I have a feeling there is no name for

This longing comes over me, exciting but unpleasant: Is it a memory? What is it called?

Topics: Fiction, Since You Asked, Poetry,

Dear Cary,

I am a young, female graduate student with the usual disclaimer: fantastic relationship, material necessities covered, living in a lovely city, great family, plenty of friends, happy and content, etc.

Here is my problem: I am occasionally (about once per week) gripped by an intense emotion that, as far as I can tell, does not have a name yet. The emotion is partly like nostalgia, partly like loneliness, and partly like excitement. I think it is what one would feel if she were about to leave everything she knows and embark on a great adventure of the epic and medieval sort. It usually lasts for about an hour.

This feeling is very unpleasant to me, like a powerful longing for someone who is gone. At first I thought that it was a longing for someone who wasn’t there, but I have tried visiting everyone I know and going everywhere I can go, and it never resolves it — I just have to wait an hour and then it is gone.

My other clue is that I only feel this way when the sun’s rays are particularly yellow and glancing, as on summer evenings.

Could there be something missing in my life, or is this just an unstudied chemical reaction to different light stimuli? Could I be subconsciously remembering something glorious that happened to me on a summer evening when I was very young? I am out of ideas, and I think I want this feeling to go away, although it is the most powerful emotion that I feel and so perhaps it is special and should be preserved. What do you think?


Dear Stephanie,

I think it should be preserved. Poetry is the only medium strong enough yet supple enough to preserve all the flavor of such a strange fruit — the bite, the tang, the overpowering sweetness, the slight dizziness if one takes too much at once.

It is as though you had taken apart some poem we cannot remember and laid its pieces at our feet and said, what is this? Its pieces are funny and startling, naked in their disconnectedness, never seen alone before. Your formulation has an ingenue’s ingenuity about it, so that one is wary of falling into the ruse of a graduate student’s mind. Also, it has the simple charm of a recipe, complete with a baking time of exactly one hour.

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You have walked into the parlor out of a dream and handed us this thing; we too are thence transformed.

Also, as a show of excellent good taste, you have elected not to luxuriate in this feeling but to despise it, as if to say, you, too, dislike it. That it is unpleasant to you also suggests that you are either sophisticated enough to know that such an ecstasy must be resisted, or too young to have a taste for the bittersweet. I wish I knew which one it is. I wish I knew Donne better. I wish I had more Shakespeare …  or Dryden? Spenser? Who knows? Or is it perhaps a gloss on one of those episodes of the wracked psyche that appear in Nabokov from time to time, the piercing, sudden ecstasy of memory, complete with lighting (the yellowish light suggestive of a moment preserved in amber). And where are the butterflies? I imagine one hovering outside the frame, its wings breathing out the seconds until the episode subsides.

What I love most is your faux-scientific inquiry into this seizure of poetic feeling: Taking it at face value, you have visited all the places it might be a longing for and found them naturally wanting, for no place or person is the correlative of this. It is what it is — that’s what I think you’re getting at. It is not a shadow of anything.

And if that is not what you are getting at then I will say it for you: It is what it is. It is not a shadow of anything. As such it is divine.

Though it feels like the clever deconstruction of some infinite poetic moment, I hold out for the possibility that you have not done this consciously, that you are not toying with us, but rather the muses are toying with all of us; perhaps your muse has delivered such a moment for your pleasure and inspection without your even knowing it. Perhaps this is a strange gift left at your bedside in the night.

Whether it is your construction or just some gift left at your bedside, it is indeed a gift to me, mysterious as it is, and faintly mocking, as if surely I am missing the precise allusion. So thank you for this. And if you should indeed be looking for some guidance, I can only say that the only medium for its preservation is poetry — the amber that preserves the heart’s prehistory.


What? You want more advice?


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