LYRIC COMPANIONS Philip Levine “A Sleepless Night”

From A Book of Luminous Things Ed. Milosz

CONTEXT When [Kant] talks of the reflective judgment seeking the universal, he might be reinterpreted as attending to our being called out (“to kalon”) beyond ourselves by the eros for the beautiful. We are transported in the particular beyond the particular. Nevertheless, a dyadic scheme of particular and universal such as governs his thinking is not enough to address the field of the happening of beauty in the intimate universal. Beauty is a beween happening in one sense, but in another sense there is no between separating the universal and the particular in that the beautiful between is (metaxologically) the intimate universal.

William Desmond The Intimate Universal, 100.

The situation of this poem is something I remember from my youth in Bakersfield, a night in Spring so hot that sleep is impossible. Spring just means April. When in April: Chaucer’s opening to his Tales is reconfigured as a “now” that has already arrived. So the presupposed lyric narrative has to stand in for the story. The poem seems to be a description of timelessness.

Yet the narrative is there and the poem follows the choreography of the timeless moment. The opening moment is specified: the last of the plum blossoms have fallen to the “black” or nighttime earth. Sightless as the old poets would say. Then in the first of the second steps of the narrative, multiple particulars are catalogued: sycomore, lime, and pine breathe the early dawn air. The “struck” pine? In the equivocity, we conjure “struck” as struck by firstlight. Pines are associated with timelessness, but we’re in the equivocity of Time now.

As expected the narrative deepens into the dialectic of self and other. “I think.” The particular heat of the day has a dramatic entrance into the moment’s contexture, and as that high-sounding five-dollar term out of Geoffrey Hill suggests, there is a philosophic-religious aspect: “it will come/dazzling…” NB the note on beauty in the CONTEXT. The situation or between closes on itself by opening to the otherness of beauty. The description of the “light” in light of the grammar of timelessness—the light yet wil rise. Then the extended description filling the collapsed between of the moment.

Read it yourself. Let it sink in. It is the turn of the poem into the abyss of the particulars: the poppy, the mockingbird, the snail on its way to China. Delirium! A Central Valley season in heaven/hell as Rimbaud has taught us to see.

We’re not done. The poem expands beyond the self of the between’s porosity of time and timelessness. In a stroke of sheer genius Levine uncouples the moment from the day. The segue from the climactic moment of the snail “awake for good” is revelatory: the universality of the “good” in the groundless ground of our language is brought to the surface with great finesse and the narrative gains in intensity and clarity with it.

His hand, the poet’s, is part of the vision, should we say the apocalyptic vision. The lyric narrative reconfigures the between into the Metaxy, the porosity of time and eternity is complete in beauty (see CONTEXT). Eros strives no more: the snail IS China. And the sleepless night has become the fulfillment of grace: “A man has every place to lay his head.”

I rest my case. Lyric potentially involves a given reader in an outer/inner, lower/higher dynamic transformational space that is the ne plus ultra of mindfulness. Or whatever. It is the epitome of our education.

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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