The original version of this essay was written for Explorations (Flora Levy Foundation, University of Louisiana-Lafayette) as a review of Laughter Before Sleep, by Robert Pack (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2011). Page references appear in parentheses following citations.
I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
– Bob Dylan, Not Dark Yet
Robert Pack has built an unusual distinction. In a long career of teaching, directing the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and crafting a singular body of poetry – callings almost certain to generate widespread envy and irrational criticism – he has inspired almost universal admiration and affection.
In the eighty-third year of his illustrious life, Pack has published a new collection of poems called Laughter Before Sleep. The poems vary broadly in their topics and tone, but all emanate from and converse about the tolls of aging on body and mind, the immanence of death, and the condition of “blank seasonless oblivion” (25) he believes must devolve upon us when we die.
i. “My earth-bound life” (6)
Among all peoples it is an axiom that poets feel more than anyone else. I don’t think this is true, but certainly Robert Pack feels ardently. He feels with particular intensity and beauty about nature: landscapes, flowers, birds, animals, weather, seasons, constellations, our world, other worlds, the universe expanding, life abundant and ebullient, relationships complex and fulfilling.
Pack is an ecstatic. His poems are stunningly attentive to and in love with the infinite energy and activity of existence. He celebrates with exquisite specificity and grace the constitution and character of creation. His verse photographs in joyous free frame creatures’ mentation and processes, flowers’ movements and colors, cycles’ contours, nature in her sacral sublimity.
Not sacral. Sublime yes, but decidedly not divine. Pack never receives the universe he celebrates as a work of godly intention. He cherishes, but he does not attribute. He adores life and living, but he can neither recognize an ordainer nor reverence a maker.
Again and again in this intriguing collection the poet tells us that we must resist what he terms the delusion of deity. Repeatedly he scorns “the pretense that the universe is purposely designed” (16). He honors Freud in part because he “wished to free mankind from the belief in God Himself (46).” He favorably contrasts “my need for skeptical detachment” with his Aunt Pearl’s sweet persistent weakness:
She felt compelled to theorize
About God’s presence in the universe
Despite the earthly pleasure she derived
From jams and jellies and desserts (33).
It gives him no pleasure to repudiate the faiths into which he was born. With dignified acceptance of his mind’s convictions, he refuses even to console his dying visionless mother with the vaguest possibility that he ever can share her religious yearnings:
Stark disappointment caught her breath,
Tightened her lips; her eyelids closed
As if it were her choice then to be blind.
“Maybe what happens after death,” she said,
Depends on what we’re able to believe;
Maybe my sister’s sitting by a stream –
Do they have streams in paradise?”
Her mouth turned down in worry that
She’ll wait in vain for my arrival there
Because I can’t pretend that I believe. (64)
This man who so fervently loves existence confronts a sense of terminus inexorable, proximate, and horrid. He dreads and abhors but cannot prevent the fact that he soon will cease to exist. He who so revels in living and has lived so blissfully is aging, has grown elderly, and soon must die.
And when he does, he feels certain he will become abolished. He tells Socrates, a human he can revere: “unlike you, I do not have an open mind about an afterlife (43).” He refuses to equivocate. “No, no, there’s nothing after death (24)!” He who can create so copiously, invent so melodically, cannot contrive the smallest measure of tranquilizing ambiguity:
I have no winter consolation now
To offer you, no summer comfort to bestow,
Only abiding sorrow that enables us
To hold each other here and press
Against the multiplying void of nothing
Breeding only nothingness. (25)
Pack knows his existence is irremediably “earth-bound” (6). He rejoices in life but be conceives that “Nature destroys what it creates, including me (36).” He’ll have no truck with our species’ inveterate longing for renewal and perpetuity after earthly decease:
I do not believe that souls exist
apart from what mere hungry bodies are (44).
He insists “true stories have to end in loss,” and “shared sorrow is the only consolation possible for anyone” (97).
ii. “Who I am, has potency” (55)
Pack cannot find The Divine in the universe he loves, but he does discover a massively empowered personhood.
Laughter Before Sleep celebrates its writer as the missing engineer and regent who confers upon creation a gorgeous but unplanned and unmade ordering of reactive awareness. He rescues the universal sublime by sensing it, loving it, naming it, and recounting his responses to it. Writing poetry doesn’t simply investigate experience. It authors existence, and confers upon it everlasting authenticity and meaning.
Watching and writing about a pileated woodpecker whom he feeds during stark winter months in Montana reminds Pack that, however transient his “earth-bound” life may be, he is throughout the period of his living a being vital and magnificent, indispensable to nature’s activity and authority, and the patriarch of his own:
That is where I come in: my consciousness
to praise, admire, and celebrate.
What else in all creation is so special
and unique, something not heretofore
existing in a mute, indifferent universe?
Observing him, I’m also the observer
of myself observing him – my own red passion in
my own reverberating light (39).
“I am,” he exults, “pure awareness that I am aware” (6).
Cultivating sentience and crafting poetry from cogency give their maker the power of imparting substance, beauty, and meaning onto what otherwise would be intricate nullity. These are attributes of godhead, and Pack locates them in himself. As he observes a red-tailed hawk soar above him, he cries: “I can see – I live, I am aware”:
This is his living moment
in which my life also is contained;
this is the moment I contain my life
as if I were the willing author
of my own design, as if the hawk’s
stark silhouette against smooth sky
were my original idea. (5)
This radical emboldening of authorship, this elevation of feeling and writing into a divinity of “willing,” has great and fascinating puissance. He thanks our “forefather Adam” and a dedicatee named Janet for teaching him to construct and “celebrate a world of worded things (58).” From the day he published his “first raw book of poems” he has felt “exalted by my words upon a printed page” (59). At this stage in his life “my own cup runneth over with the names of what I’m able to identify (57)!” Now, he sings, “who I am, has potency” (55).
