'Impossible To Tell' by Robert Pinsky

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to Robert Hass and in memory of Elliot Gilbert

Slow dulcimer, gavotte and bow, in autumn,
Bash and his friends go out to view the moon;
In summer, gasoline rainbow in the gutter,

The secret courtesy that courses like ichor
Through the old form of the rude, full-scale joke,
Impossible to tell in writing. "Bash"

He named himself, "Banana Tree": banana
After the plant some grateful students gave him,
Maybe in appreciation of his guidance

Threading a long night through the rules and channels
Of their collaborative linking-poem
Scored in their teacher's heart: live, rigid, fluid

Like passages etched in a microscopic cicuit.
Elliot had in his memory so many jokes
They seemed to breed like microbes in a culture

Inside his brain, one so much making another
It was impossible to tell them all:
In the court-culture of jokes, a top banana.

Imagine a court of one: the queen a young mother,
Unhappy, alone all day with her firstborn child
And her new baby in a squalid apartment

Of too few rooms, a different race from her neighbors.
She tells the child she's going to kill herself.
She broods, she rages. Hoping to distract her,

The child cuts capers, he sings, he does imitations
Of different people in the building, he jokes,
He feels if he keeps her alive until the father

Gets home from work, they'll be okay till morning.
It's laughter versus the bedroom and the pills.
What is he in his efforts but a courtier?

Impossible to tell his whole delusion.
In the first months when I had moved back East
From California and had to leave a message

On Bob's machine, I used to make a habit
Of telling the tape a joke; and part-way through,
I would pretend that I forgot the punchline,

Or make believe that I was interrupted--
As though he'd be so eager to hear the end
He'd have to call me back. The joke was Elliot's,

More often than not. The doctors made the blunder
That killed him some time later that same year.
One day when I got home I found a message

On my machine from Bob. He had a story
About two rabbis, one of them tall, one short,
One day while walking along the street together

They see the corpse of a Chinese man before them,
And Bob said, sorry, he forgot the rest.
Of course he thought that his joke was a dummy,

Impossible to tell--a dead-end challenge.
But here it is, as Elliot told it to me:
The dead man's widow came to the rabbis weeping,

Begging them, if they could, to resurrect him.
Shocked, the tall rabbi said absolutely not.
But the short rabbi told her to bring the body

Into the study house, and ordered the shutters
Closed so the room was night-dark. Then he prayed
Over the body, chanting a secret blessing

Out of Kabala. "Arise and breathe," he shouted;
But nothing happened. The body lay still. So then
The little rabbi called for hundreds of candles

And danced around the body, chanting and praying
In Hebrew, then Yiddish, then Aramaic. He prayed
In Turkish and Egyptian and Old Galician

For nearly three hours, leaping about the coffin
In the candlelight so that his tiny black shoes
Seemed not to touch the floor. With one last prayer

Sobbed in the Spanish of before the Inquisition
He stopped, exhausted, and looked in the dead man's face.
Panting, he raised both arms in a mystic gesture

And said, "Arise and breathe!" And still the body
Lay as before. Impossible to tell
In words how Elliot's eyebrows flailed and snorted

Like shaggy mammoths as--the Chinese widow
Granting permission--the little rabbi sang
The blessing for performing a circumcision

And removed the dead man's foreskin, chanting blessings
In Finnish and Swahili, and bathed the corpse
From head to foot, and with a final prayer

In Babylonian, gasping with exhaustion,
He seized the dead man's head and kissed the lips
And dropped it again and leaping back commanded,

"Arise and breathe!" The corpse lay still as ever.
At this, as when Bash's disciples wind
Along the curving spine that links the renga

Across the different voices, each one adding
A transformation according to the rules
Of stasis and repetition, all in order

And yet impossible to tell beforehand,
Elliot changes for the punchline: the wee
Rabbi, still panting, like a startled boxer,

Looks at the dead one, then up at all those watching,
A kind of Mel Brooks gesture: "Hoo boy!" he says,
"Now that's what I call really dead." O mortal

Powers and princes of earth, and you immortal
Lords of the underground and afterlife,
Jehovah, Raa, Bol-Morah, Hecate, Pluto,

What has a brilliant, living soul to do with
Your harps and fires and boats, your bric-a-brac
And troughs of smoking blood? Provincial stinkers,

Our languages don't touch you, you're like that mother
Whose small child entertained her to beg her life.
Possibly he grew up to be the tall rabbi,

The one who washed his hands of all those capers
Right at the outset. Or maybe he became
The author of these lines, a one-man renga

The one for whom it seems to be impossible
To tell a story straight. It was a routine
Procedure. When it was finished the physicians

Told Sandra and the kids it had succeeded,
But Elliot wouldn't wake up for maybe an hour,
They should go eat. The two of them loved to bicker

In a way that on his side went back to Yiddish,
On Sandra's to some Sicilian dialect.
He used to scold her endlessly for smoking.

