THE CONTINUING CONVERSATION. Texts & Commentaries/ FRANZ WRIGHT “Depiction of Childhood”

DEPICTION of CHILDHOOD
After Picasso

It is the little girl / guiding the Minotaur / with her free hand—-/ that devourer // and all the terror he’s accustomed to / effortlessly emanating, / his ability to paralyze / merely by becoming present , // entranced somehow, and transformed / into a bewildered / and who knows, grateful / gentleness …// and with the other hand / lifting her lamp.

from A Book of Luminous Things, Ed. Milosz, p.250.

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 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—-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, The Intimate Universal, Glossary, p.420.

Milosz preserved this strong delicate poem in a section titled “Situations.” There are innumerable situations in which we participate, he says, through memory and imagination. We are “like a thread in a huge fabric of generations.”
So it’s personal. This poem is one of his threads. Franz Wright (1953 – 2015), son of the poet James Wright, evokes the image of innocence in the midst of monstrous evil. It’s almost artless in its economy.

The title directs us to an “abstraction”—- “Depiction of Childhood.” The quality of the language is naive, old-fashioned. Or, Blakean. Yet the epigraph, “After Picasso,” roots it in the work of a revolutionary modern artist known for his depiction both of erotic subjects and of the horrors of war.

Thus Wright establishes the “between” or situation of his poem. While referring to visual art—-“depiction,” Picasso—-as a lyric it has a temporal aspect we call the lyric narrative, a sequence of moves patterned on a flow of consciousness from object, through the ambiguities of language and dialectic, to the edge of expression and beyond. In the process the words of the poet become the voice of the poem.

The poem dutifully describes Childhood as a specific Child. Because of the epigraph the reader processes the poem as the description of a “depiction,” and we know how to read ekphrases. We are half-aware of the doubling involved. This is the same imagination that explains the structure of the between. In Desmond’s glossary entry on “agapeics,” he says a surplus of good is always at work in the between—-in the situation of the human being. This presence at the bottom is foundational. Modern nihilism denies such a foundation.

Desmond’s idea of agapeics (from the Greek word for charity, defined in the perennial conversation as purer, non-monopolizing love) at the bottom is brought to life in Wright’s poem. The first move is the specification involved in the phrase “free hand.” In her FREE hand child holds the hand of the personification of evil, the Minotaur. His power to paralyze the wills of mortals has itself been paralyzed. The building up of the image through doubles—-hands and on the larger scale, children and monsters—-moves the poem into its dialectical phase.

The final description of the charmed Minotaur is transfigured as the Other to its original. This brings us to the edge of the between. Is that all? Wright knew better, knew more. The image is not complete until it is seen from outside its situation. This compares to how we get to the bottom of being by the agapeics, “the enabling power as letting the good of particulars and communities realize itself in one fashion or another.” This is not idealism, the agapeic powers are “incognito,” reserved in the enigma of being at all.

So, miraculously but naturally, the child’s other “non-free” hand appears to complete the picture. The picture is not complete without a reference to the role of Truth—-the lamp. Thus Wright’s poem does justice to the most universal, most intimate of subjects. Milosz was right to include it in his cabinet of luminous things.

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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