Ethics


In ethics class so many years ago
our teacher asked this question every fall:
if there were a fire in a museum
which would you save, a Rembrandt painting
or an old woman who hadn’t many
years left anyhow? Restless on hard chairs
caring little for pictures or old age
we’d opt one year for life, the next for art
and always half-heartedly.  Sometimes
the woman borrowed my grandmother’s face
leaving her usual kitchen to wander
some drafty, half-imagined museum.
One year, feeling clever, I replied
why not let the woman decide herself?
Linda, the teacher would report, eschews
the burdens of responsibility.
This fall in a real museum I stand
before a real Rembrandt, old woman,
or nearly so, myself. The colors
within this frame are darker than autumn,
darker even than winter—the browns of earth,
though earth’s most radiant elements burn
through the canvas. I know now that woman
and painting and season are almost one
and all beyond saving by children.

-

We seek to still vrittis. This search to capture one’s essence – soul connection – by silencing one’s wandering waves of thoughts, these fluctuations of the mind. Call it union or beingness, beginning or eternity, a here & then/an always.

*

Like many college students, I found myself immersed & invested in debates of justice, why the world is as it is & how we can make it different, our own meaning & being.

As a university student – via the 1982 collection of new and selected poems, PM/AM – I encountered “Ethics” by Linda Pastan. Given my zeal for knowing life & my role for living, Pastan’s opening question captivated me:

In ethics class so many years ago
our teacher asked this question every fall:
if there were a fire in a museum
which would you save, a Rembrandt painting
or an old woman who hadn’t many
years left anyhow? (lines 1-6)

Oh precipice to poem! In my youth, I was amazed by how you can launch a philosophical discussion in verse, how poems can not just mean but make meaning, how verse can not simply state or unravel but pose questions too.

*

Some say a yogi seeks not the answers but the questions.

In that case, I still question the difference between an answer and a question.

*

In “Ethics,” the narrator rejoins, “One year, feeling clever, I replied/why not let the woman decide herself?” (lines 13-14)

Perhaps the same as not distinguishing between an answer and a question, between right and wrong, between one’s choices and one’s choice.

Or answering a question with a question, as if one clever turn deserves another.

*

This poem, I still discover, takes my breath away.

As a poet now myself, I return to amazement – and to its underlying questions, the tense magics of our world.

*

In Pastan’s poem, there is magic when the narrator’s grandmother appears: “Sometimes/the woman borrowed my grandmother’s face/leaving her usual kitchen to wander/some drafty, half-imagined museum.” (lines 9-12)

In these lines, our lineages. As a reader, who cannot but imagine one’s own grandmother?

So I did.

Alongside Linda’s grandmother, I envisioned a former village girl shepherding her husband & brood of four girls in one of India’s most hectic cities. Someone who may not have entered the thresholds to any museums, or if so, certainly fewer than her fingers. Someone who knew the realm of her kitchen, each inch of her domestic space, whose life makes possible my own living, including this possibility of asking such questions, of seeking such truths.

*

In immigrant visions of extended family, the homes left, in me I can feel this time and that time, perhaps even a time where there would be no time.

Just in this time, let me return to the poem.

*

Pastan does not let her narrative self off the hook. In one more brilliant turn, the teacher comments on the narrator’s provocative offer to have the old woman choose: “Linda, the teacher would report, eschews/the burdens of responsibility.” (lines 15-16)

And so we turn to ponder: are we letting ourselves off the metaphorical hook?

*

Indeed, what do children know of old age and art? Of kitchens and masterpieces? Of the differences between these two? Of the nature of difference? Or, of the essential?

And why, as a young poet in the making did this poem touch me so? Why do these questions yet touch me so?

*

In the poem, the children are careless: “Restless on hard chairs/caring little for pictures or old age/we’d opt one year for life, the next for art/and always half-heartedly.” (lines 6-9)

In my zealous youth, I could not imagine not choosing, this wantonness, this not having a firm point of view.

My heart went out to the old woman. (Though I twinged for the art in flames too.)

In this moment of our own choosing – a moment provoked by the poem – is where the whole heart/hole heart turns to be our own.

