Poetry of Disappointment

Laura Quinney (writing as Josephine Singer), Corridor, Borderland Books (2008)
Laura Quinney, New Ghosts, Borderland Books (2016)

These poems are philosophical reflections written in a language of lyric abstraction.

Their prevailing sentiment is that of disappointment, the kind that arises in adulthood with the fading of youth. The poet tells us that her hopes have come to nothing. Everything she has pursued has turned out a will-of-the-wisp. The poems place us at the end of a struggle—undefined but extending apparently into middle age—that has led nowhere. The poet’s “spurious/ internal adventure” has trailed off in an “empty room,/ not a soul in sight.” She wanted “true speech,” but this proves to have been “another Spanish castle.” She aimed to give herself a shape, but shape is like a sail filled with wind—it can collapse all at once. She has come to realize that the “parade” she expected to see isn’t going to happen and that there is no point in waiting for it any longer.

Disappointment hasn’t put an end to her interest in wills-of-the wisp, though. She sees through them, but she goes on wanting them. Despite “the dawning sense [that]…what you most passionately wanted all along will never come to pass…/ you cannot stop waiting/ you cannot suspend your wish.” In at least one place the poet laments the weariness of this sort of persistence—she compares it to “rowing after night falls,”—but generally she takes the more ambivalent view that even illusion is better than nothing. “Homework” may be only a “circle of ash,” but it is “warm within” and stands “in place of utter nakedness.” In “Little One” an infant child offers the speaker the illusion of an “eternal/ unmoored island/ glass-roofed/ admitting sun,” and even though she sees through the illusion—it “wobbles”—the poem sounds tender. In “Ceremony” she says that believing in tasks that we know will make no difference is like pouring a “sand mandala” into a river. We know that the wind by itself will blow it there, but as long as our efforts will come to nothing, we want them to do so as we choose. It is a bleak thought, but the poem’s evocation of the classical-sounding mandala and river affirms the beauty of the futile gesture it describes.

A couple of the poems sound more affirmative. “Skewed Economy” says that when the outside world “grows withered,” we still find freedom in the imaginative space of our “inner room.” And at the end of the first volume under review, as a sort of closing peroration, “The Count” claims that, after we have become generally disillusioned, the few “things that are still good” condense and become harder and brighter, “ascending at last/ into an actual/ radiance/ they never had/ in the midst of cloud.”

*

The poems are in a way reminiscent of “deep image” poetry. The images are universal; the names of objects are the ones you learn first when you study a foreign language: words like water, mountain, day, night, rose.

The style creates an effect of dealing with elementary things. When the poet writes that the world displays its variety seamlessly, she compares it to the image of “dimpled water.” She pictures happiness as a parade. Weary slogging is like rowing. There are the “things of this world,” and they make up a “surface.” Then there is “the ballast/ of a large life,” and when it’s gone, the joy of surface things “tilts upward.” One of the poems is called “Harvest.” Another is called “A Hard Winter, and a Cold Spring.” It’s all so basic. The poems call to mind the limpid simplicity of hymns and folk songs.

Sometimes the elementary aspect of the imagery conveys a childlike, exploratory feeling, an atmosphere of ingenuousness. The poems formulate general apprehensions of how mind, feeling, and the world work, but there is a freshness, like that of a child considering these things for the first time. In “The Enormous Pivot” the poet is struck by the phenomenon of perspective—how fluid time appears in the present, where everything is open to change, and how different it appears when it has become past and has hardened into certainty. Or again in “See for Yourself”: running appears easy when seen from afar, but to the runner on the field it turns out to be sluggish, sticky, and hard. Children tend to have little sense of perspective—they know only their own—and so the discovery of alternate perspectives comes to them as a jolt. In these poems there is the feeling of that kind of jolt, sometimes as a new, immediate experience, sometimes as a memory that has never lost its power to surprise.

