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When It’s Gone, It’s Everywhere: Jake Adam York’s “Narcissus incomparabilis
                                        And on the bank a lonely flower he spied,
                                        A meek and forlorn flower, with naught of pride,
                                        Drooping its beauty o’er the watery clearness,
                                        To woo its own sad image into nearness:
                                        Deaf to light Zephyrus it would not move; 
                                        But still would seem to droop, to pine, to love. 
                                        So while the Poet stood in this sweet spot, 
                                        Some fainter gleamings o’er his fancy shot; 
                                        Nor was it long ere he had told the tale 
                                        Of young Narcissus, and sad Echo’s bale.

                                                    —John Keats (“I stood tip-toe upon a little hill”)

I’m sitting hapless before a group of students. After just a few minutes, our conversation is at a standstill. Perhaps no one bothered to read the assigned poems since our last class. Perhaps no one read this particular poem aloud or dared to read the poem more than once. Had my own recitation failed to convey that poetry is most alive (resuscitated!) when read aloud? I even question the scheduling gods who bring us to the fourth-floor classroom on Friday afternoons.

But this is what we do: we read the poem, read the poem again, and wait for the signal. We read the poem once more. Perhaps an avenue will appear and ease us from our reluctance.

                                        I look for a sign in the sun, in the puddle 
                                        of sunlight in front of the door, which 
                                        already shifts, withdraws.

                                                    —Jacques Roubaud (“Endings”)

#   #   #

Rather than frustrate, a poem’s mystery engages my curiosity. I’m also fascinated (and terrified) by the fact that everything in this world seems to mature or devolve, including the world itself. The familiar shoreline is unrecognizable. The degree of light revises itself in a moment. So many have returned and noted: This neighborhood is not what it used to be. If the future is anything like my past, some yet encountered recording of a poet, some lent book, or some week spent driving this great country to read poems will change my convictions entirely.

#   #   #

On Monday just after Thanksgiving and a few 
minutes before my undergraduate poetry 
workshop, a colleague appears in the doorway 
and asks if we can speak. A few minutes later, 
I return to my chair at the front of the room.

#   #   #

In March 2013, while visiting Lexington, Kentucky, I encountered a broadside and the opening sentences of Jake Adam York’s “Narcissus incomparabilis” hanging on a living room wall:

                                        Lean down, lean down
                                        while the light’s abducted,
                                        its last skirts caught
                                        then torn through the trees.
                                        Keep your own eye still
                                        so no one catches you.

Here: the poem raises its hand and announces itself present. Dusk is framed by the imperative voice, which introduces the implied speaker and the poem’s “you.” Such simple observations don’t occur to me when first reading a poem; it’s during the second, fifth, and fifteenth reading when I start to trust my own responses. But here (Here!) these lines appear eight, now nine months later, and I see that neither the speaker nor the “you” is clearly identified in the poem’s single stanza. In addition to recurrences of memory and light, the opening of York’s poem suggests an exchange like that between hunter and prey. The poet’s diction is one of violence: the light is “abducted,” “caught,” and “torn through the trees.”

#   #   #

I read aloud all but one of the names from my 
attendance sheet. I take a breath and look around 
the circle of chairs. Then, I tell my students that 
their classmate—the one who just a week ago sat 
right there—was found in the Chicago River.

#   #   #

But taken by whom? What cosmic, supernatural, or spiritual force can I attach to the hunter in York’s poem? Between what spaces do the hunter and the “you” coexist as the light is seized?

                                        When it’s gone, it’s everywhere—
                                        air a memory of light,
                                        incident turned ambient,
                                        and it never takes long 
                                        for this nacre to grow
                                        over each absence or intruder
                                        and become the world.

I blame, in part, my poor vocabulary on the Portland Public Schools. Mostly I blame Hanford (the nuclear reactor a few hundred miles up the Columbia River), and so I deflect embarrassment in the admission that York’s choice of “nacre” leads me to Merriam-Webster: mother-of-pearl, “a hard, shiny, and smooth substance that is on the insides of the shells of some shellfish…” This is the first of several connections to water in the poem, but what catches my eye on the sixteenth and twentieth reading of this passage is how the nacre envelopes “each absence or intruder.” The environment of York’s poem is turbulent, and in order to “become the world” each and all (including absence) must first be consumed.

