Unfolding a Poem – Dan Schneider’s The Passings

There are years to go before the last perfect day

Read the line above. The beginning of Dan Schneider’s sonnet – The Passings.

If you have never ever read this sonnet before in your life, and have no inkling of what comes after, I advise you to do the following. Read the line above, ruminate on the mood it brings. Then, take a sheet of paper, click the link, and cover up every other line besides the first with that sheet of paper. Try, as much as possible, to avoid the rest of the words as your gaze sweeps across the monitor.

Afterwards, unfold the poem line-by-line, and, with each line, ponder about the atmosphere and narrative of the poem thus far. With every unfolding, reread the poem from the very beginning.

Compared to the other analyses I have done thus far, this one will be slightly different. Rather than a stanza-by-stanza critique, I will be following an unfolding of my own, and I will tell you my thoughts as each line is revealed.

And so, we return to the first line:

                  THE PASSINGS

There are years to go before the last perfect day

A posit that tickles thought. For now, we have no notion of a place, period, or narrator, but the tone, guided by the soft sounds, is wistful. We do not know exactly what constitutes the perfection of this day, but, combined with the title, it would not be far-fetched to say that some of you might associate this with some kind of internal memory passing. Perhaps a narrator, middle aged or older, looking into the future of his last perfect day. Either way, this line hangs in the air, and has yet to be grounded.

                  THE PASSINGS

There are years to go before the last perfect day
on Earth. Then the sun will begin to swell, and life

But, suddenly, a small addition jams the poem into a greater outlook with the introduction of a few concrete objects (Earth, sun), though, it could still very well fit into the analysis that this is from the standpoint of an internal rumination (his last perfect day on Earth). Furthermore, with the sun, a transition occurs that maps an event after that posited last day, the swelling of the sun, and an enjambment at ‘life’. Things are concrete, but not completely. There is a positive feeling here, as the swelling of the sun could be a kind of heavenly metaphor, and the association of life with the swelling seems to imply renewal.

                  THE PASSINGS

There are years to go before the last perfect day
on Earth. Then the sun will begin to swell, and life
will cease, shorelines will retreat as oceans boil,

…until this line completes the idea, and now we know where the standpoint of the poem is. There is no narrator revealed yet, but the poem has suddenly transformed into a comment on the material cosmos, and the finitude of Earth. The ‘perfection’, then, of the first line, becomes tinged with a slight irony, for the perfection is no longer directed at anything human, but dwells in the Earth itself. The tone changes from something abstract & possible personal, to concretely and materially cosmic. The swelling of the sun takes a negative aspect, given that this is referring to a concrete real event of the star’s death leading to the boiling of the oceans. The comma after ‘cease’ functions to give the same abruptness as ‘on Earth’, but that, and the comma at the end, implies the process not yet at its end. There will be more.

                  THE PASSINGS

There are years to go before the last perfect day
on Earth. Then the sun will begin to swell, and life
will cease, shorelines will retreat as oceans boil,
and all will glow a barren red and airless gray.

And this line hammers the tone further, especially with the two well-chosen adjectives ‘barren’ and ‘airless’ which continue the soft (now sombre) music but heightens the negativity. The period, at this moment, ending the stanza, feels absolutely heavy, and the series of commas in the middle mimics exactly that ‘swelling’ before petering to a stop. Notice the simplicity of the description and color.

                  THE PASSINGS

There are years to go before the last perfect day
on Earth. Then the sun will begin to swell, and life
will cease, shorelines will retreat as oceans boil,
and all will glow a barren red and airless gray.

By then I will be shadow, long dead. Now, I live

But – what’s this? Exactly when the subject seems to be defined for us, it takes another turn, giving us exactly what we expected earlier by finally turning the poem over to the internal. A narrator appears and affirms the previous renewal. ‘Live’ especially, being a verb, functions stronger than the earlier noun in line 2, though the narrator has also accepted finitude. Describing himself as a ‘shadow’ works to give his death an image, but, due to the previous description of flame, it also becomes strongly concretized for we can easily imagine the narrator’s shadow in the form of ash like the famous imprints of the Hiroshima bombing victims. In a way, this turn makes the internal meditation stronger as opposed to if the very beginning of the poem had started with such meditation.

