Reading: From Endings by Mona van Duyn

Today’s poem is by American poet Mona van Duyn (1921-2004) who won all important literary prizes in America and presided over a unique literary circle in St. Louis, Missouri. I picked a poem with a typical ‘Van Duyn’ touch:

From Endings
Setting the V.C.R. when we go to bed
to record a night owl movie, some charmer we missed
we always allow, for unprogrammed unforeseen,
an extra half hour. (Night gods of the small screen
are ruthless with watchers trapped in their piety.)
We watch next evening, and having slowly found
the start of the film, meet the minors and leads,
enter their time and place, their wills and needs,
hear in our chests the click of empathy’s padlock,
watch the forces gather, unyielding world
against the unyielding heart, one longing’s minefield
laid for another longing, which may yield.
Tears will salt the left-over salad I seize
during ads, or laughter slow my hurry to pee.
But as clot melts toward clearness a black fate
may fall on the screen; the movie started too late.
Torn from the backward-shining of an end
that lights up the meaning of the whole work,
disabled in mind and feeling, I flail and shout,
“I can’t bear it! I have to see how it comes out!”
For what is story if not relief from the pain
of the inconclusive, from dread of the meaningless?
Minds in their silent blast-offs search through space–
how often I’ve followed yours!–for a resting-place.
And I’ll follow, past each universe in its spangled
ballgown who waits for the slow-dance of life to start,
past vacancies of darkness whose vainglory
is endless as death’s, to find the end of the story.

This is some accessible poetry. I am old enough to remember VCRs and we recorded every James Bond movie. The extra half hour, in our case, wasn’t unforeseen, but consisted of an erotic show, ‘playboy late night’. I guess many of her readers will have a personal memory here. I don’t get what she means by the night gods. But that’s not what this poem is about. It’s about stories and how their lacework of meaning only works if they have a conclusion (for which you should let your VCR spin at least an extra half hour, and yes, in our times of streaming that advice has become even more important!)

The metaphor of empathy’s padlock is pretty, the unyielding world’s minefield / may yield strong and adequate language. It’s a great description of tragedy – and of course tragedy is redoubled in the fact that the movie started too late and was hence not fully recorded. Unbearable!

So she will follow ‘him’ (I suppose her husband, Thurston), everywhere. Why do we expect to find a resting place if we follow each other, when we are all just blasting off searching to escape the dread of the meaningless? I don’t get the astronomical hyperbole in the end, the glittering ballgown of the vain universe. Maybe we find the end of the story beyond all expectation?

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