                                        All must collapse / and wither.

                                                    —Farrah Field (“Self-Portrait in Toad Suck, Arkansas”)

#   #   #

Delmore Schwarts writes: “The mind possesses and is possessed by all the ruins / Of every haunted, hunted generation’s celebration” (“Narcissus”), and York’s inclusion of “memory” (lines 8, 20, and 24) links the mind’s power with the recurrent light. Like my initial experience with the poem’s speaker and its “you,” I didn’t note these repetitions at first, but I believe their effect had already begun to work on my attention.

#   #   #

I drive north into the suburbs and the village of 
Mundelein. Because of an early snowstorm, I’m 
late to my student's funeral. The traffic moves 
too slowly. The heater in the Volvo doesn’t 
work. The pants of my one suit are painfully thin.

#   #   #

Life is short and we are returned once, many times, or never again. If lucky, then there are those hunted creatures in “The Heaven of Animals” by James Dickey, another southern poet by birth: “They fall, they are torn, / They rise, they walk again.” In York’s poem, the transaction between hunter and hunted (as embodied by the “you”) remains unrequited. When I visit and revisit the lines—the words that the poet left for me, their reader—I see that the poem blends its imperative voice with multilayered images, and the action (the danger and the leaning) is perpetual.

                                        Lean down now,
                                        creel of starlight and moon,
                                        and reflect again
                                        your inherited light.

York chooses to repeat the opening phrase (“Lean down”) at the midpoint of “Narcissus incomparabilis” (the phrase appears a fourth time, nine lines later). Following the poem’s longest sentence, the recurrence of “lean down” echoes familiar terrain. These four lines provide relief in terms of pacing and raise (for this reader) another question: my dictionary defines “creel” as a basket used to carry newly caught fish. This subtle, five-letter word is delightful as it not only links land and water, it introduces yet another reference to hunter and prey. Instead of carrying fish, this is a basket that carries “starlight and moon,” and the setting of the poem has transitioned more fully into darkness

                                        I lay down my head 
                                        To the very end of my silence 

                                        To the very end of my silence 
                                        I lay down my head

                                                    —Noelle Kocot (“Song”)

#   #   #

Another admission: when I enter the opening lines of a single poem, I almost always forget the work’s title. Sometimes I won’t return to the first words until the poem’s end. Sometimes, midway through a poem, I’ll glance up like a passenger from her book or smartphone to see what station just passed. The italicization of “Narcissus incomparabilis” indicates a direct reference to the flower: a hybrid between the classic daffodil and the poet’s daffodil; however, the flower’s genus (Narcissus) makes the flower inseparable from classical mythology.

#   #   #

From a back pew, I listen as an uncle recounts 
how, as a child, my student ran through the 
house naked except for a cowboy hat and boots. I 
recall him curling dreadlocks around his finger.
I write “cowboy boots” on a scrap of paper.

#   #   #

Which version of Narcissus does the reader adopt? The one who is unable to leave his reflection and, as a result, starves? The one who drowns? Or is this the Narcissus who lost his identical twin sister and attempts to recall her image by staring at his own? Is the “you” of the poem instructed to “lean down” in order to become less visible or to better see?

                                        World may ripple—
                                        pearl, scale, pebble, bone—
                                        behind all memory,
                                        may ghost you, stranger,
                                        where you don’t belong.
                                        But lean down now,
                                        as memory hardens
                                        its incomparable light. 
                                        Don’t let the sun
                                        set on you again.

This final passage of York’s poem includes a short catalogue enclosed by a pair of em dashes: a sequence, maybe, or an analogy in which water and land are linked by the appearance of objects and their bodily counterparts (“pearl” is to “scale” as “pebble” is to “bone”). The “you,” identified here as “stranger,” is haunted by the world in which he is alien (“where you don’t belong”) and incurs the poem’s most direct threat of being erased by the world.

#   #   #

The day after mentioning my student’s death in 
an email, I receive a short reply from the poet 
Bob Hicok: “I hope you don't mind that I wrote 
the attached poem. I do that a lot in response to 
things people tell me.” I click on the attachment.

