January 25, 2017
Encountering “September Sky”
By (Johns Hopkins University)

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You are reading along in a magazine or a journal, hard-copy or online,1 when you encounter the following item:

SEPTEMBER SKY

One A.M. Alone in the barn
I wake for the usual reason then as usual
I step out onto the deck,
which faces due East. A half-moon has risen,

it’s still relatively low in the sky
and the line of division cleaves upper left
to lower right, like an accent grave.
(The term comes unbidden

because before going to sleep
I had been reading my favorite French
twentieth-century poet Blaise Cendrars,
whose constellation was Orion because it had the form

of his missing hand.)

You recognize it by its conventional form as a poem.  It has a title, three four-line stanzas with lines of irregular length, and a final short line that makes up a mini-stanza of its own (so to speak).  It occurs to you to try to see how it works, and maybe even to decide for yourself whether it is a “good” poem, whatever that turns out to mean.  So you start to read through it closely, bit by bit:

SEPTEMBER SKY

Does the title make this a “nature” poem?  You will have to see.  Maybe the poem will be about the sky in September, maybe the title is itself metaphorical in one way or another, maybe both,

One A.M.

So the sky in question is likely a night sky.  More broadly, what sort of opening is this?  Not a conspicuously original one; lots of modern short lyrics open in similar ways, among them one particular poem that the poet, if you are to take him or her seriously (for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume the poet is a man), might be assumed to admire, or at least to know very well: the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer’s much-admired “Tracks,” which begins:

2 a.m: moonlight. The train has stopped
out in the middle of the plain. Far away, points of light
in a town,
flickering coldly on the horizon.2

Anyone familiar with “Tracks” knows that the competition between it and “September Sky” is bound to be rough on the latter.  But maybe competition isn’t the point — maybe “September Sky”: welcomes the comparison by way of declaring the sort of poem it aspires to be.

One A.M.  Alone in the barn

Now you have a bit more of the setting.  A barn, therefore a countryside.  And the poet is alone.  (It’s customary in analyses of poems to refer to the “I”-personage as the “speaker” but let’s just say the poet; this one isn’t “speaking” in any sense of the word.)  Actually that’s quite a lot to glean from an opening line, and a short one at that.  And look (which is also to say listen, inwardly): “One A.M.  Alone in the barn” — four “n” sounds, three of them stressed, plus a strictly visual rhyme between “one” and “alone.”  And try inwardly sounding (not quite the same as saying) “One” – “M” – “alone” – “barn” – can you feel the semi-accords among them, the way the phonemes shift back and forth between two zones of the mouth, the “n”s versus the semi-plosives “m” and “b”?  Even if you can, though, the question (as always in matters of art) is whether any of this matters in the least, which is to say whether “September Sky” will turn out to be a poem in which those sorts of relationships are brought forward in an esthetically meaningful way.

One A.M. Alone in the barn.
I wake for usual reason then as usual
I step out onto the deck,

The poet is doing something in the present tense.  This is a temporal modality poems, especially “lyric” poems, are capable of deploying more “naturally” than any other literary genre.3  If you read a prose account in the present tense you are made conscious from the outset of its artificiality, its straining against the usual conventions of prose narrative.  Whereas a lyric poem in the present tense feels unexceptionally or at least potentially unexceptionally “true” to the experience it is seeking to evoke.  (You might say it is one of the singular virtues of the lyric form to make present-tense experience and indeed reflection on such experience available to the reader in this way.)

I wake for the usual reason then as usual
I step out onto the deck,

There’s a certain casual humor in the first of these lines: you aren’t told what “the usual reason” is or was, but it isn’t hard to guess.  And note: the poet wakes at one A.M. — what does that suggest?  To me it (very softly) suggests that he went to sleep somewhat early — at any rate, it seems unlikely that he went to sleep at say 12:30 A.M. and then woke half an hour later.  And why would he have gone to sleep somewhat early?  Maybe because he usually gets up early (to write?), maybe because he is no longer young (but would that necessarily mean that he no longer stays up late, if he ever did?) — not that any of these thoughts explicitly occur to the reader.  Probably they don’t.  But they hover in the vicinity of the lines, ready to be tapped, if the reader’s mind works that way, as in some cases it might.  They aren’t essential, though.

