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The final directive of “Narcissus incomparabilis” (“Don’t let the sun / set on you again”) contains several interpretations. For a sun to “set” is to disappear at the horizon. But “to set” is also to place one thing upon another, and by this definition the “you” is ordered to avoid the light. Or is the “you” instructed to remain in the light and not ever let it (memory) cease shining? A further possibility is that the sun too is a hunter: to “set on you” is another utterance of attack.
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LIGHT: I forward Hicok’s poem to the class. I enclose a copy to my student’s family. The lines convey what no one—not the students and not their teacher—is able to articulate: At the desk where the boy sat, he sees the Chicago River. / It raises its hand.
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Might the sun be the abductor of its own light? Am I to understand that night is settling into dawn or that the sun is gone forever? Am I to envision a perpetual victim, or does the “you” have agency and, by not letting “the sun set,” remain actively engaged in the tension between light and recollection, refusing the permanence ascribed to memory? To complicate matters, this passage begins with a transitional “But” (line 23), which opens more possibilities. I don’t yet know how to interpret these final lines; ultimately, I don’t want an ending to be so narrowly defined.
A Grecian lad, as I hear tell, One that many loved in vain, Looked into a forest well And never looked away again. —A. E. Housman (“[Look not in my eyes, for fear]”)
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A few weeks ago, in her acceptance speech for the 2013 National Book Award in Poetry, Mary Szybist described her doubt in poetry: “If it cannot do what I want it to do, if it cannot restore those I have lost, then why bother with it at all?” How do those left behind move forward in a matter that’s tolerable or even meaningful? How does anyone endure the world’s bewilderment? Szybist continues: “There’s plenty that poetry cannot do, but the miracle, of course, is how much it can do, how much it does do.” If (if) I’m to read Jake Adam York’s “Narcissus incomparabilis” as an elegy, I must acknowledge that the act of lament or consolation is also the act of commemoration and celebration. In fact, we must commemorate and celebrate in order to better embrace our lives.
My satisfaction as a reader (even as a listener) includes the act of disappearing within the text. Let the world fall away for a few seconds, minutes, or hours. Yes, I struggle when reading and writing poems, but the genre’s challenges are part of its pleasure. I seek the excitement of the first encounter all over again, plus the fruition that accompanies subsequent visits. I also want to loiter in that rare space where language veils but also, as in many great poems, ever so slowly reveals its individuality. Just when clarity seems pinned inside a frame, an image or phrase catches my eye, a moment flutters, and a new assurance results in joy.