Robert Creeley’s Windows

Marjorie Perloff

Published in Bridge 2, no. 1 (Fall-Winter 2002): 187-94.


Window:

n.1 an opening in the wall of a roof or building or vehicle that is fitted with glass in a frame to admit light or air and allow people to see out.

¶ a pane of glass filling such an opening.

¶ an opening in a wall or screen through which customers are served in a bank, ticket office, or similar building.

¶ a space behind the window of a shop where goods are displayed for sale.

n.2 a thing resembling such an opening in form or function, in particular.

¶ a transparent panel on an envelope to show an address.

Computing—framed area on a display screen for viewing information

¶ a means of observing and learning about. Television is a window on the world.

¶ an interval or opportunity for action. Window of opportunity.

Origin ME: Old Norse vindauga, from vindr “wind” + auga “eye”

Oxford American Dictionary

In a 1995 interview, Charles Bernstein asked Robert Creeley to comment on the sequence “Helsinki Window,” composed during a recent summer visit the Creeleys had made to Finland. Creeley replies:

We had rented—or rather it had been provided for us—an apartment with a modest rent in a very good-natured circumstance. It was an easy walk into the center of the city of Helsinki. And it was actually the apartment of the family whose father is now the president of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari. And so it had this room. . . And I was working—while he was working at the United Nations—I was working in his very modest study.

And the one window looked out on the central courtyard. It was this great sort of apartment block interior where people would, you know, park occasionally. And basically it was just a space to put out the garbage bins and what not. So that window became my intimate companion and reference, day and night. I could sort of peek out at the neighbors variously, but I could also see the sky. It was up high enough to see out over the roofs to the open sky of the city. Once I had got sort of settled into it, “Helsinki Window,” at the window, I didn’t feel literally like a “shut-in” but I was certainly occupying that window much as, say, someone constrained to be in that room might do as well. And it was also interesting for me, the sequence, because this is the first time for my use of this form, so-called, this particular 12-line stanza or whatever to call it. Almost like a sonnet in its determined compacting. [1]

This charming passage obscures more than it explains. For why does an apartment window that looks out over a dreary inner courtyard with its garbage bins and parked cars become the poet’s “intimate companion and reference, day and night”? Why does Creeley want to take the position of one of the “constrained,” occupying the window in question like a “shut-in”? One thinks immediately of James Stewart in Rear Window, but Creeley has never manifested any particular curiosity about the lives of neighbors in an anonymous city block, especially in a foreign country. Why doesn’t he go out and enjoy the city? Or meet friends in cafés? And why does it matter that the apartment is owned by the now president of Finland?

To answer these questions, we might turn to Creeley’s earlier “Window” poems—and there are dozens. Indeed, from the inception of his career, Creeley has been especially sensitive to domestic thresholds—doors, mirrors, and, most of all, windows. Perhaps his interest in this particular opening has to do with the word’s etymology: Old Norse vindauga, from vindr “wind” + auga “eye”. Eye in the wind: for Creeley this reference is only too personal, given that the poet lost his own left eye in a terrible automobile accident when he was only two. Indeed, throughout his life, Creeley has had to compensate for his one-eyed state, has had to use the good eye–often, no doubt, smarting in the wind–to admit the light and to see what is out there. The eye is also, by analogy, the fragile pane of glass itself that can be easily injured or broken. And it is (#2 above) a means of observing and learning, an information channel.

Take the well-known poem “Goodbye” (in For Love ), which was prompted by another painful accident which caused the death of Bobbie Creeley’s young daughter Leslie:

She stood at the window. There was
a sound, a light.
She stood at the window. A face.

Was it that she was looking for,
he thought. Was it that
she was looking for. He said,

turn from it, turn
from it. The pain is
not unpainful. Turn from it.

The act of her anger, of
the anger she felt then,
not turning to him. [2]

Here the husband watches his wife slip away from him, her mind, no doubt tormented by guilt, concentrated on the lost child. The window admits “a sound, a light”—indeed, the ghostly face of the child itself. The poet, sensing the distance between himself and his wife, tries to break the spell. The threefold repetition of “turn from it,” is punctuated only by the foolish statement that “The pain is not unpainful.” But the “turn” backfires on him. Instead of “turn[ing] from it,” it is “turning to him ” that the woman, in her anger, refuses. The window, in this context, is less opening than escape—an escape the woman wants and which the man, inside the claustrophobic room, wants to deny her. Deadlock, as in so many of these early poems, is all.

