LUMINOUS THINGS Robert Creeley “Like They Say”


from A Book of Luminous Things, ed. Milosz, p.18

The promise of being other is the promise of being oneself more fully, in being more fully with the other, in being in communication. Fully being oneself in communication and not being fully oneself cannot be separated by us. Hence we are creatures of longing and desire. Community is there in the desire to be oneself. Longing is belonging. Both are intimate and the promise of the universal. Longing for what, belonging to what? The wise blood in the flesh has an intimation; the aesthetic field of the earth gives signs but does not tell straight.
William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, p. 260.Z

In his commentary on this slender poem, so different in texture from his European maximalist aesthetic, Milosz invokes one of the most powerful myths of the Scriptural tradition, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. It’s an allusion the poem does not specifically encourage. I cite the Desmond text as perhaps more relevant. As developed by Desmond, thinking in the between, or metaxology (metaxu Greek for “between”; Plato developed this approach in key texts Desmond returns to throughout his voluminous writings). In his hands the Metaxy is a way of undermining our habit of absolutizing binary logical structures like being and nothingness, nature and culture; thinking in the between relativizes universals, showing instead the structure of the porosity of consciousness, its openness to what is beyond its capacity to manipulate conceptually, the beyond he names the INTIMATE universal, trimming the claws of Augustine’s myth of inferiority/interiority—-God being MORE interior than the self.

Don’t be distracted by that last bit. Let’s go on.

This passage is useful when applied to Creely’s poem. Milosz thought the poem through Biblically. We can think it metaxologically. The poet figure longs to be MORE OF himself, not different, but the woodpeckers disturb his dream. They do so because HE disturbs THEM. Why does the poet lay this very human trip—being in a disturbed mood—-on the woodpeckers? He doesn’t say. The poem is entitled “Like they say.”

As we used to say in school, it’s a problem of communication.

The mood of disturbance is part of the fundamental structure of the between—-communication. The woodpeckers are happy, fully engrossed in their being woodpeckers. They communicate their happy being in their noisy aggressive work which is tied into their particular between or ecological niche. Unlike the poet, they don’t long for more. Moreness is an essential motif in the original story of the Metaxy we find in Plato: love is a continuum of lack and plenty. Humans are structured by love.

Easy to superimpose that myth on the Biblical one, but not necessary. Creely is a fine poet and follows the lyric narrative through the senses of being: the setting, the interiorization of the setting in terms of equivocal language (I watched two happy), which opens the can of worms we call consciousness: is the man jealous of the woodpeckers? Who precisely is disturbed? Human self-understanding as illustrated by Biblical myth is profoundly dialectical, which is the third sense of being for Desmond. “Longing is belonging.”

There’s something about the hard knocking of wood pecking that resembles the hard thinking required by poetry—-I’m just saying.

The poet imagines and PERFORMS, however incompletely, community in his poem. At his disposal are WISE BLOOD —-“phenomenological/chiastic” flesh as the porous between—-and EARTH. But the earth does not “tell straight”—-does not reduce meaning to univocal concept. Reality is plural—a crucial principle in metaxological thinking.

The ‘signs’ of the Earth—-the final, metaxological stage of the lyric. Full porosity between finite man and what is other to his being/thought. Creely’s brilliant dialogical twist, linking to the title, reveals the irreducible otherness in the situation and perhaps answers the question of happiness. The poet thought “to himself.” The off-handed gesture fills momentarily the gap of the between with SELF as saying. “Like I say.” The porosity of this between is momentarily clogged by off-handed speech. But qua gap it’s also an opening.

This interpretation should bother you. Disturb you. Through the lyric narrative the poem has it both ways: the Biblical take, based on the inward awareness of guilt, and the metaxological take, which, without denying the first, reconfigures it in its double “my presence.” The “negative” “not” reopens the communication between the poet and his other, the woodpeckers. They say, I say. The poem does not resolve the living dimensions of the moment but holds them open, keeps them open in the reader’s imagination. A sort of peaceful between.

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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