How Poems Work #7 - Rob Taylor on Daniel Karasik's "The Pilgrim Looks Up"

The Pilgrim Looks Up – Daniel Karasik

Of a book I read last week, on the theme of memory,
I’ve forgotten everything, except for a brief description
of how the narrator, on returning to his Tyrolean childhood home,
was remembered by acquaintances of his early years
for his habit of always,
upon stepping outdoors, looking up
to observe the sky’s condition.

When travelling
I too have often done this.

On the African coast, in harmattan season,
the sky would stay so perpetually hazed
that no amount of looking would make that pilgrim’s art
make sense.

A proud, even a hostile sky,
as I remember it: so utterly unwilling to reveal itself.
For three months I could look at nothing else.

When I approached Daniel Karasik with a request to republish his poem "The Pilgrim Looks Up" on One Ghana, One Voice, I mentioned that I was also considering writing a “How Poems Work” essay on it. Daniel sent me a reply confirming he was happy to have the poem republished, and even went so far as to offer me his own take on a “How Poems Work” essay for “The Pilgrim Looks Up.” It was two words long: It doesn’t.

It was a surprising comment on a poem Karasik had chosen only months before to include in his first poetry collection, Hungry (Cormorant Books, 2013). One can probably chalk it up, in large part, to Karasik’s humility and good sense of humour. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he felt there was a little bit of truth to the statement, as well (a disappointing thought considering the excellence of the poem). I remember how quickly I turned on a few of my own darlings (only sometimes deservedly) after finally seeing them in publication in my first poetry collection. Set in their new home within a larger collection, some of them having until then gathered dust in a drawer for 5+ years, a few of my poems seemed out of place, unable to hold their own. And the poems most likely to disappoint me were the ones I was now most distant from, both in the length of time since I’d written them and the physical distance I’d put between the “me” of here and now and the “me” of then and there (hunched over my notebook, scrawling out first drafts).

Our feelings about poems, especially our own, are elusive and ever-changing. Over time and space we return to these texts, inevitably older and hopefully wiser, and they become new things, the wisdom contained within them growing or shrinking or transforming. The poems we read while travelling the world take on different import in our minds than the ones we read in the comfort of our living rooms. Our relationship with poems we read at 20 or 30 or 60 years old are fundamentally different because of that change.

So maybe Daniel was being humble. Maybe he was being serious. Possibly (probably, I suspect) a little of both. To ask him, though, would ruin the fun of speculation. And from what better vantage point can one consider “The Pilgrim Looks Up” than from one clouded in uncertainty?

“The Pilgrim Looks Up” is a meditation on uncertainty, specifically on the key ingredients that make our understandings of the world less-that-assured: memory, place and perspective. The triangular relationship between these three forces is built throughout the poem, with a particular emphasis on one or the other presented from stanza to stanza. Running through the poem, also, is the establishment and merger of two separate narratives: the story of the speaker of the poem (the “speaker” for the purposes of this essay) and the story of the book-within-a-poem’s narrator (the “book’s narrator”). All of this builds to Karasik’s conclusions, on how we live in and embody uncertainty, in the closing fourth stanza.

Right from the first line, Karasik inserts his theme of “memory” into the poem. He does this by injecting it into the (fictitious?) book his speaker had been reading the week before the poem’s “action” takes place. Specifically, he brings in the theme of memory’s evasiveness – how most of what we experience slips away, leaving only touchstones (which themselves may not necessarily be “accurate"). In this case it is the book’s narrator’s habit of “looking up / to observe the sky’s condition” that remains in the minds of his childhood acquaintances. It is a habit that the speaker will come to embody by the end of the poem, as the meta-story creeps steadily into the poem’s central narrative.

The second stanza, a single brief sentence over two lines, performs an essential function. It propels the lives of the speaker and the book’s narrator further toward one another (both are “travelling”) and in so doing establishes that a sense of place and placelessness (a sense most clearly highlighted when one travels) is a concern not just of the book’s narrator, returning to his Tyrolean home, but also a direct concern of the speaker.

The third stanza provides for us the speaker’s place of travel, “the African coast,” and introduces the touchstone memory of the speaker’s story: the dust-filled harmattan sky. This touchstone fits well with the touchstone of the book’s narrator’s story – “looking up / to observe the sky’s condition” – preparing us for the closing fourth stanza, and the full merger of the two storylines. The third stanza also aggressively introduces new perspectives into the poem, which play with how we are to see, and approach, the poem. Until now, all we’ve known about the poem’s location is that it probably isn’t set in Tyrol (an international region in the Alps that includes both the state of North Tyrol in Austria and the province of South Tyrol in Italy), which seems “outside” the speaker’s world – a far off place read about in a book. But in stanza three we are not only given our first grounded place within the speaker’s world, “the African coast,” but also a clear perspective from which to view it: outside. “On the African coast… the sky would stay…”. We are viewing Africa from a distance, both of time and place (that place, I assume, being the Western world).[1]

Harmattan, West Africa
(Photo Source)
And yet a twist is thrown into that structure by the introduction of the word harmattan.[2] Harmattan is such a foreign concept to Western audiences that the word itself is underscored by a red squiggly line each time I type it into my North American word processor. (Do you mean Marmaton? it asks when I right-click – my word processor knows the name of a tributary of Kansas' Little Osage River, but not the name for a major recurring environmental event which affects the lives of hundreds of millions of people annually). Here in Karasik’s poem, though, harmattan is mentioned without explanation. And in making that choice, Karasik welcomes in another perspective to the poem: the West African insider, the person for whom “harmattan” does not need quotes or italics or a red squiggly line. The poem is instantaneously shot into this new moment and place, as if the author is saying “We all know what’s going on here. If you feel left out, you can Google it.”
Marmaton River, Kansas, USA

