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Being Through Time: Ron Padgett’s Big Cabin

By Katherine Beaman.

Ron Padgett, Big Cabin (Coffee House Press, 2019)

Long is the history of the romanticized solitary retreat into the cabin. Thoreau, of course, had his Walden. To the woods he went! Where life is more pure! The woods, unfinked in the ways he felt civilization finks on life. Simplicity! Not so simple. As in any act of meditation, it seems as though the very act of tuning out the buzz of human voices only serves to amplify one’s own. As the famous origin story of 4’33” goes, John Cage sat in a room with no echo, as silent as we can contrive, and was assaulted by the sounds of his own nervous system. And then there was Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver renown, who, following a series of illnesses and lamenting the mediocre state of his life, isolated himself in his father’s hunting cabin and recorded his ode to peace-of-mind, For Emma, Forever Ago. Vernon would go on to critique the romanticization of the hunting cabin in the folklore of the late-naughties, saying, “It’s sort of odd to look back and see it as magical, because it felt like a lonely few months at the cabin, where I plugged in the laptop and fucked around.” The archetypal cabin, it seems, is doomed to Thomas Kinkade galleries.

Each autumn for three years, New York School poet Ron Padgett returned to a cabin in Vermont to contemplate “aloneness.” Coffee House Press brings us the Padgett’s own contribution to the romantic history of the cabin, his latest collection of poems, Big Cabin. In spite of his purported pursuit of revelations concerning quietude, mindful presence, and aloneness, in Big Cabin, Ron Padgett exposes the interconnectivity of past and present, the ways our conception of self is defined in relation to others, and how our inescapable sentience and use of language is what both connects and estranges us from the world around us. Unlike Walden and For Emma, Forever Ago, Big Cabin was not born from a desire to recover from or escape humanity, but instead to contemplate aloneness within the context of our relationships to others. On the cusp of seventy-seven years old, Padgett has watched the lives of a number of his close friends and colleagues come to a close. As such, his own cabin-inspired perspective seeks to honor and show appreciation for the impact certain individuals have had on his life, while simultaneously accepting the transient nature of life in preparation to face his own waning years.

Just as moods and opinions waver while the self maintains a fundamental cohesiveness, the essay and poems contained in Big Cabin shift rapidly, often from line-to-line, in perspective and tone, while thematically complimenting each other. Ever the Gemini, Padgett’s poems range from punch-line poems, which would not be out-of-place in a Playboy joke book, to Zen mindfulness in the vein of William Carlos Williams. While individual poems may certainly be read and appreciated isolated from the entirety of collection, they are best examined within the context of the greater whole. Although it is not explicitly stated, the poems seem to be ordered in accordance with when they were written, or at the very least, with a shift in theme from a general preoccupation with the coexistence of past and present, to a concern with relieving himself from his reflections so he may be present with his surroundings. Throughout the collection, Padgett’s poems are haunted by the specter of self-skepticism, constantly calling any given conceptualization into question. Although often inclined towards quips and aphorisms, Padgett is quick to be critical of instances where he feels he has been reductive. Editorial details like self-critique are left in the text alongside real-time reflections on the process of writing. After blasting through the entire collection in a single sitting, which seems impossible not to do, the reader will find themselves in a place of almost invasive familiarity with Padgett’s inner self.

The reflective commentary that Padgett includes in his text centers his poetry in a place of immediacy—that elusive sensation that he seems to be chasing throughout the collection. Nonetheless, he is trailed by his past, by his youthhood which crops up as a voice of judgment or whimsy. The first poem in the collection, the eponymous “Big Cabin,” juxtaposes Padgett’s present advancing age with his youth, connecting these two phases of life together through the process of reflection. Gazing out the window of the cabin noticing nature, his present self faces his past self—his boyhood-self looking at a baseball glove— and realizes the ephemerality of both his interest in baseball and his youth. “I would give it away / and not buy a new one,” he writes of his realization, seeming to imply that the quietude he finds in gazing out the window will also disappear and be either resigned to memory or forgotten.

