Sunday, April 21, 2013

Ruefle: "another catches fire"

Samuel Pepys
Portrait by John Hayls

I've started re-reading Mary Ruefle's recent book, Madness, Rack, and Honey, and since I'd only just finished it the day before, I was struck by what was surely an intended resonance:
In poetry, the number of beginnings so far exceeds the number of endings that we cannot even conceive of it. Not every poem is finished -- one poem is abandoned, another catches fire and is carried away by the wind, which may be an ending, but it is the ending of a poem without end. (Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey, 1)
The resonance was with a journal entry lifted from The Diary of Samuel Pepys and placed between the last essay and the "Acknowledgments:
Then we fell to talking of the burning of the City; and my Lady Carteret herself did tell us how abundance of pieces of burnt papers were cast by the wind as far as Cranborne; and among others she took up one, or had one brought her to see, which was a little bit of paper that had been printed, whereon there remained no more nor less than these words: "Time is, it is done." (Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, quoted by Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey, 311)
But what is time?
For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it? But what in speaking do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than time? And certainly we understand when we speak of it; we understand also when we hear it spoken of by another. What, then, is time? If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not. Yet I say with confidence, that I know that if nothing passed away, there would not be past time; and if nothing were coming, there would not be future time; and if nothing were, there would not be present time. Those two times, therefore, past and future, how are they, when even the past now is not; and the future is not as yet? But should the present be always present, and should it not pass into time past, time truly it could not be, but eternity. If, then, time present -- if it be time -- only comes into existence because it passes into time past, how do we say that even this is, whose cause of being is that it shall not be -- namely, so that we cannot truly say that time is, unless because it tends not to be? (St. Augustine, The Confessions, Book 9, Chapter 14, edited by Philip Schaff)
Ruefle disagrees?
[W]e have only fragments -- but even this seems fitting, for what is the moment but a fragment of greater time? (Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey, 13)
Does the moment tend not to be, an infinitesimal, or is it a fragment, a temporal atom? In either case, my allotted time is up . . . for today.

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