Remember the days of our first happiness,
how strong we were, how dazed by passion,
lying all day, then all night in the narrow bed,
sleeping there, eating there too: it was summer,
it seemed everything had ripened
at once. And so hot we lay completely uncovered.
Sometimes the wind rose; a willow brushed the window.
But we were lost in a way, didn’t you feel that?
The bed was like a raft; I felt us drifting
far from our natures, toward a place where we’d discover nothing.
First the sun, then the moon, in fragments,
stone through the willow.
Things anyone could see.
Then the circles closed. Slowly the nights grew cool;
the pendant leaves of the willow
yellowed and fell. And in each of us began
a deep isolation, though we never spoke of this,
of the absence of regret.
We were artists again, my husband.
We could resume the journey.
One of the fascinating things about this moment is not having a job. It has been such a long time since a job was not guaranteed, let alone an interview. I have worked either part time or full time in food service or education for almost a decade, and the strange feeling I have now is a fluctuation between ecstasy and anxiety that renders me catatonic.
The realization that it is summer, which happens to be my favorite season, and that each and every day is a sort of craft project completely open to my design is fascinating and altogether wonderful. If I want to stay up late with headphones playing loud mixtapes of M.I.A. in a darkened study, well then by all means, I can give myself the sign of the cross and get down to it. If I want to read Paradise Lost and continue to look at the precipitous rise of coronavirus cases, there is also that.
Glück has this same feeling in the first stanza of “Summer,” a poem that I believe considers the artistic freedom and fear poignantly. For any teacher coming into summer, the passion and exuberance of the knowledge that two months of your life have been drawn open, giving you the chance to bring light to the darker corners left untouched of your being, is really quite extraordinary. I myself have laid out a hammock that I have yet to lay in, (for it is too hot) and I visit corner stores wearing a mask, picking up 24 ounce cans of beer and Lay’s potato chips on a whim. Glück’s poem tells us that while we ourselves have opened up, our sphere of influence massively declines. I drive my car only because I worry the battery might go out. I make trenches with my repetitious movements in the house, like some Looney Toons feature. I find myself picking up books in the reading room, taking them to the kitchen table, and then returning them on the shelf with barely a page read. I aimlessly shift in enthusiasm from idea to idea, as if I was the first one to discover them, when really the world has provided them all the time. I was just not ready to accept them.
It is thrilling for a time to feel that sphere of influence dissipate. To have that responsibility of being wanted or needed be reduced to invisibility. Sometimes I wish my father would garner this feeling a little more. He should retire and be happy with how hard he’s worked, but in a phone call I made to my mother two weeks ago, I said that, “He will use responsibility as an excuse to keep himself from being happy.” He still works and he is still trying to earn money, even though no one is watching. And I think for many people that loss-of-being-needed is dangerous to them. They feel as though without that responsibility, they may not as well be alive. “You’re nobody until somebody loves you,” goes the line by Dean Martin, or Frank Sinatra, or any easy-listening singer who wants us to barely linger on the line, as summer can often fool us into doing. “What an idiotic line,” my mother said, rejecting the notion outright. I find it interesting the people who take this lyric to heart, because usually they think highly of their charismatic ability to be loved, and to love in return.
Glück’s second stanza allows the anxiety of observation in these listless moments of passion to enter. When we begin to feel as though our lives are unoriginal, that even though we have the freedom of time to explore the phenomenology that affects our consciousness, to realize that it is not any different from any other person is to invite the strongest doubt. This is a particularly suburban notion, where one house stands alongside another house of remarkably similar design, and all anyone hears on a weekday are the lawns mowed. Sprinklers in the morning. Laughter or shouting in the evening. “I felt us drifting/far from our natures, toward a place where we’d discover nothing.” It is the artist’s ultimate catastrophe: the lack of any roughening of the text of our existence, to the point where we cannot create the narrative arc. How best to write about nothing happening? How best to paint it?
The strange paradox about conflict is its ability to help us form our identities. We discover rather quickly the person we really are in moments of pain or strife. To feel the “flow” like Toru Okada in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is one aspect of unemployment. But eventually, in a moment of great strife (his wife leaves him), he must go to the bottom of a well for days in order to sort out his psychological state.
The third stanza is about this change, where fall reminds us that things end. Perhaps Glück reminds us that summer is great for sex, but appalling for art. Updike lamented that America was not more of a reading country because of its sunny disposition. The weather is too good. So it is with our summer months.
Though eventually it ends, and the moral of the story is perhaps that we should believe in what each moment is capable of providing. The power of summer reveals itself once again to be the non-judgmental excavation of our habits. But it seems we can only do this when we find how listless we take the whole enterprise of living to be. When we reduce our sphere of influence, we realize that our lives were spent propping up a set of procedures to make us forget ourselves. We ignore what is most prescient.
Only by quitting ourselves can we make dramatic realizations about what we want. Are stops in the journey possible? Are they okay? Regardless of what the world thinks of summer, what is more important is what you imagine it is for your life. What are you willing to avoid or overlook? How many responsibilities are you willing to take on to ignore the truth about yourself?
Let summer burn those away.