In her slim 2013 volume, “On Beauty and Being Just,” Harvard Professor Elaine Scarry attempts to unravel the mysterious pull and effect of the beautiful on human consciousness. Far from being mere surface gloss obscuring the deeper or truer nature of any given object or experience, beauty is central to human experience, summoning us to ever deeper exploration—and our own depths in responding to it.
“Something beautiful fills the mind yet invites the search for something beyond itself, something larger or something of the same scale with which it needs to be brought into relation,” she writes.
And perhaps most importantly, beauty instills in us a desire to both replicate and share it—to point, to exclaim, to paint, to sing and dance and exult, to communicate about how we have been moved and inspired and ultimately, changed by it.
And to advance the possibility that others might be changed, too.
Sharing begets a kind of spiritual capitalism that compels us to multiply beauty’s wealth rather than hoard it in some covetous corner of our hearts.
“Beauty brings copies of itself into being,” Scarry says, in its quest, in our quest, for “unceasing begetting.” And in those copies, those who have plumbed one or another of beauty’s depths most always give way to an irresistible impulse to show, share or replicate it for others.
“Thought you’d enjoy this,” or “This made me think of you,” we write in a text message or email or greeting card (or blog post, come to think of it) that carries a venerated image or poem or link to a musical treasure.
Or in the case of contemporary poet Alison Jarvis, we make certain deals or binding agreements about our responsibilities in sharing something beautiful.
And then we write a beautiful poem about it.
Jarvis was born in Edmonton, Canada, was raised in St. Paul, Minnesota and lives in Brooklyn, where, like most all poets, she carries on with a day job that in her case, is far from just a means of paying the bills. She’s been a psychotherapist for 40 years, which strikes me as just about the perfect companion vocation for poetry writing.
“Sky, River” is a poem from her 2017 volume, “Where is North.” If we take the volume title as an indication of someone trying to get her bearings on a sea voyage, a hike or a life, “Sky, River” points us to sacred coordinates, ever-ready to answer the human longing to behold the beautiful and respond to its intrinsic command to share.
That sharing begets a kind of spiritual capitalism that compels us to multiply beauty’s wealth rather than hoard it in some covetous corner of our hearts.
Which is exactly what happens in the concentrated first stanza of the poem, which describes the ritual a couple has presumably developed when either party is presented with (or trips over) something too beautiful to keep to themselves.
In the poem’s case, it’s a sunset, which rings the alarm of a “Sky Alert” that sets the wheels in motion for giving beauty its due.
The second stanza, however, seems to throttle back on the unconstrained joy of the first; an almost palpable shift in both mood and imagery that occurs as the scene shifts from New York’s Hudson River to the Rhine in Germany.
Let’s read the poem now before discussion on its entirety and what’s likely behind the beauty and pathos of the mid-poem shift.
By Alison Jarvis
This morning, early, you call out
Sky Alert! the old imperative
we use to signal each other—
Leave Everything! and run
to watch the sun burn down
the Hudson, throw fire on water,
melt sky carmine to magenta like a Rothko.
These are the rules—
No one calls out unless they can imagine
nothing more beautiful, and no one, ever
doesn’t come. How many times
did the sky rescue us? Now the river
is the Rhine. The children gone. Barely standing
you hold on to the evidence
of river and sky, call out Fog—
thick, the color of tallow, milk, zinc.
Then there’s a dark line of river just below
and the fog is a shade
on the window of the room. You can almost
reach out and lift it.
That little text message screen shot you see off to the right here was dated January 7, apparently the most recent “Sky Alert!” I sent to Mary, who was in the house when I left for a sunset walk. I feared she might not catch the unfolding light & color show (an unfounded fear, it turned out; she was already craning her neck out beyond the porch).
But coming across Jarvis’s poem recently put me in a momentarily confounded—though heart-gladdened—state.
“Other people do this, too, using the exact same phrase?” (Earth to Andrew: Other people do this, too, using the exact same phrase…)
If I’d remembered my Scarry at that moment, I’d have recognized the universality of being stricken by the beautiful, like a benign lightning bolt that zaps us out of our perceptual lethargy and makes us see the world anew. And in that moment, we are prone to be a cup overflowing, its waters gushing, a Niagara of joy unbound.
That’s what it’s like for Jarvis watching “the sun burn down the Hudson,” and, like a Greek god, “throw fire on the water.”
And then those two main rules: “No one calls out unless they can imagine/nothing more beautiful, and no one, ever/doesn’t come.”
A pact, written on the face of the eternal, to which beauty always points.
But then we leave the Hudson and hop across the ocean via that stanza break:
“Now the river
is the Rhine.”
Not only that, but “The children gone.”
