EMILY DICKINSON “A NARROW FELLOW IN THE GRASS”
A narrow fellow in the grass
You may have met him—did you not
His notice sudden is,
The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your feet,
And opens further on.
He likes a boggy acre,
A floor too cool for corn,
But when a boy and barefoot,
I more than once at noon
Have passed, I thought, a whip lash,
Unbraiding in the sun,
When stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled and was gone.
Several of nature’s people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.
There’s much to like here. Dickinson uses her favorite stanza (combining lines of 4 and 3 emphatic syllables), which is modeled on a popular hymn form. She understands the tensions within the stanza and deploys them to maximum effect (given the subject matter, the hymn form may strike one as richly ambiguous), and even shifts to an abbreviated version after the introduction without missing a beat.
In the introduction, she presents her subject in the most detached manner – the clarity of the description of how the fellow divides the grass makes us convinced we too have seen it. But if we “did not” see it ourselves, she’s here to tell us: “its notice sudden is.” As the poem develops its meditation on this narrow fellow, and its sudden appearance, the manner becomes more personal, if also odder. Perhaps “oddness” is part of the message about us and this fellow.
Shifting to the shorter form (each line having three emphatic syllables), she departs from the casual and familiar hymn-like impersonality of the introduction. The pace quickens; the pace of our heart-beat speeds, if we are reading mindfully. Do we notice that her memory of the fellow is from the time she was a “boy”? She may mean youngster, but she may also mean to start building the “indirect” manner which is Dickinson’s celebrated style.
The vision from memory of the fellow “wrinkling” its way out of the grasp of the boy is a heightened one and seems emblematic. As a “boy,” she had the will to master this creature; as a boy, she discovered such mastery eluded her. Such wisdom does come to such a boy.
Returning as it were to the present, she pauses to note that in general she’s on familiar terms with creatures, and indeed recognizes herself as one among them. And yet this one is different. This one is set apart.
Naturally, to explain the difference one may look to the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden and the snake. In addition, I like to think that this poem shows Dickinson’s familiarity with and freedom from the modern model of objective knowledge. In that model, knowledge flows from doubt: we doubt what we see, and we learn about it in an effort to overcome doubt.
No doubt this is part of the meaning, for she does indeed overcome OUR doubt. But her tale is one of wonder. Wonder doubles doubt. Horror and wonder are near allied. This fellow makes “darkness visible” to paraphrase Milton. This “Zero at the Bone” indicates how being human is inseparable from the invisible and quite ambiguous orders of creaturely being.
In her recent book Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries the great critic Helen Vendler refuses to be taken in by metaphysical interpretations of the narrow fellow. For her, this is a poem about a poisonous garden snake. And that’s that. The phrase “Zero at the Bone” is I guess mere hyperbole for her, though it does express an extreme discomfort for something that strikes fear in one. But I do feel Vendler’s is a reductive reading and does not do justice to the poem.
Emily Dickinson often leads one into a dark corner where one must think quite hard about something one had rather not think about. This is why she’s one of the greatest poets. She beguiles the reader into thought.
ON “EYE MASK” BY DENISE LEVERTOV
One way to understand inner form is in terms of the “meditative” way. This “way,” a process cross-cultural in its influence and perhaps rooted in the transformative period from 800 to 200 B.C., moves the ego from its interest in what is out there to a state of perplexity about its way of knowing what is out there. At that point of perplexity, the ego can either fall back on the “subject/object” relationship or move on to the third moment of suchness – or illumination — where the thing that prompted the curiosity is seen in its full “emptiness” – its independence of the ego, its free finitude as a gift of being; that is, its being in light of the movement of transcendence itself. In outline, this is no doubt obscure, but, as I say, widely attested as a discovery of consciousness.
Denise Levertov’s poem “The Eye Mask” acknowledges the difficulty but also the allure of that process:
In this dark I rest,
unready for the light which dawns
day after day,
eager to be shared.
Black silk, shelter me.
more of the night before I open
eyes and heart
to illumination. I must still
grow in the dark like a root
not ready, not ready at all.
