If after our death they want to transform us into a tiny withered flame that walks along the paths of winds—we have to rebel. What good is an eternal leisure on the bosom of air, in the shade of a yellow halo, amid the murmer of two-dimensional choirs.
One should enter rock, wood, water, the cracks of a gate. Better to be the creaking of a floor than shrilly transparent perfection.
Trans. Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott
FRAME of REFERENCE. The value-saturation of the original elemental aesthetic field contradicts the abstract notion that we live in a neutral world. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 254.
Herbert gives voice to values at risk in a world neutralized by ideology. It’s a quiet, ironic voice, one might say unpoetic. His practice of the prose poem seems in line with the practice that produced some of the most important lyrics of the 20th-century.
His prose poems are lyrical in how they follow the lyric narrative. It begins in the orientation addressed in the Frame of Reference: “the abstract notion that we live in a neutral world.” In such a world “values” are accompanied by scare quotes. The overwhelming usefulness of treating the world outside our heads in terms of “serviceable disposability” (Desmond’s polysyllabics) must now be questioned as we deal with climate change. Herbert’s minority report, often delivered with a chaste minimalism of style— or at least the appearance of that style— is itself an act of resistance.
The “eternal leisure” imagined here is marked by images of excess. The poem engages that voice once the opening sketches the (improbable) situation—the “they,” the afterlife itself. So the vision upon which the elaborate imagery is lavished is one the poem rejects: The parasitical nature of modern thought, dependent on what it rejects, is part of the irony and depends on the reader’s acquiescence. We know the ropes. Only the startling vivacity of the imagery keeps us going.
Modern poetry does not say “should” and mean it. Herbert’s irony does not survive the middle, the development, of the text. But the inanity of the traditional afterlife—and Elysium seems coeval with the imagination—is not easily subdued. Perhaps it’s just an accommodation of our nothingness? The lyric narrative does proceed negatively toward its own frustration, its aporia.
But the imagery that gives life to the final section is deeply traditional, a counter-tradition. Dust to dust yes but what dust! The creaking of a floor conjures life as we know it. So the poem fulfills its trajectory away from the picturesque to a realism that at least holds its own, however improbable, promise. The realism of the finite other is an alternative to the idealism that haunts the modern imagination with its desperate clinging to vestiges of autonomy.
So, yes, a prose poem, a hybrid that succeeds in letting the prose serve the higher end of the lyric narrative: the practice of freedom from the idealistic ego.