The style’s abstractness keeps disillusionment at the sort of distance one might associate with a writer like Wordsworth (or, keeping in mind the poet’s pen name, like Kafka). The poems never feel confessional, at least not on the surface, but their insistence on the one theme of disappointment and their ingenuity in delineating it create an impression of personal urgency. One guesses that the poems are enacting the psychic dynamics they describe. That is, they use the pleasure of poetic form to stave off, attenuate, and distract attention from an immovable disappointment weighing on the poet personally. Wordsworth’s poetry was said to be like a river flowing under a sheet of ice. That is often what these poems feel like.

In part the style is attractive because its ingenuousness—the effect of childlike freshness—makes a counterpoint with the poems’ message of weariness. Individual lines, which rarely run to more than three or four words and are often double-spaced, isolate the words like building blocks in a playroom or the magnetized words on a refrigerator. They could be the words in a primer: they teach sober lessons, but by their form they take us back to the childhood whose illusions they claim to dispel. Again, one might think of Wordsworth: in “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” he explodes his former belief in the immortality of the girl he loved, but he casts the poem in the form of a nursery rhyme.

What the poems here never do is describe the originating experiences that have caused disappointment. No mention is made of quotidian occasions—particular aggravations and failures in domestic life or in the world at large. Instead, the poems insist on terse, comprehensive generalizations. “Since every other/ avenue/ is cut off// all roads lead inward.” “Allurements/ wither.” “The tinsel is tinsel/ after all.” According to a passage from the New York Times that serves as an epigraph to one of the poems, scientists have determined that “cosmic structures have a maximum size, called the ‘end of greatness’.” The poet then uses this determination to summarize her own experience of how happiness comes to an end: “Flung out to the farthest point/ of the arc, now we’re rounding back,/ doubling the headland, and we’ve seen it all/…the complete continent/ of happiness, as far as it goes.” The lines are sublime and heartbreakingly expressive, but it is characteristic of the poems generally that these lines’ astral impersonality carries us decisively away from whatever it was—a decline in conversational verve, a felt loss of novelty—that taught the poet about happiness’s finitude.

Instead of particular disappointments, the poems present us with the feeling of disappointment as such, as a general disintegration of the feeling of engagement. It’s felt personally, but the structure (or breakdown) is impersonal. In a volume of literary criticism called The Poetics of Disappointment the poet (writing under her own name) delineates a tradition of authors (including Wordsworth, Shelley, Stevens, and Ashbury, among others) who have lost the feeling that the self is a basic value; her own poems clearly belong to this tradition. Writers in this tradition find the self “disappointing,” not because they perceive themselves lacking in this or that talent, or because they are guilty of this or that moral fault, but because the self isn’t the metaphysical foundation that their habits of making sense of the world once led them to think it ought to be. It doesn’t exist out of time; it isn’t suitable for idealization; it isn’t separable from contingency. It’s disappointing from a philosophical point of view. She writes that, for writers in this tradition, disappointment is a “figurative rendition of a psychological state” and it “reminds us of depression,” but it “also takes its place within a literary paradigm.” In their handling, disappointment is “clarified and stylized.”

It captures a sadness that has something in common with depression but is not pathological, for the erosion of self-regard that disappointment entails is largely conceptual. We might call it a philosophical problem. Even though the disappointed self feels itself to have shrunk down to mere particularity, it is not simply the failing of its own life that it mourns. Disappointment attacks the aggrandized ontological status of the self in general.