“Eye Mask” (is there a pun on “eye” and “I”?) is remarkably transparent: although it is about refusal or at least reluctance, it vividly invokes the goal of the experience it shrinks from. The moment may remind the reader of St Augustine in his Confessions: “As a youth I prayed, ‘Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.’ “
As this echo suggests, the terse elegance of the poem helps with reader with the crucial task of reconstructing the cultural “back story” so that the modesty of the voice, including the poised and efficient free verse, does not let the ultimate subject escape the reader’s attention. It is easy to short change this poem.
For example, the use of “anthropomorphism,” which is often immediately taken as “naive”: What presses in on the ego is “eager to be shared” – this is a remarkable “anthropomorphic” phrase – in a certain sense “erotic” — that captures the “agapeic” origin of the movement towards the community of being. We can see why some meditative writers conceive of the movement as motivated by transcendent Love.
Reading the poem involves one in imagining the starting point as a moment defined by a tension between on the one hand the self’s reluctance and on the other hand by the eagerness to be shared on the part of what disturbs sleep. We are on the threshold of what in less able hands would be a thumping cliché: the moment we “open eyes and heart / to illumination.”
The self’s response to the threat of an agapeic invasion is its humble address: “Black silk, shelter me.” The self’s need of night before light seems based on an awareness of what the light will require of her – even the “loss of self” — as it seeks her out, “eager to be shared.”
Levertov knew from her exploration and practice of the meditative disciplines that this particular “sharing” is non-symmetrical; one gives up the “self” for something of transcendent value. In some sense the situation is “ironic.” Structurally, Levertov’s poem begins with the restless rest of the ego (more echoes of Augustine’s Confessions: our hearts are restless until they rest in You). For the moment, it must blind itself to the promise of beings – “illumination” – but it is unable to turn away completely from the promise of such knowledge.
“Sleep” is of course an equivocal symbol of a state of mind. Such passivity may or may not be purposeful. Here the idea of darkness is developed by acknowledging its dailiness and its use as a technique of self-protection. At this point the poem “turns” and acknowledges the final stage of the process: “illumination.”
ON “EYE MASK” BY DENISE LEVERTOV
In short, then, in “Eye Mask,” the self sees itself in its darkness as moving toward a new awareness, the goal of all that happens under the cover of darkness where the root finds its empowering rest. We may note the semantic richness of “mask”: the poem is “about” the I-mask, or persona: how the self’s I may refuse transformation by wearing a mask (the poetic “I” is often termed a “mask” or “persona”), while the whole poem bears witness to something else.
The reader recognizes the verbal complexity of “rest” – the mind’s state but also the sense of what comes after, “the rest of the story,” that will transform how we think about it. This reluctant turning away from potential is also an allowing for the process to take its time – an act of faith. So the poem charts a double course: not only the turning away but the turning toward. The reader who comprehends the doubleness will indirectly, as it were, “draw nigh” to the agapeic light.
A FINAL COMMENT
There will be those who can grasp the process that informs the poem – and which it is ultimately about – as “an abstraction” without accepting the ultimate value of the meditative practice nourishing the poem. No surprise there: The “question of belief” haunts the discourse of poetry. Recall Sidney’s “the poet nothing affirmeth” — though “nothing” in our postmodern age lends a new twist to the Renaissance cliché. Unlike a nihilist version of this experience, where the illumination would reveal the mere void – the “no place” at the center of the onion — but not the fertile void, Levertov’s meditative vision produces onions which, pealed carefully, may produce tears but finally reach the heart of light and themselves, as poems, become radiant. The poem was brought to my attention in Milosz’s anthology, A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry.
ON ANNA SWIR
Anna Swir’s poems have the sine qua non of poetry: the world they convey is both strange and familiar. Seemingly innocent of art, their transparencies raise the kind of questions proper to our discourse “between philosophy and poetry.”
More specifically, Swir’s poems exhibit an ultilmate urgency that we associate with mindfulness in the metaxy. That is, there’s a hyperbolic tension in her poems, a sort of definitive but “overdeterminate” clarity – not clarity as in “look there” but as in “look here”! She draws us into her hyper-world, “the ‘beyond’ of immanence in immanence that cannot be immanently (self-)determined and that ‘throws us above’ immanence” (William Desmond, God and the Between, 127).
