In poems both intimate and public, meditative and musical, Dings seeks to enrich the present by evoking both the future and the past. Urgent and carefully formed, his poems seek and awareness and expression that are responsibleintellectually and emotionallyto the most private and most communal moments of human experience.
|Publisher:||Northwestern University Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.30(d)|
About the Author
Fred Dings is the author of After the Solstice, a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award. His poetry has been published in the New Yorker, the New Republic, Poetry, and the Paris Review. He has taught creative writing at various universities.
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Eulogy for a Private Man
By Fred Dings
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1999 Fred Dings
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWords for a Perfect Evening Even a perfect evening eventually yawns and goes to sleep to awaken changed in the morning. Each day must be wrestled for beauty among this permanent impermanence where clouds shift their shape in the shifting wind and the sudden blossomings of illness, the carcinomas in the brain, change the possible future to a river's mouth widening at the sea's edge. And yet there is a durability here, lives that somehow replenish themselves around a center in the gravity of affection, the way the earth turns itself to be touched everywhere by the light. What else can I say to you tonight, that meaning is the wine we press from the context we share, that our daily devotion depends on a presence and absence, on arms that gather the invisible flowers we find growing among our ruins, and arms that bear nothing but a guarded emptiness, a space preserved, a dependable harbor waiting for someone we love. The Fire
When I was a child, the elderly frightened me. They were the withered ones near death. Their faces shriveled around their skulls like prunes on pits. All the rivers of the world had gouged their skin, and their spidery legs were webbed with bruised veins. Once, a woman's watering eyes glared at me with pools of fire, and I saw myself reflectedthere like a fly stuck in that burning. But now, my body's singing stutters in pain, and the waterways of time sculpt my face. The web tightens its net. The future shrinks, but each moment swells with a fullness of past I never could have guessed. I imagine an end so sated with life that I drop out of time like ripe fruit to the earth. I imagine a moment so wide that I spread from my body and embrace everything like the sky. But lullabies are easy in times of peace, and lately I search the eyes of the old for the white burn of a mind defying the body's betrayals, for a humor and kindness free among the ruins, for a glimpse of spirit beneath the flesh that sloughs like velvet on antlers, a spirit almost visible, chiseled with pain, tempered in the fire of this world. Revelations
Nostalgia for the future beyond the black wall eclipsed his path. The earth grew heavy within him and wanted to sleep. The days no longer buttoned inside the uniforms of order. The streams of desire ran dry in their beds. The light could see no point in staying. Others around him were looting their lives, minting children, painting self-portraits for the coffers of art, or carving sepulchres of fame to lie in memory forever. The cairns of despair were everywhere. Elegies filled the air. But then he thought how little we live our lives, how the black wall was a black angel pointing us back to the moment we have, to the one grain in the eye of the hourglass, to the one altar of sacrifice, to even the moment the heart must fist to existence and hammer the point of being like a nail, to even the moment so painful the mind wants to leap from its fire, to even the blue cold moment in caterpillar days that crawl through the long winters-all must be lived so endurance can bear its revelation, and the fist ease to an open palm, and the fire quench in a time of water, and the blue turn as rose as the blue newborn that gasps its first breath and its two lungs billow like sails. In the Season of Memory
Still, we have this fear of coming to nothing, of clutching the years at the end like a cluster of stalks, the long dry flowerless stems of thought, the deeds leading to dead-end alleys, leaving not one star-point of meaning to shine above our sleep in someone's night. For a brief season of memory our name may be a berry of sadness sweet on a tongue that speaks it, a rinse of rain clearing an ear that hears it, but will there still be time, even at the end, for some essential drop of mind to spread like dye momentarily through the clarity of time or burst like a bubble on a rain-pummeled pond with some brief scent of individual air? If only we could be like the stars when they die, their final explosions of light like death-blossoms seeding new matter in the fertile night. Sunday Evening I. "Death is also the thief of beauty," he says, as a slow disquietude replaces morning's calm. The pink light fades from ashen clouds, and an icy luminosity begins to wax above the highlands of eternity. The willow, weeping all evening over rocks beside the pond, darkens to an arch hunched above a wafer of sacramental light, a fallen moon too faint to give much sight. There were minds which might have ripened into suns had not the body failed, the nursing vine sallowed and withered before the fruit was ripe. We are flowers of light in a field of darkness, brief in our pulse of generations. We open and close, wax and wane, open and close.
II. Death of the body is not the only death. Our seasons of loss prepare us for the end, the gardens withered in droughts of circumstance, the taut and cold receding lips of love, the glance that lowers and turns away forever, the fires of hope snuffed by the winds of change on the ledges above, the dim glitter of stars in the pond's eye like distant citadels we'll never know but we had once lived by. Death of the body is not the only death. A winter mind that never turns to spring has had too much of suffering. Its crystal eyes no longer see the colors of our lives. An empty house collapses under snow in whiteness cleansed of feeling long ago.
