out of need, I had to breathe
that last breath soaked
than between four doors
give a number to the weight of my biggest fault,
it’s just testing
the free will of the wicked,
or the apathy of the wealthy,
or the arrogance of the proud,
that I would have bigger weight of relief,
making true that wish
that has always amused my days,
putting a purpose
to the usual lowest torment
of this death that breaks the ferment.
In order for the following explanation to be well understood, I recommend one thing that would be obvious: read it while keeping the text of the poem under your eyes. You can do it in different ways, for example by opening another window on your screen, on this same site, and placing it alongside this one, in order to have both the poem and this comment under your eyes.
This poem contains great complexity, it is a concentrate of meanings, but it deserves to be studied because it is capable of proving to be enriching, it is a contribution to the world so that it can grow.
Let’s analyze it a little in detail to understand something and not get confused in the forest of echoes that it creates in us.
To orient ourselves we must first identify a core, a center around which the poem gravitates. It is not so difficult to find it: there is the expression of a desire that acts as a skeleton for all the poem:
If I could … give a number
This is the backbone of the poem: an expressed desire, only expressed, which has no answer. As if to say: “How much I would like it if I could …”. I could what? Give a number. Giving a number means being able to quantify, measure, specify, define, give a name to things, be able to master them, be able to understand them, be able to grasp them.
For now, let’s stop here: the poet manifests a desire that has no way of realizing: being able to master, understand, grasp.
Now we notice that other terms are linked to this idea of specifying, defining, grasping: he speaks twice of weight: weighing means really giving a number, establishing how much a thing is worth, based on how much it weighs. There is also the verb “to test” which expresses the same thing: testing means weighing, checking, evaluating. The expression “making true” indicates the same tendency: making something true means making it concrete, making it visible, understandable, measuring it and showing its dimensions. “Putting a purpose” indicates aswell the desire to reach something stable, secure, conclusive, defined; when an object is weighed on the scale, an end is set, that is, there is finally a basis for establishing, for example, at what price to sell it. Putting an end means putting an aim and an aim is something that presents itself as precise, defined, capable of giving orientation.
At this point we are going to understand that the poet feels the need for clarification, definition, concretization. In this sense the phrase “making true what I would like” expresses the same idea of “if I could give a number“. “If I could” is equivalent to “I would like“, “giving a number” is equivalent to “making true“, that is, being able to specify. “Making true what I wish” means “being able to define well (= making true) my deep aspirations (= that wish)”.
Now we can proceed with another question: at a certain point the poet speaks “of my biggest fault“. Fault for what? He himself does not know it, he says that he would like to give a number to the weight of this fault, that is, he would like to understand it, specify it, establish what it is.
At this point I try to intervene by trying to read behind the words: the poet does not seem to be aware of it, but it seems that, without realizing it, he actually has a very hidden suspicion on what this fault is. This guilt can be identified precisely in wanting to give a number, wanting to define, weigh, understand, grasp. This is the fault of the West, which has oppressed entire peoples with their pride, based on the pretense of having understood, of being intelligent, of being superior to other peoples. The poet perhaps suspects that this is the fault, but he does not become aware of it. He is distracted from this awareness by the fact that weighing, defining, giving a number, is also our right, they are our needs to live: we cannot live if we never get to specify anything. Here is the confusion: to live it is necessary to grasp, give a number, weigh, but this weighing is also the origin of pride, oppression, arrogance, pride in having understood. This is why the poet cannot understand what his guilt is: because it is a destructive act which, however, is also a human right and necessity.
Now that we have gained the essential coordinates in which to move, we can move more easily through the rest of the poem.
What is this being firm at a hanging rope in the first verse? The hanging rope can represent an anchor point, something to cling to, to support, but the poet has now understood that clinging to anything also means making that thing the cause of our death. We cling to a rope to escape suffering, but life has now shown us abundantly that any rope to which we cling is ultimately death; it seems to us a lifesaver to escape pain, but that lifesaver soon proves impossibility of giving space to all our movements. It is a contradiction, a deception of life: sometimes we run away from suffering, but we run away to meet death. This is the same contradiction expressed later: “between four doors I was closed“: let’s pay attention: he does not say “closed between four walls”, which would have been more logical. The doors should not serve to remain closed, but the poet unmasks this falsehood: it is the doors that close us, just as it is the rope that kills us, that rope that seemed to us a way out, just as the doors seem to be.
