LYRIC COMPANION Jaan Kaplinski from “The Same Sea in Us All”

The East-West border is always wandering, / sometimes eastward, sometimes west, / and we do not know exactly where it is just now: / in Gauge ela, in the Urals, or maybe in ourselves, / so that one ear, one eye, one nostril, one hand, one foot, / one lung and one testacle or one ovary / is on the one, another on the other side. Only the heart, / only the heart is always on one side: / if we are looking northward, in the West; / if we are looking southward, in the East; / and the mouth doesn’t know on behalf of which or both / it has to speak.

From Jaan Kaplinski, Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2011), translated from Estonian by author and Sam Hamill, Hildi Hawkins, Fiona Sampson, and Riina Tamm

FRAME of REFERENCE The deeper sources of terror are not simply in proximate grievances. They are in the void space of our nothingness that we know in the intimate universal. For our being given to be in the intimate universal brings home to us the endowed character of all our power, that is its absolute impotence to be absolute as endeavoring to be. Our nothingness is known in the intimate universal because as being at all we are not nothing but live and move and have our being in virtue of an endowing power that communicates beyond every void. That is why there is something rather than nothing, why we are at all, rather than being just nothing. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal (2016),p.147.

Desmond’s “void” is a gloss on the sea in Kaplinski’s title, “the sea that is in us all.”

I’m writing this today at the dawn of a new day in quaranteen, but not just any day, the day after the public has learned from “the new Woodward” that POTUS is indeed a pathological criminal of a specific sort, a tyrant who will manipulate what he knows through his access to research as POTUS that his country faces a deadly pandemic AND lies about it to the public to preserve his stake in power. The rest is history.

We do have poems to orient us in the “void” (see FRAME of REFERENCE). We have our lyric companions.

In our quaranteen, made so stringent by our Tyrant’s refusal to tell us what he knows and protect us, we may feel disoriented like the speaker of Kaplinski’s poem. The boundaries defining our lives keep shifting. Only the heart knows. Kaplinski’s performance of the lyric narrative—from outer to inner, from lower to higher, to use the Augustinian version of the schema— turns inexorably from space to an indeterminate dimension. We are now in the porosity of the between, between our sense of location in the real, always shifting political world, and the transcendent dimension of the heart.

The heart is always on one side of our between, regardless of our relative situation. The heart, not the mouth, especially not the mouth.

So the lyric narrative ends in the fertile void of the heart of silence. What we cannot speak of we must remain silent about. Wittgenstein’s aphorism is a building block of metaxical poetics. It remaps the lyric narrative onto fresh aspects: what we can say (all those positions determined by the publicly accepted map), what we can’t be sure of (all those positions determined by the publicly accepted map), and the remainder that we can’t say. BUT as Wittgenstein added towards the end of his life, THAT CAN be SHOWN.

Lyrics, like Wittgenstein’s curiously wrought philosophical investigations, finally SHOW the form that emerges in their performance if its up to snuff, which depends on our mindfulness. That mindfulness is not in the end a matter of seeing, nor a matter of knowing, but a matter of acting: of the response of the heart. The ACT of the poem is not so much our “interpretation” in so many words, as our interpretation as performance.

Occupation enough for our enforced leisure in quaranteen, occupation mindful enough for our time of tyranny. Occupation adequate to our existence in the fertile void of the intimate universal.

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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