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by Susan Schultz

SCHU0101 and RIFT01.01 are copyright (c) 1993. See below for full notice. Click here for EPC HOTLIST

<Susan Schultz>

The Lost Country

After the long siege, you lose
Empathy for the unguarded many, of whom
You were recently one, inebriate with danger
So constant it seemed artificial.

I think a lot about the line between
Suffering with and suffering for;
The preposition demarcates
Impossibility, a kind of suffering
I refuse to feel. Do I mean by feeling
Something self-conscious, something
Chosen as no one chooses this city,
Its walls breathing spite like history,
Making me into one I barely recognize?
The self's a tyrant, as is necessary
To maintain your poise where loss is
So profound you fail to see it
In the mounds of rubble just cleared
From the lot next door. The colony
By the sea proves that beauty's
Just a screen for horror; naked men
Shiver from the cold wind off the water,
And our phrases are too often repeated to mean
Even the platitudes of sympathy we intend.

Quite possibly, memory is the first art,
But only if aesthetics grafts itself to pain,
The jays' sharp chatter met by higher
Registers and the dull bleeding sound
of the truck in the next road: all
The cacophony that resembles our failure
To speak. Perhaps it's best to invite failure
For a while, reserve the right to silence
Until words return, bubbling upward
Like lava, spelling a vocabulary of terror
And redemption before the next dispensation.
To be one within the stream
May mean the rush of syllables
Can give us life, if we give in
To another's empathy for us: language
Only saves itself, but full immersion in it
May save us from ourselves.


Apprehension is the most agile mode of feeling,
Gaining ground like a new river writing itself
Forward, ever forward, not knowing where it's going
But always worried about it. What is there to fear
But one's own form? and who's to care
Unless it's you, paralyzed by the passage,
Afraid to read further except in digressions,
Happier prose than most, knowing themselves
Unworthy of our attention, but beaming between
The spotlights, stealing the show. How will
I remember this, the clutch of trees behind
The house, the frantic sound of leaves dis-
placed by grackles, jays in search
Of mites, and all the lost hum of what
And how I thought about these things?

What stories there will be to tell--only
Time will tell, and I'm not there yet;
The present calls us home and there's little
We can do to change the order of our words
Despite the dam on the river that makes light
Of the water gathering behind it,
A mirror so like a map I'll never tell
The difference. Is thinking of this
Romantic, though partially crazed,
The reflex scare of the scene as you forget it?
The self a spinning top, gaining speed
Even as it loses momentum, and this
A definition of tragedy that's only slightly
Against the grain, where one's reflection
Can no longer show, as it shrinks into
The mere self of itself. Everything finally
Gets sealed in like a lion inside a hoop,
Stalled there because the mind chooses it,
Lost finally at the very apex of its leap.


The wind reminds us of ourselves;
The trees in this equation are nouns,
The wind verbs, transitive at that,
And transitory, shedding the husks of leaves,
Bits of paper, fallen nests, though not
Revealing its core; only the rind
Of the wind shows. We may be past
Such equations of ourselves with things,
But our correspondence tells us otherwise,
That the words we shed like leaves
Do not conform to the shapes of sentences.
The house we share is a vocabulary,
And our struggles to stay in the same dialect
Are made more difficult by the way
In which words break, like shingles;
Repeated use merely reaffirms the difference
Between what we say and how the books
Tell us to say it. Words have dominion over us
As the tops of trees do over shadows
That play on the glazy surface of our yard.
The language recycles itself but is never the same
Twice; even cliches change
And that we trust them only means
We distrust stability, as we do
Any history that happens before our birth.
Try to re-capture what was never
In the first place captured; barring
That, create from point zero something
You always suspected was true,
Like the wind inside a jar, always abstract
And never there.


Distance is the face of the wind
Turned back to see what it just left;
And proximity has no face, unless it's yours,
Which I see as obverse metaphor
For what is literally true,
The slope of sunlight a dustmote climbs
As if it were the ladder to a firmer sight,
Unaligned with sadness or aught else
There is that can't be seen, but felt.
That's why the act of defining things
Is so necessary, even as it passes
Into obscurity, the slipped disc
Of the sun declining into a marsh
Whose water is as flat as paper,
Though not so sheer. What we feel
About this is not so clear, words clotting
As soon as formed, but making a field
In which to talk about it; nothing
Else holds us together and yet nothing
Is so difficult to remember as pain,
Which is like a lake whose shores
Denote the difference between pain
And what it teaches us, the art
Of recollection without reliving,
Wisdom as the applied memory
That mediates between the present
And what constructed it, the past's most
Certain contingencies. Have we got
To the point where poems think
Out their implications, not stopping
For sunsets or even the dislocations
Of place, which refigure the self
In ways we can never know? Or is
There no thinking but in music,
The force of counterpoint like an ever-
moving system, never stopping, even
For history, which is the substance
Of time without its spirit?
Sometimes I balk at that thought that
Poems create anything apart from themselves
Except the momentary glimmers
Of feeling so undefinable they may not
Exist outside intuition, the sideways
Surfaces of words turned like rear-view
Mirrors to catch the sight of nothing
But what the wind does, scattering
Leaves and sunlight on the concrete
Like shadow-boxers. The shifting currents
Of sadness and happiness are less
Shared than shareable, the yellow plain
Of being together where nothing finally settles
But sunlight, like the flakes of food
In a fishbowl, sifting downward
From surface into depth,
A metaphor so simple it must be true.


