LUMINOUS THINGS Jean Follain “Music of Spheres”


from “A Book of Luminous Things,” ed. Milosz

The porosity is an opening, not only in us, but of ourselves as an opening. We are a passing opening. The porosity is a kind of nothing, in that it is no-thing, but the kind of thing we are is subtended by this no-thing. For the kind of thing we are is marked by the possibility of receiving being other than itself, and of surpassing its own being toward what is beyond itself.
William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, 211.

Milosz’s headnote lacks finesse. His struggle with dualism—in his case, a religious struggle with Gnostic overtones—stresses a narrative of uncomplicated nihilism. The universe revealed by Winter is a cold, empty place. The brilliant image of the spinning can that comes to rest under the cold bright Winter stars seems to lock that vision into univocal clarity.

This rendering of the events of the poem ignores the qualifications embedded in the key figure. He is himself cold, indifferent, empty. He is also powerful. He has keys in his pocket and pointy shoes. He “absent-mindedly” kicks a can down the road with a touch of arrogance.

He fulfills the model of the succesful autonomous man.

Follain’s mastery of the lyric narrative is shown in the complexity of the final image. Follain’s finesse compromises the model of autonomy. The complexity is not merely visual. That image picks up the equivocity of the image of power. The old can steals the scene and comes to rest as a communication of order beyond the man, who is suddenly isolated and subordinated to something very large outside himself.

But there’s more. Reading the poem with porosity in mind (see Desmond text), the man himself, so solid seeming, is touched by nothingness. The man in the passing moment is himself passage. This is the larger truth of the poem.

My brief for the wisdom of lyric stands on how the lyric narrative concludes with this sense of radical openness. The powerful autonomous man is revealed as “subtended” by a transcending nothingness. This nothingness is not merely negative. The Winter’s night sky communicates many things, including the key moment of open consciousness, the wonder communicated by the mystery of being.

So the mindful reader of this poem identifies with this nasty man in his finite otherness and bespoke autonomy. We can imagine ourselves as him, thanks to the poem. Getting to know such a man is a key to liberal education: they are the illiberal masters of the universe.

Or are they? They think they are. The poem criticises the kind of thinking that just thinks its own autonomy (e.g. white supremacy). We learn from metaxical criticism that we are all such passages within the passing universe. We are conscious of our double nature, immanent AND transcendent. Pragmatic criticism is ill-equipped to deal with the fullness and openness of the lyric narrative in terms of immanence and transcendence. Those terms, often scorned by pragmatic critics, simply mark the boundaries of the porosity we are. They are dialectical and as straw. Milosz’s headnote does not quite capture the luminous moment of self-understanding communicated 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 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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