Because the theme is so foundational, a problem of elaborating upon it arises. After she and other writers on this theme have said that the self is particular, caught in time and place, marked by perspective, not metaphysically transcendent, there would seem to be nothing more to say. The basic idea is simple, and it makes elaboration seem a distraction. On the other hand, the condition of disappointment itself drags on: the slogging that the poems here conjure up has to be endured moment by moment even if the underlying predicament can be summarized in a single main statement. Writers in this tradition feel impelled to talk about it like the Ancient Mariner, but short of mindlessly repeating what they have said the first time, what can they say? They can turn to figurations. In a sense these don’t do any good: they don’t help bring the problem under greater intellectual control or suggest ways of escaping it. They don’t engage the writer’s attention in new ways, for the general effect of disappointment, which sees new objects of attention as just so much contingent stuff, is to drain them of their interest. But figurations at least measure the persistence of the writer’s struggle, the way the struggle keeps reasserting itself. The poet evokes this dogged progression in “Defeat by Life,” where she warns that the theme of disappointment is played out and then declares that she still feels impelled to address it:

Be careful:
metaphors already abound
the bowed head
the sunken hope
nonetheless
I want to
say it again
in my own way
or any other.
It does not lose
its fascination,
so strong it is,
such a prince.

*

Her second book of poems is a lot like her first. Disappointment again prevails as a theme. The dominant verse form is once again that of the notebook jotting. Each poem is spare, short, barely punctuated, brought to life by a spray of lyric turns of thought. As in the earlier book, the accumulation of reflections on the subject of disappointment tells us poignantly about the speaker’s personal distress, but moment by moment her style of speech stays discreetly generalized, abstract, and impersonal. She manages to sound philosophical and heartbroken at the same time.

The poems have a new temporal slant, though: disappointment now comes with a pained sense of lost time, lost opportunities, and a clock running out. It’s one thing to see hopes come to nothing, it’s another to feel that those hopes are the only ones you are going to have.

Some of the poems look backward, haunted by the thought of choices in the past whose consequences have acquired an irreversible inertia. A “notch/ over time becomes/ the bend in the river,” and in a similar way “yielding to something/ little by little, you become another/ and one day uneasily/ happen upon yourself.” The poet says that she has “done what I did not know/ I was bound to do,” and finds in the form of her life a “multitude/ with all its small blind/ forkings…/…and from each rises the ghost of a lost calling.” She has been caught in cycles, “loop after loop,” but the cycles are “somehow/ invisibly/ moving forward/…/ so you wake up/ way on down/ way past….” Now in the present she feels herself a looker-on at life. She has drifted by imperceptible degrees to where she is “watching/ while others live.” And looking forward, she anticipates death as a sort of sudden disruption and extinction of her relentless hoping. “It occurred to me/ finally that the day/ might not come// that the lifetime of training and preparation/ may be the whole….” She prepares and prepares her defenses against death (and disaster in general), but “at some place/ on the road/ you must go on alone.” She expects the ending to be a sort of solitude in a “snow-bound forest.”

The sense of time passing gives rise to forms of poignancy absent from the earlier book. The poet is readier than before to regret the loss of what she had (or seemed to have had) in the past. She sets her past in a romantic, glamorous light: “In Bande à Part Anna Karina/ and friends/ run down the long hall/ holding hands// and so have we/ in the sped-up/ version of our lives/ which is time.” She and her friends may be heading toward disillusion, racing in a cloud of self-deception, but the longing for their old glamor, radiating an aura as seductive as that of a new wave film, is immediate and real. You can hear a similar longing in her thought about imaginary friends: they are “based on real people/…and an old Feng Shui/ of good angles/ rising up out of the past./ in a sluice of sunlight”

and they move around at ease
linger across the table
lounge in the armchairs
drift above the bed
wherever you are
when you speak to them
and they answer
we are first friends
as in the first times.

To a disappointed temperament, first friends in the first times should have no special privilege, but here they awaken an irresistible yearning.

