by Meeka Walsh
Typically I find myself inhaling the dust kicked up by Alice’s white rabbit–late, always late and always out of time. Frantic. And then a fragment of a line from Yeats: “for peace comes dropping slow,” and poetry is a brief balm. One of the few poems committed to my reluctant memory as a student was Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” But I have a dear friend, the poet, writer and teacher, David Arnason, who has in his capacious store, at the ready, whole books. What a treasure, a cultural hero he would have been in the Soviet Union when, in the period of Stalin, poets were silenced or jailed. Feeling they could be useful to him in some way, Stalin issued the directive to “Isolate, but preserve.” Even with purges and jailing, writers and the urge to language could not be staunched completely. Literature, which had been censored or suppressed by the government, was copied by hand or typed with carbon paper sheets, making duplicates, which would be passed to the next hand to be copied again. Avoiding the risk of producing or being in possession of these Samizdat texts, David, instead, would lean close to the ready listener and recite in her ear, in his sonorous but lowered voice, whole novels, long poems, the plays of Shakespeare, the most recent suites of radical poems. And I remember “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and happy to have that one poem, which is about time:
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings; There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, And evening full of the linnet's wings.
In the Soviet Union, David would have known the poet, Anna Akhmatova, could have remembered her poems from the time when she was in literary exile and voiced them to the ears of her anxious audience.
As an introduction to her poem “Requiem,” 1935-1940, which was first published as a full text in Munich in 1963, Akhmatova wrote in “Instead of a Preface” that in the years of the Yezhov terror, when her son was jailed, she’d stood, endlessly, with many others outside the walls of the Leningrad prison. One day, she said, somebody in the crowd identified her by name. The woman standing behind her, lips blue with cold and speaking in the whisper that characterized all conversation there, asked, “Can you describe this?” The reply: “‘I can.’ Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face” (Poems of Akhmatova, Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1967). The poet could do this, could describe this nightmare because, as John Berger says, “The poet places language beyond the reach of time” (And our faces, my heart, brief as photos, New York: Pantheon Books, 1984).
Fraught, anxious, imperilled or just weary, we are seeking solace in time, the only home we can carry with us.
This year, 2007, marks the anniversary of the birth of the theologian and scholar, Abraham Joshua Heschel. I am reminded of the instruction I received as a child, from a time when most children were given some kind of religious instruction, that the holiest day of all is the Sabbath, which stands as an exemplar of time held–still and separate–a goal that seems increasingly distant and unattainable. On Fridays in my home, in preparation for sundown, the floors were waxed, soup was steaming on the stove and always beef or chicken roasting in the oven, this in a household where meat was otherwise an occasional choice. By scent alone the day was held apart from the week.
Heschel wrote the Sabbath in 1951 and it was reissued in 2005 with an introduction by his daughter, Susannah (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux), but a half-century or more is just a moment in Judaism’s history and since the book is about time, it can be seen as having been recently written.
What does Heschel say about time? He says–in technical civilization we expend time to gain space, in pursuit of power and goods. He says: “To have more does not mean to be more” and “There is a realm of time where the goal is … not to subdue but to be in accord.” Accord sounds right, the fine hum of balance, a cordial agreement with the ineffable.
He says we are infatuated with “the grandeur of things in space” because we are limited by what we can see and touch and are therefore blind to any reality that isn’t a thing. We understand space, labour to achieve it, but time, which he says we have made subservient to space, is seen as the enemy; by its very passing, it is the enemy, which we hold at bay with the accumulation of more things, in space.
He reads the Book of Genesis and finds there evidence that it is time first that is holy. “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” Heschel concludes that “it seems as if to the Bible it is* holiness in time*, the Sabbath, which comes first.”
What external arbiter is it, I ask myself, that drives my every day and doesn’t consider an allowance for the accord about which Heschel writes? And I am not alone with this. How, failing subscription to the formalities of organized religion, where it would be inappropriate to select only the portions that suit a particular need, can I locate the resources to contemplate the idea of time?
“Six days a week,” Heschel says, “we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.” And give over to time. With love, he adds. He makes reference to the nobility of chivalric love and its shaping contribution to Western literature and sensibility. “The Jewish contribution to the idea of love,” he says, “is the conception of love of the Sabbath, the love of a day, of spirit in the form of time.” Always, and only, time.
If I ask myself what I desire and envy most, what is the source of my discontent, it is that I am covetous of time. Reading near the end of Heschel’s book on the Sabbath, I find a recommendation to do just that. What he calls a “vision of life as a pilgrimage to the seventh day,” where “we displace the coveting of things in space for coveting the things in time.” But coveting the Sabbath implies you are following in an explicit direction to a known destination, or state of being (or mind). Language is tripping my thinking here because when I mean time, the Sabbath, I am using the word destination, which implies space, and I haven’t a program to follow.
John Berger’s approach to time is secular. He says, “the poet approaches language as if it were a place, an assembly point, where time has no finality, where time itself is encompassed and contained.”
We squander and waste time, which we have commodified. We are petulant with our lack of it and hear reports of its deficit in the words spoken by consultants employed to comment on its efficient use: Time is money, they say. You spend more to have more–and I’m not sure which is spent and which is held.
Lines from W.H. Auden’s hectoring, chaffing poem, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” from 1937, jangle in my head. “But all the clocks in the city / Began to whirr and chime; / Oh let not Time deceive you / You cannot conquer Time.” I counter with, “I will arise and go now and go to Innisfree,” where, “I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.” There, in the bee-loud glade, perhaps I’ll find, and hold, some time.