*

In my life, I have always returned to one question over and over: how can I drink more deeply of life? How can I offer more to the world, imprint beauty and justice in my own living?

In my mind, this is one question.

*

“Ethics” originally appeared as the penultimate poem in Pastan’s 1981 book, Waiting for My Life, in the third and final section called “The Verdict of Snow,” which ends with the poem, “At My Window.”

I did not know this at the time I first encountered “Ethics.”

But I know this now.

*

The poem, “Ethics,” ends with a brilliant turn of knowing:

This fall in a real museum I stand
before a real Rembrandt, old woman,
or nearly so, myself. The colors
within this frame are darker than autumn,
darker even than winter—the browns of earth,
though earth’s most radiant elements burn
through the canvas. I know now that woman
and painting and season are almost one
and all beyond saving by children. (lines 17-25)

In the face of essential mortality, seasons’ change, tempers of art, the poem closes with a reflection of its opening question – answering possibility with inevitability, youth with wisdom (including of one’s youth), the years passing with the passing of years.

*

How does an artist, including us poets, move people to feel? Provoke our work to be more than our own? To be beyond itself?

For this, we need to turn to the roots of verse.

How poetry is related to plowing, how one line is a field turning to new ground.

How metaphor, this nascent turn, is a fabric of not just our art but also our lives.

*

In “Ethics,” art and life are pitched against each other and we are asked to make a choice.

Art vs. life. Youth vs. wisdom. Abstract vs. real. Age vs. age. The lesson vs. the creation.

*

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, both the words verse & versus come from the root *wer- meaning “to turn, bend.”

This relates to the Sanskrit vrt, root of vritti, meaning turn, revolve, proceed, move. Or vartate – “turns round, rolls.”

Of which, in my first tongue, emerges the Gujarati word varta, meaning a story/tall tale.

After all, we know that every good story has a good turn.

*

In any good turn – in life or poetry – we are thrown for a loop. The sequence of events or lines challenges us, what has come before, what may come after.

We are upended, perhaps shocked, surprised.

And when our thoughts turn so, unwittingly, we see the power of creation/glimpse an eternal.

*

In order to reach meaning in “Ethics,” we engage turns. The poem demands our own thoughts and feelings revolve, bend to seed the fertile ground of our hearts, push to challenge limits & possibilities.

It is not that by the end of Pastan’s poem that we are left with no verdict to the initial question at all.

Regardless of your own verdict, what we are left with is the abiding nature of questions: How do we make meaning of our lives? How do we blend the small self with the larger Self? How do we as poets, as artists, as human beings create, and in so doing, move people? How do we hold the futility of it all alongside its meaningfulness? From where do our ethics emerge? And how do we – emerge?

The most brilliant turn of knowing in this poem is not the narrator’s knowing and wisdom we reach in the end but the poem’s silent knowing that we as readers will continue to turn to these questions – and more – even after leaving the poem. In such, the essence of the poem never leaves us. In such, we never leave the essence of ourselves.

*

In “At My Window,” Pastan closes:

Now I stand still
at my window
watching the snow
which knows only one direction,
falling in silence
towards silence. (lines 19-24)

*

It is the irony of silence that to reach it one must travel thoughts.

To connect in our souls, as with life (our greatest story), we must turn our own thoughts, explore our questions until we are aware of essence, this endlessness of our own fabrics. Perhaps this is the field of destiny.

But then again, every destiny deserves a good turn. And so too, every poet.

*

Purvi Shah’s Terrain Tracks (New Rivers Press, 2006), which explores migration as potential and loss, won the Many Voices Project prize and was nominated for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award in 2007. She earned the inaugural SONY South Asian Social Services Award in 2008 for her work fighting violence against women. In 2011, she served as Artistic Director for Together We Are New York, a community-based poetry project to highlight the voices of Asian Americans during the 10th anniversary of 9/11. She believes in the miracle of poetry and the beauty of change. Check out more of her work at http://purvipoets.net or @PurviPoets.

Linda Pastan, “Ethics,” from PM/AM: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1982 by Linda Pastan. Used by permission of Linda Pastan in care of the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, Inc.

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