddle of time should be intimately connected with dimensions of the mystical, or with what we loosely describe as the spiritual quest, and so ultimately with the soul. In his Confessions (written 397–98 CE), St Augustine, addressing the question of time with respect to the Creation and the opening line of Genesis, speaks of:

the Heaven of Heavens—that is, the intellectual heaven [my emphasis], where the intellect is privileged to know all at once, not in part only, not as if it were looking at a confused reflection in a mirror, but as a whole, clearly, face to face; not first one thing and then another but, as I have said, all at once, quite apart from the ebb and flow of time.
(St Augustine 2004: 104)

Obviously, the challenge of the nature of time—its fixity or fluidity, its shape and structure—reaches beyond physics, beyond cosmology. It impacts profoundly on philosophy, theology, and, again, the vexed question of fate and free will. The Roman philosopher and scholar Boethius, writing shortly before his death in 524 or 525, half a century after the effective dissolution of the western Roman empire, appears almost to resolve the paradox and manages to reconcile predestination with free and independent human choice. In Book Five of his great treatise, The consolation of philosophy, he explains:

All things, therefore, whose future occurrence is known to God do without doubt happen, but some of them are the result of free will. In spite of the fact that they do happen, their existence does not deprive them of their true nature, in virtue of which the possibility of their non-occurrence existed before they happened.

Or, putting it another way, he adds:

And so, those things which are present to God will without doubt happen; but some of them result from the necessity of things, and some of them from the power of those who do them. We are not wrong, therefore, to say that if these things are considered with reference to divine foreknowledge, they are necessary, but if they are considered by themselves, they are free of the bonds of necessity. (Boethius 1998: 173)

In other words, we are fully free to act, but the choices we freely make, surveyed from a superior vantage outside time—however that vantage might be conceived (and for Boethius, it’s the vantage of ‘God’)—those choices we make have been eternally ‘written’ and were always going to be made; but (most important) made freely. And to complicate this relatively straightforward notion, we might ask whether each potential choice might open up a fresh and parallel time-track—an infinite multiplicity of universes in which all possibilities are played out, and always were going to be played out? Such thoughts must hinge on the premise that time is not linear and singular but endlessly layered, endlessly polyphonic—and perhaps endlessly elastic.

Just how elastic could time be? What if time could reverse itself—if we could press the ‘rewind’ button and run the tape of time backwards! Here is a second poem from Autographs. It’s called ‘Supplication’:

                   Let the film turn before it touches the Moment.  Let the motorcade stop, drift
backward down the plaza. Let the jetliner freeze, metres short of the tower, flow back out
of the frame like a toy  wing  at the  sling’s limit.   Let the black plumes billowing from the
edifice be reinhaled to  unmask  the blue.   Let the bullet thread  with  a  thud back  in the
barrel  crouching  in  the  gateway,  the victim  clinch  his  scarf and vanish within.  Let the
high   sniper  crawl  from  his  perch,  crabble  back  down  the   fire-escape,  the   drunken
messenger  lift  his stone boot from the pedal,  his machine veer backward from the X.  Let
the siren’s wail diminish again,  let the smoke be  sucked  back,  the ovens clang open.  Let
the battalions  pause  on  their relentless march,  the  battleships  heave about,  the bombs
plunge  upward.    Let  the  tanks  unroll,  let  the  stormtroops  halt,  pummel  grotesquely
backward  down  the  boulevard,   let the proud  man-children  in  camouflage  watch  their
rifles  fetched  from  their  palms,  the  proud inflamed barefoot  boy-children receive their
stones flung back  in  their  fists.   Let fists unfurl. Let hearts.   Let  every prayer open with
Amen,  each  breath be the ending of a prayer  without words.   Let words unravel,  and all
manner  of  thoughts,  and  things done  and  undone,  let the Moment  be  immaculate and
true,  untouchable as a dream.   And let the days unfold and fold back again,  so that as we
awaken and begin to forget the dream, we remember the Moment.
(Skovron 2008: 5)

Having come to the coda of this rhapsody, this Fantasy with Variations, let me indulge in one final thematic manoeuvre—the idea of a time when time itself might cease to be. From there it’s just a diagonal leap to the French composer Olivier Messiaen and his Quartet for the end of time. It is fitting that music should have the last word—the supreme, timeless art so intimately linked with our deepest strivings and the quest for transcendence. I like to think that it’s music which is best equipped to penetrate the switchpoints of memory, its augmented and diminished chords, its enharmonic modulations. So let me conclude with a short poem from my collection Infinite city (1999). It’s called ‘After Messiaen’, and I offer it not as prophecy but rather as a vision which should perhaps elicit both our terror and our gratitude:

At the end of time
There will truly be nothing left to say
We will all turn and walk sadly
Into ourselves, words will drift
Useless to the ground, defining for maybe
One last moment the old epochs of thought.

The final note of the last melody
Will coil up into itself, its overtones
Lingering deeply in the new silence
Folding into its edges like a dream.   (Skovron 1999: 97)

 

Note: This essay was dapted from a talk presented at the Carmelite Centre, Middle Park, Melbourne, 28 August 2013. Uncollected poems by Alex Skovron cited in this essay have been published as follows: ‘Night-Errand’ in Mascara 7 (online); ‘The Crate’ in Divan 8 (online); and ‘Climate Change’ in Poems 2013 (Australian Poetry Ltd members’ anthology): 35. The prose-poems ‘Nostalgia’, ‘Finding’, ‘Everythings’ and ‘Possibilitron’ are unpublished.

 

 

Works cited: 

Boethius 1998 The consolation of philosophy (trans. V.E. Watts), London: Folio Society

Eliot, Thomas Stearns 1979 Four quartets, London: Faber and Faber

Glück, Louise 1994 Proofs & theories: essays on poetry, Hopewell: Ecco Press

Hass, Robert 2010 The apple trees at Olema: new and selected poems, New York: Ecco (Harper Collins)

Kundera, Milan 2002 Ignorance, London: Faber and Faber

Oxford English dictionary (Second Edition) 1989, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Rilke, Rainer Maria 1982 The selected poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. Stephen Mitchell), London: Picado

Skovron, Alex 1988 The rearrangement, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press

Skovron, Alex 1992 Sleeve notes, Sydney: Hale & Iremonger in association with Golvan Arts

Skovron, Alex 1999 Infinite city: 100 sonnetinas, Wollongong: Five Islands Press

Skovron, Alex 2003 The man and the map, Wollongong: Five Islands Press

Skovron, Alex 2008 Autographs: 56 poems in prose, Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers

St Augustine 2004 Confessions of a sinner (trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin), London: Penguin

Zagajewski, Adam 2002 Two cities: on exile, history, and the imagination (trans. Lillian Vallee), Athens: University of Georgia Press