THE CONTINUING CONVERSATION Texts and Contexts / Aleksander Wat “Facing Bonnard”


Blond light blew away grayness, shadows, mists, / from a body that left the bathtub and does not yet go to the coffin. / The body is tawny, flame-spotted, and the bathtub rosy, flesh-colored. / And the coffin? As usual with a coffin: dimly purple. / Besides, the coffin’s not visible: its colors suffice. // That translation from our world, don’t ask whether faithful, / gives pleasure to the eye. The other senses are mum./ But to the eye it gives pleasure. That’s enough. Quite. / Be patient. Wait. You will see how that pleasure / opens up as an egg of of dream-meditation. / Our artist enclosed in it a ballet of possibilities / where he himself—and you—-are both an observer and an author, / a corps de ballet surely, but also a true soloist.

from A Book of Luminous Things, ed. Milosz, p. 70.

The flesh is alive with worth, saturated with value. Consider the nude: it faces us, presenting something of this equivocal saturation of value. This value is not moral value. And if one were to call it aesthetic value, the aesthetics of value is to be understood in an ontological sense. It is the very being there of the flesh that incarnates the value. We can reduce the flesh of others to objective thereness, and even objectify ourselves, but even then there is an inescapable “space” where we intimately live in our own flesh the affirmation of the “to be,” its being good to be. This being good to be, in truth, is not confined to us. Something of it is communicated in the flesh of other being, even while it is lived in the otherness of our own being enfleshed.
William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, p. 255.

Contrary to the ideologies of nihilism fostered by capitalism, the world is not a neutral place. Mankind is not licensed to exploit the earth. Wat’s poem, full of his ebullient good humor, faces nihilism with face averted and destroys its pretentious categories one-by-one.

And he does so by writing a good poem. “Facing Bonnard” illustrates why I say, trust in good poems. The lyric narrative is pushed to the limit but never becomes absurd. It is solid phenomenology yet “totally” concrete.

Opening with the wonder of aesthetic event, it presents an ordinary event in the between. In the midst of conscious life. This poem’s Between is defined as the most basic—-between life and death: the extreme of death is present not as a reified thing but as the color purple. Wit and wisdom mix in Wat!

Description takes us beyond the opening situation into the equivocal chiaroscuro, but since its a Bonnard/Wat collaboration it’s life-affirming. We are urged to “only look.” Quiet your noisy conceptual mind straining after certainty. It is a contemporary commonplace —-I’ve heard it on Twitter!—- that poem’s show us how to read them: but I say, poems show us how to be. Desmond’s text takes us on a deep dive into the ontology that is the incognito foundation of phenomenology (shush! It’s a secret!).

True to metaxyturn as the poem turns toward its “outside” (remember Celan’s saying every poem is en route) and beyond the dialectic we have another aesthetic event, a double of that evoked by the painting. The comedy of the flesh is no joke. It involves poet and reader in the creative event. It embraces the moreness of being in its “egg of dream-meditation,” its “ballet of possibilities.”

“Facing Bonnard” opens with the courage of putting a face on our fragile flesh, so amazingly vulnerable in the universal impermanence. The poem presents the case for the acknowledgement of the good of “the to be,” the depths of the phenomena of being, not excluding but not giving a craven priority to nothingness.

With thanks to Robert Herrick: Trust in good verses!

This essay is dedicated to Jill Pearlman

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: