Every night when darkness falls and I fall with it into its deathly stillness, I come upon myself as on a stranger—yet a stranger I am somehow familiar with as if met in a dream. Feeling myself awake, it is a constant surprise he exists. Nothing unusual about the fact he needs to make his dinner—banquet or slop-house meal for one, depending on what’s in the kitchen combined with his desire for cooking—no, what seems unusual is that another day has almost passed, though the best, evening, is yet to come.
Evening, time of the assassination of activity and mental restraint when in stillness, solitude, repose I enter an imaginal world that day with its hustle and stark if supernal light—especially here in the American Southwest—keeps at a distance because for me imagination has come to work best in the dark; it wants the soft opaqueness that resembles death and nothingness. Light inspires either cynicism or praise; darkness inspires, stimulates a creative madness, flights of fancy, cognitive leaps that lead to my finest images, associations and truths which encompass their opposite, all that would annihilate them, and yet for that very reason dance more vigorously, sing more resonantly.
Evening, when the stranger I am becomes a confidant of the unusual, even if it is only how my author, my poet, say, the one I am reading under a dim but sufficient lamp, puts his perceptions of the ordinary gestures, not to say the pots and pans, his life’s made of. The only ordinary thing about poetry is its subject matter. A poem need not go off in search of the unusual, the miraculous. But let it make the ordinary sound miraculous—miraculous by intensification of attention—and to that extent it enriches itself as poetry and I am its slave as surely as the devout Muslim is Allah’s.
What I’m saying is the poetry I live for—and I do live for poetry, for poetic moments either read in a book or experienced first-hand—while gracing the day as much as the night, comes alive for me more at night where life seems realest because in the stillness of the evening’s dim light it waltzes with death. If that sounds morbid, let’s just say it’s a waltz of the temporary cessation of all things. That very cessation, however, is an opening to the poetic, not to say the eternal.
This was not the case when I was a young man; then I wanted to party. But these days—or nights, rather—if there’s to be a party I enjoy it best if it takes place in my imagination. This is in keeping with my hope to one day be nothing but imagination. I am willy nilly (or by design?) approaching that Rilkean existence where the invisible (and didnt he also mean the intangible?) encroaches upon the visible, threatening to take it over and give it its greatest, most cogent reality. (This was a major if recondite theme in his Duino Elegies and also the Sonnets to Orpheus.)
Here I go again sounding mystical, whether or not I can blame Rilke—or existence which I’ve no doubt is quintessentially mystical. Perhaps it’s inevitable speaking of night, of darkness. Cliché, my inner editor yells. Inescapable conclusion, my simple heart, for whom poetry is elemental, says. And what does it mean to say poetry is elemental? It means poetry is made of things transformed by their universal, eternalized aspect—I dont see how you can be a poet if you dont believe they have one—and of feelings those feel most poetically who feel deepest, feel beyond thought, yet conceive ideas and images out of what they have felt as well as out of what they have imagined.
Poetry is also elemental because it sings, and there is reason to believe man sang (at least chant-like vocalization we’d take for song) before he talked and most certainly before he wrote—or recorded images, a kind of writing. I see a naked caveman before a rock wall, a sharp stone in his hand, carving out the first, most rudimentary lineaments of what became the cuneiform alphabet. Perhaps it’s only a Precambrian stick-horse or a star which looks no different to us than it did to him. Time is astral, and so are our lives in their broadest measure. And was night for him any less of a song that it is for us, for me?
I am a caveman when I feel the night preternaturally, its comfort of boundlessness thanks to how it blinds me. And if a stranger to myself at night, I am no stranger to blindness because I’ve lived half my life with my eyes closed, as has everyone more or less. (Factor in sleep, meditation and, yes, even blinking.) The darkness soothes not just my eyes but my vision, and not just my vision but my entire being which (let’s not argue the fact) needs soothing. Night sings to me, whether I sing of it or not—and I do—night sings silently, mysteriously even when it sings in crickets and cracking, creaking branches bent by wind, gravity or some lightning-like fissure in the cosmos. I am not afraid of the night, I welcome it even though we are and always will be strangers. But only because I am a stranger to myself, yet a stranger familiar with strangeness.