LUMINOUS THINGS Issa “Insect Song”


A Book of Luminous Things, Ed Milosz, p 6

What is to be stressed is the communicability with otherness in that embodiment itself. This is already there in the happening of the aesthetic environment, but we know this more intimately in ourselves, though not in any sense separable from the aesthetics of happening as such. Flesh is the porosity on the threshold of wording. In the flesh the porosity of being comes to aesthetic wording.
William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, 254.

I write this in the resonant aftermath of John Lewis’s funeral. His prophetic message about a universal call to action in behalf of those systematically deprived of the right to self-expression through democratic processes—-especially African Americans—-rings in my ears and soul. And yet I once again turn to my job of writing about poems. How hypocritical!

My belief is this: poetry brings us into communication with the spirit of communication itself. If we block that universal spirit—- and we do, the world being too much with us—- we become disoriented and fail to find our own selves in the primary connections Desmond calls the “porosity.” We need such a word because our awareness of what we have in common as finite beings is constantly disfigured by secondary collectivities in religion, politics, art and so on.

Issa is with Basho the very name of haiku. Milosz’s choice of haiku to illustrate luminous things —- poetry—- in its essence is calculated to strip away conventions of thinking about poems.

The moment captured in these words —- the language of moment has a long complex tradition in philosophy—- is an epiphany of communication. It stresses the non-willful or spontaneous nature of communication. The song of a mere insect!

In the creative world of Issa, insects are beings in good standing. Issa specialized in insect poems, to use the vulgar language of technique and disposability. Insects can be cute. As here, they can seem idiotically unaware of their virtual nothingness.

In the same text from which I draw the above Desmond connects the deep interior being of every soul, as expressed as “interior” to that very self, as a something-nothing. “One is what one intimately is; there seems no gap of ‘nothing’ between oneself and oneself; and yet in the solitude of intimacy there is no solitude. What is the ‘nothing’ here? The gap of ‘nothing’ is the between-space of porosity where the enabling communication of the power of being gives us to be what we are and are to be.”

You may find this abstract language barbarous and beneath you. But the meanings it communicates are essential to the education of human beings. If this meaning is not interiorized, one can’t hear the song of the insect.

Issa’s narrative fleshes out the situation in no undertain terms. The branch on which the insect sings has been torn from its living roots, it has been swept up in the forces of the universal impermanence; it is headed for further disaster. The insect sings, obliviously.

For us to hear that song is for us to identify with the insect. We are one flesh. Do we ‘have’ an idiotic fleshy self that sings despite the circumstances of our finite being? Does this moment forge that identity?

I believe the answers to these questions explain why Milosz placed this poem where he did in A Book of Luminous Things. And in this historic moment of pandemic trans-shifting requiring people to come together against white supremacy, this choice is a good one.


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 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 and other sites.

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