by Jean Follain, translated by W. S. Merwin
CONTEXT Interestingly for our concerns, the Greek “meta” can mean both “in the midst” as well as “beyond”. . . [Metaxu] reflects something of tgebintimate universal: in the midst as intimate, yet beyond as pointing to what is not reducible to immanence alone. WILLIAM DESMOND “The Intimate Universal,” 160.
The poems of Jean Follain (1903-1971), French magistrate and poet, are interrogative. They have been famously introduced by his most popular translator W. S. Merwin as concerned about the ‘mystery of the present which gives the recalled details their form, at once luminous and removed.’ The equivocation of ‘mystery of present’ needs unpacking.
Glancing at the provided CONTEXT we may start with the “meta” of “Metaxy,” Plato’s word for ‘between’ and a concept that has become popular in modern culture. We return it to its roots in the agon of philosophy and poetry in Ancient Greek philosophy. The “Between” that breaks down conceptual rigidities into dynamic relations between selves and others in given circumstances is supercharged by Eros (see Plato’s dialogue “Symposium”). In these essays we take a metaxological approach to lyric.
Follain’s “Dog Day” always makes me laugh in delight and perplexity. The immediate situation is a Voice I don’t trust but listen to anyway. It seems from the outset to be pulling my leg. It counts ion my prejudices about “Asia.” The description of the festivities does not eliminate my doubts, but replaces them with a story.
At this point what we call “the lyric narrative” has moved from the scene setting into the fabulous. The images pop. It seems surreally real. This aesthetic has been explained by commentators as a kind of photographic process. We sense the development of the images.
Flowers, red powder, we see it. It, whatever “it” is, comes together as the festive dogs sniff the air, because that’s how dogs react to situations. The lyric narrative is fulfilled as it turns away from its initial pretence to tell a story about once in Asia. The true aesthetic happening of the poem is taking place.
The dogs “look at the clouds.” The overall image that is the developing poem has moved outside the speaker to the poem itself—nor should you trust the phrase “poem itself.” It stands for what is other to the voice we’ve been following. It helps me to see the Between of the poem as stretched between the source of this dubious voice and the source of my emerging sense of what is at the other pole of the event of the poem.
Meta: in the midst AND beyond.
We recall Merrill’s notion of presence: a mystery that gives details their form. Let’s redo that formula in terms of the lyric narrative. The image has developed into one of “more.” The real dogs are there in their actual absurdity, heir absurd reality. The lyric narrative comes to rest in the “other,” but the other as more real than the equivocal and dialectical imagery of the middle of the poem. These dogs are mortal beings like us. We share their final ignorance, but along the way we’ve comprehended a poem.
Lyrics map the way.