#   #   #

If I break a poetry tenet by confusing the speaker with the poem’s author, then I’m permitted to confuse the “you” with the poem’s reader. In our day-to-day activities, each one of us is vulnerable. Each of us, regardless to what extent we allow ourselves to recognize the fact, is in danger of being “ghosted.” And so I’ll say it: With the passing of Jake Adam York in December 2012, I’m tempted to interpret “Narcissus incomparabilis” as an elegy.

                                        His silence was what he could not 
                                        not do, like our breathing in this world, like our living, 

                                        as we do, in time.

                                                    —Marie Howe (“The Promise”)

#   #   #

The final directive of “Narcissus incomparabilis” (“Don’t let the sun / set on you again”) contains several interpretations. For a sun to “set” is to disappear at the horizon. But “to set” is also to place one thing upon another, and by this definition the “you” is ordered to avoid the light. Or is the “you” instructed to remain in the light and not ever let it (memory) cease shining? A further possibility is that the sun too is a hunter: to “set on you” is another utterance of attack.

#   #   #

I forward Hicok’s poem to the class. I enclose a 
copy to my student’s family. The lines convey 
what no one—not the students and not their 
teacher—is able to articulate: At the desk where the 
boy sat, he sees the Chicago River. / It raises its hand.

#   #   #

Might the sun be the abductor of its own light? Am I to understand that night is settling into dawn or that the sun is gone forever? Am I to envision a perpetual victim, or does the “you” have agency and, by not letting “the sun set,” remain actively engaged in the tension between light and recollection, refusing the permanence ascribed to memory? To complicate matters, this passage begins with a transitional “But” (line 23), which opens more possibilities. I don’t yet know how to interpret these final lines; ultimately, I don’t want an ending to be so narrowly defined.

                                        A Grecian lad, as I hear tell, 
                                        One that many loved in vain, 
                                        Looked into a forest well 
                                        And never looked away again.

                                                    —A. E. Housman (“[Look not in my eyes, for fear]”)

#   #   #

A few weeks ago, in her acceptance speech for the 2013 National Book Award in Poetry, Mary Szybist described her doubt in poetry: “If it cannot do what I want it to do, if it cannot restore those I have lost, then why bother with it at all?” How do those left behind move forward in a matter that’s tolerable or even meaningful? How does anyone endure the world’s bewilderment? Szybist continues: “There’s plenty that poetry cannot do, but the miracle, of course, is how much it can do, how much it does do.” If (if) I’m to read Jake Adam York’s “Narcissus incomparabilis” as an elegy, I must acknowledge that the act of lament or consolation is also the act of commemoration and celebration. In fact, we must commemorate and celebrate in order to better embrace our lives.

My satisfaction as a reader (even as a listener) includes the act of disappearing within the text. Let the world fall away for a few seconds, minutes, or hours. Yes, I struggle when reading and writing poems, but the genre’s challenges are part of its pleasure. I seek the excitement of the first encounter all over again, plus the fruition that accompanies subsequent visits. I also want to loiter in that rare space where language veils but also, as in many great poems, ever so slowly reveals its individuality. Just when clarity seems pinned inside a frame, an image or phrase catches my eye, a moment flutters, and a new assurance results in joy.


Works Cited

Dickey, James. Poems 1957-1967. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967. Print.

Field, Farrah. Rising. New York, NY: Four Way Books, 2009. Print.

Hicok, Bob. This Clumsy Living. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007. Print.

Housman, A. E. A Shropshire Lad and Other Poems: The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman. New York, NY: Penguin, 2010. Print.

Howe, Marie. What the Living Do. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. Print.

Keats, John. The Complete Poems. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, 1988. Print.

Kocot, Noelle. Poem for the End of Time and Other Poems. Seattle, WA: Wave Books, 2006. Print.

“nacre.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2013. Web. 15 November 2013.

Schwartz, Delmore. Selected Poems: Summer Knowledge. New York, NY: New Directions, 1967. Print.

Szybist, Mary. National Books Awards Ceremony. National Book Foundation. Cipriani, New York, NY. 20 November 2013. Acceptance Speech.

York, Jake Adam. Persons Unknown. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010. Print.