What a world of apparitions: / stifled warmth of the greenhouse, / scent of tomatoes, my mother / and I working closely // to shimmy the pots / loose. Split sack of soil / on the bench, glow / of a tea light in the jar, // and not a word between us./ It is hard to tell where heaven / starts, and where it ends: / me, a foot taller, standing // where her father stood, / and outside, look: the dove,/ like a paper lantern, is bobbing / in the apple-blossom.
FRAME of REFERENCE If erotic sovereignty deals with immanent excellences, agapeic service deals with transcendent good. It is most released to ethical care for the other as other. It releases something of the promise of a more universal love of being, in respect both for the value of nature as other and for other human beings with whom one shares the gifts of the between. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 180.
In quaranteen I’m finding my hobby a great consolation. I mean my study of lyric, begun in childhood and pursued as opportunity allowed throughout a long wandering career in writing, editing, journalism, and other facets of the predigital world of print culture. In my 70’s, quaranteened by a worldwide virus, preoccupied with rolling spikes of grief, supported by friends in genteel poverty, I have found a voice, modest and pure on Twitter, documenting aspects of what my masters in the 60s and 70’s in California called the ”short poem.” My masters included the subject of my Berkeley dissertation, which focused on Yvor Winters and modern French poets, but also the classical lyric: My Berkeley professors included groundbreaking scholars of Pindar (Elroy Bundy) and Horace (W. R. Johnson). Like Yeats, my earliest soul-shaper, I love to say those names. My eyes are so bad I have to be content sometimes just with the rollcall.
The rollcall is growing. New poets like Geraldine Clarkson and Sean Hewitt have challenged my assumptions about the lyric and confirmed my wildest hope. The short poem has survived the Age of Nihilism, so perfectly climax3d by the novel corona virus, and has reconnected with structures and values that characterize the earliest fragments of lyrics by Sappho and other “Greek” singers.
Unbelievable! Compact, epigrammatic phrasing, the resources of points of view rooted in the Homeric and non-Western traditions, the folded form that releases the poem from the contingencies of autonomy and idealism into an “intimate universal” clearing space for finite others, in a space open to what can’t be said only shown— that sort of thing.
I was lucky to have discovered Yeats among the paperbacks my older sister brought home from high school in Bakersfield. I am not being ironic and may have succumbed to the mythmaking propensities of “the aging intellect.” But Yeats was there for me at a suggestible age. Heaney much later but now, in light of the “new” poet Sean Hewitt, newly relevant, at least to this chronically myopic observer.
Hewitt can stand on his own. All of thirty, he’s revealing once again the resources of the lyric. His debut, “Tongues of Fire,” recapitulates and extends the range of the lyric. He has the courage to show his loyalty to the powers that make his voice ring out in the chaos of the present.
In “Evening Poem,” a title he repeats as if to accentuate the sturdy architecture of his book, there’s an unmistakable echo of Heaney and HIS mother. It’s the almost ruthless speed of Hewitt’s imagination that surprises. The outline of his narrative— from the ironically Yeatsian category of “apparition” broken to include the givens of the family greenhouse, to the relativities of his family’s dialectics— is tied to a “universal” from the philosophy schools: “It is hard to tell where heaven / starts, and where it ends.”
Really? I thought modernity had made that distinction a matter of determined fact! That rather prosaic deliberative statement follows the narrative climax, “and not a word between us.” The negative expression, I say, creates a gap, a silence, an aporia, you could drive a truck through.
As Hewitt does. Then the turn of the poem. The “between” of mother and son working in the greenhouse sudden opens to a greater one through proportion: Me/her father. In the silence of that observation, an unspeakable dimension appears: poem’s place in a book haunted protreptically by his own father’s death. Behold the economies of scale of the lyric tradition, which can make you or break you, where allusion can bear the weight of joy and grief.
In my own vernacular drawn from the oceanic, shall I say Joycean, but systematic writings of the Irish philosopher William Desmond, this is metaxyturn, the moment when the local life of the between of the poem opens on a space illuminated by awareness/presence from beyond the narrative. The sign of metaxyturn is the finite otherness of an image of what Desmond has lately named “the intimate universal,” with the stress on “intimate” to differentiate it from the formalist neoclassical tradition.
The carefully crafted yet expansive and equivocal “image” of the iconic dove, reconfigured in light of paper lanterns and apple blossoms: THIS is the sign of the finite embodied other that caps the story of family love, communicative sometimes heart-breaking silences. Hewitt’s firm control of all this craft allows for a greater sense of artistic freedom, which is why I’m charged up by the appearance of his book.