Against the Log, the Seed
Against the log, the seed.
Against the public statue, rain
and running fame. Against the deed
the clouds of pain.
Against the hunkered will,
the traffic’s frantic pantomime;
however still we sit, we’re still
hurtling through time.
The painting of a spray
of pansies moves as much as they;
so that we see the color stay,
light storms away.
This poem grabbed me when I first read it, so much so that I had to keep re-reading and thinking about it: enjoying what I liked, puzzling over what I didn’t fully understand (often the same as what I liked), analyzing technical qualities I only intuited at first, going over it again for the sheer pleasure of it all. What follows is my attempt to spell out in writing what I found so compelling about it. The nice thing is that, even after all the analysis, the poem retains its ability to please and surprise and invite reflection.
In stanza one, the poem disrupts and complicates our understanding of “against,” the dominant sense of which is opposition or antagonism. It is difficult at first glance to see how a seed could be antagonistic to a log, although with time and imagination possibilities occur. (The new growth feeds on, and destroys, the fallen log, e.g.) This brings to the fore secondary and tertiary meanings. Most obviously, “against” can mean near, beside, juxtaposed to. So there’s a visual image of sorts, though the “seed” is pretty abstract, and even “log” leaves a lot to the imagination. But lurking in the background is another use of “against,” which this image, for reasons that turn out to be important for the poem, causes us to notice and consider. It’s an older usage: “We stored the grain against the day the rains would stop.” In this usage, while the primary meaning of opposition is still present, ideas of futurity or potential enter as well.
Immediately we see a connection between this faint echo and the obvious relationship between seed and log: the log is the realization of the potential inherent in the seed. But the connection resists logical explication. Is the seed really saved or, more simply, just there, “against” the future log in this way? Rather, the suggestion of some connection between futurity and presence shimmers at the edge of our peripheral vision. Later images and ideas in the poem will bring back this relationship, while at the same time emphasizing the primary meaning of “against” as antagonism, hinting that possibility or potential is in some way opposed to its realization.
All this, on first reading, is so far just in potential; the line is troubling because it does not resolve easily and will require us to return to it repeatedly for further consideration. The next two lines, however, begin to bring some of these ideas out more obviously. Here “against” takes on its concrete, physical sense most forcefully: the rain is literally striking against, or on, the statue. But the idea of opposition or antagonism is also clearly present. Rain is one of the forces that, over time, will erode the statue.
The next line adds to this while complicating it further. Fame runs in at least two, or maybe two and a half, ways. In the rain it runs like a cheap dye, leaving the statue colorless, a mere shape for the casual passerby who knows nothing of the person it represents. To such an observer the statue is no more significant than the rain that runs off it. But this idea of fame’s transience also emerges in the other sense of “run.” Fame runs in that it’s fleeting, as so many poems over the centuries have reminded us. Here’s the half a sense I had in mind: on the one hand, after the statue’s built fame runs away and leaves it. On the other, it runs away from us while we’re seeking it, and we must run after it if we want to catch it. (In both senses fame can serve as a synecdoche for all aspiration and ambition, and indeed for all existence, which is transient and hard to capture, even briefly.) Thus, fame’s defining characteristic is its transience, which is against, or antagonistic to, the statue, the epitome of efforts to make it permanent.
Here, then, the poem modulates meanings of “against” by emphasizing antagonism and proximity, while letting the specific tertiary usage I mentioned above fade. But now we can confirm that the poem is importantly concerned with time, the relation between present and future, so that use of “against” remains in consciousness, troubling and resisting our desire for a simple meaning, a quick resolution. And with a little effort it becomes possible to imagine how fame is stored “against” the statue in the sense of preparing for it.
