Saturday, August 23, 2008

My forthcoming book, Tracing Paradise, is what I've come to think of as  a "reader's memoir" because it deals primarily with my mutable and very individual relationship with a work of literature: John Milton's Paradise Lost. Though I had read the poem at various times in high school, college, and thereafter, I had never liked it--had never felt that it had any personal relevance to my life or mind. I think this happens often: sometimes, for whatever reason, we're just not ready for a book. I recently had a conversation with a friend who is a senior in high school and an excellent student and, for her age, a sophisticated reader. But she just can't stomach the Odyssey and feels guilty about it. I had the same sensation about Paradise Lost.

My attempt at expiation was to copy out the poem word for word. This took nearly two years and was revelatory in many, many ways, as I've tried to pinpoint in the memoir (which I'm hoping will be available in spring 2009). But beyond the specifics of this project, copying out other people's poems has been a tremendous influence on my life as both a poet and a teacher. It's as close as I can get to being inside another writer's head; sometimes I feel as if I'm writing the poem alongside the poet. This is technically instructive, of course; but it also requires me to focus my intellect and my emotions with an intensity that mere reading does not require from me. I can't get away from any part of the poem, not even from a comma, not even from "the" or "in." Among other gifts, copying another poet's work pushes me to comprehend grammar not only as a tool but as a pathway to thought and discovery--not something necessarily evident in a high school grammar lesson but an invaluable aid in my cycles of reading, writing, and revising.

Here's a bit from Tracing Paradise. The quotations are all from Milton's Paradise Lost.

from Chapter 12: Dust

Curs’d is the ground for thy sake, thou in sorrow

Shalt eat thereof all the days of thy Life;

Thorns also and Thistles it shall bring thee forth

Unbid, and thou shalt eat th’ Herb of the Field,

In the sweat of thy Face shalt thou eat Bread,

Till thou return unto the ground, for thou

Out of the ground wast taken, know thy Birth,

For dust thou art, and shalt to dust return.

Over the course of this self-imposed reading assignment, I’ve spent a good deal of time not liking Adam and Eve, or their tame forest, or their smarmy heavenly protectors. I’ve complained about them and ridiculed them and heaved gusty sighs of despair. In large part, I haven’t wanted to care about them. I’ve wanted to ignore them, refigure them, tart them up. I’ve wanted to tear them out of the coloring book and lose them under the couch cushions. I have indeed wanted to discover and argue with and possess Milton and all of his crazy greatness. But I haven’t wanted to love this stilted, static pair.

            Nonetheless I do love them, though in this case the connotations of love are imprecise and difficult to negotiate. I can’t love them like parents or objects of desire, despite Milton’s relentless encouragement. Nor can I disguise myself in their personae, as I might with Huck Finn or Elizabeth Bennet. Nor can I exactly admire them as fractured reflections of a familiar world, as I do Chaucer’s pilgrims to Canterbury or Dickens’s Aged Parent.

My feelings about Adam and Eve bear more resemblance to the love I once  felt for my large and shabby collection of dolls and stuffed bears: a general helpless, anxious, immersed affection blent with indifference; a superstitious physical attachment; a periodic ferocious, godlike control over these button-eyed companions, whom I riotously embraced for a season and then forgot for the rest of my life. Like battered rag dolls, Eve and Adam are emblems of the grief and ruthlessness of time.

            Of course, in truth I have no control over these characters. Come innocence or sorrow, they wend their augured way, “hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow.” The inevitability of myth is a well-oiled yet melancholy trap. Like the life stories of the noble dead, a myth is both stately and inexorable. Again, and once more again, Virginia Woolf wades into the river with her sweater pockets full of stones, John Keats sails hopelessly to Italy, Pandora unlocks her forbidden casket.

And so Adam and Eve’s lost paradise is also my lost paradise, not because I ever glimpsed it or even had faith in its existence but because the tale of their loss dwells with me, as legends do, in the shadowy margins between knowledge and invention. A prodigious experiment, this devouring of myth, a willing obedience to the delights and tragedies of belief. If story helps us rationalize mystery, it also absorbs us into sensibility’s bosky underworld. We become the sadness we know.

This is why myth, for all its implausibility, seems so much like lived experience. There is nothing real about Prometheus chained to the rock or Orpheus looking back for Eurydice. They could not have existed. And yet they have always existed, even in Harmony, Maine, in the autumn of the year, where webworm nests swing triumphantly in the chokecherries and my nine-year-old son tosses long, wobbly football spirals, his trajectory a slow-motion wiggle into the weeds.

O Parent, these are thy magnific deeds,

Thy Trophies, which thou view’st as not thine own,

Thou art thir Author and prime Architect.

This is the key to myth—that I stand inside and outside it simultaneously. I taste Eve’s apple and I believe the serpent’s words with all my laden heart, which “by a secret harmony / Still moves with thine,” my “Author and prime Architect,” as my son’s football blunders into the weeds, as a hen squawks irritably, as Sin and Death await Satan at the foot of the “portentous Bridge” they have built over the gates of Hell.


Elizabeth Garber said...

Even though I'm not enticed to read Milton after reading this account, I'm fascinated by your project and the places you go exploring , inspired by Milton. Thanks so much for this excerpt. I'll enjoy reading more! Elizabeth

Dawn Potter said...

Milton's a hard sell. He's very far away from us in terms of his language, his obsessions, his beliefs, his angers, even his affections. But I think pushing myself to wrestle with Paradise Lost did open a door for me: it took me away from myself and thus further into myself, if that makes any sense. But the project was a personal venture. I'm not proselytizing "Milton for all!" believe me.