Time Problem

 

The problem
of time.       Of there not being
enough of it.

My girl came to the study
and said Help me;
I told her I had a time problem
which meant:
I would die for you but I don’t have ten minutes.
Numbers hung in the math book
like motel coathangers. The Lean
Cuisine was burning
like an ancient city: black at the edges,
bubbly earth tones in the center.
The latest thing they’re saying is lack
of time might be
a “woman’s problem.” She sat there
with her math book sobbing—
(turned out to be prime factoring: whole numbers
dangle in little nooses)
Hawking says if you back up far enough
it’s not even
an issue, time falls away into
‘the curve’ which is finite,
boundaryless. Appointment book,
soprano telephone—
(beep End beep went the microwave)

The hands fell off my watch in the night.
I spoke to the spirit
who took them, told her: Time is the funniest thing
they invented. Had wakened from a big
dream of love in a boat
No time to get the watch fixed so the blank face
lived for months in my dresser,
no arrows
for hands, just quartz intentions, just the pinocchio
nose         (before the lie)
left in the center;            the watch
didn’t have twenty minutes; neither did I.
My girl was doing
her gym clothes by herself;         (red leaked
toward black, then into the white
insignia)                  I was grading papers,
heard her call from the laundry room:
Mama?
Hawking says there are two
types of it,
real and imaginary (imaginary time must be
like decaf), says it’s meaningless
to decide which is which
but I say: there was tomorrow-
and-a-half
when I started thinking about it; now
there’s less than a day. More
done. That’s
the thing that keeps being said. I thought
I could get more done as in:
fish stew from a book. As in: Versateller
archon, then push-push-push
the tired-tired around the track like a planet.
Legs, remember him?
Our love—when we stagger—lies down inside us. . .
Hawking says
there are little folds in time
(actually he calls them wormholes)
but I say:
there’s a universe beyond
where they’re hammering the brass cut-outs .. .
Push us out in the boat and leave time here—

(because: where in the plan was it written,
You’ll be too busy to close parentheses,
the snapdragon’s bunchy mouth needs water,
even the caterpillar will hurry past you?
Pulled the travel alarm
to my face: the black
behind the phosphorous argument kept the dark
from being ruined. Opened
the art book
—saw the languorous wrists of the lady
in Tissot’s “Summer Evening.” Relaxed. Turning
gently. The glove
(just slightly—but still:)
“aghast”;
opened Hawking, he says, time gets smoothed
into a fourth dimension
but I say
space thought it up, as in: Let’s make
a baby space, and then
it missed. Were seconds born early, and why
didn’t things unhappen also, such as
the tree became Daphne. . .

At the beginning of harvest, we felt
the seven directions.
Time did not visit us. We slept
till noon.
With one voice I called him, with one voice
I let him sleep, remembering
summer years ago,
I had come to visit him in the house of last straws
and when he returned
above the garden of pears, he said
our weeping caused the dew. . .

I have borrowed the little boat
and I say to him Come into the little boat,
you were happy there;

the evening reverses itself, we’ll push out
onto the pond,
or onto the reflection of the pond,
whichever one is eternal

 

How to avoid sentimentality in a poem about a young daughter who says “mama” and needs help with math? If that girl popped up in a draft I was working on, I might instantly delete it. It’s too easy to imagine a cheaply redemptive poem about a child whose mother helps her with homework.

Remarkably, Brenda Hillman’s “Time Problem” contains that daughter, but it contains lots of other things, too. The poem doesn’t stay with the girl (she even weeps), or with any of its other subjects, for long. Through a series of mini-voltas, the poem constantly shifts from one image or idea to another. These shifts allow Hillman to alight on emotionally live material yet avoid sentimentality.

I count 14 of these little voltas in “Time Problem.” Changing the subject so many times might seem hopelessly ADD, but it’s not, because Hillman is continuously narrating the poem in her distinctive voice. In other words, the “I” at the center centers the poem.

Hillman’s shifts in the poem work the way an eye blinks. You can see them happening from the very beginning. Here’s what I mean: the poem opens with an abstract notion —

The problem
of time.          Of there not being
enough of it.

— and then it starts to “blink.” We get, in quick succession, the daughter I mentioned, then a statement about the self, then a metaphor of loneliness:

My girl came to the study
and said Help me;
I told her I had a time problem
which meant:
I would die for you but I don’t have ten minutes.
Numbers hung in the math book
like motel coathangers.

Blink, blink: The poem shifts to a paraphrase that might be from a women’s magazine, then back to the girl, then to astrophysics:

The latest thing they’re saying is lack
of time might be
a “woman’s problem.” She sat there
with her math book sobbing—
(turned out to be prime factoring: whole numbers
dangle in little nooses)
Hawking says if you back up far enough
it’s not even
an issue, time falls away into
‘the curve’ which is finite,
boundaryless.

As the poem proceeds, it glances at, among other things, a painting by Tissot, the mythic Daphne, and a dream about a boat. Whenever this poem offers tenderness, the tension of it (i.e., a reader wondering anxiously if the poem is getting too soft and sticky) is relieved by a quick shift to neutral. For example, in stanza four:

                                     I was grading papers,
heard her call from the laundry room:
Mama?
Hawking says there are two
types of it,
real and imaginary [ . . . ]

Hillman bounces to a place where space and time collide — a place as far away from the domestic as possible — both times the girl appears.

Those little voltas allow sentiment into the poem. In fact, they allow “Time Problem” to flirt with sentimentality without succumbing to it, since the poem’s hottest emotions are always balanced by a fast splash of coolness. The shifts also allow Hillman to quickly adjust lyric scale. Thus we get love, which “lies down inside us,” a grand, beautiful gesture, coming right after the speaker’s exercise routine, a dull slog around a running track. Next come wormholes, then a snapdragon that needs watering.

If there is a larger, more traditional volta in “Time Problem,” it comes at the end, when the poem turns toward a couple in a boat at twilight. The daughter has been left behind, as have most of the poem’s other subjects. There is just a pair of lovers. “Come into the little boat,” says the speaker,

we’ll push out
onto the pond,
or onto the reflection of the pond,
whichever one is eternal —

It’s a surprising leap to old-style lyricism. The poem shifts to love and lingers there for three stanzas, closing with an image meant to comfort a troubled “him.” Time is no longer a problem. It has stopped: the two are safe, floating together in the “eternal,” whether eternity is the pond, a memory of the pond, or an image of it in a poem.

Hillman’s pond echoes the one at the end of Robert Hass’s poem “Calm” in his book Human Wishes (Hillman is married to Hass). Hass’s poem makes its own big leap from a terrifying nightmare to a peaceful “blue-gray distance” of water. “You can go there,” Hass’s speaker says reassuringly, as if the bad dream were Hillman’s. “You were happy there,” recalls Hillman in this poem, published eight years later.

By now, I as a reader am willing to go into love and eternity and be set adrift. Because “Time Problem” has passed (by virtue of those little voltas) through so many levels of emotional intensity, its ending feels well counterweighted, not sentimental.

 

*

Joy Katz is the author of All You Do is Perceive, a National Poetry Series finalist, due in 2013 from Four Way. Her other two collections are The Garden Room (Tupelo) and Fabulae (Southern Illinois). She has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, and Stanford’s Wallace Stegner program, as well as a Pushcart residency at Jentel. She is currently working on a book of essays, Frayed, about race and voice. She teaches creative writing and literature at Chatham and Carlow universities in Pittsburgh.

Brenda Hillman, “Time Problem” from Loose Sugar. Copyright © 1997 by Brenda Hillman. Reprinted with permission of the author and Wesleyan University Press.

Advertisements