NS Essay: JUXTAPOSITIONS 2 John Burnside

from John Burnside, Gift Songs (2007).

“The idea of imagination as self-creation runs the risk of thinking too predominantly in terms of the endeavor to be, the ‘conatus essential,’ and not enough in terms of the ‘passio essendi,’ the patience of being. … The threshold nature of imagination: below the threshold of endeavoring … is the more original porosity in which comes to birth the opening of all possibility, even opening to what above the threshold is not at all. (Emily Dickinson: ‘The Possible’s slow fuse is lit / By the Imagination.’). ” William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, 80.

The book from which I take this poem, John Burnside’s GIFT SONGS (Cape 2007), calls out for extended analysis, drawing as it does on major theological texts about which most readers have scant knowledge. Burnside’s mastery of this literature is characterized by its scope as well as its psychological depth. The reader may feel overwhelmed by the shifting grammars of sentences and even single words. What do the items in the second line have in common? Specificity. Had to look up “capercaillie.” How use that knowledge to sort the other terms in the line?

Perhaps the meaning is governed by the grammar of the opening, negative as it is. “No one invents an absence.” Given the over all context of these GIFT SONGS, one may be forgiven for depending on some lukewarm nihilism as the relevant ‘given’ conceptual ground of these texts.

That would be premature. The completion of the first stanza goes deeper into the negative: “see how”? What? Some restraint imposed on the act of finding appropriate names causes the process to abandon the rich singular identities under view.

Sounds like “science” to me. The second stanza explores the alternative to such naming, starting and perhaps ending with the demeaned secondary quality of color.

To my Desmond text. Fidelity to the phenomena requires going below the threshold of rational grammars, from the level of construction to the level of wise passiveness. Desmond’s own complex grammar is determined by his acceptance of the move from objectivity — the social constructs of rationalism — to equivocity, the openness to the manysidedness of names. Language itself stores the richness of the gifts of being. Access to the imagination is not a move into subjectivity. It is a move into “the patience” of Being. Here we find “the more original porosity.” This is the “Between” or niche of the sensuous givens of experience for which phenomenology seems equipped to deal.

Or you can just read the poetry. But you can’t truly “read” it by ignoring the narrative of the poem. It is not about the convenient pleasures associated with poetry as opposed to thinking. Burnside’s imagination is a source of truth. It is, like Emily Dickinson, open to what is not, to what the constructive rational “hand” has rendered monochrome. It is a language, a grammar,of color.

“Nothing but color…” The grammar of color includes a “no one” as active “subject” of the story. What this no one offers the imagination is nothing less than “the gift of the world.” But this world is revealed “below” the threshold between the reserves of being and the constructs of the willing mind. That threshold opens not on certainty but on “the undecided”— which is what? Those strangely intimate universals embodied and known by the imagination. Start with colors, which are so hard for the mind to handle. Cadmium yellow. Keats’s “negative capability” is where we start in our wandering on the path leading to nothing and nothing but “the quiet that runs in the grass.”

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at tom.develyn@comcast.net. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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