February 25, 2020

TWO ASTONISHMENTS: READING "HOPKINS FOREST" IN A FEBRUARY THAW

Mirja Paljakka/by permission

A person steps outside, looks at the night sky, comes in transformed. That's what happens in Yves Bonnefoy's "Hopkins Forest." It's not all that happens, even though in many poems it would be plenty. The speaker dreams, remembers, compares, contemplates language, time, and mortality, and walks in the forest where those thoughts rise and rest.

Going outside at night in the country is a chance to feel the presence of mystery. It's almost inevitable. Filling a bucket of water and looking up at the sky, Bonnefoy's speaker finds it looks different than it had a moment before. The "deepest blackness" (I'm using Emily Grosholz's translation throughout) is marked only by the Milky Way, appearing as a "brazier from which a coil of smoke" rises, as remote as it is brilliant. I picture the small hibachi we used to cook on long after dark, or any bonfire, transferred to a vast realm.

When he comes back inside after this disorienting encounter, he can't focus on the book he's been reading. Its pages are jammed with squiggles he can see patterns in but can't make sense of. The foundation of knowledge has been made strange to him -- that is, knowledge in the form of words in books. That foundation has shifted, is located elsewhere, somewhere physical yet immeasurable.

Underneath the printed forms he can't decipher lies the white page, like snow. The "deepest blackness" of the sky, with its tracings of stars, is reversed in the white "abyss" of the page, with its tracings of print. He stands in the midst of this doubled vastness, as though on a line where two parts of a mirror image meet.

This sensation leads in the third stanza to a memory: on a train, traveling in a snow squall between two arbitrary places, neither of them, apparently, home. He catches sight of a newspaper image, full page, of Baudelaire, his countryman and predecessor, whose work, he tells us, reordered language and knowing.

Two astonishments, the memory of one prompted by the experience of the other. A walk in the forest, in stanza four, offers the necessary occasion for contemplation: of mortality and the persistence of memory, which is, perhaps, a form of immortality. Conflict, at least for now, is resolved. The actual path falls away in the speaker's mind, and the "white mass" of snow covers everything but for a few spots of colour. Inverse of the first stanza's night sky with Milky Way, and echo of the second stanza's indecipherable printed page, it's the field out of which the spirit of the dead might even come forward, like Baudelaire appearing suddenly on a newspaper page in the train.

"Truly," stanza five begins, "I owe much to Hopkins Forest." The words of this acknowledgement rise like a vow or a credo, direct and simple. The forest is shown to us as source, not just location, of mystery. He keeps it -- forest, mystery; there's care in that keeping -- on his horizon, "along the line / That abandons the visible for the invisible," the line he has been showing me throughout this poem. Walking in the forest, he is walking with "that other sky," the infinite. He enters it, but only for a moment.

In its final lines, the poem circles back to its opening image, the disorienting moment out at the well at the edge of the forest. But what a walk it has taken us on, patiently pointing out doubled things. Especially the almost paradoxical nuances of the word moment, transitory and consequential, which the poem has made one.

Mirja Paljakka/by permission
Copying out this poem for this earlier post led me to a disorienting moment of my own. I came back to a poem that had moved me on first reading only to find that now, not long after, I read it with bafflement. How did I miss at first this detail, that scene, that obvious comparison? What was it that captivated me then, anyway, and where is that energy now?

I typed out the words, checking line endings, capital letters, punctuation marks as I went. It was like tracing a map I'd never seen over a place I'd visited but didn't recognize. Like walking in the beloved forest of my childhood after long years away. That mossy hollow where I used to rest, is that odd spot really it? The brook, the ancient oak? I don't recognize them....Marks on a page I couldn't decipher.

Following Bonnefoy's poem word by word, I lost for a time the sense of its larger mysteries. The night sky, for one, which appears transformed to the speaker who steps out to the well for water. The book he returns to, coming in, its words rendered insensible, the page itself like snow. In looking at the poem only this way, I stopped being able to see it; it became like that book.

Then I reached the final stanza. The crescendo of its opening line did not fail to stir me. With that, the astonishment I'd felt on my first reading was returned to me, only this time, enlarged. Truly I owe much to "Hopkins Forest."




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