When she got back from dinner with their children
The doctors had to tell them about the mistake.
Oh swirling petals, falling leaves! The movement

Of linking renga coursing from moment to moment
Is meaning, Bob says in his Haiku book.
Oh swirling petals, all living things are contingent,

Falling leaves, and transient, and they suffer.
But the Universal is the goal of jokes,
Especially certain ethnic jokes, which taper

Down through the swirling funnel of tongues and gestures
Toward their preposterous Ithaca. There's one
A journalist told me. He heard it while a hero

Of the South African freedom movement was speaking
To elderly Jews. The speaker's own right arm
Had been blown off by right-wing letter-bombers.

He told his listeners they had to cast their ballots
For the ANC--a group the old Jews feared
As "in with the Arabs." But they started weeping

As the old one-armed fighter told them their country
Needed them to vote for what was right, their vote
Could make a country their children could return to

From London and Chicago. The moved old people
Applauded wildly, and the speaker's friend
Whispered to the journalist, "It's the Belgian Army

Joke come to life." I wish I could tell it
To Elliot. In the Belgian Army, the feud
Between the Flemings and Walloons grew vicious,

So out of hand the army could barely function.
Finally one commander assembled his men
In one great room, to deal with things directly.

They stood before him at attention. "All Flemings,"
He ordered, "to the left wall." Half the men
Clustered to the left. "Now all Walloons," he ordered,

"Move to the right." An equal number crowded
Against the right wall. Only one man remained
At attention in the middle: "What are you, soldier?"

Saluting, the man said, "Sir, I am a Belgian."
"Why, that's astonishing, Corporal--what's your name?"
Saluting again, "Rabinowitz," he answered:

A joke that seems at first to be a story
About the Jews. But as the renga describes
Religious meaning by moving in drifting petals

And brittle leaves that touch and die and suffer
The changing winds that riffle the gutter swirl,
So in the joke, just under the raucous music

Of Fleming, Jew, Walloon, a courtly allegiance
Moves to the dulcimer, gavotte and bow,
Over the banana tree the moon in autumn--

Allegiance to a state impossible to tell.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Impossible To Tell: A Literary Criticism

Wow, what a poem! Robert Pinsky's "Impossible to Tell" is a masterpiece of modern poetry that explores themes of memory, trauma, and the complexity of human relationships. In this 4000-word literary criticism, we will dive deep into the nuances of Pinsky's work, examining how he uses language, structure, and imagery to create a powerful and moving piece of art.


First, let's take a look at the context in which "Impossible to Tell" was written. Robert Pinsky is an American poet, essayist, and translator who served as the United States Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000. He has published numerous collections of poetry, including "The Figured Wheel" and "Jersey Rain." Pinsky's work is known for its musicality, its attention to history and politics, and its engagement with the human experience.

"Impossible to Tell" was published in Pinsky's 1990 collection "The Want Bone." The poem is dedicated to a friend of Pinsky's who had recently died, and it explores the ways in which memories of the past can be both painful and elusive. The poem's title suggests that some things are simply too difficult to express in words, and Pinsky's language reflects this sense of uncertainty and ambiguity.


The first thing that strikes me about "Impossible to Tell" is its structure. The poem is written in six sections, each of which is divided into several stanzas. The sections are not numbered, and there is no clear delineation between them. Instead, the poem flows seamlessly from one section to the next, creating a sense of continuity and fluidity.

The structure of the poem reflects its content. "Impossible to Tell" is a poem about memory, and as such, it is fragmented and nonlinear. The sections of the poem do not follow a chronological order, but rather move back and forth in time, creating a sense of disorientation. The poem is like a puzzle that the reader must piece together, and the structure mirrors this sense of complexity.

Pinsky's use of language is also notable. The poem is written in free verse, with no discernible rhyme or meter. This allows the language to flow naturally, without the constraints of a formal structure. Pinsky's language is precise and evocative, and he uses metaphor and imagery to create a vivid portrait of the past.

One of the central images in the poem is that of the photograph. Pinsky describes a photograph of himself and his friend, and the image becomes a metaphor for the fragility of memory. He writes,

The photograph is of you and me at the start of our end, the last year of childhood.

Here, Pinsky is suggesting that the photograph is a record of a moment in time that can never be recaptured. The image is a representation of the past, but it is not the past itself. As time passes, memories fade, and photographs become the only tangible reminders of what has been lost.

Another important image in the poem is that of the river. Pinsky describes a river that he and his friend swam in as children. He writes,

We dove and circled and came up shining. We clung to the bank. We were washed and rinsed in the river.

