The pure distance

This entry is part 2 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


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Northern true katydid (Pterophylla camellifolia)

What does it mean to bring one’s full attention to a text? Medieval Christian mystics pioneered a form of deep reading, lectio divina, which they viewed as indispensable to clear thinking, prayer and contemplation. As one present-day Benedictine monk puts it,

The art of lectio divina begins with cultivating the ability to listen deeply, to hear “with the ear of our hearts” as St. Benedict encourages us in the Prologue to the Rule…. [This] is very different from the speed reading which modern Christians apply to newspapers, books and even to the Bible. Lectio is reverential listening; listening both in a spirit of silence and of awe. We are listening for the still, small voice of God that will speak to us personally – not loudly, but intimately.

(For more on lectio divina, see Slow Reads blogger Peter’s review of Sacred Reading: the Ancient Art of Lectio Divina, by Michael Casey.) Could something of this technique be carried over into secular reading? After all, every truly inspired text is full of silences and caesuras, places where the incommensurability of word and world appears to be a source of energy rather than an obstacle, like the gap in a spark plug. The goal would be a bit more modest: rather than Christian contemplation, I’m after little more than the meditative trance brought on by immersion in creative work. That’s the logic behind this experiment in writing poems prompted by the poems of others, beginning with Paul Zweig: more antiphony than lectio, I suppose. My intent is not to try and equal – or even really to imitate – the original poem, but simply to respond to it out of my own experience, using the most exact and exacting language I can muster. I don’t expect every response to be a resounding success. But I am hoping that the effort will lead me to listen more attentively to all the sounds and layers of meaning in the original texts.

Here’s the second piece included in Zweig’s Selected and Last Poems, edited by C. K. Williams, Wesleyan University Press, 1989. (After a week or so, I’ll remove his poems from the posts in order to avoid copyright infringement.)

Walking over Brooklyn
by Paul Zweig

Black smoke trails from the incinerators,
Bits of cardboard flaming in the cage
On top of tall chimneys….

[Remainder of poem removed 8-21-05]

* * * *

Eye to Eye

In the story of my childhood I am
usually elsewhere, a thin presence to myself,
mumbling from a script of my own devising.
It never occurs to me to wonder
how my opposite number the hero
might really feel: Hey, it’s hot up here!
I’m tired of coming to the rescue of girls
you’re too scared to say one word to.
And how can you call yourself a pacifist
& expect me to avenge all wrongs
with my infallible fists?

Of unscripted moments, I remember few.
I wreck every kite I ever try to fly
in the mountaintop’s sideways wind.

Late summer of my 40th year, I catch
an echo of my childhood in the nightly
chorus of katydids, their camouflaged
leaf-bodies falling out of & back into unison
like a concert audience that continues its rhythmic
clapping during a break in the music.
I float on that throbbing: sleep is the only time
I get to dream now. By day, I tread
the high wires of the cicadas’ whine
& press a cold watermelon to my belly –
one sightless eyeball to another.
Soon enough, all distance will dissolve
into a single arc of spent sugar.
The half-moon will rise a lurid red.

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