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Poet's Corner: As time goes by

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Posted on January 11, 2018 |
By Susan Jefts



Stubbornly Persistent Illusion of Time

 

“The distinction between the past, present, and future

is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”  Albert Einstein

 

The stubbornly persistent illusion of time,

is obvious when I consider the photo collages –

when I gaze at my young father and mother

from where they live on my wall,

patient, constant, faithful. 

 

Dad is 20, a full head of dark hair,

sitting on a dirt road in Italy

beside his rucksack, puffing a pipe.

He stares past the frame, past the smoke,

of his pipe into 1938, unaware of

the world’s looming psychotic break.

He is 15 years younger than my son.

Mom gifts the photographer

her Mona Lisa smile, as if just informed

of her first pregnancy, my brother.

 

I know their crude taxonomy:

Daddy, Heinz, Harvey, finally Dad.

Mommy, Nanni, Nana, finally Mom,

a mere slice of their lives across an ocean of time.

What matters is that they are here, defying time,

as long as I notice them.

 

In my orderly, synaptic brain, Past is mere memory.

Present – moment to moment elusiveness,

everything and nothing. 

Future, infinity, everything possible.

How many dimensions do I inhabit?

 

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

life is but a dream

from which we cannot awaken. 

 

— Jack Mayer, Middlebury

 

(Jack Mayer is a Middlebury pediatrician and the author of “Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project” and “Before the Court of Heaven.”)

 

As Time Goes By

I love pieces of writing that play with the concept of time or other physics related concepts. I looked up these words of Einstein’s, some of which are used in the poem, and learned that he wrote them just after the death of his colleague Michele Besso: “Now he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” This context makes the quote even more relevant to Mayer’s poem. The speaker in the poem gazes at a photo of his parents taken decades ago in another country, in another era entirely, but he feels their presence as if they were right there with him. He continues to ponder throughout the poem this thing called time.

Among physicists and philosophers there appear to be many ideas about time and whether or not it exists beyond this earthly plane. Some say time is just a mental construct we’ve created here on earth and that in the universe beyond, there is no past, present, or future, and everything is happening all at once. Others say that time does exist in the universe, but in a different way (which I won’t attempt to explain). I remember hearing a few years ago an interview with a physicist who said that our experience of time is slowest and gravity is greatest near a black hole, a concept I felt had poetic potential. Might there be some kind of metaphorical equivalent to this in our lives on earth when our experience of time and gravity seems to change in certain situations?

I like that the poem gets us thinking about these things. Considering concepts that question our perceptions can open our imagination in all kinds of ways.

Sometimes the sense (or illusion) of separation between us and everything else does really fall away. It can happen with music and poetry, it can happen in meditation and prayer, and it can certainly happen in love and other deep, genuine feeling. In this poem there is a depth of feeling that comes through in an understated way. We see the speaker looking thoughtfully, perhaps longingly, into the faces of his parents where they “live” on his wall. “What matters is that they are here, defying time, as long as I notice them.” There seems to be a desire in the speaker to have them here with him. Or for him to be there with them.

In the next stanza he does seem to almost be with them in 1938 Italy. He seems to almost be his father gazing past the camera. Reading this made me think of E.B. White’s essay “Once more to the Lake” where he visits the camp in Maine he spent his childhood summers. Being there again, this time as a father, he watches his son playing in the same boat he used to play in. A strange sensation comes over him: “I began to sustain the illusion that he was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father…. I seemed to be living a dual existence.” The normal experience and limitations of time and space begins to blur for him.

For the speaker in Mayer’s poem, something seems to have shifted or blurred as well. He gazes at his father’s face, and the thought of his own son comes to mind. We feel almost in two places at once, maybe even a bit disoriented, but in a way that somehow feels right and that makes a kind of sense, at least poetically and imaginatively, something Einstein would have approved of. “Knowledge is limited,” he said, “while imagination embraces the world and all there will ever be to know and understand.” And as the speaker in the poem says, “Future, infinity, everything possible. How many dimensions do I inhabit?”

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(We are looking for more well crafted, well written poems! Poems of all kinds are encouraged, and ones written from different cultural and ethnic perspectives are especially welcome. Please send them to Susan at [email protected].)

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Susan Jefts is a poet and educator living in Cornwall whose work has been published throughout the country. She is currently working on a book of poetry and running workshops that use poetry as a tool for exploring life issues and directions. Her website is manyriverslifeguidance.com.

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