The next image, in the final two lines of the stanza, develop and extend these ideas while adding more. The somewhat elevated diction of “deed,” pushed up against “fame” and “statue” in this way, inevitably conjures the heroic deed that wins its doer fame, whether in combat, the arts, politics, or what have you. It’s a clear, discrete moment in history, suitable to celebrate in song or memorialize in a statue. Juxtaposed to this, and antagonistic to it, are the “clouds of pain.” Pain in this image is not discrete but distributed, formless, omnipresent, making it all the harder to combat, impossible to destroy with a single decisive deed. Yet we know that virtually any deed worthy of the name is preceded by, impeded by, but in some sense also conditioned by and even dependent on, that pain. Or, to quote Robert Fripp’s appropriation of J. G. Bennett: “It is impossible to achieve the aim without suffering.”
Although this image does not emphasize it as much, when it is juxtaposed with the earlier images it too speaks to us of the relationship between present and future. Again, that tertiary meaning of “against” subtly insists.
Part of the poem’s way of capturing our attention is this persistent troubling of the layers of meaning in its most prominent word. It’s worth noting that the word in question is what’s sometimes called a “grammar” word, as opposed to a “content” word. It’s the kind of word that normally recedes into the background, quietly doing the work of arranging relationships while our attention is captured by the words that activate our sensory imagination: log, seed, statue, rain. The poem works in part by reversing the usual order of prominence, bringing this grammar word to the foreground, like a painting that uses color to make a background image “pop” while keeping it in its normal perspectival relationship to the foreground. (Thanks to Julie Alexander for teaching me about this technique in painting.)
The second stanza continues to develop these ideas: the “hunkered will,” seeking rest and permanence, is opposed to the frenzy of movement inherent in all existence. But I want to turn now to technique, the poem’s form. “The traffic’s frantic pantomime” is glorious. The dominant vowel repeats like a sounding bell while the t’s and c’s, r’s and f’s, n’s and m’s, and other vowels modulate around it. And of course the image, by juxtaposing a frenetic visual with the silence of pantomime, captures that contrast between permanence and flux. The next line does on the level of rhythm some of what I’ve been saying the poem does with meaning: it simultaneously develops and troubles a familiar pattern. We’ve been prepared to expect rhyme, and “will” in the first line invites “still” in the third, but the line tricks us by giving it to us early, inverting the predictable phrase “sit still,” and then, after the hiccup of the comma (the technical term is caesura, but I prefer hiccup here), giving it to us again. The line is full of eddies, just like the passage of time. Finally, the last line plays one simple variation on the meter. It reverses the normal pattern in this type of verse, in which a stressed syllable typically follows an unstressed syllable. Compare the end of the first stanza: “the CLOUDS of PAIN.” Here we have “HURTling through TIME.” This sort of variation is one of the simplest and most familiar in the history of this kind of verse, but it’s put to excellent effect here. It focuses our attention emphatically on the beginning and the end of the line (a formal analogue to the theme of beginnings and ends), and on the ideas of movement and time. We hurtle along from the previous line, shot through the rapids its eddies prefigured.
(This stanza also reminds me of Thom Gunn’s “On the Move,” with its play of form and idea and its attention to problems of stasis and change.)
The last stanza transposes the discussion to the relation between representation and object, and, typically, inverts that relationship, or at least troubles it, by asserting that the painting moves as much as the object. Again, stillness and motion, permanence and change, art and life are the subjects of a meditation I’m tempted to call contorted except that it navigates its twists and turns so effortlessly. Here the technique is not so flashy, perhaps, as in the second stanza, but it’s just as deft: the alliteration on painting and pansies, moves and much, spray and see and stay and storms; the complex weaving of other similarities in sound between painting, spray, and pansies (and elsewhere); the way the rhythm moves from the heavier push on the plosives in the first line, to the lilt of the second and especially the third, to a firm, emphatic close—three stressed syllables in a line of only four. Another simple substitution (spondee for iamb, in the lingo, or two stressed syllables instead of one unstressed followed by one stressed), again done to fine effect. Of course, “light storms away” is just a fine line, no matter how you look at it.
The meter is iambic trimeter in the first line of each stanza, tetrameter in the second and third, and dimeter in the last. It’s a nice form for a poem in the declarative mode on these themes.