I wake for the usual reason then as usual
I step out onto the deck,

And now you note the repetition of “usual,” which has a slightly different feel in its two occurrences, maybe because the second time it occurs it receives a slightly stronger stress and is placed at the end of the line (there is even a sense in which it is sounded just a bit more slowly).  (This already throws a retrospective light on the visual/phonic relationships among “One,” “M.,” “alone,” and “barn” in the opening line.)  And there is this: the first “usual” indicates an activity that, assuming you have understood what it is, you have imagined as in effect forced (a matter of physiological necessity); whereas the phrase “as usual” indicates a choice on the part of the poet, something he regularly does by design following the forced action alluded to earlier in the line.  Also: note the “then” in the second line coming immediately after “reason,” with no punctuation between.  Do you see how much stronger it is as a temporal connective than if the poet had used “and”?  (Maybe he did, in an earlier draft.)  And how much stronger it is than if there were a comma after “reason,” as in a prose equivalent of the line would probably be the case?  The comma would introduce a short pause, which would do the poem no good at all, in fact it would considerably mess up the rhythm of the second and third lines by thrusting “then as usual” rhythmically across the line-break, whereas without the comma “I step out onto the deck” stands by itself, which gives it a greater present-tense vividness than would otherwise be the case.  All the more so in that the key verb here is “step,” not for example “walk”.  That is, “I walk out onto the deck” would be, somehow, ordinary; the poet is walking in the house, he continues onto the deck — no change of mood or rhythm.  “I step out onto the deck” though has something almost formal about it; the poet has paused (the line-break), and then, taking account (perhaps subliminally) of the threshold between interior and exterior, he steps across it.

And not “I step onto the deck” but “I step out onto the deck” — the “out” has work to do, at once evoking the night outside the barn (it’s probably pretty chilly, for one thing) and by adding a further stress suggesting a certain bodily weight — is it delusional to hear “step out” with its paired stresses as somehow marking the poet’s footfalls as he steps onto the wooden planking beyond (a sliding?) door?  No doubt this is pushing the envelope, but that’s what certain sorts of poems invite the reader to do.

which faces due East.

Why does the poet regularly, that is, as usual, step out onto the deck?  The title has already given the answer (by Nachträglichkeit, in a manner of speaking): to look at the night sky.  And now you know the sector of the sky — due East, where the moon and planets and constellations rise above the horizon.  And sure enough

                                    A half-moon has risen,

With this the first stanza reaches an end, though of course there is not the slightest sense of closure, on the contrary, the introduction of the moon at this point in the fourth line impels the reader across the gap between the first and second stanzas, into the first line of the second.  But before going there the reader is struck by the fact that the half-moon, a new element in the poem and likely to be the focus of some attention in what follows, has been introduced (in a new sentence) toward the end of the first stanza instead of being held back until the beginning of the second.  Perhaps you can already sense how crucial this placement is to the movement of the poem, which would be entirely different (less “good,” too) if the first stanza were solely about waking and stepping onto the deck, the second about the moon, and so on (this will become clearer as the poem proceeds).

Two other observations.  First, “half-moon” harks back phonically to “One” and “alone” and even “barn” in the first line.  In fact the long “u” sound in “moon” picks up on the same sound in “usual” and “as usual.”  None of this is blatant, in fact it’s easy to miss, but it is nevertheless at work.  And second, “risen” harks back to “reason,” a stronger connection than those just cited (an off-rhyme, in fact) — and yet this too remains somewhat inconspicuous, probably because “reason” in line two is bracketed by the two “usual”s, which are what tend to stay with one, as it seems to me.  But the connection is telling, and it will soon become more so (again, by Nachträglichkeit).

A stanza-break then:

it’s still relatively low in the sky

That’s the half-moon, of course.  This is an important line because it situates the half-moon in relation to the horizon, hence also to the poet.  In a way it’s unexpected, it’s the most prose-like line so far (the most discursive-seeming, the most “ordinary,” the most “relaxed”), but it’s also quite musical with its play of liquid sounds: “still,” “relatively,” “low” — four “l”-sounds in all, and the absence of punctuation — specifically, the absence of a comma at its end — is also “poetic” in that it counts on the line-break to provide all the punctuation it requires.

and the line of division cleaves upper left
to lower right,

Something dramatic has happened, you may feel. In the first place the phrase “the line of division,” unlike “One A.M.”, isn’t “ordinary” or “relaxed” (this isn’t meant as praise, simply as a matter of fact): it appears possible that it has never previously been used to describe the separation between the bright and shadowed halves of a half-moon, and yet it is straightforward to the point of seeming almost technical — how more precisely could that separation be indicated, the reader is invited to wonder.  Then there is the way in which “division” almost rhymes with (and in any case strongly connects back with) “risen” at the end of stanza one, at which point (check me on this) the reference back to “reason” also comes into focus or say becomes “audible” in a new way.  At which point, more or less, you become aware in a new way — so I want to claim — of the internal, word-by-word if not syllable-by-syllable constructedness of the poem, at least up to this point: it may turn out that you don’t like this sort of poem, that will be for you to determine, but it is becoming clear what sort of poem, which is to say what sort of esthetic artifact, “September Sky” is.

