from Shadowing the Ground
The world is so difficult to give up,
tied to it by small things,
my eyes noting movement,
color and form. I am watching,
unable to leave, for something
is happening, and so I stand
in a shower of rain
or under a hot sun, wornout
Old men spend their days farting
in private to entertain themselves
in the absence of friends
long since gone.
Old men take long walks by themselves
at a slow pace, in rhythm with their hearts,
watching themselves, death
in their trembling steps,
in meditation with their lives.
White-haired, I walk in on my parents
and they, in their twenties, dark-haired
and with fresh complexions, are stunned.
I have stepped out of my crib
in the room set apart from theirs
to show myself an old man
in their youth.
I cannot spare them:
I tell them grief is pure
in what there is to know
between birth and death.
I take their hands
and lead them in a circle,
locking eyes, hands, bodies
with the past in our future.
We are here to make each other die
with perfect willingness,
like flagellants who
when they are done
lying in blood upon the floor
have reached the climax
they were seeking:
to be destroyed
at the same time
and from the same source.
How lonely it is to live.
What am I waiting for by living,
in the morning especially,
as I awaken to the silence
of the trees?
Do I think I can write myself
out of this to form an other
who will keep me company?
That other is nothing else
but the thought of dying
to save myself from further loneliness.
I just know I am growing near to death,
with nothing done to remake the world
a paradise. This is my deep frustration.
Smell the grass.
I must train myself to no longer exist
but as a stone lifted and thrown
to wherever I land, a new place,
a new odor to it and new sound
and action surrounding me, all this
without the thought of loss, despair,
or hope, a preparation for loss.
Such a life would be god's, if one
existed. But it is life I can assume
is god's, and I can live it.
I live with my contradictions
intact, seeking transcendence
but loving bread. I shrug
at both and from behind
the summer screen I look
out upon the dark, knowing
death as one form
of transcendence, but
so is life.
I have read Ignatow a bit, mostly in college, but this poem is new to me--found it in an old anthology I bought at a library book sale. The whole poem is not presented, and I could not find it online, so I will have to buy the book now.
I am captured by the poet's combination of pain and equinimity. This poem is from one of Ignatow's last books (1991), and it has the feel of a "summing up." There is a slight Buddhist subtext to some of the sections, while others are clearly influenced by agnosticism.
Here is some biography from the American Academy of Poets:
David Ignatow was born in Brooklyn on February 7, 1914, and spent most of his life in the New York City area. He was the author of numerous books of poetry, including Living Is What I Wanted: Last Poems (BOA Editions, 1999), At My Ease: Uncollected Poems of the Fifties and Sixties (1998), I Have a Name (1996), Against the Evidence: Selected Poems, 1934-1994 (1994), Shadowing the Ground (1991), New and Collected Poems, 1970-1985 (1986), Leaving the Door Open (1984), and others.
During his literary career, Mr. Ignatow worked as an editor of American Poetry Review, Analytic, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Chelsea Magazine, and as poetry editor of The Nation. He taught at the New School for Social Research, the University of Kentucky, the University of Kansas, Vassar College, York College of the City University of New York, New York University, and Columbia University. He was president of the Poetry Society of America from 1980 to 1984 and poet-in-residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association in 1987.
Mr. Ignatow's many honors include a Bollingen Prize, two Guggenheim fellowships, the John Steinbeck Award, and a National Institute of Arts and Letters award "for a lifetime of creative effort." He received the Shelley Memorial Award (1966), the Frost Medal (1992), and the William Carlos Williams Award (1997) of the Poetry Society of America. He died on November 17, 1997, at his home in East Hampton, New York.
There is a good collection of Ignatow's poems at Web Del Sol.