11 April 2010

Song of Two Worlds - Alan Lightman

Welcome, visitors! Today's offering on the National Poetry Month blog tour, hosted by Serena of Savvy Verse and Wit, is a review of a new book of poetry, Song of Two Worlds by Alan Lightman.

Lightman, a novelist, scientist, and poet, has used all of his creative skills and insights to tell the story of a poet who has begun to awaken from a long, dark night of the soul, the aftermath (perhaps) of a personal disaster that slammed him into a senseless stupor.
When the story begins and he awakens, he is hungry for food, light, sensation, and proof that he is not still dreaming.

I dreamed of my uncle Zafir/weighing the sand on the beach.

He rises and picks up his dry pen.

Awake- What are these quick shots of warmth, Fractals of forests That wind through my limbs? . . .
Now I grow large, now I grow small, as the waves of sensation break over my shore.

The reader learns that the poet is living with one companion, old Abbas, in a deserted home on the poet's ancestral lands in Islamic north Africa. His musings are interrupted by the earthy Abbas, who eats, belches, prays, and says "your mind is as tight as a sheep's ass." True, that : the old man knows how much control the poet will have to relinquish to face the trauma that shut him down.

The poet's thoughts meander as he tries to understand how his world, presumably unchanged and in control before - before what? - has broken down.

He embarks on an inner pilgrimage, guided by figures who broke through the ignorance of their times by testing the physical world. (Newton: You kept a notebook of questions, / The dip of your quill in an ink of oak galls. )

He reflects on the times when he disappeared into his own studies without sleep, without food, / In a feast of ideas, books, conversation... Singing my verses, the test tubes and flames... intent on being chemist or poet.

As he muses, other thoughts begin to float by as galaxies of ghost ships / adrift on an infinite sea, changing the medium of his immersion from poetry and theory to memories of people he once knew.

He thinks of
his dead mother, who sang, smelled of jasmine, and forgave money I squandered, / my fidgeting poetry ... Wedding a foreigner, / Children she never knew.

I am the sea that rolls over you, she sings. I am the green and your comfort, Say yes, then say yes, then say yes.

The muse of mutable life, Darwin, inspires another step, another stroke through the newly-loving sea.
You grasped the role of survival and change .. you showed that / order can grow from disorder, / and purpose from aimlessness.

Even Einstein appears and fastens the poet on the truth of flow and change. Were you stunned / when you found that the hardness of time / was illusion? ... What is the nature of movement? / I'm answered: you return to the center.

The reader is given the facts piecemeal, almost grudgingly, until his prayers (let my psyche be thy temple) are unanswered. This is not a world of action reaction / But each action questioned forever / where lust defeats virtue. Married to a French woman with turquoise eyes, he once had two children, once had uprooted himself to live in her world, and then had abandoned his family and her world to return to his own, alone.

Would his marriage have survived had he stayed? Much as he believes that he had been too much the alien, the outsider, he is forced to release the illusory narrative that had shielded him from his transgression until it no longer could hold.

Can I give up myself
To this desert of night?
Witness again what I've done
And not done?

Does he have a choice? No. He has to give it up.

Always the need to wear strangling shoes, Wedged in a house without gardens, Cold river, my blessed two children and wife/ Could it have been?
The land that despised me...
Longing for orange groves and sand,
For the primorse and aloe, for saffron tajine...
Then my escape, flagrant abandonment.
Shame. It's all here, I can certify.

When Abbas dies, the poet truly is lone, completely alone, with nothing left to him but a wasteland of questions, and the oud player's wife, returned, calling for her husband in the empty night.

Whom can I love who will not pass for nothing, When all pass to nothing, along with this song?

The poet knows his fate.

As I read this poem, I copied pages of Lightman's phrases into my notebook. (This probably is obvious, from the number of them that I used in this review! See below - ) The narrator enacts, as we do, patterns as ancient as the stars, counterpoints between cold space and warm flesh.

Read this book for its story, its questions, the exhilarating parallels between the vast and the minute, or the glory of Lightman's language. But do read it.

Be sure to follow the blog tour. Next up: Monniblog will highlight British Columbia, Canada poets and poetry, and Ernie Wormwood will talk about driving Lucille Clifton, who did not drive.

Song of Two Worlds Here is a sampling of the phrases I copied --

-- journey of questions, I paddle my oar in the stars
iambic geometer

-- plays like the moan of a sad jazzing horn
-- this thimble the earth --
folded gray clog of a brain
I pour tea in the dry drum of a mouth


naida said...

this sounds beautiful, thanks for the post!
I like this line:
Were you stunned / when you found that the hardness of time / was illusion? ... What is the nature of movement? / I'm answered: you return to the center.
I think it's about personal growth.


Melwyk said...

This is a wonderful review, with lots of sharing of some gorgeous lines. I really like Lightman's voice in his other books, and this one sounds fantastic. Thanks for highlighting it so that I now know about it!

Anonymous said...

Oh, I so want to read this now. Thanks for writing about it.

OnlinePublicist said...

I'm a bit speechless...I really loved reading through this post. Thank you so much for sharing.

Serena said...

Wow, this sounds like an excellent book of poems. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

Thanks for participating in the National Poetry Month Blog Tour. Just a remember to link up with Mr. Linky on my welcome post and to email your full link to Susan at winabook.

Valerie said...

It was interesting reading your thoughts/explanations on each section! I'll have to check out more of Alan Lightman.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Thanks for sending me the link to post at Win a Book. I swear, I get to experience such great stuff thanks to you guys.

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