The old days and ways and joys of family life no more.
And instead of burning sun, we see neither brightness nor much sky at all. Instead: “Fog/thick, the color of tallow, milk, zinc.”
It turns out that Jarvis’s search for True North is engendered by loss of her husband to a degenerative disease, which she alludes to directly through several other poems in this lovely volume, and indirectly as an undercurrent percolating through others. With a “dark line of river just below” and the fog serving as a “shade,” we get a kind of mirror image from the ecstatic summons and sharing of previous times.
No judgment, though. Merely observation tinged with lamentation: that one “can almost reach out and lift” the fog and its shade.
“Almost” being the key word, though. Not even beauty can turn that trick, at least not in this world.
And yet it abides, in fog, too, as it creates a “dark line of river” and metamorphoses into “a shade/on the window of the room.”
We need only look, and behold—an ever-available experience made all the better when we summon others to its feast.
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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Coleus, beach and sky photos by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/
Fog bank by Monterigina (Nicole), Montreal, Canada https://www.flickr.com/photos/monteregina/
“Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.”
– Mary Oliver
This brought to mind a memory from some 30 years ago as a working food co-op member in Portland Maine. At sunset, if there was a particularly colorful sky, someone would announce “sky break!”. We would all go out on the sidewalk and watch the sky for 5 or 10 minutes.
And Mary Oliver sums it all up nicely, “Instructions” serves as a touchstone for one of my personal life missions: to observe, be amazed and share my observations and amazement with the world through photography.
My search for beauty, especially when shared, thankfully has never receded. It’s taken many forms. Common to all, it’s been an attempt, successful or not, to add wonder to a particular moment in space and time. At El Santuario de Chimayo, a healing pilgrimage site near Santa Fe, New Mexico, I wrote a poem dedicated to my mom because it was the impetus of some of her favorite prints and sketches. My photos of the Grand Canyon, purple in its first morning sun, then by noon an easel of colored rock, never do it justice. Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a jewel hidden within the Ozarks, has trams running up and down its narrow streets like notes on syncopated be-bop beats. In Cambria, Claire and I never tire of walking along Moonstone Beach’s boardwalk or the dirt paths that wind through the moss draped Monterey pines. In Montreal’s Place Jacques-Cartier, we ate lunch while nearby a young woman sang a medley of Edith Piaf tunes. At Ellis Island, there was a somber beauty to the immigrant photos that lined the walls of the main building. Later, as night fell, we strolled along the riverfront watching Manhattan’s lights turn on and flicker across the Hudson’s glassy surface. In a Piazza San Marco café, I still hear the strings of Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio Italien” coming from a small venue beneath its campanile. Then, there is the beauty of the everyday. It can be a simple hello or smile to a stranger. It’s sharing time over a cup of coffee. Seven years ago today, my father died. Of course, there’s a sadness to the immediacy of death, there is also joy in the remembrance of things past.
Hey Andrew – I was just reading about a book titled, All the Beauty in the World, by Patrick Bringley. I think you should check it out – my sense is that you’re probably a kindred spirit!
Thanks, Peter, I think Ms. Jarvis shares much in common with Mary O., albeit, I think, with a more tragic bent, and I’m glad you cited that on-point passage. And great anecdote about your co–op days. Inspired a memory of my own, from more like 40 years ago, tending bar in a pizza joint, when the entire kitchen crew would also take occasional sudden breaks to go out the backdoor into the alley, but more for ingesting various consciousness-altering substances rather than to admire the sky. Who knows, maybe it helped them better appreciate the sky, and the beauty of a pizza, skillfully made…
Nice waystations there, Robert, for a worldwide beauty tour. Such a long list, all we can do is check them off as we can, and as you suggest, be more than a little consoled with the everyday beauty in front of us.
Thanks for the tip, Marilyn—sounds very intriguing, though my goodness: 10 years as a museum guard! Hard to fathom, but the author obviously put it to good use!
Pitch perfect post my friend! Love the expression on Nicholas Gold’s face as he’s fondling his cello, appropriately titled too! Here in No. California we’ve been watching late winter and early spring crash into one another with astonishing results; rainbows, clouds dancing, hail/snow and more in an every changing performance. The music also reminds me of a recent get together we had of a band I played drums with 35 years ago and how quickly we all fell into the joyful playing these tunes we had written (actually our rhythm guitarist Lou wrote and we all arranged) so many moons ago. Much like reading a moving poem, watching a captivating film, appreciating mother nature, and such, playing music brings you completely into the moment as all else falls away and it was only at the end of a song that we’d turn and look at each other with “shit eating grins” and begin laughing loudly realizing how lucky we were…even the mistakes were fun!