for Robyn Schiff
In Schuyler's "The Cenotaph," we're first met by three complex signposts: the cenotaph, which is the sea, the poem and elegy and war; the idyll, which is something undeserved but taken, a stich of paradise we pass through from the world; and the dedication, which is for Kenneth and for intimacy. Then three sections: I Moneses Uniflora, "single flowered wintergreen / Trampled hay- scented fern"; 2 We see seals. Boats go by.; and 3 The Edge in the Morning.
In the first, Moneses Uniflora: "rain falls on the trash burning in an old oil drum and does not put it out." The dogs stand by the drums and "make a great steam." Then a meditation on wood, which types are more desirable (of course, "it depends on what you want"): spruce, birch, apple? Schuyler lets his eyes walk; they wander. The sentences, stacked and syntactically simple—that is, uncomplicated, clean, and rarely with more than a four-letter verb—are not a scrolling but a wander, a trample. And behind his peerless, seemingly so sure and effortless ("it's easy: bodies are buoyant"), powers of observation and description there is vertigo—we might suddenly lose our footing.
In section I, flames compete, stack up; they follow and fall into one another: oil drum, wood stove, hawkweed ("Many are yellow and some are an orange red"). And yet: "The hawkweed are one thing and the fire is another." Schuyler disentangles as much as he entangles; he protects himself, or he has a devotional, a devotee's, commitment to things, to the world's singulars. But still, more fire: fireflies, a cigarette. The day burns. And the hearth.
Next: 2 We see seals. Boats go by. We go for a walk and the "stones hurt tender feet, so we walk on hands." The eyes walk—and is it too much to say that the reader's eyes, mind, consciousness, also begin to feel the press of Schuyler's exactness, his truth? His images satisfy, but they are also hard; like stones, they cut. "The sea shapes the stones and dulls them. / Under it and in it they shine colorfully. / It shows what it could do if it wished." We're in proximity, with our sharp-as-stone images, to the sea which "shows what it could do if it wished." We find ourselves wandering alongside, walking on our hands, images like stones or blades in hand, our glue and flint, to this supreme, nihilating force: ocean, death—which here, locally, intimately, only dances, shines.
We walk. The eyes walk. And then animals, the past, literature ("Did Beowulf call the sea the 'penis-shrinker?'"), a $1,000 camera. Then back at the edge in the morning (the title of section 3) and sunup. "The water shines as freshly as lead curling smoothly under a knife." Here, spirit peels from light to water to mineral to tool. And again, joyful simplicity aligned with uncanny accuracy. Schuyler is, seemingly, so effortless. A dancer. His eyes dance. Nietzsche loved the dancers: those who affirm—those who celebrate all despite all.
Later on, some work in the distance. "The lobsterman turns toward you a face of weathered stone that cracks into a smile." The meat of the lobster, of the face, the flesh, the stone. Of money. The lobsters: "carapace and claws snapping and thrashing, mottled stormily. / Gaudy shells packed with sweet meat." Carapace and cenotaph. Stone. Image. Poem. Money. War. And eyes, dancing over voids.
The poem ends in elegy for Marc Bloch, Jewish historian shot by the Gestapo for working with the French Resistance. At 52, he was encouraged to leave France, but he stayed to fight. He was executed in prison by the Nazis. "Suppose I found a bone in the grass and told you it is one of Marc Bloch's? / It would not be true. / No it would not be true and the sea is not his grave." Bloch, "Noble, great, and good," swallowed by war and violence—the sea is his cenotaph. And is empty elegy, nihilation and shine, commemorating: commitment, courage, love. And still there's memory, elegy. Trace. Cenotaph. And the day's still our own.