Under and Over

Maureen N. McLane

Often I wake in the night, or the cat wakes me, and since I have been trying to break the habit of  reaching for my phone—that express route to “the portal” (per Patricia Lockwood)—what do I do? Sometimes a yoga-inspired (and undoubtedly inauthentic) body scan; other times the “box breathing” technique commended by some New York Times wellness article and some military experts (now there’s a Venn diagram); but more recently I find myself reciting—or is it rehearsing?—this poem:

      Under the Light, yet under,
      Under the Grass and the Dirt,
      Under the Beetle’s Cellar
      Under the Clover’s Root,

      Further than Arm could stretch
      Were it Giant long,
      Further than Sunshine could
      Were the Day Year long,

      Over the Light, yet over,
      Over the Arc of the Bird —
      Over the Comet’s chimney —
      Over the Cubit’s Head,

      Further than Guess can gallop
      Further than Riddle ride —
      Oh for a Disc to the Distance
      Between Ourselves and the Dead!

      I often fall asleep before I reach the last stanza.

Mind you, I am not usually one to memorize poems, though, as with regular exercise, frequent hydration, and teetotaling, I can endorse if not always follow the practice. (For histories of poetry recitation/memorization, with a particular emphasis on the school as institution, see Catherine Robson’s Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem; and Angela Sorby’s, Schoolroom Poets: Childhood, Performance, and the Place of American Poetry, 1865-1917.) Somehow, though, this intensely tunneling, then o’er-vaulting poem—outmeasuring measure, outfurthering further—has burrowed into my mind. When I realized it had become a prospective but slightly hazy earworm, I decided to memorize it officially, and I fairly quickly lodged it in mind and body while walking.

Yet I repeatedly get some bits of this poem wrong. Further or farther? Further. A bird or the bird?  More notable, and less remediable, is that I repeatedly struggle with the final line:

      Oh for a Disc to the Distance
      Between Ourselves and the Dead!

As I mentally approach the last beats of the poem, I find myself hesitating, and what often comes unbidden is this:

      Oh for a Disc to the Distance
      Between Ourselves and our Friends!

There is a lapse—a pause—and there is then also often, swiftly, a substitution: our Friends for the Dead.

Is the hesitation itself a mark of interference, a kind of simultaneity overloading the circuits? Dead/Friends, Dead/Friends . . .

This seems to me a Covid-revision, a Corona-hesitation, Dickinson’s “Distance” subliminally activating the omnipresent “social distance” and the perpetual if often subconscious awareness of distance from friends, family—and also the awareness of dead friends. Perhaps this is why this poem, and not others equally charismatic, spontaneously possessed me over the past three months: its riddling ending, with its far-out cosmic asymptotic reaching toward the Dead (or is it toward friends?), its optative mode, offer a form to carry suspension, yearning, distance, death, friends.

Question: am I reciting the poem to myself? What am I doing, silently intoning these lines in the night, or while walking on my daily pandemic constitutional? Recalling, reciting, rehearsing, channeling?

Again, as I’ve said, when moving through the poem I have often find myself uncertain at the very end:

      Oh for a Disc to the Distance
      Between Ourselves and . . . — ?

On not remembering lines of poetry: I think of a passage in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Crusoe in England,” as her Crusoe recalls his time on the island, before Friday arrived:

      Why didn’t I know enough of something?
      Greek drama or astronomy? The books
      I’d read were full of blanks;
      the poems—well, I tried
      reciting to my iris-beds,
      “They flash upon that inward eye,
      which is the bliss …” The bliss of what?
      One of the first things that I did
      when I got back was look it up.

The incompletely quoted lines come from Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud”:

      They flash upon that inward eye
      which is the bliss of solitude.