So: Swir’s world is both strange and familiar. Both the strangeness and the familiarity are rooted in her honesty about her own singular finitude, her bodily existence in the here and now. In a riddle-like poem about the aporia she faces as a user of words, her body seems to be the “answer” to where the universals of suffering and power are “born” as “one indescribable thing.”
Out of suffering, power is born.
Out of power, suffering is born.
Two words for one
Power and suffering: two poles of human existence, connected by a dialectic of genesis in the body. In poem after poem, Swir portrays the body as powerful and suffering. Yet they are one thing, the suffering and the power, the body being a sign for that unity. Body transcends thought, reversing Descarte’s prioritization of the rational mind. Words fail to express the unity; the duality endures as a tension toward the truth her poems stand in for.
Swir’s poems often seem effortless and spontaneously perfect. She has both the toughness of the later Yeats and that “simplicity of fire.” Instantly attractive, her poems become ever better when reread, as if their simplicity yielded secrets only to those with extreme patience (and humility, since they have the hyperbolic clarity of artless speech).
From what kind of mind/conscious existence do such marvels come?
Swir writes clearly about pain and death but in doing so seems to write with detachment, as if from a place elsewhere. Her poetic voice is both embodied and detached.
I swam away from myself.
Do not call me.
Swim away from yourself, too.
We will swim away, leaving our bodies
on the shore
like a pair of beach sandals.
This brief poem shows her art of the “middle”: intensely human, yes, her “I” is also intensely other. The poet’s scrupulous mindful dialectic respects the otherness of the “other.” While it defends the matter from easy, merely verbal fictions (her limpid expressions – “I swam away from myself” – often challenge common sense and beggar paraphrase), her mode does not fall back towards or into the sublime of the closed self-mediating self. In a given poem, she inscribes her self as mediated by the other in a sequence of transcendings.
I Am Running on the Beach
I am running on the beach.
–A grey-haired hag and she runs.
I am running on the beach
with an insolent look.
–Grey-haired and insolent.
They like that.
The poem’s persona here is “insolent” – that is, in showing itself to others, it accepts, and honors, its own strangeness. The poem is not so much about the poet as the others who find her amusing (she knows them well, these others, as well as Baudelaire knew his “hypocritical” readers).
Swir’s metaphysical dimension is a response to relativities, irresolvable but through art absolved of deconstructive synthesis. While the spine of her poems has the elegance of dialectic it remains the spine of a real body, a real presence.
A Conversation with a Little Flower
Don’t die, little flower.
I’ll die instead.
You’re so innocent and clean,
so infinitely more
deserving of immortality.
Without privileging a special poetic “self,” Swir reverses the modern dualism of mind and thing. Her privileging the other opens toward pure transcendence as the ultimate and urgent end of dialectic, what William Desmond calls “transcendence as other.” That’s how she can bring us to see that such things as “a little flower” (a cliché for mortality) does indeed, all ironies aside, “deserve” immortality.
Nor is this claim dependent on an “as if.” It does not derive from the acceptance of hypothetical propositions. In a certain sense and not merely a sentimental or “Romantic” sense, the little flower is indeed “innocent and clean.” This uncertain certain sense is profoundly significant – a source of true signs. Indeed, throughout her poems one feels the presence of the dimension Desmond calls the “primal ethos,” which includes the “let be” or the “it is good” of the original creation story in Genesis.
(It is perhaps relevant to note in passing that Czeslaw Milosz, long her champion, believed her daughter who said she made peace with the Roman Catholic Church on her deathbed).
While her poetry of the body (as a poet of eros she’s both ecstatic and funny) must disturb the righteous among the religious, Swir’s boldness went beyond words. Swir was a member of the Resistance during the Nazi occupation of Poland and a field nurse during the Warsaw Uprising. The terrors connected her to something essentially human, like memory in her muscles.
I’m Afraid of Fire
Why am I so afraid
running along this street
that’s on fire.
After all there’s no one here
only the fire roaring up to the sky
and that rumble wasn’t a bomb
but just three floors collapsing.
