Thursday, July 26, 2007

Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair

It was 1964-65, my first year of full-time teaching, when Peter Lucchesi, a colleague from the English Department, introduced me to Wallace Stevens' Sunday Morning. It was the beginning of a decade-long apprenticeship to Stevens' smart but difficult poetry -- and an intellectual awakening.

Sunday Morning sets out our longing for immortality ("imperishable bliss"), and opposes it with the ephemeral beauty of this world ("comforts of the sun...pungent fruit and bright green wings"). Death is the mother of beauty, writes Stevens, and opts at last to live for what is given, tangible, perceptible, real.

It was from that moment, I believe, that I put hope of heaven behind me and chose to live as fully as possible in the here and now. No more the grim forebodings of eternal punishment. No more the culture of indulgences and sin and Acts of Contrition and foregoing innocent sensual pleasures in favor of storing up points to be cashed in at the Pearly Gates. I would live as best I could honestly and well, cultivating love and beauty wherever I could find it. As I write this bright morning, I have my coffee at my right hand and the silver Atlantic out the window to my left. It is enough.

I was reminded of Stevens' poem as I read last evening some verses of the poet Ghalib, at the Mughal court of Delhi, India, in the mid-19th century, quoted in William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal. "In Paradise it is true that I shall drink at dawn the pure wine mentioned in the Koran," he writes:
...but where in Paradise are the long walks with intoxicated friends in the night, or the drunken crowds shouting merrily? Where shall I find there the intoxication of monsoon clouds? Where there is no Autumn how can Spring exist? If the beautiful houris are always there, where will be the sadness of separation and the joy of union? Where shall we find there a girl who flees away when we would kiss her?
Where indeed? Not for me that place of earnest imaginings -- the Beatific Vision, the ripe fruit that never falls. It is death -- final, expected and unambiguously real -- that makes the willow shiver in the sun and stirs the undulations of pigeons as they sink downward to darkness on extended wings.