Saturday, April 9, 2016

Futures (a sonnet)

By Eric Meub


We had then (still) tomorrow, Saarinen,
a Trans-World tapered, curled, stiletto heeled,
and Kahn. We thought we’d live without a Penn
Station (what a leveled playing field).

The wood was different, rosaries rehearsed
on lips of pews, long sills collecting faces,
waiting rooms of liturgy traversed
in kneeling-rising time-relenting spaces.

We don’t go in for firmaments these days,
accustomed to hair-raising emptiness,
and Gehry, pundits piling-on to praise
the new. (The optimism we finesse.)

The pews are polished, marble pavements rinsed,
but could an Eliot be, today, convinced?

Copyright © 2016 by Eric Meub
Eric Meub, architect, lives and practices in Pasadena. He is the adopted brother of the artist, Susan C. Price. They respect, in their different ways, the line.


  1. Wow! What a fine, but difficult poem. It's useful to know about the modern architect Saarinen, who designed the finest modern air terminal in New York; Kahn, who resurrected Roman architecure for modern times; and Ghery's hypermodernistic and too slick designs of modern art museums.
    You contrast this with the real devotion experienced by praying in old churches in a truly flowing, wonderful stanza.
    And this is finally related to the poet Eliot, whose life seemed like a search for an ever truer home, as he left St. Louis for Harvard and Oxford and Britain.
    This last point troubles me.
    Perhaps some other readers can help out.

    1. Rolf, maybe this will help: The sonnet's title refers to plural futures, one of which is now from the point of view of some decades ago (from Eliot's time); the other is what now awaits us, which is unspecified. Our future (the future from the point of view of the poem's persona) is indeterminate, and the persona seems to me to be ambivalent toward both Eliot's devotional past (which the poem does NOT pronounce "real") and the secular present (which the poem does label empty). The persona seems to identify with Eliot in longing for meaning, but separates himself from Eliot by acknowledging his ambivalence toward the possibility of finding it.

  2. It occurred to me that rather than Eliot's life, the mention of the poet in the final cuplet of the sonnet refers to his magnum opus, The Waste Land, whose theme, in one sentence, is "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark", applied to modern European civilization.
    Thus,both the well polished church benches and the squeaky clean marble of Ghery's temples, or those of other modern architects, refute Eliot's idea of our modern culture's rottenness.
    This way the sonett makes sense.

    In any case, the theme of Eliot's poem makes much more sense to the generation living between the great wars.

    1. Rolf, I don't think I can go along with you in taking the poem's reference to Eliot as a reference to his oeuvre, or to a particular work. I rather think your description in your first comment of the seeker Eliot (the person) is accurate, and I went along with it in my comment on that comment.

  3. Today's NY Times article "A Canopy Where Les Halles Once Reigned Gets Parisian Welcome" refers to the destruction of Penn Station and, in so doing, reminded me of Eric's reference to it in this sonnet. The Times says: "Paris has never quite gotten over the destruction of Les Halles....The city’s planners were never forgiven for a mistake that almost instantly took its place in the pantheon of the great architectural blunders, smack alongside the destruction of New York’s old Penn Station."
        It reminded me of the poem's presentation of the future we now inhabit. My sense of "Futures" remains, that mankind's longing for meaning is steadier than any actual meaning grasped at, including the Christian and the modern European secularist. The pyramid at the Louvre and the stained glass windows at Chartres, Sant-Denis, Notre Dame, and Ste-Chapelle feel equally empty to the detached, existential poet, who I think is the poem's persona.
        Perhaps I am wrong about the sonnet's persona - perhaps I'm projecting onto the poem my own sense of being a tourist with respect to meanings I cannot own (like Christianity and Modernism). I wonder whether your reading "real devotion" into the poem implies that you are comfortable owning Christianity? (I do think you're reading that into it; several clues suggest that the persona doesn't share the ownership: "rosaries rehearsed," "long sills collecting faces," "liturgy traversed.")
        Anyway, I appreciate the provocation of the poem, and our commentary.

  4. Dear Rolf and Morris,

    Sorry to be late replying: I have been struggling with conflicting deadlines and incessant business travel. What excellent and careful readers you both are! I am privileged to receive your comments.

    I am afraid my own account of the poem may not be as lofty as the readings you have both discovered. Not that my reading is the “correct” one! As usual, I start with Susan’s drawing. Her portraits often catch a melancholy look (perhaps the model is bored). In this case, I very much wanted to capture that expression of loss and bewilderment. Based on a judgment of the man’s age, I started with nostalgia for the optimism of the high Modern movement in architecture. Our man begins with a list of masters. When he gets to Kahn, however, his stream-of-consciousness leads him to Penn Station (where Kahn died). Suddenly our man is nostalgic for both Modernism and the earlier architectural artifacts Modernism displaced. Reminiscing about this earlier past leads him to reminisce about the church, perhaps from his childhood. Now he is really in trouble, juggling two very different longings: for Modernism and for the Church, whose dogmas and ritual would seem the very antithesis of the modern agenda. In an attempt to reconcile these two halves of his thinking, he gropes at a common enemy: the irony and flippancy of contemporary culture. But this is a negative synthesis, not a positive one. Eliot comes to mind at the end: Eliot the modern maverick who was not unchurched by his modernism; Eliot the literary revolutionary who was also Eliot the Christian apologist; Eliot the paradox who provides the overlap this man needs between the longings of his heart and the longings of his mind. Probably too much to squeeze into a poem, so I really appreciate your own readings. Thanks so much! Eric

    1. Thank you, Eric – I needed to be reminded of the role Susan's drawings play in your writing process. What I have referred to as "the poem's persona" didn't take that into account. I hope to be a better reader of your sonnets in future.
          So sorry for your business travail – may you have a good, long respite from it soon!
          I hadn't ever thought of Eliot as positive synthesis. I think I have rather stood in disbelief that such an intelligent man could really have believed the Christian mythology. How could he stand in Chartres Cathedral, or in Abbot Suger's Saint-Denis, and not feel as relieved as I to be free of that entanglement, even if in some awe at the engineering and architectural beauty of the physical structures? For me, far from the myth's satisfying the heart's longings, its magical thinking inebriates the mind.
          But I accept that the man imagined from Susan's drawing does need an overlap between the longings of his heart and mind. Poetic license!

  5. A question has been put to me by another reader of this commentary, a question that others may be thinking of asking:

    [W]hat part of Christianity are you referring to when you speak of a "myth"? Obviously that spans everything from Genesis to Revelation, which is quite a mix of poetry, prophecy, personal letters, and historical narrative.

    The Genesis-to-Revelations scope of Christianity that is "obvious" to a Bible scholar or Christian apologist is not what I had in mind. Is that the view that Jesus taught? As I understand Christianity, its core tenet is that the most miserable, unlettered person can be redeemed: Jesus was the messiah, sent by his "heavenly father" to die for the salvation of the least sort of person - "whosoever believeth in him," not just members of the theological 1%. It is this lowest common denominator of Christian belief that I referred to as "the Christian mythology." John 3:16, not Genesis or Revelations.