And then, immediately, almost before you are ready, you encounter the powerful verb “cleaves,” which perhaps would stop you in your tracks if it were not for the sequence of stresses to which it gives rise — “cleaves upper left / to lower right” — a sequence unlike anything else in the poem.  A dictionary definition of “cleave” is helpful here.  Basically it has two antithetical or at least complementary meanings:

  1. To split or separate, as with an ax.
  2. To adhere, cling, or stick fast. Used with to.

Both of which perfectly fit the present case: the bright and dark halves of the moon having been separated as with the blow of an ax, and yet adhering or clinging or sticking fast to each other even if the dark half is not exactly visible.  So the half-moon above the horizon is not simply photogenic, so to speak; it is also unmistakably haloed by a certain violence,  the sequence of stresses we have just noted being a repetition or echoing of the deed of separation.  (At the same time, the liquid “l”-sounds of the previous line continue to make themselves felt in “line,” “cleaves,” “left,” “lower.”  Perhaps mitigating the violence at least a little.)  Probably the poet is pleased with aptness of “cleaves” and more broadly the artfulness of these lines; whether you the reader share the feeling is for you to decide.

To continue:

and the line of division cleaves upper left
to lower right, like an accent grave.

At which point, unexpectedly the poem has made a leap into another language, French.  A double leap, really: it could have said “like a grave accent,” which would still allude to French, there being nothing like a grave accent in English.  But it chooses to name the French diacritical mark in its native language: “accent grave,” which compounds the gesture by introducing another phonic register, a distinctly nasal one, which plays against the appearance of the words in an English- (American-) language context.  The French word “grave” in particular stands out, perhaps by virtue of reaching back to “barn” at the end of line one — not that the two vowel sounds are the same, they distinctly aren’t — perhaps by virtue of the sequence of v-words, “division,” “cleaves,” “grave,” which becomes audible/visible only with the last.

It’s easy to imagine an American or British reader bridling at this: why should an American- (English-) language poem want to go into French in this possibly show-offy way?  But consider: there is no English or American word for a line of division (for a line of any sort) that runs from upper left to lower right; you might prefer “grave accent” in principle, but it would still be a reference to the French language and you must admit that it would be sadly inferior to “accent grave” in the present context.  Moreover, the poem itself has something to say about its move to French:

(The term comes unbidden

because before going to sleep
I had been reading my favorite French
twentieth-century poet, Blaise Cendrars,

And with “unbidden” you register the final, most attenuated off-rhyme, going back through “division,” “risen,” and “reason” (or in the order they occur in the poem, “reason,” “risen,” “division,” “unbidden”; both orders are at work in one’s experience of the poem).  At which point the poem has somewhat shifted its focus, or so it seems, away from the half-moon and the night sky to the poet’s reading preferences: you are told that his favorite French twentieth-century poet is someone you may never have heard of, Blaise Cendrars, the nom de plume (more French) of the Swiss-born Frédéric-Louis Sauser (1887-1961), whom Wikipedia explains “was a writer of considerable influence in the modernist movement.”

Cendrars’ reputation is curious: to anyone not involved with French literature (he wrote both poems and novels) he is not a name to conjure with, to put it mildly.  But in France, let’s just say that the situation is different.  In any case, note the play of alliteration and internal rhymes in the lines “because before going to sleep / I had been reading my favorite French / twentieth-century poet, Blaise Cendrars”; and if you have an ear (and eye) for French, you will be struck by the simple beauty of his nom de plume “Blaise” (as in Pascal), with the visually long “ai” sounded differently from the same pairing in English (like the “e” in “French” or “twentieth-“, more or less); and “Cendrars,” the ‘en” rhyming visually with the “en” in “French” or “twentieth” but making a different, fuller, nasal sound and the “rars” harking back to “grave” and even “barn,” while not precisely the same as either.  (Something else, which is probably relevant only in a bilingual context: the French word “cendres” means ashes, while the name “Blaise” inevitably suggests the word “blaze” to an American or British reader.  The merest hint of fire in the night.)

Much more might be said about Cendrars’ poetry, but it would be superfluous.  The third stanza concludes and then, after a stanza break, spills over into one more short line:

whose constellation was Orion because it had the form

of his missing hand.)

