Despite Harold Bloom’s assurances that in “Incarnations, Poems 1966-1968” a “new Warren emerged with astonishing intensity,” I found it difficult to find a poem that really resonated with me like his later poems.
However, after repeated readings, “In the Mountains” struck me as my favorite poem in this section because it best introduced later themes, or, perhaps, simply because it best fits my own view of life:
IN THE MOUNTAINS
To Baudouin and Annie de Moustier
With the motion of angels, out of
Snow-spume and swirl of gold mist, they
Emerge to the positive sun. At
That great height, small on that whiteness,
With the color of birds or of angels,
They swoop, sway, descend, and descending,
Cry their bright bird-cries, pure
In the sweet desolation of distance.
They slowly enlarge to our eyes. Now
On the flat where the whiteness is
Trodden and mud-streaked, not birds now,
Nor angels even, they stand. They
Are awkward, not yet well adjusted
To this world, new and strange, of Time and
Contingency, who now are only
Human. They smile. The human
Face has its own beauty.
White, white, luminous but
Blind-fog on the
Mountain, and the mountains
Gone, they are not here,
And the sky gone. My foot
Is set on what I
Do not see. Light rises
From the cold incandescence of snow
Not seen, and the world, in blindness,
Glows. Distance is
Obscenity. All, all
Is here, no other where.
The heart, in this silence, beats.
Can you, hung in this
Blank mufflement of white
Brightness, now know
What you are? Fog,
At my knees, coils, my nostrils
Receive the luminous blindness,
And deeper, deeper, it, with the
Cold gleam of fox-fire among
The intricate secrets of
The lungs, enters, an eye
Screams in the belly. The eye
Sees the substance of body dissolving.
At fog-height, unseen,
A crow calls, the call,
On the hem of silence, is only
A tatter of cold contempt, then
Is gone. Yes, try to remember
An act that once you thought worthy.
The body’s brags are put
To sleep — all, all. What
Is the locus of the soul?
What, in such absoluteness,
Can be prayed for? Oh, crow,
Come back, I would hear your voice:
That much, at least, in this whiteness.
At first I was simply attracted by the beautiful skiing images in the opening stanza. Part of the appeal of skiing is simply the austere beauty of the snow-covered mountains and the sensation of flying though the snow at super-human speeds, freed from everyday bodily restraints. And yet, in this poem, the people don’t quite become “human” until they come to a stop “where the whiteness is/ Trodden and mud-streaked.” On first reading, the last sentence, “The human/ Face has its own beauty,” while obviously true, doesn’t quite seem to fit, becoming clear only within the context of the whole poem.
The second stanza captures one of the basic appeals of the mountains in the winter, one I’ve referred to earlier in “Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home.” Although it may well be true that each snowflake is unique, it doesn’t appear so to the human eye, and areas covered in snow, even, remarkably enough, clearcuts, take on an abstract beauty. Seen through the “fog” of abstraction many things appear beautiful, even if they may appear less so when seen in their full reality.
The third stanza, though, presents the central dilemma of the poem. How can the heart, suspended in this blinding whiteness, this total abstraction, know itself? In such abstract beauty, the heart must invariably lose itself. Is there room for love in total abstraction. Can anyone truly “love” a painting called “White on White?”
In the final stanza, a stanza reminiscent of Yeats’ “Crazy Jane Meets the Bishop,” the crow, or perhaps a raven, in all its blackness, intrudes on, or, perhaps, redeems, the blank, snow-covered landscape. Is it only the tarnished human soul, never totally redeemed, that can give meaning to life?