Once, I tried to live the same day twice. My partner was traveling, and I had recently decided to quit my job, without immediate prospects. July in Berkeley: mild-mannered sun, not even the chance of a cloud. The foolishness of bemoaning such consistent niceness was part of my befuddlement. In several languages, the word that came to mean weather originally meant time (“tempestas” in Latin, English’s root for both “tempest” and “temporal”). Changes in the air have long corresponded to, and helped create, the nicks and notches by which people measure their moods. That summer, light on inner and outer weather alike, I hovered halfway over my life, with no notch to fix me in place.
When my unstructured solitude gaped particularly wide one morning, I propped myself in bed with coffee and my laptop. Inside its dark slot waited the public library’s copy of Sans Soleil, the quasi-documentary by Chris Marker. I loaded it up, wondering what our apartment neighbors a thin door away would think to hear a movie playing so early.
Soon I saw a group of three children, shock-blond in sunlight, wandering down the road away from the camera. Then we were on a ferry boat in Japan. Silent worshippers knelt at a temple dedicated to white cats. Accompanied by a mysterious voicea narrator who spoke intimately but never introduced herselfcertain image sequences lingered, while others came and went. Watching Marker for the first time, I felt as if someone had dunked me under water, though I could still breathe, and maybe easier than before.
After a few minutes, my laptop began to whir and heat up. The library’s label, affixed to the case like a surgeon general’s warning, had advised that some DVDs were prone to skip. Thirty seconds were lost, the next time a minute. Frustrated, I pressed pause and went online, where I quickly found the full script of Sans Soleil. Each time the film jumped, I would toggle windows, read the narrator’s words, and imagine the pictures she was describing, injecting a little authorship into my passive morning.
The next day, I woke up, made coffee, and, after a moment’s deliberation, got back in bed. My surroundings felt the same: neighbors vaguely puttering next door, kids on the sidewalk, impetuous zero that crouched inside me, ready to tip over into depression or mania. I found the script online again, prepared for when the DVD hit its first “damaged area.” The film beganthree children smiling, moving away from the camera. But this time, as Marker’s shots progressed, the moments that jumped or melted away were different. A long street shot of Tokyo that I had seen yesterday was gone, its bright vendor signs and sidewalk carpets wiped clean.
When I began to anticipate this wrinkle, I saw how it corresponded to the occlusions of memory itself, one of the film’s subjects. While the DVD skipped over images I remembered from yesterday, Sans Soleil also showed me pictures I hadn’t seen before, associations I couldn’t have imagined while simply reading the script. An affronted stare from a Guinean woman at a market, Marker’s lens lingering a second too long. A hip-shot deer struggling and crashing in the woods, the red heart blooming extravagantly.
“He wanted to feel the same way over and over,” Wallace Stevens writes in “This Solitude of Cataracts.” “He wanted his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest / In a permanent realization.” Outside my bedroom window, the sun was still droning away, time’s silent tiny jackhammering. Everything colluded in my dream of repetitionexcept the vision itself. Even though I’d encased my wish in art and expensive technology, experience couldn’t be replicated, not exactly. What I saw demanded to be re-seen.
The fifth (and final) definition of “revision” in the OED is “the fact of seeing a person or thing again; an instance of this; a fresh or new vision of something.” That neutral language conceals a paradox: can anything be “fresh or new” which happens again? Since I began writing, the only act more difficult than making a poem has been revising it. Some of my most pathetic hours have been spent trying to re-inhabit the sound-chains and image-jumps that admitted me once, like a temporary password, to a secret order.
My frustration with revision doesn’t represent the same fealty to inspiration that Kerouac expressed in his “first thought, best thought” dictum. I am fine with continuing to shape a poem, across weeks and months, until it feels intact. What has proved impossible is when I realize ex post facto, often through someone else’s confusion or advice, that a poem needs more worka clarification in the logic, or a shift in perspective.
