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Thursday, April 3, 2014

After a Greek Proverb - A. E. Stallings


                     Ουδέν μονιμότερον του προσωρινού

We're here for the time being, I answer to the query-
Just for a couple of years, we said, a dozen years back.
Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.

We dine sitting on folding chairs - they were cheap but cheery.
We've taped the broken window pane.  TV's still out of whack.
We're here for the time being, I answer to the query.

When we crossed the water, we only brought what we could carry,
But there are always boxes that you never do unpack.
Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.

Sometimes when I'm feeling weepy, you propose a theory:
Nostalgia and tear gas have the same acrid smack.
We're here for the time being, I answer to the query -

We stash bones in the closet when we don't have time to bury,
Stuff receipts in envelopes, file papers in a stack.
Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.

Twelve years now and we're still eating off the ordinary:
We left our wedding china behind, afraid that it might crack.
We're here for the time being, we answer to the query,
But nothing is more permanent than the temporary.


"Nothing endures but the provisional" is what Google translate tells me for the Greek at the start of the poem.  I think it is a version of the Heraclitus "nothing endures but change."   I suppose that Stallings' repeated "Nothing is more permanent than the temporary" conveys the same idea, only much more eloquently than Google translate.  The idea that the most permanent things in our lives are those we intended to be temporary is two-fold.  On one hand, we often make plans and never realize them, with temporary solutions becoming de-facto permanent.  On the other hand, there is nothing more constant in life than the idea of the temporary.  It's like how the present is always the present, always new.

"Just for a couple of years, we said, a dozen years back" captures the thrust of the poem quite well.  We are always making plans that we never keep.  There are always boxes, literal or metaphorical, luggage that we never fully unpack.  We attach so much value to memories and material things that they cease to be part of our lives ("We left our wedding china behind, afraid that it might crack") and make temporary things permanent.

Honestly, I think there's a sort of rueful humor about the poem.  Sure, we sometimes regret the things we let become permanent, but at the same time, there's a good-natured humor in the "permanent" solutions in the poem.  It's silly to eat dinner on folding chairs, but how many of us do something equivalent?  I know that I put a blanket over my luggage in my apartment and now use it like an extra table or storage.  How many times do we do a quick patch job to "hold us over" rather than fixing something properly?  It seems in our nature to make permanent what we think will be temporary.  Maybe we're all just short-sighted, but the fact that this is an ancient notion implies that this is not a symptom of modernity.  I like to imagine some ancient, maybe a farmer at Skara Brae, patching the wall of his house with a bit of wattle and daub, saying to his wife that he'll fix it later.  

1 comment:

  1. This poem points out how some temporary arrangements turn out surprisingly permanent. We only meant to stay awhile, but it turns out we've been here for 10 years. There's a bittersweet tang about the fleet passing of time despite our little plans.

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