By Catherine DiMercurio
Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” has been running through my head like an 80s pop song. I had to stop and listen.
It’s not even that I know all the words, but there is something about it that keeps surfacing for me. The title of the poem will pop into my head, or a couple of lines, or the general mood of it. The poem contains lines like this:
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
I’ve learned that when something pushes at me like this, I should stop and listen. I think our minds are vast universes connected to deeper things, that since energy cannot be created or destroyed, there is timeless, transcendent energy in us that sometimes knows better than our conscious, thinking brain. And I think that part of us is what people talk about when they talk about gut or faith or intuition. And that part of me has lead me repeatedly to this poem in the past few weeks. And I think I now know why.
If you’ve read the last few posts here, you’ll know I’ve been thinking a lot about the way things end. Sometimes I wonder if I’m overthinking, fruitlessly trying to make logical sense of illogical things, dutifully trying to learn what I can from failures so as to avoid mistakes, prevent future regret or unhappiness. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” has given me some comfort, not only from its content, in beautiful words yoked together to convey deep, simple, elegant truths, but in its very form. “Thirteen Ways” is about looking at things from different angles. It isn’t about making sense of something or coming to a conclusion, but it is about keen observations rooted in both fact and feeling. It is about fullness and richness of understanding.
Contours, Not Conclusions
In a way, the poem offers both permission for and insight into the tasks my mind and heart have been performing as they looked at one ending—the terminal point in one relationship. My examination of the ending itself expanded into a postmortem of the past two years. I saw patterns that had hidden themselves from me before. The innuendoes, the beauty in the aftermath of the blackbird’s whistling, have settled in, and I have been able to see angles and contours of things in a way I hadn’t before. I’m becoming aware that sometimes these contours matter more than conclusions. Understanding and fullness of knowledge and experience are different things entirely than an argument or statement summarized. Life is not a five-paragraph essay with a thesis stated, a case made, a conclusion drawn.
What I’ve learned about myself through this process of allowing myself to retrace my steps, to study the relationship from beginning to end, is invaluable. There are insights I would not have gained had I simply tried to force myself to move on, get over it, or stop dwelling on it. Recognizing that this is my process, too, is freeing. When any relationship ends or changes—as they so often do in life—permitting yourself to explore it from all sides may be the necessary path for you in order to accept the transition, to gain greater insights about yourself, to change course, to grieve. There is no right way, no one answer, and you don’t have to land on a conclusion, whether or not anyone else expects one from you.
Buried Truths and New Circles
This process, let’s call it the “Thirteen Ways of Looking” approach, is a way to manage the ambiguity I discussed in an earlier post. It is a way to begin to make sense of seemingly incomprehensible things, not to discover answers, but to recover truths we lost sight of or buried. Truths get buried regularly I think, like bones, dog-buried, or lost to rock and centuries.
I dreamed last night of blackbirds. They were pulling at my shoulders, picking me up and flying me away. When I looked down I saw that I had been standing on an island that was suddenly engulfed in flames. I don’t know where the blackbirds will take me but I think I’ll be okay. I’ll leave you today with Stevens’s ninth way of looking at a blackbird: “When the blackbird flew out of sight, / It marked the edge / Of one of many circles.”