Set free, the naked flames dance,
wave their arms
through the gaps in the windows,
it’s a sin to peep at
a sin to eavesdrop on
fire’s free speech.
I am fleeing from that speech,
which resounded here on earth
before the speech of man.
(translated by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire)
Swir’s contemplation of “fire’s free speech” carries the poem beyond its historical context. Confronted by the absurdities and horrors of human existence, Swir’s poems seem to draw inspiration from a vision of primal things. While never obscuring – quite the contrary — the particularities of her life in a particular body, her poems enact the primal wonder that there is anything at all; in Desmond’s terms, they faithfully “reconfigure” the primal ethos of the “it is good.” It is as if she is saying, “How perplexing and yes rather wonderful that I exist among others!”
Even in disaster that’s true. William Desmond writes: “Exposure to evil not only makes us deeply troubled, it makes us deep. An abyss opens within; we are already an abyss but now are made to mind it . . . We are an underground whose own groundlessness comes to mind. This is perhaps what it means to be radically a porosity of being – an openness that does not ground itself but wakes to the minding of its own ‘being as nothing.’ This is why we become suffering beings to a degree not true of any other animal.” (God and the Between, 80).
One more poem.
The Greatest Love
She is sixty. She lives
the greatest love of her life.
She walks arm-in-arm with her dear one,
her hair streams in the wind.
Her dear one says:
“You have hair like pearls.”
Her children say:
There’s a special lucid space for Anna Swir between poetry and philosophy.
“I’m Afraid of Fire” is quoted from A Book of Luminous Things (ed. Milosz, Harcourt Brace 1996). With that exception, all quotations are from Talking to My Body, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan, Copper Canyon Press, 1996).
A POEM BY ADAM ZAGAJEWSKI
Frosty day. A winter sun. White breath.
But on this Friday we didn’t know
what to celebrate and what to mourn –
it was Holocaust Memorial Day
and Mozart’s Birthday.
Our memory was perplexed.
Our imagination lost its way.
The candle on the windowsill wept
(we’d been asked to light candles),
but the gentle music of young Mozart
reached us from the speakers, rococo,
the age of silver wigs and not the gray hair
we knew from Auschwitz,
the age of costumes, not of nakedness,
hope and not despair.
Our memory was perplexed,
our imagination grew lost in thought.
Adam Zagajewsky (b. 1945), from Unseen Hand, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh (2009)
Zagajewski is rather popular, his books are reviewed well, and it’s easy to say that this is because his poems are accessible. They are of course translated from the Polish, so they may sound like other poems translated from the Polish, especially when they are translated, as is increasingly likely, by Clare Cavanagh. They are plain. Music is subdued (I don’t know Polish). The persona is a plain-spoken man, perhaps a loner, a thoughtful, often melancholy, even nostalgic fellow.
All this is attractive but not very remarkable. What is remarkable, and consistently impressive, is the way his poems imitate, if I may, the flow of consciousness within the meditative form that releases the self-reflective ego from its limits and opens upon something bigger than itself. The poems often enact an experience of transcendence.
And this is accomplished without verbal violence, without configurations of speech that separate the poem from verbal coherence. In “January 27″ we confront the perplexity of a liberal mind which must attend to competing allegiances, to witnessing a conflict of influences pouring into it because of its embodiment in a historical person. It is striking perhaps how much of Zagajewski’s persona goes back to such simple facts, facts we all share but do not bother to put front and center as we write.
That said, what in this poem seems Zagajewskian is the quietness of the perplexity and the refusal to find a resolution outside the language available to him as a man in the here-and-now. Did Cavanagh exceed the original in the finesse of the last two lines: “Our memory was perplexed, / our imagination grew lost in thought”?
“Grew lost” — the imagination, which earlier in the poem had “lost its way” — yes, but now “in thought.”
The flow of consciousness which the poem reveals is that of meditative thought which is both objective and subjective, and which, in addition, is open to sources beyond itself, and not just in the past. The comparison of Mozart’s time to our time prepares us for the image of an imagination “lost in thought,” but precisely because the “gentle music,” and the hope that “young Mozart” embodies perplexes the memory, preoccupied as it is by recent tragedies.
