I have a box full of old correspondence between my two grandparents — a hundred letters, refolded and tucked back into their envelopes, dating back a century to the start of their story together. And on one crisp, creased sheet of newsprint is a pencil draft of a poem.

… a hundred years on, that’s what is left: this bit of tragic bravery: this mighty effort, unsuccessful, to articulate what seemed at the time ineffable

I’m not sure who wrote it — he or she. The handwriting is — well, today you can hardly read it. The first line begins with an open tangle that could be a Y or it could be an I, or even a T. Next to this appears a tiny loop — an e perhaps? or an o or even an a. But by the third letter in the first word, everything open about the script is drawn up tight so that no visible loops remain. I had to peer very closely at the handwriting to deduce the writer’s intent from subtle shifts in weight and opacity that reveal the line the writer actually drew. And in the end, I could not read the words.

But I could read the writing. An inch or less farther along, even this variation has subsided, and the penciled line just trails away to the right, wavering only slightly. The next line shows the same pattern, but slightly more subdued. The third and fourth are but waving lines. There is a break, and then a new stanza repeats the rhythm. To “read” this verse is to stand on an evening shore and mark the ebbing tide: The first wave is the biggest, then three or four follow with diminishing vigor — mere lappings, really. Then there is a pause and the rhythm begins again.

Lying there, mute because illegible, this found poem could say anything at all but the modern reader just can’t tell. As logos, it reveals nothing. But its undecipherable penmanship displays the habits of an apprehensive thinker. Plausibly, it signals someone trying out an idea whose magnitude (he fears) might turn out to be more than he can handle.

And a hundred years on, that’s what is left: this bit of tragic bravery: this mighty effort, unsuccessful, to articulate what seemed at the time ineffable.

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