Self and reality. Symbol and language. Myth and image. Memory and consciousness.
Dream and unreality: locus communis.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sailing Alone Around the Room

Lately, most of my reading time has been spent with Billy Collins' selection of poems: Sailing Alone Around the Room. Two nights ago I completed the first section, which consists of fifteen poems from a 1988 publication: The Apple that Astonished Paris.

One piece which stands out for me is "Winter Syntax," a poem which personifies the basic element of any language, the sentence.

A sentence starts out like a lone traveler
heading into a blizzard at midnight,
tilting into the wind, one arm shielding his face,
the tails of his thin coat flapping behind him.
His strategic adjectives stand out with a strong emotive sensibility, (lone traveler, thin coat) all due to his calculated theatrical timing of the plot: a winter storm at midnight. Brings to mind the midwestern blizzards I endured in Des Moines while attending Drake University. Walking across campus was a trek through an artic tundra. Moving from the Student Union to the Arts Building required an intense concentration of will power. The numbing cold ate into the damp leather shoes, seeped into the coat, even with its increased layers of padding. The white drifts blinded these senses; even at night, when friends clustered into the downtown warehouse bars near the river, the ice and snow permeated every waking moment of existence. A soft blue glow existed everywhere.

Collins uses these elements to increase such personal reflections in the reader and add the notion of the self, the individual, as a sentence — without being sentimental. I should italicize that comment: without being sentimental. How he avoids a notion of over-sentiment is a skill. His control centers on the lack of formal, expressive adjectives; the coat is merely thin, but this is enough to suggest an isolation of an individual, or even a psychological journey. The traveler is only alone, a single unit. Yet, this is what walking through a winter landscape is like: a person feels "left out in the cold," struggling to move from point A to point B — just as writer moves his sentences from one descriptive word to another.

With a first reading it could be assumed that the poet-self is the personified sentence himself. The sentence in mid-creation trudging through snow drifts of recollections.

On a second reading, the personification appears to be an additional character in the poet's life, the poet-creator moving him along on his page:
the traveler persists in his misery
struggling all night through the deepening snow,
leaving a faint alphabet of bootprints
on the white hills and the white floors of valleys,
a message for field mice and padding crows.

At dawn he will spot the vine of smoke
rising from your chimney, and when he stands
before you shivering, draped in sparkling frost,
a smile will appear in the beard of icicles,
and the man will express a complete thought.
The 'you' transforms to the poet himself, as if he is talking to himself; the sentence acts an embodiment of his topic; the work becomes an insomnia-driven poem, the poet writing all night through a blizzard, the sentence motioning through the pale white of the page, the drifts of memory and circumstance.

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