In various instances, Padgett’s relationship to the consequences of Time is characterized by playfulness, fear, and resignation. The poem “Clocked” introduces Time as a game of human illusion that has unavoidable impacts on human life. Here Padgett references the poem “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell, a perfectly horny poem about a man attempting to convince his mistress to have sex with him, with the justification that it would be nice to pretend that humans have an eternity to live, but the reality is otherwise. As much as it would be a relief to live one’s life unconcerned with time, it is much harder to take such an approach to the losses resulting from its ephemerality. There is a frustrating paradox here: time is not running out, as it is not subject to the transience it measures, but rather, it is humans who are transient and thus give time its meaning. Without sentience, there would be no choice but to live in the present. Without sentience, there would be no time or notion of loss.

The notion of time itself entails change, and depending on one’s way of framing things, loss. Even the sensation of loss itself is subject to loss. Memories emerge in the present, which connect us to our past. Yet as Padgett points out in the poem “Life Without You,” the present’s conception of the past is reductive, boldening certain aspects of what something or someone once was while allowing the vast majority of details and moments to slip through its cracks. “The year 1948 leaps out of itself / and lands on your doorstep, / a writhing mass of strings and bubbles, / and when you open the door and peer out / there is only a drawing of the street where you currently live / in black and white,” Padgett writes on the process of memory. Though we have our records of the past, whether they be held in the mind or in libraries, we are certain to lose what is not documented (and, with further time, even much of that which we have taken great pains to preserve). In many ways, the heightened ephemerality of that which goes unwritten makes such moments of our lives even more precious. When any poet we love and cherish passes away, we lose the space of their life which occurred in between the stanzas. New readers may find their work and examine it as a hermit crab shell found on a beach, yet only speculation can lead to an image of what being once occupied the shell. We may even examine aspects of the vestiges of our own past selves in a similar manner. Likewise, as certain aspects of departed loved ones slip through our fingers, other aspects of their selves cling to our being like a white cat’s fur latches itself onto black clothing (I shun to think of a lint roller which would remove such vestiges of loved ones). “Little did I suspect that as [my friends] died, one by one, they would take a little part of me with them, just as I kept part of them,” Padgett writes in his essay “Completion.” Someday Padgett will pass on, and his poems will remain in my soul. Though I have not met him, his self, past and present, has become integrated into my own being.

As time strips a person of their nuance, mythologies and legacies emerge. Padgett’s poem “Shanghai Cutout” concerns itself with a paper cutout of Charlie Chaplin tacked onto the ceiling where he writes. In the poem, Chaplin, an extreme example of an individual whose being has been reduced through his work to a particular persona, finds himself connected to Padgett not through his Little Tramp antics, but through a mutual stay at the Astor House hotel in Shanghai. “It was a different Shanghai, / and I was a different cutout”, Padgett writes, indicating the way in which ephemerality and durability of the self coexist. Although perhaps to a lesser degree, the poet’s own past self receives a reduction similar in perception as that of any great film icon.

Percy Bysshe Shelley receives a similar treatment in the poem “On Fire”, which considers the fractures which occur between a person and their legacy. “It’s good to think of Shelley / as a person and not / the great Romantic poet / who died at thirty tragically,” Padgett writes before going on to speculate about the minutiae of Shelley’s writing process, like how the candlelight under which Shelley might write would reflect the ink on the page. Perhaps out of fear of what will become of himself, Padgett laments that time takes away the feeble humanity from a person and leaves only the husk of legacy (if that). As if in consolation, he fills in the space between Shelley’s own stanzas to connect himself to a shared experience of quiet scrawling that is easily overlooked. A reflection on the distinction between form and self emerges from the desire to view oneself objectively and perhaps cling to those aspects which might be lost in the reduction to one’s form and legacy.

Padgett’s curiosity about selfhood leads him to interrogate the point at which form and legacy deviate from self, if they do indeed differ. In his poem “Songs of the Skeleton,” he expresses the absurdity of viewing one’s own form separated from one’s self by writing, “How interesting it would be / if one could suddenly dart ahead / of one’s body and turn around / and see it standing there, dumbfounded!” In considering the nature of an inherent self, there comes a point where one must contemplate that frustrating question of the Ship of Theseus. If our self is not equivalent to our form and if our self is constantly being redefined by our interactions with others, what quality it is that makes us us? The task of contemplating aloneness which Padgett has assigned himself seems nearly impossible when an individual cannot be alone within themselves, nor extricate themselves from the selves of others. Padgett touches on this illusion of inconsistent self, if it is indeed an illusion, when he writes, “I’ve known people who thought / they were someone else / and then came back / to being themselves.”

