As we approach the month named after Janus, it seems we are more aware of time. It’s even more true in a year that closes a decade, as this one does. And more so still when that decade happened to be more ominous than most, forecasting God knows what for coming years.
On a personal level, time works in mysterious ways, too. It is a precious commodity. There is never enough of it. This seems even more so when applied to our days on earth or, even more important, our loved ones’ days on earth.
Whether we live to 50, 70, or 90, we can always use more time. There is never enough to pack in all the experiences we crave, both new ones and cherished ones built into our daily routines.
Thus is time part and parcel with sadness, wistfulness, yearning. Thus do we get into trouble with our convenient nemeses past, present, and future.
Stephen Dobyns seems aware of this in his poem “Prague,” where he wastes no time (if you’ll forgive) by doing what good poets should all do—getting to the point in line one, right out of the gate. The narrator’s wife is dying of cancer. Both time and the poem, then, are of the essence.
Note how he looks forward. Note how he looks backward. Note how he finds succor in neither direction.
The day I learned my wife was dying
I told myself if anyone said, Well, she had
a good life, I’d punch him in the nose.
How much life represents a good life?
Maybe a hundred years, which would
give us nearly forty more to visit Oslo
and take the train to Vladivostok,
learn German to read Thomas Mann
in the original. Even more baseball games,
more days at the beach and the baking
of more walnut cakes for family birthdays.
How much time is enough time? How much
is needed for all those unspent kisses,
those slow walks along cobbled streets?
Before getting specific in the end (unspent kisses, cobbled streets), Dobyns gives us the crux of the matter with a koan-like question “How much time is enough time?” No one wants to hear the possible answer: whatever time we’re given. And no one dares suggest that somewhere, somehow, there is an actual answer.