Orion, of course, is a magnificent constellation, and it also belongs to the autumn sky in the Northern hemisphere — for example, the September sky.  But what does it mean to say that Orion was Cendrars’ constellation? — not his favorite constellation, but his constellation (tout court, so to speak)?  A poem will help:

ORION

C’est mon étoile
Elle a la forme d’une main
C’est ma main montée au ciel
Durant toute la guerre je voyais Orion par un crénaux
Quand les Zeppelins venaient bombarder Paris ils
venaient toujours d’Orion
Aujourd’hui je l’ai au-dessus de ma tête
Le grand mat perce la paume de cette main qui doit
souffrir
Comme ma main coupée me fait souffrir percée
qu’elle est par un dard continuel4

Some basic facts.  First, Cendrars spent many years at sea.  And second, when World War One broke out he joined the Foreign Legion, fought at the Somme, and in 1915 lost his right arm in combat.  Again, it may seem suicidal of “September Sky” to invite comparison with a second poem as inspired as “Orion,” but presumably it couldn’t help itself.  Or at any rate as “September Sky” gradually came into existence on the page or computer screen (with the help of the poet, needless to say), the connection with Cendrars’ “Orion” became simply irresistible, whatever the cost (poems are sometimes like that).  And look: the reference to Cendrars’ “Orion” means that the last lines of “September Sky” would have the reader imagine standing on the deck of his (in this case) barn gazing eastward at the night sky and in particular at two heavenly entities, the half-moon with its gravely-angled line of division and the magisterial, glittering Orion — doing this regularly, as a matter of fact; each night after waking and (say it!) urinating.

Some further observations: the two-ness of the moon and Orion is reflected in the basic structure of the poem, by which I refer to the fact that just under half of “September Sky” is between parentheses; what emerges, of course, is that the specific content of that parenthesis isn’t at all parenthetical to the basic situation — rather the parenthesis is a rhetorical or say structural device that that enables the juxtaposition of the actual scene and Cendrars’ poem, with the eventual aim of bringing the second to bear on the first — to illuminate it from beyond, we might say, as if the empirical constellation was at one and the same time Cendrars’ “étoile,” which is also to say his missing hand.  (This, I’m suggesting, is the poem’s aim; I’m in no position to judge whether or not the aim is realized.)  And once again it matters that the shift to the French language and Cendrars’ poem begins not at the beginning of the third stanza but in line two of the second — as with the placement of “A half-moon has risen” at the end of the first stanza the interlocking of stanzas in this respect turns out to be vital to the poem’s effectiveness.  Which is not to insist on that effectiveness, only to invite you to confirm the intuition that “September Sky” would be much less effective than it is if each of the three stanzas were confined to a particular subject matter: deck, half-moon, Cendrars’ poem (and Orion).

One more observation: note how the word “form” at the end of the penultimate line manifestly refuses the alternative word “shape,” which would make a rather close off-rhyme with “sleep” three lines before.  (This sort of refusal is something else poems sometimes do.)  “Form,” of course, bears an alliterative relation to the pairing “favorite French” of two lines before.  And it echoes the word “forme” in Cendrars’ poem.  In any case, the wager of “September Sky” is that coming where it does it is a better word than “shape.”

And a few last questions: How do you the reader of “September Sky” respond to the isolation of “of his missing hand.)” in a mini-stanza of its own?  Is there a sense, do you feel, in which the separation of those words from the rest of the poem mimes the amputation to which they refer?  If so, does the miming work or is it “de trop”?  And perhaps a further sense in which the isolation of those words on the page might be taken as evoking the isolation of Orion in the Eastern sky — as if the end of “September Sky” brings together Orion and Cendrars’ missing hand in a way consistent with the gist of Cendrars’ marvelous poem?  Or is this simply wishful thinking on the part of the poet?  Or indeed the poem?5

Notes

1. A highly rhetorical opening.  The only journal the poem appears in is the current issue of nonsite.org, but it also is to be found toward the close of Promesse du Bonheur, a collection of new poems by me along with thirty-odd photographs by James Welling, co-published by nonsite.org and David Zwirner Books.

2. For “Tracks” see Tomas Tranströmer, New Collected Poems, trans. Robin Fulton (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1997). pp. 44-45.
3. The deep affinity of the lyric for the present tense is a major theme in Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric (Cambridge, MA, 2015).

4.  A rough translation:

ORION

It is my star [constellation]
It has the form of a hand
It is my hand risen to [mounted in] the sky
During the entire war I saw Orion through a loophole
When the Zeppelins came to bomb Paris they always came via Orion
Today I have it overhead
The main mast pierces the palm of that hand which must suffer
As my cut-off hand makes me suffer pierced as it is by a continual sting

5.  Special thanks to Jennifer Ashton for her suggestions and support.
About the Author

Michael Fried is J. R. Herbert Boone Professor of Humanities and the History of Art, Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of four books of poems: Powers, To the Center of the Earth, The Next Bend in the Road, and now Promesse du Bonheur, with photographs by James Welling.


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