by Eric Miller
There is no hope for me but poetry. —Rafaël Newman
1. Toronto in the Seventies was still a filthy city. I was a teen then and because I dropped out of school I got to know the city very well at all hours and in all weathers. I would walk the day into the ground looking at buildings, birds and people. Sometimes I would stop to sketch one of these sights. Charcoal and India ink suited Toronto. Any picture blurred or ran right into its subject matter: grimy, monochromatic. What was my mistake and what was a demonstrable aspect of the scene was materially indistinguishable. When I stood still flakes of ash could be perceived falling at leisure from the sky. Seeping lake freighters corroded lengthwise alongside cracked concrete quays. Guano was caked deep under the Gardiner Expressway as on any Funk Island. I routinely got so tired I couldn’t worry about the future. Every pedestrian knows that the future can be outwalked quite easily on a daily basis. Anxiety does not have much stamina really. I was charitable enough to decant it regular cups of black coffee, but this beverage availed my happiness as much as my misgiving. I worked in the evenings. I was solitary to a degree retrospection finds shocking.
Despite the dirt, it remained a city filled with birds. Chimney swifts twitched, tacked to and fro, chattered, crowded their crescent flocks into the stems of old smoke stacks. Nighthawks stooped on café terraces with grimy, precipitous, monochromatic glamour: Torontonians by plumage, by nature. Their voices were mistakable for traffic sounds. Yet in ancient oaks and beeches, peewees and orioles, and even vireos, sang. Downtown ravines then hosted nesting wood thrushes, as they no longer do. Sometimes my family went netting smelt halfway between the harbour and the beaches. Night herons and bank swallows pursued their respective repertoires (static, antic) where nightfall anglers kindled red and saffron fires in black oil barrels. Gulls bawled like chickens educated in tragic theatre.
Just as I was dropping out of Jarvis Collegiate, I met a nervous person resettled from Vancouver, Rafaël Newman.
He was a molten young man who grew, indubitably, before your eyes. The strangeness of human croissance—how we flesh out, accruing size and soul from voidness, from inanimation—struck me when I stood in his presence. Heraclitean fire folded his awkwardness together with an uncanny wit. In those days Rafaël was the quintessence of metabolism, which for the Greeks meant “change”: specifically alteration into another key or set of tones. He had only to breathe in air, and the dull vacancy yielded more of him, more of his character. His intelligence was arresting and disarming. How was it disarming? In conversation, he so swiftly supplied rejoinders marked by tact and challenge and surprise that his company required reflection once I had parted ways with him again. Here was not a case of l’esprit d’escalier. Although hapless competitiveness could seize me, as it might any friend, a source of delight was without haste to contemplate—to reverse-engineer—the saliency of Rafaël’s ripostes and reflections.
He lived across the Don River from my neighbourhood. We often enough met in the Don Valley. Embowered by crack willows, a green footbridge crossed the stinking stream and the sizzling expressway, below a steep disused hillside zoo. Yellow warblers and brown thrashers perpetuated themselves in sumacs, though their numbers dwindled. We talked about literature for the most part. It seemed in those days a plausible topic. And it is a poem by Rafaël that I want to consider. We know all the great writers—of course we do—but we hardly know a fraction of those who have written great things. The latter category is the more significant one. Rafaël Newman belongs in it.
In a Taxi, Shared Abroad
A common language is a common duty,
The charge that comprehension lays upon
Its sharers, who must pay their dues to beauty
Or be stricken from the symposion.
And if not beauty, then the price of things,
The ugly neighbour and his vicious brood:
How soon we trade for ice our native springs
And how our children grow up wild and rude!
I am a stranger to this colloquy,
A foreign conscript, and ignore its call
To ridicule, embellish or rejoice.
No grave dispute disturbs my infancy,
And on my ear the dire opinions fall
Like music of the earth in sudden voice.
3. A taxi is not free. In fact, the word derives from mediaeval Latin for tax: taxa. It was in the 1870s that a German patented the “taximeter,” an apparatus fitted into a cab displaying both the distance travelled by the vehicle and the fare properly owed the driver. Rafaël’s sonnet makes a theme of dues—of prices. The sonnet’s title declares a foreign locale, though “abroad” is an elastic adverb. I recall one conversation with Rafaël during which I declared some sentimental allegiance, chiefly ecological, to what used to be called Upper Canada. He dissented from such loyalism, avowing he was not—and never would be—an “Ontario boy.” But I will assert, for the purposes of my present explication, that Rafaël’s sonnet manifests, notwithstanding, a Torontonian feel. A person may be raised there, and yet experience the sensations of a stranger. The city is a Babel: the concourse of every extant tongue on earth. No matter the degree of your versatility and eloquence, you cannot go on a long walk without overhearing passages of conversation that are incomprehensible. An honest person is not compelled to the grand Socratic admission of nescience, or not knowing: but, more humbly, to being conscious of not understanding. I will adopt Rafaël’s sonnet to my concept of Toronto even if, as may be the case, it is set in Macedonia, for all I know.
