On the Persistence of the Self
It is almost certainly a trick of the brain:
the neurons build an effigy
in which the body invests.
Or perhaps it is the creation of time itself,
a looking-glass in which the years
mug and grimace, watching themselves go by.
A narrative, a trompe l’oeil,
a grinning kabuki mask
to which we cleave like flesh to bone.
Yet as the old man steps outside
this first evening of frost,
it is the boy who smells the wood smoke on the air.
The boy is a fly in amber.
The boy is a prisoner of memory.
The boy is a project of the mind.
At Ausfess castle, ancestral seat
of his mother’s family, the von Rankes,
Robert Graves found among the family treasures:
“a wine glass that my uncle’s old father,
the reigning baron,
had found in the Franco-Prussian War
in the middle of the square
in an entirely ruined village.”
Review by Steven Reese
I’m very attracted by the way this poem gathers energy and shifts direction—gathers energy because of its shifts in direction. The language and imagery of the first three stanzas are certainly strong, engaging; they offer a slightly dismissive take on the self—self as brain-trick, self as mirror before which we act (mug and grimace), which leads naturally to self as mask. But the two stanzas that follow intensify the poem’s lyric energy dramatically—especially the second—and constitute a rejection of the idea that the self is not integral, is a mere construct. The boy as “fly in amber” and “prisoner” may sound confining, static, but he is also a work in progress, a “project of the mind” as it grows older, still contributing to what the man becomes; it is the boy, after all, who smells the wood smoke. And then the leap to the Graves anecdote seems to me just magical as a way to end: even surrounded by desolation, the wine glass is upright and inevitably suggests a self that not only persists but, at least potentially, savors. I like what this poem has to say, but its way of saying is especially appealing to me, suggesting as it does that the self is no static construct but something that moves and changes and grows in surprising directions.
Review by Michael Derrick Hudson
One of the great changes in human perception has come about over the past 100 years, from the shock and awe of Darwin to the horrors of eugenics, then more shock and awe with Crick and Watson’s double helix. Now we have the latest findings on the brain, uncomfortable revelations about how we’re mostly just a big goopy binary on/off switch, subject to the whims of little boluses of chemistry (whether naturally-occurring or via an OxyContin prescription).
Benjamin Goluboff tackles this vast subject here with “On the Persistence of the Self” in an interesting way. The poem, brief as it is, has two “hinges” (as the French call them, I recall reading somewhere)—places where the poem transforms itself. At first we have generalized neurons and the body, flesh to bone. Then a hinge—the old man, on “this first evening of frost” finds his self—a much younger self, “a fly in amber,” a “project of the mind.” Most poems would stop here; and they would be just fine.
But Goluboff takes us beyond fine, and in another “hinge” makes an abrupt shift—a shift made all the more abrupt because there is no stanza break—when we are taken to the historical-specific scenario of Robert Graves beholding a family heirloom, a Franco-Prussian War artifact, the miraculously unbroken wine glass. Such a wonderful and atypical souvenir—rather than an enemy sword or belt buckle, this aristocratic German soldier picks up a wine glass that has somehow, miraculously survived. A miraculous survival—not unlike the boy who survives within the old man. This is such a surprising and jarring yet apt move. I admire Goluboff’s courage too, for a move like this can be risky in a poem, given that it sometimes seems to me that our collective cultural-historical memory goes back no further than 2006 or so.
I should add that my pleasure in this poem does derive to some extent from being a Robert Graves fan—never cared for his poetry or his White Goddess theoretical claptrap, but his prose is wonderful, and his World War I soldier’s memoir Goodbye to All That is one of my favorite books (which I am pretty sure is where Goluboff found this anecdote; my Google searches were not conclusive, but I seem to recall reading it there originally).