The meditative state referred to in the final words of the poem, while indexed by perplexity and lostness, is a result of “growth.” Lost in thought is not, finally, a state of self-enclosure, but of openness towards possibilities of being.
A POEM by MIKLOS RADNOTI
Power glides in the root,
drinking rain, living in the earth,
and its fantasy is white snow.
It rises and breaks through the soil,
it crawls along secretly.
Its arm is like rope.
On the root’s arm a worm sleeps
and a worm sticks to its leg.
The world is rotten with worms.
But the root goes on living below.
It is the branch, laden with leaves,
that it lives for, not the world.
This is what it feeds and loves,
sending exquisite tastes up to it,
sweet tastes out of the sky.
I am a root myself now,
living among the worms.
This poem is written down there.
I was a flower. I became a root.
A lid of black earth locks me in.
The workers on my life are done.
A saw wails over my head.
Miklos Radnoti (1909-1944) from Clouded Sky, revised edition, poems translated from the Hungarian by Steven Polgar, Stephen Berg, and S. J. Marks. The Sheep Meadow Press, 1972.
Radnoti, a Hungarian Jew, was murdered by Nazi sympathizers while on a death march; it appears his scribbling poems was the last straw. When his wife retrieved his body from a mass grave, she found the notebook in which he composed poetry on the death march. Many of the poems written then are translated in Clouded Sky, a testament to enduring humanity.
This excellent poem can be appreciated in terms of ‘inner form,” a process of composition shared by most literary forms. The first stanza is rather magnificent but a “given” of human consciousness as understood as forming in the matrix of “the between.” It depends on a map of up/down, earth/heaven, reason/fantasy: that is, coordinates of the extremes. The snow is an image of the root’s root as what lies beyond it.
This opening yields to the hypothesis: “its arm is like a rope.” That is, this “root” of consciousness is “pulled” and is pulling: it is directional and devotes itself to the transformations of time and self-transcendence; and all that draws out the erotic allusion in the image of “root.”
The rest of the poem will qualify and test this concept of erotic growth and self-overcoming. Given its embodiment in the world, it shares space with “others” (worms/rottenness). But it “goes on living below” yet lives “for” what is above it, not the world. The fifth stanza brings the analysis of the root’s world to a triumphant close, revealing its place in the hierarchy of being.
A conventional poem would end there: Radnoti’s experience takes him beyond this “true myth.” He returns to the first imagery of “down there” and begins to explore his immediate tragic circumstances. He doesn’t yield to self-pity but remains conscious of his “power” as one who writes poems while the forces of destruction “wail” over his head.
The last stanza exhibits the “balance of consciousness” that recognizes its own “present” as a disfigured and disfiguring epoch but does not reinvision the truth in terms of nihilism. The reversal of the process – “I was a flower. I became a root” – is his claim to his participation in the beyond towards which his desire guided him. The final stamp of the poet is the tension between the eros of consciousness, as symbolized by natural forms, and the murderous present of imperial monstrosities.
The poem “Root” bears witness to the poet’s clear-eyed vision of what was happening to the poet; it is analytically complex and has the completeness of great poetry; it is the opposite, then, of the imperial fantasies of his temporal masters. The poem recapitulates basic symbolisms of the analogical-participatory world-view with great finesse.
ON “STORM CLOUD” BY CHARD DENIORD
This blog is devoted to the space between poetry and philosophy; the approach involves intertextual criticism – a page, say, from William Desmond’s work on metaxological metaphysics, and a work of poetry. It is exciting when I discover a contemporary work that positively invites this approach. I have been trying to write about Chard deNiord’s new book The Double Truth (Pittsburg) for some time now, and I just realized that I can’t do it, can’t write about the book as a whole. It’s just too much for the method and the space allotted to each blog essay. This will be the first of a series of essays on individual poems. Eventually, I hope to have something to say about the book as a whole.
I observed the dark cloud expanding
above the ridge as I folded the laundry
and admitted to myself that I know
far less than the ant or spider.
For how long did I make this error
of thinking I knew more than the creatures?
Of not enjoying the smallest chores?
