In David Baker’s “Belong To,” the you and me of the ballad “You Belong to Me” (made famous by Patti Page and Jo Stafford) has fallen away. What remains is the pure passage of love, memory and nostalgia forever in transit between an unknown origin and an unknown destination, an echo that does not know where or how to return. Its majesty as passage and echo manifests in a tone reminiscent of the ballad and a form—two columns of staggered, overlapping lines—that permits a felt presence between the two.
Discussing Cesare Pavese’s belief about great literature in No! In Thunder, Leslie Fiedler writes, ‘[literature] moves us because what it reveals to us is felt as remembered as well as discovered, felt “for a second time”; yet the “first time” is known only by implication, in a sense never existed, except mythically, for it occurred before time began for us, in childhood when we do not know our experiences but are them.’ Baker’s poem moves with a similar sense of implication between the first and second instances of memory; it moves with a similar timelessness, indescribability, and surrealism that Fiedler vis-à-vis Pavese identifies as how we are moved by great literature.
This sense of being one’s experiences before they are known is evoked by the woozy command to see: ‘See the pair of us/Raining and morning/the first soft ashes.’ And while a similar woozy command begins both poem and ballad, “Belong To” unmoors its nostalgia from context and teases it into two strands, two columns reminiscent of Fiedler’s first and second instances of memory. Are these two children or two young lovers? Is this a reference to the relationship between writer and reader? No, what is seen simply is—memory, memory’s image—in a way, the feeling of remembrance, the experience before it is known: the poem.
Indeed, “Belong To” evokes this notion of pre-knowledge experience with a keen awareness of its form and tone. Just as the poem wanders between columns, between the you and the me with a kind of timeless rupture, we encounter the words ‘ripped,’ ‘shreds,’ ‘sudden’ and ‘cut’—words that reference the poem’s form and indicate a presence to the poem as it unfolds. Furthermore, phrases like ‘too late,’ ‘last route’ and ‘what remains’ warn of the poem’s close and evoke memory’s inevitable fatality, its tendency to fade over time.
This, perhaps, is why “Belong To” is so beautiful, so gripping. The repeated command to readers, to the poem itself to see—’see/the partial moon see/the cut sky see us/serene with singing’—is a rage against the dying of memory’s light. To see is to capture what fades, to wrest an image, almost tangible, from the haze of the mind. It is, quite literally, to re-member our experiences, to put them together once again in the body of a poem split in two.
The power of Baker’s poem comes from this as well as from its desire to continue to be what it is (à la Spinoza), a passage and an echo. The lost leaves are ‘waiting to come back/as leaves’—as an echo of themselves. The desire to continue living even in memory perpetuates itself in Baker’s rueful voice. The poem exists as the experience of itself in recalling past happiness, and, as it ebbs and flows across the page, it reverberates its longing and nostalgia against a natural world that sends longing and nostalgia back.
It is heartbreaking in this way.