Maya C. Popa

You Must Change Your Life: Making Room for Wonder

Among the daily wonders we experience as human beings are two wondrous facts: that we were born into the world, and that we will one day die in it. The human drama stretches between these two pillars of unlikelihood – the pleasure, confusion, tedium, grief, and the disquieting recognition, if you are paying the right sort of attention to your life, that feelings often carry an antithetical valance: terror brings unexpected hope, joy bears a keen mortal edge, and we carry on like this, modulating from one note to another.

However, the truth remains that tomorrow, you will have to find the letter from your accountant that you left unopened precisely for fear of misplacement. You will need to return the water filters which, regrettably, are for a model more recent than yours, and you will, at some point, stare numbly out the window as a pair of passersby bow their heads at the Russian Orthodox church. Later, you will watch the dog paw halfheartedly at a leaf stuck to the floor by god knows what. At no time will the question of wonder figure in these experiences.

Often wonder is not a straightforward or comfortable feeling. It provokes a sort of existential hangover as one is wrenched from the moorings of the familiar by the extraordinary. Indeed, wonder’s etymology points to its mixed blessing: from the Old English wundor, thought to be a cognate with the German wunde or wound. The noun form means a surpassing, opening, or blow, a breach of the mind’s faculties. The verb, to demonstrate a state of admiration or astonishment, or to search for knowledge, understanding, or meaning.

In the latter definition, I hear echoes of Anne Carson’s pleasingly muscular characterisation of poetry as ‘an action of the mind captured on a page…a movement of yourself through a thought, through an activity of thinking, so by the time you get to the end you’re different than you were at the beginning and you feel that difference’. The feeling of wonder extends a challenge to the wonderer. There is something unsettling, and therefore implicitly generative, about an experience that refuses to be tamed by the mind’s usual orders, that requires the sort of ingenuity Sir Philip Sidney might call just a bit beyond ‘the zodiac of one’s own wit’. It is for this reason perhaps that the moments that follow wonder resemble those upon waking from a dream, knowing any effort made to convey the curiosity or urgency of one’s private vision will fall dispiritingly flat.

Rendering this complexity alive on the page requires an ear attuned to the balance between certainty and uncertainty that wonder demands. A literary work that has wonder as its occasion or subject must have some degree of mimetic ambition; it must succeed at enactment rather than summation. Put plainly: explaining the conditions for one’s own experience of wonder rarely succeeds at inspiring second-hand wonder in the reader. It’s the craft of literary wonder that interests me, and it’s one, I maintain, for which there exists no tidy rubric, whose principles can only be worked out by looking at examples of literary works that do succeed at suggesting in language something just beyond articulation, whose gestures intimate the pleasing breach of present knowing into timeless unknowing.

Poems are uniquely up to this task for a variety of reasons – chief among them, their chronic awareness of time measured in beats and offbeats of stressed and unstressed syllables. If English were a classical language, these would be called short or long beats, and we see already in this cursory lesson on prosody how time regulates and is regulated by the poem. As such, the field of the poem is primed for capturing what the English twelfth-century philosopher John of Salisbury called ‘marvelous singularity’, or the emotional experience of wonder. But in order to achieve the effect, the poet must balance competing impulses: to guide the reader intelligibly towards the narrative conditions for wonder while making room for its inherent disorientation.

Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ was among the first poems I chose to examine through the lens of wonder, and I arrived there by intuition rather than by any sort of concrete methodology. What drew me to it, of course, is the poem’s enigmatic and oft-cited ending, which no reader could reasonably predict. Stephen Mitchell’s English translation from the German foregoes some of the sonic patterning typical of a Petrarchan sonnet (what Michael Spiller in his book on the development of the sonnet calls ‘the secureness of the knowledge by the soundness of the rhyme’), but one can still make out the sonnet’s compulsion for problem and solution:

‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

A Petrarchan sonnet is made up of two parts: an octet, which presents the issue or theme, and a sestet, which offers some sort of answer. The octet, here divided into two quatrains, vividly describes a marble torso, presumably admired in a gallery. The poem opens by imagining what is missing, the statue’s ‘legendary head / with eyes like ripening fruit’. The speaker is as dazzled by the statue’s fineness as, implicitly, by its unlikely survival over millenia, a quality we might otherwise call resonance, that sense of meaning that endures beyond the present object or moment. The poem’s rhetorical deflections (‘And yet,’ ‘Otherwise’) regulate the speaker’s inner monologue, while the volta (the moment that indicates a turn from problem towards solution; here, at the second instance of ‘Otherwise’) signals the start of a sestet whose objective is, ostensibly, to offer some form of resolution to the challenge extended by the sight-wonder experienced in the opening stanzas.

