A Match Flaring up in a Dark Universe

Sandra Alcosser


Sandra Alcosser

A tree several hundred feet above the cabin shivers when I come near it. The path into the wilderness goes up and over a little rise past a heartwood post on which a horse skull glows. The leaves start up and I look at the skull and a fence that no longer keeps anything in or out—just barbed wire cutting into pine—and wonder what makes the leaves that remain on a dead tree tremble so.

“One need not be a Chamber,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “to be Haunted.” I sneak up on that tree the same way one might approach a poem to watch its dark characters shake to life. W. S. Merwin describes such a process around the translation of Hadrian’s “Little Soul,” a poem that remained with him from his time at Princeton, only to be translated decades later after Merwin came upon it while reading Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel, Memoirs of Hadrian (2005).

Hadrian haunted Yourcenar as well, as she crossed America in a train during the 1940s “closed inside [her] compartment as if in a cubicle of an Egyptian tomb” writing her novel in “controlled delirium.” Yourcenar, like many writers, believed her characters actually existed, and Hadrian rode within her as she wrote. The meaty Latin vowels of “Little Soul” might draw any reader close. They appear as beautiful on the blank page as they do carved in marble.

Animula, vagula, blandula,
Hospes comeque corporis
Quae nunc abibis in loca
Pallidula, rigida, nudula,
Nec ut soles dabis jocos.

“Poems have come to me,” writes Merwin in his translator’s note, “arising from events that recalled the familiar Latin phrases too, and one day I realized that I knew, suddenly, how I would like to hear them in English—if they could exist in English—and the words of the translation, as they occurred to me, seemed to be as literal as they could possibly be” (Poetry, April 2006).

Written by a dying Roman emperor in his villa beside the Bay of Naples in 138 CE, “Little Soul” haunted centuries of writers before Yourcenar or Merwin. Pope translated it in 1712 (“Ah fleeting Spirit! wand’ring fire/”); Byron (“Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav’ring sprite”) in 1806. Christina Rossetti, (“Soul rudderless, unbraced”) in 1876 and recently David Malouf and Jean Valentine.

Serendipitously, “Little Soul” came to haunt me.

It was one of the last poems that friend and teacher Patricia Goedicke read as she lay on a hospital bed in Missoula, Montana. Chris Dombrowski, poet and former student of both Patricia’s and mine, shared this story in an e-mail : “I marveled at her vitality: between chemo treatments, she revised poems, read Dante, shook her fist at politicians in the news. We talked of where to find the season’s first morels, of the afternoon light, which took the color of the good glass of chardonnay she craved; of grocery store tulips—and then she grew almost instantly serious, intent on sharing a poem with me. “‘Little soul little stray/’” she recited, quoting Merwin’s version of Hadrian’s deathbed poem. Silly me, sane me, I thought it was the treatments talking; but it was something she wanted me to have, last of many gifts, something she thought might help.”

Bust of Emperor Hadrian. Roman 117–138 CE. Photo: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin.

It’s eerie the way that a poem, even in translation, can draw us to it. Jean Valentine, in her version, addressed the stray as “uncanny other.” Though far from a soul mate, Patricia Goedicke herself was an uncanny other to me. We were the odd couple, one composite, dashing over the page, swirling wild-skirted, breathless as Loretta Young, in and out of conversations, and the other isolate. I thought if I waited, we would one day find a place where spirit came together, and because of the repetition of that ancient poem recited to another student and friend, and a small note she left behind, we did. Among the hundred banker boxes of notes, quotations, random written thoughts, plans and descriptions in Patricia Goedicke’s papers, now housed at the University of Montana, one can read the following: to anyone “who might get drowned in the sludge of my psychic and physical pains. Please be sure to speak of my utter joy—inexpressible—but experienced … walking barefoot over the grass around the house looking up at the stars and talking to the in-and-out cats in the shadows … walking on the same barefoot grass in the early mornings … waking in my sweet bed with the breezes blowing over and no troubles during the night … Such pleasures…” (Missoulian, July 23, 2006).

Little soul little stray
Little drifter
now where will you stay
all pale and all alone
after the way
you used to make fun of things

(translated by W.S. Merwin)


“The religion of the short poem, in every age and in every literature, has a single commandment: Less is always more. The short poem rejects preamble and summary. It’s about all and everything, the metaphysics of a few words surrounded by much silence,” writes Charles Simic in his introduction to Serbian poet Novica Tadić’s collection, Night Mail (1992).