A decade later, the volume Words contains two poems called “The Window.” The first begins:

Position is where you
put it, where it is

and tries to assess the mind’s workings as it organizes that which is seen in its varied forms of relatedness: “that large tank there, silvered, / with the white church along-side,” then a “man [who] walks by, a /car beside him on / the dropped / road, a leaf of / yellow color” which is “going to / fall.” And we read:

It

all drops into
place. My

face is heavy
with the sight. I can
feel my eye breaking. (CP 284)

This, like so many of the poems of the period, uses what seems to be simple observation for almost surrealistic effect. The mind tries to relate everything it sees outside the window—tank, church, man, car, leaf—so as to make sense of the vision, the composition. Why then, is the poet’s face “heavy/with the sight,” so heavy he “can / feel [his] eye breaking”? Perhaps because the microcosmic glass—the human eye—cannot ever really capture what is seen in the macrocosmic one. The poet can list different “positions,” and try, so to speak, to connect the dots, but nothing adds up. The items don’t really fit together. And the effort to see actually hurts.

The pain in question is named more explicitly in the second “Window” poem, which begins:

There will be no simple
way to avoid what
confronts me. Again and
again I know it, but

take heart, hopefully,
in the world unavoidably
present. (CP 336)

How to avoid “what confronts me”? “Out the far window / there was such intensity/ of yellow light.” But the poet is in no mood to look out. Rather, he turns to the “window” of his beloved’s body; “you / were surely open to me.” But although he gets the “love I so wanted,” he is too spent to connect inner and outer. Indeed, he merely “fell senseless, with relief.”

Here the reader’s window onto the scene does not accord with the window in the poem, yellow with “such intensity.” In the window which is the poem, in other words, the room shuts down on the hung-over speaker, whose hands are shaking with “an insistent trembling / from the night’s / drinking.” What seems “open” is really a problematic form of closure.

More than twenty years later, in the volume Windows (1990), the acute anxiety of the earlier work seems, at first glance, to have dissipated. The sequence “Window,” for example, begins with the minimalist “Then”:

The window had
been half
opened and the

door also
opened and the
world then

invited, waited,
and one
entered. (JIT 112)

Indeed, the next lyric states, in only eight words, “The world is / many, the / mind is one,” and in the third, “Where,” the window has “opened, / beyond edge / of white hall,” and the poet asks quite jauntily, “Who’s / home?”

But these window poems are more accurately read marking the calm before the storm. “Helsinki Window” has a very different tone. The sequence’s epigraph, to begin with, comes from Malcolm Lowry’s Dark as the Grave Wherein my Friend is Laid,” in which the down-and-out writer posits that perhaps it is so difficult to create a larger, comprehensive artistic structure that one had better stick to short poems, whose “measured frames thrown up in an instant of inspiration” may be able to “outwit the process” of having to produce a larger, finished work (JIT 481). The opening poem called “X” follows through on this notion:

The trees are kept
in the center of the court,
where they take up room
just to prove it—

and the garbage cans extend
on the asphalt at the far side
under the grey sky and the building’s
recessed, regular windows.

All these go up and down
with significant pattern,
and people look out of them.
One can see their faces.

I know I am safe here
and that no one will get me,
no matter where it is
or who can find me. (JIT 183)

Here is the lyric equivalent of Creeley’s description of the Helsinki apartment in the Bernstein interview cited above. In that account, the issue is one of constraint, of somehow feeling like a “shut-in,” but in “X,” we learn that the source of that constraint is the poet’s own state of mind, a fear that “they” are out to get you and that, in order to be “safe,” he must stay hidden inside his room. The gray courtyard fits his needs because his window faces on nothing but other “recessed, regular windows,” containing the “faces” of total strangers. “Helsinki Courtyard” thus provides the perfect objective correlative for what is evidently an acute anxiety state, a severe case, it would seem, of agorophobia. How and why this “patient small agony,” as he calls it in a neighboring poem “Small Time,” has come into being is never discussed. It merely is.

