“I know”, you tell Loren, even if you can’t really tell
what is making her cry (it’s not like when at 6 a.m.
she unwraps our day, or cries for poo, hunger or rage), “I know”.
This way cosmologists postulate dark matter, energy and flow.
So much effort to understand ends up like an alka-seltzer
sizzling on the kitchen wet worktop, our mind is a poor sensor
for the shadows – that yet from time to time are issued
from measures of our language so we get a little truce.
But the obscure things, life invisible in the making,
were sometimes roused by your eyes in this past year
in that point of air that with every blink’s a rhyme
scheme involving a black pupil, light and rimmel.
You knock against a corner and Loren, who can’t talk, says “ainou” –
and if you shed a tear it will be sweet, be clear and slow,
like your silkwarmth or the white flower of the clover,
the last milk between you two and my paper now that this is over.
Cosmogony. Reader’s instructions
Cosmogony, or the birth of the cosmos and related myths: a title that stretches the point. Both because the cosmos is very wide, and to depict its origins the imagination must dive deep. And because contemporary poetry tends to prefer more domestic themes.
Therefore, it seems only fair that a poem by that title, Cosmogony, violates two taboos with its first two words. “I know” contrasts both with romantic vagueness and hermeticism (avant-gardist, post-modern, unaware) that for about 200 years seem to have been unavoidable conditions for poetic writing (even it’s enough to consider Zbigniew Herbert to tip the balance on the other side). “I know”, and therefore I tell you: in poetry I am telling you what I know.
Furthermore, in the Italian version it is stated in English, the language in which all non-English writers would like to be writing, and a language that is particularly off-limits for non-English poets – because if poetry can possibly reach the limits of the cosmos, it will always and only do so taking off from its own linguistic village.
If these two words alone were truly enough to suggest all these implications, I could have left it at that. But the poem carries on. The awareness just boasted is immediately refuted, at least partially, at least in logical terms: “even if you can’t really tell what is making her cry”. Or rather, this very contraposition is here to show that there are (at least) two kinds of knowledge, and one of them does not recognize the principle of non-contradiction. Two kinds of knowledge, like a rhyming couplet. This is the rhyme scheme of the poem, and in the Italian original the first couplet binds together the vagueness of “can’t really tell” with the factual precision of “6 a.m.”. The second couplet introduces a brand new rhyme in the Italian language (and in Polish too, though clearly not in English), and once again counters the affirmation of knowledge (“I know”) with concepts that are indeed scientific (dark matter, dark energy, dark flow), yet are sort of scientific fillers, meant to let us gloss over what we do not know – like a utilitarian “we know that we know nothing” useful to preserve cosmological systems that are partially working fine.
Apart from the know/flow rhyme, the English and Polish rhymes are not the same as the Italian ones, and right now it would be sensible to be addressing different aspects of the text. But the more I try to do so, the more I realize that, just like astrophysics at the reference level and the baby’s cry at the image level, the rhymes of this poem represent an origin, a coming to life, at the formal level. In the following stanzas we find three more half-rhymes that I am ready to swear have never been used in Italian before: alka-selzer/incalza, rime/rimmel, ainóu/po’. Alright, cheating somehow – two of them involve the names of products and the third one even a made-up word – but hey, when something is created for the first time, it should create its own rules as well.
Second stanza: we are landing in the domestic dimension – where contemporary poetry feels so at home – to attempt a meta-poetic definition of what poetry does: even if Auden says that it makes nothing happen, in this case I ignore the master and dare to affirm that poetry gives us a little truce. Therefore, it most probably relieves a little anxiety but without changing anything or expanding our knowledge, and Auden is right once again. Yet, the next stanza begins with an adversative conjunction, and hazards that a pregnant woman sometimes does drive out a secret, a seminal cognition. My guess is that we are dealing with only one of the two types of knowledge, the one we could name “irrational” or “spiritual”.
The last stanza goes back to addressing both the contradictory types of knowledge – if contradictions do exist at all, that is. The baby is comforting the mother in pain: 1) mindlessly aping the word uttered by the mother, who had no idea why on earth the baby was crying in the first place, the aping of an aping, so much for “I know”... 2) using almost all vowels in a primal amalgam of sense and sound, ainóu, while understanding the mother exactly in the way the mother understands the baby – a knowledge invisible in the making (connected yet distant from the logical one, just like this vowel-filled amalgam is connected yet distant from the hard consonantal attire of “I k n o w”).
To conclude, Cosmogony, which at least nominally took off from the infinite cosmos, ends with a google-earth-like close-up and a strong deixis that brings the readers to the page in their hands, “my first paper”. I like to think that this is in its turn an origin, as well as a promise to the readers: “turn the page, you will find other poems there”. And a promise from the readers: “errr...”. And, if you listen carefully, you may catch a sidereal echo, there, no not Bowie the other one, here: “hypocrite lecteur – mon semblable – mon frère”.
And what about freedom? Well, if at least something of what I just wrote sounds true to you, this poem is not only about freedom, but it is freedom itself: the freedom to look for the origin of all things in a new rhyme, in a bundle of vowels, in a glance lost in space, in leaping into the void, onto the kitchen worktop and onto the page you are holding.
(If, on the other hand, none of it sounds true, the sidereal echo is now Beckett’s: Fail again. Fail better).