Something happens as you age. Your memory isn’t what it used it to be, although you can remember the name of your three kindergarten teachers and your best friend in second grade but draw a total blank when you run into someone at the mall you haven’t seen in three months. You can also remember the lyrics to songs you listened to in high school; you can often even recall where you were and who you were dating when you first heard the song.
But aging isn’t just about memory, or realizing that your grandmother wasn’t an idiot for claiming her bones were predicting a weather change (scientists now say it has to be with feeling the change in barometric pressure). Or you hair thinning. Or your back surprising you one day by instructing you that you can’t pick up things the way you did when you were 19.
And more: I’ve mentioned before that art is becoming more important, which is apparently not unusual in Western culture, or at least American culture. You look upon your grandchildren completely differently than you looked upon your children.
In some strange way, you seem to focus more. You notice less but you see more. You understand more.
It is all these associations of aging that permeate Joseph Hesch’s Penumbra: The Space Between, his first collection of poetry. He understands he’s looking at the world differently. It was as if he awakened one morning and discovered he had unexpectedly experienced a metamorphosis, less traumatic that the one described by Kafka but perhaps just as profound.
It is an unsettling feeling. But it is also a gift. What before would have been barely noticing a young couple walking on the sidewalk in a poor section of town becomes something almost magical.
Silent Night in Arbor Hill
I saw them emerge from the shadow of shadows
that blanketed the alley connecting
Orange Street to Sheridan Avenue,
a vacant-eyed lane of abandoned houses
you wouldn’t wish to travel in
well-strapped daylight. Into the hazy edge
of a lemon-light circle beneath the lone
strobing street light they edged,
this young couple and their baby,
Behind him, the young man dragged
a shopping trolley that held a suitcase,
some groceries and a few presents.
The young woman held her infant close
against her breast to protect it—
from the cold of the city, I couldn’t judge—
as the snow decided it was its time.
As I drove past, upon the railings
of the darkened doorways, tiny lights
blinked and from within one a familial
brightness shone as they entered.
A once-a-year peace came over all
of us in that place, at that time,
and I thought “What a fine night,”
that silent night in Arbor Hill.
Many of the poems are like this, telling surprising stories from what at first appear to be rather ordinary situations: a walk along the beach, the last snow of winter, an old photograph, the heat of summer, a flock of birds, a harvest moon, fog in the morning, an empty liquor in the gutter of the old neighborhood. The poet is becoming more focused, noticing less but seeing more.
What Hesch is discovering is the sacred of the ordinary, which is, of course, the best and most profound gift of aging. And these poems in Penumbra give us that sacredness.
Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.