One morning I awoke unable to move my right arm.
I had, periodically, suffered from considerable
pain on that side, in my painting arm,
but in this instance there was no pain.
Indeed, there was no feeling.
As someone who frequently talks, and thinks, in metaphors, I love the images and wordplay that run through this poem (available online, thank you, Threepenny Review). Life as an airplane ride really perks up “please return your tray tables and seats to their original upright position,” doesn’t it?
That central metaphor is surrounded by other more unusual images. In particular, I was struck by the monitor that beeps and chirps with the heartbeat, something we’re all familiar with even if we’ve never been ill; either we’ve been at someone else’s bedside, or maybe we’ve just seen it in a movie. Then there’s the moment when the beep lengthens into a long tone – or, as in the poem, when the line that bounces with each beat of the heart becomes ” a straight line, / like a minus sign.” A new way of seeing flatlining: person, minus life. Or: life, minus one person.
My rather superficial observations were greatly deepened by a couple of other resources I stumbled across in my travels. One of them, from Boston Review, is Craig Morgan Teicher’s review of Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night – the collection in which this poem appears (and recent winner of the National Book Award). I wasn’t aware that the book was a portrait of a dying painter; that adds to the poem. Teicher also points out the opposites and reversals: the character is a painter rather than a poet (bringing to mind O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter” perhaps?) and male rather than female, and is based on a similar reversal of a character Glück used previously. All these inversions – do they mean something? Of course they do.
And here’s where PMF Johnson’s comments got me to recognize what was happening with the last stanza, the last word. If I may draw on another source (I need all the help I can get), a post by Ken Nichols of Great Writers Steal explained how James L. Dickey teaches the reader how to read his poem “Falling” so that by the time we get to the climactic moment, we know how the punctuation works. I think Glück is doing something like that here. By calling attention to double meanings of words like “left” – the left arm, or the arm that is left, that is, not paralyzed – as well as the many common uses of “departed”, we’ve been trained in what to look for, so we’re ready for the final lines:
I will be brief. This concludes,
as the stewardess says,
our short flight.
And all the persons one will never know
crowd into the aisle, and all are funneled
into the terminal.
The word “terminal”, of course, means ending, and is often used in relation to death; we’ve been primed to see the parallel meanings. But because of the airplane flight imagery throughout, there’s another sense: we finish our flight at a terminal, but we also go to the terminal to take a new flight, to travel somewhere else.
A long time ago, my father gave me a book of poetry for Christmas. It wasn’t a particularly “good” book – a typical anthology, thematically organized, a sort of “Poetry’s Greatest hits” but because I was 13 and had only read the few poems from English class, these seemed quite special. I still have the book (he wrote on the frontispiece, “From Dad, Christmas 1969”) and one of the entries was an unattributed poem sometimes referred to as “The Ship” or “On the Shore” or, since it’s of uncertain origin, by any of a dozen other titles. The speaker is at that moment when one shore loses sight of the ship – but the other shore just now sees it approaching. Glück’s work is far more subtle, of course, and includes many other nuances, but I was 13 again, and remembering this book from so long ago.
In the past few years, I’ve become very aware of my own mortality in a personal and imminent way. My family is long dead. As I read history, it’s a parade of rulers, artists, and often, ordinary people, who are now not of this earth. As celebrity after celebrity dies, watching tv becomes a recitation of “He’s dead now.” Even Spock eventually dies – but doesn’t necessarily end.
That’s the human adventure: is death an end, or a beginning? Can it be both? And again, we’re back to the “is it good or bad, light or dark, forward or back” sense I’ve been encountering as I’ve read this volume.