William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, 2016, p. 70
“Universality without intimacy—-intimacy without the universal: the first is the temptation of mimesis, underpinned by external opposition; the second is the temptation of self-creativity, inspired by internal opposition. Neither alternative so-stated will do, but that does not mean we need to abandon both entirely. If we dwell with imitation we find something much more nuanced than a facile copying of an external original. If we dwell with self-creation we discover more intimately something that can not be described as our creation.”
Desmond meditates on the warp and woof of art by focusing on the dynamic rhythm of two imperatives: objective clarity and subjective presence. His use of the verb “dwell,” with its echo of Heidegger, engages contemplative energies of looking, loyalty, courage. They invoke the virtue of looking: “Only look!” Carson’s open weave of kinds of statement, descriptive and reflexive, is typical of his style, found here in “Still Life,” his last book, in ways that evoke the aesthetic singularity and universality of great works of art.
And yet there is a modesty that makes its appeal to human sincerity. What I argue is the profound educational value of reading poetry —- breaking through the self’s involvement in the construction of meaning in the image of the self to the transcendent finite other of true creation—- is contained by the Contingencies of the painting and the viewer’s response.
Following the narrative of lyric, the opening states the facts of the case. The life of this topic goes back to a specific date and a specific object, the subject of the painting, the stove. He seems to remember the stove, not the painting of the stove. Is this naive mimeticism?
The second stage of the lyric narrative, exploring the equivocity, the lack of certainty released by the words of the descriptive impulse, uses a vernacular style: “With God-knows what …” That vernacular imports into the poem deeper themes: “seething” (a complex process of indeterminate end) and “sweet nothings …” The surface of the image of the “great big potbellied cast-iron black cauldron sitting squat” has an epic quality.
But the eye continues to follow the dialectic into the third stage of the lyric narrative. Going from this to that it is expressing a desire for definite meaning and is frustrated by the local radiances “hard to figure from the chiaroscuro” of the shadow. “Chiaroscuro” is literally a term of art, but essential to this stage of looking-and-not-finding: it’s as if the universal impermanence had corrupted the ego’s capacity for observation.
At this point, on the edge of perceptual abyss, the Not of not-knowing seems to give in to mere mentions of the objects. Yet those objects take us deeper: a little painting … a sketch, the trial-and-effort of the calling of art, then some shiny- dim things…. The whole contents of the studio is lit by a single red coal.
Much in little, lyric’s white flag ….
The double-dwelling of true looking in the between, unconstrained by dreams of certainty, is framed by the final image of a kind of mythical intimacy between life itself as light and “the jaws” of the opaque thing world. The tone of this final image is a rich polyphonic “hold” over the last moment of the poem. To call this moment one of “transcendent otherness” would, acknowledging the nerdy vocabulary, not be a stretch.