Levity and Gravity

Orion associate editor Hannah Fries led a panel at this year’s AWP conference in Boston. The conference, of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs, draws thousands of writers, editors, and small presses from across the country. Below is Hannah’s introduction to her panel, which was titled “Levity & Gravity.” The other panelists were Orion poets Alison Hawthorne Deming, Afaa Michael Weaver, and Katrina Vandenberg.

This panel is called “Levity and Gravity,” and you could say that title describes a balance we are constantly working toward at Orion. There is, after all, plenty of weightiness involved in creating an environmentally concerned publication these days. And apparently our striving for balance is working to some extent, because some people will tell us how much hope Orion gives them, while some complain about how miserably dark the magazine is. So we must be doing something right—right? Nonetheless, it’s a juggling act (and one with really sharp, heavy objects).

Because, like it or not, what dominates in both our news and our entertainment is destruction: the heaviness of violence, poverty, greed, injustice, suffering, and disaster. Sometimes the weight of the world feels just too heavy to carry. And sometimes, when it comes to making or editing or curating art, such weighty material can be stifling, even paralyzing.

As writers and editors we may say we feel a moral obligation to confront and not ignore difficult and weighty subjects, and this is noble and good. But I, as an editor and poet, also feel morally compelled to attempt to redeem or transform that darkness. And I firmly believe that this is where imagination lends its greatest powers—to creation, not destruction; to mending and building, understanding and redemption.

This is the kind of lightness I want to talk about today. Not sentimentality, which has its own form of heaviness, and not frivolity—but a lightness that takes into account the weight of the world and then works on it, transforms it, like turning a shard of glass until it catches the light just so.

Of course, this is all easier said than done. Which is why I am grateful to have discovered Italo Calvino’s essay on “Lightness” from his Six Memos for the Next Millenium, which not only helps to define the concept of lightness, but also identifies certain craft techniques that can be employed to achieve it.

The primary image that Calvino uses to demonstrate his idea of “lightness” in literature is Ovid’s image of Perseus with the head of the slain Medusa. Ovid writes: “So that the rough sand should not harm the snake-haired head, he makes the ground soft with a bed of leaves, and on top of that he strews little branches of plants born under water, and on this he places Medusa’s head face down.” It is the delicacy of this gesture that Calvino marvels at, the “refreshing courtesy toward a being so monstrous and terrifying yet at the same time somehow fragile and perishable.” The passage in Ovid becomes even more wondrous yet: when the little sea plants touch the Medusa’s head, they turn to coral; the sea nymphs rush to collect the coral for their adornments, bringing more twigs and branches to the horrible head and watching the amazing metamorphosis.

What is so suggestive in this passage, according to Calvino, is “the clash in images, in which the fine grace of the coral touches the savage horror of the Gorgon.” In other words, it is the intensity of the contrast, beauty and delicacy in the face (literally) of such horror. Calvino goes on to compare Ovid’s lines to those of a modern Italian poet, Eugenio Montale. In Montale’s poem “Piccolo testamento,” something tiny and subtle—“mother-of-pearl trace of a snail / or mica of crushed glass”—is put up against a hellish monster “with pitch-black wings who descends upon the cities of the West.” And yet, in this most apocalyptic vision of Montale’s, “it is those minute, luminous tracings that are placed in the foreground and set in contrast to dark catastrophe.”

Reading these examples put forth by Calvino, I could not help but think of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, in which the love between a father and a son is put up against a horrific apocalyptic wasteland and the darkest possibilities of human nature. The delicacy of the characters’ situation, the understated nature of their love for each other, and the boy’s periodic question (“We’re still carrying the light, right?”) provide the lightness that saves the book from unbearable heaviness. This is because, implicit in the terrible contrast is the question of whether there is some kind of incredible balance here, if in the fragility of that love there is a strength that stands up to the most unimaginable horror. “But how can we hope to save ourselves in that which is most fragile?” asks Calvino. Montale’s poem, he argues—and I’d add MCarthy’s novel—“is a profession of faith in the persistence of what seems most fated to perish, in the moral values invested in the most tenuous traces.”

The lessons that Calvino draws from these observations are deeply important to me, as someone who at times feels the heavy weight of the world as a dangerous sense of paralysis that threatens to creep into life and art. In response to this feeling, Calvino writes:

Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don’t mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification. The images of lightness that I seek should not fade away like dreams dissolved by the realities of present and future.

As Calvino indicates in this passage, the pursuit of lightness in its various forms does not mean escape, nor the denial of heaviness. But for me, it may be a saving grace; it may be a reason to keep making art.

War rages; we are cruel to one another; we are diminished by poverty and illness; we destroy the earth that sustains us. In other words, we will need all the lightness we can get if we are to lay down the Gorgon’s head with the attention and tenderness of Perseus—and if, like the nymphs gathering the bits of coral from around the head, we are to construct, in the context of that horror, a thing of fragile and uncertain beauty.

Image courtesy of Quas.


  1. Amen:

    “…the pursuit of lightness in its various forms does not mean escape, nor the denial of heaviness. But for me, it may be a saving grace; it may be a reason to keep making art.”

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