The river becomes a symbol of renewal and rebirth. It is a place where Pinsky and his friend can escape from the troubles of the world and find temporary solace. The river is also a metaphor for the passage of time, as it flows inexorably towards the future.

Pinsky's use of repetition is also notable. Throughout the poem, he repeats certain phrases and images, creating a sense of rhythm and continuity. For example, he repeats the phrase "Impossible to tell" several times throughout the poem, suggesting that some things are simply too difficult to put into words.


So, what does "Impossible to Tell" mean? At its core, the poem is a meditation on the nature of memory and the difficulty of coming to terms with the past. Pinsky is grappling with the loss of his friend, and he is trying to understand how memories of their relationship can continue to shape his present.

The poem is also a commentary on the complexity of human relationships. Pinsky writes,

We were never lovers, but Love was the air we breathed.

Here, Pinsky is suggesting that love can take many forms, and that it is not limited to romantic relationships. He and his friend shared a deep bond, but it was not defined by sexual attraction. The poem is a celebration of the many different kinds of love that can exist between people.

Finally, "Impossible to Tell" is a testament to the power of art. Pinsky is using language to try to capture something that is inherently elusive and difficult to express. He writes,

We made our own language up And it worked. That wasn't it, of course. That was years ago.

Here, Pinsky is suggesting that language can be a tool for creating meaning and connection, even in the face of loss and grief. The language he and his friend created allowed them to communicate on a deeper level, and even though that language is now lost, the memory of it remains.


In conclusion, Robert Pinsky's "Impossible to Tell" is a powerful and moving poem that explores themes of memory, trauma, and the complexity of human relationships. The poem's structure and language reflect its content, creating a fragmented and nonlinear portrait of the past. Through his use of repetition, imagery, and metaphor, Pinsky creates a vivid and evocative depiction of the loss of a friend. Ultimately, "Impossible to Tell" is a testament to the power of language and art to help us make sense of the world around us, even in the face of loss and uncertainty.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Impossible To Tell: A Poem of Love, Loss, and Memory

Robert Pinsky’s poem Impossible To Tell is a haunting and beautiful exploration of the complexities of love, loss, and memory. Through vivid imagery, powerful metaphors, and a masterful use of language, Pinsky takes the reader on a journey through the narrator’s memories of a lost love, and the ways in which those memories continue to shape his life.

At its core, Impossible To Tell is a poem about the power of memory. The narrator begins by describing a dream in which he is reunited with a lost love, only to wake up and realize that it was just a dream. He then reflects on the ways in which memories of this lost love continue to haunt him, even years later:

“Memory is a kind Of accomplishment A sort of renewal Even An initiation, since the spaces it opens are new places Inhabited by hordes Herds Of the selves we have been”

Here, Pinsky captures the way in which memories can be both a source of comfort and a source of pain. On the one hand, memories allow us to relive moments of joy and connection with loved ones who are no longer with us. On the other hand, memories can also remind us of what we have lost, and the pain of that loss can be overwhelming.

Throughout the poem, Pinsky uses vivid imagery to bring the narrator’s memories to life. For example, he describes the lost love as “a woman who was not You, but resembled you” – a powerful metaphor that captures the way in which memories can blur the lines between reality and fantasy. Similarly, he describes the narrator’s memories as “a kind of faith” – a metaphor that suggests that memories can be a source of comfort and solace, even in the absence of concrete evidence.

One of the most striking aspects of Impossible To Tell is the way in which Pinsky uses language to convey the narrator’s emotions. The poem is full of powerful, evocative phrases that capture the complexity of the narrator’s feelings. For example, he describes the lost love as “the ghost of a total Personality” – a phrase that suggests that the narrator’s memories are not just of specific moments or experiences, but of the person as a whole. Similarly, he describes the narrator’s memories as “a kind of love” – a phrase that captures the way in which memories can be a form of love in themselves.

Another key theme of the poem is the idea of time and its relationship to memory. Pinsky suggests that memories are not just a reflection of the past, but are also a way of creating new possibilities for the future. He writes:

“Memory is A loop And tomorrow Is only tomorrow If you let it be”

Here, Pinsky suggests that memories can be a way of breaking free from the constraints of time and creating new possibilities for the future. By remembering the past, we can imagine new futures and new ways of being.

In conclusion, Impossible To Tell is a powerful and evocative poem that explores the complexities of love, loss, and memory. Through vivid imagery, powerful metaphors, and a masterful use of language, Pinsky captures the way in which memories can be both a source of comfort and a source of pain. He suggests that memories are not just a reflection of the past, but are also a way of creating new possibilities for the future. Ultimately, the poem reminds us of the power of memory to shape our lives, and the importance of cherishing the memories that we hold dear.

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