The divine magnet is in you, and my magnet responds. Which is the biggest? A foolish question - they are One. - Herman Melville in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Pittsfield, November, 1851

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lesley Yalen on Natalie Lyalin's "All Night Vigil"

How many things can one person look out for, lament, honor, and ward off, and how often?

All the time. All at once.

It is hard work, exhausting, to be awake through the night, devoting oneself to everything. But it must be done, (reading “All Night Vigil,” a chant of some length at the center of Natalie Lyalin’s new book of poems, Pink & Hot Pink Habitat).

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that “vigil” comes from the Anglo-French and the Old French and before that from the Latin, vigilia, meaning watch, watchfulness, wakefulness. The modern definitions of the word also describe Lyalin’s poem just fine:

“an occasion of devotional watching”

“prayers said or sung at a nocturnal service, spec. for the dead”

“a wake. obs.”

“a watch kept during the natural time for sleep”

An occasion, a vigil is not something for all the time, nor can one usually keep many vigils at once. Even the monks in their cloisters cannot maintain continuously over time and across experience a heightened state of awareness and devotion.

Lyalin’s poem is sad and anxious and magnanimous and beautiful because: there are just so many vigils:

“All night vigil for not returning / to that continent. All night vigil for / a church that turned into a gymnasium, / complete with swimming pool. / I keep an all night vigil for the Kunstkammer, / which keeps an all night vigil / for the deformed skeletons it houses, / and I keep an all night vigil for them too.”

There is a great beautiful anxious sense of responsibility in this poem, like saying Hail Marys, lighting a yahrzeit candle, like obsessively checking that the coffee pot is unplugged,

“Another vigil for my drunken neighbor, / as she hollered government conspiracy… All night vigil for Mrs. Emily Bossin / and spelling tests, green sweaters and parts / of New Jersey, Boston, and Atlanta.”

as vigils must be kept for everything helpless and helpful one can remember.

The poem acknowledges the impossibility of the job, but insists that one must try,

“I ask forgiveness for not keeping an all night vigil / when the bombs keep a greenish vigil of their own”

try to be the sentry who doesn’t nod off.

Listen to the bells, the first notes of Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, from 1915:

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