It’s not that I don’t believe my poems can be improved; it’s that I have no idea how I, the I that I am now, can do it. There’s almost a metaphysics to this resistance. “Neither am I convinced,” wrote Basil Bunting, “that the poems that bear my name are not the work of some other person, long vanished, whose passport and pension card I have somehow inherited.” Part of poetry’s mystery has always been its estranging quality; the “one rapture of an inspiration,” when it descends, feels alien to my nature. And so I have never believed Valéry’s (sneakily self-congratulatory) insistence that a poem is never completed, only abandoned.
What patience or special power am I lacking? In Marker’s Sans Soleil, the narrator often refers to a friend, a fellow filmmaker. One obvious suggestion for the character is Marker himself. Along with other eccentricities, this friend has seen Hitchcock’s Vertigo nineteen times. One day, the narrator informs us, he decides to visit San Francisco, where Vertigo is set. Marker shows us the city through the friend’s eyesor as the narrator imagines him, slipping into the Hitchcock shots he’s memorized, the vertiginous turns, the fog-smudged parks.
“He had followed all the trails,” the narrator tells us, her wry tone submerging a kind of terror as she recounts his journey. “Even to the cemetery at Mission Dolores where Madeleine came to pray at the grave of a woman long since dead, whom she should not have known.” While most of us can’t remember as much as we want, the narrator’s friend informs her that, on the other hand, he has “lost forgetting.” Especially when he travels, every word, sight, and touch sparks an allusion from the past. The narrator is fascinated by her friend’s condition, and she imagines making a film about it, a steady stream of association, as eerie as it is accurate.
This loss of forgettingisn’t it what poetic revision seems to require, an imperviousness to weather and mood, a perfected repetition? The narrator’s friend must resemble a poet like Valéry, a walking sieve with such ready access to his feeling that any relinquishment amounts to giving up. “Of course, I’ll never make that film,” the narrator admits, almost off-handedly, as the white city fades.
“Repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.” In Elizabeth Bishop’s elegy to Robert Lowell, birds sing this line as they pass through North Haven for the summer. Don’t they sound cruel? In certain moods, at least, I hear those birds taunting Lowell’s compulsion to “derange, or re-arrange” his words ad infinitum. Of course, as Lowell recorded in one of his poems about her, Bishop was herself an inveterate fiddler. She would wait out a poem for “ten years,” her draft “glued to cardboard posters, with gaps / and empties for the unimagined word.”
There was a drastic difference, though, between the two poets’ modes of revision. Lowell liked to get his words down on paper, and even publish, changing them all the while until he couldn’t. Bishop would linger, sometimes for decades, in the silence of “gaps and empties,” waiting for the initial inspiration to repeat itself.
Temperamentally, I can’t help but prefer Bishop’s practice, and her poems. But such purity came at a cost. Often, her attention never resulted in additions, and there’s an unfinished aspect to her oeuvre. (Remember Marker’s narrator: “I’ll never make that film.”) But when she could revise, Bishop was terrific at it. The famous manuscript drafts of “One Art” show the leaps she madenot only via silent waiting, but through busy experiments on paper with diction and tone, until she reached that grammatically appropriate and most strange phrase, “I shan’t have lied,” which seals the poem. Revision, at least in the case of “One Art,” seems to lend the protection of simulation to her poetry, like practicing a jump shot or a piano sonata before one has to perform it.
To practice is to step outside of time, in order to re-inhabit time more confidently. But poets can’t count on practice the way athletes or musicians can. We can’t simulate the conditions of creating our art for very long, becauseto stretch the metaphorwe have to shape the game and the score according to the players who show up. And Lowell’s insistence on revising, like that of Marianne Moore, came at its own cost. Especially in his extended sonnet projects, the line between practice and performance blurs. Urgency, the very sense of “calling” that he praised in his elegy to Bishop, disappears, and the verse can read like exercise.
Repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise. Those New England birds portend two choices, both decidedly mixed. Bishop usually chose the “repeat” approach, waiting for the second fire to light on the muses’ anvil, or else die out in fragments. Lowell usually chose to plow ahead, re-willing his poetry into new iterations across thousands of pages. The question I have been wondering about, as I try to move forward in my own work: is there a way to split the difference, to preserve inspiration’s intensity but still continue, safely this side of silence?
