Last New Year’s Eve I attended a lovely celebration, and on New Year’s Day I woke with my hair full of a fistful of stars. I was laced with confetti thrown the night before by the jubilant hands of a then-eight-year-old, now-nine-year-old friend. While I thought about my resolutions the next morning, about possibilities my own New Year might hold, that young friend’s parents were vacuuming their carpet , then going onto their hands and knees, picking up all the fallen stars.
For this New Year’s Eve, here are six lines from an Irish poet and five lines from an African American poet. In Delanty’s poem, I do disagree with the ban but understand the grief, and how the blunt, new law, its imperative voice, defines the stark absence of the beloveds. Clifton’s poem gets at a dynamic of creativity, not so much about the failures and repetitions that proceed toward making or perfecting a particular object, rather, how it is by failure that evolution proceeds. By means of mutations, the failures of reiterating or reading the “true” names of exact strands of DNA, new species emerge, and by failure, too, we so often discover, grow, and intensify human relationships and cultures.
A New Law by Greg Delanty
Let there be a ban on every holiday.
No ringing in the new year.
No fireworks doodling the warm night air.
No holly on the door. I say
let there be no more.
For many are not here who were here before.
The Making of Poems by Lucille Clifton
the reason why i do it
though i fail and fail
in the giving of true names
is i am adam and his mother
and these failures are my job.
On holidays, like New Year’s Eve, when we turn to kiss a someone and that someone isn’t there—perhaps the someone has died, or perhaps a relationship was irrevocably broken sometime in the 12 months since last Auld Lang song was sung—we may acutely feel the absence of another as a kind of presence in itself, a hole shaped like the reality we knew and loved. Often there are other days: anniversaries of death or birth or a Thanksgiving gathering with one less seat at the table, when we acutely grieve a beloved and feel the shape of an absence.
New Year’s Eve, though, is a little different, as some of the absences we might grieve are not losses of human beings but losses of possibilities for our own lives. It’s a holiday particularly apt for noticing, as we do on no other day, the things that didn’t happen, didn’t come to fruition, didn’t follow the plan, the once-in-lifetime possibilities lost during the past 12 months, or maybe resolutions made with great determination and the highest of hopes only and exactly a year ago, resolutions that were not carried very far into the year still new. New Year’s Eve can be a kind of secular Yom Kippur, hidden within us, not wholly unlike New Year’s Day can become something of a degenerate Rosh Hashanah, a feast of American football rather than of trumpets.
Maybe there was bodily weight to be lost or gained or miles to be run. Maybe one’s voice was never again going to be raised at one’s teenager. Maybe there waits in one’s own city, a Little Brother or Little Sister never met. Or, maybe that dream job was not applied for or was filled by someone else. Maybe the planned marriage didn’t happen, or it did happen but the experiences of being married are not those one thought were possible. Maybe the book was going to be finished and find its publisher. Maybe a child was to be conceived. All those shapes of absences fill the room, invisibly, just before we blow the horns. It is likely I have failed you and, maybe, almost certainly, I have failed myself.
Those lost possibilities, failed resolutions, are they really lost? If time splays forth radiantly, might we ourselves never know the reach of the unformed possibilities, even those residing, we think, solely within us, hidden in our minds and bodies? What happens to those things we’ve never made happen?
Sometimes I think about—and grieve—the un-composed symphonies of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who died on 5 December 1791 at the age of 35, with so many possibilities, full-fledged ideas even, still alive within him. That is one of the greatest sadnesses of human death for me: the way anyone’s death, anywhere, every death, is also the death of those particular possibilities that might have been realized, those singular surges of creativity and new or deepened relations that seem to die when a human dies.
I think if you open a bit of time, about 9 minutes, you will not regret listening to the final movement of the last symphony Mozart completed, his 41st. The movement itself, Molto Allegro, is below. I love this symphony, especially the Great Fugue at the very end of this movement. It always makes me wonder, along with his Requiem, what strange, neverbefore style Mozart would’ve unfolded had he lived longer. The 2nd movement of this same symphony is also such an original, non-classical-style composition. I grieve what was evolving… for it was very big, and very strange, a kind of new musical species, and it would have carried my emotions as nothing else will carry them.
The loss of possibility is a real loss. But does the possibility die with our failures of living into realization in and through our own lives? If time splays radiantly, and I think it does, truly, then those possibilities may have been or are yet to be translated, reinterpreted, entered into other lives, other makings. So many composers after Mozart were influenced, not only by his existing works, but most of all by his trajectory toward the strange and new, the freeing urge within him that had grown yet not fully been realized, to let the existing classical forms of harmony fail themselves, shift toward dissonance, to lengthen and depart from sonata form, let the “what” of a symphony move beyond itself as already existing. Beethoven, who greatly admired Mozart and wished his entire life that he could have studied with him (another possibility lost to Mozart’s early death), took up some of Mozart’s own trajectory of possibility. Beethoven’s modes of drawing out the development of themes, his unfurling in his own singular ways some of Mozart’s lure toward dissonance made new music that could carry and even drive our own human longings further into their intensities, and sometimes into their deeply satisfying resolutions, the possible realized and made!
What if our own losses, our failures, open other, unknown possibilities, not only for our own future living and becoming, but for the makings in and of other lives? As we are so deeply constituted by our relations with others, so those possibilities lost to us, are often discovered or translated into constellations of becoming other than those we would call our own. What is learning, after all, both formal education and the learning to know another person more intimately, but a translation and re-gathering of undone possibilities and potentials from one human life into the motions of another, different life? When students read Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality, it is not only for what Whitehead discerned and connected and wrote, but for and into the directions he was not able to follow, those possibilities he did not take, or turned his back to noticing, or could not notice, because they required future interactions that had not yet happened. His lost possibilities and his failures, gaps, become sites of our own unfolding of thought and feeling beyond Whitehead’s own imaginings. I think that’s what he meant by Adventures of Ideas.
Really, you and I will never know what will become of our own lost possibilities, what and how they might be discovered by and adventure through lives other than our own. Failure and loss are not necessarily the terrible outcomes that they appear to be from the perspective of a single life or moment. What departures will be facilitated by our own failures, in our lives perhaps, but certainly into realizations belonging to another? What if those failures are one of the jobs of existing at all? Of passing forth into change beyond ourselves? The opportunity for the personally controlled Possibility Fulfilled Like This may have passed, and may be grieved, may make the shape of an absence only known in the privacy of a single psyche, but are those personal possibilities really that singular? And do they really belong only to us?
What if it is the motion of those lost possibilities in the hidden realms between us that are invisibly mingling and being offered, one to another, just before the blowing of the horns? Oh, the fallen stars… My friend, who is now nine years old, has parents who saved last year’s confetti, vacuumed and gathered piece by piece from the floor, and we’ll all be throwing it again, and all that same glitter will be landing again mostly on different heads than it did last year. Some of it, some of last year’s stars, I’ll wake to again in the morning, tangled again into my hair amid those stars that last year fell elsewhere.
Here’s conductor Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra performing the Molto Allegro of Mozart’s Symphony 41 in C Major.