III. Where are the stars of death in the pointed night? Is it sacrilege or only emulation to want to be a god? A brazen boy flings against the Goliaths of circumstance, his sling, a frayed genetic rope he weaves to the furthest nebulae at the end of thought, a human tree whose height might reach eternity. The fire-feathered bird among its branches sings a human song on the edge of space. It beckons through the rocks of time and place. It sings of fire and ice, but not of death. It sings of seasons and dreams, but not of death. An ancient king who lingers on his throne hears its song and dreams of wanderings, of odysseys among the distant stars. The Force of Intent
At times we force our destiny like rivers carving canyons to the sea or trees that crack the rocks they wedge to reach the light. But the politics of will depend on change, the force of our intent in circumstance. How easily we trample the green havens, dissolve chapels of mist in scorching light. How quickly we bridle at roadblocks and chasms and turn from the philosophy of lakes. But our certainties are destined for revision like morning maps of an evening land. We know at last the mountains are more than we supposed, and our wagons sit stranded by snow in the pass. The yellow pride of noon turns blue at dusk. The walking boy becomes the wheelchair man. The Man and the Cemetery Effigy
The years of failure had wounded his hope beyond recovery. The erotic postures of possible futures no longer duped him. His path closed. Each evening he watched the drape of light dissolve as night disrobed. At noon he knew the nakedness of darkness. He stood on the ice of time waiting to fall through. Then one night he wandered like a homeless drunk in the cemetery among the black flames of the trees, the whispering leaves, the moonlit stones in rows like teeth with nothing but the sky to bite against, and there he found the black angel spreading its wings of despair like a wall eclipsing the stars, and he knelt in nausea to receive its benediction and was told to find his freedom in hopelessness, to find his dignity in obscurity, and to root his life among the dead where even those who would be gods eventually grow human. Words
I do not speak of certain things. All talk would be the scuffed air we shovel over the dead. Sometimes the air is a grave on which no words will tread, and language stands speechless on the edge, vivid with silence. But sometimes words are the only hands we have to touch a bruised memory or cleanse a wound that never healed or lift a body we've carried for years at last to the pyre of shared grief. I remember a dying girl, lying curled in dust, flies on her lips and eyes, her swollen belly pregnant with death. I remember her soft, struggling breath and the hum of flies in the quiet heat. Letter to a Friend
Who knows what age will bring besides your death? You think you see your future plod before you, eventless, a blunt-toothed cog of certainty, churning for years of noon in summer heat, but haven't there been times when suddenly you saw something which had been there all along and nothing had changed but you, a certain slant of age, perhaps, or disposition of the eyes, some newfound sensitivity, awakened when adversity scraped the skin of your perception? The starving leaves now blaze with colors not seen until articulated by the frost. These years of erosion may yet uncover forgotten ruins-your own, standing there like a child, holding out the key to your next room. Claims of the Past
What if we could find a way to sift the winds for drifting minds to place in bodies again? Whom would we choose and why? The saviors and philosopher kings to stop our squabbling? the poor who choked in obscurity and filth? the nameless heroes who sacrificed themselves? the murdered, the stifled, the unfulfilled? the evil to repair their shame? the children who barely had a chance? Who, among all the unredeemed billions swirling like leaves to be reborn, wouldn't have some claim for living more? Isn't it better the dead come back as they do, briefly, when they surface in a stranger's face or voice or in a scrap of song, or steadily, when light shafts through a window in an empty room and the motes of dust almost coalesce, or suddenly, when memories storm our solitude in vacant lots or crowds, clouding us in pain or refreshing us in a rinse of remembrance, leaving everything shining, veneered with past, and perhaps valued more because it does not last. The Past
The "nameless unremembered acts of kindness" are never lost. They whisper to our dreams like a mother's hum on the distant edge of sleep. They are the ghosts of benevolence whose many unseen hands lift us in seasons of pain and lead us to chapels of faith in the stained glass of our perceptions. Their influence is always there, the way the stars are always there, even in day, the distant suns of times past mixing their light with the bright noon of the present. The Gift
When we arrive bodiless with only our memories, will we have loved life enough to paint its face in light on the black page of eternity? When our bodies are torn open like envelopes, what news will our ancestors be able to read in us? Will we have gathered just a little more than they, be able to offer some nuance of feeling or subtlety of perception they had missed, or at least bear a glow to nurse their nostalgia and lighten their darkening? Or will we have lived in vain and fail even to reach the past which waits ahead gravely with open arms, fail even to recognize their faces which then will turn from us, stranding us like feeble stars in the dark space of ignorance? The Glowing Coal
As he had feared, the world was going to end sooner than expected. The future now narrowed to months. He stepped outside. A haze had lifted he had not known was there. Edges of things seemed sharp enough to cut. The world glittered. He stood inside a diamond. So much had been held back, so much to spend. He felt a sudden love for everything, even the moldering garbage at his feet. Each swirl and eddy of the world, each smell, flavor, hue, touch, and tone would now burn inside the flame of his attention. He would not lapse, even inside his pain. If only this coal he carried to the darkness would somehow take eternity to fade. Transitory Music
