LUMINOUS THINGS David Wagoner “Loons Mating”

from A Book of Luminous Things, ed. Milosz

AESTHETICS (Glossary). Aesthetics refers to something more elemental and universal than art considered as a human intervention or construction. It refers us to the fleshed intermedium in which the communication of the intimate universal happens and is formed. The universal as intimate is intimated in the immediacy of the aesthetics of happening. There is a self-surpassing in the sensuous flesh itself—-the body in itself goes beyond itself. Aesthetic embodiment refers itself as much to the porosity of being asan open field of interplay as to the determinacy of being enfleshed therein.

William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, 419.

In his preface to “Nature,” the first section of the anthology, Milosz says Nature is beyond good and evil; it’s the “great Other.” But he adds that in the modern period, we feel kinship with the non-human world of “basic drives.” Consciousness is humanity’s double burden, “our curse and blessing.”

The tensions in this set of themes allow him great freedom as an anthologist. We find Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” as well as Denise Levertov, a personal friend. He opens with the less well-known David Wagoner, whose “Loons Mating” is meant to express ambivalence toward what we might call the “aesthetics” of nature.

But the ambivalence of the word “aesthetics” here, as it expresses Milosz’s moral reservations, needs correcting. As Desmond’s glossary entry shows, we can reconfigure the issues in terms of the intimate universal. For Milosz, the intimacy of the universal (as opposed to the classical sense of universal as conceptually binding in all things), is the problem. For Desmond, aesthetics is a primary sense of being. All things are “aesthetic” and reveal themselves in “the immediacy of happening.” That fits what happens in Wagoner’s poem. Once again, a good poem is good “aesthetically” —-as a happening—-and good as thinking. This double-good emerges as the poem emerges in the reader’s mindful reading of the poem.

I’m tempted to cut to the chase and ask, have you ever heard a loon calling? Unforgettable! Thousands of poets have referred to its eerie other-worldly sound. That way of putting it is a cliche and exposes prejudices about the nature/culture duality that haunts popular culture.

The poem seems to be a scrupulous description “from nature.” That’s certainly how Milosz presents it. And its true. Desmond’s sense of aesthetic happening clears things up.

Note: Wagoner’s focus is clear and tight—-no sentimental lake effects. “Blurred smooth by dawn” draws on the equivocity of appearances and poetry’s capacity to let slip rigid categories. “Charmed circles” is a light touch conveying the increasing sense of aesthetic wonder as not dependent on subjective response. The poem carefully unfolds the specifically lyric narrative as happening to/through “the lake’s mercurial threshold.”

To back up: the situation in which the lyric is embedded and which it nourishes is not a concept or theme: it is a between. It “represents”: an account of porosity not rigid categories. Here specifically the flow between moments of dawn. Call it with Wagoner the threshold: it is a dynamic space that opens up. The lyric pays strict attention to thresholds as it moves in the porosity of its between.

It is a precise account of a happening “in nature,” and as such feels the more ”intimate.” He only graudually includes the observer in this Between. The moment “in nature” appears in careful phenomenological description: “…the threshold/Whose face and under face they share/in wheeling and diving tandem, rising together…” The close up shots—“beaks turned down and in”—bring the human into the scene. We are near the shore now. (There’s a subtle reference in “down and in” to the “itinerary of the soul” as portrayed by Augustine and countless others.)

The complexity, temporal and spacial, of the moment is gently opened to include an awareness that embraces the limits of this between. “And now…and now…” We have reached the moment of the intimate universal. It is communicated as so often by a feel for nonce unities in the imagination. The poem, finding its style in careful description from the playbook of Darwin, finally reaches beyond that legacy to a more intimate, a more universal “aesthetic.” “Beautiful sane laughter” completes the lyric narrative by acknowledging the paradoxical other than can be thought.

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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