Aphorism’s Enduring Instant: James Richardson’s During

Ethel Rackin

Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2016. 102 pages. $16.00.

For some time now, James Richardson has been reinventing the art of the aphorism in what he terms “vectors” or “ten-second essays,” imbuing such short forms with wit, grace, and dynamism. Collected in recent books, Vectors: Aphorisms & Ten-Second Essays (2001), Interglacial: New and Selected Poems & Aphorisms (2004), and By the Numbers (2010), Richardson’s short forms, as well as his lyrics, work their way into our psyches and stay there, partly due to their concision, but mainly because they possess such alertness to our human condition—both its unwavering qualities and its vicissitudes. In his most recent collection, During, Richardson continues his calibration of form, exploring a range of subject matter from personal loss to climate change. In the end, During constitutes a profound meditation on what it means to live here now and the question of what endures.

In his note on the book’s title, Richardson writes, in his characteristically playful-but-serious style: “I like prepositions, even without objects. And this one shares roots with durable, endure, duration, duress” (99). Thus, the collection weaves together pressing matters of duress or difficulty with questions of futurity, creating a web of association just light enough to hold us as we take in its depths. Take the opening poem, the lyric address “To the Next Centuries,” for instance. Eschewing platitude or foregone conclusion, Richardson frames this poem, and the collection as a whole, as a series of suggestively interrelated questions, and thereby employs the speculative quality of his poetics to focus our attention in a compelling way.

The first stanza of “To the Next Centuries” reads:

Is there autumn there, is there leaf smoke, is the air
blued and mapled, oaked and appled and wined,
is that tang, that ache for who knows?
gone from your sweaters and hair?
Are there trees, even, do they break out
in uncontrollable cold fires,
do they shatter in long, unreal downstreamings,
is October the same without them, is our sadness
so river-and-wind swift and so free, is it still
our sharpest seeing, if we have not learned from them
how to be taken apart, how to be blown away? (3)

From the very first lyric note of During, Richardson ties sound rigorously to sense. The repetition of “there” meets its rhyme in “air,” linking the question of a yet-to-be-determined future place to an essential element, and then, more particularly, to a series of familiar autumnal sensory experiences, including the ineffable “ache” of the season. So, in this passage from the unknown to the known world and back again, we experience a range of emotion, as the poet asks us to consider where and who we’ll be in a future beyond “uncontrollable cold fires.” And in a gesture that redoubles the poem’s opening questions, Richardson asks us to consider the fate of our empathic vision, our sadness’s “sharpest seeing,” “if we have not learned from [the trees] / how to be taken apart, how to be blown away?”

As “To the Next Centuries” progresses, it picks up both speed and emotional weight, a feat that recalls the centrifugal force of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” in which the speaker contemplates a series of increasingly profound losses as initial refrain lines are rephrased and recombined, consciously undoing the possibility of order they would seem to imply. Similarly, in Richardson’s penultimate stanza, after the speaker recognizes that he “will never again send down new roots, / change jobs, raise children, fall in love,” he concludes,

I can lighten my suitcase now, discarding my ticket,
since there is no return, the map of the city
I’ll never get back to, the little blue phrase book
for the language I’ll never speak, the sweater,
the half-read novel, the comb, the end of this thought . . . (4)

This rushed list represents a wistful unmooring, a gesture by no means anomalous in During. For one of the collection’s chief strengths lies in its elegiac nature, generally, and its grappling with how to mourn, specifically.

The second major section of the collection, “As Sunset Fadeth,” a nod to the line “As after sunset fadeth in the west” from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, calls up the difficulty of mourning directly. Take, for instance, the section’s opening poem, “The Adoption”:

And then when it was almost too late I bent to whisper
It’s true what you always suspected. You were not my real parents,
but at a certain age, out of need, and a parent myself,
I chose you freely, this adoption
a secret I have kept from you all these years.
Sleep, it is better this way. It is you I love and mourn,
not the unknown parents I was born to.
(27)

As whispered speech, this compressed lyric possesses the quality of a waking dream: the dream of familial closeness, despite the reality of disunion and unknowing. Framed as an “almost too late” wish, the poem considers the speaker’s “secret” as an attempt to obfuscate such painful realities. At first innocent enough, long e sounds accrue—from “freely” to “secret” to “these years”—ultimately gathering in the “sleep” of death. The speaker is left loving and mourning the dream parents he has imagined and “chose” “freely,” not the “unknown ones” they may, in fact, have been. Thus, the poem’s conceit reverses expectations regarding adoption, as it grapples with the complexity of mourning those whom we never truly knew.

Throughout, Richardson braids together such haunting poems with those that surprise and delight, and often, he captures both registers instantaneously, breathing levity into an emotionally moving collection—as in a series of two-liners in the section “Long Stories Short”:

What’s New?

My heart leaps, running for the stick
You never threw. (56)

Falls

The water’s bones, terribly delicate,
Break white, heal darkly. (57)

Catch

Bouquets the excited dead
toss from their graves You next! (58)

Aphoristic moments like these shake us awake, rendering the longer, personal lyrics even more pressing to us as readers. That we may marvel and even laugh at life’s brutal capriciousness, its “heart leaps” and “heal[ing],” near the middle of the collection, helps us continue the difficult work of mourning During calls us to do.

Similarly, the numbered series of Vectors poems: “Vectors 4.1: A Few Thoughts in the Dark,” “Vectors 4.2: Everyone Else,” “Vectors 4.3: A Summer Morning,” and Vectors 4.4: One or Two Thoughts,” are carefully spaced across the collection, melding quick flashes of insight with extended meditation, since each can be read on its own and also consecutively. The last of these begins in the middle of a thought:

Maybe what really interests me in the mirror is not myself but that person who looks so interested in me. (84)

What interests me as a reader—to make this (im)personal—is that I could keep going, picking up aphorisms, linking them back to Richardson’s longer lyrics, and still want to read on. The heuristic effect of these brilliant quicksilver perceptions is that they encourage me to reflect on my own knotty truths and perplexing contradictions. And they do so gently.

As if to reassure, the collection ends quietly with the short lyric “Very Late”:

Even our tenderest
Buds and shoots
(though we are pained)
endure unharmed
the late, late snow,
which is, as cold goes,
almost warm. (96)

So too, During provides us a necessary space for rumination, and “(though we are pained)” by our human circumstances, just enough warmth and beauty to endure.

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