April 22: Irving Feldman's "Stretched Out at Length"

The poem below is one section of Irving Feldman’s “All of Us Here,” the centerpiece of his 1986 collection of the same name. The sequence, inspired by an exhibition of George Segal’s sculptures, is an intricate and haunting meditation that has been the subject of academic study; an essay on Feldman’s work by Charles Altieri describes the way that a room full of Segal’s figures “proposes a world turned to simulacra, a horrifying sense of post-Holocaust indifference to difference,” and becomes a challenge to the very notion of identity. In this many-voiced poem of nineteen parts, Feldman, both a heady poet-philospher and a purveyor of straight talk, honors our search for a coherent self in the face of what Altieri terms our “endlessly proliferating doubles.”

Stretched Out at Length

Stretched out at length on the ground
—one might think them dreamers in a meadow—
how young they all appear now,
as yet unbent into characters,
but as if at any moment they
may climb, grown and whole, out
of the cracked open molds, and step
lightly into other worlds . . .
Who wouldn’t follow them there!
But their dust is old,
earth is old and craves
a sense for its shambles,
why it should be this and only
this broken, low horizon of clods
the empty furrow cast up
in the course of defining itself.

And we, have we no sense to offer
to ease the torment of this earth?
—standing here, craning necks, squinting,
twisting ourselves half upside down over
the puzzle of these foreshortenings,
these fevered limbs, knobs, bulges like
the scrabbled ware of a potter’s field.
But for all our triumphs of contortion,
we can’t resolve the clutter into
figures intelligible like ourselves.
Or they refuse to make themselves clear.
A hidden life—turned low to endure—
persists in there, and contends with us,
with itself, with everything
for the meaning of the life.
And will not let us rest
though we pursue it down through
the last scattering
                         —ourselves suddenly
landlocked here, at our limit,
grappling for our own coherence
among clots of dirt, rock, soil . . .

Even as we rouse ourselves
from the spell of earth,
even as we straighten up and start
to disperse and move on to other things
—something, perhaps to gather
itself in prayer, perhaps
to touch its life
to the life of dust,
something sinks to its knees in us,
something falls all the way
and doesn’t stop.

Learn more about Collected Poems, 1954-2004