The plagiarist

Credible words are not eloquent,
Eloquent words are not credible.

– Daodejing Chapter 81 (Ames and Hall, tr.)

*

One line a day, he thinks, just like Dylan Thomas. But his project differs radically from the old drunk wordsmith’s, who hammered out each word in the forge of whatever. He has no use for such self-conscious perfection – in fact, he’s not sure he wants to write anything particularly memorable at all. He aspires instead to the perfection of the found object, whose charm would consist solely in being removed from its originating context and placed in another. Each line like a grain of sand struck from some granite headland, rolled in the waves until smooth, and deposited on a beach. Perhaps it is true that a visionary might see the universe in a grain of sand. But most people just want to walk along the edge of the ocean in their bare feet, letting the waves curl around their ankles. And certain ankles are worth dying for, he thinks – far more so than any art. Just ask Proust.

There’s no first line. How can there be? He starts at random and works in both directions, and after a while he sees that new lines can be inserted at various points in the growing text. Not that they’re interchangeable, of course. His poor memory works for him as often as it works against him, because he finds himself returning often to the same or similar themes – just as an elderly person will retell the same story over and over. But it’s not the same story, if you listen. And poetry is nothing if not a supreme effort at listening, on the part of author and audience alike. Repetition in a poem is one of several tried-and-true methods for seducing the ear.

Seduction: that’s the goal. To charm, to re-enchant. Without some kind of poetry in our lives, is true love even possible? Without persuasion, the lonely soul can only connect with others through brutality, through hatred. Get that down, he says to himself. Child soldiers in a guerrilla army he’s read about, who chop the hands off other children for no reason. Someday, perhaps, a look or touch of wholly undeserved compassion (is there any other kind?) will shatter them. Put that in.

Time is on his side, because that’s where he likes it – close enough to keep an eye on. His theme, to the extent that he can be said to have one, is simply: things happen. Not shit, never. Sometimes he does feel that way, but those lines never see daylight. Line by line he comes to feel – not merely to understand, but to know in his bones – how much of a role time plays in everything. It’s the ultimate context, from which no escape is possible or even desirable. What makes the ordinary seem extraordinary is just this consciousness of the extreme unlikelihood of its ever coming to be. One line at a time.

Then one day, out of the blue, he hears a whisper in his ear and feels a warm breath on the back of his neck. Thank you for writing my poem, the voice says. In a flash, he sees that every single line he thought he had written had in fact been borrowed, and that now it’s time to return them to their rightful owner. He turns slowly around. I thought you’d never find me, he says.

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