There are the moments / When one could drowse off / Even right beside you / Without lack of respect. // There are the moments, perhaps, / A great calm inflicts on you, // When you have settled your accounts / And found them good. // Everyone sometimes, / Even you with your frenzy, / Can be pleased with themselves.
Trans Denise Levertov. “Guillevic: Selected Poems” (New Directions, 1969), p93.
FRAME of REFERENCE. The agapeics constitutes an aesthetic field of communication. …The augmentation of the “more” in offered communication is the miraculous multiplication of relation(s) in the intimate universal. …It is communication from the full to the full, not from the lacking to the full. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal (2016), p. 92.
Levertov’s Guillevic is a substantial piece of modern poetry in English. Her impeccable plain style, based on her reception of Williams and other American modernists, makes it seem natural. Guillevic’s place in French intellectual history is fascinating but won’t concern us this morning. We are in quaranteen and in need of companionship that speaks to our condition of isolation and despair.
A few facts: Throughout “Carnac,” named for his birthplace in Brittany, the poet addresses the ocean in all its moods. Since antiquity, the ocean has symbolized the great enigma. Alternating between mortal threat and buoyant enabler, the ocean has earned the respect, even the reverence, of mankind.
Not the Love, to jump ahead.
So there’s nothing obscure about this piece of the grand mosaic that is Carnac, Guillevic’s booklenth meditation on his home-by-the-Atlantic. The lyric narrative begins on a rare note of accord. The poet sees himself as a kind of Odysseus, much tossed about but to that extent feeling on top of things. Peace prevails for the moment. Respect— not love, not reconciliation—is the mood.
Readers of the professional variety are wont to register some refusal showing their superiority: isn’t this mood a kind of personification, even pantheism? We are talking about the Destructive Element here! As thoroughly modern people we know enough to distance our selves from such primitive nonsense.
Going deeper into the mystery of the peaceful moment, the poet speculates (remember the middle of the lyric is given to dialectical examination of the opening situation). Guillevic summons up the improbable but illuminating imagery of his own profession as tireless worker in the state finance department in Paris. (He’s also a Communist in good standing, so he has personal experience of the ethical complications of modernity.)
Levertov’s diction renders the complexity of the moment with great finesse. The great, the monumental self-obsessed Reality, is suffering an almost charming recess in its immanent being. The poet is if not charmed receptive. The FRAME of REFERENCE provides the perspective of the lyric narrator. This is a moment not of the strenuous otherness of Eros but the more original unity of the intimate universal. The Eros Tyrannos of the ocean is subdued in what might be taken as the peace of coital indifference if this were Late Yeats.
But it is Guillevic. His communist realism, his commitment to the hard finite otherness of reality, keeps myth at bay. There is no Presocratic effort to find the symbolic Universal in the universal impermanence. The final tone of the poem accepts the wonder of the moment for what it is: not a sublime reconciliation of opposites but a grateful recognition of what Desmond’s metaxological Between would name “porosity,” the communication between the finite and the infinite that is an improvement on Eros. It is not an escape from reality but a grateful acceptance of possibility that redefines nothingness, the siren of modern materialism, as a fertile void.