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  • Leap Year
  • Jeff Dolven

Promise and fulfillment are real historical events.

—Erich Auerbach, "Figura."1

A chimney, breathing a little smoke.The sun, I can't seemaking a bit of pinkI can't quite see in the blue.The pink of five tulipsat five p.m. on the day before March first.The green of the tulip stems and leaveslike something I can't remember,finding a jack-in-the-pulpita long time ago and far away.2

The last day of February—he won't say whether it is the twenty-eighth or twenty-ninth—finds James Schuyler at his desk, looking out the window of his apartment onto Second Avenue. "Maybe I should get over the idea that the way to write a poem is to look out the window and put it all down," he would write sometime later in a letter to Ron Padgett. "But I don't see why."3 It is the end of the day, and he is watching the sky change color outside, while inside, on the near side of the glass, five pink tulips stand in a glass of water. Five tulips, five in the afternoon: it is a composed scene, whatever it is composed for. Schuyler is sitting in front of it looking at what is in front of him, and looking, also, at his own looking. He cannot see the sun, which must have fallen below the buildings. What he does see is the pink of its setting—except that no, he cannot see the pink, quite, in all of the blue. So he must be anticipating it, looking ahead just a few minutes into the evening. This patient or only slightly impatient sketch-work makes for some gentle puzzling about perception, expectation, and desire.

Perception, expectation, desire, and memory. The green of the tulip's stems and leaves is like something he can't remember, he says matter-of-factly. There is a feeling of likeness that arrives before whatever is like. (Perhaps like the pink that colors the sky before he can see it.) [End Page 361] Then, he does remember, or perhaps he admits that he remembers, admits that the "can't" was more of a "can't-bring-myself-to." The green reveals itself to be the green of a particular jack-in-the-pulpit. Schuyler was a devoted amateur botanist, and we should picture the plant, its stamen upright in a bowl of green, sheltered by the leaf-tip bending over its head. The name and the picture make a modest invitation to metaphor. A jack-in-the-pulpit has a certain detachment, up and away from the congregation, like Schuyler in the window, however far his tone may be from preacherly. The plant is a little phallic, too, and the poem will make use of that erotic charge. Somewhere past the reach of such associations is the reach of the memory itself, which comes to his desk from some time ago and far away. The particular green transports the poem into the past, so that its composed, present-tense situation is now divided between two moments, with just that filament of green between them.

What to make of the gap that filament crosses? The interval between two moments, between two greens? To ask such questions is one way of identifying what "February" is about, for they are questions posed by a particular kind of poem, a not-yet-entirely-post-Romantic lyric, about the resources of figuration. But "February" is not easily dislodged from the ordinary, daily, unmetaphorical habit of sitting looking out the window. It is like many other Schuyler poems in that regard, and like many of his letters and diary entries and apparently like many of his days. It is also like itself. That is: "February" sounds like itself, and if it has moments of transport, they never displace the poem from the window-seat vantage of its speaking, nor much shake its commitment to the pace of thoughtful observation. It has a consistent style from beginning to end. To say so, to say it has a style, is to speak of certain consolations in...


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pp. 361-376
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