Now we can understand the meaning of this contradiction: it is about weighing, giving a number, which we talked about above: giving a number gives the feeling of mastering, but world history has shown that giving a number means killing, suffocating, oppressing, as a hanging rope does while seeming to allow us to escape.
Now we can understand what the poet says below: his guilt consisted in the desire for justice, which he has now understood that turns into guilt. This is what all the courts do continuously: the courts exist to do justice, but in reality they perpetrate continuous injustice in all their actions because they do nothing but giving guilts. Here is another form of the ambiguity in which the poet feels tangled: justice would be a right, but in reality it kills, because it makes people consider it from the point of view of guilt. So here is his temptation to enter people’s hearts, including his own soul, to see where free will is, where apathy is, where arrogance is, in a word: where is the fault. But by now he has understood that this search is itself guilty, and even, to put it better, giving people guilt.
All poem therefore expresses this feeling of the poet about feeling tangled, intricate, cheated, enveloped. This corresponds to the sentiment expressed in the first verses: he feels suffocated, would like to untie these knots and feels that there has been a breath. But what he breathed is not the pure of the open air; what he breathed is his own breath, not at all pure, a “soaked” breath; soaked in what? Soaked in himself. Here too there is an ambiguity that lets us see a light, but also hides it: the poet has now understood that what seems to us to be open air, fresh air in the morning, is nothing more than having given a number, having weighed , having dominated, and therefore has nothing fresh, is only the pleasure of having affirmed ourselves. So he suspects that the true opening, the true freshness, lies in breathing one’s breath, that is, knowing oneself, exploring one’s own depths: this is where the real opening lies, rather than in the illusion of going outside to breathe fresh air. But it is only his suspicion: in fact he breathed his breath not by choice, but because he had to do it: “I had to breathe“.
At this point we can go to the other expression that would seem to contrast with the rest: at a certain point he says “now, since I know“. But what does he know, since hes feeling is all about feeling tangled, feeling in the impossibility, or if anything, temptation, to give a number, in the impossibility of making the wish come true? It cannot be intellectual knowledge, it cannot be the knowledge of who managed to give a number. Therefore his knowledge can only be a knowledge of experience that goes beyond what can be said in numbers, beyond what can be expressed in words. His knowledge is the experience of himself, indicated by having breathed his own breath. The experience of oneself is not the experience of someone who has managed to create exact and precise ideas: that is the knowledge of the number. The experience of himself is instead that which is expressed in the totality of all the poem, that is, in discovering himself a poet, which as such is like having felt crossed by the muse, by art, by this spirit that moves within him and prompted him to write these verses.
At this point, a curious thing happens, which contributes to the poet’s feeling of being cheated: the experience of himself leads him to want to weigh, to number, to grasp, to do justice. In short, he sees the road, he expresses it in the form of a wish, but he is afraid of it, for what we have said above regarding Western arrogance. He is afraid of it because he is afraid of falling again into the error of universalising, imposing knowledge of the number that oppresses him. How to do then? We do it by trying not to forget that we are particular beings and that therefore every weight we give a number to is still questionable, it is tied to the person. What kills, oppresses, is saying that mathematics is not an opinion. The poet, on the other hand, suggests that even mathematics is nothing more than breathing your own breath, it is not being out in the open air. So numbering acquires the right of citizenship, as humble, aware of its own particularism.
This particularism is life, it is the ferment about which the poet speaks at the end, which opposes the “firm” expressed in the first verse instead: the poem moves in this tension between firm and ferment, that is between illusions of the arrogant West and authentic life of the individual who reads his own breath.
After what has been said, there is almost no need to explain the rest: the fact that the torment is said to be “lowest“, the “would” considered a plaything: they are also signs of the tension in which the poet sees himself pulled from both sides.
It is interesting that the poem does not have a conclusion, it does not have an answer to its problems, and this can be considered a fundamental message of it: attention must be paid against conclusions, answers, because they hide the temptation of arrogance. In the depths of the spirit it is better to go by questions, desires and aspirations, as this poem does, rather than by answers, conclusions, numbers.