It’s the same with old ideas and old assertions of principle. The poet has outlived them—let herself be carried away from them—but when she remembers them, a surge of longing overcomes her. The spell cast by her old belief was a delusion—“an enchantment/ and a trance no less/ than this one [what she calls her present wisdom or laziness]”—but now when she remembers letting the old belief go, she feels, despite herself, as if she had betrayed an essential principle: “why/ does it seem to have been/ a sort of truth it were/ shame to have abandoned[?]” She wrote in the first book that she pursued delusive goals even after seeing through their delusiveness, but the feeling in the second book is more poignant (and perhaps more peculiar). For now it is retrospective and wistful. She isn’t slogging grimly as before. Instead, she yearns for the time before her delusional pursuit had been exposed as such and lost its magic. In other words, she has arrived at a stage where, more than delusion and truth, more than principle and betrayal, what she cares about is sheer alive-ness, the feeling of dramatic engagement in the world. She wishes she still felt alive, even if the feeling as she remembers it—or imagines it—was a self-deception. (Anna Karina looks alive, for example, in the scene where she runs through the Louvre.) The poet is haunted by the idea of a life she might have led if she had held onto the old dreams that she debunked and rejected. Now it doesn’t matter so much that she debunked and rejected them. She laments that she has taken “the ready and the easy way,” and she responds affirmatively to the pull of what she calls, in her most moving poem, “the unlived life”: “The life/ I failed to live/ is still with me// following at a distance.” She says that she doesn’t know what to do with the “light” that it gives off. She wonders whether she should put it out or whether it serves a purpose. Probably she would lose nothing if she never saw it again,

yet I cannot betray it twice

I am still
alive in it
though it was
never born

it is the truth
unsquandered….

*

The sense of time’s passing is not exclusively personal in these poems: it often takes on a historical aspect. When the poet speaks of her attempts to stave off death, for instance, she compares herself to an ancient kingdom making arrangements, “forging alliances/ building up/ a series of/ fortifications/ a town a city/ a whole/ civilization.” Another poem about this process of inward building up uses its title—“To the Romans”—to give her theme a historical resonance. And again in “Secret History” she lets the theme of her personal history run together with the history of what sound like ancient Mediterranean cities: “Where did this loss begin?/ In the dream the sun/ bleaches the mortar/ of amalgamated cities,/ and there I made a choice,/ haphazardly,/ because it did not seem/ it could be the last.”

One effect of the recurrent allusions to antiquity is a toughening of the book’s overall tone. The poems are filled with sadness, nostalgia, and regret, but these sentiments, which might have slid into lugubriousness, have instead a hard, dry, astringent feeling, and it’s due in some measure to the depersonalizing presence of references to antiquity. It’s one thing to long for your youth, it’s another to long for a youth that reminds you of the Roman republic or a Greek city-state. When nostalgia is maudlin, the problem lies often with its shrinking from any form of public engagement, its desire for scenes in which the merely personal might be enough. In the poems here the tendency toward depersonalization creates, by contrast, an effect of grandeur and ambition. This isn’t to say that the poet pictures herself as grand; she doesn’t. But she pictures herself as awed by the immensity of the multitude of forces at work in her life.

The alignment of her personal disappointment with the ancient world seems to offer consolation in the acquisition of what she calls “atmosphere.” The history she reads is notable for its epic sweep, its expansive survey of the rise and fall of civilizations. It depicts the “assuagements/ of civilization/ arduously built up/ in many layers/ over time one step/ slowly hauling itself/ up over another” and then “of a sudden smashed/ and scattered as if gaily.” She says that she doesn’t remember details of her reading very well: “very little/ remains to me/ …almost no detail/ …but a sense/ at least of where/ the detail ought to be.” But she retains “atmosphere.” What had been insipid has acquired a taste: white has turned to gray, “air to atmosphere/ an emptiness to a/ tainted vagueness/ a stain in the water.” And in particular the feeling of her own experience has changed. The large blocks of half-forgotten reading, serving as the “holding-place/ of an experience,” incorporate not only what she has read, but also what she has herself “seen and heard/ and said and felt/ and what has [been]/ changing within [her].” In her reading, ancient civilizations and her own life—including her experience of reading—have run alongside each other, and eventually it is as if her life had become part of her reading. In memory, at any rate, it has become an atmosphere, just as the ancient past has done.

