JUXTAPOSITIONS Tomas Transtromer “Sketch in October”


Tomas Transtromer “The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems” translated by Robin Fulton 2006

Agapeics: There is an incognito generosity or surplus of affirmative “to be” as good that is always at work in the between, the “metaxu.” We do not become socially associated, we are what we are in an always already at work association. The meaning of this is something more than ourselves individually. It is participation in something more primal, a community more primal than this or that determinate or self-determinate community—-this is the overdeterminate commons. This surplus generosity of the agapeic makes all forms of community possible—-though it does not receive the name of the agapeic. A “too-muchness” of enabling power as letting the good of particulars and communities realize itself in one fashion or another. This agapeics of the Intimate Universal is beyond the dominion of serviceable disposability, and also beyond the power of erotic sovereignty we find especially in the political realm.
William Desmond, “Glossary” in “The Intimate Universal,” 419f.

The poetic image is a focal point of meanings not initiated by it and not exhausted by it. The image draws on the plurivocal nature of the reality communicated by the language of the poem. Transtromer’s displaced and disused tugboat invites the reader to stay awhile, thus overcoming the resistance to its strangeness and earning a bit of the reader’s imagination.

For years I lived at the mouth of the Piscataqua River in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The sound of the tugs going out to sea echoes in my mind as I reread this poem. Tugs are cast in narratives of connection. Their powerful motors can overcome the tides that ebb and flow at the edges of society, where there’s always somebody who wants to be fetched.

Transtromer’s image however has the absurd quality of the modern nihilistic poem. As an image of human good intentions it is forlorn and subversive of the hope that it may once have served. That sense of lack of power is emphasized by its double, the image of the trees, which have “colors” that “act as” “signals to the other shore” like the horns the tugboat once blew to communicate the double message of warning and promise.

The images fuse in the body of the poem, thus fulfilling the promise of metaxical communication. The Metaxy is at the beginning a hermeneutical space between two limits of lack and plenty which Plato presents as a myth in his dialogue The Symposium. Metaxical space engages the imagination of the reader, overcoming the resistance which Socrates says made him disbelieve it at first. Eros in Plato’s myth is a creative connection between human lack and a sort of divine overfullness or “porosity.”

The philosopher who has done most to uncover the relevance of metaxic thinking, William Desmond, makes a distinction between erotic tension and the agapeic pole of the Metaxy or between. I have given above his glossary entry to “agapeics” from “The Intimate Universal.” Some such understanding is essential to understanding Transtromer’s lyric “Sketch in October.” Despite the absurdity of the tug image the poem draws on the idea of a primordial, selfless love.

That absurdity receives a second boost in the second half. Developing the landscape of the poem where the complex imagery of the tug and the trees first appear, the poet pictures mushrooms sprouting from the grass on the roadside. In what may seem as a sentimental image of personification, the poet engages the energies of the myth of love. From down in the darkness someone is trying to make contact; in a very economical but rich image, the mushrooms stretch upward in a cry for help.

The image however unsophisticated draws on a timeless sense of the origins of the human drama. The reconfiguration of the imagery in a larger context is achieved by the final line. “This surplus energy of the agapeic makes all forms of community possible.” This contemporary myth of Eros as agapeics of community is illuminated by Transtromer’s simple concluding line: “We are the earth’s.”

The popular educated sense of Plato as an idealist shuts us off from a great source of the wisdom of the Metaxy. Humanity’s “Between,” the scene of its happening, is not idealistic. It is characterized by what Desmond calls “chiaroscuro,” or the shadowy fertile void of the universal impermanence. Transtromer’s landscape expresses not only the absurdity and pain of the human condition but its dimension of hope. As Desmond says, there is an incognito generosity always at work in the between. This dimension is definitively a dimension of communication. Things —- disused tugboats, trees, mushrooms —- communicate the dimension of communicability.

We are taught in school to reject this form of reason, the figure that draws out the implications of its own configurations. This educated habit of intellectual scruple shutters poetry and poetic philosophy to us. The educated reader is blind to the brilliance of Transtromer’s lyric “Sketch in October.” But in the language of the poem we are part of a primordial community, call it Earth. Dwelling there requires emotional openness to the mixed messages of the Metaxy—- of hope and despair, finitude and infinitude, the mortal and the immortal, Eros and Agapeics. If we wish the political realm to be more than a war of all against all, we need to be educated by the narrative of lyric as illustrated by this poem. There is no better source for the saving wisdom of the Metaxy than mindful reading of lyric. As a modest proposal, reading “Sketch in October” seems a good place to start in replacing contemporary nihilism by the spiritual exercise afforded by this poem.

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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