The Second Life by Edwin Morgan

I love Edwin Morgan’s poetry so much. My tenth grade English teacher introduced me to his work and I’ve been hunting it down where I could find it ever since. “The Second Life” is a beautiful meditation on aging and more generally the passage of time, and since I turn 40 tomorrow, this seems an appropriate time to share it.

I was 16 or 17 when I first tracked this one down and though I was far from 40 and had no idea how being this much older would feel, I sensed there was something profound and wonderful and transgressive in Morgan’s approach to aging. You can see for yourself below, and you can find this and many more of Morgan’s poems in his Collected Works, which I can’t recommend enough. (And I realize this is a longer poem, but stick with it til the end– it’s gorgeous.)

THE SECOND LIFE

But does every man feel like this at forty —
I mean it’s like Thomas Wolfe’s New York, his
heady light, the stunning plunging canyons, beauty —
pale stars winking hazy downtown quitting-time,
and the winter moon flooding the skyscrapers, northern —
an aspiring place, glory of the bridges, foghorns
are enormous messages, a looming mastery
that lays its hand on the young man’s bowels
until he feels in that air, that rising spirit
all things are possible, he rises with it
until he feels that he can never die —
Can it be like this, and is this what it means
in Glasgow now, writing as the aircraft roar
over building sites, in this warm west light
by the daffodil banks that were never so crowded and lavish —
green May, and the slow great blocks rising
under yellow tower cranes, concrete and glass and steel
out of a dour rubble it was and barefoot children gone —
Is it only the slow stirring, a city’s renewed life
that stirs me, could it stir me so deeply
as May, but could May have stirred
what I feel of desire and strength
like an arm saluting a sun?

All January, all February the skaters
enjoyed Bingham’s pond, the crisp cold evenings,
they swung and flashed among car headlights,
the drivers parked round the unlit pond
to watch them, and give them light, what laughter
and pleasure rose in the rare lulls
of the yards-away stream of wheels along Great Western Road!
The ice broke up, but the boats came out.
The painted boats are ready for pleasure.
The long light needs no headlamps.

Black oar cuts a glitter: it is heaven on earth.

Is it true that we come alive
not once, but many times?
We are drawn back to the image
of the seed in darkness, or the greying skin
of the snake that hides a shining one —
it will push that used-up matter off
and even the film of the eye is sloughed —
That the world may be the same and we are not
and so the world is not the same,
the second eye is making again
this place, these waters and these towers
they are rising again
as the eye stands up to the sun,
as the eye salutes the sun.

Many things are unspoken
in the life of a man, and with a place
there is an unspoken love also
in undercurrents, drifting, waiting its time.
A great place and its people are not renewed lightly.
The caked layers of grime
grow warm, like homely coats.
But yet they will be dislodged
and men will still be warm.
The old coats are discarded.
The old ice is loosed.
The old seeds are awake.

Slip out of darkness, it is time.

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The Loss of the Creature by Walker Percy

I’m in Patagonia. Yesterday, I attached metal spikes to my shoes and hiked to the top of the Perito Moreno Glacier. The day before, I took a boat ride on Lago Argentino and saw glaciers, icebergs, and rainbows arcing off the lake. I took lots of photographs.

I won’t print these photographs. I’ll post them to my Facebook page and possibly Instagram, and after that initial posting it’s unlikely that I’ll ever spend much time flipping through these online albums. What is the purpose of these pictures?

What, for that matter, is the purpose of sightseeing? We make more or less elaborate plans in the hopes that we’ll gain access to some sort of experience that is more transcendent or meaningful or enjoyable than our ordinary experience. From the moment we reach our destination, we evaluate the quality of our trip. Was the food authentic? Was the landscape beautiful? Was this all worth it? Given that traveling for pleasure is a privilege denied to the overwhelming majority of the world’s population, what could “worth it” even mean? Is this exclusivity a part of what makes traveling pleasurable?

In his wonderful essay “The Loss of the Creature”, Walker Percy examines the experience of sightseeing. He focuses much of his essay on the Grand Canyon– or on the experience of visiting the Grand Canyon, noting that it is “almost impossible to gaze directly at the Grand Canyon…and see it for what it is.” Percy argues that this is because the canyon is no longer available to the sightseer as a manifestation of natural beauty:

The Grand Canyon…has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind…by picture postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon.

Thanks to the weight of cultural significance and expectation, it is impossible to simply see the Grand Canyon. What’s more, Percy notes:

Seeing the canyon is made even more difficult by what the sight-seer does when the moment arrives, when sovereign knower confronts the thing to be known. Instead of looking at it, he photographs it. There is no confrontation at all. At the end of forty years of preformulation and with the Grand Canyon yawning at his feet, what does he do? He waives his right of seeing and knowing and records symbols for the next forty years…

Writing some fifty years ago, Percy was grappling with the problems of photography and experience in ways that seem incredibly prescient. How does our desire to record experience affect our capacity to experience? What purpose does this act of recording serve?

Returning to the Grand Canyon, Percy argues that the massive weight of expectation and cultural significance attached to the canyon inhibits the traveler’s ability to simply perceive the thing. Thankfully, Percy offers a variety of tactics and scenarios by which the sightseer may “recover the Grand Canyon”. My favorite is this:

[The canyon] may be recovered in a time of national disaster. The Bright Angel Lodge is converted into a rest home, a function that has nothing to do with the canyon a few yards away. A wounded man is brought in. He regains consciousness; there outside his window is the canyon.

This last example embodies everything I love about Percy’s writing: it’s playful, direct, poetic, and boundlessly humanist. Splicing Percy’s essay with my own poorly articulated thoughts does not do the thing justice, but I’ve given you a good enough taste to convince you to read his piece in its entirety. It’s well worth it.