Jan Zwicky on Contradictions

H. L. Hix: I keep returning to this sentence from “Night Music” (20): “You are only trying to say / what you see in the world.”  The “only” there seems crucial.  If “see” can be taken to stand for all the senses — what you perceive in the world — then this sentence seems as though it could describe an ambition common to your three primary modes of inquiry/expression, music, philosophy, and poetry.  But that “only”: is it a form of acquiescence? of humility? of resignation?


Jan Zwicky: Thank you so much for your interest!


It’s impossible for me to speak about my intentions in writing this or nearly any other poem, because I usually have no intentions beyond trying to ‘get right’ some intuition that has presented itself to me in nonlinguistic form. But I can describe some things that, as a reader, I now notice about this poem.


The poem is, centrally, about an impossible situation: a scene at once winter and spring. This is stated explicitly in the first stanza, then reiterated in the second. (The “3:00 a.m.” and “barefoot” in the second stanza are images of an emotional winter — the speaker is alone, in the dark, with cold toes.)


Now comes the line you ask about. I agree the “only” is crucial. The “see” seems to speak directly to the literal scene — but since there’s that shift to metaphorical winter in the second stanza, I also agree that in some sense its sense widens into perception generally. What is seen or perceived? A contradiction. The “only” is, I think, an apology for this contradiction as well as a disavowal: “I know this sounds crazy, but it’s actually what I remember. I’m not trying to construct an ‘intriguing paradox’ or to be ‘poetic’.” — And then we are told that the speaker has thought that if she could state clearly what she loves, the contradiction could be resolved. But no: what she loves insists on the contradiction more deeply.


The book is constructed as an arch, and the poem to which “Night Music” corresponds, its opposite number, is “Crossing the Dezadeash, Haines Junction” — a poem that takes place up north, in the mountains, on the cusp of winter and spring, and which turns on two echoic contradictions: fire and ice, and being dead and alive. In this poem, though, the speaker is untroubled by the contradictions. There is no apology and no attempt at disavowal, no “only”. She seems to be walking right into them.


It’s possible “Night Music” should also be read against “Envoy IV” — same winterspring contradiction, but there, the injunction to be mute. Structurally, it mediates between “Music and Silence” (the book’s first poem) and “Transit” (its ‘threshold’ poem, the poem that precipitates the poem at the literal and metaphysical centre of the book). In “Night Music” the image of the threshold is used to describe the speaker’s position on the brink of the contradiction.



Jan Zwicky.  Forge.  Gaspereau Press, 2011.


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