Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Morning by A. R. Ammons

I have a life that did not become,
that turned aside and stopped,
I hold it in me like a pregnancy or
as on my lap a child
not to grow or grow old but dwell on

it is to his grave I most
frequently return and return
to ask what is wrong, what was
wrong, to see it all by
the light of a different necessity
but the grave will not heal
and the child,
stirring, must share my grave
with me, an old man having
gotten by on what was left

Read all of "Easter Morning" here.

Happy Easter, everyone. Easter is a particularly poetic holiday, I think; its fundamental theme of rebirth and regeneration is a longtime poetic staple, and it makes natural images and metaphors easy. My favorite Easter poem is this one, by North Carolina's own A. R. Ammons, of which I have reprinted the first few stanzas above but you should really read the whole thing, which is excellent.

"Easter Morning" is a poem of movement. The first movement brings to mind the narrator of "The Road Not Taken," years on, regretting the loss of possibilities. Everyone of an adult age has "a life that did not come"--the set of choices that were not made, and the person that we might otherwise have grown up to be. This is the tragedy that no one tells you about: Life is full of possibilities, but they dwindle as you grow older. Ammons gives this alternate self a persona--a child, who never had the chance to grow--and suffers by its presence.

One thing I love about "Easter Morning" is its fluidity, and the Ammons' deftness in moving from one movement to another. The second movement, which recounts Ammons' perceptions of his family as a child, seems to follow naturally from the first, but the focus moves from the speaker himself to his family, many of whom have passed away:

the child in me that could not become
was not ready for others to go,
to go on into change, blessings and
horrors, but stands there by the road
where the mishap occurred, crying out for
help, come and fix this or we
can't get by, but the great ones who
were to return, they could not or did
not hear and went on in a flurry and
now, I say in the graveyard, here
lies the flurry...

Like Robert Lowell, Ammons finds the pattern of death in life. The passing of the "life that did not become" is a kind of death, and death itself is only another kind of change to "go on into." Ammons mourns the dead, and mourns the passing of his possible self, and shows them to be similar griefs. As if death were only another frustration of life's expectations!

From there, Ammons moves back into the present:

though the incompletions
(& completions) burn out
standing in the flash high-burn
momentary structure of ash, still it
is a picture-book, letter-perfect
Easter morning...

On this particular Easter morning, Ammons shares with us a vision of nature: Two birds, flying together, that part and then come back together. It is clear why this vision is appealing: One bird is the Ammons that is, and one that never became, coming back together after a brief separation. Is this wishful thinking; "a sight of bountiful / majesty and integrity" because it symbolizes something that Ammons cannot achieve? But there is no bitterness in the poem's end:

...the having
patterns and routes, breaking
from them to explore other patterns or
better ways to routes, and then the
return: a dance sacred as the sap in
the trees, permanent in its descriptions
as the ripples round the brook's
ripplestone: fresh as this particular
flood of burn breaking across us now
from the sun.

I think rather that it suggests that, contra the poem's earlier anxieties, death is a place where we are reunited with lives that "did not become." (In Roman tradition, the observation of birds was one of the most popular ways of predicting the future.) Easter is, after all, a celebration of resurrection; and though "the grave will not heal / and the child, / stirring, must share my grave / with me..." the vision of the birds suggests that they both might escape the unhealed grave and exist together.

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