Today we’re having the windows washed . . .I think of how such a journal entryMight have proceeded if written by anActual novelist or superbEpistolarian (known for her acidEye, gentle heart and platinum tongue)Or essayist of an older sort,All of whom had memorious eyesAnd capacious memories for details:Their “powers of observation” makeMe feel blind to the moment andMindless of just what was said or worn.The true novelist’s mandarin proseOf whatever mode makes up its ownRecordings of what it made take placeOn disks themselves made up of yearsOf recycled detailed remembrancesThat I don’t have to draw or write on.But I’ll give the window washers a try.Let’s see: I’ll at least remember thatThere were three of them, and one came firstTo case the joint, as it were, and thatAll of them were of medium height,Slender and dark and that they didIndeed clean all the windows, inside andOut, hanging on safety strapsAbove the distant ground. That’s it.But my own windows that look outOn the immediate world–the onesThrough which they used to say the soulPeers out and love comes in–get washedOnly by tears, and what I knowOf what’s out there comes in through oneOf the cleaner spots. Their sizes andTheir placement are both meaningless,And make me wonder about whatI get to see, whether of windows–And what goes on when they get cleanedAnd who said what to whom and whoDid which and with what–or of mirroredEyes or imagined minds. So thatIn the matter of the men who cameTo clean the windows, what could I say?“If memory serves . . .” but it will not:And like language itself when atIts best or even craziest,Ich dien
it will not say–like eachDutiful Prince of Wales for sevenCenturies–but rather nonServiam,
the Adversary’sNo way!
At the instant of starting upThe engines of noticing, memory–As full of random holes as anyUncleaned window is of spotsOf blur and dimming–begins at onceTo interfere, and so one’s eyesBrim with forgetting long beforeThe presence of a pastness, earsCan’t quite recall what they are hearing.That’s all there is to say aboutThe windows being washed today.A Draft of Light
We all had to wear hats against the unvarying sun, Of course; but what was more significant,We’d had to bring with us–along with our freshly prepared Thoughts, wrapped up in the old way–bottled lightTo quench any thirst for knowledge that walking through the dry Valley of grayish terebinths and stillLizards on chunks of fallen Hellenistic masonry Might intensify through the lengtheningAfternoon. Bottled? Well, all the available light, there In that valley uninflected by muchShade, was barely fit to drink and having to bring our own Along was always part of the bargain.When the light is too fierce for shadows to blossom in it, Too dry for any specificity,Too general for distinctness, too literal for truth, What else, after all, can a person do?Given that to think one’s private thoughts of light were Somehow thereby to drink some of the fluidLight that is at once itself, and what of it is brought forth Again both by all that it makes visible,And by what those who see and say have ever said of it, As a flower whose name one knows jumps out–Not merely in its saturated blue but in its changed Look–from the chaos of these petaled thingsAnd those surrounding it. But light keeps one thing in the dark: The matter of its very origins.Though babble’s tall outrageous tower fell, crumbling under The weight of its own presumption, LanguageHad a different tale to tell of itself: that it once Contracted to an insignificantPoint which nonetheless contained all the Meaningfullness that There was to be, and then, this being quiteUnbearable, exploded into all the languages, Chunks flying apart in such differentDirections! And then there were only all the languages. Likewise with Light before there were the hostOf private lights reflected by each brush, dot, or pixel Of all the surfaces of the seen world,The world as seen. An untold story, this, and for The matters of mass and energy we callMind, quite immaterial, but not to the substance of Our long walk. Quite the other way: our walk–Yes . . . nearing, but not at, its end, pausing there, just before Leaving the valley for the pine forestBetween it and the sea, we stopped to drink what was surely Ours by right–we’d carried it alongThe whole long way–and long swallows of it now allowed us Rightly to claim to know now where we wereGoing, rightly, at last, to know where we’d been all along And where it was that we had started from.The Remains of the Clarinet
–Well, just the bell, really, and weHope, not kept in the far worse hopeOf being cleverly used–likeThe violin, painted mauve, topRemoved, passed around by the neckFull of mixed nuts or else servingAs a very silent butler;The kettledrum, beheaded, nowA planter; the French horn fixed onA stand, bell up, now a yawningAshtray. But this gently flaringEbony tube, ringed with metal,The bell gazing ceilingward andResting on an obsolete deskDictionary that itself liesOn a dusty table must beSpared the ravages of cutenessThat would stand some pens and pencilsIn it, or conceal a narrowBud vase in its base with a fewSprigs of lily of the valleyMight peek coyly over its rimLike white ladies on a tower.I’d want it to stand open and empty,Like a shell that is both ear andMouth at once, speaking of all itsSinging past and of its presentListening, and then listeningTo the silence of what it nowHas still commandingly to say.
Copyright © 2008 by John Hollander. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.