Bishop had written about time and birds before. In an earlier ode, “Sandpiper,” she describes a picky visionary who stands in for her own method. “Looking for something, something, something,” the sandpiper inhabits an either-or world at the edge of the shore, as the waves crash in and strain out. “The world is a mist. And then the world is / minute and vast and clear.” Full of paradox, the poem both mocks and celebrates the “controlled panic” the sandpiper evinces in search of his reward: “Poor bird, he is obsessed!”
To reframe the sandpiper’s dilemma in terms of the slow poet’s, we might say: either I am writing, or I am not writing. There’s no middle ground. Both creatures suffer a paradox analogous to the one that obsessed Calvinist Protestants, who insisted that one needed God’s grace even to be ready to know God. Nice if you’re on the other side of that wave, the world turning “vast and clear”but what about those waiting for it to arrive?
Fascinatingly, Bishop’s revisions to “Sandpiper” obscured another clue to what the poet was thinking about. In an earlier draft, Bishop had chosen a more specific title: “The Sandpiper’s Revenge.” Revenge for what, revenge on whom? Insofar as “Sandpiper” is about perception and the eccentric compulsion of art making, revenge seems like an unnecessarily judicial, even violent interpretation to suggest.
However, as the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips notes, for creatures struggling to find themselves inside time, revenge can be a necessary gift. Revenge inspires by turning “rupture into story,” Phillips argues; to the revenger, “a wound is like a pure gift of meaning, a vocation.” For sandpiper and poet alike, often a half step behind or ahead of the world, living on memory or desire, revenge “gives us something to do.”
What does revenge have in common with the average poem? Early in his poem “Psalm,” George Oppen interrupts a description of wild deer with a simple exclamation: “That they are there!” In a comparable way, I think, revenge refuses to let experience skip or slip without remark. It re-injects facts with purpose. Bishop’s “Sandpiper” ends on a moment like Oppen’s, in a simple act of recording: “The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray / mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.” Maybe the sandpiper’s revenge happens through the work of acknowledgement, of attentive presence, so primary to poetry itself.
Of her revenge fantasies as a younger poet, Louise Glück admits, “They animated me when I might easily have been paralyzed.” The draft title “The Sand-piper’s Revenge” suggests that poets sometimes rediscover their voices while seeking revenge on behalf of their subjects. As I thought more about this, I realized how many poems could claim “revenge” as an implied or excised title word, just like Bishop’s. Doesn’t Stevens articulate “The Snow Man’s Revenge,” in uncovering the difference between “Nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is?” Don’t “The Bean-Eaters” achieve a kind of revenge, via Brooks’ attention to their overlooked “rented back room”? Isn’t Williams seeking revenge on behalf of his “Poor Old Woman,” whose paper bag of plums contains an unexpected multitude of valences: “They taste good to her / they taste good / to her. They taste / good to her”?
Moreoverto return to my own preoccupying problemrevenge might be one way of entering into the process of revision without losing the initial urgency of a poem’s calling. To me, the work of poetic revenge lands somewhere between the North Haven birds’ two choices of “repeat, repeat, repeat” and “revise, revise, revise,” for revenge acknowledges the impossibility of a perfected repetition. It takes for granted that my second and third visions into the poem won’t be the same as the first, and it draws energy from that difference. Most importantly, revenge demands that, like the sandpiper, I keep looking, hardly reconciled with time, but given a mission inside it. “No detail too small,” as Bishop’s poem insists, between parentheses.
Early in Sans Soleil, in a scene I missed the first time, Marker zooms in on a group of vagrants in a Tokyo neighborhood. Amid all the glitter his travel has afforded, the narrator’s friend has also discovered “a world full of bums, of lumpens, of outcasts.” We see one man sipping from a bottle on a stoop, then rising, careering into a roundabout. Cars swerve to avoid him. The camera shakes as he waves his arms like a traffic cop, an unacknowledged legislator in the middle of the dark circle, grasping at what speeds past him. “This morning in Namidabashi,” the narrator tells us, “twenty minutes from the glories of the center city, a character took his revenge on society by directing traffic at the crossroads.”
Nate Klug is the author of Anyone, a book of poems.