“Epics grow unreadable, empires collapse, languages and cultures die, but there are short, anonymous Egyptian poems, for instance, that have been around almost as long as the pyramids, and that are still full of life today. Their impact,” writes Simic, “is like a match flaring up in a dark universe.”


So how does one begin to capture this phosphor? Li Ho, 8th-century Chinese poet, composed poems by jotting down single lines on small slips of paper while on horseback, dropping the slips into an embroidered black bag, and assembling a finished poem each evening.

Mary Oliver

To Mary Oliver, one word might be enough. For over thirty years she has carried a 3×5 inch hand-sewn notebook in her back pocket where she jots her observations randomly, thusly: “6/8/92 woof where on this day, and with this very doggy sound, I first came upon coyotes in the Provincelands. Both the shorthand and the written phrase are intended to return me to the moment and place of the entry.” She shares journal entries and articulates her writing process in “A Pen and a Paper and a Breath of Air” within her collection Blue Pastures (1995).

Franz Wright, poet and son of James Wright, said to Alice Quinn in a July 9, 2001 New Yorker interview, “My father helped me very early with this kind of thing. When I was about fifteen, I got up one morning and took a walk, and, bam, suddenly a poem was there. I was very excited about it, and I started sending him some of these early poems, which were horrible, but to me they seemed like poems. At this time, I was in California and he was in New York. The first letter he wrote to me about this started with the phrase ‘I’ll be damned. You’re a poet. Welcome to hell.’ Then he made a suggestion: ‘Try, no matter what—no matter what sort of maelstrom of distraction you find yourself in at any given time—try to write one single clear line in a notebook every day. If you manage to do that, over time, when a certain mood of inspiration does come to you, when you’re feeling happy and things are going well, and you want to write, you have this store of material, and it’s as if the lines start to bond together, or something starts to crystallize around a particular line.’”

“In fact, I love the fragments so much,” said Wright, “that I really don’t, for a long time, even want to make a complete poem out of them.” One gets that point in reading the opening lines of his poem “Translations”: “Death is nature’s way / of telling you to be quiet.”

What more is there to say?

Einstein likened this moment of capture, of lucidity, to a chicken laying an egg: ”Kieks—auf einmal ist es da.” Cheep—and all at once there it is.


I want to branch now, to speak beyond the necessity of the notebook, beyond the process of capturing at least one line a day, to a deeper understanding of a poetic that might allow one to weave warp and weft of disparate lines together, leaving a space, an absence in which a reader might enter, to seize and apprehend meaning from a writer’s design.

In Greece, one can still hear porters shouting Metaphoray! Metaphoray! offering to carry baggage in small, four-wheeled wagons. A visitor might travel across Athens by public transit called Metaphor, gathering meaning from the trip, as a name accrues a scent in this anonymous Egyptian poem translated by A.M. Blackman in Philip Wheelwright’s Metaphor and Reality (1962): “Behold my name stinks / More than the odor of fishermen / And the shores of the pools where they have fished.”

This type of metaphor is called epiphor and describes a metaphor that sums up by transferring something known (the smell of fish) to something less well known (a name).

But with the transit of Eastern aesthetics to the West and the birth of Modernism, we begin to witness a shift from epiphoric metaphor (epi/upon phora/move) to diaphoric metaphor (dia/through phora/move) in which new meaning is produced in the latter by juxtaposition.

Ezra Pound describes how he came to understand diaphoric metaphor in his book on French sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska, entitled Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir, published in 1916:

Three years ago in Paris I got out of a “metro” train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. And that evening, as I went home along the Rue Raynouard, I was still trying and I found, suddenly, the expression. I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation . . . not in speech, but in little splotches of colour. It was just that—a “pattern,” or hardly a pattern, if by “pattern” you mean something with a “repeat” in it. But it was a word, the beginning, for me, of a language in colour…. I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it because it was what we call work “of second intensity.” Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later I made the following hokku-like sentence: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.” (100, 103)

Of course the hokku or one-breath poem (5-7-5) came to him from Japan where haiku was first a literature of laughter.

For a short course on how this influence grew, visit Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library installation. The origins of literary Modernism and even Postmodernism in Europe and America began with the dissemination of far more ancient civilizations and world views. The Beinecke installation explores how the opening of Japan to the West by Commodore Perry in the 1850s profoundly affected the American (and I would add—the European) imagination.