Now that I have imagined myself
from above, I see my tasks as blessings
in the ruse of motions, as if the world
were invisible to the dead and I were
merely dancing for them on an empty
stage from a great, great distance
that is also near, adjusting my glasses,
folding a towel, looking up.
We’ve seen it before, this New Englandy setup: the solitary ego in the quotidian setting, surprised by its ignorance of nature, confessing pride, a hint of sublimity in the landscape of isolation. The tone of the opening sentences is flat, the interplay between syntax and line almost unnoticeable (but note the slight rise of anticipation at the end of the third line). The second question begins to destabilize this mode: the speaker did not notice when he started not enjoying the “smallest chores”! Can we? Did we ever enjoy them? Is the speaker incurably nostalgic for past pastoral? The self-consciousness breaks the frame. The rhetoric of that admission begins to peel the varnish off the homespun style.
A second breath continues to undo the parochial set piece. At first, the flatness of the voice is hardly disturbed, the deadpan disguising the sublime: “Now that I have imagined myself from above . . .” With that, the poem folds back on itself, reading the original given, the anecdote, for overtones and perplexities; the language becomes more difficult, the breathing somewhat labored.
Questions are raised by the phrasing, which was once so seemingly transparent. What does “see my tasks as blessings / in the ruse of motions” mean? “Ruse”? One of the original meanings of “ruse” is “a game animal’s dodging movements to elude pursuit” (The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology). So we are asked to see the “smallest chores” as motions intended to elude pursuit? The pursuit of the hound of heaven? Of the dead?
If you think that is unlikely, work through the “as if” clause. So these daily duties, these mere motions, these “blessings in disguise,” are intended to elude some big hungry Truth, or the dead: are these “counterfeits” or “feints” now exposed “as such”? Reading the “as if” clause, shouldn’t we ask: isn’t the world, the world as we know it, “invisible to the dead”? Aren’t, indeed, the dead invisible to this world? But is this world that world? Apparently not: the dead watch us from above, and, according to the reversal of the “as if” conditional, they watch us dancing “for them”! The stage is not “empty.” Space is not: far is near, near far.
“In solitude, for company.” We are companioned in our solitude. The perplexities of syntax convey “in no uncertain terms” the uncertainty of human being.
The sentence comprising the second half has this core: “I see my tasks . . . adjusting my glasses, folding a towel, looking up.” The poem enacts such adjustments of vision through a labyrinth of possibility. That sturdy frame is complicated metaphysically by the qualifications of the “as” phrase and “as if” clause.
On rereading, the phrase “as blessings in the ruse of motions” is where the poem starts to take off, and it presents a knot that can not be untied: from this new point of view, the observer sees his tasks as “blessings in the ruse”; he sees them, understands them, to BE blessings, but SEES them “in the ruse of motions,” mere motions intended to fake out the meaning masters of existence. In this double vision, he sees himself as equivocal. He sees through his disguises. The double truths are translucent if not transparent. But just what is so viewed is not clear, not available to so many words.
This vision is what I’ve come to believe is the center of deNiord’s vision. Not the “double” so much – the book is titled The Double Truth, which does helpfully link it to W. H. Auden and others—but something more concrete: the precise structuring of the equivocity specific to the human subject. The double TRUTH. That is: deNiord confronts his finitude in light of the infinite. He hungers for form that is no formalism, and not even a dualism. The clarities of his style are a ruse of geometrical motions. But rather than aporia his master figure is “porosity”: the way through, the way into, the midst of desire’s self-transcending.
Here is the intertext I’d like to close with:
“The self-transcending of mindfulness, though finite, seems not to be merely finite. Though I might successfully attain a multitude of specific objectives, each determinate completion, while a term to this particular search, is but the prelude of another search, and this itself another way station to further searches, precipitated again and again, in an unfolding without cease. Nothing determinate finally satisfies our self-surpassing. There is an infinite restlessness to it. This infinite restlessness is a mainspring of our quest for God. Nothing finite finally answers the self-surpassing sweep of human desire, extending all the way from delights of the flesh to sublimities of spirit.” William Desmond, God and the Between, 40.