However, the poem’s closing gesture fails to provide any resolution as such: ‘For here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.’ The jarring nature of the closing line – who could see that coming – enacts the feeling of being struck by wonder, its firm yet ambiguous wording hinting at the limitations of language to adequately communicate the sensation. How, precisely, must we change our lives? For Rilke’s speaker, wonder is a psychically complex form of appreciation that leads to an existential epiphany. It is no longer possible to return to that life which preceded the statue’s dazzling.

I once stood at the edge of a field in Pennsylvania in late June, the entire expanse ablaze with fireflies whose yellow-green lanterns shone the same color as the young wheat. I was in the company of poets; we turned speechlessly to one another, faced with the stuff of poetry in essence, certain we would fail to transform the source material magnificently enough to articulate not what we had seen, but how it had felt to see it – the long amble from the Susquehanna river along a railroad track long out of use, and the sudden vision of a field burst into flickering flame. And indeed, I have never tried to write about the experience in a poem, and have only now done so in lines of prose that seem to circumambulate an issue which, at its heart, is the central issue of all literature – our mortality, our onceness, and the sense that memory’s efforts to elide the fact are lovely but futile.

When we experience wonder, we experience an instinctive recognition that what is being wondered at matters deeply, and yet I have to believe that we would fail to recognise this feeling, or that it would differ vastly from our understanding of the word as it stands, were the eventual end of all feeling not guaranteed. That fact lies at the heart of our sense of unlikeliness and possibility, and conversely, our feelings of grief and impossibility.

We live in an age that is, in many ways, incompatible with wonder. Its relationship to it is not expressly adversarial – even that would suggest a deeper level of engagement. It is rather wonder blind: by turns empirically minded, in a headlock with utility, or simply too superficial to sustain it. That is, collectively, the tenor of Western culture, and it functions as an agreed upon lie. Our basic needs blink back at us from the news and social media, and in case you have not been paying attention, they are not the soul. They are not the palimpsestic sensations evoked by music, touch, or light. They are not the ineffable. And yet these gradations of feeling are still at play in each of us.

Einstein argued that the most beautiful thing humanity can experience is the mysterious, which he deemed ‘…the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead – his eyes are closed’. Wonder, then, is not merely a cognitive or spiritual exercise, not that such designations should demerit its value, but one that reflects a measure of our social consciousness. While the dangers of blindness are more immediately cinematic in scientific disciplines, the hazards are no less real for those of us who work in and depend on words – and that includes all of us. Literature narrativises the effects of weaponised language, but our daily lives harried by sounds that compete to sell us on their ways of seeing are the true labortory for what’s to come. God forbid we start believing that every new and improved formula meets even one of those promises. But God forbid, too, that we come to engage with language skeptically and jadedly, tarnishing what is our fundamental currency to communicate with one another and our lived experience.

This risk, I would argue, is mitigated in poetry. Poems are unsold binaries. They traffic in dry ice, sun showers, the moment when grief lifts, allowing a savage clarity to break through. By their very construction, the existence of enjambment and sonic and semantic simultaneity of all kinds, they believe in meaning and purpose that escapes summation. If they are indeed ‘an action of the mind captured on the page’, then by reading them, we reaffirm our commitment to what is most human about us. That is why I believe they deserve our attention. It is why I am grateful for the study of craft and the psychic practice of close reading. It is why I believe, and hope others might too, that we should contemplate and value wonder’s instabilities in service of ourselves, our writing, and our world.

Maya C. Popa is a Romanian-American poet and the author of Wound is the Origin of Wonder (W. W. Norton, 2022), as well as American Faith (Sarabande Books, 2019). The recipient of prizes from the Poetry Foundation, the Oxford Poetry Society, the Hippocrates Society in London, and the Munster Literary Centre in Cork, Ireland, she is the poetry reviews editor at Publishers Weekly and teaches poetry at New York University.

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