Monday’s Poem: ‘Pressed,’ by Randall Couch

A leaf in a letter.

Beauty depends on circumstance.
For instance,
black as the tents of Kedar

was apt once for a bride.

The leaf, on the other hand, is not black.
Green heart, yellow ring, red star.
Here on the dry plains,
rare as a rasta tam.
Pressed, from damp woods where you are,
like a fresh shirt.

Your envelope marked urgent fragile
wraps spring inflamed
by low sun, long nights.

Beauty is only a promise we return to redeem.

Come look again
though I’m afraid of changing.
Good bones and late fire will tell,
an echo in the mirror.

Copyright © by Randall Couch. Printed by permission of the author.

Randall Couch edited and translated Madwomen: The Locas mujeres Poems of Gabriela Mistral (University of Chicago Press, 2008), which won Britain’s biennial Popescu Prize for Poetry Translation and was runner-up for the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. A frequent panelist on the podcast series PoemTalk, sponsored by the Poetry Foundation, PennSound, and Kelly Writers House, his poems and criticism have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. He is an administrator at the University of Pennsylvania and teaches poetry and poetics at Arcadia University.

Arts & Academe’s poetry editor, Lisa Russ Spaar, notes: I was alarmed a few years ago when a colleague offhandedly mentioned at the mailboxes in the faculty lounge that beauty was beginning to come back into fashion in literary and cultural theory. I was not concerned about beauty’s alleged return to critical favor.  Rather, I was a little unnerved that I hadn’t realized, perhaps because I spend a lot of time reading poetry and taking walks, that beauty’s currency had ever dropped.

What is clear, whether one reads Nietzsche, Plato, Carson, Kant, Scarry, Nehamas, Eco, Keats, or a host of others, is that notions of beauty and the beautiful (in poems and theory as in life—think of the wildly divergent responses people have to phenomena like Björk, velvet paintings, Tarantino, shad roe, and Bauhaus architecture) are as contradictory and various as those who meditate upon them. Kant, for instance, considered beauty to be a subjective experience while Adorno claimed that “all beauty reveals itself to persistent analysis.”  Wallace Stevens called death “the mother of beauty.”  Centuries ago, Sappho (translated here by Stanley Lombardo) wrote

Some say an army on horseback,
some say on foot, and some say ships
are the most beautiful things
on this black earth,

but I say
it is whatever you love.

Randall Couch’s “Pressed”—its title evoking not only something flattened or preserved (like “a leaf in a letter,” as we learn in line one) but also a sense of being assailed, harangued, importuned, urged—moves forthrightly into the theater of the beauty meditations:

A leaf in a letter.

Beauty depends on circumstance.
For instance,
black as the tents of kedar

was apt once for a bride.

Who is speaking in these lines? Although it will be another stanza before a “you,” the sender of the leaf, enters the poem, and not until the last strophe that our narrator appears in the first-person, the allusion to the Song of Solomon (1:5) and to those goat-hair tents once thought to be a fitting trope for the swarthy beauty of the beloved, signals that what is at stake in this poem concerning what is beautiful and “apt for a bride” is complicated by intimacy, distance, and an especially keen awareness of the winged chariot of time.  There is a polyvocality in these first couple of stanzas that is not unlike the dialogic motions of the Song of Songs, and this ventriloquism only serves to heighten the erotics of beauty with which the poem is engaged.

These lovers are geographically separated. Thus, in an envelope “marked urgent fragile,” one has sent the other an autumn leaf: “Green heart, yellow ring, red star,” the recipient says, “Here on the dry plains, / rare as a rasta tam. / Pressed, from damp woods where you are, / like a fresh shirt.” That sonically lovely and whimsical “rare as a rasta tam” has the power of what Roland Barthes calls in his Camera Lucida the punctum—that detail in a photograph that “pierces the viewer” with its riveting personal truth. Not only does the rasta tam simile vividly conjure for the reader the tri-colored leaf (“spring inflamed / by low sun, long nights”) but it also suggests the closeness, sensibility, and wry humor these two people share.

And so when Couch follows his “urgent fragile” stanza (itself an envelope recalling an inflamed spring, “low sun, long nights”) with another statement about beauty—“Beauty is only a promise we return to redeem”—the reader is alerted to a deepened “reading” of this leaf, this vernal epistle, this poem. It is a memento mori, addressed to the sender as much as to the recipient. Beauty is only a vow that we must return to (and return—that is, give back) in order to “redeem”—to be valued, to be received, to be saved. Any beauty to be found in leaves, in love, in faces, the poem posits, depends upon our willingness to reciprocate, to “return” its promise by gazing back despite fear, vanity, and inevitable loss.  And despite, too, the risks involved in sending such a symbolically charged gift at all—is the sender, for example, making “art” of his lover’s life and death?  Of his own?

In On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry says that beauty “seems to incite, even to require, the act of replication.” And so the narrator, in the last stanza, invites the leaf-sender to return, to gaze again, to redeem what beauty might be found in one another despite forces at work in the fallen leaf, the aging or the sick body—forces which for this couple would appear to be especially “urgent” and “inflamed”:

Come look again
though I’m afraid of changing.
Good bones and late fire will tell,
an echo in the mirror.

I love the forthrightness of the speaker’s confession: “I’m afraid of changing.” Beauty may be only a promise. But it is a promise, a vow inseparable from the lovers’ desire (“[g]ood bones and late fire”) echoed in the mirror. As Alexander Nehamas says in Only a Promise of Happiness:  The Place of Beauty in a World of Art, “the value of beauty lies no further than itself; it is its own reward. … And only the promise of happiness is happiness itself.”  That beauty, yearning, and love can, despite the certainty of death, be redeemed, even through ruin, by the avowal of beauty, yearning, and love, is at the green heart of this poem.

(A&A illustration derived from photos by Flickr users BotheredByBees and John Larsson)

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