Malachi Black on "A Memo to the Self-Possessed"

A Memo to the Self-Possessed

Caesar, I can see the blue breath
                 of a meteor
rake the naked vacancy of sky:
                 an exhalation

aching from the fate of Gemini
                 for conflagration
in the hazard of our atmosphere.
                 The teeth of Earth

burn with the friction of their gear,
                 turning once and then
again as mathematically the year
                 painstakingly divides

our tribulations.  Here,
                 and only here,
the moisture in a sigh is equal
                 to both fever bead

and tear; the heart beats
                 as an instrument
of sciences unclear to its own
                 monitors.  Here,

we try but find no foothold
                 on an enormous sphere:
we falter as the circus ball revolves
                 then disappear

just after our first flat-lined
And where are you tonight,
                 Marcus Aurelius?

Are you as steady as the fulcrum,
                or were you just
another victim of the lever?
                 My boney liege,

even heady Archimedes
                 was dissevered
by the seared blade of a siege;
                 not Aristotle

nor his soft-wrought Golden Mean
                 can buttress us
against an iron sword's keen

caught in our palpitating selves,
                 we are furious
machines.  Caesar, I have seen
                 the sea in shelves

of foam and I have known it
                 as an ancestor.
In this undertow of pulse,
                 what solemn stroke

do you propose?  What Stoic
                 song can cool, can calm
the meteoric note of my hot throat
                 as it explodes? 

On "A Memo to the Self-Possessed"

It began in failure.  Perhaps most poems do, but this was an especially staunch case:  the lines went nowhere.

I suppose I needed to figure out just what they meant, or where they "went," but I was in no great position to know then.  It had been an especially fraught winter.  My mother, whose home was half a continent away, was sick and was suffering and had already suffered.  My family was in disarray, and the relationship I had been kindling for two years had sagged to ash without an ember.

On one of many aimless drives, I tooled my third-hand Saturn through the dense, snowless cold of a January night in Central Texas, shivering away from and back toward my sparsely furnished apartment.  It was then, stargazing past a red light, that I caught a streak through the sky.

Castor and Pollux are often described as twins, but as some versions of the Greek and Roman legends go, they were more accurately inseparable half-brothers:  two men, and so two fates and two minds, fused in kinship by Leda, their mother.  But while Pollux was the son of Jupiter and thus immortal, Castor was instead a son of man, child of the Spartan king Tyndareus.  When Castor died, Pollux petitioned his father to grant them eternal life together in the stars.  Jupiter complied, uniting them in the constellation Gemini.

I have always been struck by the story of Castor and Pollux, not least because it dramatizes the typically insuperable divide between the eternal realm of Being, to use Platonic terms, and the mortal realm of Becoming.  Just what, I've often wondered, if Castor had preferred to die?  Or what if he craved a return to his mortal existence?  Is eternal life aloof from Earth, as frieze in the Ptolemaic sky, even desirable?  Is any human life, however long, really worthwhile if it is led bereft of the tremors of earthly corporeal life?

In the blunt months after I heard and failed to meet those first, confounding lines, I wound up seeking solace, if not to say guidance, in a text I'd long admired:  Marcus Aurelius' Meditations.  Concerned no less than the Castor and Pollux myth with aspiration for life above or beyond the trembling world, for the earthling's version of imperturbable Being, the Meditations counsel aloofness, steadiness, and preternatural poise.  In rereading Aurelius, I was especially taken by one richly imagistic injunction that I had underlined years earlier but forgotten, a directive I still view as a perfect distillation of Aurelian philosophy:  "Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it."  I sat with that.  I steeped in it.

By September, when the lines had called me back, I found in them a speaker—a latter-day Castor, perhaps—mounting an ardent response to the austere prescriptions of Aurelian stoicism.  For all of its cool remove from earthly trembling and embodiment, how could one possibly hope or even desire to be like the promontory?  In the end, I suppose "A Memo to the Self-Possessed" is a declaration from a mortal presence who wanted and could have no part of it.




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