Poet's Choice: 'Reading Novalis in Montana' by Melissa Kwasny

By Melissa Kwasny
Sunday, August 23, 2009

"Reading Novalis in Montana" was triggered by my reading, in translation, the works of German romantic poet Novalis (1772-1801). Along with other German poets and philosophers who were precursors to romanticism as we know it, Novalis believed in the doctrine of correspondences, that the natural world is a mirror or lens or double for the divine presences symbolized by it, that there is a correspondence between inner and outer worlds. Such thinking led to Wordsworth and Coleridge's return to nature as a temple and eventually, in America, to the writings of Emerson, Thoreau and Dickinson. Living in rural Montana and being preoccupied by our place in and outside the natural world -- compromised as it is -- I am drawn to both the romantics and the Native tradition of respect for and communication with non-human forms of life. Seeing the geese fly above me one fall morning on my way to get the mail, I began to wonder: What might it mean in this country, at this time, to read the world? What messages do the geese have for me, and, in turn, what part might my attempt at reading play in their flight?

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Reading Novalis in Montana

The dirt road is frozen. I hear the geese first in my lungs.

Faint hieroglyphic against the gray sky.


Then, the brutal intervention of sound.

All that we experience is a message, he wrote.


I would like to know what it means

if first one bird swims the channel


across the classic V, the line flutters, and the formation dissolves.

In the end, the modernists must have meant,


it is the human world we are weary of,

our arms heavy with love, its ancient failings.


But that was before the world wars, in 1800,

when a young German poet could pick at the truth


and collect the fragments in an encyclopedia of knowledge.

There is a V, then an L, each letter


forming so slowly that the next appears before it is complete.

The true philosophical act is the slaying of one's self,


Novalis wrote and died, like Keats, before he was thirty.

They have left me behind like one of their lost,


scratching at the gravel in the fields. Where are they

once the sky has enveloped them?


I stand in the narrow cut of a frozen road leading into mountains,

the morning newspaper gripped under my arm.


But to give up on things precludes everything.

I am not-I, Novalis wrote. I am you.


If, as the gnostics say, the world was a mistake

created by an evil demiurge, and I am trapped


in my body, abandoned by a god whom I long for as one of my own,

why not follow the tundra geese into their storm?


Why stay while my great sails flap the ice

as if my voice were needed to call them back


in the spring, as if I were the lost dwelling place for the flocks?

(This poem appears in "Reading Novalis in Montana," published earlier this year by Milkweed Editions.)

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