Each Sunday he'd go with his family up the stony lane to the church, its gray stones mortared tight, its windows plain as daylight, its one steeple like a blunt thorn scratching cries from the invisible wind. They'd all be there: the bored deadbeats, the sleepy obligated children, the worn seeking peace, the mournful and frightened laying their pain on the altar of belief, the cheery pews of hopefuls planting themselves in rows like bulbs, the reverent who had almost grown mute. Some days he'd almost join the leafless trees in pleading with the sky, but he knew he would squander eternity, having only lived a few moments of his life. A moment fully lived, he thought, would be like air embracing everything that is. He kept breathing past redemption, though sometimes he heard a music scratched into being by the thorns of experience and stood inside the stained light and felt the rose open, the fist unclench its five fingers of sense, and he carried an open hand for as long as he could into the world. The Unlived
If only he could memorize like a lover the body of the ordinary, which was already a dream much larger than all sleep. He regretted the future-the one he would have lived- the way he regretted the past, the fossil record of mere fact, the life that died into being while all the unlived possibilities echoed into silence among the vaulted arches and stained-glass rosettes of time. Each day was proof of his failure to flare into ash at the flashpoint of recognition or crack ecstatically open in the globed moment, saving nothing for his next breath. How easily his imagination yawned and slept, how vision grew young and frolicked in the shallows of perception. His mind floated like a sponge in an ocean, soaked full by a mere palmful of water, immersed in all that it would never come to know. Planes
The season of heat had passed. Rain had deepened the dust with umber and raw sienna. Houses had gathered inward there on the treeless hill. He heard two voices pass and the clopple of horses on cobbles fade out of reach. The street began to fill with mist, which drifted from the valley below as if searching for something ... a way to give itself a shape, some form among the forms. It drifted from house to house, pressing its wet face against the nearly invisible planes of the windowpanes, baffled it could not go where it could see-places he would never be and never know why. There was something about the matter of his domain, the density of his life. At the Grand Canyon
Clouds float like islands in the river of air which flows between the walls. The Colorado, a sliver of water, glints at the bottom like a knife. Ephemeral as fruit flies, airplanes flit among the cliffs, while laden mules labor down to a present millions of years below. On the edge of the gouge, herds of awed tourists gape at the immense ruined rainbows of time. "I wish we could live here," someone says, not noticing the clutch of desert plants struggling at his feet, which soon will die and blow across the stones, stain the rocks, or lodge as molecules of dust in someone's eye. How much grandeur does it take until our eyes fall to the small life before us, the geologic blink we call our lives, how long before we settle on a few roots finding life in a handful of burning sand, keeping their grip inside the wind which whistles faintly as it whets against their limbs?
Chapter TwoLetter to Genetically Engineered Superhumans
You are the children of our fantasies of form, our wish to carve a larger cave of light, our dream to perfect the ladder of genes and climb its rungs to the height of human possibility, to a stellar efflorescence beyond all injury and disease, with minds as bright as newborn suns and bodies which leave our breathless mirrors stunned. Forgive us if we failed to imagine your loneliness in the midst of all that ordinary excellence, if we failed to understand how much harder it would be to build the bridge of love between such splendid selves, to find the path of humility among the labyrinth of your abilities, to be refreshed without forgetfulness, and weave community without the threads of need. Forgive us if you must reinvent our flaws because we failed to guess the simple fact that the best lives must be less than perfect. The Bodily Beautiful
Ah, the bodily beautiful, how they are envied for the perfect rhymes of their bodies' moons and stars, how the world sets sail for the labial latitudes of their lustrous skin, forgetting the bloody factories
within. But what of their burden, the daily swelter in the spotlights of lust, the lovesick legions and crush of attentive puppets, the ceaseless chatter and the charades of mating games, the splatter of night-
frightened moths who fling against their panes? How hard it must be among fiestas of permission and stain pillows to practice forbearance and cleanse the spirit in the deserts of self-denial,
how hard to leave the shallows of sexuality and immerse in the treacherous waters of love, to glimpse the skull of time in the mirror's lie and the bones of honesty inside those sublime impediments of flesh.
Excerpted from Eulogy for a Private Man by Fred Dings Copyright © 1999 by Fred Dings
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Table of Contents
Part OneWords for a Perfect EveningThe FireRevelationsIn the Season of MemorySunday EveningThe Force of IntentThe Man and the Cemetery EffigyWordsLetter to a FriendClaims of the PastThe PastThe GiftThe Glowing CoalTransitory MusicThe UnlivedPlanesAt the Grand Canyon
Part TwoLetter to Genetically Engineered SuperhumansThe Bodily BeautifulThe Woman with GravitasEulogy for a Private ManIn the Humid ZoneThe Family Gatherings Two Sketches of Solitude
Scherzo Dissertation on Dogs Expeditions of a Misanthrope To My Tongue Prufrock Meets a Colleague
Part ThreeThe CarouselIn the Absence of RainChains of ChangeMigratory FlightDidoThe RehearsalThe Last Voyage