Poem of the week: Composition by Howard Altmann | poetry

Composition

If I could tell
the story of my life
it would be the branch
drawing its tree
on the hard wet sand.
It would be the man stopping
to erase the tide
from his mind.
It would be the waves
sealing his shadow
with all the changes
only the clouds could bring.

And if someone else could tell
the story of my life
it would be the poem
I never wrote
from a book of poems
I never opened
whose page was missing
once all the leaves had gathered
on the porch to listen.
It would be the man stopping
to adjust his posture
on the abandoned road.

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This week we revisit the work of Howard Altmann. Altmann is a Canadian-born poet and playwright now living in the US: his Hungarian father was a Holocaust survivor. New readers might be interested in the poem and biographical material featured here.

The term “composition” has a variety of associations, musical composition probably being the most immediate, but it’s in the visual arts that the term particularly focuses on aesthetic relationship – that of shapes, lines, colors.

So in Altmann’s first stanza, the narrator’s personal story takes its conjectural shape through images. These images aren’t static, but kept moving by present participles: the branch is in the process of “drawing its tree”, the man, “stopping / to erase the tide / from his mind” and the waves are “sealing his shadow” (my italics). All is in flux, and the scene reveals gradual discomposure.

As the movie-like scene unfolds, it shows us the man walking along a seashore, then pausing. He needs to “erase the tide / from his mind de el” since the tide itself connotes erasure, and might bring about the destruction of the tree’s “drawing”. The waves seem to offer some refuge, but they can “seal” only the man’s shadow, and do this only by the tenuous means of the “changes” brought about by the clouds. Erasure seems inescapable.

A common metaphor in English – the family tree, the branch of the family – is subtly re-composed in this stanza, so the branch becomes the artist, composing its severed tree in the unstable medium of “hard wet sand”. The mutations of light, shadow and atmosphere which “only the clouds could bring” perhaps implicitly contrast with severer, more tidal dislocation. They bring, at least, new aesthetic possibilities.

In the first stanza, we understand that the narrator’s story may be impossible for him to tell. In the second, the story becomes even more elusive. A new direction at the start hands over the putative first-person narrative to “someone else”. The medium would be the narrator’s own – a poem. Still the existential loneliness returns to enfold the narrative. The story-poem is an increasingly forlorn hope. Negatives accrue, the page in the unopened book, even if it had contained the poem, is now missing. The assembly of “leaves” brings us back to the image of the tree and branch of the first stanza, while representing the scattered pages of the book. Although these witnesses might have assembled “on the porch to listen” – almost like children, perhaps – the story would always be “missing” or in some unavailable form.

And so the protagonist halts, as he halted in the first stanza, his outward identity even less secure: “the man stopping / to adjust his posture / on the abandoned road”. The change of posture and the change of landscape leave an un-tellable story un-concluded. This stanza seems also to say that even a composition as close to the self as a poem is to its author can still fail to seal the broken historical and autobiographical narrative. At the same time, by a happier paradox, we have a poem that, while telling stories of erasure, achieves, as a composition, a final wholeness.

Composition is among the 40 poems by the author translated into Hebrew by the award-winning Israeli poet and translator Tal Nitzán. Published by the Hebrew and world poetry press, Keshev, the collection appeared last summer: its title in English is Forgive Time. The original poem was included in Altmann’s collection, In This House (Turtle Point Press, US). You can discover more about Tal Nitzán and her writing de ella at Restless Books, at the Poetry International archive, and at Lyrikline.

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