The poem The Evil Days, from the sequence of related poems that makes up Charles Reznifoff’s fragmentary magnum opus, Jerusalem the Brave, has a title that alludes to lines from Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. At the start of some of the books of Paradise Lost, before resuming the narrative, Milton would write lines to call upon the muses, or God, to grant him the inspiration to be able to go on with his tale. These sections contained allusions to Milton’s own life at the time, the time being early in the Restoration, during which he lived in ignominy, a recognised enemy of the Stewart king:
I sing with mortal voice, unchanged
To hoarse or mute, though fallen on evil days,
On evil days though fallen, and evil tongues;
In darkness, and with dangers compassed round,
The ‘darkness’ that Milton mentions here is not entirely figurative: to add to his troubles, he was rapidly going blind. By the time he finished Paradise Lost, unable to read or write, he was dictating to a scribe. It is this aspect of Milton’s ‘evil days’ that are referenced in Reznikoff’s poem.
The Evil Days
The sun lights up
each mote upon the table,
but the old man
finds the page blurred
and lights the lamp.
With the precision of language and image of the objectivist poets with whom he is associated, Reznikoff recreates the image of the old man going blind, though without any of the drama of Milton’s passage. Like Joyce, whose protagonist in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, unconsciously follows a peaceful modern day Odyssey, Reznikoff has made a humdrum everyday scene resonate with epic tragedy.
There is a hint of irony here, though. The old man seems unconcerned that he can no longer make out the natural beauty that the sun highlights – he just wants to read, so he turns the light on. Perhaps, like Joyce’s Bloom, he’s a practical sort of bloke, or perhaps he is bravely resigned to fate. I think Reznikoff is quite keen to remind us that there is beauty in our surroundings, however; even on a table and even on the back streets of New York where most of his poems are set.
And as always, beauty is all the more alluring when we know it won’t last – such evil days, in one way or another, await us all.