Late morning--none of the animals in the yard
Is content; from all corners there come
Screeches, and the dull monotone
Of a territorial imperative
Somewhere being violated . . . by me?
I feel immune from the danger
That narrows to a symphony of noise
As overhead helicopter and airplane
Contribute their piece, until silence seems
The barest nostalgia. Abstraction
Is the mind's own silence, retreat
From danger, the predator's cave,
And when I go there I hardly notice
What it is I'm leaving: the thought
Of leaving you for now, an old fear
That what one leaves one loses
--How much easier to write that pronoun
As if by fiat one could transcend
The selfishness that still defines us,
Self-creation having no rules
But those we write as we go along.


As these lines go on they lose
Their substance, as cities their suburbs,
Gathering strength for the inevitable
Implosions and inept expositions
That lack a landscape. No
Landscape finally is necessary,
Though it gives us names for who we are
And doesn't tease us with the promise
That we share the land with others; hence
The loneliness it offers,
Desolate even in the midst of plenty.
For what we take of the land
We can never give back
Except in the names we affix to signs
That mean less than we want
Them to mean. Always someone
Was there before us, taking away
What had never promised to be
Ours, like the Ohio rivers
That wend their way through valleys
Dotted by the shells of houses,
Trailers, the paraphernalia
Of rootedness without its reasons.
Someday the land will forget,
Thrusting us into the limelight
And casting us out like first
Travellers, into the hidden valleys
Where we will be content,
Though free of words, which swim
Through the humid air like hawks.


Ovid must have felt the irony
Of exile for one who no longer wanted it,
Virtue in the language of the markets
Reduced to its negative in the clear air
Of the islands, white houses set like teeth
In a jaw that knows silence not as the lack
Of speech but as its substitute, the way
The exhilaration of roller-coaster rides
Comes to replace the near-ecstasy
Of the heretic who can't abandon
The old language of the church: Latin
Dusted our shoulders like butterflies,
Threatening decadence with origins,
Substituting our history for ourselves.
Having learned to praise, we forget
The inevitable mediocrity of origins:
Instances of doubt we refuse to name,
Choosing to hold to the old stories
Of conquest, deserts crossed and then
Forgotten, like those who show us
Not heroes born of conflict
But emblematic standers-in,
Being in division for its own sake,
Because we cannot do otherwise, knowing that
The sun never sets twice in the same
Way, except when you give memory
Access to the desire that exacts
A toll for every image it delivers.


Spontaneity and sorrow: I used to think
Them linked as by an umbilical that draws
The continuous present into disjointed
Futures, where what's past is best
Remembered with regret, the perverse nostalgia
In which one loves the past precisely
Because it could have been better lived.
An odd disjunction arises between my old
Self--so long at the center of things,
Careering off-course as effectively
As a race car with a broken axle--
And my present one (certainly not new,
Just more consistent) who's losing
Contact, nay faith, with and in its past
Incarnations. Thank goodness, you might say,
There's so much archeology to perform
As from a clear platform that abuts the sea,
Acknowledging distance only
As an ancient rite, yet enjoying
It no less. Perhaps such pedantic visions
Are merely prologue to the epic
That comes after, when the desired
Exile is restored, literal this time,
Not some further ism of the mind


Whatever we remember of farmland
We forget it here, where grapevines tease their wire
And miniature apple trees, likewise tethered,
Give off the scent of flowers that promise
But do not yet deliver; roses, the merely
Decorative, climb up the wooden gazebo,
Installed like a sentry box above
The lower fields. Nearby a spring burrows
Through the hill, a clear vein, and it takes
Work to see how simplicity becomes
So strange, so in cahoots with all
The subtle grammar of the seasons
And how we ever forgot this, immured
To a landscape rendered more strange
By our presence, making words
To govern it, as the frame of a picture
Implies closure, even if you know
There are other fields to walk, and love
The complexity of simple things. Take this
Bumblebee, its traffic pattern evident, though
Unmeasurable, stitching an invisible cord
Between the pollen's collocations. Or
The young brown bird with white breast
That follows its parent, screaming for food
As if there were no other anywhere
Who needed more than this reward.

Abstraction, then, is either too easy
Or too difficult; must be implicated
In the radical fact of the world,
Its gardens no emblem of simplicity
But an achieved grace, camouflaged
By our willingness to accept it
At face-value, and to read ourselves
As the players on its stage; no wonder
It takes so long to know oneself at all,
Since we are less categorical than inspired
By the categories themselves; no throw
Of the dice is unexpected, and nothing
Anymore astonishes, although
We've long ago been estranged
From every assumption there ever was.

RIF/T: An Electronic Space for Poetry, Prose, and Poetics
Editors: Kenneth Sherwood and Loss Pequeño Glazier
ISSN#: 1070-0072
Version 1.1 Fall 1993

SCHU01.01 and RIFT01.01 copyright (c) 1993. All rights revert to author(s) upon publication. Texts distributed by RIF/T, e-poetry@ubvm, or the Electronic Poetry Center (Buffalo) may not be republished for profit in any form without express consent of author(s) and notification of the editors, but may be freely circulated among individuals for personal use provided that this copyright statement is included. Public archiving of complete issues only, in electronic or print forms, is permissible provided that no access fee is charged.

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