The poem opens: “A common language is a common duty.” “Duty” implies a fee, a payment—a responsibility. Even to comprehend is already to be obliged. Repeating the epithet “common” makes the pervasive that much more prevalent; since sharing is a concern of Rafaël’s poem, we are licensed to compare the line to the pentameter plaint of Alexander Pope’s Eloisa: “The crime was common, common be the pain.” Rafaël takes on a literary debt or bond. A genre embodies a common language. The duty of the sonneteer is to respect the form, but not too much. The passenger of a taxi likewise submits in form. The structure of any taxi ride partakes of both extemporaneousness and abstract expectation. The taximeter calibrates it against mathematical values, even as a sonnet involves what old custom called “numbers” and the ordinances of rhyme.
The first stanza announces the topic of beauty, and alludes to Plato’s “Symposium.” In this account of a drinking party, Socrates reports the advice of a priestess of Apollo, Diotima. According to Socrates, Diotima advocates that the votary of love should climb, rung by rung, from a fascination with the beauty of particular persons toward beautiful learning, and from beautiful learning toward the Beautiful in itself, all alone. Plato writes Greek: Greek to us now ancient. The brio of Plato’s dialogue owes much to the special connotations abroad in that language. If we cannot speak a common language—Rafaël warns us (a little scarily)—we will “be stricken from the symposion.” His unusual adherence to a transliteration of the Greek shows the distance between Latinity and Hellenism—symposium, symposion—implying the further gulf between that Latinity and vernacular languages such as English. We all amount to barbaroi whenever we cannot communicate with those around us. Here Rafaël’s choice of sonnet style—the Petrarchan—takes on significance. Francesco Petrarca lived in Italy just at the time when Greek learning, brought from Byzantium, began to take root anew on the Italian peninsula. Petrarca focused his own foundational sonnet sequence on the figure of Laura, and exemplified the metabolism whereby, over a matter of decades, lust can be transubstantiated more nearly into what Marsilio Ficino later called “Platonic love”—as well as into verse.
But Rafaël changes registers with his next quatrain. We no longer consort with the form of the Beautiful, although we still tarry, very happily, with the form of the Petrarchan sonnet (we complete its octet). The themes of “Symposium” are often lofty. Socrates explains how eros can conduce to a new birth of the soul. Now, however, Rafaël acknowledges the consequences of a less idealistic program of conception: “our ugly neighbour and his vicious brood.” His taxi passenger proceeds to conjecture commonplaces where he cannot ascertain them: “How soon we change for ice our native springs.” The course of the sonnet itself, its argument, mimics that fall. (Just as the foul Don River, sullied Ilissus by which we used to walk, once was a great salmon stream.) Children, vicious—not virtuous—, burlesque Plato’s elevated discourse about the noble procreancy of the spirit.
But any conversation is dialogue, and Rafaël, in my remembrance, loved the mode whether high or low. Here, as we move into the sestet of the sonnet, the poet acknowledges his status in that taxi: a stranger. He has not the fluency for satire, hyperbole, panegyric. He derives, by way of recompense, a revelation of a Platonic form: human talk. That form is analogous to the structure of the sonnet, although the latter genre favours an isolated speaker. The poet tells us he experiences “infancy.” Etymologically this noun denotes the condition of a child before it can meaningfully speak. Thus “In a Taxi, Shared Abroad” packs into the compass of its own verbal conveyance Diotima’s refined ideas of mental impregnation by eros; the contrasting bathos of brattish misbehaviour; and the ironic profession of a newborn’s speechlessness by the sonnet’s articulate speaker. In his taxi, in his sonnet, Rafaël leaves us wondering what we do, in fact, share—what we can share. His last line is equivocal. The interlocutors sound to him “Like music of the earth in sudden voice.” To be “like” a thing is not to be that thing. “Music” is the province of a muse or of muses. A taxi traverses the earth, usually over no great distance: we hop in and hop out, analogously as we embark on a sonnet’s visible brevity and finish it—or seem to finish it—in no great time. Rafaël offers a vision of poetry as such, which is not without a relation to Diotima’s discourse. Literature states or restates our verbal life in another key or set of tones: an instance of metabolism. Ignorance itself is made to conduce to a Diotima-like abstraction from the “dire” particulars of existence, the eros now invested and issuing in words. But there is a hint that the earth—earthiness—is inescapable, in spite of Plato’s hopes. Rafaël Newman’s gracious finesse makes that inescapability our refuge, our transport. And the more we attend to his singular work the more it grows, indubitably, right before our lucky eyes.
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The sonnet is quoted from Rafaël Newman, Live Long Enough (Paekakariki, 2017), but I saw it in manuscript a long time ago.