The poem also enters, in this moment, into dialogue with the volume of West African poems written on the subject of the harmattan, and some of the dominant themes such poems often embody – confusion, mystery, deprivation of one sort or another.[3]

So here in stanza three we reach the height of the poem’s kaleidoscoping perspectives: we see from the vantage point of the speaker, reading a book; then the book’s narrator, travelling to Tyrol; then the book’s narrator’s Tyrolean acquaintances, remembering back; then the speaker travelling “away”; then the speaker in place, the “away” becoming the “here”, the language assumed and comfortable. We are speaker, narrator, acquaintance, foreigner, native.

It should be noted that for all these locales and perspectives, most of which are affixed to particular geographic places, Karasik’s language avoids specificity. The childhood home is “Tyrolean,” which could refer to any number of specific places on either side of the Austrian-Italian border; the location for the harmattan is simply “the African coast.” Bearing the outside knowledge that Karasik once lived in Accra, one can assume that the poem is situated there. In the version of Karasik's poem “A Wrapping Ceremony” which appears in Hungry, Karasik doesn’t shy away from adding a locational tag as an epigraph to the poem in order to specifically locate the events in Ghana. Yet here he resists that impulse, and instead goes as far as to even strip the “West” off of “West Africa,” making it appear the poem could be situated anywhere on the continent (though, of course, most of Africa is harmattan-free). This seems to be an intentional choice of Karasik’s: to keep the exact locales of the poem, the exact places and perspectives and memories, as hazy as the harmattan sky itself. To keep us unfixed and borderless, as both travel and the harmattan encourage.

In the closing stanza Karasik merges the two narratives, and the two characters, in the poem. The “pilgrim” of the book and the “pilgrim” that is the speaker become one through their common motion: the speaker looks up into the harmattan sky “so unwilling to reveal itself.” The poem about reading a book about memory becomes a poem that has fully absorbed the book and become simply about the core thing – memory itself.

As the two characters become one in that closing image, our perspective, as readers, becomes clear as well. We find ourselves watching the speaker watching the sky, we as readers positioned both outside the speaker’s world and somewhat present in it, viewing the speaker through the very haze that he/she is staring up at. A triangular relationship is formed between the reader, the speaker and the harmattan, mirroring the triangular relationship between memory, place and perspective that has been explored in the poem.

But Karasik doesn’t simply leave us with these observations and connections as neutral thoughts – the speaker specifically ends the poem emphasizing how fascinating he finds all this fog and forgetting and uncertainty, essentially prodding us to be fascinated by it ourselves. And when we do that, the questions posed by the poem come spilling out: What are we looking at when we look into the haze of memory, mired as it is in different perspectives, cultures, and histories? Can we see a memory from different angles, once it’s been made? If memory is reduced to touchstones, can it ever be expanded again? What can we see? What can we know? What of our experiences can we really retain? What can we retell?

Memory fades. Perspective is always limited. Travel for insight alone is ultimately fraught. In the end all our efforts result in some kind of imperfection, some level of failure. This, of course, brings in the alternate reading of the poem’s last line: “I could look at nothing else,” not because the speaker was fascinated, but because he had no other choice. The harmattan would not permit another way of looking. Regardless of all this thinking on the matter, the outcome is the same. Everything results in haze, in harmattan. To some extent the answer to the question “How does it work?” is always It doesn’t. But, as Karasik asserts, each morning we inevitably step out the door and look up nonetheless, fascinated pilgrims that we are.

[1] The common thought here being that any inter-continental dialogue between Africa (especially English speaking Africa) and an outside force occurs with “the West,” most often Europe. As Ngugi wa Thiong’o put it recently on the Chimurenga blog:

The links between Asia and Africa and South America have always been present but in our times they have been made invisible by the fact that Europe is still the central mediator of Afro-Asian-Latino discourse… In my case, I had always assumed that my intellectual and social formation was tied to England and Europe, with no meaningful connection to Asia and South America. There was a reason. I wrote in English. My literary heroes were English. Kenya being a British colony, I had learnt the geography and history of England as the central reference in my widening view of the world. Even our anti-colonial resistance assumed Europe as the point of contest; it was we, Africa, against them, Europe.

This is changing, of course, with Asia’s steady advancement in Africa. But for now, and for the purposes of this poem, the presence of the West-Africa dynamic seems a fair assumption.

[2] For unfamiliar readers, the harmattan is a seasonal West African trade wind which blows dust from the Sahara down into the Gulf of Guinea. You can read other OGOV poems about the harmattan here.

[3] For a classic sample, read Kwesi Brew's "The Dry Season".

Rob Taylor is the editor and co-founder of One Ghana, One Voice.


Unknown said...

Brilliant take, Rob. Harmattan is a phase of haziness, a taunt of elusive memory. It also stands for the listlessness that haunts minds absorbing the meanings of scenes on life's pilgrimages. I enjoyed reading the piece. Kudos.

Rob Taylor said...

Thanks, Prince!