One version of this effect can be seen in her experience of lost self-esteem. This source of abiding distress acquires a certain nobility when seen in the form of images culled from the ancient world. The self she has come to mistrust no longer exercises its former authority, but her Hellenic imagery still accords it an unmistakable dignity: “The one you think you are/ stands still one foot forward/ smiling the soft archaic smile/ or it goes on and on as if/ travelling a desert track/ through the quiet world.” This idea of the self has evidently proved to be delusory, but as delusions go, it is discreet and refined, and it’s the imagery of the archaic—the delicate poise reminiscent of a figure on a Grecian vase—that makes it feel so.

But more importantly, the delusion’s demystification itself has a dignified air. We’re told that the self, to realize how badly it has declined, “has to be confounded” by seeing those who “are as it used to be” and who have “real smiles brighter than the light.” Having been confounded, the self knows how far it is “from what it thought itself to be/ deep in a land it does not/ recognize stunned at its new/ form flapping the strange cloak.” But while it loses its conception of its dignity, the manner and imagery in which its decline is evoked remain as archaic as before: the self moves in “a land” and wears “a cloak.” Since the self’s dignity shows itself in part in the poem’s archaic imagery, one might have expected its loss to be reflected in a change of style. It’s easy to imagine a version of the story in which the self would find itself, for example, in clothes aggressively deprived of the old “atmosphere.” (Instead of flapping a cloak, maybe it might discover that it’s wearing, say, sweatpants and a t-shirt). The persistence of the archaic style suggests that, whatever else the self has had to give up as a delusion, the experience of loss itself retains somehow a kind of venerability.

The implication, I think, is that ancient history’s atmosphere now surrounds the poet as an air—or it floats before her like a “stain in the water”—and she sees everything through its medium. Her reading has evidently dramatized for her the general prevalence of the theme of the self’s disappointment. The theme represents to her a general truth. When she writes, for instance, that the “one you think you are/ stands still/ one foot forward/ smiling the soft archaic smile,” she may be taken to be using the impersonal “you,” and she’s still using it when she depicts the “you” stunned and flapping the strange cloak. That means all of us, evidently, and it holds true through the ages. In this sense the experience of losing self-esteem is archetypal: that is, it has that kind of grandeur about it, even while it involves the feeling of lost personal venerability.

This then is a consolation that “atmosphere” is able to offer—this reminder that one’s disappointment is an example of a general (maybe universal) pattern, and that it signifies something grand even if the instance itself is small and sad. A lot of the poems balance provocatively on this line, wavering between philosophy and lyricism, the masterfulness of grand perspective and the misery of imprisonment in personal limitation. The balancing never neutralizes either of its component parts. The poems stay sad despite their stateliness, but stateliness keeps them from morbidity and self-pity. Perhaps the closest the poet comes to morbidity is in “My Narrative Poem,” where she explains that, according to the ancient Egyptians, only fire can destroy a soul entirely:

only fire
could do it

because everything
is plainly reconfigured
and recast and even
the dead are living
in their way

only fire
with its red-yellow-black
bodiless tossing
arching and springing
unpredictably
light-too-sure
heat-too-hot
cauterizing
in the crackle and silence
can do it.

So many of these poems tell about the soul’s slog bereft of purpose and pride, it’s hard not to hear personal fervor in this description of the self’s final destruction. It’s as if the poet were describing the trampling of a bitter enemy: she savors every detail. But as a counterpoise to the suggestion of self-hatred here the poem offers the charm of its history lesson about the Egyptians (showing us Isis and Osiris in the Hall of Truth, and informing us that the goddess who burnt guilty souls in the underworld was named “She-Who-Destroys-Evil-Hearts”). The history doesn’t at all redeem the self’s disgrace, but it places it in an antique, exotic setting that affords a sense of immensity—an immensity, admittedly, of sorrow.


Tom Reinert teaches in the English Department at UNC Chapel Hill. He is the author of Regulating Confusion: Samuel Johnson and the Crowd.