Friday, August 12, 2005


If it had not been for a piece by Jonathan Rosen titled Writer Interrupted, (about Henry Roth, in the The New Yorker, August 1, 2005, along with the word resurrection), I might never have looked at the poem on page 48. It is called The Edges of Time. What primed my bleary eye for such a thing was this comment by Rosen: “Life being what it is, this last stage of artistic recovery is accompanied by the physical collapse of the reborn artist, whose health woes are chronicled with excruciating fidelity. (Roth is among the few novelists--one thinks of Saul Bellow in his last novel, “Ravelstein”--who have entered old age wearing a headlamp.)” At my stage of life physical collapse hardly ranks large on the list of fun topics, but maybe that is why this poem also caught my eye.

A “headlamp” indeed. Most popular writings about the trials and noble ailments of aging appear, to my nervous grasp at least, to be poorly disguised, sentimentalized carping--hardly suitable for mixed company. The theme somehow puts me in mind of the overly-ogled English rhyme Advice to Young Maiden Ladies on Making the Best Use of Their Time, which begins, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, for time is fast afleeting.” Like romanticized old age, it is after all clearly a ploy to elicit emotional favors without regard for the quality of life before or after. But listen to these words; a real-life, but almost Godless awareness of aging at The Edges of Time, by Kay Ryan:

It is at the edges
that time thins.
Time which had been
dense and viscous
as amber suspending
intentions like bees
unseizes them. A
humming begins,
apparently coming
from stacks of
put-off things or
just in back. A
glittering fan of things
competing to happen,
brilliant and urgent
as fish when seas

The time we live in every day may be compared to an ocean alright, but at its edges, when it is almost gone, it no longer lifts and holds one up. Here in its lonely shallows it is littered with unfulfilled tasks half promised, at least to ones self. What about those worthless, adored keepsakes in old boxes, adored by no one else, and papers, even documents, that should be set aside for other eyes and interests--those photos not yet pasted in mute albums? Those stories still untold, memories unshared and unperfected; unprofessed love, and those deeper slithery things still not adequately forsworn. Once easily brushed aside, they now assume urgencies and a glitter that refuses to go back into their nearly forgotten places. At the thin, drying edges of time all it’s former life forms briefly struggle to keep alive, to float as before, desperately pushing back against that last tide. During this short and fitful struggle what is emerging, fanning out ahead?

Here at it’s edges, it is apparent as never before that time is running out; it had always seemed so endless, sometimes even monotonous and yes, endless until it’s edges came into view. What does become clearer is that time can stop! Time is a fleshly finite thing after all. It becomes clear that time is contained within eternity—but eternity may also be glimpsed within time, if one looks for it. This is not an essay on time, as such—that would be too grandiose a task—but the words of C. S. Lewis get at the meaning of glimpses of eternity during a lifetime: “Earth ,I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell; and earth, if put second to heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of heaven itself”. (From The Great Divorce,1945). The essential question now, at the edges of time as we know it, is what can be glimpsed of a farther, unknown, shore? As Lewis suggests, choosing only a fleshly, earthen life yields a different outcome from choosing it’s spiritual path; none the less, when time runs out, eternity begins—and what we then behold is already familiar in some small part. As the waters of time on earth recede, glimpses of eternity, no matter how brief, begin to follow accordingly—can anyone say more than that?

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