                  THE PASSINGS

There are years to go before the last perfect day
on Earth. Then the sun will begin to swell, and life
will cease, shorelines will retreat as oceans boil,
and all will glow a barren red and airless gray.

By then I will be shadow, long dead. Now, I live
amid joys and sorrows, with the love of a girl

Continuing with the internal, with various juxtaposed feelings of ‘joys and sorrows’ – everything still floats in the air but there is now, revealed, “the love of a girl”. This can be read in two ways, that the narrator feels love just like a girl, or is actually in love with a girl. Note that though I used masculine pronouns, this narrator’s gender has yet to be decided. Most might expect this poem to veer into some kind of romance poem at this very moment. And, given the subversion at the very start, if Dan had taken that route, it could very easily have become a great one as well.

                  THE PASSINGS

There are years to go before the last perfect day
on Earth. Then the sun will begin to swell, and life
will cease, shorelines will retreat as oceans boil,
and all will glow a barren red and airless gray.

By then I will be shadow, long dead. Now, I live
amid joys and sorrows, with the love of a girl
in a backseat, behind her mommy and daddy,

Yet, it veers off again – this time into somewhere even more unpredictable. For now we know the narrator refocuses on the girl, putting her in a place as an actual person “in a backseat, behind her mommy and daddy”. This kills the first interpretation because it is not the narrator – not ‘my mommy and daddy’ – and does heavy damage to the second interpretation, although it could still be possible that the narrator is now explaining who the girl actually is by providing details about her. Though, given the childish ‘mommy and daddy’ – the girl is now mapped to be a child and is very unlikely as a subject of romance.

With both these two interpretations out of the way, this opens up to the third, most plausible, and greatest frame to view this part of the poem from – that the narrator is some kind of poetic spirit (though, a material one, for this spirit can die), Dan himself though possibly also being any other creator in general, reliving this moment either based on someone he knew, or on a totally imaginary scenario. That this idea can be read reconfigures the thrust of the poem thus far, bringing it up into a vaster cosmic-creative view while still focusing on this small scenario. ‘Joys and sorrows’ too, is raised up from ordinary feeling into possibly the feelings experienced within the creative process as the narrator dives into this scene and sketches out this child.

                  THE PASSINGS

There are years to go before the last perfect day
on Earth. Then the sun will begin to swell, and life
will cease, shorelines will retreat as oceans boil,
and all will glow a barren red and airless gray.

By then I will be shadow, long dead. Now, I live
amid joys and sorrows, with the love of a girl
in a backseat, behind her mommy and daddy,
as they pilgrim to a motel in New Hampshire,

This line sketches out the scene in a precise place, and the comma also leaves it open to continue in the remaining stanzas. ‘Pilgrim’ is an interesting descriptor to use because of the religious connotations, as well as its uncommonality in general. Though compared to the other lines, this line does not have as much subversive quality, it still helps facilitate the completion of the stanza and continues the scene. Now the cosmic has been re-arranged to a hyper-focus on the particular, even providing the place with a name.

                  THE PASSINGS

There are years to go before the last perfect day
on Earth. Then the sun will begin to swell, and life
will cease, shorelines will retreat as oceans boil,
and all will glow a barren red and airless gray.

By then I will be shadow, long dead. Now, I live
amid joys and sorrows, with the love of a girl
in a backseat, behind her mommy and daddy,
as they pilgrim to a motel in New Hampshire,

blowing kisses out her window to teenage strays,

And the introduction to the new stanza focuses upon her actions in particular. The act of blowing kisses juxtaposed against ‘teenage strays’ – for me, at least, creates the image that she is the one passing them in this instance, and this image is facilitated by the sound of the line, making it whip past.

                  THE PASSINGS

There are years to go before the last perfect day
on Earth. Then the sun will begin to swell, and life
will cease, shorelines will retreat as oceans boil,
and all will glow a barren red and airless gray.