Pound’s intimidating challenge to poets to make it new came from an inscription on an 18th-century BCE wash basin that belonged to the first ruler of the Shang Dynasty; it is merely a transposition of the word Buddha itself: wake up. With emphasis on the elevated and the base, within a moment, the reader is reminded not only to wake up but that happiness lies in being able to relax into one’s state of being in a world that is fluid.

Constantin Brancusi, The Newborn. Version I, 1920. MOMA.

There were many currents feeding Pound at that time. He had not yet received the translations of Chinese and Japanese from Ernest Fenellosa’s widow that would cause him to publish the essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” or his versions of Fenellosa’s translation that became Pound’s collection Cathay. But he had befriended in Paris the sculptor Brancusi: Brancusi, who walked from his home in Romania to settle in Paris in 1904; who, unlike Rilke, had turned away from Rodin to search for more elemental form; who sought to distill the world down to one simple ovoid—an egg. Pound thought Brancusi a saint.

And like another poet whose writing would be influenced by classical Asian poetry, Anna Akhmatova, Pound was aware of Le Japonisme that swept through the art world as well as the literary world. Surely he was familiar with translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry into French in the 1860s and 1870s, as well as the translations of Friedrich Max Muller of Oxford University that brought the major literary and religious treasures of the ancient East into English.

Early in the 20th century, the Imagists, like the Acmeists Akhmatova, Mandelstam, and others in Russia, offered a counterpoise to the more nuanced Symbolistes, poets who sought not to name, but to evoke a thing’s atmosphere through tone, color and rhythm. Le Japonisme became L’Imagisme. An image, defined by Pound as that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time, is powerful because of its innate potential to be translated and understood across centuries and civilizations.


What does this have to do with contemporary American writers? The shift in metaphor that reflects the shift in reality corresponds with our postmodern creation of random access literature for a random access world, and brings us into close proximity with the nouveau Dickinsonians, American hybridists, minimalists, elliptical poets and lyric essayists.

“The reality that can be conceptualized is not the essential reality,” wrote 6th-century BCE philosopher and poet Lao Tzu:

from the Tao Te Ching
We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that
the usefulness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that
the usefulness of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
And it is on these spaces where there is nothing
that the usefulness of the house depends.
Therefore just as we take advantage of what is,
we should recognize the usefulness of what is not.
(translated from Chinese by Arthur Waley)

Although Lao Tzu was philosophizing about the meaning of reality, his idea might be applied to poetry as well. “What is not” is actually a useful absence that creates breathing room between disparate observations where a reader is invited to participate, to experience privately the lightning strike that causes the poem to cohere. It is the space between the dark and the phosphor, the phosphor being the synaptic ignition in the mind of both poet and reader. It is what Polish poet Adam Zagajewski referred to in the poem “Don’t Allow the Lucid Moment to Dissolve.” Zagajewski offers a gentle imperative voice command in the poem, translated by Renata Gorczynski in Without End (2002): “Let the radiant thought last in stillness… // What passes doesn’t fall into a void / A stoker is still feeding coal into the fire.”

Lorine Niedecker

In diaphoric metaphor, the reader makes a leap between two ideas or images, and in making that leap discovers the lucid moment. One can follow that leap in the tanka-like sequences of Lorine Niedecker’s “Paean to Place,” where she writes of her deaf mother:

I mourn her not hearing canvasbacks
their blast-off rise
from the water
Not hearing sora
rails’s sweet
spoon-tapped waterglass-
descending scale-
Did she giggle
as a girl?
(from Collected Works, 2002)

Niedecker called “Paean to Place” her different poem, her life long poem of over two hundred lines, her marsh poem, written before and after the assassination of Robert Kennedy and encircled by the violence of Vietnam; it tells the story of a family on an isolated fishing peninsula in Wisconsin and locates an individual lyric voice in the larger theater of the world.

In “Getting to Know Lorine Niedecker,” Gail Roub, a neighbor and friend on Black Hawk Island, shared a letter written to him by Niedecker in 1967 that signaled the shift in her poetics:

Much taken up with how to define a way of writing poetry which is not Imagist nor Objectivist fundamentally nor Surrealism alone…. I loosely called it “reflections” or as I think it over now, reflective, maybe. The basis is direct and clear—what has been seen or heard—but something gets in, overlays all that to make a state of consciousness…. The visual form is there in the background and the words convey what the visual form gives off after it’s felt in the mind. A heat that is generated and takes in the whole world of the poem. A light, a motion, inherent in the whole. (Wisconsin Academy Review, 1986)

Anna Akhmatova

This type of disjunctive leap exists, of course, in rhetorical tropes other than diaphoric metaphor. For instance, consider the metonymic revelation of the wrong glove in Anna Akhmatova’s “Last Meeting”:

I was helpless, my breasts were freezing.
I walked one foot on tiptoe,
I put my left glove on
my right hand, like an idiot.

