LYRIC COMPANIONS Robert Francis “Waxwings”

By Robert Francis (1901-1987) from A Book of Luminous Things Ed Milosz

CONTEXT All beings image themselves, express themselves. Things are in a ‘spread of being’ and they are the spread of their own being-there. Humans as beings image themselves, express themselves, are in spread. Imagination is the threshold of mindful spread between the more unconscious, the conscious, and the self-conscious. Over the threshold comes express selving and othering in the field of communication. Imagination’s roots go ontologically deep—deeper than any subjectivist interpretation. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 79.

Desmond’s thinking about the selving of beings—he acknowledges Hopkins several times in his vast output—helps us understand why lyric speaks to us. To many, “Waxwings” will not speak. It will mean nothing. It will seem like a bit of willful nonsense, a stupider than stupid bit of Romantic projection of self on other.

That would be a “subjectivist” interpretation, to coin a phrase. The knee-jerk reaction seems rooted in a deep phobia, a fear that our sense of self can be so invaded by a bird — in Milosz’s headnote he argues that the poet “likes waxwings so well that he decided to become one to attain wisdom.” Such folly that “liking.” (Milosz’s plurivocal imagination is often at work in the headnotes!)

We do not control our imaginations. They go deep. And they “spread.” This visual image—“spread”—is that of a between. Yes, this lyric totally focuses on this image of waxwings as Daoist philosophers, the poet among them, which is a pretty image from a quiet winter landscape; it’s like a faded antique print on a fly-blown wall in some Motel 6— or something.

And yet….for just a moment, a moment of disregarded longing or fantasy, the spread of the image, however weak, holds its own in the between of the poet and at least a couple of readers. It’s there in “A Book of Luminous Things,” in company with Polish and Chinese and poets from all over time and space. What gives?

It’s a quiet enough opening, the one notable word is the verb “chat.” There’s a blend of sounds—of quick polysyllables spreading among short words and in the third line a rapture of “uh’s.” Sun, one. The idealist merging of self and other in a ray of Winter sunshine.

That’s it. A defenseless moment, relaxed, absorbed by the pleasure of the moment. The human self of the reader/poet on holiday in the between of a feel-good Hallmark Card. The notion of Daoism in no way complicates things, it’s part of the cliche. Gloss it as a reference to empty selflessness unincumbered by purposes beyond itself.

The poem continues. An aspect is explored. Birds get drunk on berries in Winter, one just knows that and the image may draw in that vague knowledge. The imagery of this second stanza is pared down, “the small wild fruit on the tall stalk.” We enjoy the spondaic sound pattern of short spaces. In the poverty of this poem’s modern tradition of minimalism that amount of sensuous spread is so unassertive that it passes within the dashes as forgivable rhetoric. The stanza concludes with the “subjective” note of the rhetorical question that deepens the inanity of the poem. We’ve read enough lyrics to accept this further nonsense at this point in the narrative. We are deeply into the nothing now!

And yet, we deepen the connection through a reframing of the image, a slightly heightened visual scheme —“elegance of snow” has a paradoxical ring that deepens the spread as an imaginative happening, an almost “symbolic” gesture towards a perennial image of nothingness, of the poverty of mere being. We have entered the space of the fertile void. Maybe that’s why they are “Daoist” waxwings!

In any event, it’s a brotherhood. The second question triggers a sense of difference. “Can you mistake us?” Whose voice is that? In our study of the lyric narrative we often use the distinction between the poet’s and the poem’s voice. Here’s a case of that distinction deployed where it most often appears, at the end. The spread of the selving process whereby the poet idenfied as waxwing comes to rest in its restless striving for togetherness, for companionship. “Can you mistake us?” Can you, after absorbing the poem? Do you still want to?

What’s it worth, this lyric identity? The poet now exploits the grammar of the “infinitive”: to X, to Y, to Z; to sun, to feast, to converse/ and all together!” A secular, Romantic eschatology but there you have it. In the porosity of your mindfulness you GET IT!

But then the poem’s voice adds a perplexing, confessional note. Imagination’s roots go deep.” The phrase “all my other lives” throws the clubby aspect of this brotherhood of birds into question. The light of the abyss filters the image now, the porosity of self and other now stripped on its vicious sense of “other” which is so convenient to idealism. In our postmodern discourse “other” is loaded with unacknowledged suppositions of difference that come into play given the situation, and that has become more and more perplexing.

So this oddly modest but vigilant (it turns out) lyric points beyond itself into all our other lives. That’s going beyond self- serving idealism, and once again proves why lyric should be acknowledged as our best educator.

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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