The title poem of “Helsinki Window” has nine sections of twelve lines each. The stanza, almost that of the sonnet, says Creeley, looks like a window and hence seemed appropriate. Each stanza contains one long sentence, draped over its lines—an unusual procedure for Creeley, who is given to abrupt, broken phrases, sharply enjambed and then often cut in midline. But the new form works very well for what is a more phenomenological, genuinely reflective poetic. Here is the first stanza:

Go out into brightened
space out there the fainter
yellowish place it
makes for eye to enter out
to greyed penumbra all the
way to thoughtful searching
sight of all beyond that
solid red both brick and seeming
metal roof or higher black
beyond the genial slope I
look at daily house top on
my own way up to heaven. (194)

“Nothing is permitted to quit end, or stop, until the final word of the poem,” Creely tells Bernstein, “But there’s no surprise, remarkably. The first one, for example, is again literal. One is looking out a window, and thus entering a more opening space” (JIT 30). What is remarkable, however, is the echo-structure of this seemingly low-key process of looking. The first five lines, for example, not only have internal rhyme (“space”/ “place” and “grey[ed]” /”way”), but the voiceless stop “t” appears as a kind of pin prick ten times in twenty-three short words. The poet’s eye penetrates the larger eye which is the window the “greyed penumbra” of that inner courtyard space with its brick walls, metal roof and black sky beyond it. It is hardly the passage to heaven one dreams of but, in certain moods, perhaps it’s all there is. And the final stop after “heaven” suggests that there is, after all, a point of arrival, however tenuous.

In the next stanza, the poet imagines what the world beyond his courtyard prison might look like but expresses little desire to get to that “sodden edge of sea’s/ bay, city’s graveyard, park/ deserted, flattened aspect” (195). For the moment, he knows that he has to stay where he is, and at least he can contemplate, from his modest little room, the strange yellow light peculiar to Finland:

I love I love the safety of
small world this door frame back
of me the panes of simple glass (JIT 196)

Soon, “Windows now lit close out the / upper dark the night’s a face.” And again day succeeds night and at “one forty five afternoon,” the poet observes “a green door-/way with arched upper window / a backyard edge of back wall / to enclosed alley low down small / windows,” and, as he contemplates the parked cars underneath them, thinks to himself that he has “miles and more miles still to go” (197). Indeed, in the next stanza, he reaches a kind of nadir:

This early still sunless morning when a chair’s
creak translates to cat’s cry a blackness still
out the window might be apparent night when the
house still sleeping behind me seems a bag of
immense empty silence (198)

Note that the window is now opaque; one finds the necessary light, not by looking through the window, but by accepting the space inside the dark room. It is here that the poet becomes aware of a “small spare pool of / light watching the letters the words to speak.” And this inward “turn from it” seems to break the spell. The final stanza has eleven lines rather than twelve and the lines are about half the length of those in stanzas 1-8. The window looking out on the world disappears as do doors and mirrors. Rather, we have “Classic emptiness”, the “edge of / hierarchic roof top,” an “acid fine edge / of apparent difference.” Space is no longer divided into inside and outside, dark and light, up and down. Rather, “it is there here here

no

other thing can for a
moment distract it be
beyond its simple space. (JIT 198)

Nothing, it seems, can “be beyond” that simple space, a space, let’s recall, that relates Robert Creeley to the apartment’s distinguished owner. By the end of “Helsinki Window,” the speaker has come out on the far side of his depression. No longer does he stare out the window at those other dreary courtyard windows, those garbage cans and parked cars. No longer does he need to order his wife to “turn from it” so as to avoid the pain. The window—the poet’s eye which, at earlier moments, Creeley “felt breaking” –is now integrated into a space “simple” in its lack of fixed boundaries and divisions. Here, perhaps, is the “window of opportunity” Creeley has been looking for so assiduously. “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself,” as Wallace Stevens put it in the final poem of The Rock.


FOOTNOTES


[1]
Robert Creeley, “Conversation with Charles Bernstein,” Preface to Just in time: Poems 1984-1994 (New York: New Directions, 2001), pp. 28-29. “Helsinki Window” is found on pp. 194-98, as part of the book Windows (1990), here reproduced on pp. 111-204. Subsequently cited
as JIT.


[2]
The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley 1945-1975 (Berkeley and London: Univ. of California Press, 1982), p. 159. Subseqently cited as CP.

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