There seemed to be so many steps then
but I knew there were only three.
Autumn whispered through the maples
“Die, like me:”

(translated by Stephen Berg, 1981)

A poet uses metonymy to gesture the unsaid. The brain follows a metonym the way the eye follows contiguous ripples in a pond, and so the broken gait, the mistaken glove, and the endless staircase all come to represent, by association, the awkwardness of parting. Of the revealing image of the gloves, her contemporary Marina Tsvetaeva wrote in “Poets with History and Poets without History”:

Through a patent and even penetrating precision of detail, something bigger than an emotional state is affirmed and symbolized—a whole structure of the mind. (A poet lets go the pen, a lover lets go her lover’s hand and immediately they can’t tell the left hand from the right.) In brief, from these two lines of Akhmatova’s, a broad and abundant flow of associations comes into being, associations which spread like circles from a flung pebble. The whole woman, the whole poet is in these two lines; the whole Akhmatova, unique, unrepeatable, inimitable. Before Akhmatova none of us portrayed a gesture like this. And no one did after her. (Tsvetaeva: Art in the Light of Conscience, trans. Angela Livingstone, 1992).

While one might describe a poem’s seduction as phosphor or lightning, an electrical charge in the center of absence, Jane Hirshfield in her essay on brevity, “Skipping Stones,” like Tsvetaeva, gives absence a more material presence: “Like an actual pebble, cold until warmed by an exterior heat source; like an actual pebble, unwavering in outlook and replete in simple thusness” (75-6). She examines the way that good poems move at their core and the way various arrangements of image and statement—and image as statement—work to make that movement happen. The syllogistic poem that follows by Jane Hirshfield appears in Come, Thief (2013).

Green-Striped Melons

They lie
under stars in a field.
They lie under rain in a field.
Under sun.

Some people
are like this as well—
like a painting
hidden beneath another painting.

An unexpected weight
the sign of their ripeness.

In three stanzas, a reader discovers how melons, like people, weather and grow heavy; the unexpected gravity of each signals its ripeness. All three poets—Lorine Niedecker, Anna Akhmatova and Jane Hirshfield—either translated or were deeply informed by Asian poetics, and the influence of their study is visible in the architecture of many of their poems. Brevity in writing, whether evidenced in a short poem or a series of tankas like Niedecker’s “Paean to Place,” condenses many of writing’s tropes into a few stanzas with enough absence between each stanza for a reader to participate with the writer in a discovery. It is the surprise within the poem that causes readers to lean in for centuries, finding again and again what absence or presence haunts it on the universe of the page; like that tree trembling on the edge of a wilderness, or the poem of a dying Roman emperor, or the song of a last meeting, these words by 17th-century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho written to a friend who has confided too much continue to haunt. To that friend, Basho responds:

“Is there any good in saying everything?”
(Matsuo Basho, Makoto Ueda, 1970)



The essay was originally printed in When the Rewards Can Be So Great: Essays on Writing & The Writing Life (Edited by Kwame Dawes, 1849 Editions, ©2016). Reprinted with permission of author, Sandra Alcosser.

“Green-Shaped Melons,” by Jane Hirshfield (Come, Thief, Knopf, ©2011).

“Little Soul,” by Hadrian, translated by W.S. Merwin (The Shadow of Sirius, Copper Canyon, ©2008).

Sandra Alcosser

Sandra Alcosser‘s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Paris Review, Ploughshares,  Poetry  and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. Her books of poetry, A Fish to Feed All Hunger and Except by Nature received the highest honors from National Poetry Series, Academy of American Poets and Associated Writing Programs. She received two individual artist fellowships from NEA and served as National Endowment for the Arts’ Conservation Poet for the Wildlife Conservation Society and Poets House, New York, as well as  Montana’s first poet laureate and recipient of the Merriam Award for Distinguished Contribution to Montana Literature. She founded and directs SDSU’s MFA each fall, edits Poetry International, and is Visiting Faculty at Pacific University.