His poetic vigor, joyful as art and crucial as ontology, has raised him to the highest levels of human achievement:
I’ve excelled in the great universal
Competition to distinguish who I am (93).
Pack stakes a high but not an autocratic or exclusionary claim. He assures us that everyone can share in the beatitude and authority of artistry that “forefather Adam,” mentor poets, and he have pioneered:
There’s something in us all enabling us
to reinvent ourselves with words (52).
This is his book’s intention and teaching. His poetry is “self-realizing work” (65), but he lives, writes, and publishes to help us all find our own significance and claim the sanctity that inheres in our selves. He has given us Laughter Before Dark because “I elect to share the pleasure of identifying (56).”
iii. “My diminishing” (10)
This power of heroic divining is problematic, though, because it weakens and in time perishes. We age. Our synapses slow. Our cognitions wax, wane, and in their end wither. Our creative capabilities falter, fade, and in their finale fail. We all must die.
If we truly have no spiritual existence transcending our tellurian physical death, we must die into blunt obdurate nonentity. If we truly are “earth-bound” in a universe marvelous with wonders but devoid of architect, empty of intent, and barren of eternality, our “rapt, attending self (31)” can become in its cessation no more than an impassioned “witness to oblivion” (36).
Pack invents no facile exemption or antidote. He believes in his beliefs, and he’s willing to pay the appalling prices of pain they exact. However, he does find a laudable power in his – in our – ultimate powerlessness. He finds the power of courage, the dignity of steadfastness, the noble potency of a free man embracing his liberty to choose his choices again and again unto the end. In a delightful work called “Power,” he proclaims with earned pride:
They’re gone, the powers that I once possessed –
Control of lightning bolts and hurricanes;
Old age does that: fatigue, and care, and stress.
Accepting loss, my last strength, still remains (38).
“Accepting loss” doesn’t really matter, because he and we will lose our lives whether or not we agree to die or approve of dying. Nevertheless it’s impressive and sweet that Pack does consent, and that he feels “able to resign myself to going where the swirling waters go (16).”
These poems bill themselves as lighthearted, but most are mournful, elegiac, wounded, hovering on edges often of fear and sometimes of anger. No wonder. This wonderful man has been a fine husband, father, son, and brother, an admirable teacher, poet, and shepherd, yet he’s headed, in his opinion, into “unnamed innermost dark emptiness” (8). He believes he must soon vanish from his extraordinary intellect and delicate spirit into “palpable absence … where even hungry cougars do not go” (9).
This man is so likable. As we read his remarkably intelligent and moving verses we hate to see him frightened about and resentful of “my diminishing” (10). But what can we do? We cannot make his personality become devotional. We cannot grant his closed mind access into faiths his experience of existence has not given him. We cannot deed this exemplary person, this beautiful poet, what John Henry Cardinal Newman called “the Illative Sense”: the knowledge certain, rooted in conviction not logic, given to the heart and cherished by the yielding head, that we of course do exist as souls, we of course are shaped and loved by The Divine who is wise as we are not, gentle as we are not, infinite and eternal as we are not. One who has plans for us that we cannot and need not discern or name.
Laughter Before Sleep is such a perplexing book. It is an august and bewitching work of worship by an author who cannot worship. It is a love song by a singer uncommonly gifted who cannot open his mind to the one gift he most craves, needs, and has freely on offer before him. How can a human being see, hear, and speak so astutely, and yet end his journey blind, deaf, austere, and quivering with needs he need neither feel nor fear?
How? Well, are not most of us ensnared in Pack’s bleak fearsome place? Are not most of us blind in his way, deaf in his way, impoverished in his way, quaking as he does from percepts we invent? Do not most of us fail as he does to trust to the truths all of life trumpets?
“I have a vanishing to undergo” (83). Why is it impossible for the soul called Robert Pack to envision a condition of life after life? Why does he find it impracticable to conceive a state of existence other than that of the selfhood he now knows? How is it that he who has been given so much happiness cannot conceive new paradigms of joy? New epochs of plentitude and peace, fertile, verdant, changing or inalterable but never “diminishing?”
It’s good that he is not really in authority on earth or beyond. He can gibe his Aunt Pearl and his mom, but aunts and mothers often have more access to wisdom than their nephews and sons.
Other brave and brilliant poets may be wrong, too. Not Dark Yet is a song of genius, but Bob Dylan may be as ensnared as Bob Pack in the majesty of the momentary. It surely may be that, although we must age statically and die in darkness, we shall be granted light and life beyond our present ken.
Throughout his celebratory melancholic collection, this lovely poet repeats a tender melodious teaching, the summation of his learning at this stage in his pilgrimage. “Be kind, be kind! (71)” Pack tells us. I think you will close Laughter Before Sleep with that wish for its author. I have not discovered The Divine in my life, but I think you will close this moving volume by asking our maker, if we have a maker, by asking The Divine, if there be a Divine, that she be kind to this greatly gifted and greatly good soul when he departs from his life.