It is, of course, a result of our ability to describe that we have a conceptualization of self to begin with. I’m no linguist, but my understanding is that we attempt to make sense of processes and beings by categorizing aspects, and in turn, essentially speaking such ideas into being through the process of definition. Language, it seems, is a great unifier of self, tying our past as far back as the point at which we acquired an internal voice to our present being. “And so we have the voice in our head, the one we think of as ours, the one we have listened to and even replied to since early childhood, when words became things and not just meaningless sounds,” Padgett writes in the essay “Completion.” It is from this ability to define that an illusion of inconsistency arises, as quickly as it ties us to our own history as well as a collective history. It may perhaps be tautological to say, but when Padgett refers to himself in both the third and the first person, it is through the medium of language that the objective distance at which he views his “past self” becomes intertwined with his “present self”.

I am not sure that it would be very precise to say that our sentience is derived from language and it is our sentience which divides us from capital-N Nature. Such things are so dependent on language and definitions themselves and I fear I am neither rigorous enough of a logical thinker nor sufficiently well-read to make that claim. Regardless, in terms of the experience of being present in the world, the process of language and reflection is always a few steps behind the occurrence of a stimulus in time, thus dividing the thinker from the immediate world that they might consider. Poetry, however, often seems to sit at an interesting intersection between the pure, present moment of a stimulus and the time incurred by analysis. Poetic writing often has an intuitive, reactive quality which preempts the processes of critical analysis, leaving interpretation more open to the reader than prose tends to do. In a sense, poetry may be held in opposition to the processes of logic and rationalism, while also being held in opposition to the unreflected action (an exception can be made for where the act of poetry itself is the “doing”). Many of the poems in Big Cabin speak to Padgett’s own discomfort with the conflict between reflecting and being present. “Why can’t I be contented with looking out this window at the inverted reflection of tall pines and spruces, quavering on the water, the light blue-gray sky below them?” he writes. In his poem “Sweeping Away,” he resolves to not write poetry, yet in doing so he subjects the poem to a place of reflection upon the process of reflection. In another instance he uses fun, meaningless sound-words like “glump glump” to delight in the act of making sound—this may be the closest Padgett comes to being fully present in the collection, however, its function is to probe into the idea of language stripped of communication and therefore is again inextricably tied to the process of sentient reflection.

Padgett’s frustration with the unavoidability of reflection seems to be linked to a romanticization of Nature and an association of human sentience with a perversion of Nature. “When written down, such a “poetic” image is at first pleasing, then mainly distracting, which makes me dislike it, though I like it out there on the pond, the “real” pond,” he writes. “Realness” is held in contrast to poetry although it is only through the process of interpretation that a concept, such as a pond, can originate. Still, his frustration is familiar to anyone who has looked up at a big, fat moon and tried to take a picture of it. What language and reproduction can encapsulate is inherently diluted. If Thoreau’s experiments at Walden pond to achieve self-sufficiency and achieve unity with “the land” are considered to be a failure, so too are Padgett’s experiments in contemplating aloneness and absolution through Nature by the means of language, for he cannot fully extricate his own self from others, nor separate himself from the process of reflection. It may be noble to seek unity with surroundings and fully surrender to the present—people spend their whole lives in pursuit of such a state of being. Certainly, any attempt to prevent the fading away which inevitably come in time is feeble. That we have somehow developed an ability to not only react but reflect on the impetus of Nature may have resulted in a burdensome clunkiness. But without our corrupted way of making sense of things, there would be no Ron Padgett.


Katherine Beaman is a writer and engineer living in Atlanta. Her critical and semi-critical writing may be found in Asymptote Journal, Fashion Studies Journal, and Burning House Press, among other places.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 1st, 2019.