By then I will be shadow, long dead. Now, I live
amid joys and sorrows, with the love of a girl
in a backseat, behind her mommy and daddy,
as they pilgrim to a motel in New Hampshire,

blowing kisses out her window to teenage strays,
drunk in a sportscar, honking and cursing at her

This is probably the ‘ugliest’ line in the entire poem. Notice how much the tones contrast with the rest, ‘drunk’ ‘honking’ ‘cursing’ – in quick succession, forcing a subversion of the music yet keeping to that idea of movement by the progressive verb. Think now, in this poem, how many things have ‘passed’ and how many layers, from the macro to micro, have we gone into. Notice how far we have shifted from a narrator, a personal view, or a cosmic one.

                  THE PASSINGS

There are years to go before the last perfect day
on Earth. Then the sun will begin to swell, and life
will cease, shorelines will retreat as oceans boil,
and all will glow a barren red and airless gray.

By then I will be shadow, long dead. Now, I live
amid joys and sorrows, with the love of a girl
in a backseat, behind her mommy and daddy,
as they pilgrim to a motel in New Hampshire,

blowing kisses out her window to teenage strays,
drunk in a sportscar, honking and cursing at her
family squareback’s pace, as they are full on passing,

The enjambment of the previous line gets subverted again, and the image, for now we see that it is her family that is being passed, while the teenagers are drunk in their speed. The appearance of the title verb, finally, at this moment in time, also signals that a shift is about to happen – everything will come into unison.

                  THE PASSINGS

There are years to go before the last perfect day
on Earth. Then the sun will begin to swell, and life
will cease, shorelines will retreat as oceans boil,
and all will glow a barren red and airless gray.

By then I will be shadow, long dead. Now, I live
amid joys and sorrows, with the love of a girl
in a backseat, behind her mommy and daddy,
as they pilgrim to a motel in New Hampshire,

blowing kisses out her window to teenage strays,
drunk in a sportscar, honking and cursing at her
family squareback’s pace, as they are full on passing,
as if they are ready to face eternal sleep,

After that stretch of ugliness, we pull out into something firmly abstract, subverting the ones who are passing, speeding, blind, cursing, as the ones who head into ‘eternal sleep’. Yet in the greater macroscopic view of things, this links up to ideas in the first stanza and throughout, of mortality, finality, and eventually. The narrator (implied as the poet) pegs himself to the girl who is enjoying the moment, slow as they are, supported by the sombre beauty of the lyric.

                  THE PASSINGS

There are years to go before the last perfect day
on Earth. Then the sun will begin to swell, and life
will cease, shorelines will retreat as oceans boil,
and all will glow a barren red and airless gray.

By then I will be shadow, long dead. Now, I live
amid joys and sorrows, with the love of a girl
in a backseat, behind her mommy and daddy,
as they pilgrim to a motel in New Hampshire,

blowing kisses out her window to teenage strays,
drunk in a sportscar, honking and cursing at her
family squareback’s pace, as they are full on passing,
as if they are ready to face eternal sleep,

as they leave her family behind on the highway,

Now get ready for the killer…

                  THE PASSINGS

There are years to go before the last perfect day
on Earth. Then the sun will begin to swell, and life
will cease, shorelines will retreat as oceans boil,
and all will glow a barren red and airless gray.

By then I will be shadow, long dead. Now, I live
amid joys and sorrows, with the love of a girl
in a backseat, behind her mommy and daddy,
as they pilgrim to a motel in New Hampshire,

blowing kisses out her window to teenage strays,
drunk in a sportscar, honking and cursing at her
family squareback’s pace, as they are full on passing,
as if they are ready to face eternal sleep,

as they leave her family behind on the highway,
that is endless, and endless, and everything.

Before ending off this analysis, I’d like to bring your attention to Philip Larkin’s High Windows – a great poem in itself. Dan has said in another essay that the last line here is indebted to it. You might even notice some similarities in the themes, focusing on adolescence and a kind of ‘transition’. Now compare both poems, maybe try the same unfolding technique – and ask yourself: which is the better poem? Which has more subversions, more layers? Which is more mature? Which is less melodramatic? Which one reaches higher? Which one will men with eyes be speaking about more, 50, 100, 500, 1000 years from now?

That is the meaning of objectivity.

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