In 1899, Romantic composer, Ernest Chausson, went out for a bicycle ride. While riding downhill, he hit a brick wall and was killed instantly, cutting short a promising career. In her poem about Chausson’s death, Denise Levertov imagines him riding, his mind filled with music and the colors of the countryside, both gaining in intensity as he gathers speed, takes flight on his bicycle. And then the wall, and a sudden silence.
I’ve owned Breathing the Water, Levertov’s collection of poems in which “From the Image-Flow — Death of Chausson, 1899” is printed, for twentysome years. I’m uncertain how many times, in those years, I’ve read this poem without real comprehension. I didn’t know who Chausson was and never felt enough curiosity to look him up. Furthermore, as someone who didn’t ride a bike, I didn’t catch her allusions to cycling.
This week, I happened to read the poem again and, although she never uses the word “bicycle”, I knew. I finally understood the poem (not just the words she used), and I caught on to the manner of Chausson’s death without resorting to Wikipedia (though I did look it up just to be sure).
What made the difference to my comprehension, this time around? It wasn’t imagination, I’ve certainly had the same ability to conjure thoughts and mental pictures at other times. And I doubt it was merely a matter of timing. No, what opened me up to the imagery of the poem was experience: the flash of recognition that comes with having practical contact with and observation of facts or events.
There was a time in my life when I did not seek out experiences. A long period in which it seemed enough to imagine, dream or surmise how a thing might feel; to use books or other people’s life stories as a guide. “Practical contact” might lead to things I feared, things like pain or grief or disappointment – so I avoided it. I anesthetized myself with food, and protected my tender possibilities with layers of fat that held other people and direct experience at bay. Eventually, I protected myself into near self-obliteration – both literally and figuratively. Almost worse than the erasure of my own life was the discovery that I had completely blunted my ability to feel empathy or compassion.
I had lost my ability to feel my way into a poem.
That changed when I began to say yes to new experiences. I even made it a New Year’s resolution one year: “Say yes to people and doing, no to staying home and sitting.” Today, a few years down the line from that sterile space I once inhabited, I have not quite become an advocate of stockpiling experiences for their own sake. I still don’t understand the adrenaline-junkies among us, for example. But I have become a vociferous supporter of trying the things that call to you. This has led me to experiences I wouldn’t exchange for “safety”, even though some were emotionally difficult – experiences that opened my heart and engaged my intellect, experiences that allowed beauty to blow open my perceptions or that drew forth gifts I had hidden deep within.
If I hadn’t allowed myself to open up to experience, I wouldn’t have felt the grief of this past week following the death of a friend. But I also wouldn’t have felt the balm of connection or the solidarity of shared loss.
After such a week, this is the two-fold gift of Chausson’s bicycle. First, the realization that my capacities (to see, to feel, to express) are enriched by engaging with new or broader experience. Second, that life cannot be fully lived if I’m always looking fearfully for the unseen brick wall ahead. Like Levertov’s imagined composer, I intend to ride fast and free, to hear arpeggios in the passing stream and revel in the flashing colors of this world. The wall and the silence are somewhere ahead: this I know. Even so, I will keep my feet to the pedals.