JUXTAPOSITIONS Alex Houen “Winter Solstice Nocturne”

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from Alex Houen “Ring Cycle,” 2018 (Eyewear Publishing)

“Beyond the festive pleasure of ontological affirmation, there is the festive affirmation of artistic creativity. From where does the festive affirmation come? What is affirming, what is being affirmed? The sources of creativity are not in lack but in surplus. Not that we do not lack, but lacking we see more than lack, and the seeking itself is more than lack and driven by more than lack. We know lack because of the affirmative surplus already at work in promise, and it is this also that impels the urge to go beyond lack. Agapeic origination: bringing to be from surplus, and not a matter of autonomous mastery or sovereignty on our part. There is a source more original than us.”
William Desmond, “The Intimate Universal,” 397.

There is a lot going on here, and it’s only the first third of the poem. But even that way of putting it is promising. In tension—-not quite the word—-with the rich equivocity of the language is a festive, I almost said, stately, recognition of something else. Houen recognizes an almost Spenserian creativity.

“Almost” is not quite right either. The juxtaposition of Desmond’s metaxological aesthetics brings out the equivocal. Difference is primary. Bringing to be from surplus requires of the poet an openness to the fertile void of her, the, porosity, unplugged by the sovereign will.

That’s the theory. In practice it depends on the circumstances, the contingencies of the scene. Houen is strong on scene (the theatrical analogue would be worth fleshing out). As we’ve seen countless times, the lyric narrative kicks off with the deictic: “Look here!”

So Houen’s festivity quickly reconfigures the image of the bronze, hollow statue. The Keatsian amplitude of the sonorities of the syntax of the long line welcome the sense—-his aesthetic sense is keyed to what Desmond calls excess—- of local urgencies. Things brighten, then darken, as happens on a fall day. She becomes inseparable from the moment’s need of more, “a stash of light for the winter.”

Once more “outside,” the lack is palpable, nothing serves the larger purpose. Houen’s ear for the old generosity of aspect —- here the sense of “service”—-does pick up tones of an older festivity. The next sentence is the kind we have come to expect from Houen: a perfectly turned simile. The aesthetic of excess must go beyond the Metaphysical note in “the river has fast been turning depths to surface / like ….”. The modern alienated and witty tone elaborates some element in the mix.

It allows a turn: “Now the river is an image…” That way of “talking over” the snapshot is calculated to yet again perplex. “All the time’s we had together” does strike the chord of what we’ve been calling the intimate universal, the universal impermanence, Spenser’s Mutability.

The moment freezes “over.” The spaciousness “developes” in the darkroom of the imagination thrown open to the “me” at once subject and object of the poem. It’s almost Baroque. Good poems teach their readers how to read them. I may continue with the next stanza, equally full of articulate energy (to coin a phrase), but for now I pause. Although the juxtaposition of texts lead to an appreciation of the promiscuity of Houen’s muse, that may be essential to an appreciation of what goes on beyond “the festive pleasure of ontological affirmation.” The Poet nothingaffirmeth.

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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