The flight from time is essential to the human condition, but is also a typically modern fancy. We have built our world upon devices and rituals whose sole purpose is to bend time to our will, to escape the perceived bondage we are in to its unrelenting tread. But what we have forgotten, and what this poem by Monika Cooper reminds us of, is that time is not a predator, but a friend; not a tyrant, but in fact a servant, charged by our Master with the task of being watchman, herald, secretary and archivist of all of life’s turnings.
Time and one’s relation to it plays a crucial role in literature. For example, one essential distinction between tragedy and comedy is that in the former, the tragic hero feels the press of time as a burden and rages against it, only to find that it runs out for him. In the latter, the comic hero allows his action to develop more organically and so finds that it is fruitful; time for him is sufficient and generous when he keeps the task at hand in focus, rather than agonizing over the time in which he has to accomplish it. But this is true also in life, and in life one’s relation to time has implications regarding one’s relation to the whole of the human experience, as our mortality, and our fear of and dependence on time are an essential and defining aspect of our humanity.
In our poem, after reflecting on the Amish response to an event that time has made irrevocable, the speaker recalls an earlier desire to be Amish, “like in books.” This suggests an idealization, a symptom of the modern wish to make time the captive of our desires, or of a romantic notion to escape the bounds of time altogether, “to make time stop.” But is this the response of the Amish? Is their silence a sort of rebellious sullenness at an event that disrupts their lives and is outside of their control, or is it merely a clichéd passive acceptance?
But one man must have turned his wide-brimmed hat
Over and over slowly in his hands.
In this simple yet deliberate gesture, the man expresses the contradictory reaction to the fire and to all events which are beyond our control, and binds them together into a harmonious way of living. The gesture bespeaks grief and nervous discomfort, yet it is performed gently, slowly, without anger, almost meditatively. One can imagine the farmer comforting his family that night, reminding them that God turns their lives as gently and as slowly, yet with a steady speed certain to bring them at last to completion, in His omnipotent hands.
Time cannot be stopped, that much is agreed upon by the opposing ways of viewing it. But the difference lies in the means of one’s conveyance through it. The English poet Robert Graves gives us a modern’s impression of one’s movement through time, in the language of antiquity:
Is it of… the Zodiac [you tell] and how slow it turns
Below the boreal Crown,
Prison of all true Kings that ever reigned?
…So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never-altered circuit of his fate.
The tone of those lines is one which might be taken by that ominous car of the future in our poem, or by its driver. It is a tone of bitter, melancholy resentment of an impersonal cosmos which has made destiny captive to its whims. The speaker is aware of a dangerous future, a future that threatens to run her down before she has learned to keep pace with it, but perhaps of more concern is that it is her own future that she fears. She fears becoming yet another reckless driver on Time’s roadways, and moreover she fears being compelled to move along them at all. The image of the untrustworthy car is an image of the arrogance of speed, the illusion of control; and in the context of the contrast to the Amish lifestyle, an image of the disconnect and alienation suffered by a modern society whose center not only does not hold, but does not exist. The Amish do not own cars, but not because they have a particular prejudice against technology. They simply are not willing to sacrifice their close-knit communities and agrarian lifestyle for perceived convenience. It is only in case of extreme necessity that they would wish to be conveyed beyond a distance attainable by horse, which by default keeps them close to their home community.
The car of the future—whether it be the speaker’s own future or the impersonal future which presses on her—offers only a limited vision of how one may relate to one’s movement through time. It could be a passive experience, in which one takes the role of passenger and allows oneself to be pushed along, or it could be an aggressive but ultimately foolish response, in which one sees oneself as the driver, bucking the idea of an “unalterable circuit,” but finding in the end that moments have been rushed past and the destination is still the same. Our speaker seems caught between these responses; she wants to stop time, to neither drive nor to ride, thus putting herself in a position to be run over by the impending future. Her tactic, fear, is a negative force and can do nothing to halt time, nor can it properly dispose her to moving into her future with grace.
The revelation first comes with the obvious realization that time cannot be stopped. But it is not just for her realization of this truth that the speaker modifies her prayer. She now prays, “Time, not too fast.” This is both a petition and a statement. At the very moment she asks for Time to slow what she perceives as a headlong rush into the future, she not only realizes that she cannot help but move along with it, but that it is in fact she who determines the pace. If she must step into time and carry herself forward, then she prays that it might be at the humane pace of breathing creatures, of a horse, or of her own two feet.
Robert Graves’s lines are a truism both from the perspective of the alienated man who rages against his “prison” being written into the swing of the zodiac, and from that of a simple, community-oriented man who has helped to build a schoolhouse only to watch it burn. It is perhaps easy to understand the first perspective; it is infantile and we can empathize with that. The second is more complex. Again, we should not be tempted into assuming passivism, but rather understand that it is an expression of the irony or even the paradox of our relationship with time. We are mortal, yet we look beyond our temporal setting for meaning and feel an affinity for eternity.
We therefore are at the mercy of the march of time, but can choose to keep step with it and even to set the pace; and moreover we are able to move beyond its rhythm in moments of Kairos, in which memory and desire serve to lift the present moment into the timeless realm of the universal. The man revolving his hat in his hands while watching the fire consume the schoolhouse (a good metaphor for his world) silently echoes the truth he observes; that time comes and takes us all with it, but we can take it in our hands and turn it as it turns, and in so doing participate in it and are freed from servitude to it by assenting to the command that first caused it to move.
One may wonder why the poet also prays for flames. Why are they needed? Fire brings completion, perhaps of something we cannot or will not complete on our own. Fire is part of the symbolism of the cycle of life; it brings death, and from it, life. The speaker prays for “flames, deliberate, complete.” Thoughtful, slow-burning, thoroughly consuming flames. Flames that bring an end to one part of the cycle and give rise to the new. She knows that fire will come, whether it be in the twisted wreckage of a burning car, or in the scented and ceremonious flames of a funeral pyre, or in the divinely appointed flames that will baptize the world into its rebirth at the end of time. In all these the fire burns with the same steady intensity; the difference and thus the meaning lies in how it is lit.