Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Provincetown / 8

One of my favorite poems is "Tetelestai!" by Conrad Aiken. I listened to and loved this poem a long time before it occurred me to look more deeply into the meaning of "Tetelestai."

Tetelestai comes from the verb teleo, which means “to bring to an end, to complete, to accomplish.” It's the word you would use to describe your life when you feel yourself, your life, to be in a state of completion.

Aiken's poem is about the ache in the bones that results from the unfinished life, the feeling that things have not come together exactly as they should, the feeling that the speaker has failed in significant ways. In one stanza, the speaker contemplates how one often feels fragile, like a failure, or incomplete:

. . .Look! this flesh how it crumbles to dust and is blown!
These bones, how they grind in the granite of frost and are nothing!
This skull, how it yawns for a flicker of time in the darkness,
Yet laughs not and sees not! It is crushed by a hammer of sunlight,
And the hands are destroyed. . .
Press down through the leaves of the jasmine,
Dig through the interlaced roots--nevermore will you find me;
I was no better than dust, yet you cannot replace me. . .
Take the soft dust in your hand--does it stir: does it sing?
Has it lips and a heart? Does it open its eyes to the sun?
Does it run, does it dream, does it burn with a secret, or tremble
In terror of death? Or ache with tremendous decisions?
. . .Listen!. . .It says: 'I lean by the river. The willows
Are yellowed with bud. White clouds roar up from the south
And darken the ripples; but they cannot darken my heart,
Nor the face like a star in my heart!. . .Rain falls on the water
And pelts it, and rings it with silver. The willow trees glisten,
The sparrows chirp under the eaves; but the face in my heart
Is a secret of music. . .I wait in the rain and am silent.
'Listen again!. . .
It says: 'I have worked, I am tired,
The pencil dulls in my hand: I see through the window
Walls upon walls of windows with faces behind them,
Smoke floating up to the sky, an ascension of sea-gulls.
I am tired. I have struggled in vain, my decision was fruitless,
Why then do I wait? with darkness, so easy, at hand!. . .
But tomorrow, perhaps. . .I will wait and endure till tomorrow!'. . .
Or again: 'It is dark. The decision is made. I am vanquished
By terror of life. The walls mount slowly about me
In coldness. I had not the courage. I was forsaken.
I cried out, was answered by silence. . .Tetélestai!. . .'

I love the phrase "ache with tremendous decisions." To me it means being at the point of crisis.

I've learned to recognize small moments within myself when I experience a point of crisis. These are blips on the radar screen of my consciousness when I realize I'm doubtful or unsettled. It used to be something I would try to shrug off. Now I pay attention.

These episodes require me to make small adjustments to my expectations and to my image of myself. Often I withdraw to a quiet place to think. Sometimes I temporarily lose focus and commitment.

A friend of ours recently told Allen that each of us is really three people: the person we think we are, the person others think we are, and the person we want to be.

There's truth in that, I think. What interests me now is in how this applies to my creative life. I wonder about my fears, the ones I've probably not yet even admitted to myself. Writing is a primal such, anything can happen.

I'm not, as Aiken's speaker admits, "vanquished." Just quietly considering things. I'm struggling with my image of myself, with my sense of what it means to be a "creative" person, but I'm not struggling in vain. The reason I started the blog was so I would have a way to explore what it means to have a creative life. What it means to commit yourself to that.

But, still, I'm a long way from being able to cry "Tetelestai!"

I would describe myself as being at a "point of crisis," but that isn't a bad thing. It just means I'm awake. I'm sorting through things. I'm aware. That's where I want to be, right on the edge of a thing, of something so vague I don't have words for it yet.

In my personal life I am content; in my writing life, no. As Roethke said, "The edge is what I have."

Here's to Provincetown and any perspective it has to offer!

1 comment:

Erin said...

I often wonder if there is a way to get every part of one's life in order at one time. Personal, creative, spiritual, professional, etc. Perhaps when that balance is finally struck, that's the moment of "Tetelestai"?

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"I was no better than dust, yet you cannot replace me. . . Take the soft dust in your hand--does it stir: does it sing? Has it lips and a heart? Does it open its eyes to the sun? Does it run, does it dream, does it burn with a secret, or tremble In terror of death? Or ache with tremendous decisions?. . ." --Conrad Aiken


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