So, this moment in “Crusoe in England” marks a rather flagrantly intertextual move, and perhaps a heavy-handed one. (Crusoe blanks on “solitude”! Doh.) One can argue about this. But like Bishop’s Crusoe, the first thing I did when I stumbled on (and stumbled with?) Dickinson “was look it up.”  Unlike Crusoe, I could move from my island of sleep to the perpetual networked library of Google. But this was exactly the thing I was aiming not to do—to reach for the phone.

Among the many things that intrigue me about Dickinson’s poem, this contraption, this “small machine made of words” (W. C. Williams) is that she gives us a metaphysical “disc” to ride or carry us not to the Dead (or to friends) but to the “Distance/Between Ourselves and the Dead.” Here one encounters that whiplashing Dickinsonian conceptual materiality: the thingly disc—a discus? a planet? a scientific instrument? a vehicle? a sci-fi disc rocket? an image of a compass, in its capacity to delineate circumference, to encompass?—takes us, whatever it is, “to the Distance/Between.” This seems to me both weirdly precise and vertiginously ungraspable, this metaphysical geometry, this sense of distance as a sensuous substance and not a mere void “between.”

I’ve read a fair amount of Dickinson over the years, but I’d never read this poem. I first encountered it in a January 2021 essay by Carol Rumens, who has an excellent “Poem of the Week” column in The Guardian. Rumens beautifully meditates on the often riddling (or almost riddling) quality of Dickinson’s poetry, something thematized here (“Further than Riddle ride”). Among the many things I love about Dickinson is this palpable burrowing into position, pre-position, and post-position. Under the light, yet under . . . Over the light, yet over . . .

      “Position is where you/put it,” Robert Creeley wrote in “The Window.”

Pre-position is where we are put, how anything exists or moves in-in-relation-to.

      Under the light, yet under.

A sentience moving under and yet further under; the sense of the sun as a tunneling light, a kind of earthening going further and further under the grass and the dirt; the sun imaged as penetrating the earth; a yearlong day imagined and outflanked; the subjunctive thought-experiment of it all, the chthonic furthering, under-ing of it.

And then the stunning pivot to soar in stanza three Over the Light, yet over into the empyrean, the trajectory over-arcing the bird, the comet, the biblical measure of the cubit, to not quite reach the “Distance/Between”—

This under-ing, this over-ing, puts me in mind of a verbal puzzle Gertrude Stein introduces late in her work Everybody’s Autobiography. In a typically droll passage, she meditates on the improbable fact that her writing had become in some precincts popular.

They ask me to tell why an author like myself can become popular. It is very easy everybody keeps saying and writing what anybody feels that they are understanding and so they get tired of that, anybody can get tired of anything everybody can get tired of something and so they do not know it but they get tired of feeling they are understanding and so they take pleasure in having something that they feel they are not understanding. I understand you undertake to overthrow my undertaking.

      I always did like that you did it like this:

            stand         take            to             taking

            I              you          throw           my

That was almost as exciting as a spelling match.

That is all understanding is you know it is all in the feeling.

Positioning “I” under “stand,” “you” under “take,” and so on, Stein spatializes the prepositional knot of her work, its defamiliarizing challenge, which some readers were happy to accept: “I understand you undertake to overthrow my undertaking.”

Over the Light, yet over!

Stein goes on:

My writing is as clear as mud, but mud settles and clear streams run on and disappear, perhaps that is the reason but really there is no reason except that the earth is round and that no one knows the limits of the universe that is the whole thing about men and women that is interesting.

There is no reason except that the Earth is round; there is no under-ing or over-ing without a preposition, in this case an earthly given. Many roads lead to the palace of immensity: “no one knows the limits of the universe.” Oh for a Disc to the Distance/Between Ourselves and the Dead!

Maureen N. McLane is the author of several previous books of poetry, including Some Say; Mz N: the serial: A Poem-in-Episodes; and the 2014 National Book Award finalist This Blue. Her book My Poets, a hybrid of memoir and criticism, was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography. Her new poetry collection, More Anon, will be published on July 20.